June 26, 2019

Honoring the Zaglembie Memorial in Mevo Modi’im

Ben Shemen Forest fire in Israel. Photos courtesy of Ira Brverman

The Talmud asks: When does fire break out? Only when thorns are found nearby (when there is evil in the world) but it always begins with the righteous.

The media widely reported the deadly fire last week in the Ben Shemen Forest in central Israel that destroyed Mevo Modi’im, the village founded by the late Jewish folk singer Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925-94). 

However, many people don’t know that the fire also destroyed the nearby memorial to the Zaglembie martyrs, erected 20 years ago by Holocaust survivors from — among other places —  Los Angeles and New York. 

It was poignant and ironic to feel the pain when we walked through the ashes of the once beautiful and serene forest and surrounding landscape. We read the inscription carved into the blackened marble monument dedicated to the Jews who once lived in Zaglembie:

“In Zaglembie, a region of southwest Poland, dozens of Jewish communities flourished for over seven centuries. All were destroyed by Nazi Germany in the Holocaust. The Jews of Zaglembie — about 100,000 souls —  maintained their dignity with courage in the face of the German Nazi barbarity until they perished in the nearby Auschwitz crematoriums.”

A small marble plaque embedded in stone had the names of soldiers — sons of the survivors from Zaglembie — who died fighting for Israel. The Jews of Zaglembie — about 100,000 souls —  maintained their dignity with courage in the face of the German Nazi barbarity until they perished in the nearby Auschwitz crematoriums.

Some of the trees on the site and in the valley and hills around Mevo Modi’im were still smoldering after the fire when we were allowed into the area. The silver plaques dedicated to those who helped build the Zaglembie memorial were burned and twisted. The black, granite stone walls inscribed with the names of the Jews who died were covered with soot. The large, steel sign that once read “Yizkor” (they should remember) in Hebrew, and six stone candleholders — lighted on each Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel — were scarred and missing the letter yud. 

One of the monuments to survive.

But perhaps more moving was what did survive: The white stone slabs, engraved with the name of each village destroyed by the Nazis. A small marble plaque embedded in stone had the names of soldiers — sons of the survivors from Zaglembie — who died fighting for Israel. Then there was a letter penned by one of the last Jews of the town of Bezdin, who wrote, “7,000 Jews have already been murdered and by the time you receive this letter, there will be no Jews left alive in the town.”  

Yet amid the destruction and the odor of a dead forest was a single area of trees, bushes and landscaping that somehow survived, just like those few survivors of Zaglembie, who came to Israel to erect the memorial. 

The Jewish determination is strong and we know that this memorial will be rebuilt and those who perished will not be forgotten.

Rabbis Avraham and Chaim Braverman made aliyah from Los Angeles 27 years ago.

San Diego and Palo Alto Among 100 Communities Celebrating Ohr Torah Stone Anniversary

Ohr Torah Stone Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander addressing an emissary group in Cancun. Photo courtesy of Ohr Torah Stone

More than 100 Jewish communities in 20 countries will celebrate the 20th anniversary of Ohr Torah Stone’s Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel programs over Shabbat, May 17-18.

Based In Israel, Ohr Torah Stone is a modern Orthodox movement founded in 1983 by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, and these trained Shabbat emissaries from various communities will discuss Israel-Diaspora affairs.

Countries participating in the event are the United States, New Zealand, Germany, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Colombia, Mexico, South Africa, Sweden, China, Finland, Switzerland, Poland, Spain, Australia, Uruguay, Ecuador, Brazil and Austria.

In California, the San Diego and Palo Alto Jewish communities will also take part in the event. 

President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander said that the Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel programs were created to bring Israel and Diaspora communities together by training rabbis to strengthen Jewish identity and existence in communities around the world.

“This Shabbat we celebrate the integral role that these programs have played in bringing the Israel-Diaspora relationship closer on a grassroots level,” Brander said in a statement. “We’re very proud of our emissaries and the critical role they have played in building and helping to sustain communities in the Diaspora. We have graduated more than one thousand emissaries in the last two decades. While the emissaries offer a tremendous service to the communities where they serve, they also receive so much. They come back to Israel enthused about engaging the Jewish community along with new skills and perspectives on teaching, educating and serving communities that they put into use here in Israel. It is why upon return to Israel 90-percent of our shlichim serve in positions of Jewish communal service.”

L.A. Charter High Schoolers Learn About the Holocaust by Meeting a Survivor

Tenth graders from Ánimo Jackie Robinson Charter High School hug Holocaust Survivor Rita Lurie after hearing her story at a grade assembly May 9. Photo by Erin Ben-Moche

More than 100 10th graders from Ánimo Jackie Robinson Charter High School (AJR) gathered May 9 to listen to Holocaust survivor Rita Lurie’s story of how she survived in Poland.

Lurie’s daughter, Leslie Gilbert-Lurie also attended and spoke on behalf of her mother at the event hosted by the nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, which provides Holocaust, race, genocide and human rights education programs to more than 1,000 schools.

The organization partnered with AJR to organize the assembly, which took place two weeks into the grade’s six-week Holocaust educational program.

Gilbert-Lurie told students that her mother was a toddler during the Holocaust and her family left their home in Poland and hid in their neighbor’s attic. Fifteen family members lived in the attic from 1942 – 1944, where Lurie’s mother and younger brother died from malnutrition.  

“When my mother was four years old, she remembers one day looking out of her kitchen window and saw Nazi tanks roll by,” Gilbert-Lurie said. “She said at that moment everything inside of her froze. She said she knew even at four years old nothing in her life would ever be the same after that.”

Lurie later shared an excerpt from a book she co-wrote with her daughter called “Bending Toward the Sun,” about her experiences and the depression and trauma she passed on to her daughter and granddaughter.

Leslie Gilbert-Lurie and Rita Lurie speaking to a classroom of students May 9. Photo by Rachel Kassenbrock.

During the story telling, the children answered questions about how propaganda fueled the Holocaust and Liz Vogel, executive director of Facing History and Ourselves in Los Angeles told the Journal how teaching the students about the role propaganda and the behavior of bystanders and upstanders during the Nazi regime was important in teaching them how to ensure something like the Holocaust doesn’t happen again.  

A few students from Ánimo Jackie Robinson Charter High School, hand Holocaust Survivor Rita Lurie gifts they made for her following an assembly where they hear Lurie speak about her survival. Photo by Erin Ben-Moche

“We bring a survivor or a living witness to history into classrooms of schools that are doing a more in depth study [of the Holocaust] so that students can be better prepared and have a better understanding,” Vogel said. “It leaves a better experience with the students and the speaker.”  

Students had the opportunity to ask Lurie and Gilbert-Lurie questions, which covered everything from how Lurie’s relationship to God changed after the Holocaust; how she was able to raise her family as an immigrant; how long it took to learn English when she arrived in New York (one month); and what advice she had for families who were immigrants or children of immigrants.

When one student asked how she was doing today, Lurie smiled and said: “I feel great being here and looking at all of your faces. I can tell that there is a promising future, just remember that. You have a lot to live for and even if it doesn’t look perfect now, you can take control of your life.”

AJR principal Kristin Botello wiping away tears said, “Everybody has a story and stories are magic. You have to listen to people’s stories and you have to be brave enough to tell it. You’re a hero and you have to embrace that story.”

Holocaust Survivor Inspires in ‘Reinventing Rosalee’

Scene from “Reinventing Rosalee”

By any measure, Rosalee Glass has led a tough life. Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1917, she and her husband, Abraham, were forced to work in a Siberian labor camp during Word War II. Their newborn son died there, from starvation. After the war, the couple was transferred to Kazakhstan, where they lived in a chicken coop and had a baby girl who died from tuberculosis and malnutrition. 

The Glasses eventually escaped in 1951 with their new son, Manny, and headed to Miami, where their daughter Lillian was born. However, the couple soon was separated when Abraham, suffering from tuberculosis, was sent to a sanitarium in Colorado for three years. Rosalee stayed in Miami with the children. 

Finally reunited in 1954, Rosalee and Abraham spent the next four decades together until Abraham’s passing in 1996. Then, in 1999, Manny went into anaphylactic shock, was rushed to hospital and died following a botched intubation.  

Rosalee sank into a deep depression, so Lillian brought her mother to live with her. “I took her to the finest restaurants,” Lillian told the Journal. “She wouldn’t touch her food. I took her to the theater and films but nothing would work. She would just wail and scream and be in a daze. And then, all of a sudden [in 2003], she woke up one morning and it was like the clouds parted.”

Rosalee declared that she wanted to live. And not just live, but live her life to the fullest. “I wanted to make myself happy,” she told the Journal.

Despite the fact that she was already in her 80s, Rosalee starting taking piano lessons, dived into tai chi, took tango and boxing classes, and learned French. In her 90s, she got an agent and embarked on a successful acting career, starring in commercials for Google, Porsche and Hallmark, and appearing in a Super Bowl commercial for Dodge. For her 100th birthday, she went to Alaska to ride with sled dogs, started an online life-advice service called Rosalee’s Personalized Advice and released a book, “100 Years of Wisdom.” 

In her 90s, Rosalee got an agent and embarked on a successful acting career, including appearing in a Super Bowl commercial for Dodge. For her 100th birthday, she went to Alaska to ride with
sled dogs.

In 2018, Lillian made a movie about her now 102-year-old mother’s inspirational life story, called “Reinventing Rosalee.” The film has been shown at 92 film festivals around the world and has won 45 awards. It shows Lillian and Rosalee’s travels around the globe between 2005 and 2017, culminating with Rosalee’s 100th birthday celebration.

During their travels, the globetrotting mother-daughter team visited Poland, Italy and Russia. They toured Stalin’s dacha in Russia — where Rosalee got a kick out of using his private toilet — and buried photographs of relatives that died in the Holocaust in Poland. 

While on a tour of the Vatican in 2005, they stumbled across the coronation of Pope Benedict XVI, where the pope and his priests blessed them both. “That was very good,” Rosalee said. “I felt like a new person.” 

The film also tells Rosalee and Abraham’s love story, using old photos and footage that Lillian found. According to Lillian, the first thing Abraham said to Rosalee when he met her was, “I’m going to be with you for life.” Then, on his deathbed, the last thing he was said: “I was with you my whole life.”

“They had a beautiful life together,” Lillian said.

When people watch “Reinventing Rosalee,” it inspires them to call up their parents and spend time with them while they can, Rosalee said, adding that the film also shows that “it’s not too late to live your dreams. It’s about really going for it and choosing life and not being bogged down by the smallness or pettiness of life. Rosalee’s secret to a long life is that she has no hate in her or prejudice or negative feelings. Everything is positive, and that makes such a difference.”

Rosalee said she is looking forward to her 102nd-and-a-half birthday in June. And for everyone who wants to know how to live to 100, Rosalee has one simple tip: “Have love in your heart.”

“Reinventing Rosalee” was released May 7 on Digital HD, VOD and DVD. 

