November 16, 2018

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.”

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.

Moving & Shaking: Yad Vashem and ADL Events, Plus Big Sunday

Photo by Adam Kleifield

The work involved in commemorating the Shoah has evolved from collecting documents about the victims to telling the stories of the people behind those documents, a director of Yad Vashem recently told a Los Angeles luncheon gathering.

Haim Gertner, director of the Archives Division at Yad Vashem, spoke on the subject of “Does the Holocaust Matter Anymore?” at the March 7 event in the Brentwood office of the American Society for Yad Vashem (ASYV). The son of a Holocaust survivor, who holds a doctorate in modern Jewish history from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Gertner discussed the museum’s efforts to identify, document and provide a name for every victim of the Holocaust.

“So today, instead of only having one piece of information about the death of someone, we are collecting all pieces of information,” he told the small gathering of ASYV staff members. “And by that, more and more, you have pieces that tell the life story of a person. It is a lively, ongoing project. Every month, we add tens of thousands of new entries of information.”

Gertner said that documenting the history of the Shoah in increasingly sophisticated ways — such as using innovative technology to sift through artifacts, data and photos to uncover names for the 1.5 million victims who remain unknown — becomes a greater part of the museum’s mission as the survivor generation dies off.

“In the post-survivor generation, we have to find ways to be relevant to younger people,” he said.

Two moral imperatives frame his work, he said: Collecting material from the Holocaust and sharing the findings with the world.

Attendees at the gathering included Michael Fisher, director of the American desk of the International Relations Division at Yad Vashem; Ron Meier, ASYV’s executive director; and Bill Bernstein, director of institutional advancement for the ASYV Western Region.

During a Q-and-A session following his presentation, Gertner was asked what can be done to address the uptick in Holocaust denial and the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.

“This is one of the reasons why there is a necessity to use the historical case, this unique historical case of the Shoah, in order to be aware of the fact that things like that can happen,” he said.

Yad Vashem, based in Jerusalem, is Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. It draws more than 1 million visitors annually.  Working with partners, the museum has “collected and recorded the names and biographical details of millions of victims of systematic anti-Jewish persecution during the Holocaust,” its website says.

To date, the museum has collected documentation on more than 4.5 million victims, accessible on a database on the museum website.

“The names of nearly one-and-a-half million victims remain unknown,” the website says, “and time is running out.”

From left: Haim Gertner, director of the archives division at Yad Vashem; Michael Fisher, director of the American desk of the international relations division at Yad Vashem; Ron Meier, executive director at American Society for Yad Vashem (ASYV); and Bill Bernstein, director of institutional advancement of the ASYV western region, attended a March 7 luncheon at the West L.A. ASYV office. Photo by Adam Kleifield

IKAR’s “Stranger Purim” party and spiel, held on Feb. 28 at Busby’s East, a Mid-Wilshire sports bar, was one of dozens of local Purim celebrations to take place over the course of the holiday.

The theme of the party played off the hit sci-fi Netflix show “Stranger Things” while the gathering embodied the progressive, social justice-oriented spirit of the egalitarian spiritual community. During the spiel, attendees used boxes of dry macaroni as groggers, which were then to be donated to the SOVA Community Food and Resource Program operated by Jewish Family Service.

IKAR Director of Community Organizing Brooke Wirtschafter handed out 100 red tote bags filled with Band-Aids, snacks, toiletries, socks, a baseball cap and other items for attendees to distribute on their own time to homeless people. The homeless survival kits were ordered from Los Angeles attorney Albert Cohen, who has been overseeing distribution of the kits as part of a broad Jewish community effort, Wirtschafter said.

The event, which had “Stranger Things” paraphernalia decorating the walls, motivated IKAR clergy to fly their inner freak flags. Chazzan and Music Director Hillel Tigay impersonated Mick Jagger while dancing to the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up,” Associate Rabbi Ronit Tsadok performed a choreographed dance to the music of the Spice Girls and Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous dressed up as a zombie. The nonclergy got strange, too: Local environmentalist Steven Wynbrandt dressed up as Ali G, Noah Schechter came as Charlie Chaplin and Zack Lodmer wore a gorilla costume.

After the spiel, the event organizers cleared out the chairs and the party began as many hit the dance floor, drank and schmoozed. For those not into dancing, there was limbo, a miniature golf course and a photo booth. And there was plenty of pizza, potato skins and corn on the cob to eat.

Other Purim celebrations included a March 2 convening of Yavneh Hebrew Academy students with Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu, and a March 1 Megillah reading with Rabbi Berel Yemini of the Chabad Israel Center at the Verizon campus in Playa Vista.

From left: Stephanie Wolfson, director of education at the David Labkovski Project (DLP); Leora Raikin, executive director at DLP; Legacy of Hope Award Recipient Josh Shane; keynote speaker Bernd Wollschlaeger; Legacy of Hope Award Recipient Gabby Vanderlaan and DLP board members Nadine Lavender and Connie Marco, attend the second annual DLP Scholars Luncheon. Photo courtesy of the David Labkovski Project.

The David Labkovski Project’s second annual Scholar’s Luncheon — held Feb. 25 at the Courtyard Marriot in Sherman Oaks — honored Arizona State University automotive systems engineering major Josh Shane and de Toledo High School senior Gabrielle Vanderlaan.

The two honorees received the Legacy of Hope Award in recognition of their “exemplary contributions to the David Labkovski Project,” said Leora Raikin, Labkovski’s great-niece and the Project’s executive director.

Bernd Wollschlaeger, who at the age of 14 discovered his father was a Nazi during World War II served as the keynote

According to its website, the David Labkovski Project advances knowledge of the Holocaust and Jewish history by introducing students to the artwork of Labkovski, who survived both the Gulag and Nazi persecution.

Some of the late artist’s paintings were put on display from Feb. 12–28 at an exhibition, “Documenting History Through Art,” sponsored by Hillel 818 at Cal-State Northridge.

From left: Big Sunday honoree Marta Kauffman; Rita Speck, representing honoree Kaiser Permanente and Big Sunday Founder and Executive Director David Levinson attend the third annual Big Sunday gala. Photo by Erlinda Olvera.

Big Sunday held its third annual gala on March 8 at Candela La Brea in the Mid-Wilshire district and honored Big Sunday participant Marta Kauffman, co-creator of the classic sitcom “Friends,” and health care provider Kaiser Permanente, a longtime supporter.

“I believe in exponential giving, where one gives to a certain organization, and that gift then goes on to a larger audience, touching an incredible amount of people, who then go on to touch the lives of even more people,” Kauffman said in a statement. “Big Sunday is that kind of organization, one that has grown exponentially and continues to positively impact more and more people.”

Kauffman became involved with Big Sunday — which connects people through volunteer opportunities — soon after the organization launched in 1999.

Today, Big Sunday is one of the largest volunteer-driven organizations in the country.  Its annual Big Sunday Weekend, which actually takes place over the course of a month, draws thousands of people to volunteer projects across Southern California. The organization, which started as a Mitzvah Day at Temple Israel of Hollywood and grew under the leadership of David Levinson, its founder and executive director, also offers year-round volunteer opportunities, including school beautifications, neighborhood cleanups and bingo games with seniors.

From left: ADL Regional Director Amanda Susskind; Deborah Feinerman of Paramount Pictures; Andrea Fluczynski of Sotheby’s Americas; Nichol Whitman, executive director of the L.A. Dodgers Foundation; Jihee Kim Huh, vice chairman at PAFCO and ADL Senior Vice President Sharon Nazarian attend the 23rd annual ADL Deborah Awards dinner. Photo by Michael Kovac.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) held its 23rd annual Deborah Awards dinner March 7 at the SLS hotel in Beverly Hills.

The event raised $350,000 to help the ADL combat racism and bigotry, and honored four women who have exemplified ADL ideals and values in their respective professions and civic contributions, an ADL statement said.

The honorees were Deborah Feinerman, executive vice president of business affairs and legal at Paramount Pictures; Andrea Fluczynski, executive vice president and chairwoman at Sotheby’s Americas; Jihee Kim Huh, vice chairwoman at Pacific American Fish Company; and Nichol Whiteman, executive director of the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation. All the honorees, who shared their personal stories, were either immigrants or children or grandchildren of immigrants.

The honoress were presented with their awards by Paramount Pictures General Counsel Rebecca Prentice; filmmaker, writer and actress Susan Nimoy; LA84 Foundation President and CEO Renata Simril; State Treasurer John Chiang; and ADL Senior Vice President Sharon Nazarian. Television personality AJ Gibson served as the emcee.

The Deborah Award, which the ADL gives out every year to extraordinary women in the professional and civic communities, is named for the biblical prophetess, Deborah, who was noted for her courage, wisdom and leadership.

Moving & Shaking: Hadassah, New Malibu Rabbi and More

From left: KTLA reporter Sam Rubin, JBBBSLA Inspiration Award winner Marc Mostman, JBBBSLA Big Sister of the Year Lauren Kurzweil, JBBBSLA Big Brother of the Year Braden Pollock and JBBBSLA CEO Randy Schwab attend the JBBBSLA Big Event 2018. Photo courtesy of JBBBSLA.

Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles’ (JBBBSLA) annual Big Event 2018 on Feb. 7 at the UCLA Luskin Conference Center drew about 350 attendees and raised more than $400,000 for the organization.

The event honored Braden Pollock as Big Brother of the Year, Lauren Kurzweil as Big Sister of the Year and Marc Mostman with the Inspiration Award.

JBBBSLA staff member Alba Arzu received the inaugural Gail Silver Award for Exceptional Achievement.

“The honorees have collectively spent over 75 years supporting the agency in unique and transformative capacities,” a JBBBSLA statement said.

KTLA-TV entertainment reporter Sam Rubin emceed the event, which kicked off with dinner and cocktails and concluded with a dessert reception.

“Each year, we serve over 1,800 kids from different backgrounds, races, religions and socio-economic status,” said JBBBSLA CEO Randy Schwab. “They each face unique struggles but have one thing in common: They come to us to help give them hope. From age 6 to college and beyond, we help shape them to be thriving adults by providing dependable mentors, college scholarships, teen empowerment workshops, social justice camps and other life-changing experiences. This year, we want to do even more. We want to help more kids in Los Angeles get the chance at a different, better future.”

