One day in 2002, my mother sat down in the living room of her Upper West Side, Manhattan apartment and told her life story to a stranger. The stranger was a volunteer, part of Steven Spielberg’s epic campaign to preserve the life stories of Holocaust survivors. For over three hours the stranger asked questions and my mother answered, a videographer recording it all.
I would have loved to watch it. I had always wanted to know more about my mother and she was so restrained, even stingy with the information. When I was in my teens we took long Shabbos afternoon walks together and I quizzed her incessantly, probably annoyingly, about her past. I’d squeezed out the basics — how she’d been deported from her hometown of Satmar, Rumania, first to an incineration lager (hence her untattooed arm) and later to a munitions factory where she manufactured bombs as a slave laborer. I knew about her liberation by a Jewish Red Army general who bravely kept his soldiers from entering the camp and raping the women. But there seemed so much more to know. Yet when my mother told me about the Spielberg interview, she added a caveat. “I don’t want anyone to see it until after I’ve died.”
I was puzzled but she offered no explanation. “That’s how I want it to be,” she said firmly. My mother was a formidable personality; there was nothing I could do to dissuade her.
It seemed that she saw the video as a radioactive isotope, dangerous and deadly. But why? Did she have something to hide, something too awful for her to reveal in her lifetime? Had she been a collaborator, a kapo perhaps? Or was the secret sexual — was my mother raped, molested, imprisoned in a Nazi brothel? In 1944 she was a beautiful eighteen-year-old, an Ingrid Bergman lookalike. It seemed entirely plausible that Nazis would use her for illicit purposes.
Maybe I was better off not seeing it at all. Maybe seeing it would make me crazy.
Eva Bleier Green / Courtesy of Carol Ungar
March of the Living participants visit Auschwitz in 2009 / Yossi Selliger
(JTA) — The evening before we visited Auschwitz, over pizza with a group of young people in Oswiecim, the town on whose outskirts lies that infamous symbol, one of my students approached me with tears in her eyes.
Tears are hardly uncommon to visitors of sites of mass death. But for this student — a participant in a weeklong trip to Auschwitz undertaken as part of a course on Holocaust history and literature that I teach at Baruch College in New York City — the trip marked her first time on a plane, her first time in a foreign country, and her first time experiencing an academic setting that didn’t involve a laptop and a classroom located at a busy Manhattan intersection.
Unable or unwilling to bridge these two worlds — a crossing of time and space that seven decades after the war’s end enables a group of American students to casually dine with European counterparts at the edge of history’s most notorious killing center — she felt lost, detached from all that was familiar and unsure of what lay ahead.
Students on our trip were a diverse group, self-identifying as Latina, Jamaican, Polish, Israeli, Moroccan, Mexican and American, among others. By day we toured sites essential to a historical understanding of the Holocaust. In the evening we discussed readings connected to the places we had visited. Some students shared their own journals, which joined Primo Levi and Ruth Kluger as texts for analysis and reflection.
The great advantage of looking at the Holocaust in this way is that it eliminates the notion that this history belongs more to one person than another. This democratic take on the Holocaust makes the experience meaningful, even transformative, for everyone.
Typical Jewish teen tours hold themselves to a poorer standard. Confined to Jewish youth, the trips eliminate the diversity of voices essential to ensure that the imperative of remembrance is broadly observed. Aimed principally at Jewish identity building through the Holocaust, they offer a limited rendering of history, narrow in reach.
Carlos Latuff - Second place winner at the 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Contest
Let’s face it: When Iran announced it would be holding its second International Holocaust Cartoon Contest in May, it was nothing but cheap provocation. That’s it.
You don’t have to be a cartoonist — as I am — to take issue with this competition.
Iran announced the second contest in the wake of Charlie Hebdo’s Mohammad cartoons. Yes, including the one that was on the issue that came out right after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
This is the second contest of this nature. The first took place in 2006, following the controversial Danish Mohammad cartoons. The entries contained many overtly racist depictions of Jews as bloodsucking, manipulative, inhuman creatures.
A lot of them were anti-Israeli, comparing the Israelis to Nazis. Both the first and second place winners compared the separation barrier to a concentration camp.
