November 18, 2018

Between the Shoah and Mimouna

We make a statement by what we choose to feature on the cover. This week, we had to choose between two upcoming events — the Sephardic Mimouna party, which celebrates the end of Passover, and Yom HaShoah, which commemorates perhaps the worst atrocity in human history. It’s a choice between the ultimate light and the ultimate darkness.

We chose darkness.

Had Mimouna been our cover story, you would have seen a beautiful, joyful image on the cover, instead of the haunting one you see now. Mimouna represents the joy of breaking free, the freedom to live as you wish, the unbridled pursuit of happiness.

But while it’s not featured on the cover, you’ll still see plenty of Mimouna coverage. One of the articles is a reprint of a column I wrote many years ago titled, “The Magic of Mimouna.”

“The night of Mimouna was all about bringing good fortune into your life,” I wrote. “After eight days of prohibitions, Mimouna was the night you broke free, the night anything was possible. For the Jews of Morocco, Mimouna was the Jewish holiday that celebrated optimism.”

For the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, optimism was not an option; breaking free was not a possibility. There was nothing to see besides darkness.

Our memories dance between these two impulses — between the Mimouna part of our lives and the Holocaust part, between the craving for light and the unbearable weight of darkness. We yearn for Mimouna because we yearn for happiness, but we’re haunted by Shoah because our memories so easily surrender to the trauma of darkness.

The great irony is that Mimouna glitters at night, under the romance of the moonlight.

It is this darkness we wanted to explore in this issue. At the same time, we didn’t want to regurgitate what you already know. But how does one avoid that with the Holocaust, a subject about which everything has already been said a million times over?

We commissioned a Holocaust scholar and novelist, Thane Rosenbaum, to tackle that very question: What is there left to say?

“Holocaust memory has grown a little stale these past several years, and fatigue has set in,” he writes. “There are, in fact, fewer Yom HaShoah commemorations around the world.  With each passing year, they dwindle, not unlike the number of survivors themselves.”

He adds: “Perhaps the savagery of the world has simply caught up with the Holocaust in a twisted competition for evil supremacy.  We are tragically becoming inured to the atrocious, surrounded by so many contenders.”

For this one, singular moment of unspeakable darkness, “never again” is never enough.

Rosenbaum takes us on a tour of darkness to help us frame the role of memory:

“The Holocaust is being forgotten and exploited — both at the same time.  A surging wave of global anti-Semitism has surfaced with the added aim of pummeling and plundering the Holocaust.  Who knows what will be left when this new period of anti-Semitic fervor comes to an end?”

Despite the enormous industry of Holocaust memory, Rosenbaum concludes that we have fallen short:

“All around the world, even throughout the United States, the grand experiment of Holocaust memory appears to have failed.  Museums and memorials, although still well attended, are perceived as depressing amusement rides, with statistics about mass murder, artifacts from concentration camps, and an occasional cattle car just to complete the necessary ‘real-feel,’ ‘you are there’ experience.

“After departing from such places of ephemeral horror, visitors emerge into the light, and settle upon where to have lunch. Their confrontation with Holocaust memory lasting as long as Chinese food traveling through a digestive tract.”

Perhaps that’s why we chose to put Yom HaShoah on the cover — because for this one, singular moment of unspeakable darkness, “never again” is never enough.

As much as my heart yearns for a time when the joy of Mimouna will dominate our consciousness, the reality of evil keeps getting in the way. Confronting evil while also embracing joy may well be the paradox of the human condition.

On the night of Mimouna, I will taste a few moufletas (recipe inside) and surrender to optimism. But a few days later, I will attend a Yom HaShoah event to commemorate the very opposite of optimism, a moment in Jewish time when Jews were crushed by darkness.

The irony is that Mimouna glitters at night, under the romance of the moonlight. Maybe this is a gentle reminder that even darkness holds the promise of joy.

Episode 79 – The Lost Brother

Usually a Skype call begins with a clamor of several similar, almost identical, questions: “Can you hear me?”, “Can you hear me now?”. But not this one. This one started with a series of quiet smiles, followed by all eight? people on the call bursting into tears.

One end of this call is New Jersey, the kitchen table of the Katz family. The other end, a remote part of Russia called Sakhalin Island, near Japan.

In April of 2016, Jess Katz picked up again on a search she’d been conducting for most of her life, a search which she most likely expected to lead her to archived documents or in the best case scenario, a photo. She was continuing a cross-generational search for her grandfather’s long lost younger brother. Her grandfather never had the fortune of meeting his younger brother after the Holocaust ripped them apart. Unfortunately, neither did Jess. But her search was definitely not to no avail.

Jess Katz joins us today to share her inspiring story.

If you have any other relevant information and you wish to contact Jess, this is her email and Facebook.

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Report: Polish Anti-Semitism Widely Pervasive During Holocaust

Photo from Pixabay.

A largely unknown document reveals that anti-Semitism among Poles during World War II was on the same level as Nazi anti-Semitism.

According to the Jerusalem Post, a 1946 report from the State Department concluded that even before the war started, anti-Semitism was pervasive in Poland from “a continuation of activities by right-wing groups,” thus making them more receptive to Nazi ideology.

“In the jockeying for political preference in Poland after 1919, most of the major political parties – with the exception of leftist groups – followed an anti-Semitic line,” the report states. “Catholic Church leaders, from Cardinal Hlond down, preached antisemitism and favored an economic boycott of the Jews.”

During the war, anti-Semitism under the Polish Army caused Jewish soldiers to flee the Army and seek refuge in other Allied armies.

The anti-Semitism continued even after the collapse of the Third Reich, as Poles conducted waves of violence against Jews, resulting in Jews leaving the country for West Germany.

“There is not much that is essentially new or different in the current anti-Semitic agitation,” the document stated.

The report comes as Poland is under fire for passing a new law that punishes those who claim that Poland is in any way responsible for the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The report would seem to undermine proponents of the law who seek to absolve Poland of blame from the Holocaust.

Additionally, Poland has since sought to outlaw kosher meat slaughter and halted efforts to return property to Holocaust survivors.

Israel and Poland’s diplomatic relations have been icy since the passage of law, with Israel ardently criticizing the bill.

Memorial Days

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

It is sometimes quite amazing to see how the Holocaust, 70 years later, is still a daily subject of discussion in Israel. Not a day goes by without it being mentioned in the public sphere. Not a week goes by without it becoming a point of contention. If you think the Jewish people will ever begin to get over this tragedy, think again.

Or just listen to how Israelis discuss their daily affairs. It won’t be too long before you also realize that this trauma is far from being healed. It is constantly on our minds.

Some things force this constancy on us. For example, the fact that from January to May, Israel marks not one but three Holocaust Memorial days. There was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked this week, and there is the religious Memorial Day, marked, along with other Jewish tragedies, on the Asarah be-Tevet fast, and then there is the actual, official Memorial Day, a week after Passover.

Yet in most cases, the Holocaust occupies us not because of special duty — a day that calls for a pause. In most cases it is us, busying ourselves with it because nothing has more power to grab our attention. We do not pause to remember the Holocaust; we remember it while on the move.

We do not pause to remember the Holocaust; we remember it while on the move.

Consider the past two weeks. The fierce public debate over a government plan to expel thousands of illegal migrants from Africa (opponents to their expulsion insist on calling them asylum-seekers and presenting them as people whom Israel must absorb) quickly descended into Holocaust-themed arguments. The ultimate weapon was pulled out when Holocaust survivors began voicing their views on this matter — implying a moral authority that trumps government considerations in such matters of conscience.

And as this debate rages, a famous Israeli writer and artist, who wrote lyrics for Israeli classics, compared a Palestinian attacker of soldiers to Anne Frank — prompting a harsh response from Israel’s defense minister. The minister demanded that the Israel Defense Forces radio station cease from playing all songs written by this author, and was then reminded by the attorney general that he has no legal authority to enforce such a demand.

The artist, Yehonatan Geffen, later apologized for his foolishness, as did another, less prominent Israeli writer who was even more vulgar in his use of Holocaust imagery. This artist said — you need to pause before you read this — that he would gladly sit on the roof of a death camp to see the smoke coming out of its chimney, provided it is novelist Amos Oz who is put to death below him. He is so angry with Oz for using “Nazi” to describe the action of right-wing radicals that he felt an irresistible urge to make his point clear, before apologizing to whatever followers he might still have.

Then there is Poland. If the memory of the Holocaust divides Israelis when they have an internal political debate, it often unites them against external forces. Such is the case with the Polish Parliament, which now plots to pass legislation that makes reference to Polish involvement in executing the Holocaust unlawful.

Of course, the story of Poland and the Holocaust is complicated. The Poles were victims of the Nazis. The Poles were not the initiators of the mass murder of Jews, nor invited the construction of death camps in their midst. Still, evidence of Polish participation in the execution of Jews is vast and irrefutable. The attempt by Poland to silence the voices demanding acknowledgment of such participation, or the scholars who dig for more evidence of how, where and why it was done, was met with unified Israeli condemnation.

The Israeli government was adamant not to let this Polish law pass without response. Israeli opposition was sometimes even more robust in its demand for retribution (while also needling the government for having ties with right-wing European parties). In a heartbeat, the Holocaust ceased to be a tool of nasty division and has become a tool of guarded unification.

Lessons are few: It would be better for Israelis to count to 10 before they use the Holocaust to score cheap points in a conventional, if fierce, political debate. It would be better for them to ignore artists who cannot properly think before they speak. It would be better for Poland to come to grips with its past and stop trying to mask it.

Most of all, it would be better for us all to realize that we are still a traumatized people. The evidence is all around us — at times in the form of cynicism or stupidity, at times in the form of serious discussion. The only remedy is time. A very long time.

The Jewish Geography of — and in — Auschwitz

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

After two nights in Krakow, we were returning to Warsaw to finish our study trip to Jewish Poland. I packed, pulling out clothes for Sunday’s site visit: comfortable shoes, pants instead of a dress, black clothing to convey an appropriate somberness for Auschwitz.

My deliberations seemed like unintentional mockery — disrespectful in the
light of history that we all know well. When Jews packed before “resettlement,” they had no idea where they were going, and many may have suspected that packing was just an exercise. I knew how the story ended, that later that day, I would see those suitcases and the belongings that filled them.

In conversation, a trip participant mentioned that his parents had been deported from Hungary around June 21 or 22 in 1945. Transports took about 10 days for the journey to Auschwitz, so they would have arrived on or around July 2. Our visit to Auschwitz was on July 2, 2017.

Seeing on social media where I was, one of my friends messaged me, “Look for my daughter — she is also at Auschwitz.” Although it’s an informational statement (and in 2017, 2.1 million people visited), adding “at Auschwitz” to any sentence brings a flush of nausea. This contemporary game of Jewish geography had a troubling, alternate reality echo: Had inmates been desperate to see familiar faces, or did not seeing familiar faces mean maintaining hope that some had survived?

We’re here. They never would have dreamed we would be. But we are.