JBBBSLA runs a one-to-one mentoring program, offers scholarships, and owns and operates Camp Bob Waldorf on the Max Straus Campus.

Rabbi Michael Schwartz. Photo by Jennifer Herrguth

The Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue (MJCS), a Reconstructionist community, has hired Rabbi Michael Schwartz as its new senior rabbi.

Schwartz, whose hiring became effective Feb. 9, succeeds MJCS Rabbi Emerita Judith HaLevy, who retired in 2017 and now lives in Santa Fe, N.M.

Schwartz previously served at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, Calif., and the following international Jewish communities: United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, the International Jewish Center in Brussels and the Hod Ve Hadar community in Kfar Saba, Israel.

“He is an interesting guy and lovely man,” MJCS President Steven Weinberg said.

Schwartz made aliyah in 1997. He and his wife, Tamar Forman, have four children.

He was ordained at the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies, a Masorti institution, in 2001. According to a synagogue statement, Schwartz is “a strong believer in interreligious peacebuilding and social justice” and an educator who “guided high school and college Jewish groups through Israel for over a decade.”

With his hiring at MJCS, Schwartz joins a clergy team that includes long-serving Cantor Marcelo Gindlin.

With a membership that includes more than 170 families, MJCS promotes a modern and inclusive approach to Judaism and holds alternative programs that include Shabbat-on-the-beach summer services.

Holocaust survivor and American Society for Yad Vashem (ASYV) Board Member Meyer Gottlieb appeared at the inaugural West Coast exhibition titled “SHOAH: How Was It Humanly Possible?” Photo courtesy of American Society for Yad Vashem.

The American Society for Yad Vashem (ASYV) Western Region and Sinai Temple held their inaugural West Coast exhibition titled “SHOAH: How Was It Humanly Possible?” on Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The VIP reception and exhibition, held at Sinai Temple,  included several sections, each recounting a major historical aspect of the Holocaust.

Guest speakers included Sinai Temple Rabbi Nicole Guzik, ASYV Executive Director Ron Meier, ASYV Director of Education Marlene Yahalom and former president of Samuel Goldwyn Films and ASYV advisory board member Meyer Gottlieb, a Holocaust survivor.

Ayelet Sason (center) and her autistic son, Yarin, were among the attendees of Maagalim Valentine’s Day dance party. Photo courtesy of Ma’agalim.

Maagalim Community Circles held a Feb. 3 Valentine’s Day dance party at the IAC Shepher Community Center in Woodland Hills for teenagers and young adults with autism and other special needs.

Nearly 200 people attended, including Rachel Weizman, who helped launch the organization, and families of special-needs children, caregivers and volunteers who enjoyed dancing, a photo booth, creating heart-shaped cookies and more.

“Somehow the word spread through social media and we saw many non-Jews who came to celebrate with us,” organization creator Ayelet Sason said.

Sason is the mother of four children, including a 21-year-old son, Yarin, who has autism. Raising Yarin, she said, has taught her that there is a need for social and inclusive opportunities for young people with special needs.

“Those young adults have no social lives, nobody pays attention to them,” Sason said. “People think that they lack social skills because it’s harder for them to communicate, but it’s not true.”

Sason said her events also help teach compassion and understanding to teenage volunteers who are interacting with special-needs people for the first time.

“The amount of phone calls I received after the event from volunteers — and the impact it had on them — was overwhelming,” Sason said. “Those barriers people often have when it comes to special people fell down. [The event] opened the hearts of our volunteers and it was beautiful to witness. That’s why I encourage teens to come and volunteer and interact with them. It makes them more compassionate to others in need.”

Sason said she has seen friendships develop between the event’s special-needs participants and their families.

“Often their parents find themselves isolated. They can’t take their children anywhere, either because they are not invited with them to social events, friends cut them off, or because of the constant need to watch over them,” Sason said.  “Here, they can truly enjoy themselves and put their guard down. For the first time in a long time, they didn’t feel like outsiders.”

Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer

Noreen Green, artistic director of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, was named a Top 30 Musical America Professional of the Year. Photo courtesy of L.A. Jewish Symphony

Musical America Worldwide, a magazine of classical music, has named two Jewish directors of Los Angeles organizations to its Top 30 Musical America Professionals of the Year awards for 2017.

The two are Noreen Green, artistic director for the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, which celebrates both well-known and obscure Jewish orchestral works, and Yuval Sharon, founder and artistic director of the experimental opera company The Industry.

The publication announced the honorees in its December issue.

“Noreen Green has been the most energetic advocate for Jewish music and music-making in the Los Angeles area for more than a couple of decades now,” wrote Musical America’s Richard Ginell.

Under Green’s leadership, the L.A. Jewish Symphony has played host to such performers as Leonard Nimoy, Billy Crystal, Marvin Hamlisch and Theodore Bikel; performed music exploring Sephardic-Latino connections; and reached young listeners in Jewish day schools and low-income elementary schools, Ginell wrote.

Sharon, a recipient of a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship “genius” grant, has been shaking up the conventional wisdom of what opera is and where it can be performed since founding The Industry in 2012, Ginell wrote. Sharon’s innovative productions led to him being affectionately called a “disrupter in residence” by former Los Angeles Philharmonic President Deborah Borda, who hired him as an “artist-collaborator” for the orchestra in 2016.

Hadassah of Southern California presented Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Dr. Rady Rahban with the Katherine Merage Humanitarian Award. Photo courtesy of Hadassah of Southern California.

The Haifa and Malka Boards of Hadassah of Southern California honored Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Dr. Rady Rahban with the Katherine Merage Humanitarian Award during a luncheon on Feb. 7 at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Rahban was presented with the award in recognition of his charitable efforts on behalf of the Jewish community and the Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem.

“Despite having a thriving practice, Dr. Rahban makes time for tikkun olam,” Hadassah of Southern California said in a statement. “He dedicates his talents to helping those less fortunate both here and abroad.”

About 450 people attended the event, which featured guest speaker Farhang Holakouee and raised $100,000 for Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem, event spokeswoman Arlene Howard said.

Two days after receiving the award, Rahban, a member of Ohr HaTorah Synagogue, traveled with Mercy Missions to Guatemala to perform cleft-lip and cleft-palate surgeries on children in need.

Israel gears up to host prestigious Italian cycling race

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, center, bicycling with retired cycling champions Ivan Basso and Alberto Contador in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of the Giro.

Stressing the chance to show off Israel to the world, Israeli officials joined with their Italian counterparts in announcing Monday that three stages of the prestigious Giro d’Italia cycling race will be held in the country, starting in Jerusalem.

It will mark the first time that any leg of cycling’s Grand Tour races — the Giro, the Tour de France and the Spanish Vuelta — will take place outside of Europe, and just the 12th time the Giro had gone outside of Italy in its 101-year history.

Israeli officials said the race will be the biggest sporting event ever held in their country and touted it as an opportunity to showcase the Jewish state — and its capital — to the world.

“Hundreds of millions of viewers around the globe will watch as the world’s best cyclists ride alongside the walls of Jerusalem’s ancient Old City and our other historic sites,” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said at the hotel gathering. “Our message to the world is clear: Jerusalem is open to all.”

The race will bring more than 175 of the world’s best cyclists to Israel along with tens of thousands of tourists and cycling enthusiasts.

Culture Minister Miri Regev called on “everyone who loves the Giro to come here to Israel.”

“This bike race across the Holy Land will be a fascinating journey through time covering thousands of years,” she said. “I’m sure it will be a thrilling experience for everyone.”

Israel will host the first three stages of the Giro, or “the Big Start,” on consecutive days from May 4 to 6. Stage 1 will be a 6.3-mile individual time trial in Jerusalem, passing the Knesset and ending near the walls of the Old City. Stage 2, in the North, will start in Haifa with riders pedaling 103.8 miles down the Mediterranean coast to the Tel Aviv beach. Stage 3, in the South, will cover 140.4 miles through the arid Negev from Beersheba to Eilat on the Red Sea.

Italian officials told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz earlier this month that they were being careful to avoid crossing into politically sensitive areas, like the West Bank or eastern Jerusalem, which they feared could spark protests. An official map of the Stage 1 route shows it approaching but not entering the Old City, which is located in eastern Jerusalem — where much of the world, but not the Israeli government, envisions a future Palestinian capital.

According to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, the route will pass the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial as part of a tribute to Gino Bartali, an Italian cycling champion credited with saving hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust. While ostensibly training in the Italian countryside, Bartali, who won the Giro four times and the Tour de France twice, would carry forged papers in the frame and handlebars of his bicycle to Jews hiding in houses and convents. He also hid a Jewish family in his cellar.

In 2013, years after his death in 2000, he was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Holocaust authority, Yad Vashem.

Alberto Contador, left, and Ivan Basso, right, former winners of the Giro d’Italia, with race and Israeli officials including Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, fourth from right. (Courtesy of the Giro)

Italian Sports Minister Luca Lotti said Monday that the race would celebrate Bartali’s memory. In addition to being a great sports champion, he said, Bartali “was also an extraordinary champion of life, and a man of heroic virtues, and this needs to be commemorated, and shared, especially with the young generations — never to be forgotten.”

Retired Giro champions Alberto Contador of Italy and Ivan Basso of Spain, both two-time winners, also were on hand for the Jerusalem announcement.

Sylvan Adams, a Canadian real estate magnate and philanthropist who recently immigrated to Israel, helped bring the Giro to Israel and will serve as its honorary president. Adams said he was motivated by love of cycling and a desire to help his adopted country.

“I would call this the antidote to BDS,” he told JTA, referring to the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel. “The media sometimes portrays our country in a negative way, and this is a way to bypass the media and go straight into the living rooms of 800 million people. They’ll see our country exactly as it is, and my experience is people almost universally have positive experiences when they encounter Israel.”

The Giro is just part of Adams’ larger plan to make Israel a cycling powerhouse. A co-owner of the Israel Cycling Academy, Israel’s first professional cycling team founded in 2014, he is building the first velodrome in the Middle East in Tel Aviv to be finished in time for the race.

“My plan is to bring Israeli athletes to the highest level of the sport,” he said.