You cannot say that you have nothing against Jews and do your best to make fun of the Holocaust. You cannot deny the biggest mass killing of Jews in history without drawing (forgive the pun) very clear enemy lines.
This is especially harrowing with Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom Ha’Sho’ah) coming up this Thursday, April 16th.
(JTA) — The neighborhood in Shanghai that was home to approximately 20,000 Jewish refugees during World War II may be added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
While the Nazi-fleeing refugees who settled in Shanghai certainly fared better than the family and friends they left behind in Europe, life in the so-called “Pearl of the Orient” was nonetheless turbulent.
Things in Shanghai looked bright initially, when the first German Jewish refugees, many of them doctors and dentists, arrived soon after Hitler’s rise to power.
The local community was apparently so grateful for the professional skills these refugees brought that JTA headlined a 1934 article “German Jewish doctors cause China to be grateful to the Nazis.”
In that article, JTA reported that an American journalist working in China said approximately 100 Jewish doctors had set up practices in Shanghai: … during the short time they have lived in the city they have come to be regarded as “Hitler’s gift to the Far East” by virtue of the medical skill they have contributed to a territory which has long suffered from inadequate medical attention.
“German Jewish doctors,” said the newspaperman, “have already established themselves as being among the most expert surgeons and general practitioners of Shanghai. None of them seems to be suffering from lack of patronage, while most of them have already established themselves as commanding figures in the city’s public health service.”
Survivors and families make their way to lay candles at the Birkenau Memorial during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz./Getty Images
Oswiecim, the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau and of the commemoration of the 1945 liberation of the camps, is typical of Polish cities in at least one respect: many Jews once lived there, and now they do not.
A majority-Jewish town before the Holocaust, Oswiecim has had an overwhelmingly Catholic population for decades. And while for much of the world the Jewish trauma of the Holocaust is front and center in its remembrances, many in Poland have long focused on the non-Jewish victims of the war.
During the 70th anniversary commemoration, over 150 people gathered at Oswiecim’s Center for Dialogue and Prayer for a mass service led by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Archbishop of Krakow. Dozens of non-Jewish survivors of Auschwitz sat for prayer and liturgical music in the company of Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, who also spoke at the anniversary event.
Some, though, are not content to place Jewish and non-Jewish victims alongside each other, resenting the focus on Jewish suffering as an overemphasis.
On the day of the ceremony, an elderly man from the far-right group Telewizja Narodowe had erected with a 2-story tall wooden cross near a makeshift encampment on the roadside. Sitting beside a wood-burning stove under a blue canopy, he wordlessly declined an interview. But his point was made, not least because his cross sat directly opposite the so-called Auschwitz Cross, long a symbol of Catholic-Jewish tensions over the site.
Eric Lichtblau and his new book, “The Nazis Next Door.”
It’s not often that a museum director gets booed on his own stage.
Yet that’s what happened to David Marwell in the auditorium of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in downtown Manhattan, when an event on New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau’s new book, “The Nazis Next Door,” went sour.
The $15 afternoon event on November 9, which played to a busy house, was structured as a conversation between Marwell and Lichtblau. It soon devolved into an unmannerly three-way colloquy with an angry audience.
They fought a bit over the relative culpability in the Nazis’ crimes of the German scientists brought to the U.S after the Second World War. But the point that drew the loudest audience shouts was an obscure dispute over what impact General George Patton’s anti-Semitism had on conditions in the displaced persons camps in Europe following the collapse of the Nazi regime. Marwell thought that Lichtblau overstated Patton’s role.
“When he said Patton’s views infused and characterized the treatment of DP’s throughout the postwar period, I said, ‘Eric, you simply can’t say that,” Marwell told the Forward. “And that’s when I got the boos.”
Marwell said it was the first time he had ever been the target of an angry audience’s shouts in his 14 years as director of the museum.
Postcard of Madeira
While other Jewish families suffered unimaginable brutality in the Holocaust, my family lived like royalty in the Portuguese paradise known for its wine, Madeira.
I know: I sound like an entitled, unsympathetic brat. And what I’m trying to say is, I feel guilty about this. I always have.
