Teenagers, selfies, and the Holocaust — you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone over the age of 30 who doesn’t have some thoughts on all three. Last week, though, the world was granted the chance to think about all three at the same time.
How many teenagers? Some. What kind of selfies? Varied. What does it mean? No one really knows.
Yet “some, varied, and no one really knows” were good enough reasons for many a furrowed brow and a clucked tongue, because if there is anything we do know as a society, it’s that the Holocaust is serious business, selfies are a sign of dangerous self-involvement, and teenagers will be the end of us all. Not necessarily in that order.
My fellow old Jews will have to forgive me, however, if I refuse to hop on the worry wagon.
Alexander Imich at 111 years old / Guinness Book of World Records
Ray Bradbury, in his classic 1955 story “The Last, the Very Last,” has a child encounter a 108-year-old man believed to be the last known Civil War veteran. The story, reworked as a chapter in his novel Dandelion Wine, introduces the veteran to Bradbury’s childhood alter-ego as a “time machine” whom he uses to see the events of the past through the veteran’s retellings.
Conducting oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors, I often feel the weight of history as I speak with such “time machines.” But no encounter has so reminded me of the two reincarnations of Bradbury’s story as the afternoon I spent last July with Dr. Alexander Imich, who passed away on June 8 at the age of 111.
Born February 4, 1903 in Częstochowa, Poland (then part of the Czarist Empire), Imich was — like the man in Bradbury’s story — the very last veteran of a war, in his case the Polish-Soviet war of 1918-1919. He was also, as best as I could figure, the very last Jew to have been Bar-Mitzvahed in the Czarist Empire. He was the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor and the last man to have received a PhD in the 1920s. But his advanced age was far from the only reason I had sought him out. As his Wikipedia article states in sterile un-ironic prose, “he was one of the few super-centenarians known for reasons other than longevity.”
I had first heard of Imich when I was 12 or 13. At the time I was fascinated by the paranormal and Imich was — at the age of 98 or so — just beginning another phase of his career in the field. Two years earlier he had founded the Anomalous Phenomena Research Center, which he would run for the rest of his life. As the last active parapsychologist who had published during the golden age of paranormal studies in Weimar Germany, Imich was then, in the early 2000s, regarded as the field’s preeminent elder-statesman.
Although I had long lost most of my interest in the paranormal, I still instantly recognized Imich’s name last spring while pouring over lists of possible interview subjects for the Yiddish Book Center’s oral history project. After getting in touch with him through his great-niece Karen Bogen, Imich decided that he wasn’t “Jewish enough” for the Yiddish Book Center. Despite my best efforts I was unable to dissuade him of the notion. He did, however, agree to let me interview him after I told him about my interest in the paranormal.
Maya Angelou, who has died at 86, was a celebrated poet, author, and chronicler of the African-American experience.
Angelou also had several memorable interactions with the Jewish community. Here are six Jewish memories of Maya:
1) Poignant Poetry
In one of his final acts in office, President Bill Clinton appointed Angelou to the board of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in 2001. During meetings, she would occasionally read poems to focus board members on their shared mission.
“Maya Angelou brought a unique voice,” recalled Sara J. Bloomfield, the museum’s director. “(She) would take us beyond the business at hand and remind everyone of the importance of the museum’s mission in promoting human dignity for all people.”
2) Farrakhan Flap
Angelou’s seemingly straightforward appointment to the museum’s board was not without some controversy. She came under fire from Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who criticized Angelou for accepting a speaking invitation from Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam who is considered by many Jews to be an anti-Semite. Angelou had recited a poem at the 1995 Million Man March organized by Farrakhan, which brought hundreds of thousands of blacks to the Washington Mall.
She “bestowed her name and prestige upon a man whose anti-Semitism and racism were by then unquestionable and who referred to the murder of Europe’s Jews as ‘the so-called Holocaust of the so-called Jew, the imposter Jew,’” Cohen wrote.
“Maya Angelou doesn’t belong in its board room. She belongs, instead, in the museum’s exhibition rooms. She has lots to learn.”