Marching for My Zayde at Auschwitz-Birkenau

A group of students learning about the Holocaust on the train tracks of Birkenau concentration camp. Photos by Erin Ben-Moche

Nothing can prepare you for a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. No amount of movies, books, journals or stories can accurately portray the horrors that changed the course of history forever. 

I learned about the Holocaust in Hebrew school and heard about it from my late zayde who was a survivor. But until you see it in person, you have no idea. 

During the two days I attended the 31st annual March of the Living on May 1 and 2, the three-kilometer (just under two-mile) march from Auschwitz to Birkenau in Kraków, Poland, my feelings ricocheted from sadness to fear to astonishment. Not only did more than 10,000 people participate this year, we marched on Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Memorial Day. 

Some on the trip said it would have been easier “if the weather was worse” —words travelers never say. The beaming sun shone in a blue sky dotted with perfectly white clouds, and the ground was covered in daisies and lilacs. Within the concentration camp, colorful flowers broke through the earth. How could a place filled with such beauty hold such sorrow?

This juxtaposition made the Holocaust feel all the more real to me. Six million Jews weren’t just prisoners on the cloudiest or snowiest of days. They worked, survived and died through the seasonal changes, including the beautiful days.

Many who attended the March of the Living had never been to Poland before, let alone a concentration camp. This year, the coordinators decided to incorporate a tour of the camps prior to the march so that it wouldn’t be so overwhelming. 

There are moments you know are coming and prepare yourself for — like entering the crematorium. Tour guides give you the option not to enter if you are uncomfortable. Knowing I had a choice while millions didn’t, I entered. 

Anxiety set in immediately as claustrophobia enveloped me in the dark containment room that once held nearly 2,000 people at a time. Trying to find light, I discovered walls scuffed with millions of old scratch marks from those who had tried desperately to escape the Nazi killing machine. 

Having the ability to walk out of a gas chamber after only a few minutes adds a perspective that can’t be taught in a classroom. You want to protect everyone so that nobody ever has to go in without having the choice to come out. 

There are moments you know are coming and prepare yourself for — like entering the crematorium. Tour guides give you the option not to enter if you are uncomfortable. Knowing I had a choice while millions didn’t, I entered.

But it was also the little things that stayed with me during the march. We passed the famous gates that read “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets you Free), while many dismissed the trees that stood tall next to it. A tour guide told me the first camp prisoners had planted the four trees immediately adjacent to the gates. So much of the evidence from more than a million people murdered was destroyed, but there were those trees with leaves and branches stretching toward the sky.

The four trees next to the gates of Auschwitz.

A great deal of evidence still remains, though. Two tons of hair behind a glass case cut from an estimated 30,000 people; documentation of direct orders to exterminate so many human lives; luggage and other personal belongings. 

One of the many posters left along the train tracks during the march.

Despite it all, several survivors still return to the March of the Living to educate young people. Birkenau survivor Hedy Bohm, 91, from Romania, shared her feelings attending the march for the sixth time. 

“As long as I come and see the young people … these thousands of eager and bright Jewish young faces, I’m happy to be with them,” Bohm said. “I’m happy to teach them whatever they need to be ready for life. For years, I think a lot of survivors have had the feeling that times remind us of the 1930s. Unfortunately, I feel the same way, too. … We are unable to learn. History repeats itself. We try to remember, we try to be smarter. We try, and that’s all we can do. Keep on trying.”

March of the Living founder and Co-Chair Dr. Shmuel Rosenman addressed thousands of families, survivors and students ahead of the march, saying, “Today, we proclaim to our enemies with a loud and clear voice: We shall not be defeated! We will return here year after year to raise our voices against anti-Semitism and, indeed, against all forms of racism and hatred. As a survivor of Auschwitz once said, ‘The only one thing worse than Auschwitz is if the world ever forgets that there was an Auschwitz.’ We promise to never allow that to happen.”

The march began with the blast of a shofar. At first, the only sounds were footsteps hitting the dirt floor. Then soft murmurs picked up as groups merged with others sharing stories of survival and family, the most common phrase overheard being, “I’m marching for …” or “I’m marching in honor of …” 


I couldn’t help but think I was marching in honor of my zayde.

Erin Ben-Moche was invited as a member of the press by the March of the Living organization to participate in the march. 

Effigy of Late Polish Jewish Communist Hung on Gallows at Former Lodz Ghetto

Screenshot from Twitter.

KRAKOW, Poland (JTA) — An activist who says he is working to “liberate Poland from American Jews’ occupation” unveiled an effigy in Lodz of a  Jewish politician hung on a gallows.

Sławomir Dul presented the display featuring the late communist politician Jakub Berman, captioned “Jew,” outside the headquarters of the city’s police station Tuesday, Gazeta Wyborcza reported. The building stands in what used to be the Lodz Ghetto.

Dul shouted “I did it, I hung a Jew,” the report said.

Police officers documented the display without intervening immediately, according to Gazeta Wyborcza. Outraged passers-by did dismantle it, the report said.

Police told Dul to leave when the display became a cause for disturbing public order, a police spokesman said. Dul left without resisting.

On April 26, locals from a town in southern Poland re-enacted the custom of casting judgment on Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus, using a life-size effigy of a stereotypical Jew with a hooked nose and sidelocks.

The incident provoked international condemnations, including from the State of Israel.

Image of the Week: March of the Living

Photo credit: wjarek/Getty Images

Photo credit: wjarek/Getty Images

The International March of the Living is an annual education program that brings students from around the world to Poland, where they explore the remnants of the Holocaust. On Yom HaShoah, thousands march silently from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp complex built during World War II.

Emerging Leaders Learn to Fight Anti-Semitism at Poland Conference

More than 100 high school and college students gathering in Krakow, Poland for March of the Living's first Emerging Leadership Conference to fight anti-semitism. Photo courtesy of Elie Klein/March of the Living.

(Krakow, Poland)- March of the Living kicked off its first Emerging Leadership Conference May 1 discussing the Shoah and how to combat anti-Semitism and intolerance around the world.

Twenty one young leaders who have previously attended the March in Poland were selected from around the world to help educate and inspire more than 100 high school and college students from Canada, Panama, South Africa and the United States to take a stand against anti-Semitism, ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Rabbi Dr. Danny Schiff, foundation scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said in the wake of the April 27 attack on Chabad of Poway in Southern California and the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh six months ago, “It is true – there is rising anti-Semitism. But it is also true that there are those who want to embrace us and support us, to hold us up and help us rebuild.”

He added, “The Jewish people do not dwell alone, we have friends who want to offer their support. So if we are serious about combatting anti-Semitism, let us choose our allies and work together. Let’s not pretend that we are by ourselves.”

March of the Living Emerging Leaders program director Michael Soberman; Dr. Zohar Raviv international VP of education for Taglit-Birthright Israel; and Alberto Levy also shared their experiences of first-hand exposure to anti-Semitism and how they will not let hatred and bigotry define them.

Twenty-five-year-old Izzy Lenga who is one of this year’s emerging leaders works with the UK Labour Party and the Jewish Labour Movement. Her activism came after experiencing direct anti-semitism during her first year at the University of Birmingham when she saw a “Hitler was right” sticker on campus among many other incidents.

“I’ve got complaints for a few years and I am seeing an absolute lack of action from the Labour Party,” Lenga told the Journal. “[Anti-Semitism] exists everywhere right to the top of the leader [referring to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn] and who he surrounds himself… It’s words without action… What we need is action, not words.”

She added it’s been difficult to support the progressive British Labour Party because it attacks her faith by not calling out anti-Semitism in the UK. However, she said the best way to gain support for the Jewish people is with a shared dialogue.

“What I‘ve been saying to my progressive friends is [to] listen to Jewish people when they share about their experiences with anti-Semitism just like you would, just like you should, with all other minority groups when they talk about their oppression,” Lenga said. “Listen, understand, believe and take action with us. Stand with us. Help us lead this fight against anti-semitism.”

Emerging leader Ye’Ela Eilon-Heiber from Vancouver was excited to attend the conference and march this year to learn more about anti-Semitism in different countries. She said although there aren’t as many anti-semitic events occurring in Canada, it still exists.

“Having only a Canadian perspective sort of limits it [experiences with global anti-Semitism] but now that I’ve gotten to speak to people all over the world, it opens my mind about how anti-Semitism can show itself and how we can work against it,” Eilon-Heiber said. “I have actively chosen not to hide my Judaism and with the volunteer work I do I try to bring together the Jewish community and other communities I’m a part and try to create that dialogue where we can openly talk about why anti-semitism or racism are problems in other communities as well.”

The conference later divided the young adults into groups and asked them to draft a resolution that they would agree to follow when fighting future anti-Semitism. The final draft will be released at the 31st annual March of the Living event May 2.

The one message Schiff, Lenga and Eilon-Heiber emphasized is that they will continue to stand strong despite the hate towards Jews.

“We must acknowledge that the best response to anti-Semitism is to embrace our Judaism ever so fervently and deliberately. Embracing Jewish life is the best way to frustrate the well-laid plans of anti-Semites,” Schiff said. “Every one of you can undermine their plans by committing to become the finest Jews imaginable.”

Catholic Church in Poland Decries Burning of Jewish Effigy on Easter Weekend

Screenshot from Twitter.

(JTA) — The Catholic Church in Poland condemned the burning of a Jewish effigy on Easter weekend in a small town in the country’s southeast.

“The Catholic Church will never tolerate manifestations of contempt towards members of any nation, including the Jewish people,” Bishop Rafal Markowski, chairman of the church’s Committee for Dialogue with Judaism, said on Monday, according to the AP.

On Friday, residents of Pruchnik beat and burned a doll with a black hat, sidelocks and a large nose meant to represent the biblical figure of Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Though Jesus and his disciples were all Jewish, some Christians have associated Judas in particular with Jews and used it as a reason for supporting anti-Semitism.

The ritual drew condemnation from Jewish organizations and Israeli politicians.

Polish Interior Minister Joachim Brudzinski also denounced the incident, calling it “idiotic, pseudo-religious chutzpah” and referring to the participants as “Satans.”

The Trick of Anti-Semitism

Rep. Ilhan Omar. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The State of Israel has done a few successful things since its establishment, but in one mission it certainly has failed. If the leaders of Zionism hoped that a Jewish state would eliminate anti-Semitism, they were wrong.

Of course, this was a mistake in good faith. These leaders assumed that anti-Semitism was closely linked to the situation of the Jews and found it hard to understand that anti-Semitism was more closely related to the situation of anti-Semites. When anti-Semites are angry, confused or seeking answers to complex questions, the Jews are a convenient explanation.

The State of Israel strongly rejects anti-Semitism, as do all Jews, but has never formulated a clear strategy for dealing with it. Perhaps this is because after the Holocaust and the establishment of the State, a relatively comfortable period of calm began in the anti-Semitic discourse — at least in Western countries. Perhaps it is for other reasons. Either way, it might be the right time to reformulate a response to anti-Semitism. And doing it in a way that Israel’s Jews and America’s Jews would accept won’t be easy.