I had a solid Jewish education and already understood my responsibility to never forget. I’d read Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, Simon Wiesenthal and Yaffa Eliach. I wrote a book about the Hidden Children of the Holocaust. I’d been to Yad Vashem, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and half a dozen other Jewish museums in various cities. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about Auschwitz, about the people who passed under that famous gate, the “Arbeit Macht Frei,” that sets an ache into the Jewish heart. Now that we were there, our guide explained that it was a replica; the real sign had been stolen in 2009 and cut into pieces to fit into the getaway car. The original is in storage, he said. I imagined it in a government warehouse with endless rows of identically sized boxes, while its understudy played its part.

I had been prepared to feel every aspect of sadness in this space, but as I went from room to room, looking at the artifacts — shoes, hairbrushes, suitcases, uniforms — I felt the mildest version of sadness. Where were my tears? What was wrong with me? Was I too prepared? Or was it the damned replica gate, the fact that some of this experience had been constructed for tourists, that made me disconnect?

Then I saw the hair. Cut from the heads of the victims, the hair was horror, and the human loss it represented snapped me back into humanity. From that point on, I was emotionally tuned in.

One of the men on our trip wore his tallit throughout the visit, and I understood it was his way of proclaiming triumph: We, the Jews, are still here. I needed to find my own way to do that.

I pointed my phone’s camera toward the ground and walked; filming my feet, black sneakers on gravelly earth; not speaking, listening to the mostly quiet air, the sound of my feet as they hit the ground; feeling my breath as I walked and being both grateful and horrified.

I walked in their footsteps, in their memory, in an attempt to feel, understand and experience a new kind of Jewish geography — the mobius strip of communal memory, where location binds past to the present, and we all march into our unknown future.

Connecting with others who are here. Seeing the place. Feeling the gravity of the location beneath our feet. Inhaling the trauma of our history with every breath. Trying to process their loss and the triumph of our return. We’re here. They never would have dreamed we would be. But we are. I am.


Esther D. Kustanowitz, a 10-year veteran of Twitter, is a contributing writer at the Jewish Journal and an editor at GrokNation.com.

German CEOs Embrace Holocaust Remembrance

From left: BMW CEO Harald Krüger, Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser, VW CEO Matthias Müller and Board Chairman Hans Dieter Pötsch

Flipping World War II history on its anti-Semitic head, the evidently brave chief executives of three German corporations that collaborated with the Nazis have extended something more substantive than a symbolic hand to the Jewish community.

In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day last week, these men have signed onto the World Jewish Congress’ second annual “We Remember” campaign, which means: Beyond a nod of endorsement that hardly anyone would notice or care about, they indelibly went on the record.

Each agreed to have his picture taken, individually, while holding the World Jewish Congress’ “We Remember” sign.

And their photos are circling the globe faster and more frequently than  celebrity gossip on the internet.

This is neck-straightening news, especially because of the latest cultural anti-Semitic mudstorm that again is splattering into the vulnerable faces of Germany’s 120,000 Jews.

Remember the names of the corporate chiefs:

• BMW CEO Harald Krüger

• Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser

• Volkswagen CEO Matthias Müller and VW Board Chairman Hans Dieter Pötsch

Although 1.2 million people worldwide have participated in the social media campaign — posting individual photos — what these men have done appears to border on the heroic.

Will they pay a price?

Will they or their organizations be marked?

Germany’s ugliest past of Hitler’s regime 80 years ago is sneaking back into prominence.

Not so quietly, either.

This does not appear to be merely a hiccup.

Jew-haters are marching again, boldly and fearlessly.

“It is particularly meaningful to us that the CEOs of German companies that employed slave laborers during the Nazi era are taking their historic responsibility seriously.” — Ronald Lauder

German Chancellor Angela Merkel not only admitted to a worrisome expansion of German anti-Semitism in her International Holocaust Remembrance Day address on Jan. 27, she sternly warned about its perils and urged muscular vigilance.

Can there be any doubt that the most intriguing dimension of this story would be to know what is so far the unknowable:

What are the motivations of these industrial powerhouses?

Clues abound.

Here is the one statement that was made available by the World Jewish Congress. Below it, some possibilities will be explored.

Müller, CEO of the Volkswagen Group, said:

“Remembering the crimes of World War II and the Holocaust is an established part of Volkswagen’s corporate culture.

“Given our company’s history, we have a very special responsibility for society.

“We have been fulfilling this responsibility for the last 30 years through a vibrant culture of remembrance and special education projects.

“We are committed to speaking out against intolerance, anti-Semitism and racism, and for international understanding, tolerance and humanity.

“More than 630,000 people work for the Volkswagen Group — all over the world.

“Diversity is in our DNA. It has shaped us and made us successful.”

A fair-minded critic would judge that Müller deserves to be taken at his word.

A partisan critic, if he is to be seen seriously, should reach a matching conclusion.

That is precisely the reading of Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress:

“A powerful statement,” he said.

“We are deeply grateful for the time and effort people around the world have taken to commemorate the memory of the 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

“We have been overwhelmed by the response, and by the desire of so many to share in spreading this critical message against hate.

“It is particularly meaningful to us that the CEOs of German companies that employed slave laborers during the Nazi era are taking their historic responsibility seriously. They are acknowledging the crimes of their predecessors.”

After examining more closely Müller’s words, here is a curious fact to place on the board and study for a moment:

• Müller was born in 1953

• Pötsch was born in 1951

• Kaeser was born in 1957

It gets better.

Krüger, the youngest of the crowd by far, was born in 1965, 20 years after despondent Hitler’s suicide, long after the worst monsters had been put away and the German government machine presumably had been tamed for the foreseeable future.

So all of them were born an apparent safe interval after the war.

While cerebrally the courageous men are not to be minimized, neither is the timing of the births of all of them.

Ranging in age from 52 to 66, they have reached admirable executive conclusions at the epitome of their careers, displaying the kind of brave public thinking by influential people that German watchers have been hoping for.

While it is not known what kinds of homes and family lives influenced them on their way to wing-spreading success, this much is indisputable:

The four of them have planted their feet, impressively folded their arms across their chests and declared to the world they are the Good Germans.

They are the Good Germans whom Holocaust survivors, Jews and other moral people have been hoping would emerge from the blood- and memory-soaked German fatherland for the past 73 years.

Remembering Why We Must Remember the Holocaust

Photo from Wikipedia

January 27th, the anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz, is the day designated by the United Nations as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Observed at the UN headquarters and in countries throughout the world, it is not the only Holocaust memorial day. Some countries observe dates that relate directly to their own Holocaust history. Jews throughout the world observe the 27th of Nissan in the Hebrew calendar — just after Passover and in proximity to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 — as Yom HaShoah .

It’s a fitting time to ask: Why should the world remember the Holocaust, which began more than 75 years ago and enveloped almost all of Europe?

Because it happened, we must understand the evil — systematic evil, state-sponsored evil, industrialized killing, mass murders — that was the essence of the Holocaust. We must understand its emblematic invention, the death camp and the people who served in these camps. Their assignment: mass murder.

Some were sadists and criminals – people unlike us – but many more were ordinary men trying to do their best, to fulfill their obligations. Some were even professionals, lawyers and doctors, ministers and economists who used the skills they had learned to become more efficient killers. Some were enthusiastic, others more reluctant.  All became killers.

Because it happened, we must understand the circumstances of the victims, who had to make choiceless choices between the impossible and the horrific, and who faced conditions of such utter powerlessness that they could do little to determine their fates. Yet even though they were powerlessness, they were far from passive. Resistance took many forms, courage manifest itself in many ways; taking up arms was but a last stand.

And we must understand the indifference of neutrality. In the struggle between powerless victims and an overwhelmingly powerful killing machine, neutrality is anything but neutral. Indifference is a death sentence. The bystander is also an enabler.

We can learn so much about evil in studying the Holocaust that it leaves us numb, that despair overtakes us, that we sense our own helplessness. Indeed, the Holocaust was an atrocity, senseless and anguishing. But there were a few — a precious few — men, women and even children who opened their homes and their hearts and provided havens for the victims, a place to sleep, a crust of bread, a kind word, a hiding place. What makes such goodness possible? Why were some people immune to the infection of evil?  We call them Upstanders. These are the people whose deeds we may wish to emulate, who can serve as models for how we want to behave and what we want to become.

The Holocaust began slowly. Age-old prejudice led to discrimination, discrimination to persecution, persecution to incarceration, incarceration to annihilation. Mass murder, which culminated with the killing of six million Jews, did not begin with the Jews nor did it encompass only the Jews. The violations of one groups’ rights are seldom contained only to that group. Scholars have identified stages of the Holocaust; it is far easier to stop a genocide in its early stages of persecution and discrimination before dehumanization and mass murder ensue.

We must understand the fragility of democracy: however precarious, it is ever more precious. Yet it can be undermined when leaders show a little commitment to democratic rule; when political opponents become enemies, denied all legitimacy; when violence in tolerated and ultimately employed to quash dissent; when civil liberties and freedom of the press are restricted and when democratic institutions are weakened.

Sadly, the issues raised by the Holocaust are not consigned to our past. Genocide, a word invented to give voice to the fate of the Armenians in World War I and the Jews in World War II, a crime outlawed by the United Nations, has recurred since 1945, even today. Refugees fleeing oppression and near certain death are still unwanted in most places on the globe. Inter- religious hatred flourishes; so too, intra-religious conflict.

The study of the Holocaust is not easy, emotionally or intellectually.

To understand this event, we have to confront death, yet the study of these deaths is in the service of life. The study of this evil is intended to strengthen decency and goodness.

The Holocaust shatters faith — faith in God, secular faith in human decency and faith in the inevitability of progress and even in Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teaching that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. The Holocaust provides few answers, but raises many questions — questions that invite moral struggle against that evil.

The call from the victims — from the world of the dead — was to remember. Today we hear from those who were there and those who were not, the urgency of memory, its agony and anguish, the presence of meaning and its absence. To live in our age, one must face that absence as well as that haunting presence.


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

‘Grandpoppy’ Shares His Holocaust Story in Short and Sweet HBO Documentary

Holocaust survivor Jack Feldman and his great-grandsons. Images courtesy of HBO Pictures

In just 20 minutes, the documentary “The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm” covers much of recent Jewish history, told through the loving relationship between Jack Feldman and Elliott, his great-grandson.

Although separated by some 80 years in age and vastly different experiences, the two bond as close buddies as the youngster prompts the Holocaust survivor to tell the story of his life.

Both are now New York state residents, with Elliott living with his parents in Chappaqua, about 30 miles north of New York City, and Feldman some five hours drive away in Rochester.

At Feldman’s home, and in long walks along the banks of the Canandaigua Lake, Elliott asks first about the number A17606 permanently etched into his great-grandfather’s arm.

Through a combination of vivid recollections, archival footage and superb animation by artist Jack Scher, the film reconstructs a happy childhood in the Polish city of Sosnowiec, whose 28,000 Jews made up nearly a quarter of the population. Feldman skips over some of the grimmer details of his life, but he recounts the city’s conquest by the German army, his imprisonment in a concentration camp at 14, separation from his parents (whom he never saw again), liberation by Soviet troops and eventual immigration to the United States.