March of the Living participants visit Auschwitz in 2009 / Yossi Selliger
This year, I made the difficult decision not to join my high school classmates on March of the Living, an organized trip that takes students to Poland’s death camps and then on to Israel. But it wasn’t until I read Meg Bloom Glasser’s opinion piece, which laments the new 9/11 Museum’s approach to memorializing, that I fully understood why.
The word Bloom Glasser uses is “spectacle.”
“I have been reduced to a spectator in the cheap seats,” she said, convinced that the new Manhattan museum has filched from her any and all control over the memory of her husband, who died in the attacks.
“Spectacle” is just the right word for March of the Living. The most recognizable features in a March of the Living photo are the locked arms, the bright matching caps and shirts, and, most prominently, the Israeli flags — all decked out, right on the train tracks into Auschwitz.
The in-your-face, Israeli-flag-waving flashiness at the camps is disquieting because it represents Israel — in a seemingly innocent way — as a beacon of perfection in the Jewish world, and as something that is in need of everyone’s protection at all times. The hidebound nationalism is a bit much.
But Bloom Glasser captures my disillusionment through a sharper lens. “[9/11] may have been a public loss” — the Holocaust, too, is one of the most mourned public losses — “but… rather than honoring the lives lost, the museum just seems to exploit those deaths to tell a bigger story.”
“Zionism has been taken, kidnapped even, by the far right.”
So says Pulitzer-winning Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander in a Haaretz interview published over the weekend. Explaining that he was “a normal Zionist until 1968,” the professor says that nowadays he can no longer call himself a Zionist — thanks to the movement’s right-wing “kidnappers.”
Friedlander’s sense that Zionism has been stolen and besotted over the past three or four decades is one that will resonate with a lot of Jews — especially young Jews, who eye Israel’s rightward ideological shift, uptick in settlement building and price tag attacks, and occupation writ large with increasing dismay.
I share that profound dismay, but I actually think that Friedlander’s “kidnapping” statement misses the mark. It implies that Zionism started out as a perfectly sound concept but was, unfortunately, hijacked and problematized by right-wingers later on. But Zionism’s problems started long before the late sixties; they go back, I would argue, to the very beginning.
In fact, I agree that Zionism was “kidnapped,” but only if we’re talking in the Talmudic sense — that is, if we look at the movement through the lens of the Jewish legal category known as tinok shenishba — literally, a captured or kidnapped infant.
A Jewish settler boy sticks his tongue out at peace activists protesting in Hebron / Getty Images
This weekend, renowned Holocaust scholar Shaul Friedlander gave sharp expression to a feeling shared broadly by many Jews, in Israel and the Diaspora. “Zionism has been taken, kidnapped even, by the far right,” Friedlander said in an interview with Haaretz. And all around the world, these Jews shook their heads, and sighed. Yes, they thought, it has been.
I have enormous respect for Prof. Friedlander, but I’m afraid I have to disagree. Zionism wasn’t kidnapped, or even merely “taken,” by the far right. It was handed over, with barely a peep, by the vast middle.
Our Ze’ev Jabotinskys, Geula Cohens, and Meir Kahanes have always had a central role in Jewish nationalist thought, but the 21st century has seen their like rise to new prominence. Centrists, hard-core peaceniks, and leftists have watched grimly as Israel has drifted ever rightward since the second intifada. Every step toward peace seemed doomed from the outset, and Israel’s leadership took care to tell us that there just wasn’t anyone to talk to. More and more settlements were built, but again, Israel’s leadership always kindly clarified that these don’t stand in the way of peace, and really, what’s another road, another red roof?
The struggle over Israel in the Jewish community is heating up in Winnipeg, Canada. David Barnard, the President of the University of Manitoba — the city’s largest university — has been publicly un-invited to speak at one of the larger shuls in the city, Shaarey Zedek. The president was to have spoken at an interfaith service during Yom HaShoah.