Why do it now? Because there is an awakening of anti-Semitic discourse around the world, which has become difficult to ignore. We see it on the right and on the left, in Britain, Poland, the United States and France. And no — there is no reason to panic. Jews are not being persecuted. They still have a lot of support and firm protection from most governments. And yet, things that until recently could only have been whispered are now out in the open, uttered by a candidate for prime minister (United Kingdom), or a member of Congress (United States). Suddenly, Jews are having a silly debate about the exact rules a person has to follow if he or she wants to be a non-anti-Semitic critic of the Jews. 

You are familiar with many features of this debate: In what words can Israel be criticized without the criticism becoming anti-Semitism? Is it necessarily anti-Semitic to suggest that support for Israel in Congress is bought with Jewish money? Should the Jews conduct a civil dialogue with public figures who seem to toy with anti-Semitic tendencies? Should the Jews consider forming certain specific alliances with anti-Semites if this serves the greater purpose of securing the Jews? 

Obviously, different circumstances beget different answers to these questions from different Jews. Some American Jews complain when Israel becomes cozy with Hungary’s Victor Orban — but still want to have fruitful relations with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). Some Israelis are puzzled by the tendency of Americans to forgive Omar — but are ready to suppress what they know about Orban. American Jews feel that Israel is throwing them under the bus by forging close ties with President Donald Trump’s administration. Israeli Jews feel that American Jews are ready to throw Israel under the bus, as long as the hateful critics of Jewishness agree to keep their criticism focused on the bad Jews of Israel and spare the good Jews of America.

What can Israel offer in such context? Its main offer is a safe haven against anti-Semitism. This is a generous offer that should not be taken lightly. And yet it does not go beyond the familiar pattern of Zionism: If we distance the Jews from the rest of humanity and gather them together, anti-Semitism will become redundant. Of course, there is a problem with this offer, because it’s already clear that anti-Semitism does not follow this script. In other words, even if all Jews live in Israel, it is doubtful that anti-Semitism will come to an end. 

“Anti-Semitism is a serious matter. Many generations of Jews can testify to this. So whatever we do, we should not fall into the end-of-history trap.

Israel’s Zionism is not naïve. So, the country responds to concerns about anti-Semitism with contemporary realism. True, there will be anti-Semitism but Jews will be protected. The Israel Defense Forces will protect them. That is, if they all gather here. And of course, that may be true. They will be protected as long as Israel is strong enough to withstand attacks. 

Is there a way for Israel and the Jews to go beyond safe haven (Israel) and condemnation (American Jews)? There is no easy answer to such a question, except that maybe the time has come to reconsider the options. We can assume that anti-Semitism is also our fault, and take the appropriate steps; we can prepare mobile homes for Jewish refugees who would soon be fleeing to Israel; we can form groups of assassins and kill anyone suspected of anti-Semitism (without being caught); we can provide economic assistance to organizations working against anti-Semitism in key countries; we can launch a campaign to change the image of the Jews. And still, it is not clear that any of these options, or a combination of them all, will be of much help. So, we also have the option of doing nothing for now. But even doing nothing is better as a conscious decision, and not as one born out of laziness.

Anti-Semitism is a serious matter. Many generations of Jews can testify to this. So whatever we do, we should not fall into the end-of-history trap. We shouldn’t assume that the establishment of the State of Israel, or the great Jewish renaissance in America, nullified the relevance of anti-Semitism. We should remember that this is a dangerous and cunning enemy. And one of its nastiest tricks is to turn the Jews against one another.  

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.

Man Who Allegedly Threw Rock Into Polish Synagogue During Yom Kippur Services Arrested

Screenshot from Twitter.

A man who allegedly threw a rock into a Polish synagogue in the city of Gdansk during Yom Kippur services on Sept. 19 was arrested by Polish police on Sept. 21.

According to the Associated Press, the 27-year-old man was arrested at a village south of Gdansk; he did not resist arrest. The police have not given a motive for the alleged perpetrator.

Security footage of the incident shows a man wearing jeans and a black shirt throwing a rock into the window of the New Synagogue at around 6 pm local time on Sept. 19. The rock fell into “the atrium where women waiting for neilah — the final prayer of Yom Kippur,” according to the Jewish Religious Community in Gdansk’s Facebook page. No one was hurt.

Pawel Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdansk, said in a statement that he “categorically rejects” the rock-throwing.

“I apologize to the Jewish community of Gdansk,” Adamowicz said. “In the city of Freedom and Solidarity, we respect all religions and do not accept acts of hooliganism.”

World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder said, “The attack on Gdansk’s New Synagogue is shocking and dismaying in itself, made all the more distressing by the fact that it took place on Yom Kippur, evoking the terrible tragedies that occurred in German-occupied Poland during the years of the Holocaust.”

New Synagogue was among the synagogues that were attacked on Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, where almost 100 Jews were killed and thousands of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were vandalized and destroyed.

Yad Vashem Slams Joint Israel-Poland Statement on Revised Holocaust Law

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Poland’s heavily criticized law criminalizing speech about Poland’s role in the Holocaust was revised on June 27 to rescind jail time, prompting a joint declaration of victory from Israel and Poland. However, Yad Vashem slammed the joint declaration as revisionist history.

The joint statement, issued by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, stated “that the term ‘Polish concentration/death camps’ is blatantly erroneous and diminishes the responsibility of Germans for establishing those camps.”

Yad Vashem agreed that it was inaccurate to use such a term, but they were irked with the joint statement’s claim Poland’s Government-in-Exile and various underground Poles attempted to help the Jews.

“The existing documentation and decades of historical research yield a totally different picture: the Polish Government-in-Exile, based in London, as well as the Delegatura (the representative organ of this Government in occupied Poland) did not act resolutely on behalf of Poland’s Jewish citizens at any point during the war,” Yad Vashem said in a statement on their website. “Much of the Polish resistance in its various movements not only failed to help Jews, but was also not infrequently actively involved in persecuting them.”

The statement added that Polish aid to the Jews was “relatively rare,” whereas it was quite common for there to be attacks against Jews in Poland. Those that did try to help Jews were just as scared their fellow Poles as they were of the Nazis.

The statement concluded that it wasn’t enough to only repeal the criminal statute.

“The repeal, however, reverses the explicit exception that was made for academic research and artistic endeavor in the wording of the amendment,” the statement read. “Other sections that remain unchanged make it actionable under civil law to impugn the good name of the Polish State and the Polish Nation.”

Yad Vashem concluded, “Our stance in principle is that any attempt to limit academic and public discourse on historical issues to a single unchangeable national narrative by means of legislation and punishment is inappropriate and constitutes a material infringement of research.”

Poland Nixes Prison Sentence in Holocaust Law

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Poland’s controversial Holocaust law has been amended to nix jail time for those who claim that Poland deserves some blame for the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Originally the law, which into effect in February, threatened to impose a three-year prison sentence on violators. After Polish President Andrezj Duda signed an amendment into law on June 27, the offense is now civil instead of criminal.

“We believe that there is a common responsibility to conduct free research, to promote understanding and to preserve the memory of the history of the Holocaust,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in a joint statement. “We have always agreed that the term ‘Polish concentration/death camps’ is blatantly erroneous and diminishes the responsibility of Germans for establishing those camps.”

However, Simon Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper argued that the law should have been repealed altogether.

“The Wiesenthal Center urges the Polish government to rescind a law that never should have been introduced in the first place,” Cooper said in a statement. “It only succeeded in creating a global outcry against a heavy-handed attempt to rewrite the history of the Nazi Shoah and the well-documented virulent anti-Semitism that existed in Poland before during and after WWII.”

In Warsaw, A Survey of the ‘Polish Law’s’ Damage

“Boker Tov” breakfast at the JCC.

A Polish man and an Israeli-American woman walk into a bar in Warsaw.

That’s not the start of a joke that plays off silly stereotypes — of either Polish “stupidity” or of the many we could muster about Jews.

In fact, it’s not a joke at all. I really walked into a Warsaw bar recently and met a Polish man. Over draft beer, we quickly got into a discussion of Polish and Jewish stereotypes, especially those that loudly came to the fore in the wake of what has been dubbed the “Polish law.”

I had taken the train to Warsaw from Berlin for a long weekend to survey attitudes and moods among Polish Jews two months after the “Polish law” made it a crime to ascribe Polish responsibility for the Holocaust, shattering Jewish-Israel-Poland relations. Now, in a bar called Beirut, I had the chance for a face-to-face — rather than a social media — conversation, this one over a much-needed social lubricant.

I’m technically half-Polish, I told him. My paternal grandparents hail from Lodz. I visited the Lodz cemetery last year, and I wondered if I could see where they lived. He offered that I might be able to claim their property, as an heir.

“I never even thought about that,” I said.

But when it came to the now infamous “Polish law,” he expressed concern that communal Jewish consternation stemmed from a desire to collect reparations from Poland, unjustly, because Poles also were victims of Germany. He also wondered if Jews could truly be considered Poles.

“Never has the image of Poland in the world been so negative than it has been in the last two months.” — Rabbi Michael Schudrich

But mixed with comments that would likely trigger a tit-for-tat among the trolls, came sympathetic, conciliatory comments about Israel: admiration for its survival, pride in the “Mossad” T-shirt he owned; and encouragement for me to claim my Polish inheritance — individually. His grandmother had fond memories of Jews, who should try today to empathize with Poland, especially since Poland is a friend of Israel given its U.N. voting records.

“We should talk,” he concluded.

But since the controversy, hardly anyone talked. They shouted, smeared and traded plenty of stereotypes. Jewish organizations and Israeli leaders accused Poland of whitewashing history, eager to remind Poles of cases of complicity in Jewish genocide. The Ruderman Family Foundation was shamed into removing a provocative video uttering “Polish Holocaust” and calling on an American boycott of Poland. Then came the typical tropes: “Jews control the media”; “Jews control finance.” If the “Act on the Institute of National Remembrance,” as it is officially named, hadn’t opened so many wounds and demons, it could have been a joke … about Polish stupidity.

“Currently the reaction of this law has achieved the exact opposite of the goal. Never has the image of Poland in the world been so negative than it has been in the last two months,” said Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland who hails from New York.

We met during pre-Passover bustle at his office on the campus of the Nozyk Synagogue. The grand synagogue survived Germany’s flattening of Warsaw because it had been converted into a Nazi barn.

He opposes the law, especially on technical grounds (“Is the truth now to be decided by local judges?”), but he understands its intention to defend Poland’s good name. “It’s important for countries to face evil things they did in the past, but we have to understand it’s not a comfortable subject for the Poles.”

The death camps were indeed not “Polish” and Poland’s government operated in exile in London.

“If we expect and demand the Poles not to say anti-Semitic things,” Schudrich said, “then it also means we’re demanding of ourselves not to say lies about the Poles.”