The Journal talked to Feldman, Elliott and Amy Schatz, the director of the documentary, which will premiere at 6 p.m. Jan. 27 on HBO. The date marks the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1945 and is now commemorated annually as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“We need to make smart films for kids, which don’t talk down to them, even on difficult subjects.”  — Amy Schatz

Feldman survived Auschwitz (partly by trading his Sunday ration of a few cigarettes for food), came to America in 1949 and changed his first name from Srulek to Jack. A few years later, he opened Jack’s Fish Market in Rochester.

The business thrived, despite one quirk. As one African-American customer testifies in the film, “Jack knew what hunger was, so he gave free fish to a customer too poor to pay.”

Schatz, a veteran documentary filmmaker, was attracted to directing the project, in collaboration with executive producer Sheila Nevins, because, she said, there isn’t enough material on the Holocaust suitable for children and their families. That means, Schatz said, that when these children become adults “they won’t be able to pass on the survivors’ stories to future generations.”

Her goal was to transmit Feldman’s experience “gently and with clarity,” and pointed notably to the love between Elliott and his “grandpoppy,” the boy’s endless curiosity, and his patience in dealing with Feldman’s hearing problems.

Animation artist Jack Scher contributed illustrated scenes for the film.

Schatz shot the film in three days, working closely with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, which will include the film in its permanent collection, and drawing on the archives of the Steven Spielberg collection at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

From the reactions of her own children, ages 13 and 14, Schatz concluded that “we need to make smart films for kids, which don’t talk down to them, even on difficult subjects. At the same time, I found that the Holocaust survivors themselves were delighted to talk to the youngsters.”

Elliott, now a 12-year-old sixth-grader, was 7 when his great-grandfather first took him to a Holocaust memorial event.

“At first, I didn’t understand what had happened,” Elliott said, but after five years of additional conversations with his beloved mentor, the boy realizes what he has gained through the instruction.

What he has learned and knows now, Elliott said, “makes me more appreciative of what I have in my daily life and more proud of my heritage and religion.”

Eddie Jacobs: Bringing the Holocaust Home to a New Generation

Eddie Jacobs is the co-founder, with scholar and author Michael Berenbaum, of Berenbaum Jacobs Associates, which seeks to transform the “traditional” Holocaust museum — such as Yad Vashem in Jerusalem or the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles — by broadening its relevancy for present and future generations. In this interview, Jacobs, a one-time rising actor on Broadway, explains how this concept is being applied to new museums being built in Cincinnati, Dallas and the Balkan nation of Macedonia.

Jewish Journal: Is there a need for transforming “traditional” Holocaust museums? If so, why?

Eddie Jacobs: The museums you mention are groundbreaking historical museums that transformed the way in which the public views the subject matter of the Holocaust as well as how historical museums may present difficult and complex narratives. To a great extent, the new generation of museums is a result of the success of those mentioned. Ever-expanding interest in the subject, unexpected attendance rates, and visitor and educator encouragement have forced these — and new institutions — to expand their subject portfolio into broader realms.

JJ: If so, how do you visualize this transformation?

EJ: From a programmatic standpoint, it means a broader menu of subjects. Where once just the Holocaust story was told, we now see forays into other atrocities and genocides, human rights, tolerance and civic responsibility. Further, new technologies have been developed allowing expansion of the exhibition palette. Virtual-reality survivor testimony is now being incorporated where students can ask questions of a three-dimensional holographic projection of an actual Holocaust survivor. Virtual “tours” of concentration and death camps have been methodically and realistically constructed. As technology progresses, the challenges facing the educator and museum designer to find a balance between genuine reality and virtual reality become ever more complex.

“New technologies have been developed allowing expansion of the exhibition palette.”

JJ: How do you make the memory of the Holocaust meaningful to generations born after the actual Holocaust?

EJ: The first thing that we must do is to legitimize that question. We always begin our museum experiences with an orientation space meant to introduce our visitors to the journey ahead. At the very top of the agenda is to ask that fundamental question: “Why should I care about this event?” “How does it touch me today?” “I know that it was awful, and it’s very sad, but what relevance does it have in my life and reality?” We answer these questions by saying that the purpose of the exhibition they are about to see will allow each of them to draw their own answers and conclusions to those very legitimate and important questions.

JJ: What are some of your major projects at this time?

EJ: In March, the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia is opening in Skopje on the 75th anniversary of the near total destruction of that community. There, we have the opportunity to tell the story of a Jewish community in existence since Roman times, their special relationship to Alexander the Great and his inclusion in the Talmud, the Golden Age of Spain and subsequent expulsion, Ladino culture, and then the particular Holocaust narrative that befell that community. In January of next year, we will be opening the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. The first part of the museum is a unique Holocaust narrative which transitions into a groundbreaking exhibition on human behavior and how we all can create a better world. In Dallas, 18 months from now, the Dallas Holocaust and Humanity Museum will open, featuring a singular Holocaust narrative which seamlessly transitions into a human rights exhibition, and culminates in an innovative exhibition called “American Ideals, Reality and Repair.”

There are other projects in the works, but these represent some of the upcoming highlights.

JJ: Among Hollywood filmmakers, you occasionally hear the phrase “Holocaust fatigue” to indicate that the general moviegoer — not necessarily Jewish — may be getting tired of the subject. What is your view?

EJ:  My view is, of course, biased. That said, check out the attendance levels at the ceaseless flow of Holocaust-related movies, books, art shows, dance works, theatrical presentations, museums etc. As stated above, the methodology that we have created in transmitting these stories strikes universal chords. Hence their popularity despite the difficult subject matter. There is also a statement of profound humanity. For in all that darkness, the sparks of kindness and compassion we discover continue to inspire us. And the example of the survivors, in their resilience and grace, elevates us.

Aharon Appelfeld’s Path to the Hebrew Language

Photo from Wikipedia.

“From the moment I arrived in Israel, I hated the people who forced me to speak Hebrew,” wrote Aharon Appelfeld in his memoir, “The Story of a Life.” Appelfeld’s mother tongue was German. “The effort to preserve my mother tongue amid surroundings that imposed another language upon me proved futile,” he said. “My mother and her language were one and the same. Now, as that language has faded within me, it was as if my mother (killed early in World War II) were dying a second time.”

As I contemplated composing a literary tribute to the great author Aharon Appelfeld, who passed away on Jan. 4 at the age of 85 (born Feb. 2, 1932), there were many angles I could take. His traumatic experiences as a child during the Holocaust, his coming of age into a newly born Jewish state, his journey toward becoming a writer, even his deep love for Jerusalem’s cafes (to which he devoted an entire book), all could serve as captivating themes.

But what fascinates me most about Appelfeld is that he wrote in Hebrew. Every time I read an Appelfeld novel in the original, I recall that for him, Hebrew was not “the original” until his teenage years. As a “refugee from World War II” (that’s what he called “Holocaust survivors”) and as a new immigrant in the emerging State of Israel in 1946, Appelfeld struggled to learn Hebrew. He read the current modern Hebrew literature of his day. But his struggles were more than linguistic. “Every page was a hurdle for me,” he said. “And yet I read voraciously, as if trying to familiarize myself with the strange country into which I had been thrown.” As much as he tried, Appelfeld could not connect to the characters of this new Hebrew literature, “soldiers or officers or farmers in the open fields.”

Conflicts between his German mother tongue and Hebrew are best understood through Erwin, the protagonist of his novel “The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping.” Like Appelfeld, Erwin is a “refugee from World War II” who immigrates to Palestine. Once there, Erwin is inducted into the classic Zionist lifestyle, tending the land on a kibbutz and performing guard duty. In an exchange of fire with snipers, Erwin is injured. During his recovery, Erwin spends hours reconstructing his past in his mind, all the while setting out to teach himself proper Hebrew. Eventually, he decides to become a writer.

In his 43 Hebrew books, Appelfeld sent a message that Hebrew is an ancient language that cannot be divorced from its past.

Erwin’s decision to write in Hebrew — a lens on Appelfeld’s decision — represented a plot twist in Zionism’s narrative. While Zionism prided itself on reviving the Hebrew language as part of its “negation of the Diaspora,” both Erwin and Appelfeld chose Hebrew as the language through which they would spend their lives exclusively devoted to recounting their experiences in the Diaspora.

Appelfeld’s literary journey would blossom when he learned that most modern Hebrew writers were bilingual. “This was a sensational discovery for me,” he said. “It meant that the ‘here’ and the ‘there’ were not cut off from each other, as the slogans proclaimed.” Appelfeld began to read writers such as Mendele Mocher Sefarim, Bialik and Agnon, all prolific in both Hebrew and Yiddish. “Their Hebrew was connected to places with which I was familiar, to landscapes I remembered, and to forgotten melodies that came to me from my grandparents’ prayers,” he said.

In his 43 Hebrew books, Appelfeld sent a message to Zionism, to his peers, and to his readers that Hebrew is an ancient language that cannot be divorced from its past. Quite an impressive feat for someone who once hated those who forced him to speak Hebrew.


Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center.

Saxony’s Lost Genius: Found

Emanuel Goldberg in his workshop. Photo: Technische Sammlungen Dresden/Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst/Weltformat, Nachlass Emanuel Goldberg - Schenkung Familie Gichon, Israel

“I got accepted to the Leipzig University,” Eshchar Gichon, 25, enthusiastically announced at the start of the interview at a Berlin café.

His acceptance into Leipzig University—in this case its veterinary school—is particularly significant for Gichon. It’s part of the closing of a family circle that has just begun.

Leipzig University is the alma mater of Gichon’s great-grandfather, Emanuel Goldberg, who was one of the city’s most prominent professors, a pioneer in the field of optics, photography and information technology as head of the photographic department of the Royal Academy of Graphic Arts and Bookcraft (Leipzig Academy of Fine Arts). But after the war, his legacy was written out of Saxon history, in Leipzig and later in Dresden, where he served as the founding director of Zeiss-Ikon, a leading camera manufacturer under his leadership. Had he stayed, he might have become the “Steve Jobs” or “Bill Gates” of Germany.

“We grew up on stories on him being the director of Zeiss Ikon and all the regular facts about how he was basically a genius,” Gichon said. Gichon moved to Berlin two years ago to study, redeeming benefits of German citizenship due him by virtue of his German lineage. He didn’t expect to be involved in a renaissance of his great-grandfather’s legacy.

Goldberg’s ideas, gadgets, equipment, and inventions were recently on display at “Emanuel Goldberg: The Architect of Knowledge,” an exhibition that opened last March at the Technische Sammlungen Dresden, the site of the former Zeiss-Ikon headquarters. His inventions include a “search engine” (his “statistical machine”–a Google forerunner), and a portable video camera (his “Kinamo”–a FlipCam forerunner).

The process of rediscovery was triggered by Emanuel Goldberg and His Knowledge Machine, a 2006 biography written by Berkeley professor, Michael Buckland.