He was uninvited, according to Ian Staniloff, the synagogue’s executive director, because he had allowed Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) to go ahead on the university campus. “Our board and congregation and community leaders felt it completely inappropriate that he take part,” said Staniloff, “because it’s visceral and personal and such a solemn occasion for us. We were more concerned in the perception that by having him here we’re basically endorsing him as an individual who would be representative of the community in speaking about this.” What an extremely disappointing decision.
As is often the case with these things, politics and legal maneuverings preceded IAW. It appears that the Student Union removed an organization promoting IAW, Students Against Israeli Apartheid, from official university status. Barnard did not override that decision, but he allowed an outside group to host IAW events on campus because, we are told, a legal opinion noted that preventing IAW from taking place would violate Manitoba’s human rights code.
I grew up in Winnipeg, and I watched it shift rightward in the aftermath of the Second Intifada. The image of a Palestinian rioter holding up his hands covered in the blood of two Israeli reserve soldiers whose bodies were horrifically mutilated was burned in our individual minds and our collective memory. Our community became angry, afraid, frustrated — and intolerant.
But if I thought that intolerance had diminished in the intervening years, I was wrong. To be fair, IAW is a difficult period for many. Its purpose is to demonstrate that Israel practices apartheid against Palestinians under its control, and to promote the BDS movement as a way to end these policies. As I’ve argued before, inherent to the BDS movement is the goal of ending Israel as an independent, Jewish-majority state. IAW, on this account, contributes to the delegitimization of Israel — a fully accepted member of the international system — and promotes an uncomfortable atmosphere for Jewish and non-Jewish students on campus. This is especially so at a time when anti-Semitic attacks have risen in parts of the world.
Israel’s Education Ministry has left Israeli parents asking how young is too young when it comes to Holocaust education.
Yesterday, on the Israeli Holocaust memorial day, Yom Hashoah, kindergartens began following a new government directive to teach the Holocaust. But is this really the right decision?
First, it’s not just that every parent has different ideas on the right age for Shoah education, but every child is different and ready for this kind of highly emotive issue at a different age. A government directive sets the start-age for Shoah education, to be conducted collectively, and sets it very young. But surely it would be better to leave it to parents to judge the right time for their child, raise it when they see fit, and then let the education system take over at an older age.
A Jewish boy wears a yellow star like those forced on Jews during the Holocaust / Getty Images
“So, children, tell me how you came to Theresienstadt.”
Thus began my seventh grade intro to Shoah education. Not that we hadn’t been learning about the Holocaust for most of our day school careers. There was the yearly replica of Yad Vashem, where each grade was responsible for a booth, countless Holocaust-themed books and reports, and the rite of passage that we liked to call, “create a board game based on the book Night by Elie Wiesel.”
All this was by way of introduction to a week-long role play where the teacher had us pretend to be children in the famous Czech camp. The chain link fence around the tennis court was a visual approximation of barbed wire. Those years of investigation into all things Nazi had given us ample material for creating our “in the camps” personas. Every one of us had spent hours pondering how we would have fared had we been in Germany during Kristallnacht, or Warsaw in the ghetto. Or Auschwitz. We had imagined how we would react if our fathers disappeared. We wondered if we would have been brave enough to fight with the partisans. If our instinct for self-preservation would have allowed us to look out for ourselves at the expense of others.
Our fantasies had a color – black and white like the newsreels we saw, little bits of brown from flashes of the mini-series Holocaust, which aired when we were six or seven, and still our parents let us watch. And so it was that when the teacher announced we would be pretending to be in Terezin for the next few days, it was startlingly easy to make the shift. Even the classroom and our colorful early eighties outfits seemed to fade to a dull gray. Our ever-present nightmares were becoming reality, and it was almost a relief, at last, to know it was finally happening.
The most tasteless YouTube video ever has just been released – by our friends at Jews for Jesus. Entitled “That Jew Died for You,” it is – I am not making any of this up – a three-minute video showing Jesus Christ among a group of Jews arriving at Auschwitz. And you thought the Easter Passion Plays were offensive.