But shouting on both sides, with the help of media sensationalism, has exacerbated the rift.

“There are two aspects to the law,” Schudrich said. “One aspect is the law itself and the other aspect is the acrimonious yelling at each other that has taken place in reaction to the law. The two events took place so close to each other that it’s hard to differentiate what the community here is reacting to.”

Since late January, anti-Semitic slurs that once were considered taboo have found full expression, mostly in social media, by average Poles and — most worrisome — by members of the political brass, at a time when the Polish-Jewish community, an estimated 20,000, felt like it was coming into its own.

In an energetic Warsaw, Holocaust memorials, including markers for the former ghetto wall, are visible on almost every other city block. Among the tasty, not to mention cheap, eateries brimming with tourists, you’ll find “Tel Aviv,” “Florentin,” “Shuk,” and “Berek” — all owned by Polish locals, testifying to the coolness of modern Israel here. The Polish law was far from the public’s mind. The talk of the town and the subject of mass protest rallies was a strict anti-abortion bill — another whim, some say — of the ruling Catholic right-wing coalition.

Klaudia Klimek works as a parliamentary assistant for the opposition party and blogs about Polish-Jewish life. We met at a café near the Polish parliament; outside was yet another protest, this one against reductions in pensions for security personnel of the communist era.

Klimek’s story is typical. She discovered her Jewish roots after the fall of communism, when Jewish parents came out of psychological and spiritual Jewish hiding. Jewish life in Poland tends to be liberal: It must be inclusive to Jews of patrilineal dissent and of Christian or secular upbringing.

“The opposition, which is in the minority, cannot vote it over,” Klimek said of the “Polish law.” “That’s why all these stupid bills are passed.”

The law now sits in a constitutional tribunal because the constitutionality of its wording is in doubt. Klimek estimates that only about a third of the population supports it. Poland is experiencing a national resurgence, decades after the Nazi and then Soviet occupations decimated its sovereignty.

“It wasn’t about the Jews or Israel,” Klimek said. “They’re playing more with one card: national patriotism. Kind of like (President Donald) Trump. ‘America first.’ ”

Although it’s technically illegal to say “Polish death camp,” she feels completely free to criticize the government.

“I also notice that Israel and the Israeli government, because they may have elections soon, are using this card to get support in Israel. Our government in Poland is very similar to the government in Israel.”

But the political posturing has trickled down to the people. A male Jewish friend of hers in Krakow suddenly faced anti-Semitic remarks from a friend who didn’t know he was Jewish, telling him that Jews belong in Israel, not Poland.

In Israel, a crew of Polish flight attendants was forbidden to deplane for fear of harassment, much to the disappointment of one attendant who loves duty-free halvah.

Polish Jewish organizations have raised the alarm, saying in a joint statement: “We believe this law to be poorly constructed and detrimental to open discussion of history. If Poland’s government believes that even sporadic mentions of ‘Polish Death Camps’ must be criminalized, certainly the rising intolerance and anti-Semitic hatred in our country should be subject to similarly serious measures.”

Jonny Daniels, founder of From the Depths, an organization dedicated to preserving Jewish heritage in Europe, said there’s no cause for panic. He fearlessly walks the streets of Poland wearing a kippah.

You’ll find words online, but no “sticks and stones” or knives and guns that make Jewish life in other European countries far more precarious. Poland has not accepted Muslim refugees and its Muslim community is nil.

“This has been a factor in securing the identity of minorities and especially the Jewish community, which tends to be first victims of Islamic immigrants,” Daniels said. “It’s not the politically correct thing to say, but it has added to the security of Jews in Poland.”

Next I met with Poles not over beer, but shakshuka. Every Sunday, the Warsaw Jewish Community Center, a project of the Joint Distribution Committee, holds a “Boker Tov” Israeli brunch in its stylish lobby.

Here, the sight of many families and hipsters alike makes Stefan Tompson, a Polish patriot and activist, happy, despite having endured what he calls abuse on social media after his viral video explaining the intention behind the law and reaching out to Jews in friendship.

Tompson was joined by local Israel supporters Jan Wójcik and Grzegorz Lindenberg, co-founders of the European Issues Institute, a think tank on international security. They all agree the law’s construction and execution was stupid, especially in the name of free speech, but they understood its spirit.

“For me it’s very sad, because in the last few years, Israel and Poland had better relations,” Wójcik said. “After several years, Poles were really getting closer to Israel, and now everything broke out.”

Lindenberg, a sociologist and journalist of Jewish descent, admitted to deep-seated anti-Semitic attitudes, believing that some 50 percent of Poles buy into stereotypes of Jews dominating the world, especially finance.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich.

Jews, unlike Israelis, Lindenberg said, “are like historical, mystical figures in Poland.” In the wake of the law, however, the distinction between Israelis and Jews has been blurred.

As for the theory about Jews not being Poles, he wondered if Catholic-Polish villagers would consider them Poles, too. Wójcik is a Buddhist. Tompson’s mother is British-born.

“The idea of Jews reclaiming their property resonates so loudly in Poland because a lot of people are afraid that some Jewish owner is going to knock on their door and say this was an apartment that belonged to my family in the 1930s,” Lindenberg said.

Klimek, who joined us for brunch, said this fear is not unjustified or even anti-Semitic. There have been several cases of dishonest or exploitative attempts at property reclamation.

As for the fallout from the law, damage has been done but it’s nonthreatening.

“There’s a grudge but I don’t think it will translate into physical violence,” Tompson said. “The rebirth of Polish nationalism is real, but there’s not a neo-Nazi party. … It wouldn’t translate into physical acts of violence and repercussions against Jews on a big scale.”

Rather than boycott travel to Poland, they encourage the opposite. “If you want to change this, we need more common, cultural, touristic exchange,” Wójcik said. “If a lot of Poles, for instance, go to Israel and like it. I would also like Jews to come to Poland for sightseeing” — and for more than just visits to German death camps in Poland.

“Jews using Poland as a sort of historical playground, in a sense where they don’t interact with locals, has irritated some,” Tompson said.

Schudrich said the upcoming March of the Living and anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising would be tests for the resilience of the relationship. He was encouraged, given that 160 nongovernmental organizations signed a petition condemning the law and its anti-Semitic residue, and the Catholic Church came out against rising anti-Semitism.

He appealed to Jews worldwide. “Now’s not the time to leave us,” Schudrich said.

Orit Arfa is a journalist and author based in Berlin. www.oritarfa.net

The Challenge of Legacy

Photo from Wikipedia.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a transcript of Edwin Black’s April 11, 2018 keynote address in the Michigan Capitol Rotunda for that state’s official Holocaust Commemoration.

Today, I come not just to mourn nor to scorn but rather to warn our world, that is, the world of today whose memories are still whistling and bristling with the torments and tribulations of a generation now passing before our eyes. But also, for the world of tomorrow — and the day after — pulsed by a generation whose torments and tribulations may yet be in store. The outrages are audible just over the horizon. But in many cases the horizon is speeding toward us like an unstoppable tsunami preparing to crash.

Many of us dwell in the dark past hoping to immunize our future from the maniacal and ideological fires that immolated six million Jews and so many others— and left a world’s hands and souls smoke-singed in the process. The Holocaust was unique among history’s great cruelties for it was a 12-year international persecution and murder machine perpetrated in the glare of broad daylight as well as the dim of night… emboldened by its own German Ministry of Propaganda advertising it and amid incessant media coverage that bled across the front pages of newspapers, crackled into regular radio reports, flickered in newsreels, and even saddened the whispers and diaries of children hiding in an Amsterdam attic. The world knew.

With study, revelation, and investigation, many now understand how we got here. Make no mistake. The Germans did it. Their allies and accomplices did it. Hitler did it.

But Hitler had help.

Der Fuhreradopted the Jew-hating ideology of Henry Ford, whose car company distributorships mass-circulated the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Dearborn Independent so often quoted and lionized by Hitler. Nazism was driven by the American pseudoscience of eugenics that called for the elimination and even the chamber gassing of so-called inferior social groups, a murderous medical discipline developed in America by our great universities in the first two decades of the twentieth century, but then transplanted into Nazi Germany and even into Mengele’s Auschwitz laboratory by the million-dollar charitable programs of the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation. Hitler’s troops dismounted their WWI-era horses and stormed into Poland and the rest of Europe in a never-before-seen Blitzkrieg, driving the Blitz truck and flying JU-88 bombers both manufactured under corporate camouflage by General Motors under the direct supervision of its offices in Detroit. And it was up to IBM—the solutions company—to organize all six phases of the Holocaust: identification, exclusion, asset confiscation, ghettoization, deportation, and even extermination. With its advanced punch card technology, IBM knowingly conducted the census to identify the Jews, religious or not, made the railroads run on time, and pinpointed Jewish bank accounts to seize. Every concentration camp had its own IBM customer site. The infamous Auschwitz tattoo began as an IBM number before it morphed into other serial systems.

Profit was the perfidious ally of the perpetrators of the Holocaust because whether it was the Aryanization of the corner grocery store in Berlin or the millions hidden by IBM in cloaked bank accounts in Prague, the malice and the murder was made all the more morally manageable by the tintinnabulation of money. For some, the clatter of the coins could drown out the screams of the victims

So, today we know more about how we came here… but how many truly understand where we really are. Do not believe that the Holocaust is a mere scar from afar. Yes, it is a sickness but one that has re-abrupted like an irrepressible plague. We have seen the infection in Rwanda with the Tutsis, in Syria with the Yazidis and Christians, in Darfur with Black Africans.

We warn, we write poetry, we assemble in Rotundas, publish books, we solemnly chant “never again.” Now, we know better. We silently whisper, not just “never again,” but … “oh, no… not again.”

There is no hate without fear. But hate cannot triumph in a world of enlightenment. So, what is the true challenge to both our legacy and our future. Is it men with Nazi emblems and burning crosses or is it really something else? Flags, white sheets hoods, and venomous marches, we can see. Less visible is the new emerging enemy of enlightenment, and purifying spotlight.

Inscribe their names upon your notepads and your desktops. Facebook, Google, Amazon and many more who in their misguided algorithms decide what shall be seen and what shall be shuttered, who will be heard and who shall be demurred.

The triumph of ignorance with all its well-intended coding rises to a level of censorship only imagined by George Orwell. Last Christmas, Amazon quietly informed publishers that history books about the Holocaust and even the Third Reich could no longer display a swastika on the cover when sold outside North America. So, my book Nazi Nexus about Ford, General Motors, Carnegie, Rockefeller and IBM was re-designed without the swastika for European sale. Many more famous books chronicling the hell of Nazi Germany are now being re-designed without swastikas on the covers for overseas.

A mere photo of a Holocaust history book on Facebook recently was cautioned with a warning tab to be clicked that the topic might be distressing; that book was the recently published Czech language edition of my book IBM and the Holocaust. It is now possible for routine computer programs now in use at Twitter and Facebook to create zombie accounts where the users think they are communicating with the world—but their message in quarantined and no one sees it. Goebbels needed minders sitting in newsrooms. Facebook and Twitter only to click a few keys—and most will never even know they have been muffled.