“It’s hard now to explain how thoroughly Goldberg had disappeared,” Buckland said via e-mail. “From being internationally famous to being almost totally erased outside of Israel. I found doing detective work on Goldberg fascinating in many different ways: he had a most interesting and adventurous life; he did clever things; there is much human interest in his story. Not only was the accepted history of information retrieval seriously incomplete without him, but there was an ethical consideration. He deserved to be remembered, not forgotten.”

Goldberg’s was the classic success-story of a self-made man. Born in Czarist Russia in 1881, Jewish quotas at Russian universities prompted him to leave and study and eventually teach in Leipzig. In 1917, he moved to Dresden, the camera capital of Germany, to eventually found Zeiss Ikon.

In 1933, Nazi stormtroopers marched into the Zeiss Ikon offices armed with pistols and abducted him. Zeiss Ikon negotiated his release and demoted him to the company’s Paris branch. In 1936, the company “bought him out” by having him sign a “non-competition” agreement barring him from competitive activity. His successor was a Nazi, and Zeiss Ikon gradually declined since.

Goldberg rejected an offer to work in the United States alongside Kenneth Mees, the respected founder of the famous Kodak Research Laboratory, to instead move to Palestine in 1937, applying his R&D skills to developing military tools—like compasses and binoculars–to assist the British against the Nazis and later, the Haganah. Goldberg died in Israel in 1970, an Israel Prize Laureate recognized for his contributions in founding ElOp, the optics branch of Elbit, Israel’s publicly traded electronics defense company.

It was only until the 250th anniversary celebrations of Leipzig’s Academy of Fine Arts that Goldberg’s story got retold in the city. As part of a school contest, students were challenged to do research projects on the school’s past professors. Student René Patzwaldt chose Goldberg and contacted his progeny in Israel.

“He did this by sending my grandmother a message on Facebook,” Gichon recalled. “My grandmother had a Facebook account, and he sent a message. We saw the message three months after he sent it. My cousin checked the account and saw the message, and that’s when everything started. We invited him to Israel, he interviewed my grandmother, my grandmother showed him some artifacts of Emanuel Goldberg, and he wrote the project. His project won the competition.”

The Academy of Fine Arts joined forces with Berlin’s Technical University to assemble the exhibition with the Technische Sammlungen Dresden. According to the museum’s director, Roland Schwarz, the exhibition constituted the first time that Zeiss contributed financially to the museum. The exhibition marks a major turning point for Dresden. In 1995, when Buckland first visited the museum for research, the senior staff hadn’t even heard of him.

“If he would’ve continued, we would’ve said the inventor of the computer was Emanuel Goldberg,” said Schwarz from the exhibition grounds.

The exhibition closed in late September, and Schwarz is not sure if it will travel in the near future. Israeli museums he contacted did not express interest. Goldberg’s children (including Gichon’s grandmother, Chava) passed away less than two years before the exhibition opening.

Eshchar Gichon, Emanuel Goldberg’s great grandson

“Luckily, the family decided to transfer the estate of Emanual Goldberg to the museum collection,” Schwarz said. These include his beloved metal lathe that he took to Paris and later to his workshop in Tel Aviv. The 5th floor of the museum will be named after Goldberg, and a section about him will be included in the permanent exhibition.

From the exhibition floor, the house Goldberg designed and built could be seen from the window, near the city’s cable car, and the human story of success and tragedy interests Gichon more than his intellectual achievements. He visited the house on the invitation of its owner and together they are working to install a “stolper steiner” commemorating him.

“We always said, if he would’ve stayed, he probably would’ve been world-famous,” Gichon said. “He would’ve risen high up in the company, and my uncles always said he would’ve won a Nobel Prize.”

This article was originally published in German in the Juedische Rundschau. Orit Arfa is an American-Israeli journalist based in Berlin. Her latest novel, Underskin, is a modern German-Israeli love story whose male protagonist is from Dresden. www.oritarfa.net

Finding the Family He Never Knew

Leo Wolinsky (center, in front) looks at a display during his day with junior high students in Grodek, Poland, as part of the Forum’s School of Dialogue program. Photo by J. Szkarła

As a child, my father’s family was an abstraction to me.

His parents and six brothers and sisters existed mainly in sepia-toned photographs on fading and dog-eared pages of an old album. From the little I was told, they lived in a small town in Poland, where all but my father and his youngest sister died at the hands of the Nazis.

But until I ventured to that town with the help of the nonprofit Forum for Dialogue, all I knew was of their deaths. I never fully grasped their lives.

In September, I spent a day with a group of Polish junior high school students whose major project — launched last year under the Forum’s School of Dialogue program — was to study the Jewish history of Grodek, my dad’s hometown.

It turned out to be a day I’ll never forget.

Grodek is a small village in far eastern Poland where the population numbers fewer than 3,000. Back in the 1930s, it could have passed for Anatevka, the fictional hometown of Tevye, the Dairyman from the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” At one time between the world wars, Jews comprised nearly 75 percent of Grodek’s population. Today there are none.

After the Nazi invasion of Poland, what was left of the Jewish community vanished one morning. At 5 a.m. Nov. 1, 1942, horse-drawn carriages took those who had survived the initial Nazi onslaught to the nearby city of Bialystok.

There, they were herded into trains headed for the notorious Treblinka death camp, where the Germans learned how to industrialize murder with brutal efficiency. They killed a staggering 900,000 Jews and 200,000 Gypsies in only 15 months.

Two years ago, my wife, Lee, and I made our first trip to Poland, joining with others in a Forum study tour that took us all over the country.

We visited large cities and small towns. We spoke with ordinary people, school kids, academics and top officials. We saw the Warsaw Ghetto and what had been the Jewish quarter in Krakow. In a solemn and emotional ceremony, we said Kaddish for all the souls lost to Nazi genocide at the frightening Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps.

We even ventured off alone to Grodek in hopes of learning something of my family’s fate. We discovered that the street names had been changed and houses renumbered since the war. We were shown the boundaries of its ghetto and located the town’s abandoned and neglected Jewish cemetery. It’s the only enduring reminder of its Jewish past.

But we learned little of my family’s life.

My trip back to Grodek in September was different.

Despite Poland’s reputation for having been indifferent, or worse, to the fate of Jews during the war, the students I met were genuinely enthusiastic about honoring the town’s Jewish past.

The day began with a ceremony, led by the mayor, to honor a Jewish physician who was a beloved mainstay of Grodek in the 1930s and was murdered by the Nazis. Two students spoke eloquently about what Dr. Lew Cukierman meant to the community. I was given the honor of briefly speaking to the crowd, which included many adults and the entire student body.

After the Nazi invasion of Poland, what was left of the Jewish community vanished one morning.

From here, the students led me on a journey through the streets of Grodek to paint a picture of what life was like before and during the war. They not only told these stories but also acted them out — wearing clothing from the era and wielding implements used in daily life. At one stop, they even prepared food like that served in the 1930s. The table was set in front of a former restaurant where my family almost certainly had gathered for meals.

Other stops included the boundaries of the ghetto, the location of textile mills that drove the town’s economy, the Jewish school that my family likely attended, a drugstore that had been run by a Jewish pharmacist and the outdoor market where residents bargained for their groceries and other daily needs.

Along the way, I chatted with noted Polish contemporary artist and local activist Leon Tarasewicz, who happened to be in town and joined our tour. I had lunch with the principal and her staff of teachers.

The last stop was outside the one-time home of Josef Abramicki. He seemed like a man for all seasons. He ran a barbershop, a photography studio and directed the local Jewish drama group.

The name Abramicki rang a bell. He had been mentioned in an old letter as a close friend of the family. Among his photographs displayed by the students was a dark portrait of an actor in his Yiddish theater. To my amazement, she turned out to be Chaya, one of my aunts.

As I walked the dirt backstreets of this town, I felt the family’s presence.

Back in the classroom later in the day, the students asked me questions about Jewish life in the United States. I asked them more about their project.

I also shared with them the story of my only surviving aunt. She had escaped the Nazis by fleeing into the forest that surrounds Grodek. There, she joined with Russian partisans in guerrilla warfare against the Nazis and was wounded in battle. In 1958, she returned to Grodek. In a brief account of her life written for Yad Vashem, she declared: “I am the last Jewish girl of our town.”

After hearing the story, one student openly wept.

For these youngsters to care so deeply about people very different from themselves who died generations before they were born is truly remarkable.

It gives hope that someday we might rid ourselves of the kind of prejudice that sparked the Nazi genocide, killing 6 million Jews — most of whom lived in Poland. It also attests to the power and importance of programs like the Forum’s, which has dedicated itself to forging connections between contemporary Poland and the Jewish people.

I know I’ll return to this town. I now feel bonded to it as if it were my own.

And, of course, in a different reality, it could have been just that.


Leo Wolinsky, a Los Angeles journalist, has served as managing editor of the Los Angeles Times and editor of Daily Variety.

That Time My Uber Driver Was Anti-Semitic

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

My husband, Danny, hopped into the front seat of the Uber and I got in the backseat.

I immediately noticed the smell of weed. Bobby, the driver, was tall, heavy and stoned.

Danny is a socializer. As I looked down at my phone, he asked Bobby about life as an Uber driver.

Bobby complained that people in San Diego were much friendlier than people in Los Angeles, then said how the houses in Beverly Hills were so huge — and how the Jews who live in those houses scare him, with their tiny hats.

“Why do they scare you?” Danny asked.

I shifted in my seat, feeling slightly uncomfortable. I figured Bobby might say something negative about Chasidim. I’ve heard many negative comments about them from Jews and non-Jews.

“Jews don’t eat in the same restaurants as us,” Bobby said. “They’re too good for that. And they control all the banks.”

I felt stiff, like I couldn’t move. I’d encountered anti-Semitism before, but not like this. I wasn’t surprised when a woman in back-country Florida once told me that her dad was cheap, “like a Jew.” Seeing anti-Semitic statements from online trolls doesn’t shock me. But we were in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse, liberal and Jewish places in the country.

“What do you mean?” Danny asked.

“Rabbi Finkelstein said that the Jews have all the money and that it was a lie that 6 million died in the Holocaust.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yeah. I went to the Museum of Tolerance, and I had to laugh. The Jews say 6 million died, but that is nothing. The Chinese — 25 million died. The Russians — 25 million died. You don’t see them crying about it. But we always have to hear about the Holocaust.”

I felt like I was going to throw up.

“The Jews, they don’t eat the same meat as us. They eat kosher,” Bobby continued. “They control the entire meat industry.”

As Bobby drove, Danny looked up “Rabbi Finkelstein” on his phone. He found a video featuring a white supremacist telling an actor with a horribly fake Yiddish accent that he hates Jews because they killed Christ and start all the wars and think non-Jews are uneducated cattle. The “rabbi” admitted that all of this was true.

“You see?” Bobby said. “The Jews are Luciferian.”

The knots in my stomach were getting tighter.

“Did you know that Hitler was Time magazine’s man of the year?” Bobby continued. “He created tons of jobs for Germans.”