According to Jews for Jesus, the video was made because “Jesus has often been wrongly associated with the perpetrators of the Holocaust.” The film, which includes Jesus helping a Jewish woman when she stumbles during a forced march and, later, being selected for the gas chambers by a Mengele-like Nazi, is meant to clear that up. Actually, Jesus was “just another Jew,” and suffered with the Jews in the Holocaust.
A “making-of” video available on thatjewdiedforyou.com elaborates: “The Holocaust, perhaps more than any other event or topic, has kept Jewish people from being open to considering Jesus as the Jewish messiah.” If only we didn’t blame Christians for the genocide of our people, the reasoning goes, we’d be more open to converting to Christianity.
The author and his grandfather / Courtesy of Hody Nemes
The Exodus happened 3,000 years ago. But today, in the year 5774, we are still supposed to see ourselves as if we had experienced slavery and left Egypt, according to the Haggadah.
For me, that’s always been a tall order.
In order to feel like a slave, I wanted to know the details of individual slave life. What emotions did a Hebrew slave feel as the taskmaster walked by, holding a whip? Did he love the land of Goshen, the only home he knew – or did he curse it? Did he sing songs as he worked? Was he too tired to dream of freedom? The book of Exodus is remarkably silent on these questions.
But sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather.
Supporters listen to Austrian Freedom Party head Heinz-Christian Strache in 2013. / Getty Images
Last Friday, a German magazine article quoted Andreas Moelzer, a member of the European Parliament for the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, saying that the Third Reich had fewer rules, regulations and bans than the European Union, and probably looked informal and liberal in comparison.
The fact that controversial Moelzer — the co-publisher of the controversial German national newspaper “Zur Zeit,” in which an author once praised Adolf Hitler as a “great social revolutionary” — made these statements is hardly surprising. The public outcry that followed was to be expected as well: Politicians from other parties as well as Oskar Deutsch, the president of the Jewish community of Vienna, demanded Moelzer’s withdrawal as a candidate for the upcoming EU parliamentary elections, while news outlets lamented the frequency of Nazi comparisons uttered by Freedom Party leaders.
The statement is outrageous, no question. It is offensive and plain wrong. Austria joined the European Union in 1995 and, growing up there, I never had the impression that I was growing up in a dictatorship. After all, I can work and travel freely in 28 countries, while my grandmother was denied the chance to attend school at the age of 12 and forcibly deported to a concentration camp.
Nevertheless, public outrage over Nazi comparisons is a double-edged sword. While it is necessary, there is little point in doing so unless we face a vital, underlying question: Why isn’t the Freedom Party’s voter base more upset about this? The answer isn’t as obvious as it seems.
At 111, Dr. Alexander Imich may be the oldest living Holocaust survivor. / YouTube
As a writer for a Yiddish newspaper and as a Yiddish translator, I spend a lot of time working with Holocaust survivors and their writings. I’ve spent upwards of 1000 hours conducting oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors and translating Holocaust testimony. Recording, preserving and sharing these stories is a large part of my day-to-day life. So although I’d hardly consider myself an expert on the topic, the Holocaust plays a much greater role in my life than it does for the average 20-something American Jew.
That’s why I was taken aback last week when I realized that I couldn’t answer a colleague’s seemingly simple question: “Who ‘counts’ as a Holocaust survivor?” The question arose after the inimitable Alice Herz-Sommer died at 110 years old on February 23. Herz-Sommer, a gifted pianist who knew Kafka in her youth, survived the Theresiendstadt concentration camp in her early 40s along with her son Raphael. Herz-Sommer’s life, musical career and indomitable spirit are recalled in the Oscar-winning film “The Lady in Number 6.”
Although Herz-Sommer was widely described as the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor at the time of her death, I believe there is an older survivor living in New York City. Dr. Alexander Imich, with whom I conducted an oral history interview in July, was born in Czestochowa, Poland on February 4, 1903. That makes him 111.
Art historian Meike Hoffmann speaks to the media regarding the seizure in 2011 of 1,500 paintings from Cornelius Gurlitt in Germany. / Getty Images
It looks like the German lawmakers will be too late.