Now, nations are re-inventing their history. Poland has criminalized the discussion of the involvement and collaboration of its citizen with the Nazi killing machine. The Poles were involved. When a town’s Jews were publicly marched and trucked to the shooting pits, who took their property and auctioned it off the next day in the school yard or town square? Just hours after the new law took effect, the first Polish lawsuit was filed against an Argentinian newspaper that used a war-time photograph.

Lithuania has followed suit quickly with a pending amendment to its “Law on Consumer Protection” that would outlaw books critical of the country during the Holocaust—Lithuania where 90 percent of Jews perished, and many at the hands of their Lithuanian neighbors. These laws will be used by misguided programmers in Silicon Valley to avoid liability by simply quietly shutting out the history.

What if a tree falls and no one hears the sound? What if six million people perish and no one is reminded?

Hitler declared who will remember the Armenians? When my mother was pushed thru the vent in the boxcar en route to Treblinka, her mother said, “tell someone.” My father fought as a partisan in the woods for two years with her to ensure that I would be here to “tell someone.”

What if we tell the world and the world cannot hear us. How sad that we have struggled with Holocaust denial and belief? Might we next struggle with induced collective amnesia? Ask not what you remember. Ask what your children’s children will know.

The new battleground is not in some basement or backyard where hate is brewing. It’s not on the street. It’s in your phone and on your screen where history, anguish, and the rallying cry of “never again” to all humankind will be a muffled echo within an Internet algorithm. We must fight back against the electronic ghetto, the digital ghetto, and the algorithm ghetto. This is the new Challenge of Legacy.

Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling author of IBM and the Holocaust and Nazi Nexus.

Letters to the Editor: Holocaust, Media Bias and Progressives Being Good Parents

Why the Holocaust Still Resonates

I would try to briefly reflect on Thane Rosenbaum’s question: “Is there anything left to say about the Holocaust?” (“What’s Left to Say?” April 6). David Irving and his ilk would show up with technical drawings of concentration camps to argue that the crematoriums were not really used for what all the survivors say they were used for. Or, one of the effects of the fading memories and political manipulations is the emerging concept that the Holocaust was a terrible thing, but it was not just about Jews; these revisionist “historians” would say that gypsies, homosexuals and communists also were unfortunate victims, and numerous soldiers and civilians died as a result of the war. At least Hungary, which certainly has its share of revisionists, is not confused about the word. The equivalent, Hungarian word for “Holocaust” is “vészkorszak” (the age of danger,) and it is used only in the Jewish persecution’s context and does not cover any other death, including the fallen soldiers of the Hungarian 2nd Army or other, non-Jewish civilians.

What we must repeat is that not long ago, 6 million people’s genocide took place on racial/religious grounds. It could happen again if we are not on guard.

Peter Hantos, Los Angeles

It is with concern that I read your article on the Holocaust. More and more young people regard the Holocaust as distant as Hannibal and the Alps. There’s plenty left to say, i.e., Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was so large that it required traffic lights! The camps were nearly as numerous as post offices.  Camp personnel, including guards and administration, were kept drugged on crystal meth. Back then it was known as Pervitin. This was done so they could perform their tasks without giving it thought and in dealing with the large numbers of inmates.

Daniel Kirwan via email

Poland’s Holocaust Law

Regarding your article “The Polish Jewish Story” (March 23), may I bring up a couple of rarely mentioned facts: During their occupation of Europe, only in Poland did the Germans punish those who helped Jews by death, and the punishment included the helper’s closest family (in other countries the penalties varied from dismissal from work to jail time).

On the other hand, the Polish underground, the largest anti-Nazi underground army in Europe, punished by death those Poles who snitched on their Jewish neighbors.

Also, with all due respect to the author of the article, the new Polish law, although imperfect and perhaps in need of correction, does not criminalize “any mention of Poles” being complicit in the Nazi crimes. Rather, it prohibits accusing “the Polish nation or the Polish state” as a whole, of being complicit in the Nazi German crimes.

Jozef Malocha, Chrzanow, Poland

Media Bias Against Israel 

“(((Semitism)))” author Jonathan Weisman commendably assails surging right-wing anti-Semitism, including social-media trolls and Nazis marching through Charlottesville, Va. (“A Call to Action in the Age of Trump,” March 16). However, anti-Semitism takes many forms, including media bias against Israel, which Weisman seems to ignore. His own newspaper, The New York Times, is a leading offender.

Consider the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. On May 14, 1948, Israel legally declared its independence, consistent with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181. The next day, five Arab armies invaded the Jewish state, determined to annihilate it.

The New York Times never reports these facts. Instead, it describes the conflict as “the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation” (March 8) or “the 1948 war that broke out over Israel’s creation” (March 31). The Times’ Orwellian descriptions whitewash the Arab states’ genocidal intent continues to this day, obscuring the fact that Israel was attacked and implicitly blame Israel.

Rewriting history to vilify Israel is also anti-Semitism.

Stephen A. Silver, San Francisco

Hold on: Progressives Are Good Parents, Too

Here you go again, Karen Lehrman Bloch. In your constant search for negative comments about anything that contradicts conservative dogma, you find the other side guilty of supporting terrorism and raising kids who are insensitive bullies (“Progressive Bullies,” April 6).

As a lifelong progressive, I abhor terrorists and so do all of my progressive friends. I don’t propose that we or Israel give terrorists a pass because they had a rough childhood. Despite blame and fault, Israel is in the dominant position and must treat the general Palestinian population with as much dignity and respect that security allows, and punish terrorists as they deserve.

Regarding child rearing, our two daughters were raised in a progressive home and have become progressive adults who care about their fellow human beings in both their personal and professional lives. They are also raising children to follow our humanistic ideals.

If the proof is in the pudding, we don’t need to look further then at our conservative administration. Bullying, dishonesty, lying and lack of concern are its hallmarks.

Michael Telerant, Los Angeles

Response to Letter Writers 

In his April 6 letter, Martin J. Weisman blames President Donald Trump for the rise in global anti-Semitism (“Trump and Anti-Semitism,” April 6). Respectfully, far-right Trump support explains the emergence of “old-school” American Jew-hatred, but the explosion of Israel-bashing and anti-Semitism in the Democratic Party and on American campuses is the fault of former President Barack Obama, with his anti-Israel bias and promotion of Muslim groups in government and academia.

Moreover, Trump has nothing to do with the rebirth of European anti-Semitism, which is mainly caused by the immigration of millions of Muslims, and the rise of right-wing parties protesting them. In fact, some of those parties, like France’s National Front and the Dutch Freedom Party, are wooing Jewish support to fight Muslim misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism and even Christian-bashing.

Irrational Trump-hatred closes the minds of otherwise intelligent, inquisitive folks. Jewish Democrats who refuse to face this provide cover for the anti-Semites, Louis Farrakhan supporters and Israel-bashers in their party.

Rueben Gordon via email

Marc Yablonka besmirches the name of David Harris in his letter to the editor (“He Doesn’t Miss the ’60s,” April 6) when he falsely calls him a “draft evader … who persuaded others to go to federal prisons for five years for burning their draft cards,” and wrongly claims Harris “chewed up and spit out those of us who were naive enough to ride along so [he] could further [his] own egotistical adventures. … [He] didn’t give a hoot about the rest of us.”

Factually wrong on every count. Harris was the very model of patriotic objection to a governmental policy.

First, he advised his draft board in writing that he would not cooperate with any of its requirements. Second, he publicized his non-cooperation in his advocacy against the war, ensuring that he would become the focus of federal enforcement. Only then did he publicly and repeatedly urge other young men to do the same.

I should know. Harris — a former Stanford student body president — was in prison when I arrived there to begin my freshman year in September 1969.

I turned 18 that November. Federal law required I register with my draft board. I went to Palo Alto Resistance headquarters, which Harris helped establish, for counseling. The draft counselor’s kindness and respect for my struggles and questions as to what to do, even though he was to begin his own prison term for resistance the very next day, moved me to my core. It still does.

These brave men and the equally brave women who supported them will soon get their due when the documentary “Boys Who Said No!: Draft Resistance and the Vietnam War” is released.

David I. Schulman, Los Angeles


“Why Is This Sport Different?” April 6:

I love it. Baseball is timeless. There is no clock to run out. What a great metaphor for redemption.

Cyndi Buckey

“Between the Shoah and Mimouna,” April 6:

The beauty and light and optimism of Mimouna is tempered, as a sword blade is tempered in the blacksmiths forge and under his hammer, by the awful evil that was the Shoah. It is built into the very fabric of our divinely created world that the forces of destruction and savagery will never have a final conquest. … Not as long as the Chosen People can find the will to resist.

Ernest Sewell

Thank you for writing of the concerns I share about current events.

Marilyn Danko

Beautiful words.

Tamara Anzivino

Holocaust Survivors Sue Polish Publisher for Publishing Holocaust Denial Books

Photo from YouTube.

A couple of Holocaust survivors and a former Polish Home Army member are suing a Polish publishing company for publishing books that feature Holocaust denialism.

The publisher, Andrezj Ryba and Katmar, published the books The Age of Hitler 1 and The Age of Hitler 2. Hitler the Democrat, which were written by former SS Officer Leon Degrelle. The books openly deny the Holocaust and spew pro-Nazi propaganda, as evident by passages that downplay Jewish suffering during the Holocaust as “pro-Zionist” propaganda that was “designed for financial gain.” The books also attempt to portray Hitler in a more favorable light, claiming that “being cruel was not in his nature.”

The attorney for the survivors, Wojciech Kozlowsk, told the Jerusalem Post that this was the first time such a lawsuit has been issued in Poland.

“Although promotion of Nazism and Holocaust denial is a criminal offense in Poland, and in theory prosecutable in the criminal courts, in practice the public prosecutor fails to act effectively in the majority of cases,” Kozlowsk said.

The plaintiffs, who remain anonymous, are in their 80s. Two of them were rescued from the Warsaw Ghetto and the other was a part of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They are requesting that the publisher pay 40,000 Zlotys ($11,600 in U.S. dollars) to charity and issue an apology.

“The motivation behind my involvement in this case is to protect historical truth about Nazi crimes and to pass this truth on to the young generations of Poles,” a plaintiff said.

Brooke Goldstein, executive of The Lawfare Project, which is supporting this lawsuit, hailed the plaintiffs as “heroes.”

“Their harrowing testimonies are a reminder of the unimaginable horror of the Nazis,” Goldstein told the Post “Despite their age, and the trauma of their experiences, it is humbling to see their courage in standing up for the truth.”

ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Baking Matzah in Hiding

Photo courtesy of Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center.

Photo courtesy of Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center.

Baking matzah in hiding; Lodz, Poland, 1943.