“Are you saying Hitler was a good person?” Danny said.

“I’m just saying that Americans made him into some evil person, and he wasn’t.”

How could it get any worse than Hitler admiration?

And then Bobby made it worse. “Did you know that the Jews capture children, then drain their blood to make their matzo ball soup?”

I started giggling uncontrollably, out of nervousness. This was too much. Danny was cracking up, too.

When we finally reached our home, Danny and I couldn’t exit the vehicle quickly enough. We looked at each other in disbelief at what we’d heard.

Does this incident make me want to stop praying in public, eating kosher food or being a proud Jew?

I wondered: Should we report Bobby? If I did, and I got him fired, he knew where we lived. I feared for my safety. Maybe if we had encountered him in a safe, public spot, we would have tried to educate him. But we were in his car.

I’m still stunned that this could happen in L.A., that a person could feel comfortable saying these things to strangers in 2017.

We are not safe anywhere.

Does this incident make me want to stop praying in public, eating kosher food or being a proud Jew? Absolutely not.

I can’t change who I am. And why should I, just because there are lunatics out there?

All I can do is be kind to everyone, even if they are different than me. All I can do is be better than Bobby and all the other Bobbys out there, and try to understand people who are different from me rather than hating and mocking them.

Some part of me wishes I were fearless, that I would have spoken up from that backseat. But I was in shock.

Maybe next time. But let’s hope there won’t be a next time.


Kylie Ora Lobell is the founder of JewessMag.com, a website for Jewish women, and a freelance writer.

It’s Time to Speak Up for the Rohingya

Photo from Wikipedia.

When Polish Jew Raphael Lemkin proposed a new law to prevent “acts of barbarity” at a law conference in Madrid in October 1933, he included “acts of extermination” against ethnic, religious and social groups. He included in his definition massacres, pogroms, economic destruction and acts of humiliation.

Adolf Hitler had become chancellor of Germany earlier that year. Lemkin saw the writing on the wall for the Jews and wanted the legal tools to stop what he saw could well happen.

By 1943, Lemkin’s own parents had been murdered in Poland. He also came up with a name for what was happening to the Jews: “genocide,” the destruction of a people.

He was not the only Jew to understand that what the Nazis were doing ultimately would lead to the Jews’ destruction. Recently, I bought a book from an antiquarian bookseller titled “The Yellow Spot: The Destruction of Europe’s Jews.” It appeared to be about the Holocaust but was published in 1936, six years before the “Final Solution.” How did the authors know what the outcome would be?

The book listed the many restrictions Germany had imposed on its Jews. The only logical conclusion was that the Jews would not survive in Europe. It’s a familiar list: restrictions on conducting business, restrictions on travel, citizenship laws that defined marriage, ID cards indicating ethnic and religious backgrounds. Jews were barred from attending school, restricted from holding government positions, forbidden to worship.

Bring the same list into 2017 and add restrictions on cellphone ownership, and it could be referring to Rohingya Muslims living in Myanmar.

The reports we have heard in our interviews are all too familiar.

I recently spent time interviewing Rohingya refugees who had fled genocidal violence in Myanmar. Their testimonies will be added to the USC Shoah Foundation’s archive of witnesses to genocide, the repository founded by Steven Spielberg in 1994 to document Holocaust survivors. The reports we have heard in our initial interviews with the Rohingya are all too familiar.

Over the past four decades, there have been several waves of Rohingya refugees fleeing for their lives. That is not surprising, since their exclusion is baked into the Myanmar constitution. A people who are barred from citizenship have no rights. They are a religious Muslim minority in a hostile Buddhist environment. Government, military, police and religious leaders all agree that Rohingya are a bad thing, but for no apparent reason.

The Rohingya keep to themselves, practice their religion in peace, keep their traditions and don’t return violence with violence. They speak in a unique dialect that the majority in Myanmar do not understand. They often live in separate villages. This placid people are hated for no apparent reason.

I had hoped the refugees would tell us that they had heard about violence in other towns and then fled the country to be sure. But that is not the case. Myanmar’s military, local police and Buddhist nationalists chased them from their burning homes, shooting many in the back as they scrambled into the forests.

In November 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, then just 17, took matters into his own hands on behalf of the Jewish people and shot Ernst vom Rath at the German Embassy in Paris. The next day, Germany unleashed a nationwide pogrom against the Jews, their homes and their property. We know it now as Kristallnacht — the Night of Broken Glass.

Kristallnacht was not a reprisal — it was violence waiting to happen. On Aug. 25 of this year, a small number of Rohingya activists reportedly attacked a number of police outposts. Myanmar authorities used that as a pretext to let loose an organized genocidal assault on the Rohingya — burning houses, looting property, destroying madrasas, raping women and murdering in village after village.

Raphael Lemkin understood that genocide was a series of acts calculated to erode, exclude and dehumanize people, until killing them all becomes the only — and final — solution. Most Rohingya have survived for now, but they experience the daily pain of living through genocide in slow motion.

It’s incumbent on us to alert elected officials to the plight of the Rohingya. Without international intervention, they likely will become the next genocide victims. As  Paula Lebovics, a Los Angeles Holocaust survivor, often reminds me, silence is not an option.


Stephen D. Smith is the Finci-Viterbi Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation.

Race to Aid Eastern Europe’s Forgotten Survivors

Zane Buzby hugs Mina Zalmanovna, then 80, on her second visit to see her in Pinsk, Belarus, in 2016.

In 1941, Iraida Solomonova, an 18-year-old slave laborer in Kuibyshev, U.S.S.R., was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. She was tortured and jailed for a year.  She then spent 10 years in a Kazakhstan gulag, where she endured hard labor, hunger, insect infestations and malaria before exile to Siberia.

Now 93 and living in Kishinev, Moldova, Solomonova is a survivor of two heart attacks and suffers from hypertension and thrombophlebitis. She has difficulty walking and has not ventured outside for several years. Her gas stove leaks and her 1958 refrigerator needs replacing.

Solomonova is one of 1,000 or more people The Survivor Mitzvah Project hopes to help as the end of 2017 — the peak season for charitable giving — approaches. Zane Buzby, the project’s founder, is preparing the year’s final distribution of funds, poring over lists of Eastern European survivors who are new to the program or need additional assistance.

This year to date, Buzby has brought in more than $500,000 to help just over half of the 2,300 impoverished, ailing and mostly forgotten survivors in Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Slovakia, Russia and Ukraine on The Survivor Mitzvah Project’s current roster. She hopes to raise at least an additional $250,000 by year’s end to assist Solomonova and other survivors, whom she defines as any Jewish man, woman or child impacted by the Holocaust.

“It’s always a race to the finish. We don’t have any source of guaranteed institutional funding,” Buzby said.

The Survivor Mitzvah Project (survivormitzvah.org) has been a grass-roots effort since 2001, when the former actress and television sitcom director/producer traveled to Lithuania and Belarus to visit her grandmothers’ former shtetls. There, she encountered eight elderly survivors, living alone in Vilnius or remote Belarusian villages, poor and forgotten.

When Buzby returned to Los Angeles, she couldn’t get them out of her mind — survivors such as Zeydl Katz, then 80 and toothless, covered in dirt from digging up potatoes, his only food supply for the long winter. She began sending them money.

Zeydl Katz offers Buzby apples on her 2001 visit to Volozhin, Belarus.
Photos Courtesy of The Survivor Mitzvah Project Holocaust Educational Archive

The list of survivors quickly grew to 35 and kept expanding.

“I thought once I told people about these survivors living in such conditions, the major philanthropists and the Jewish welfare organizations would immediately step in,” she said.

They didn’t. So by 2008, Buzby had founded The Survivor Mitzvah Project, got 501(c)(3) status as a public charity, and started helping more than 750 survivors in five countries with financial aid for food, medicine, heat and shelter on a total budget of $209,000.

“These destitute survivors are forced to choose every day between food, heat and medication.” — Zane Buzby

Buzby,  a CNN Hero in 2014 and a recipient of the Anti-Defamation League’s 2017 Deborah Award, has relied mostly on individual donors. “These people who are compelled to help these last survivors are, and always have been, the lifeblood of the project,” she said.

Individual donors account for 91 percent of all contributions, mostly small donations averaging $150, with some up to $5,000 or $10,000. The project receives some larger contributions from corporate and family foundations.

In 2016, the project’s best year to date, it raised $711,185. All donations go directly to help survivors, except those earmarked specifically for general support, which include an annual contribution for overhead from the project’s co-founder, Chic Wolk, 91, and help from foundations for translators. Buzby takes no salary.

The project wants to ensure that each survivor — each of whom has been vetted — receives $150 a month, or $1,800 a year, for adequate food, medication and heat. But the need always has exceeded the resources, and providing all of the survivors on the current roster with $1,800 a year would require $4.1 million.

With less than $1 million a year, Buzby and her staff are forced to triage, distributing funds according to need. Crisis situations, such as hospitalizations, surgeries, expensive medications, caregivers and broken windows, are covered by a small emergency fund.

Over the years, the project has been life-changing for survivors, providing emergency aid as well as friendship and hope.

Anna Israelevna, 93, from Kherson, Ukraine, wrote to Buzby: “Thanks to The Survivor Mitzvah Project, I stay alive, I am warm, I have food, and because you helped me, I was able to have the operation on my eyes, and now I can see.”

Like most American Jews who Buzby meets, she once believed that the majority of Eastern European Jews had been murdered by the Nazis or had emigrated to the United States or Israel.

But many thousands were — and still are — struggling in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Their current pensions average $75 a month, just $18 a month above the line the World Bank established in 2015 for measuring extreme poverty. Some pensions, particularly in Moldova, are as low as $10 a month.

“These destitute survivors are forced to choose every day between food, heat and medication,” Buzby said.

These are survivors who receive no compensation or only a minimal, one-time payment of reparation funds from Germany as negotiated by the Claims Conference, and who receive no or minimal goods and services from the Joint Distribution Committee.

Data culled in September 2017 from 530 Survivor Mitzvah aid applications show that 69 percent of survivors do not have enough food; 73 percent cannot pay for doctors, hospitals or medication; and 50 percent need help with daily tasks or home improvements.

As they age — most are in their mid-80s to mid-90s — and encounter more health issues without health insurance or government assistance, their situation becomes more urgent.

And the number in need continues to grow.

The Claims Conference recently changed eligibility requirements for survivors in the former Soviet Union, cutting off compensation funds to 3,000. Many of those are seeking aid from The Survivor Mitzvah Project, which already has helped more than 100. (To help all 3,000 would require $5.4 million a year.)

Buzby also received the names of 70 survivors from Father Patrick Desbois’ organization Yahad-In Unum, which locates and marks the Einsatzgruppen killing fields of Eastern Europe and interviews aging witnesses. Buzby began collaborating with Desbois in 2015.

Buzby receives additional names from other survivors and volunteers in Eastern Europe.

Since her initial trip in 2001, Buzby has made 12 expeditions to Eastern Europe. She’s had the opportunity to see firsthand the impact that the project has made in survivors’ lives.