Ran Margaliot, an Israeli former professional cyclist and the general manager of the Israel Cycling Academy, said the team has applied to compete in the Giro and will find out if it qualified in December. It is among 32 second division teams jockeying for a wild card spot, but he is hopeful.

“I certainly think we deserve an invitation,” Margaliot told JTA. “No one can tell me we’re not good enough, and we work as hard as the Europeans, even harder.”

Margaliot said that while he failed to achieve his ambition of becoming the first Israeli to race in a Grand Tour, the next best thing would be for an Israeli member of his international team to do it.

“You can imagine what it would mean for an Israeli rider to be racing in his own country, passing near his home and friends and family,” he said before catching himself. “But we have a lot of work to do to get ready.”

Episode 35 – Holocaust Memorial Day Special with Yad VaShem Chief Historian Prof. Dina Porat

Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorates the 6 million Jews who perished in the genocide. However, in order to prevent the crimes of history from repeating themselves, we cannot simply remember, we must learning from them. We must study the past and compare it to the present. Professor Dina Porat does exactly that at the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry. Every year on the eve of Yom Hashoah,  the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University publishes its Report on Antisemitism.

Professor Porat is also the chief historian of Yad Vashem, Israel’s National Holocaust Museum and she joins Two Nice Jewish Boys in this episode for a special on Antisemitism and Yom HaShoah.


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The U.S. Army vet, IDF volunteer, now in Congress

Rep. Brian Mast (R–Fl.)

From Jewish Insider.

He has quite the resume. Freshman Congressman Brian Mast (R-Fla.) served 12 years in the U.S. Army earning a Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart Medal, in addition to obtaining an economics degree from Harvard. For many in the Jewish community, the icing on top is that Mast volunteered with the Israel Defense Force (IDF) in January 2015, packing medical kits at a military base near Tel Aviv.

However, the Florida legislator’s climb from the U.S. Army to Capitol Hill has not been without challenges. Stepping on an improvised explosive device (IED) in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Mast lost both legs along with his left index finger in the blast. In an interview with Jewish Insider from his Congressional office, Mast focused on the high cost of war including the 67 friends he has lost while serving overseas. “I have seen the gamut of instances from friends of mine getting sprayed by automatic weapon to stepping on explosive devices, like I stepped on, to falling off the side of a mountain or a cliff. Everyone sticks out very vividly, very clearly.”

Mast has formed an especially close relationship with the Jewish community. After the interview, he showed Jewish Insider a shirt sitting in his office of the Congressman’s name written in Hebrew letters above an American flag. Calling the White House’s omission of Jews in its statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day a “missed opportunity,” the Florida lawmaker invoked his previous visit to the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem.

The 2014 war in Gaza strongly impacted Mast, who is married with three children. After observing anti-Israel protests in Boston during the conflict, he noted the “hypocrisy” of those demonstrating. “I said that if any of our neighbors were firing rockets into the U.S. like that, guys like me would go and kill them immediately and every American would be proud of us for doing so.”

Already last summer, he endorsed Trump as President, even when many Republicans were fleeing from the real estate mogul. Explaining his support, Mast told Breitbart News in June, “If you have an infestation of rats and rodents in your home and you need to call the exterminator, you don’t necessarily care about the personality of the exterminator. You just care that he gets rid of infestation.”

Mast also backed the White House’s decision to place a temporary travel ban of individuals from seven predominantly Muslim nations including Iraq and Syria. With approximately 500,000 killed in Syria and 4.5 million refugees, Mast contrasted the mass exodus with how he believes Americans would have handled a similar situation. “For everybody that I know here in the U.S., if that (Syria) was the kind of reality that we faced, we as a people here would fight until our last breath to protect our communities. You wouldn’t see us seeking refuge somewhere else.”

image1-2The Army vet’s recent election to Congress continues his longtime service to his country. “Everyone has their place in life. Some people want to build the biggest business or save the most children. My purpose was service to this country and the military is the place that you go in my opinion to serve at the highest level for your country.”

Jewish Insider: You served for 12 years in the U.S. military including overseas in Afghanistan.  What were the most powerful moments of your service? 

Congressman Brian Mast: Probably the most powerful moments that I had were those times when I lost friends — of which I lost 67 friends to date. There is undoubtedly, a cost to war, especially when you have been at it for 15 years. I have been removed from the battlefield for six years now. I have seen the gamut of instances from friends of mine getting sprayed by automatic weapon to stepping on explosive devices, like I stepped on to falling off the side of a mountain or a cliff. Everyone sticks out very vividly, very clearly.

JI: Did losing your own two legs in addition to the deaths of so many of your colleagues cause you to question the lengthy U.S. involvement in Afghanistan?

Mast: No. The immediate time of going over there, right after the events of 9/11. A reckoning that had to happen. We were attacked and there was absolutely going to be a response to that attack. Beyond that, there have been refugee places, terrorist safe havens and terrorist training camps. And that is exactly what Afghanistan was prior to 9/11 and prior to us going into there. So, that had to be eliminated as a pipeline. One of the things that you realize as the ongoing war on terrorism is that while there should certainly be a strategy to exit these places, there also has to be a very specific strategy to maintain and not become like Iraq or Syria right now where you can say probably the biggest mistake that was ever made was withdrawing too soon and leaving a vacuum in place there that allows for the facilitation of the kind of situation that we have going on with ISIS right now.

JI: What motivated you to join the U.S. military?

Mast: I loved the military. I knew at a very young age it was where I was going to end up. It’s what I wanted to do. It’s just the right place for me. As I always tell people, I was like a round peg in a round hole. Everyone has their place in life. Some people want to build the biggest business or save the most children. My purpose was service to this country and the military is the place that you go in my opinion to serve at the highest level for your country. So, I loved it. I knew I was going to be there.

Mast: You established a very strong connection with Israel that led you to even volunteering with the IDF. Can you describe how Israel became such an important personal cause?

I grew up in a Christian home and Christian school my whole life. I was always raised for support of Israel. It was certainly always part of my household. That doesn’t mean that I always knew why that was the case. It was just the way that I was raised. But, there was actually a very specific catalyst for me going and serving with Israel. This goes back to 2014. I was injured in 2010. This was after I was injured and out of the army. I am studying up in Cambridge and we lived right next to the Boston Commons. That summer was Operation Protective Edge, there were a lot of protests going on around the country, people that were protesting Israel for defending itself from the barrage of rocket attacks. I didn’t agree with those that were protesting Israel. It seemed completely hypocritical especially those in the U.S. I said that if any of our neighbors were firing rockets into the U.S. like that, guys like me would go and kill them immediately and every American would be proud of us for doing so for defending our country in that way so it seemed like a very hypocritical, double standard.

The catalyst was one specific night when all of these protests were going on, there were people out in the Boston commons and they started saying things to me and my family, harassing us about me being a U.S. service member which really, really struck me. It was that moment that it really sank in the parallel that exists between the United States and Israel and what we represent: those things that unfortunately become all too cliche to say, but it’s very serious to say that we do represent freedom, democracy and human rights for all people. Those are things that are not represented throughout the rest of the Middle East. Those protestors recognizing as a U.S. service member, I fought for the exact same things that those Israeli service members were out there fighting for that instigated them to pinpoint me. It is not hard for people to figure out that I am a U.S. Service member. I don’t have any legs and I always have that hat on that is sitting right behind you that says Army Rangers on it so most people can figure it out pretty quick. So when I saw this parallel playing out, I said to my wife that night, ‘I don’t know what it’s going to look like. I want to find a way to show my support for Israel because these people out there protesting them in the drop of a dime with no provocation decided to start harrassing us. It speaks so perfectly to how you can’t appease these ideologies of hatred.

JI: The White House issued a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day without mentioning Jews or anti-semitism, a move widely criticized among American Jews. How do you interpret the Trump Administration’s statement?

Mast: It’s incredibly important that we do remember the Holocaust. Unfortunately, the number of survivors that we have from the Holocaust are dwindling. It was probably a mistake to not very specifically mention that. It’s a big missed opportunity, especially if it is something that falls on your heart and not go out there and speak passionately on that day.

JI: Among the Republican party there is a debate about whether to support the two state solution. What is your opinion on the issue?

Mast: I am a person that says that the future of Israel should be decided by Israel. I don’t mind the USA playing an invited role in diplomatic negotiations, but I don’t think for us to go out there and impose our will or our blueprint for peace is something that would be lasting. The blueprint for peace has to be decided by the climate in Israel and those stakeholders and come to an agreement. That involves us not playing a role or pushing for a two state solution, that is not something that I personally push for in any aspect whatsoever.

JI: So, do you believe the Palestinians should ever be granted statehood? 

Mast: I don’t see a desire for them to have a state, certainly before they were to normalize their relations with the world. Do I see the need for the creation of another terrorist state in this world? Absolutely not. When you have the leaders– if you want to call it Palestine– that call for the destruction of Israel and praise the destruction of Israel and call for the same thing for the U.S. that is not a state that I think is beneficial for us to play a hand in creating.

JI: During a House floor debate last month you said: “Palestinians [are] a group that has been historically defined by their responsibility for terror.” What did you mean by this statement?

Mast: When you look at their background and acts of terrorism: That is what they are defined by. There is a reason that you see a large fence all the way around and a guarded area throughout the area that they reside in. There was a time when that didn’t exist. Why was that fence put up? That fence was put up because of the rash of bombings that occurred. You look at their leaders. You look at the ways they praise acts of terrorism. That is what they are defined by. That has been probably one of their chief exports has been terrorism, so I think that is something that defined them as a people.

JI: Did you support President Trump’s travel restrictions including the indefinite barring of Syrian refugees from entering the United States?

Mast: Yeah. I think there is something very prudent about the U.S. analyzing who we allow entry to in this country and how we allow entry to them. When you look at the time periods that are proposed: 90 days and 180 days, these are not big, long lasting time periods. If you look at any U.S. government action, there are very few things that you can point to that happen in 90 or 120 days in order to do something well and do something right. So, yeah, I think it is prudent when you look at the State Department’s recommendation on travel to these countries, it’s important to ask yourself: if we don’t recommend travel there why would we necessarily want travel allowed in and that is a reason to answer those questions. People tell me, ‘well these are law abiding citizens coming from these countries,’ I think it is very important to scratch the surface of that and say what are the laws that are being adhered to when you have largely Shariah-driven countries like Iran where the execution for someone for being homosexual or the severing of limbs are things that you can still find essentially on the books. That’s what it means to be a law abiding citizen in some of these places.