Every time a Holocaust remembrance day rolls around — like today, Kristallnacht — I feel guilty. Guilty that my family survived, that I can’t relate to the Holocaust on a personal level at all, that Holocaust history is the core of Jewish identity in modern America — and yet I have no part in it.
My family is from Gibraltar (like the straits you learned about in history class), a British territory on the tip of the Iberian Peninsula. In 1940, the civilian population of Gibraltar was evacuated because it was being used as a base for the British Royal Air Force’s, Military’s and Navy’s war efforts. The evacuation moved the entire peninsula’s population well out of harm’s way — and well out of the Holocaust’s scope — to Madeira, where my family went, and Jamaica, another tropical paradise.
My point in highlighting this history is not to brag — just the opposite. I thank God that my family wasn’t subjected to Hitler’s evils, but I feel like the fact that we were so far removed from the horrors carried out by Nazi Germany somehow isolates me from the modern Jewish community and makes my identity less, well, Jewish.
Protesters took to the streets of Paris this summer to demonstrate against Israel / Getty Images
(JTA) — Each year on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, we recall the opening salvo of the violent assault on Jews that foreshadowed the Holocaust and ask ourselves what should have been done at that moment.
In thinking about Kristallnacht, we should also consider the outpouring of violence against Jewish communities in Europe this summer and draw the right lessons for today.
It is rightly said that the Holocaust began not with gas chambers but with words. The significance of Kristallnacht in the history of the Holocaust is the passage from anti-Jewish legislation and anti-Semitic rhetoric to violence against Jews. And therein lies the lesson for today.
To be clear, in today’s democratic Europe, there is no risk of a new Holocaust. Invoking such a possibility obscures rather than illuminates the serious situation of European Jewry. Comparisons to Kristallnacht, however, are apt.
This summer we saw in France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe, anti-Semitic rhetoric followed by assaults on Jews and attacks on synagogues, Jewish-owned shops and other Jewish institutions. The differences with Kristallnacht are stark and significant, but the similarities cannot be ignored. Not on this anniversary — not at a time of great insecurity among Jewish communities in Europe.
Broken and Burning: The main synagogue in Frankfurt-am-Main burns in the November pogrom, 1938.
The word Kristallnacht is poetic, alluring: A night of crystal — perhaps in today’s context we might think of Cristal champagne. The name the Nazis gave the violence of November 9 and 10, 1938, is redolent of European sophistication and yet it connotes barbarity. For that reason Raul Hilberg, and a number of other prominent historians, especially German ones, refuse the name, preferring to use variations on the phrase “November pogrom.”
And yet the Nazi name endures in the public imagination.
It’s only when we get to the English “night of broken glass” that we understand that something has been destroyed. And it’s only in the commemoration that we really understand the gap between the Nazi-issued signifier and the violent signified that was perpetrated by the S.A. (Sturmabteilung, storm troops) and the S.S. (Schutzstaffel, special police), with the participation of many ordinary Germans.
Mango’s new shirt
After Sears’s swastika ring and Zara’s concentration camp shirt comes another piece of fashion that has incensed the internet: The lightning-like black symbols on the women’s shirt ‘Rayo’ by Spanish fashion company Mango look suspiciously like the runic insignia of the Nazi SS units and the youth organization Jungvolk.
“Why does Mango have this model only for women — weren’t there also male Nazis?” Martin Sonneborn, a German satirist and member of the European Parliament, wrote underneath a photo he posted on his Facebook page on Thursday.
On Twitter, users joked about Mango’s “Eva Braun Collection” and the “total fashion war,” and referred to the shirt as “Nazi chic.” And Ambros Waibel of the left-leaning German daily newspaper taz suggests that the shirt should cost 33,45 instead of 35,99 euro.
The stylized rune, which stands for “Sieg” (victory) was used in its single form by the German Jungvolk of the Hitler Youth, which was the Nazi party’s organization for boys aged 10 to 14. At age 14, they became members of the Hitler Youth.
The paramilitary SS, which used the double rune as their emblem, was founded as Adolf Hitler’s personal guard unit. During the Third Reich it was led by Heinrich Himmler, and was most notorious for being in charge of the concentration camps.
Mango reacted promptly. Several German newspapers quoted a statement from Mango in which the company said that they regret the “unfortunate association.”