Mina Zalmanovna, now 83, whom she visited in Pinsk, Belarus, in 2007 and again in 2016, now walks less painfully and without canes, and can treat her diabetes and heart problems thanks to previously unaffordable Western medications. She has a new gas stove, replacing a wood-burning unit, new windows to protect her from rain and snow, and new curtains.

“You are my rescuers,” Zalmanovna wrote.

Buzby is planning an expedition to Moldova, where more than 1,200 survivors are scattered across 16 cities and villages. But first she needs to raise at least $120,000 to distribute.

More than 75 years since the start of World War II, Buzby is hoping major funders will step in so every survivor on her list can be helped and she can begin the search for the tens of thousands still out there suffering.

“Everyone has to die,” Buzby said. “But for a Holocaust survivor to die of neglect, what does that say about us as a people?”

Israeli Organization That Connected Heirs With Assets to Be Shut Down

Leo Wolinsky, right, with his sisters Rachel, left, and Janis, pictured in Los Angeles, stand to inherit a property in Bat Yam through Hashava. Photo courtesy of Leo Wolinsky.

About three years ago, Leo Wolinsky got a call from a private investigator in Santa Monica who asked if he knew Abraham Wolinsky.

Yes, he replied, Abraham Wolinsky was his father.

“Next thing I know, I’m in touch with Hashava, which I had never heard of,” Wolisnky said in an interview.

Established in 2007 by passage of the Israeli Holocaust Victims Assets Law the previous year, Hashava’s mandate was to gather assets that belonged to European Jews who never made it to Israel’s shores — namely, their bonds, bank deposits and real estate — and distribute them to their rightful heirs. Among the 60,000 assets they collected was a piece of real estate bought by Wolinsky’s great uncle.

But Wolinsky will be among the last to receive a mysterious call from Israel about a surprise inheritance. On Dec. 31, Hashava will shut its doors.

Like many other heirs, Wolinsky was suspicious at first — as were his friends. They warned him, “Watch out, it’s a scam,” he said.

The genealogist who connected the dots to Wolinsky for Hashava, Ayana Kimron, eventually told him that his uncle, a Polish textile manufacturer who perished in the Holocaust, had purchased a property in the Israeli city of Bat Yam in the 1930s, which Wolinsky and his family members now stood to inherit.

Kimron, for her part, said she enjoyed making such calls. “Wonderful job,” she said in an interview. “I wish it continued.”

While heirs still will be able to claim assets after Hashava shuts down at the end of this year, Hashava’s team will no longer actively search them out, said Elinor Kroitoru, Hashava’s head of research. Moreover, claimants will have to produce their own documents proving their inheritance, and there is no statute of limitations, she said.

“The special thing about Hashava is that we did a lot of research for the heirs,” she said. “They didn’t have to come with any documents.”

From the time it was established, Hashava has collected about $600 million worth of assets. It has approved 2,811 applications for restitution, totaling about $205 million in disbursements. Another $285 million worth were liquidated after Hashava determined heirs could not be found, with proceeds given to needy Holocaust survivors or spent on Holocaust commemoration and education.

In September, Hashava announced it had met its targets set out by law and would shut down.

Now, Kroitoru said, “Heirs will have to do a bit more themselves,” and claims will be handled by a small staff working within the Israeli Ministry of Justice, which will hold the remaining assets. “It’s just not worth holding a whole company for the assets that are left. And so it was decided that Hashava would close.”

But for Kimron, the genealogist who was terminated in June, Hashava’s shutdown leaves a chapter of history unresolved. As long as assets remain unclaimed, she said, “for me, personally, the Second World War did not end.”

Kimron said she treasured her job tracking down the heirs of Holocaust victims, especially when she was able to inform non-Jews of their Jewish heritage, and of forging close relationships with heirs, she said.

“Sometimes, I would call a person, like Leo, and talk to them as if I was their cousin — and I knew more about their family than they did,” she said.

This summer, Kimron plans to visit Wolinsky in Los Angeles.

Often, she said, people were suspicious of her. For instance, Wolinsky’s distant cousin in Israel, with whom he and his two sisters will split their inheritance, took some time to convince.

“And not just her — there’s a woman that I chased for a whole year, to convince her to file the request,” she said.

For Wolinsky, Kimron’s call introduced him to a dark chapter in his family’s history that he had never bothered to ask his European-born parents about when he was young and the subject was still fresh in their minds.

“People are not used to having Israelis look for people to pay them.” — Elinor Kroitoru

“As a kid, I didn’t care that much, to be perfectly honest,” Wolinsky said. “Growing up in L.A. in the 1950s, it’s the last thing you care about — these men with long beards in sepia-tone photographs.”

Nonetheless, he said, he was impressed by Kimron’s skill. Through some Yiddish writing on the back of a passport-sized photo, she was able to track down his cousin in Herzliya, whom he never knew existed.

Kimron also learned that Wolinsky’s great uncle, Joseph Volisnky of Lodz, Poland, had acquired a piece of real estate in Bat Yam before perishing in Europe, most likely in Treblinka. The new information excited Wolinsky’s curiosity enough that he eventually traveled to Poland, visiting his father’s hometown of Grodek, near the Belarussian border.

The lot in Bat Yam, he learned, had remained undeveloped as sand dunes all around it were gradually replaced by high-rise buildings. Now, Wolinsky said, it is worth well over $1 million — that is, if he manages to change the title and pay 80 years’ worth of back-taxes.

“I love Israel, but what a bureaucratic country — unbelievable,” he said.

As of Jan. 1, 2018, despite Hashava’s decade-long effort to get the word out, unclaimed assets will likely be locked behind even greater bureaucratic obstacles. Moreover, calls from the forgotten past like the one Wolinsky received will cease.

“It wasn’t easy to get our message out over the years, but we did try our best,” Kroitoru said. “People are not used to having Israelis look for people to pay them. If an Israeli calls them, it’s usually for a donation, not to give money.”

Survivors Open Up in ‘Destination Unknown’

Ed Mosberg. Photo courtesy of Netflix

In the opening sequence of the acclaimed documentary “Destination Unknown,” Ed Mosberg dons a blue-and-gray-striped jacket emblazoned with the number 85454 and a matching hat. It’s a replica of the uniform he was forced to wear 70 years ago as a slave laborer in concentration camps such as Mauthausen and Plaszow, some of whose inmates were famously saved by factory owner Oskar Schindler.

Mosberg wears the uniform whenever he has a speaking engagement or visits camps-turned-memorials. He had it with him when he attended a September showing of the film at the University of Southern California, sponsored by the USC Shoah Foundation.

Mosberg, 91, was the only member of his Polish family to survive the Holocaust, and he’s one of 12 survivors in the film who relate their harrowing experiences during World War II. He wears the uniform “so that people never forget that [the Shoah] did exist,” he told the Journal. “My whole family was murdered. I have to talk because they can’t. This is my duty and obligation. As long as I live, I will be talking.”

The film, 14 years in the making, blends archival footage with testimonies from Jews who survived concentration camps, were in hiding, fought with partisans, or were fortunate to have been chosen for Schindler’s famous list. Many had never spoken on the record before. And half of the participants died either during the film’s production or after its completion in 2016.

“Now there’s the recognition of mortality,” said Llion Roberts, the film’s producer. “They don’t want to take this to the grave.”

In the film, survivors vividly recall incidents of brutal treatment, the last time they saw their families, the kindness of random strangers that allowed them to live another day and, for some, the post-liberation reunions with parents and siblings they had assumed were dead.

Listening to Mosberg and the other documentary subjects tell their traumatic tales took a toll on Roberts. “I found it so intense that I had a nervous breakdown in 2004,” he said. “I had panic attacks in 2015. It cost me too much in time, stress and funding. But I’m glad I met the people I met. It’s been an incredible journey.”

Roberts, who is not Jewish, was deeply affected by a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2001. He couldn’t forget seeing a photo of a 13-year-old girl who resembled his daughter, who was the same age at the time. He started doing research and in 2003 began finding subjects and conducting interviews.

“I was doing 14-hour days of listening to them take me through from childhood to liberation,” he said. “I didn’t ask questions. I just let them talk. Some of these interviews would last five hours. This is why I got such intimacy.”

Roberts ended up with 400 hours of footage, and in 2014 brought in director Claire Ferguson to help him finish the film, with “no narration and primary sources only. No experts or historians.”

“As long as I live, I will be talking.” — Ed Mosberg

Roberts believes what sets “Destination Unknown” apart from other Holocaust survivor documentaries is his use of primary sources. “It keeps it authentic,” he said.”

Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, saw the film in 2016 and came aboard as an executive producer.

“The way the film is woven together, with many stories making up a larger one, will appeal to young people because it brings the testimony alive,” said Smith, who plans to build lessons around the film.

With the alarming rise in anti-Semitism and hate groups around the world, Roberts believes the film’s message couldn’t be more timely.

“History is repeating itself,” he said. “You have another generation coming in, making the same mistakes as the previous ones. There’s a correlation between the mortality of survivors and apathy. Once they’re gone, there’s no obligation to talk about them anymore.”

But Roberts emphasizes that his documentary “is not a history lesson. It is about the resilience of the human spirit, and hope,” he said. “Even for people who have experienced the worst kind of trauma, there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Destination Unknown” opens Nov. 10 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

Are Jews the Only Ones Who Need a Thick Skin?

Screenshot from YouTube.

Why would Larry David stride up so confidently on the “Saturday Night Live” stage and joke about picking up women in a Nazi concentration camp? And why would he wallow in the fact that many of the recently accused sexual aggressors have Jewish names? Hasn’t he heard about anti-Semitism?

Here’s my theory: He assumes Jews can take it. At a time when everyone is allowed to get offended by the smallest slight, Jews are supposed to be, well, different.

College students can get offended by an email about Halloween costumes, but Jews should handle gross jokes about the Holocaust. Any student can yell about a micro-aggression, but Jews are expected to handle macro-aggressions.

Maybe David figured Jews are on another level. We’re the chosen ones, right? We’re the sophisticated Americans obsessed with education and with being loved by gentiles. Who has endeared the Jews to America? It’s not the lawyers, believe me. It’s the comedians.

For more than a century, from Burns to Benny to Allen to Crystal to Seinfeld, we’ve made America laugh by poking fun at ourselves. And why not? When you’ve been persecuted for 2,000 years and you finally find a place that accepts you, what better way to show your gratitude than by being entertaining?

And Larry David surely is an entertainer. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is my all-time favorite comedy. I love, among other things, that there’s no laugh track. No one cares whether I laugh or not. I get to eavesdrop on a wacko who obsesses over stuff that makes me squirm.

That’s the key word — eavesdrop.

Last Saturday night, as David was using the Holocaust to try to make me laugh, I wasn’t eavesdropping at all. I was looking straight into the eyes of a stand-up comic. This was not the David of “Curb” who was oblivious to my presence and just going about his crazy business. This was a guy who was pushing my buttons, who wanted something from me.