It’s very hard to imagine Iraq and Syria in any semblance of what they were in the past. The kind of nation states they were in the past. It is even more difficult to imagine them returning to that kind of thing if you allow everybody that you would consider to be moderate, the kind of people you would want to build a government around, middle class people that have skills and the ability to build infrastructure in that country without those people in place and as difficult as it is to say, I think I have the ability to say this as well as anybody. I know the cost of war, I know the cost of war on myself.

What I can tell you is that for everybody that I know here in the U.S., if that (Syria) was the kind of reality that we faced, we as a people here would fight until our last breath to protect our communities. You wouldn’t see us seeking refuge somewhere else. That is who we are as Americans and that is part of what makes us great. If they ever want to have a kind of future for their nation states that they want to be proud of again, they have to find that resolve to stay and fight and create a kind of country they want to create just like we did during our own revolution.

First cousins who thought entire family died in Holocaust united in Israel

Two pairs of Polish Jewish siblings, who each believed their entire families died in the Holocaust, met for the first time at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

The tale started earlier this year when one of the siblings, Fania Blakay, found a testimony in the Yad Vashem database about her father. The testimony had been filled out by her father’s brother-in-law, who Blakay had been told had died.

The brother in-law, it turns out, had actually survived the Holocaust and immigrated with his wife and daughters to Israel. The daughters — Blakay’s cousins — were living in Israel.

On Tuesday, Blakay and her brother Gennadi Band — both of whom also live in Israel — were united with their first cousins Henia Moskowitz and Rywka Patchnik.

“I am deeply moved and very happy,” Blakay said, according to a statement. “My father always searched for members of his family and dreamed of finding them. He was alone. But ultimately, in this meeting today, his dream has finally come true.”

Moskowitz said that when she initially received a call from Yad Vashem, she did not believe the news.

“At first, I thought this news was a mistake. However, today when we met, I felt a connection at first sight; my family has grown overnight,” Moskowitz said. “Thanks to Yad Vashem, we discovered that we are not alone.”

Though the family was originally from Warsaw, it turned out that the cousins, all of whom were born in 1924-1942, and their parents had all fled to the Soviet Union during the war.

Ken Burns film spotlights Holocaust rescuers

The Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem recognizes more than 26,000 non-Jews for their efforts to save Jewish people during the Holocaust. Thanks to books and films, some of these Righteous Among the Nations are well known, such as Oskar Schindler and Irena Sendler, but most of them are not. 

That is about to change for two of the five Americans on the list, who are the subject of the documentary “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” premiering Sept. 20 on PBS.

The film is produced and co-directed by Emmy-winning documentarian Ken Burns (“The Civil War,” “The Roosevelts”) and Artemis Joukowsky, for whom it is a deeply personal, nearly lifelong project. Joukowsky is the grandson of subjects Waitstill and Martha Sharp, a Unitarian minister and his wife who risked their lives to help hundreds of Jews escape the Nazis beginning in 1939.

The film chronicles the couple’s humanitarian mission and relationship using the Sharps’ letters and journal entry excerpts (read by Tom Hanks and Marina Goldman), archival footage and photographs from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and interviews with historians, scholars and 30 Jewish adults who were rescued as children. 

“It’s a magnificent, powerful story on many levels,” Burns said. 

It’s set in motion when the Sharps, at the request of the American Unitarian Association, travel to Czechoslovakia to aid refugees in February 1939, leaving behind two young children in Massachusetts while using a variety of methods to save hundreds of others. What they couldn’t save was their marriage, which ultimately crumbled under the strain of what they were doing. The Sharps divorced in 1954, and both married again.

Joukowsky, 55, knew about none of this while growing up around the world with his mother, an archaeologist, and barely knew his grandparents. When a history class assignment required him to “interview someone of moral courage,” his mother suggested he speak to his grandmother Martha, telling him, “She did some cool things during
World War II.” 

Joukowsky, who currently lives in Massachusetts, wondered why his family had not celebrated what his grandparents had done, and became determined to tell their story. Researching, interviewing and assembling materials for the better part of a decade, he realized he needed help, and three years ago, reached out to fellow Hampshire College alumnus Ken Burns for guidance. Burns agreed to look over the footage, and saw that it was “a diamond in the rough. You could see what it was going to become,” he said. 

Burns’ role changed from adviser to producer and co-director as he shaped the footage in the editing room and adjusted the narrative structure and tone and balanced the cloak-and-dagger suspense of the Sharps’ mission with the story of their relationship.  

“We didn’t want to just show their heroic work. We wanted to show them fully as human beings,” Joukowsky said. 

That meant including the erosion of the Sharps’ marriage, the damage their absence inflicted on their children, and what became of the couple after the war. Both continued to fight for human rights, Martha more in the spotlight. She ran for Congress in 1946, and with her second husband, Jewish philanthropist David Cogan, she worked with Hadassah and other organizations to help resettle Jewish refugees in Palestine.

It was also important to the filmmakers to emphasize the accomplishments and legacies of the survivors who owe their lives to the Sharps. “But the film is dedicated to those who were not saved,” Burns said. 

Currently working on films in various stages of production about the Vietnam War, country music, prisons and Ernest Hemingway, Burns isn’t finished exploring the topic of the Holocaust. He’s in the early planning stages of a film about the United States’ role in it, “to delve into deep and lasting anti‑Semitism within the State Department and exclusionary laws that didn’t allow immigrants and refugees in,” he said. 

Burns and Joukowsky plan to continue to work with the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C., which serves as the archive for the more than 200,000 documents and testimonies they have found and are still uncovering. 

“This film has changed my life, being involved in this process,” Joukowsky said. “We have made a dramatic film that revs you up and makes you excited to learn more.”  

Toward that end, he has published a same-titled companion book to “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” with “much more detail” and a foreword by Burns (Beacon Press). In addition, an interfaith curriculum has been provided to schools in conjunction with the documentary. 

Burns believes the message of the Sharps’ story is clear. 

“Courage matters. Action matters. Sacrifice matters. Other human beings matter,” he said. “We are all in this together.”

Netanyahu reportedly secreted Auschwitz blueprints to Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought back original blueprints of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp to Israel from Germany seven years ago, likely without knowing he was doing something illegal, according to a German journalist.

The blueprints were given to Netanyahu on a trip to Germany, Kai Diekmann said in an interview for the latest issue of the expat Israeli magazine Spitz in Berlin with publisher Tal Alon. They are now in the archives at Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem-based Holocaust memorial.

Diekmann, the former chief editor of Bild Zeitung, Germany’s most-read daily, told Spitz the German Federal Archives and Ministry of Interior wanted to hold on to the historical documents, which were drawn by an Auschwitz prisoner and include the signature of Heinrich Himmler. But Diekmann thought they belonged in Yad Vashem and presented them to Netanyahu in August 2009 in Berlin.

Netanyahu could not have been prosecuted for simply accepting the gift and bringing it home, Diekmann said.

Diekmann’s colleague, Sven Felix Kellerhoff, an editor for Die Welt and the Berliner Morgenpost, apparently had agreed that the documents belonged in Israel.

The Bild Zeitung had decided to buy the drawings “because we did not want them to get into the hands of neo-Nazis or other such terrible people,” Kellerhoff told JTA in 2009. He also said in an email that it was significant that “we have originals of [these] plans in Germany.”

Holocaust historian Robert Jan van Pelt, one of the experts who helped verify the documents, told JTA on Wednesday that Kellerhof informed him in August 2009 “that the drawings would go to Yad Vashem. Nothing … suggested a cloak-and-dagger operation.”

The story of how these building plans came to light in the first place remains mysterious. An antiquities dealer reportedly offered them to the Bild Zeitung, an Axel-Springer newspaper, in 2008. The documents may have been held for years in the former East German secret service archives.

Historian Ralf Georg Reuth, a senior correspondent for Welt am Sonntag, told JTA at the time that he suspected the documents came “through the black market.” He noted that East German secret service authorities often “took over material that was used to discredit Western politicians.”

They were then found when an apartment was cleared out after its occupant’s death and later bought by the Bild Zeitung.


Far-right Austrian leader visits Israel’s Holocaust memorial

The leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem on Tuesday, laying a wreath under the engraved names of towns in Austria from where Jews were expelled by the Nazis.

He said anti-Semitism had no place in his party and urged a common front against Islamists.

Strache's party, which last year expelled a member of its parliamentary group for anti-Semitic comments, has sought to redress the worst of its past while retaining popular support with outspoken opposition to Muslim migration.

During his visit, Strache kept a Fedora hat firmly on his head as a sign of respect and declined to answer questions. But afterwards he explained why he was visiting Yad Vashem's Valley of the Communities, where the names of 5,000 towns and cities where Jews once lived are listed on monumental stone walls.

“For us, it's important to act against anti-Semitism and also against Islamism and terrorism and to discuss the issues we have in common,” he told Reuters by telephone. “Anti-Semitism often emerges anew from Islamism and from the left.”

The Israeli foreign ministry said it had nothing to do with Strache's visit and the Austrian embassy in Tel Aviv also said it was not involved. Strache said he was invited by Likud, the right-wing party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We have a lot in common,” Strache said of Likud. “I always say, if one defines the Judeo-Christian West, then Israel represents a kind of border. If Israel fails, Europe fails. And if Europe fails, Israel fails.”

A spokesman for Likud was not immediately available to comment.


Strache, 46, is a rising political force in Austria, with the Freedom Party winning 20 percent of the vote in the last elections in 2013. In some recent polls its support has been put at as much as 30 percent.

Strache, who failed in a bid to become mayor of Vienna last year, has himself been accused of anti-Semitism in the past.

In 2012, he was vilified over a cartoon posted on his Facebook page that depicted a fat banker with a hooked nose and six-pointed star buttons on his sleeve. The banker was gorging himself at the expense of a thin man representing “the people”.