Courtesy of the website for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights
(JTA) — On the fourth floor of the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights, visitors will find a gallery called “Examining the Holocaust,” which is devoted entirely to the story and lessons of the Shoah. On the same floor, in a smaller, adjacent space, a gallery called “Breaking the Silence” examines a cluster of five genocides officially recognized by the Canadian government: the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia; the Armenian and Rwandan genocides; the Holodomor, or the starvation of millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s; and, once again, the Holocaust.
“Examining the Holocaust” is just one of 11 galleries at the $351 million human rights museum that opens in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on Saturday. It is also the museum’s thorniest.
The permanent gallery has long been a source of controversy for the institution, which has fought accusations from a handful of Canada’s ethnic communities, ranging from Ukrainians to Armenians, that allowing the Holocaust its own space downplays the significance of the other human rights atrocities confined to a single room.
In interviews with JTA, museum officials defended their decision by asserting that the Holocaust is in fact exceptional, both as an act of 20th-century genocide and a pedagogic tool. As the trigger for international human rights legislation in the aftermath of World War II, the Holocaust is deserving of its own gallery, the officials said.
“It’s one of the most studied, most well-documented atrocities,” said June Creelman, the museum’s director of learning and programming. “One of the ways to educate is to start with something familiar and move to something unknown.”
Henk Zanoli is second from right in this 1942 family photo / Yad Vashem
It was at the insistence of Rivka Ben-Pazi that Henk Zanoli was deemed a “righteous gentile” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s state Holocaust museum. Ben-Pazi wrote a book about the Jewish boy that Zanoli saved, Elchanan Hameiri, and eventually got the museum to honor the Dutchman for hiding 11-year-old Hameiri from the Nazis.
Ben-Pazi, Hameiri’s niece, said she strongly disagrees with Zanoli’s decision to return the medal after six members of Zanoli’s extended family, the Ziadahs, were killed in Gaza last month. Now, she has written a letter to Zanoli explaining why she thinks he was wrong. She shared it with the Forward:
Dear Mr. Henk Zanoli,
It was with great sorrow that I heard about the tragedy that befell your relatives in Gaza. I would like to express my sincere condolences to you and your family.
You, your mother, and your brothers saved my uncle, Elchanan Pinto, from the hands of the Nazis. You hid him in your home at a risk to your own lives and cared for him with devotion and love. My family and I are forever grateful to you and your entire family. The Zanoli family is a symbol and an example of charitable, moral people who are guided by their faith without fear, despite danger to themselves.
I was informed that as a result of the tragedy that befell your family in Gaza, you have chosen to return the Righteous Among the Nations medal that you received from Yad Vashem in 2011 in recognition of the courageous and humane actions of your mother, your brothers and yourself during the Holocaust.
I can understand the anguish you must be feeling which led you to reject the award that you received from the State of Israel, yet I would like to tell you our story, the story of the Jewish nation living in the State of Israel, as it has unfolded over the past several weeks.
(JTA) — With the new school year nearly upon us, Jewish educational leaders are scrambling to prepare their teachers to discuss this summer’s Gaza War. The most pressing challenge is to design age-appropriate conversations: At which grade level might classroom discussions include potentially frightening topics, such as the wounding of non-combatants, kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets? And how should teachers address the tough issues of civilian casualties in Gaza and the flagrant hostility toward Jews and Israel that has erupted in many parts of the world?
These questions are difficult enough, but are especially freighted with anxiety because they hold the potential to revive stereotypes of Israel that North American Jewish schools have been trying to counter. When Israel was forced to wage three major wars during its first quarter century, its image as an embattled enclave overshadowed everything else about its existence.
In recent decades, though, Jewish schools have endeavored to present a more rounded picture of Israeli life. Without denying the existential challenges facing the Jewish state, teachers have drawn attention to the rich tapestry of Israeli culture — its diverse inhabitants, culinary treats and eclectic music, for example — and, of course, its technological wizardry. School trips to Israel have highlighted the country’s natural beauty and its enjoyable recreational scene, even while exploring the strong connections between the land and the Jewish religion. Educators are understandably loath to resurrect the earlier imagery that simplistically portrayed Israel as a country permanently on war footing.
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?