Cornelius Gurlitt’s spokesman, Stephan Holzinger, announced today that Gurlitt’s lawyers filed a complaint at an Augsburg court, arguing that tax authorities’ seizure of the Gurlitt art collection was disproportionate and asking for the immediate return of the reportedly Nazi-looted works.
“In light of the immense public interest and political debate, we have a reasonable concern about the legality of this process,” defense attorney Derek Setz said. Is it irony or intent that this complaint was filed last Friday — the same day that a bill proposing retroactive abolition of the statute of limitations for claims on Nazi-looted art was filed and accepted to be discussed by the Upper House of the German Parliament?
In September 2010, customs officers caught Cornelius Gurlitt, son of Nazi-dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, on a train from Zurich to Munich, carrying €9,000 in cash. Nothing illegal there. But the fact that he had traveled to Zurich the same morning, together with his nervous behavior, initiated a court-ordered tax investigation in 2011, which led to the 2012 search of Gurlitt’s home and the seizure of about 1,400 works of art by the authorities. The case became public in November 2013 through a leak to the German magazine Focus.
The ruins of a gas chamber at the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp / Getty Images
Lying at the heart of every political position I hold is an undying faith in human fallibility. Not only might we get things wrong, we will get things wrong – just as we got things wrong last week and last year and last war, forever and ever, back and back, all the way into our misty past.
Fortunately, history is chock-a-block with examples that prove my faith to be unassailable. In fact, it’s hard to know which example would be most illustrative here. Knowing the world is flat? Check. How about knowing we’d be greeted as liberators? Check and check. Or no, I have one: Gas chambers.
Gas chambers. Just saying the words fills the mind with horror and images unbidden – though I’ll bet they don’t involve Wyoming.
But for all that, Wyoming is where the topic of gas chambers was most recently raised, in the context of a broader conversation about the death penalty and America’s growing awareness that we were wrong when we thought that execution by lethal injection might not be a cruel and unusual punishment – because as the horrifying story that recently emerged from Ohio’s death row indicates, a whole lot of suffering can fit into just a couple of needles.
So what are some of America’s politicians suggesting instead? A reconsideration of sentencing procedures, a re-examination of the legal foundation for death penalty policies? No. They’re suggesting firing squads. The electric chair. Gas chambers.
Milan — Today, many European countries — including Germany, Italy and the UK — are observing the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day. What makes this particular Holocaust Remembrance Day peculiar in Italy is the fact that quite a few public intellectuals, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have called for its abolition. Well, that and the fact that three pig heads have just been sent to three major Jewish sites in Rome, in an apparent mafia-style attempt at intimidation.
Among the public figures explicitly calling for the abolition of Holocaust Remembrance Day are Elena Loewenthal, a renowned Jewish writer who just published the pamphlet Contro il Giorno Della Memoria (Against the Day of Memory), and Giuliano Ferrara, a devoutly Catholic conservative pundit who wrote a much discussed editorial on the topic last month.
The utility and raison d’être of Holocaust Remembrance Day have often been questioned since it was established in the early 2000s. Allow me to sum up the main arguments most commonly presented against this day, in an effort to better explain why, no matter how flawed it may be, I’m still convinced that Europe needs Holocaust Remembrance Day.
A Swedish punk rocker with a swastika tattoo. / Getty Images
I’ve always wanted to visit Nashville, Tenn. On my recent trip there, I had every bit as much fun as I suspected I would. But I also saw something that made me gasp out loud.
Downtown, I stumbled upon a tattoo shop. Being a person with tattoos (controversially, a Jew with tattoos), I decided to stop in and do some pricing. Perusing the flash art wall, I saw the typical assortment of symbols, animals, sayings, suggestive cartoons, etc. Then a particular design caught my eye: an eagle’s head with a swastika inside it.