Austrian President Heinz Fischer called it “the low point of political culture which deserves to be universally and roundly condemned”. Strache denied being anti-Semitic and has since repeatedly denounced anti-Semitism.

The memorial Strache visited on Tuesday is a poignant reminder of the impact of persecution on a race. Asked what thoughts that prompted about the displacement of Muslims, he said the two could not be compared.

“Every time people are driven away from their homes it's dramatic,” he said, mentioning the threat from Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. “All of us in the western-liberal, Judeo-Christian community with common values must stand up against this inhumanity.”

Merkel opens exhibition of Holocaust art in Berlin

German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the biggest exhibition of Holocaust art outside Israel in Berlin on Monday, after pledging to take concerns about rising anti-Semitism seriously. 

The “Art from the Holocaust” show features 100 works from Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial centre, which were created by Jewish inmates at concentration camps, labour camps and ghettos during the Nazi time.

Of the 50 artists featured in the exhibition, 24 were killed by the Nazis.

“The million of individual stories during the Shoah remain deeply rooted in our national conscience,” Merkel said at the opening of the show at the German Historical Museum, referring to the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.

An influx of 1.1 million asylum seekers to Germany last year, many fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, has raised fears among the country's Jewish community that anti-Semitism could rise.

Merkel said in her weekly podcast on Saturday that these concerns were to be taken seriously and said it was important to educate young people, especially those from countries where hatred towards Jews is widespread, in order to combat anti-Semitism.

Marian Tusk, who spent time in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald camps and survived two death marches, told Reuters he appreciated Germany's efforts to deal with its past.

“What most interests me is to what extent pieces of art could be also historic eye witnesses,” said 87-year-old Tusk, who was one of just four members of his extended family of 40 to survive the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were killed.

Christoph Heubner, executive president of the international Auschwitz committee, called Yad Vashem's decision to host the exhibition in Germany of all places a “very symbolic move”.

“After all, it was in Berlin where all these crimes were planned and prepared and displaying the artwork in Germany's historic museum shows that they are an immediate part of German history,” Heubner told Reuters by telephone.

Schindler’s List producer presents his Oscar to Yad Vashem memorial

Auschwitz survivor Branko Lustig, one of the producers of “Schindler's List,” presented his Academy Award to Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial on Wednesday, saying it had found its rightful resting place.

Lustig, 83 from Croatia, worked with director Steven Spielberg on the 1993 film that won seven Oscars. It recounts the tale of German industrialist Oskar Schindler's efforts to save Jews from Nazi death squads in World War Two.

“I'm very honoured, I feel this is a good (resting place) for the Oscar,” Lustig told Reuters before the ceremony in Jerusalem, also attended by Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic.

Lustig said he did not feel he was separating from one of his two Academy Awards – the other was as producer of “Gladiator.”

“I'm not parting with it, I am leaving it to the nation, for generations to come… All Yad Vashem's visitors will see it, at my home there is only my wife and my daughter,” he said.

Yad Vashem's chairman, Avner Shalev, said Lustig's donation was added proof that the memorial site was “a natural centre for commemoration and a universal symbol.”

“His decision to separate himself from the award which means so much to a producer, to a creator, and to send it to Yad Vashem for eternity is very meaningful,” Shalev said.

Lustig, a Jew born in Osijek, Croatia, was imprisoned in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. At the end of the war he was reunited with his mother but many family members, including his father, were killed.

He returned to Auschwitz in 2011 to hold his Bar Mitzva, the Jewish boys' right of passage ceremony that was denied him because of the war.

Based in Croatia and Hollywood, Lustig has produced many prominent films and mini-series and has won a number of prestigious awards. He said with a smile that Yad Vashem had better treat the Oscar statue with care and polish it gently.

“They must look after it and not clean it too vigorously because it is a Hollywood Oscar and the gold is very thin.”

Grabar-Kitarovic said the glistening statue was a “beacon of light” and a reminder, because of Schindler, of the sacrifices made by non-Jews to save Jews from the Nazis.

After learning in the summer of 1944 that the Nazis planned to close factories unrelated to the war effort, Schindler, through bribery and personal connections won permission to produce arms and move a factory and its workers to what is now the Czech Republic.

The lists of employees he submitted to the Nazis became known collectively as “Schindler's list.” He managed to save some 1,200 Jews from death. He was honoured by Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations” and is buried in Jerusalem.

Life in a war zone: Yad Vashem and sirens

I have been in Israel for the past several days attending conferences on the Holocaust at Yad Vashem and at the Ghetto Fighters’ House, near Nahariya — all amid the shelling. 

Sirens go off in the morning and the evening, and we face a decision whether to hasten to the shelter or choose a windowless room and wait it out. My sister carries a blanket in the car in case she has to stop on the side of the road. But we really don’t have a feeling of danger so much as annoyance, at least in the center of the country and up north where citizens have time to respond. In the south, the arrival of rockets is just a matter of seconds. At Kabbalat Shabbat services after Mincha, a gabbai rose and calmly announced: “We have have no shelter. The safe room downstairs is for women and children, all others should move to the center of the room and away from the windos if our Shabbat peace is disturbed.” No panic, a simple, clear statement.

Former Labor leader Amir Peretz, who was scorned as defense minister when he looked through binoculars at the wrong end, is suddenly a hero because, against the advice of more experienced military leaders and politicians, he insisted on creating the Iron Dome, which has worked marvelously. He is the only political leader looking good right now.

A new situation has developed. So Israel has time to inflict damage on Hamas. Let me explain:

Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi doesn’t mind Israel giving Hamas a terrible beating and will intervene only after Israel has done so. Al-Sisi will use this as an opportunity to look like a statesman. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, no matter what he says publicly, knows that his hand is strengthened by weakening Hamas.

The United States will not intervene for a while, giving Israel the opportunity to have at it until it gets out of hand or Israel makes a mistake. Even the media is consumed with other issues: the U.S. border “crisis,” Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Ukraine and, above all, the World Cup.

The population here in Israel is not rattled, as the Iron Dome has worked, and even though it is no longer the south alone that is at risk — a new, albeit tentative, sense of national unity is prevailing, but not for long. There have been air-raid warnings in Jerusalem each day. Last night, in the north, we heard a siren at midnight. People came to the shelter or safe room in nightgowns and pajamas, then returned to their rooms in time to see Germany win the World Cup.

We went out to lunch at the shuk on Friday afternoon in Jerusalem; the market was full, no one felt unsafe or under duress. My grand-niece is undergoing preparatory military training in the south, in case there is a ground attack while her loving father is drinking beer and eating fish and chips. Had Israel actually invaded Gaza, he would not have felt so nonchalant about the situation.

One truly optimistic note, a rare one, is as I came to the Beit Lohamei Haghettot (the Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz) and its Center for Humanistic Education, there was a meeting going on of Jewish and Arab teachers, with the mayor and local principals present, preparing themselves to deal with the hatred that has been expressed on all sides in anticipation of the coming school year, and the interim without the safety valve of school, which will not start for six long weeks.

Israel still has only tactics, not strategy. Hamas sees itself as the beneficiary of a large number of Palestinian casualties. All sides may regret not keeping the peace process going.

And throughout, we hear lectures on the Holocaust. We can better understand the past than the present.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at

Yad Vashem rejects Hungarian memorial initiative

Yad Vashem has decided not to participate in a project to build a Nazi occupation museum in Hungary.

The House of Fates project invited representatives of the Jerusalem-based Holocaust museum and memorial to attend an international meeting of experts to discuss the memorial center to be built in Budapest.

Yossi Gevir, senior assistant to the chairman at the Yad Vashem Directorate, turned down the invitation in a letter last week to Maria Schmidt, head of the House of Fates project.

“Yad Vashem will not be taking part in gatherings or activities organized by the House of Fates Museum project, because the project’s administration has consistently and unilaterally pursued the development of the Museum without any genuine, substantial involvement of the representatives of the Hungarian Jewish community or of relevant international parties, including Yad Vashem,” Gevir wrote.

The letter also said the project cannot use the Yad Vashem name in any way or context that would indicate its support or involvement in the project.

Earlier this month, Andras Heisler, president of the Mazsihisz Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, withdrew the federation’s participation in the advisory body for the House of Fates project.

Mazsihisz voted last month to boycott state-sponsored Holocaust memorial programs after accusing the government of glossing over Hungarian Holocaust-era culpability.

Italian cyclist Gino Bartali recognized as righteous gentile

Yad Vashem posthumously recognized the Italian cycling champion Gino Bartali as Righteous Among the Nations.

The Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem said in a statement Sept. 23 that during the German occupation of Italy, beginning in September 1943, “Bartali, a devout Catholic, was part of a rescue network spearheaded by Rabbi Nathan Cassuto of Florence together with the Archbishop of Florence Cardinal Elia Angelo Dalla Costa,” who has been recognized as a righteous gentile.

The Jewish-Christian network, Yad Vashem said, “saved hundreds of local Jews and Jewish refugees from territories which had previously been under Italian control, mostly in France and Yugoslavia.”

Bartali, who died in 2000 at 85, had acted as a courier for the network, according to Yad Vashem, “secreting forged documents and papers in his bicycle and transporting them between cities, all under the guise of training.”

It added, “Knowingly risking his life to rescue Jews, Bartali transferred falsified documents to various contacts, among them Rabbi Cassuto.”

The decision to recognize Bartali was based in part on testimony obtained and published by the Italian Jewish monthly Pagine Ebraiche, including from a man, Giorgio Golderberg, who said Bartali had hidden him and his parents in his cellar.

The recognition drew an emotional response in Italy.

“Gino Bartali was an immense champion, on pedals and in life,” Pagine Ebraiche editor Guido Vitale wrote. “The recognition by Yad Vashem is the just reward for an exemplary human undertaking.”

Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi told the Union of Italian Jewish Communities Web site that it was “the best present to the city and the most serious way to give meaning to the world cycling championships.”

Yad Vashem said a presentation ceremony will be held in Italy at a date to be determined.

Piazza Palatucci

Last weekend, on a gorgeously sunny afternoon in a remote (and extraordinarily picturesque) village high in the mountains of central Italy, I attended a ceremony that, in signature Italian style, was operatic in its mix of hyperbole and sincere commitment.