THE POLISH JEWISH STORY: A Historian Examines A Complex Relationship

A Jewish platoon of the Polish Underground in Hanaczow, Lwów district. Photo courtesy of Leopold Kozłowski.

Some books are timely, others are useful and still others are good. Joshua D. Zimmerman’s “The Polish Underground and the Jews 1939-1945” (Cambridge University Press) is all three.

What makes it timely is recently passed Polish law that criminalizes any mention of Poles “being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich.” The ultra-nationalist Law and Justice Party government is committed to advancing a Polish-centric agenda, openly pushing to rewrite the country’s history to stress Polish heroism and obliterate Polish guilt.

Zimmerman’s meticulously researched, scrupulously balanced and comprehensively written work will create much anguish for those attempting to rewrite that history. For few have done the work to examine all the records and fewer still will balance the evidence without bending it to arrive at seemingly irrefutable conclusions.

Polish nationalistic historians won’t be the only ones upset by his findings. Jewish historians who seek simple answers and don’t want to deal with the complications of the Polish situation will find his balance disconcerting. The story is complicated and Zimmerman does not shy away from presenting the complications clearly, unraveling the puzzle and reassembling its parts so that the reader can understand the complexities.

Among serious scholars, it is axiomatic that good scholarship drives out bad scholarship. And for good scholarship there is no substitute for serious homework, going to archives, reviewing the evidence, reading memoirs and listening to testimony, and weighing all this material to present a coherent picture of the whole.

Joshua D. Zimmerman

Zimmerman’s meticulously researched work will create much anguish for those attempting to rewrite that history.

Some scholars do a marvelous job of presenting an overarching theory and then leave the reader and researcher wanting for particular evidence or indications why contrary conclusions don’t hold up. Other scholars drown the reader in detail but miss the larger perspective. Zimmerman does neither; attention to detail substantiates the general picture he offers and illustrates what he is trying to show. One must appreciate such detail and value his major substantive conclusions.

One of them is that the Polish Underground’s attitude toward the Jews reflected the political views of its major constituent bodies, military officers and individuals in pre-war Poland. Those who were open to a more pluralistic Polish society that accepted minorities as part of the landscape of Poland had a radically different attitude toward the Jews than those whose orientations were more nationalistic in the most narrow sense of the term. I suspect that what was true then is still true today.

The attitude toward the Jews was not only a mirror of pre-war attitudes but depended on geography and on the progress of the war. Why geography? Attitudes in the East (the territories first occupied by the Soviet Union after Sept. 17, 1939) were far different than in territories solely occupied by Germany. Poles in the East did not appreciate why Jews were far more welcoming to Soviet occupation when the alternative was German occupation. They were far more ready to identify Jews with Communism, far less willing to understand the impact that Communism had on individual Jews  — capitalists and merchants — and on Judaism while also protecting Jews in Soviet-occupied sectors from ghettoization and vilification by German anti-Semitism.

Why timing and the progress of the war? The Polish Underground’s attitude toward the Jews also underwent a significant shift when it appeared that the Soviet Union, rather than the Allies, would liberate Poland from Nazi Germany. The Polish Underground opposed Nazi Germany but it also properly feared that liberation by the Soviet Union would be a pretext to Soviet domination, not Polish national independence, and certainly not the post-World War I Poland that the Polish people had enjoyed.

How was the attitude toward the Jews affected by the unfolding of the world war and the war against the Jews? It shifted as the larger fate of Polish Jews under German occupation became clear. As the scope, discipline and progress of the killing unfolded, Poles’ reaction toward the Jews changed. Those who would argue that even Poles who resisted German occupation were not unhappy about Germany’s eliminating Jews from Poland — all the while feeling revolted by the means — will find much in Zimmerman’s work to substantiate their views. But he also brings evidence that as the murder of the Jews became more widely appreciated, some Poles became more sympathetic toward their disappearing neighbors.

While the content of this work is exceedingly disquieting, the work of the historian is deeply satisfying.

Why timing? The attitude toward Jews, and especially toward arming Jews, changed after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 and the gesture of the ghetto resistance to fly a Polish flag and to proclaim their fight — for our freedom and yours. Zimmerman’s chapters on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw Uprising on 1944 are comprehensive and insightful. The Polish government-in-exile faced different pressure than the army in the field. The participation of Jewish representatives in the governing council strengthened the support for the Jews from within the government and the desperate need of the Polish government-in-exile for Allied support, and its physical location in Churchill’s London rather than Stalin’s Moscow made it imperative that they portray their struggle for Poland as a democratic one.

The Polish Underground depended on the dedication of its participants to the cause of the Polish nation and their antipathy toward the occupation. Therefore, it was not as willing to define the meaning of “Polish nation.” It did not want to say aloud that Jews might again be considered second-class citizens and not quite part of the Polish nation, even though they were citizens of the Polish state.

Zimmerman is careful to consider individual responsibility and not just general policy. Officers lead their soldiers, men and women in this case, and they set standards for them of what is acceptable and not acceptable, of what is expected and not expected. Some are motivated by ideology and some by the camaraderie of battle, the ties that bind soldiers to one another. Because he has read memoirs extensively and reviewed testimony carefully, Zimmerman is able to show how the attitudes of individual officers and soldiers shaped the attitude of the Underground to the Jews and determined the fate of individual Jews.

Some will read Zimmerman’s book selectively. For example, he devotes an entire section to the institutional efforts of the Polish underground toward the Jews. The behavior and the values of Zegotta — the clandestine wartime organization dedicated to rescuing Jewish children — are admirable. And he recounts the heroic efforts of couriers, especially Jan Karski, who secretly brought Jewish communiques to the West. Yet he also details craven collaboration and institutional efforts that intensified the risk to Jews and facilitated their demise. Both were present in wartime Poland, and the current government’s effort to eliminate all mention of the latter will force historians outside of Poland to question whether a depiction of the heroic Poles alone is credible.

The publications of the Polish Underground and not just its reports to the government-in-exile give a real-time understanding of what was known about the Jews’ fate — and when and by whom. It makes more urgent the English language publication of these bulletins, which currently are available only in Polish.

Zimmerman has set a standard of comprehensiveness, excellence, meticulousness and balance. While the content of this work is exceedingly disquieting, the work of the historian is deeply satisfying.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University. For the past decade, he has taught the Holocaust to teachers at Jagiellonian University in Poland.

Report: Trump Admin Bans Polish President, Prime Minister from WH Over Holocaust Law

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven in the White House East Room in Washington, U.S. March 6, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

A report from a Polish media outlet is claiming that the Trump administration will not meet with Poland’s president or prime minister unless the recently passed Holocaust law is rescinded.

The Onet website is reporting that a memo from U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell to the Polish government condemned the law and stated that “no high-level bilateral contacts between countries” would occur unless the law is repealed. Mitchell also gave Poland an ultimatum that Congress would zero out funding to joint military projects in Poland if the law remains intact and the U.S. would severely retaliate if any American faces criminal punishment under the law.

Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Bartosz Cichocki told the Associated Press that the report was not true, although he admitted that the White House was not pleased with the law.

The Polish Foreign Ministry told The Hill in a statement, “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs received signals that the American administration is concerned about the implementation of the amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance. However, since then, Polish diplomats have conducted a series of meetings, in which it was thoroughly explained to our partners, not only American, the scope of the proposed changes in Polish law and the essence of the legislative process in Poland.”

Under the law, those who claim that Poland was complicit in the Nazis’ atrocities toward Jews during the Holocaust face a maximum of three years in prison.

The law has caused a rift between Israel and Poland. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has excoriated Poland for the law, stating, “There is a problem here of an inability to understand history and a lack of sensitivity to the tragedy of our people.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is attempting to ease the tension between the countries.

“Amid the rising wave of antisemitism in Europe, our country is again the safe haven for the Jewish community – as it was throughout the eight centuries before World War II,” Morawiecki wrote in a letter to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. “I would like to assure you that I will do my best to improve our relations and put importance on our common history of living and, unfortunately, enormous suffering, on Polish soil. Both Poland and Israel have the moral obligation to be the guardians of the truth of Holocaust because of their history.”

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.

Polish Progressive Judaism Group Voices Opposition to Poland’s Holocaust Bill

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

A Polish progressive Judaism group has voiced opposition to Poland’s drafted bill that would criminalize certain phrases regarding Poland’s role in the Holocaust.

Beit Polska – The Union of Polish Progressive Jewish Communities and the European Union of Jewish Progressivism (EUJP) issued a statement expressing concern about a bill that would subject those who accuse Poland “of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich” to a maximum sentence of three years in prison. It has already passed the Lower House of Poland’s Parliament.

“We agree that it is inappropriate to call German Nazi Death Camps located on Polish soil ‘Polish Death Camps,’ but the legislation as drafted is much wider than that one issue,” the organizations stated. “It also includes legally undefined terms that could be subject to many interpretations with severe consequences. In addition, we consider it draconian and disproportionate for the legislation to impose substantial fines and possible prison sentences for misuse of words.”

They added, “It is important the horrors of the Holocaust are not forgotten and future generations learn from them so that these are never repeated anywhere in the World. The present drafting of the Act has the real danger of inhibiting discussion, investigation and commemoration of the tragic events that took place on Polish soil.”

The organizations called the legislation to either be altered or abolished altogether.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also expressed his opposition to the bill.

“One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied,” said Netanyahu in a statement.

Outrage to the bill has even extended to Los Angeles, as Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust President Paul Nussbaum issued a statement condemning the bill.

“I am appalled by the efforts of the current Polish government to deny the history of the involvement and collaboration of some Poles in the attempted genocide of the entire Jewish people on Polish soil,” said Nussbaum. “As I expressed to Polish government officials when I visited Poland last summer, we condemn the Poles who helped murder Polish Jews and honor those who rescued Polish Jews. We all must have the courage to face our history, no matter how painful, in order to inspire a better future.”

Polish President Andrezj Duda hasn’t decided on if he’ll sign the law, but he took umbrage to Israel’s criticism of the law and declared that Poland needed to be able fight back against “evident slander.”

As The New York Times pointed out in a recent editorial, while it’s true that the Nazis occupied Poland and are responsible for the death camps, “Poles were directly or indirectly complicit in the crimes committed on their land and that Poles were guilty of anti-Jewish pogroms during and after the war.”

“These are the facts of that terrible history, and the Poles, like all other nations conquered by Germany that became embroiled in the Nazi atrocities, have an obligation to the victims and to the future to seek the full truth, however painful,” the editorial stated.

Christmas Borscht in a Jewish Town

Perhaps one of the most surprising things about my visit to Veselka, a renowned Ukrainian restaurant on Manhattan’s very Jewish-centric Lower East Side, is that the restaurant is, in fact, not Jewish. After my many visits to Veselka over the years, so many bowls of matzo ball soup and having eaten more than my weight in pierogi and potato pancakes, I guess I just assumed it was a Jewish restaurant. To add to my confusion, a larger-than-life “Happy Challahdays” sign is one of the first things you notice when you walk into the buzzing luncheonette.