I wondered how I could actually be seeing this. I had been enjoying my trip so much, and this was casting a cloud over it. Do people actually come into the shop to get that terrible symbol inked on them? I wanted to go and say something to the shop staff members, who seemed extremely friendly, but since I was more or less a stranger in a strange land I decided it was best to keep mum.
Back home I told several people about my experience, and they were all appalled. After all, even though bigotry and hatred can happen anywhere, they definitely should not be catered to. I “liked” the company’s page on Facebook so that I could post on it to let staff and patrons know how I felt. My feeling — and hope — was that the design was due to ignorance, since the Jewish population in Nashville is not at all like New York City’s.
The former Jewish ghetto on the banks of the Tiber in central Rome. / Getty Images
Should Jews living in the Diaspora feel ashamed of being, well, Jews living in the Diaspora? A growing number of European Jews, it seems, believe the answer is yes. But when did we start buying into this narrative?
I’ve been asking myself this question lately because of a debate that’s going on here in Italy. It has to do with the opportunity to build a Holocaust museum. A very well known conservative pundit, Giuliano Ferrara, recently criticized the President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Renzo Gattegna, who dared to protest the fact that Italy doesn’t have such a museum. Ferrara suggested Jews worry less about “the anti-Semitism of the past” and focus on more urgent issues, such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program.
What struck me most was the reaction I saw in the Italian Jewish press and online forums. A number of people sided with the right-wing commentator, claiming that building a memorial for the Holocaust would actually be inappropriate. Why? Because it would promote a Diasporic idea of Judaism!
Emanuele Segre Amar, a Jewish leader who serves as deputy chair of the Jewish community of Turin, went so far as to claim that Holocaust memorials “promote the stereotype of the Jew as victim, docile, weak, assimilated and Diasporic.”
News that drunken revelers had, on New Year’s Eve, used Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe as a urinal came shortly after The New York Times published an op-ed by Yascha Mounk on the conflicts of being a German Jew.
Together, these items create an image of a Germany not at ease with itself, of a nation that still hasn’t come to terms with its past and found a place in its social fabric for Jews or the memory of Jews. Mounk suggests Germany has swung between “a bout of philo-Semitism” and “a new mood of ‘enough is enough’” when it comes to processing the Second World War, adding:
Clearly, there was something artificial about the ritualistic displays of historical contrition that had long been central to public life in Germany. But to assert that the time had come to move beyond the past, once and for all, was no less artificial. Normality cannot be decreed by fiat.
Mounk is right, on the one hand, to suggest that after the Shoah, things can never be normal again, neither for Germany as a whole or German Jews in particular. “Increasingly, I realized that the mere mention of my heritage erected an invisible wall between my classmates and me,” Mounk writes. “I realized that even my most well-intentioned compatriots saw me as a Jew first, and a German second.”
But to suggest that Germany’s public struggle to come to terms with the past is in some form artificial does a disservice to what Germany has achieved since the end of the Second World War in this regard.
At first glance, it seems that Ani DiFranco has become the latest example of how a mix of star-fueled insulation from the real world and white privilege can lead to bad public relations. After an Internet-inspired backlash, the feminist singer-songwriter has canceled a musical retreat at a former slave plantation in Louisiana, now a resort that promotes the quaint imagery of antebellum life.
But the dreadlocked diva isn’t to blame. Many have wondered how the normally socially progressive artist could be so insensitive. The answer is that for more than a century, since the South lost the Civil War, it has buried the horror of slavery to such an extent that celebrating at a site of such human suffering doesn’t seem so absurd. That a place like the Nottoway Plantation, where DiFranco wanted to have her event, exists as a luxury destination for weddings and other celebrations is telling enough. This is just one example of both collective amnesia and resilient pride in a racist ideology.
The fact is that it’s not that hard for a society to publicly condemn its own past and actively work toward a better future. As Jews, we know that Germany’s monuments to the Holocaust explicitly define the dead as victims of the nation. Those who resisted have museums in their honor. The death camps, both in Germany and outside, remind us of the dark possibilities of the human spirit, a sign that regular people can participate in unspeakable evil. Nothing about that era is celebrated.