The occasion was the dedication of a new piazza named in honor of Giovanni Palatucci, a World War II Italian fascist police official who is widely revered in Italy as “the Italian Schindler,” an almost legendary Raoul Wallenberg-type hero who reputedly saved thousands of Jews from deportation to Nazi death camps by, among other things, providing them false documents. He was arrested and sent to Dachau, where he died in 1945 just weeks before the end of World War II. 

Palatucci has been honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among Nations, and the Roman Catholic church has begun the process that could lead to his beatification. The ADL, the Italian Jewish community and the Italian Police also have honored his memory. The ADL even created a curriculum to teach about him.

The new piazza in Polino, a tiny medieval fortress of about 300 people, joined squares, streets, schools and other places named for Palatucci all over Italy. Etched in stone, now,  its name plaque honors Palatucci for “sacrificing his life to save thousands of Jews from deportation.” 

The problem is that recent scholarship has cast serious doubts on whether Palatucci actually did what he is revered for doing. Though documentation shows that he saved at least a few Jewish individuals, the figure of 5,000 that is usually cited for the number he rescued appears to be considerably inflated. And though it is commonly believed that the Nazis arrested him and sent  him to Dachau for saving Jews, this also does not appear to be the case — he was sent there, research indicates, for having been in touch with Allied forces.

“A growing chorus of historians and scholars,” Italian journalist Alessandra Farkas wrote recently in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, say Palatucci “is nothing but a myth, a sensational fraud orchestrated by the alleged hero’s friends and relatives who claim he saved more than 5,000 Jews in a region where there lived fewer than half that number of Jews.”

The Primo Levi Center in New York organized a round-table discussion on the issue in April 2012. There, the former director of  the department of the righteous at Yad Vashem, Mordecai Paldiel, said  Palatucci had been recognized in 1990 as a Righteous Gentile for having helped save “just one woman” in 1940, and the commission had received no other information that he had saved others, though that might be possible. (The full round table can be viewed on line at:

In Italy, the Giovanni Palatucci Association angrily rejected the criticism. And, in an article in the Vatican's official newspaper, Italian-Jewish historian Anna Foa wrote thar more documentation and study were needed before Palatucci's actions were discredited.

But the ADL announced it this week it would remove Palatucci’s name from its Courageous Leadership Award to Italian and American law enforcement officers. And the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is removing material on Palatucci from its exhibitions and web site. The Vatican is also said to be reviewing its recognition.

General view of Polino from above (in early spring).

The controversy dates back half a dozen years and more, as scholars for the first time began serious research on the history of rescuers .

“There is very little clarity on historical sources,” historian Marco Coslovich, who published a book in 2008 questioning the extent of Palatucci’s actions, said in an interview with the deputy director of the Primo Levi Center in 2010. “The Police archives have no records detailing what Palatucci has allegedly done to save thousands of Jews.”

Regardless of the facts — whatever they may be — Palatucci remains a beloved popular hero here, a potent  symbol of what Italians like to believe they are, or what they could – or should — be. 

This was strikingly evident Saturday in Polino at the dedication ceremony. Speeches held him up as an example of righteous — even saintly — Christian behavior.  And — like the plaque denoting the newly named piazza — honored him for “sacrificing his life to save thousands of Jews from deportation.” 

The mayor, in his red-white-and-green sash; regional police representatives; two priests, including a police chaplain, and other VIPS all took part. One of the words I heard them use most was “altruism” – a clear attempt to urge citizens to care for others, in a society where “family first” is often still a guiding principle.

In the end, I took part in the ceremony, too. 

No Jews live (or probably ever lived) in Polino; there are only about 30,000 or so Jews among Italy’s 60 million people. A representative of Italian Jewry had been invited, but could not come because it was Shabbat.

I was at the ceremony not because I’m a Jew, but because I'm a friend of the local artist who created the sculptural monument erected in the new piazza: a bust of Palatucci framed by a gate bearing the “arbeit macht frei” Nazi slogan.

Still, as the speeches went on, and the police band played, and the priests blessed the monument, it became clear to me that a Jewish voice was sorely lacking. I felt compelled to say something, amid all the high ideals and abstract discourse about “Jews,” their salvation and what that meant for Christian values.

So I asked to speak – and was welcomed by the officials when I did so.

The Mayor of Polino (in sash) unveils the monument and piazza Giovanni Palatucci plaque. The plaque reads that Palatucci “sacrificed his life to save thousands of Jews from deportation.”

I didn’t know if anyone else there was mindful of the shadows being cast now over Palatucci's record, and under the circumstances I felt I could not even refer to this.

Perhaps it’s the thought that counts anyway – and despite the hagiography, the thought behind the ceremony was not just to honor someone who is widely believed to have risked his life to save Jews, but to encourage today's Italians themselves to step in and help people in need. 

In my brief remarks I ended up, in fact, not talking about Palatucci at all, but about the importance – the duty — to honor those who did what others did not do during the Shoah, and by extension those who do what others do not do in the face of today’s injustices. We have a teaching, I told them, that whoever saves one life is considered to save the world.

And then I also presented the message I always feel that I must expound when speaking as a Jew at Holocaust commemorations or similar events in small Italian towns where few if anyone in the audience has ever actually seen a living Jewish person.

That is, that we are people like them, human beings — and not abstract stereotypes, or statistics, or eccentric oddities or victims in death camp striped pajamas.

And PS: more than 500 Italians have been named Righteous Gentiles, though few know any name other than Palatucci. I found it somewhat ironic that one of these heroes, Odoardo Focherini,  who actually was deported and killed for saving Jews, was beatified by the Catholic church the day after the Polino Piazza Palatucci ceremony.

Polish politician Wladyslaw Bartoszewski receives U.S. Holocaust museum’s highest honor

Polish politician and historian Wladyslaw Bartoszewski was scheduled to receive the Elie Wiesel Award from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The award, given April 28 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the museum, is the highest award given by the museum.

Bartoszewski was a former Auschwitz concentration camp prisoner, the Polish minister of foreign affairs and an honorary citizen of Israel. He is currently the secretary of state in the Polish prime minister’s office. During World War II, Bartoszewski was involved in the rescue of Jews, for which he received the Righteous Among the Nations medal from Yad Vashem in Israel.

Due to his declining health, Bartoszewski was not planning to take part in Sunday’s award ceremony; Polish Minister of Culture and National Heritage Bogdan Zdrojewski was to accept the award on Bartoszewski’s behalf.

Hatred of Jews remains strong, Netanyahu and Peres tell Yom Hashoah rite

The hatred of Jews is still strong more than 70 years after the Holocaust began, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres said at the national Yom Hashoah ceremony at Yad Vashem.

“The map of Europe still contains local stains of anti-Semitism,” Peres said at Sunday night's ceremony in Jerusalem, his voice breaking with emotion. “Racism erupted on that land in the last century and dragged it down to its lowest point. Ultimately the murder which came from her, damaged her.”

“Not all the flames have been extinguished. Crises are once again exploited to form Nazi parties, ridiculous but dangerous. Sickening anti-Semitic cartoons are published allegedly in the name of press freedom.”

Netanyahu said in his address to Holocaust survivors and their families, “Hatred of Jews has not disappeared. It has been replaced with a hatred of the Jewish state.”

He followed his assertion with quotes of anti-Semitic statements made by Iranian religious and political leaders.

Six Holocaust survivors told their stories in a prerecorded video before they lit the six torches representing the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

The ceremony was broadcast on all Israeli television channels and on several radio stations. On Yom Hashoah in Israel, places of entertainment are closed and Holocaust themed-movies and documentaries are shown on television channels. Memorial ceremonies are held throughout the country.

On Monday morning, a siren will sound for two minutes to honor the victims of the Holocaust, followed by an official wreath-laying ceremony at Yad Vashem.

Also Monday, the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael will hold a joint Holocaust commemoration ceremony dedicated annually to commemorating the heroism of Jews who rescued fellow Jews during the Holocaust. The ceremony is scheduled to be held in the Martyr’s Forest “Scroll of Fire” Plaza. 

The ceremony will recall the rescue activities of Otto Komoly, president of the Zionist Federation in Hungary and the chairman of the Hungarian Jewish community’s clandestine Rescue Committee, and later director of the International Red Cross' “Department A” responsible for rescuing Jewish children.

On Sunday, Israeli military chief  Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz left for Poland with an Israel Defense Forces delegation to the March of the Living in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Gantz will lead the March of the Living — the first time the march will be led by a current IDF chief of general staff. Some 10,000 people from all over the world are expected to participate in the march.

Gantz also will lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, where a military service will take place.

On the weekend prior to Yom Hashoah, dozens of young Poles who recently discovered their Jewish roots came together in Oscwiecim, the site of the Auschwitz camp,  for a weekend educational seminar under the auspices of Shavei Israel.

Yom HaShoah in Israel [SLIDESHOW]

Ceremony at Yad Vashem

A unique resource, German Holocaust archive reaches out

George Jaunzemis was three and a half years old when, in the chaotic weeks at the end of World War Two, he was separated from his mother as she fled with him from Germany to Belgium.

He grew up in New Zealand with no memory of his early years, unaware the Latvian woman who had emigrated with him was not his real mother.

Then in 2010, a letter from the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen changed his life. He discovered his real name was Peter Thomas and that he had a nephew and cousins in Germany.

“I was astonished, thrilled. After all this time, I was an uncle,” Jaunzemis, 71, told Reuters. “You don't know what it's like to have no family or childhood knowledge. Suddenly all the pieces fitted, now I can find my peace as a person.”

Yet it took Jaunzemis over three decades of tenacious searching to find the vast archive in this remote corner of Germany where his past was buried.

Bad Arolsen contains 30 million documents on survivors of Nazi camps, Gestapo prisons, forced labourers and displaced persons. It rivals Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust centre and the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum in historical value.

However, many people are not even aware it exists. It was only opened to researchers in 2007 after criticism that it was being too protective of its material. Despite sitting on a mountain of original evidence, it is still struggling to get the attention academics say it deserves.

Last year just 2,097 people visited Bad Arolsen compared with the 900,000 who went to Yad Vashem.

Rebecca Boehling, a 57-year old historian who arrived from the United States in January, wants to change that.