That’s the thing about New York and Jewish food. Words like shlep and schmear and farkakteh are such an integral part of the everyday New Yorker’s lexicon, sometimes it’s hard to imagine that the whole city is not just one big Jewish enclave.

I once read that the Lower East Side of Manhattan is considered the “Plymouth Rock of American Jewry.” When you consider that five out of six American Jews have origins in Eastern Europe, the vast majority of whom immigrated to cities and towns on the East Coast, it stands to reason that Jewish influence would have tremendous impact on the food and culture.

Because food is the greatest and most powerful unifier, imagine the joy hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans felt for that shared cuisine when Veselka opened in 1954 as a small newspaper, candy and cigarette stand. With only six stools in the original U-shaped diner, it began to sell sandwiches and coffee as well as Ukrainian specialties such as pierogi and borscht to meet the demand of the more than 60,000 Ukrainian immigrants who called the area their home at the time.

Words like shlep and schmear and farkakteh are such an integral part of the everyday New Yorker’s lexicon, sometimes it’s hard to imagine that the whole city is not just one big Jewish conclave.

Germans, Italians, Poles — Jews and non-Jews alike — made up the fabric of the neighborhood in the 1950s and contributed rich and diverse dishes from their homelands.

This is one of the many reasons to love this part of New York City.  Even with the city’s neverending push to reinvent itself, phasing out the mom-and-pop diners and gentrifying neighborhoods whose inhabitants seem sewn into the landscape, there are and always will be gems like Veselka that serve the kind of soul food that manages to pull the heartstrings at first bite.

Although Veselka’s renowned borscht is made with pork butt and topped with sour cream, making it doubly unkosher, I was lucky enough to be there to watch its equally iconic Christmas borsht prepared. Ukrainian and Polish Christmas Eve is a fasting day when no meat is consumed. But the day culminates in a 12-course feast of which the first course is always vegetarian Christmas borscht. This works perfectly for Jews as well because a fabulous big bowl of “Veselka Red” just begs for a heaping dollop of sour cream and chopped dill.

Veselka’s Christmas borscht is served with dreamy little mushroom-and-onion dumplings called vushka (tiny ears in Ukrainian.) We will leave those for another day, but I’ve found that adding some sliced porcini or portobello mushrooms to the borscht will approximate the texture and contrast nicely with the earthy beet stock. Also, as a departure from Veselka’s recipe and Christmas borscht in general, I like to add back in some of the beets as well as all of the vegetables because I like my soup chunky. Feel free to follow the recipe exactly if you prefer a more brothlike soup.

Don’t get overwhelmed by the number of steps in this recipe. They are all very simple, and the soup itself can be prepared over a few days if you wish. It also freezes beautifully. Feel free to use chicken or beef stock in place of vegetable stock, and then perhaps use an inferior but better-than-nothing nondairy sour cream alternative.

Any way you want to make this soup, though, know that it’s much more than just a bowl of ruby red beets and humble vegetables. It’s the shared dreams and goals of the people of ancient lands and common heritage who happened to find themselves pressed together in the little bubble that is the Lower East Side.

(Adapted from “The Veselka Cookbook” by Tom Birchard and Natalie Danford (Thomas Dunne Books, 2009)
2 pounds beets, trimmed and scrubbed,
unpeeled (small, young beets are best)
¾ cup white or apple cider vinegar (if you are sensitive to the taste of vinegar,
reduce the amount but don’t  leave it out entirely as it keeps the beets their vibrant red color)
4 cups water
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 cup porcini or white button mushrooms,
sliced (optional)
4 cups vegetable stock
2 bay leaves
5 whole allspice berries
1 teaspoon sugar, more to taste
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground
black pepper
1 ½ teaspoons salt, more to taste
3 tablespoons fresh dill, finely chopped,
for garnish
4 tablespoons sour cream or crème
fraiche, for garnish

Coarsely chop the beets in a food processor. In a medium pot, combine beets, vinegar and 4 cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until beets are soft, about 45 minutes. Strain and set aside juice. Veselka uses these cooked beets for its wonderful beet salad. I like to put half of them back into the stock and eat them in the soup.

In another medium pot, add carrot, celery, onion, mushrooms (if using), vegetable stock, bay leaves and allspice berries, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered until vegetables are soft, about 30 minutes. Strain and discard vegetables and aromatics. Again, Veselka discards the vegetables. I don’t. Rather, I pick out the bay leaves and allspice berries and keep the vegetables.

Combine strained stock and beet juice and simmer 5 minutes. Add sugar, garlic, black pepper, and season with sugar and salt to taste. Serve with half the beets, the vegetables and sprinkled with dill. Top with sour cream if desired.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Episode 71: What the Hell is Going on in Poland?

Photo from Mazaki.

I (Naor) just came back from a ten day trip in Poland. What I saw there perplexed me. On one hand, Poland is going through massive political changes in which the far right have taken control over the country. Recently, a bill was passed that gives the right wing government greater control of the Supreme Court.

Just last month, tens of thousands of anti semitic protesters marched through the streets of Warsaw shouting racist chants.

On the other hand, the Jewish community is still present and actually at its prime since WW2. One memeber of the Jewish community there is Matan Shefi. Matan decided to move to Warsaw three years ago with his wife and the two still live there today. Matan works at the Jewish Historical Institute and helps people trace their Jewish roots in Poland.

Today, Matan joins us to talk about his new home, his work and recent developments in Poland.

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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.

Mina Wilner: Saved by a ‘Remarkable Woman’

Photo by David Miller

Late one afternoon in July 1942, Mina Lejzerowicz, 12, dutifully accompanied her parents and two younger brothers to a spot in the Warsaw Ghetto near the high brick wall that enclosed it.

Mina’s father, Berl, opened a potato sack. The plan was to place Mina inside and toss the sack over the wall. On the other side, a Polish man would retrieve her, handing her over to Jadwiga Gagol, the family’s former nanny, who had bribed him. But Mina’s mother objected. “They’re going to kill my child,” she told her husband. “I don’t want to do this.”

A disagreement ensued. Berl suggested a trial run. He filled the sack with stones and wood, then pitched it over the wall. Immediately, the Germans opened fire. Mina’s parents quietly led her and her brothers back to their apartment.

“I didn’t want to go. I wanted to be with my parents,” Mina recalled.

But Mina knew that Jadwiga was determined to save her and her brothers. “I’m not going to allow for the children to be killed,” she had told Mina’s parents. And while Mina’s mother, Cyla, was afraid her daughter couldn’t survive alone, Berl supported the idea.

In preparation to rescue Mina — her brothers were more challenging to rescue because, as circumcised males, they were easily identifiable as Jews — Jadwiga had rented a one-room apartment outside the ghetto, where no one knew her.

“She loved my parents and the three children,” Mina said.

Mina was born in Warsaw on April 1, 1930. Her brother Eliezer was born in 1931 and Moshe in 1936. The family was well off, living in a four-room apartment in an elegant building.

“I grew up in a happy home,” Mina recalled. Her mother, from an affluent family, was a graduate of the Sorbonne, a dentist who didn’t practice. Mina’s father, who grew up poor, co-owned two butcher shops in Warsaw.

Mina began public school at age 6. But walking there, accompanied by a nanny, she was often accosted by Polish boys who called her “dirty Jew” and more than once pushed her to the ground.

On Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany attacked Poland, Mina was at the family’s summer cottage in Michalin, 35 miles southwest of Warsaw, with her brothers and the family’s two maids. Her father sent a driver with a horse and wagon to fetch them.

Back in Warsaw, Mina learned that war had broken out. At night, she and her brothers slept on the floor of their parents’ room, huddling in the basement whenever bombs fell.

By October 1940, the ghetto, in an area that contained their apartment building, had been established. Soon hunger was a constant companion, even though Jadwiga, whenever possible, bribed guards and brought the family food. Other times she threw horsemeat over the wall. Berl retrieved it, cut it up and sold it.

“My parents never ate. Whatever food they had, they gave to the children,” Mina said.

Mina saw skeletal adults walking around in threadbare clothing, and children covered with newspapers on the streets, begging for food. But most horrifying were the dead bodies that piled up, waiting collection by men pulling two-wheeled carts. “You cannot even imagine,” she said.

Mina saw skeletal adults walking around in threadbare clothing, and children covered with newspapers on the streets, begging for food.

When the plan to throw Mina over the wall failed, Jadwiga made arrangements for Mina to walk out of the ghetto with a crew of 20 prisoners who worked for a local farmer. As the farmer headed to lunch that day with his girlfriend, some older prisoners instructed her to run. They pointed to the nearby tram station, where Mina found Jadwiga waiting.

The two returned to Jadwiga’s apartment, where Mina continually cried for her mother. “Take her away,” Jadwiga’s husband insisted. “They’re going to kill all of us.” But Jadwiga refused. “She has to live,” she said.

Mina remained primarily in the apartment, where Jadwiga brought her books and food she purchased with gold pieces and jewelry Mina’s parents had given her.

One morning, Jadwiga came racing back to the apartment. “Quick, hide in the armoire,” she said. Soon, two Germans entered, asking if Jadwiga was hiding a Jewish girl. Mina then accidentally banged her elbow against the armoire, making a noise, and one of the Germans tried to open the armoire door, jangling the keys which Jadwiga had inadvertently left in the lock. But he inexplicably stopped, and they left.

The next day Jadwiga took Mina by train to stay temporarily with her elderly brother and his daughter in Piotrkow Trybunalski, a hamlet 85 miles southwest of Warsaw.

Sometime later — Mina doesn’t know how long — Jadwiga moved her to Sulejowek, a town 12 miles east of Warsaw, to work for an 80-year-old woman. “She was a witch from the witchland,” Mina recalled, although Jadwiga hadn’t known of the woman’s cruel nature. Only through the kindness of two housekeepers who also worked there did Mina receive any food.

In November 1944, the Soviets liberated them. Even then, Mina was afraid to tell people she was Jewish.

One morning, sometime after Jan. 17, 1945, when the Soviets occupied Warsaw, Mina was sent to the city, a 12-mile trek, to find the old woman’s daughter and granddaughter. As she was walking with them, she heard Eliezer calling her name. She hadn’t seen her brother since escaping from the ghetto in the summer of 1942.

At the suggestion of the old woman’s daughter, whom Mina described as “an angel,” Mina took Eliezer back with her to Sulejowek that afternoon.

Eliezer, along with Mina’s parents and younger brother Moshe, had been deported from the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943. Mina’s father, at his wife’s suggestion, had thrown Eliezer from the train, and the boy had spent the rest of the war hiding in forests and wandering from farm to farm.

Later, Mina learned from Jadwiga that her parents and Moshe had perished in Treblinka. Jadwiga had traveled there to try to rescue them, but she was too late.