One of the extraordinary things about “Curb” is David’s ability to break virtually all taboos. I’ve often watched an episode and thought, “I can’t believe he’s pulling this off.” He’s poked fun at African-Americans, people with disabilities, Palestinian Muslims, and, yes, even Holocaust survivors, and, somehow, he pulls it off.

For one night at least, I wanted to yell to my fellow Jew to curb his enthusiasm.

His mistake last Saturday night was a professional one — he overlooked the context. What works in his “Curb” bubble doesn’t necessarily work under the bright lights of a live stage. The sacred cows he could slay on “Curb” ambushed him on stage.

The funny thing is, until he brought up the Holocaust, he seemed to understand those limitations. His act was quite funny. It’s only when he veered into the excruciatingly sensitive subject of a Nazi concentration camp that he blew it.

As Rabbi David Wolpe tweeted, David was “joking about how a starved, shaved and beaten woman might still reject him. I’m helpless with laughter.” Without the protective cover of his show, David just stood there, naked. On “Curb,” he’s an oblivious fanatic who can get away with almost anything. On “SNL,” he’s a self-aware comic with no margin of error. That’s not the best moment for a Holocaust joke.

After watching his act, part of me wanted to say, “Hey, we’re Jews. We can take it. We have a sense of humor!” But the other part wanted to say, “You know what? I’m tired of trying to be better. I want to be offended, just like other Americans.”

That side won out. For one night at least, I wanted to be like those college students and tap into my sensitive gene. I wanted to be an activist with Jewish Lives Matter and yell to my fellow Jew to curb his enthusiasm.

Comedian Melissa Rivers Responds to Larry David’s SNL Monologue

Melissa Rivers on Larry David SNL Controversy

What do you think about Larry David's SNL monologue?

Posted by Jewish Journal on Monday, November 6, 2017

Larry David Goes One Cringe Too Far

With his appearance on Saturday Night Live this past weekend, Larry David, the undisputed king of cringe-comedy, may have finally crossed a line. It is a symbolic line, admittedly, one that artists draw for themselves both morally and aesthetically.  But it is a line nonetheless.

Of course, it’s not a line David would ever hesitate crossing again.  He’s taken that same devilish step many times in the past—all for laughs.

His monologue on SNL, however, doubled down on a theme that properly deserves to be forever buried and left alone.  That’s what we do with the dead, especially the victims of mass murder.  A certain amount of piety is expected, and one never dreams of desecration with such nightmarish events.

David pivoted from the recently disclosed sexual predations of certain men in the entertainment industry, making the unpleasant association that many of them happened to be Jews, to his own unseemly wolfish behavior.  Apparently, so indiscrete are his sexual urges that he can imagine checking out Jewish women in a concentration camp.  In fact, he gave a national audience a glimpse of David hypothetically approaching an attractive woman with death in her immediate future, and testing out pick-up lines.

Appalling, but perhaps not surprising.  David has been flirting with the Holocaust for many years.  And he keeps coming back, not taking no for an answer, a nebbish with a libido for bad taste.  Except the Holocaust is not a love interest.  It is an unsightly atrocity, incapable of attraction of any kind, and on any human scale.

This is the same man who conceived a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry was making out with a girl during a screening of Schindler’s List.  And another in which a disagreeable fast-food proprietor was renamed “The Soup Nazi.”  An episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm riffed on the Reality TV show, The Survivor, in which a winning contestant squared off at a dinner party with an actual survivor of a death camp, comparing their relative suffering.  In still yet another, a man with numbers tattooed on his forearm turns out not to be a Holocaust survivor, but rather just someone who temporarily inks his lotto ticket number each week so as not to forget.

So much for Never Again.

Yes, David’s entire act is predicated on projecting discomfort in his audience, forcing them to watch characters disgraced beyond redemption.  George Costanza, David’s doppelganger, was an enduring fool of humiliation, placed in recurring, squirming situations.  David took the Borsht Belt and twisted it into a straightjacket of Jewish self-loathing.

In France, the comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala has incorporated crude concentration camp humor (and jokes about gassing Jews) into his act.  And because of such material, he is routinely banned from performing and has been convicted for engaging in racial hatred.  In Belgium, he was imprisoned and forced to pay a $10,000 fine for inciting hatred.  In America, for expressing self-hatred, and mocking the Holocaust, David was honored with guest-hosting duties on SNL.

Of course, freedom of expression is a hallmark of American democracy.  David is merely taking extreme artistic liberties with his comedic imagination—Holocaust survivors be damned.  Moreover, unlike Dieudonne, David is himself a Jew.  Shouldn’t he be given the same leeway African-American comedians receive when their material invokes the “N-word”?  After all, concentration camp victims were known to tell jokes to each other in order to keep their spirits up and maintain their moral survival.

But those were their jokes to tell; they owned the experience, and they weren’t ribbing each other for laughs alone, one skeleton to another.  And there are still survivors living among us.  Isn’t there some gentleman’s agreement about un-ripened events “too soon” for comic exploitation?

And as for France and Belgium, they are democracies, too, with artistic licenses of their own.  They just happen to believe that common decency and a respect for the dead should not be debased for the sake of nervous laughter.

Larry David may have finally gone one cringe too far.  Surely, he didn’t violate any laws, other than the one of nature—with something as supremely unnatural as Auschwitz, go find another gag line.

But after all these years, shouldn’t the Holocaust be able to take a joke?  Actually, it can’t, and what’s more, it shouldn’t have to.


Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and Distinguished Fellow at NYU School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society.  He is the author of “The Golems of Gotham” and “Second Hand Smoke,” among other fiction and nonfiction titles.

The Courage to Confront Our Shadows

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Walking through the densely wooded fields and forests near Rava-Ruska, Ukraine, where wildflowers and green shoots of grass spring up, one could be forgiven for forgetting what remains buried underground. Villagers living around that forest still regularly find evidence of the atrocities that took place some 75 years ago, when Nazis regularly marched Jews out to those fields to be executed and tossed into mass graves.

One French Roman Catholic is now working tirelessly to preserve the memories of those victims before they are lost. Father Patrick Desbois is motivated by this urgent call to action to memorialize the victims buried there in mass, unmarked graves, before no eyewitnesses remain.  He is an unlikely hero to shoulder this task, sharing neither nationality nor religion with these victims of the Holocaust. Instead, his connection to the Jews and Roma killed by the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi mobile killing squads, initially came through family history, as his grandfather was a French soldier held in a camp in Rava-Ruska.

In 2002, while visiting the site of his grandfather’s imprisonment, he traveled to the site of the massacre of Rava-Ruska’s Jewish population and found no memorials or markers for the Jewish victims murdered there, save the testimony from a small cluster of elderly residents. Father Desbois decided then to dedicate his life to ensuring similar stories from the Holocaust are well documented, transforming the fading memories of the past into lessons for the future.

Today, the world is in need of more heroes like him. He embodies the courage needed to face bigotry and evil, and the drive to teach tolerance and compassion. Father Desbois will share his experiences, insight and courage with the Jewish community of Southern California at the Museum of Tolerance on Nov. 7, at the Chai Event hosted by my organization, Heritage Retreats.  There, he will speak on three lessons he has taken away from his work, which may be applied to our current struggle against bigotry and anti-Semitism:

First, we must recognize the importance of friendship between communities. Without allies like Father Desbois, it is easy for the Jewish community to feel isolated and insecure in uncertain times.  Anti-Semitic hate crimes are on the rise all across the country, and it is difficult to not see parallels between those events and 1930s Germany.  Instead of feeling frightened, however, I am reassured by Father Desbois’ commitment to interfaith solidarity. We should all be similarly inspired to care for those outside our community, country and faith.

Second, we must celebrate every-day acts of heroism. The acts of Father Desbois and his team. The acts of the men and women who recall these crimes against humanity in detail for Yahad In-Unum’s records and lead Father Desbois to the sites.  The acts of individuals volunteering their time and energy to worthy causes. This is why small acts of day-to-day heroism in our community deserve recognition and praise as well. We will celebrate a small fraction of these at Heritage Retreats’s Chai Event by honoring our community members and volunteers who have worked to create a better future for all of us.

Third, we all have stories to contribute to the fight against bigotry. Father Desbois works to record the memories of the last generation of witnesses to the Holocaust, and uses those testimonies to teach the Holocaust to the first generation that won’t have a relative who remembers the war. This is l’dor va’dor in motion. All of us, not just religious leaders, Holocaust survivors, and community leaders, can play a role in teaching two of our community’s most heartfelt beliefs: Never Forget and Never Again.

We all can learn from the example of Father Desbois. I hope many of you will join me when Father Desbois delivers his remarks at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles on November 7th.  While the spread of anti-Semitism today is frightening, we can respond with courage, compassion, and a little help from friends such as Father Desbois.

In Nazi Germany, A Story of Love and Horror

Playwright Tania Wisbar.

When playwright Tania Wisbar was growing up, her mother shared little about her past in wartime Germany. When she did, “It was all about the art and the music and her writing … and coming from a very well-placed and highly respected film family,” said Wisbar, who was born in Germany in the 1930s and came to the United States as a girl.

Then, in 1999, a German professor visiting the U.S. brought Wisbar a 60-year-old document he had discovered in a Harvard University archive. In the 88-page manuscript, Wisbar’s mother, Eva Kroy Wisbar, who was Jewish, detailed her forbidden marriage to a German film director as the Nazis were coming to power. The manuscript held answers to many of the questions the playwright’s mother never answered before her 1984 death.

Now that document has become the inspiration for a play, “The Red Dress,” currently in its world premiere at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles.

Wisbar said the decision to write the play didn’t come easily. In fact, her initial reaction to the manuscript was fear. “It just shook me. Fortunately, it was in German, and my German reading is not that fluent, so it gave me a little buffer of time to do what I think many, many children of war, or observers of war or violence [would do]. You just go into a place of hiding.”

But Jonathan Sanger, a producer who has partnered with Wisbar on previous projects, encouraged her to write a play based on the story.

“I said ‘No, I can’t touch this. I don’t know these people.’ ” she recalled. “He said, ‘Think it over.’ So I did, for 15 years.”

The play she wrote spans the years 1924 to 1936 and begins in a badly defeated post-World War I Germany, falling apart under the burdens imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.

The story centers on Alexandra Schiele (Laura Ligouri), a wealthy movie star who meets Franz Weitrek (J.B. Waterman), a virtually homeless former serviceman and itinerant sketch artist. They fall in love and marry.

Using family connections, she helps him enter the film business and he becomes a successful director. Eventually, Franz makes films for the Nazis and becomes a favorite of propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. While Franz expresses sympathy for some of the Nazi ideology and policies, Alexandra detests them.

Events come to a head at an awards ceremony honoring Franz, when Alexandra shows up in a red dress (hence the title), defying the Nazi dress code requiring black-and-white attire. She is soon arrested, and a Gestapo officer produces proof that she is 1/8 Jewish — information unbeknownst to her. He forces the couple to divorce, in accordance with the Nuremberg Laws forbidding intermarriage between Germans and Jews.