“We have a new agenda,” said Boehling, who came from the Dresher Center for the Humanities at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“We're sitting on a treasure trove of documents. We want people to know what we have. Our material can change our perspective on big topics related to the war and the Holocaust.”

Boehling is the first archive director who is not affiliated with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which had managed Bad Arolsen since 1955 with a narrow remit to trace people.

The ICRC handed over the reins to an international commission of 11 countries in January, a step that could help unleash the full potential of the archive for academic study.

Boehling plans to hold international conferences, get foreign students to use the ITS, publish more research and host national teachers' workshops, although she doubts the 14 million euro budget from the German government will stretch that far.

Personal stories about victims, which the ITS can provide in abundance, are a powerful tool in educating young generations, she said. Currently, events hosted by the archive are attended only by townspeople and groups of pupils from nearby.


Located next to a site where Hitler's SS officers once had barracks, Bad Arolsen was chosen for the archive after the war because of its central location between Germany's four occupation zones.

But now its location is a disadvantage. There are no big cities nearby and connections to Berlin and Frankfurt are slow. The town itself, on the northern edge of the state of Hesse, has a population of just 16,000.

The archive is housed in an inconspicuous white building containing clues to the fates of 17.5 million people.

The 25 kilometres of yellowing papers include typed lists of Jews, homosexuals and other persecuted groups, files on children born in the Nazi Lebensborn programme to breed a master race, and registers of arrivals and departures from concentration camps.

It even has a carbon copy of Schindler's List, the 1,000 Jewish workers saved by German industrialist Oskar Schindler.

The Nazis' meticulous record-keeping stopped only when Jews and other victims were herded into gas chambers.

“At death camps like Sobibor or Auschwitz, only natural causes of death are recorded – heart failure or pneumonia,” said spokeswoman, Kathrin Flor. “There's no mention of gassing. The last evidence of many lives is the transport to the camp.”

The ITS, which employs 295 people, still receives 12,000 enquiries a month and reunites up to 50 families a year, even though the number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling. This tracing work will continue.

Most enquiries come from Russia and Eastern Europe and Boehling welcomes the new phenomenon of grandchildren and great grandchildren, who have more emotional distance from the war, wanting to find out the fates of their relatives.

One major ongoing task is the digitalisation of records which will make it easier for outsiders to carry out keyword searches which had previously been impossible as everything was done in-house with a filing system based on name cards.

Despite its remote location Boehling says the archive won't be moved. It has become a something of a memorial for Holocaust survivors, like former Auschwitz inmate Thomas Buergenthal who visited the centre in 2012 after getting new information on where his father had perished.

Buergenthal, who escaped Nazi shooting squads, Auschwitz gas chambers and a death march before he was 12, was found by his mother in a Polish orphanage in 1947 through the Red Cross.

“This is my hallowed ground,” Buergenthal, 78, told Reuters from his U.S. home, referring to the archive.

“My mother died without knowing my father died at Buchenwald. I'm mad about that. It is extremely important to me,” said Buergenthal, who became an expert in human rights law and a judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

“These documents are more important for the future than for the past. They will be the common heritage of mankind of what really happened during that period. (They are) what we need to prevent it happening elsewhere in the world.”

Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Noah Barkin and Peter Graff

French Muslim leaders in Israel hope to mend fences with Jews

Standing in long, colorful robes and wearing traditional rounded hats, a group of men stood in reverent silence as one of their leaders placed a memorial wreath at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum.

The group was a delegation of 19 Muslim leaders from France, in Israel to learn more about the Jews and their state. After a series of attacks against French Jews this year, many perpetrated by Muslims, the imams hope to improve the French Muslim community’s relationship with its Jewish neighbors.

Delegation leader Hassen Chalgoumi, imam of the Drancy Mosque near Paris, said the trip reinforced the importance of combatting Islamic fundamentalism and Holocaust denial.

“Life is more important than holy books,” Chalghoumi said in a speech outside of Yad Vashem. “We say in the name of love, of life, not to hide what happened” in the Holocaust.

Relations between the Jewish community in France, Europe's largest, and France's more than 4 million Muslims have long been fraught. The regular occurrence of anti-Semitic acts in France, including the horrific slaying in March of a rabbi and three children outside a Jewish day school in Toulouse, have significantly heightened the tension and mutual suspicion. Other incidents of anti-Semitic violence have followed, including a bomb exploding in a Jewish grocery store.

Chalgoumi conceived of the trip after coming to Israel in June for the French Embassy’s Religion and Democracy Forum. Inspired by that visit, he wanted his colleagues to see the country, even as it generated controversy in his own community.

“They are very criticized by Muslims in France because they decided to come to Israel,” said Olivier Rubenstein, who organized the trip for the French Embassy. “To France, it’s very important to have mutual respect between the communities. French Islam is not the terrorist way.”

The trip, from Sunday to Friday, had one of its most significant moments on Tuesday morning when the delegates visited the graves of the four victims of the Toulouse shooting.

“The majority of Muslims want peace,” said Nourdine Mlanao, president of France’s National Council of Republican Diversity. He said the gunman, Mohammed Merah, is “not a Muslim.”

In the coming days, the trip will take the delegates to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, the Jerusalem Municipality, and to meetings with Israeli businesspeople and religious leaders. The group also went to Ramallah on Tuesday and met with France’s consul in Jerusalem. Chalghoumi and Mlanao both said they hope to see Israeli-Palestinian peace.

While it was unclear what impact the leaders would have on France’s nearly 5 million Muslims, Mlanao plans to speak in public forums about the trip, and wants to arrange dialogue groups between French Muslims and Jews. He added, however, that “the government must take responsibility” for preventing anti-Semitic attacks.

Olivier also commended government efforts and said that in order to address the root of Muslim-Jewish tensions, leaders should organize “more of this kind of event for understanding the other.”

“It’s very important to know the other, not to be stuck in our ideological positions,” he said. “These imams are the leaders of a lot of Muslims in France. They’ll deliver in France a message of peace and understanding.”

Eli Zborowski, founder of American Society for Yad Vashem, dies

Eli Zborowski, a Holocaust survivor who founded and served as the chairman of the American Society for Yad Vashem, has died.

Zborowski,  who founded the society in 1981and served as its chairman until his death, died Monday in New York. He was 87.

Zborowski was born in Zarki, Poland. He was able to leave the town's ghetto after the outbreak of World War II and serve as its liaison with the non-Jewish underground. His father was murdered by local Poles, but he, his mother, brother and sister survived the war. The families that hid them, the Placzeks and Kolaczs, were later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Following the war, Zborowski was active in the Aliyah Bet organization, which smuggled Jews into British Mandate Palestine until the founding of the State of Israel.

Zborowski and his wife, Diana, immigrated to the United States in early 1952. In 1963 he organized the first U.S. Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration and, in 1970, he founded the first umbrella organization for all survivors. The Zborowskis in 1974 endowed the first academic chair in the United States in Holocaust Studies, at Yeshiva University in New York. He was appointed to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council by President Jimmy Carter and reappointed by President Ronald Reagan. He also was appointed to the New York permanent Commission on the Holocaust by Mayor Edward Koch.

He was a longtime member of the Yad Vashem Directorate. Beit HaKihilot, a center of research and education in Yad Vashem's Valley of Communities, was established in part with a donation from Eli and Diana Zborowski, and in 2008 he endowed The Diana Zborowski Center for the Study of the Aftermath of the Holocaust at the International Institute for Holocaust Research.

Zborowski served on the boards of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

“Eli Zborowski was a dear friend and devoted partner in ensuring that the legacy of the Holocaust is not forgotten,” said Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem. “From a young age, Eli was instilled with the values of integrity, diligence and responsibility as well as a strong Zionist legacy by his beloved parents. These principles motivated him to ensure the future not only of his own family, to which he was profoundly dedicated, but also to that of Holocaust remembrance and education for generations to come. His determination and dynamic leadership serve as an inspiration for survivors around the world.

“We will miss his friendship, his leadership, his drive, his unwavering commitment and willingness to put his entire self into his mission to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust is not forgotten.”

Yad Vashem’s Shalev named deputy chair of International Auschwitz Council

Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev was appointed a deputy chairman of the International Auschwitz Council.

The appointment by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was announced by Yad Vashem on Tuesday.

The International Auschwitz Council, which was established by Poland in 2000, is an advisory body to the Polish prime minister on issues related to the preservation and functioning of the Auschwitz site and other Holocaust memorials.

Its chairman is Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, named by Yad Vashem a Righteous Among the Nations, as well as a historian, writer and former foreign minister of Poland.

The council is comprised of 21 members from Poland, Israel, the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom who serve six years terms. Shalev joins Polish Holocaust historian Dr. Barbara Engelking. as a deputy chairman.

“As the events of the Holocaust recede into history, there are growing challenges in preserving the authentic sites of the Holocaust, where the murders took place,” Shalev said. “This is especially so if these sites are to serve as tools in meaningful Holocaust remembrance and education and in shaping Holocaust remembrance in future generations.”

Yad Vashem to scan documents on Dutch Righteous among the Nations

The government of the Netherlands and Yad Vashem have agreed to digitally archive documents connected to Dutch rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust.

The documents will be scanned by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust commemoration authority, in the next two years, Yad Vashem deputy spokesperson Yifat Bachrach-Ron told JTA.

Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev and Caspar Veldkamp, the Dutch ambassador to Israel, signed the agreement on starting the process Monday at Yad Vashem.

Yad Vashem has recognized 5,204 Dutch residents as Righteous among the Nations—its title for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. It is the highest figure of any Western European nation and second highest in total. Poland tops the list with 6,339 righteous gentiles.

During preparations of documents connected to Dutch recipients of the title, Yad Vashem researchers discovered the last known letter of resistance fighter Hein Sietsma, who along with his fiancee, Berendina (Diet) Eman, helped save dozens of Jews in The Hague before being caught and murdered in the Dachau concentration camp.

Siesma and Eman were recognized as Righteous among the Nations many years ago, but their file contained a small envelope that had not been opened. The envelope contained a letter that Siesma managed to send to his fiancee, folded into a one-centimeter package.

“Even if we never meet each other again on this earth, we will never be sorry for what we did,” the letter read. “We will never regret that we took this stand, and know, Diet, that of every human being in the world, I loved you the most.”