Appreciative of the wood Eliezer chopped for her, the old woman treated him kindly. But Eliezer soon left for the newly established Jewish orphanage in Otwock, outside Warsaw, to attend school. “I don’t want to go as Jews — they’re going to kill us,” Mina had told him.

But soon after, Jadwiga came to escort her there. “I want you to be educated,” she said.

At Otwock, Mina studied and was treated for tuberculosis. Meanwhile, Eliezer escaped from the orphanage, making his way to Palestine.

Eager to reunite with him, Mina joined a group of orphanage children who were taken to a Jewish camp in Verberie, France, outside Paris, and later — Mina is not sure of the date — to Palestine.

Mina married a Polish survivor in 1949. Their daughter, Clilit, was born six years later. The family immigrated to Los Angeles in 1963, and Mina divorced her husband soon after, supporting herself as a manicurist.

On April 25, 1971, Mina married Henry Wilner, a survivor and widower with three sons. “My husband was my life,” Mina said. Henry died in 1997, and Mina, now 87, has two grandchildren, whom she considers “the biggest gift in my life.”

When Mina left Poland, she lost touch with Jadwiga, who she believes died not long afterward. She had no children.

“She was a remarkable woman,” Mina said. “She saved my life.”

Polish Citizenship for This Jewish Boy? Not So Fast

Eitan Arom in front of the ramshackle college built by his great-grandfather in Lizhensk, Poland. Photo by Eitan Arom.

My passport is not much to look at. It’s dog-eared, many of the stamps are fading, and the back has been covered in a sticky film since I pasted a baggage claim tag there about a decade ago.

Yet as soon as I step outside American borders, it becomes my most valuable possession — my ticket back to everything I know and love. And it’s more than that, because that sad-looking little pamphlet is the most tangible link between me and my nationality. Functionally, it’s my stockholder’s certificate in this great big company called America.

These days, many Americans are looking to diversify their portfolio: The evening of President Donald Trump’s election in November, Canada’s immigration website reportedly crashed as a result of increased traffic from Americans — Americans looking for an escape hatch. For many American Jews, the most convenient escape hatch — other than Israel — is to turn to the same countries that spurned their ancestors during the Holocaust.

I was afraid I would somehow acquit Poland of the crimes against my family.

For me, that means Poland. I decided to make a guinea pig of myself and see what the citizenship process entails. That’s where Neil Kaplan came in.

Kaplan is a genial businessman in his middle age who’s held a number of leadership posts in media and internet companies, including president of the Jewish Journal’s board. But his most recent gig is closer to home.

After securing Polish citizenship for himself and his family, he decided to open up shop helping others do the same through his website, PolandPassport.com. It turns out, Poland is willing to accept Jews (and others) of Polish ancestry, but only after making them jump through some bureaucratic hoops that are impossible to navigate without a fluency in Polish legalese. Since launching his business in late 2016, he’s evaluated more than 400 cases, roughly 60 percent of them Jews, by his estimate.

Successful applicants get all the benefits of citizenship in a European Union country, including potential tax and tuition advantages and ease of travel and immigration. What’s more, Kaplan and his team don’t get paid until you get your passport.

What did I have to lose?

The first step was filling out a “qualification quiz” on Kaplan’s website: names, birthdates, places — all easy enough for me given my borderline-unhealthy obsession with family history. As I typed, I fit entire generations into the neat little text boxes on the website, distilling sons and fathers and daughters and mothers into a form digestible by the Polish bureaucracy.

I hit “enter” and a few days later, Kaplan called to tell me I had a good shot at obtaining Polish citizenship. The question now became: Did I really want it?

I dodged the question. Kaplan offered me a friends-and-family discount — he’s a longtime friend of the Journal — but still, I couldn’t bring myself to say “yes.” After all, what would my “yes” mean? Would I be forgiving Poland for what happened to my tribe?

For his part, Kaplan doesn’t kid himself, that Polish citizenship makes up for the Holocaust. But if it offers the “tiniest bit of restitution,” he said, then it’s worth taking.

I still wasn’t so sure, so I called somebody who has thought about it a lot more than I have.

Grant Gochin is a South African-born wealth manager in Woodland Hills and the grandson of Jewish Lithuanian refugees. He sued the government of Lithuania five times before it was forced to grant him citizenship. After citizenship was granted to him, he had no second thoughts about taking it.

I explained my hesitation to him — my discomfort with taking anything from Poland. I was afraid I would somehow acquit Poland of the crimes against my family, delivering absolution I have no right to offer.

Gochin told me I was looking at it all wrong. Poland wasn’t giving me anything. Instead, I was claiming something that is mine by birthright.

But furthermore, I would be creating a birthright for my own future children.

“If you can give your kids a Polish document with their name on it, it personalizes their history,” he said. “It’ll show them what they come from so they can personalize it.”

I can sympathize with Gochin’s “future generations” argument. It’s past generations I’m worried about. Consigned to the silence of the grave, they speak through my words, my actions.

Nationhood is an entanglement with the past and the future. It ties you to national inequities and travesties, historical and ongoing, that you might not care to associate with. By accepting Polish citizenship, it seems to me, I would align myself with the nation of my ancestors’ discontent.

Take this story, for instance: In my grandfather’s hometown, after the war, nine Jews returned and settled in a home together. A short while later, a Polish neighbor tossed a grenade into the home, killing all nine. Mind you, this was after Germany had been beaten back.

Now, I don’t blame today’s Poland for that atrocity. But nor can I so easily move on.

I don’t delude myself that America has no blood on its hands. After all, the genocide of the Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans is not so far in the historical rearview mirror.

But unlike Poland, America is the country of my birth, and the stains of its history are my birthright — mine to tussle with and fight to overcome.

Maybe my family members’ opinions toward Polish nationality are more pragmatic. They are welcome to apply on their own, and I’m sure Neil Kaplan would be happy to help them.

But I can’t see myself running headlong toward the nation where my family members were sold up the river, even if it means I can travel more easily or set up shop in Paris.

Almost 80 years have passed since Poland turned into my ancestors’ personal hell. But sometimes that history still feels close — and raw. Maybe 80 years is still too soon.

Rainer Weiss, scientist who fled Nazis, among Nobel Prize in Physics winners

Physicist Rainer Weiss at his home in Newton, Mass., on May 13, 2016. Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Three American scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, including one who fled the Nazis with his parents and another whose grandparents were Polish immigrants.

Rainer Weiss, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, both of the California Institute of Technology, were awarded the prize on Tuesday for the discovery gravitational waves, which were predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago.

Gravitational waves are ripples in space and time that help scientists explore objects in space.

Weiss won half of the $1.1 million prize, with Barish and Thorne sharing the other half.

The Nobel winners and the late Ron Dreyer, also of Caltech, founded the international collaboration of physicists and astronomers known as LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. In February 2016, they announced that they had recorded gravitational waves emanating from the collision of a pair of black holes a billion light years away.

Drever died this year; the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously.

Weiss, 85, was born in Berlin to a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father. The family fled Berlin for Prague when Weiss was a baby because his father was Jewish and a member of the Communist Party. After the Munich agreement in 1938, the family left Prague for the United States. Weiss earned his doctorate from MIT and in 1964 joined its faculty.

Barish, 81, was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and grew up in Los Angeles, the son of Lee and Harold Barish, the children of Polish immigrants to the United States. He earned his doctorate in 1962 from the University of California, Berkeley, and joined Caltech in 1963.

Thorne, 77, received his doctorate from Princeton University in 1965 and joined Caltech in 1967.

The Izaak Synagogue

Photo from Wikipedia

In Kazimierz, the old Jewish section of Kraków, Poland
We found the Synagogue on Honey Street
but sweetness didn’t sit beneath our tongues,
not when the only Jew who davened there
was black and white: a life-sized cardboard man,
a Hasid from another century
who bent black-coated toward the missing Ark,
bowing, as if half-risen from his seat
and waiting for a prayer to be sung.
Hard to forget his face. But tourists stared
at him then hurried to their caravans,
rushing perhaps to the next oddity.
A kosher meal? A klezmer band? The dark
locations where the ghetto used to rot?
Hard to forget this place. And yet it’s not.

“The Izaak Synagogue” originally appeared in “The Hardship Post” (Three Candles Press, 2009). Jehanne Dubrow is the author of the poetry collections “The Arranged Marriage” (University of New Mexico Press, 2015) and “Red Army Red” (Northwestern University Press, 2012). Her sixth book of poems, “Dots & Dashes,” won the Crab Orchard Review Open Competition and will be published by Southern Illinois University Press this year. She is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of North Texas.

European Jewish Congress slams Poland’s ‘lack of concern’ over anti-Semitism

Polish President Andrzej Duda at the NATO Multinational Corps Northeast headquarters in Szczecin, Poland, on Nov. 28, 2016. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In an unusually harsh condemnation, the European Jewish Congress said the Polish government has a “staggering lack of concern” about anti-Semitism and a “transparent divide-and-rule tactic” vis-a-vis Jews.

The statement Thursday follows an open feud between leaders of Polish Jewry on whether Poland has seen an increase in anti-Semitic incidents or sentiment since the rise to power of the nationalist Law and Justice Party in 2015.

The EJC statement offers support for the organization’s Poland affiliates, the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland and the Jewish Community of Warsaw, in their fight with other Jewish organizations in Poland.

The fight erupted earlier this month when leaders of the affiliated groups blamed the government for allowing, if not encouraging, an alleged increase in anti-Semitism. Other Jewish leaders disputed the claim, saying it constitutes a partisan tactic against the ruling party by the EJC affiliates.

“The EJC notes the staggering lack of concern from the government of Poland to the growth and normalization of anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric in the country in recent times,” the statement read. “The transparent divide-and-rule tactic of senior leaders of the Law and Justice Party in seeking to choose its selected Jewish interlocutors over the heads of official and representative community organizations in Poland leaves us staggered and reminds us of much darker times in Europe when governments chose their Jews.”

The statement referenced a meeting earlier this month hosted by a founder of Law and Justice, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, with two Chabad rabbis and Artur Hofman, president of the TSKZ cultural group, which is has offices in 15 cities and is Poland’s largest Jewish organization in terms of membership. An activist for Holocaust commemoration in Poland also attended the meeting.

The meeting, which participants described as friendly and earnest, followed the publication of a critical letter that two leaders of the EJC-affiliated groups sent last month to Kaczynski asserting that there was an increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric and pleading with the government to intervene to curb it. The leader of the Jewish Community of Warsaw, Anna Chipczynska, told JTA that Polish Jews have reached a “low point” in their feeling of safety under Law and Justice.

But Hofman said the claims were part of a “political war” by some leaders of Polish Jewry on Law and Justice. Hofman, who was elected to his position by a majority in his group, said the EJC affiliates were exaggerating about a problem that did not really exist.

On Aug. 21, Sergiusz Kowalski, who had alerted the government about anti-Semitism as president of the Polish branch of the B’nai B’rith Jewish group, called the men who met with Kaczynski “court Jews.”