Wisbar said that information she gathered from various sources provided sometimes conflicting information about her parents’ history, but she said her mother’s manuscript was the most reliable source. Most aspects of “The Red Dress” parallel real life. Unlike the character of Alexandra, however, her mother always knew she was fully Jewish, she said.

“I said ‘No, I can’t touch this. I don’t know these people.” – Playwright Tania Wisbar

An incident in the manuscript reveals her mother’s defiance. Wisbar said that her mother described attending a party where “two Nazis in uniforms sat at the table as if they owned it, and she just got into a rant and rave and finally said, ‘I won’t sit with Nazis,’ and walked out, followed by the Gestapo.”

In fact, Wisbar said, her mother was constantly followed by Gestapo officers and had to report to the Gestapo every month to be interrogated. And while her parents were ordered to divorce, they stayed married. After she, her sister and her mother left Germany for the U.S. in 1938, the Nazis issued a divorce decree dissolving her parents’ marriage.

Her father, Frank, remained in Germany, immigrating to America months after Eva and his daughters left. He subsequently married three more times.

Wisbar believes the main issue her play examines is the slow loss of civil liberties that may go unnoticed at first.

“Be very vigilant of your human rights,” she said, “and include everybody in that vigilance.”

“The Red Dress” runs Oct. 28–Nov. 19 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. For more information, visit odysseytheatre.com.

Brothers Find Each Other Decades After WWII

Izak and Shep Szewelewicz. Photo courtesy of Alon Schwarz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘One of Us’ co-director apologizes for Holocaust comment

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Heidi Ewing, a co-director of the “One of Us” Netflix documentary, has apologized for her comments about Hasidic Jews being targeted during the Holocaust for not blending into society.

Ewing appeared on The Charlie Rose Show on Thursday and said, “The vast majority of Hasidic Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust, partly because they refused to blend in.

“They kept wearing the clothing,” said Ewing. “They sort of were loud and proud about their identity, and the vast majority died in the Holocaust.”

Ewing received some serious backlash on social media for her comment:

Others weren’t quite as taken aback by it:

Well at least once I get to quote Mein Kampf."One of us" Filmmaker Heidi Ewing faced criticism for asserting that…

Posted by Yoel Schaper on Monday, October 23, 2017

Any Jew who grew up ultra-Orthodox has heard rabbis link the Holocaust to Germany's Reform movement and assimilated…

Posted by Zac Mordechai Levovitz on Monday, October 23, 2017

Heidi Ewing: Chassidic dress made them easy Holocaust targets.Chassidim: That’s offensive! The Holocaust was punishment for Reform Judaism.

Posted by Ari Mandel on Sunday, October 22, 2017

 

Ewing eventually apologized for her Holocaust remark.

“I am sorry if my words on Charlie Rose caused any pain and would like to clarify their meaning,” Ewing said in a statement. “The devastating losses that the Jewish community suffered at the hands of the Nazis is unspeakable. Almost half the population of world Jewry was destroyed by the Nazis and their collaborators, whole communities destroyed.”

She added that “Hasidic Jews suffered disproportionate losses” since “they were more easily identified and therefore had more difficulty hiding.”

“It took great courage for Hasidic Jews at that time to refuse to change their appearance to look more like the general European public,” said Ewing. “I am only filled with respect and admiration for any person who chooses to live their own truth.”

Some weren’t satisfied with her apology:

Others felt that her comments shouldn’t take away from the substance of the movie:

“One of Us” is a documentary that follows three former Hasidic Jews who have been ostracized by the community since they left. The documentary was released on Friday. Gerri Miller wrote about it for the Journal here.

Scaramucci Post lambasted for posting Holocaust poll

White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci takes questions at the White House on July 21. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The Scaramucci Post, the new media outlet created by President Trump’s former communications director Anthony Scaramucci, is getting lambasted for posting a poll about the Holocaust on Twitter.

The poll, which has since been deleted, asked people if they knew the number of Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust:

Naturally, the tweet received serious condemnation on Twitter:

An apology was posted on Scaramucci Post’s Twitter account:

Since the apology has been posted, the Scaramucci account re-tweeted tweets defending their poll:

Others didn’t think that Scaramucci Post’s apology was adequate:

According to CNN’s Jake Tapper, Scaramucci himself was infuriated by the poll and that “at least one person is getting fired.”

Scaramucci created his media outlet after he was fired from his short-lived position as White House communications director. He intended his new publication “to be the center lane in a two-lane highway.”

WATCH: Holocaust survivor recounts leaving father behind on train to Auschwitz, receives message from him years later

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

A remarkable story has emerged of a Holocaust survivor leaving her father behind on the train cars headed for Auschwitz and receiving a message from him years later.

The 92-year-old survivor, identified as Klara Prowisor, told filmmaker Matan Rochlitz that she, her husband Philippe Szyper and her father were all forced by the Nazis to ride the train cars to Auschwitz. Szyper repeatedly insisted that they jump out of the car in Belgium, but Prowisor initially resisted because her father had become gravely ill and didn’t want to leave his side. Others in the train car didn’t want them to jump because the Nazis threatened to punish them if anyone was missing.

However, after sleeping on it she eventually decided to jump.

“I left my father,” said Prowisor, “and it was so painful. I abandoned my father in such terrible conditions.”

Szyper jumped shortly after Prowisor, and Belgian citizens provided them refuge until the war was over.

One evening in 1962, when Prowisor and Szyper were visiting Tel Aviv, they were walking down Dizengoff Street when Prowisor was approached a woman who said she had been looking for Prowisor for 20 years because she witnessed Prowisor’s father wake up after Prowisor had jumped. Prowisor’s father told her to relay a message to Prowisor.

“If you ever meet my daughter again, tell her I’m the happiest father,” Prowisor’s father told the woman. “I’m glad she jumped.”

Prowisor learned from the woman that her father had passed away on the train before the train had reached Auschwitz.

“He had this intuition to tell me, ‘You did the right thing,’” said Prowisor. “I live with that. A weight fell off me.”

She later added, “It was so important for me to hear this woman pass on my father’s message to me. It’s exceptional. It’s a gift … from God.”

Prowisor then said she didn’t believe in God.

The woman who relayed the message to Prowisor has never been identified, but it is believed that she was Dutch.

The full video can be seen below, via the New York Times:

Holocaust revisionism in Croatia not just a Jewish fight, Jewish group says

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

(JTA) — In an unusual plea, the World Jewish Congress urged international bodies to oppose what it calls “brazen attempts” to whitewash Holocaust crimes in the European Union’s newest member, Croatia.

The call came in a 4,000-word position paper published Monday in Tablet magazine by Menachem Rosensaft, the WJC’s general counsel.

The article, titled “Croatia is Brazenly Attempting to Rewrite its Holocaust Crimes Out of History,” examines dithering and mixed messages by the Balkan country’s highest elected officials on the Ustasha, a fascist movement led by Ante Pavelić that murdered hundreds of thousands of Serbs and tens of thousands of Jews during World War II. Reviled by many Croatians for their war crimes, Ustasha criminals are celebrated as heroes by many others — often with a nod from the government.

Last year, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic posed during a trip to Canada with an Ustasha flag. The previous year in Israel she expressed her “deepest regrets” to victims “killed at the hands of the collaborationist Ustasha regime.” Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic also condemned the Ustasha publicly, but did nothing when soccer fans chanted the Ustasha slogan during a match that he attended against an Israeli team.

These events and others prompted the local Jewish community to boycott government-sponsored Holocaust commemoration events for two consecutive years since 2016.

That year, Croatia’s culture minister, Zlatko Hasanbegović, praised a revisionist film claiming that Holocaust survivors’ testimonies from the Ustasha concentration camp of Jasenovac were exaggerated.

The veneration of pro-Nazi war criminals is not unique to Croatia in Eastern Europe, where Russian expansionism is serving to legitimize the open celebration of anti-Russian fighters who murdered Jews and perpetrated other war crimes on the side of Nazi Germany. Similar processes are the subject of an intense public debate Hungary, Ukraine, Lithuania and to some extent also Poland.

Croatia, which was accepted into the European Union in 2013, is unusual in that the veneration of war criminals comes from the top echelon politicians, and in the Jewish community’s resolute stance against such rhetoric.

Moreover, Rosensaft wrote, “the recasting of the Ustasha as national heroes and role models has ominous connotations in a country and region where ethnic hatred and strife have had catastrophic consequences, not just during WWII but more recently during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.”

As Croatian nationalists are “becoming increasingly brazen, if not overtly shameless, in their attempts to write the crimes against humanity committed by the Ustasha out of their nation’s history,” Rosensaft concluded, support for the Jewish community’s opposition to these efforts “should come not just from international Jewish organizations and other Jewish communities, but from institutions and agencies around the world that are dedicated to the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust and other genocides.”

While Israeli-Croatian bilateral relations “are excellent,” the WJC’s CEO, Robert Singer, said in a statement to JTA, his organization is “deeply concerned by what appears at best to be official indifference to the resurgence of the fascist Ustasha movement that actively participated in the perpetration the Holocaust.”

Bernie Sanders chokes up when he learns about relative who died defying the Nazis

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 13. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

In the upcoming season premiere of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” Bernie Sanders does more than look at a printout of his family tree: He gets emotional when he discovers a relative died while standing up to the Nazis during World War II.

In a clip released to JTA, the Jewish lawmaker is visibly moved as the show’s host, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., asks him how he feels after learning about the relative.

“I’m proud of his courage, and willingly going to his own death in order to protect innocent people,” Sanders says. “So I’m very, very proud that I have a family member who showed that type of courage and decency.”

“It’s one of the bravest acts I’ve heard of,” responds Gates, a historian who has hosted the show since it first aired in 2012.

Sanders’ father Eli grew up in Slopnice, Poland, before immigrating to the United States in 1921 at age 17. Many of Eli Sanders’ relatives perished in the Holocaust. The longtime Vermont senator’s mother Dorothy (née Glassberg) was born in New York City.

A Brooklyn native, Sanders, 76, grew up in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Flatbush. While campaigning to be the Democratic nominee for president, and becoming the first Jewish candidate to win a primary, he rarely discussed his Jewish identity.

 

In the clip, Sanders goes on to say that he got involved in politics in part to “prevent the descent of humanity” into Nazi behavior.

“It just makes us realize how hard we have got to work to not descend into this type of barbarity and to create a world where people can love each other,” he says. “That’s what this reinforces in me.”

Tuesday’s episode kicks off the fourth season of the show, which delves into the family history of celebrities. Among the other Jews who will appear in the fourth season are Scarlett Johansson, Amy Schumer and Paul Rudd. In a previous season, Dustin Hoffman broke down in tears after learning of his family’s tragic Jewish history.

The episode also features comedian Larry David, who famously impersonated Sanders on “Saturday Night Live” throughout last year’s presidential campaign. It received some advance buzz in July when David revealed he’s a distant cousin of the senator, something he learned while filming “Finding Your Roots.”

“I was very happy about that,” David said at the time.

Rare Holocaust photos resurface in North Hollywood home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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