Bar mitzvah honors child Holocaust victim

“I’m just one of more than 18,000 young people in over 750 congregations worldwide becoming a keeper of the flame of memory in the first post-survivor generation,” Trevor Goodman announced from the bimah during his bar mitzvah speech, referring to his involvement with Remember Us: The Holocaust Bnai Mitzvah Project.

As part of his mitzvah project, Trevor, 13, honored Paul Lerner, who was 7 months old when he was killed at the Argelès-sur-Mer concentration camp in southern France, 71 years before this ceremony, to the day, on Aug. 11, 1941.

In addition to remembering Paul Lerner, Trevor’s Aug. 11 bar mitzvah also represented a first for Remember Us: Paul’s brother, Daniel Lerner, traveled from Israel to Los Angeles to attend Trevor’s bar mitzvah.

“This is something unique that I haven’t seen before,” Remember Us Executive Director Samara Hutman said, referring to Daniel’s attendance. “It’s profound.”

Remember Us invites young people to use the occasion of their bar and bat mitzvahs to commemorate children who were killed in the Holocaust before they could have their own bar or bat mitzvah. The organization provides students with the name and biographical information about a child lost during the Shoah and suggests simple acts of remembrance, including mentioning the child in a speech.

Retired Jewish educator Gesher Calmenson founded Remember Us in 2003 in order to fill what he viewed as a void in Holocaust education.

“Children who we were teaching about the Holocaust weren’t given anything to do with the content of the history. [They were] given the facts but not given any way to respond that was meaningful,” Calmenson said.

Drawing inspiration from 1980s twinning programs that matched American Jews having a bar or bat mitzvah with Soviet Jews who couldn’t practice their faith, Calmenson expanded Remember Us from a small pilot project operating within eight Bay Area temple religious schools to an international movement. The program spread via “literally thousands of phone calls” to congregations around the country and through word of mouth, Calmenson said.

“We realized the outreach was more than about the program. It was also to be available for the dialogue,” Calmenson said. “It originally started as a program to bring this to teenage bar and bat mitzvah kids, but the subtext of our program was we had innumerable conversations with people who just wanted to talk about the Holocaust.”

Los Angeles resident Hutman took over as executive director in summer 2011 when Calmenson stepped down. The nonprofit has since opened its first office in Santa Monica with a part-time staff and dozens of volunteers.

Remember Us partners with Yad Vashem to receive biographies of lost children, and its regional partnerships across the United States — with organizations including the New York Board of Rabbis and the Nathan & Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center in Milwaukee — have helped the organization grow. Foundations — including the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Charles and Mildred Schnurmacher Foundation and Tauber Foundation — have provided financial support in the form of grants.

Hutman, whose daughter participated in the program before she joined it as a board member four years ago, said she is working to expand Remember Us by developing ways for post-b’nai mitzvah teens to examine contemporary issues of injustice and encouraging collaborations between teens and survivors.

“Like all things with meaning and value, the more it grows, the bigger and more powerfully it grows,” she said. “I would attribute that solely to the strength and the beauty of the idea and the value of the idea.”

In May, Trevor Goodman contacted Hutman, a family friend, and asked to be connected with a child from Albi, France — the hometown of his grandmother, Marie Kaufman, who is active with the group Child Survivors of the Holocaust, Los Angeles. Using Yad Vashem’s database of biographies of Holocaust victims, a Remember Us representative found Paul Lerner and sent information to Trevor.

Paul Lerner’s Yad Vashem memorial page included contact information for Daniel Lerner, albeit in Hebrew. After Trevor’s Israeli cousin translated the address, Trevor wrote a letter that contained information detailing how he would honor Lerner’s brother during his upcoming bar mitzvah. He sent the letter — one copy in English, one in Hebrew — to a small town outside of Tel Aviv.

“I wasn’t expecting a response, because we didn’t know if he was still living in that house,” Trevor said.

The letter came as a surprise to Lerner, 69, who thought no one else knew of his brother’s existence.

“I was stunned. I was moved. I cried, which doesn’t happen to me very often,” Lerner said.

Lerner replied to Trevor’s letter in English. “I can find no words to express my feelings about what you are doing to commemorate my brother,” Lerner wrote.

Trevor and his mother, Deena, invited Lerner to Los Angeles to attend Trevor’s bar mitzvah. After several e-mails and a Skype session, Lerner accepted the invitation, changing plans he’d made to travel to Paris to conduct doctoral research on Jewish forms of resistance during the Holocaust, including his father’s experiences with an underground communist movement in Paris.

Lerner, a healthy-looking man with an expressive face, white hair and a white mustache, never met his brother, Paul.

His parents, Baruch and Hadasa, fled Paris for southern France at the time of the German invasion in 1940. Paul was born six months later, on Dec. 31, in the town of Albi. The couple was then interned at Argelès-sur-Mer, where Paul later died. Lerner’s parents then escaped and returned to Paris, where they fought for an underground resistance movement.

Daniel was born on Aug. 25, 1942. Less than a year later, the couple was caught by the French police. Baruch was handed over to the Germans, sentenced to death and executed on Oct. 1, 1943. Hadasa, who was sent to Auschwitz, survived and found Daniel, who was hidden by a non-Jewish family friend. Together, mother and son left for Israel.

On Aug. 11, after Trevor discussed his Torah portion — one of the last chapters of Deuteronomy, emphasizing the importance of gratitude — Lerner joined him on the bimah at Temple Isaiah to express how thankful he was that Trevor was honoring his brother.

Two days earlier, Trevor and Lerner were joined by family and friends, including Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, for an informal gathering at Trevor’s grandmother’s home, where child survivors discussed their memories and their pasts.

“We’re moving now from lived memory to historical memory, and consequently the more we can personalize it, the deeper we can make the ties, the more powerful,” said Berenbaum, professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.

Berenbaum, also a Remember Us board member, said the organization, among other things, “recalls the memory of the deceased, and it rescues them from oblivion.”

“Look at this incredible story,” Berenbaum continued. “Here’s a man who never knew his brother — his brother died before he was born — [his brother has] been dead for 71 years, and all of a sudden somebody is remembering his brother. What powerful and unintended consequences for the family and both of them.”

When guests at Kaufman’s home asked Lerner about his past, he spoke of his time in the Israeli army, summarizing the quote written in every army camp: “People who have no past, have no future.”

“It took me many years to realize what it meant, and when I realized it, that’s when I started looking into my own past,” Lerner said. “Trevor, what he’s doing is exactly that.”

The power of the connection between Lerner and Trevor haven’t been on lost on the bar mitzvah student, who plans to remain in contact with Lerner.

Participation in Remember Us “could make a big difference in someone’s life,” Trevor said. “Dani, it was a big honor for him, and like he said, he was touched when he got my letter, and it meant a lot to him.”

For more information about Remember Us, visit

Yad Vashem hit with anti-Israel, anti-Semitic graffiti

Vandals spray painted anti-Israel and anti-Semitic graffiti at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.

The slogans written in Hebrew, including “Hitler, thank you for the Holocaust,” “If Hitler did not exist, the Zionists would have invented him,” and “The war of the Zionist regime is not the war of the Jewish people,” were mostly found at the entrance to the museum and concentrated near the Warsaw Ghetto Square and the memorial to the deportees.

Police reportedly believe that haredi Jewish extremists, who are opposed to the state of Israel, believing that it should not be established until the arrival of the Messiah, are responsible for the crime, which occurred early Monday morning.

Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev, who is a Holocaust survivor, called the vandalism a “blatant act of hatred of Israel and Zionism,” and said that it “crosses a red line.”

Yad Vashem, European group sign pact to enhance Holocaust education

Yad Vashem and the Council of Europe have signed a memorandum of understanding to promote Holocaust education throughout the council’s 47 member states

The agreement was signed Wednesday at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem by Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, and Thorbjorn Jagland, the council’s secretary general. It formalizes an ad-hoc relationship over the last 15 years and encourages new programs to enhance cooperation.

Among the items included are exploring the organization of a Holocaust education policy forum at Yad Vashem for educational policymakers, and fostering and developing cooperative relationships between member states and Yad Vashem.

“This agreement denotes willingness to deepen and enhance Holocaust education in Europe, and to encourage teacher training and to reconstitute historical awareness,” Avner said.

The International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem conducts some 70 seminars annually for educators from abroad and produces material in 20 languages. 

The council is an international organization promoting cooperation among European countries in the areas of legal standards, human rights, democratic development, the rule of law and culture.

Sapling from Anne Frank’s tree to be planted at Yad Vashem

A sapling from the chestnut tree that Anne Frank wrote about in her diary will be planted at Yad Vashem.

The sapling, donated by The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, was taken from the 150-year-old tree that was toppled by a storm in August 2010. A fungus and insect infestation had weakened the tree.

At Yad Vashem, the sapling will be planted near the Children’s Memorial and International School for Holocaust Studies. Among those scheduled to attend the ceremony is Hanna Pick, a Holocaust survivor and friend of Anne Frank.

Saplings have been sent to institutions around the world.

A global campaign to save the rotting tree was launched in 2007 after Amsterdam officials deemed it a safety hazard. City workers caged the trunk in a steel structure to protect it, but the storm proved too strong.

Anne Frank made several references to the tree in her famous diary, which she kept for the two years she and her family hid in the attic. The last entry about the tree, on May 13, 1944, said that “Our chestnut tree is in full bloom. It’s covered with leaves and is even more beautiful than last year.” It reportedly cheered up Anne and gave her hope for the future.

Anne Frank died at Bergen-Belsen in March 1945.

Germany donates $13 million to Yad Vashem

The German government will donate $13 million to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel over the next 10 years.

The agreement was signed Wednesday by visiting German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who met with Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

“The German government recognizes Yad Vashem as the world center for Holocaust documentation, research and education, and understands its special meaning for the Jewish people and the world at large,” said Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev in a statement. “This agreement strengthens the obligation of the German government and the German people regarding Holocaust remembrance.”

Also Wednesday, Westerwelle said that Germany has upgraded the Palestinian diplomatic delegation in Berlin to a mission, which will be led by an ambassador.

France, Spain, Portugal and Ireland have taken similar action in recent months.