The fact that Dr. Ruth Westheimer, arguably the most famous sex therapist alive today, is also a Holocaust survivor always struck me as nothing more than a surprising coincidence. Survivors went on to occupy a range of professions — why not sex therapy, too?
But it turns out that enduring trauma — or at least living among the traumatized — can be a source of insight into the role erotic expression plays in rebuilding a healthy life.
A photograph of an old Bosniak woman — a survivor of the genocide which took place in Srebrenica — standing in front of a poster of a young Anne Frank outside the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam is just one of the powerful images which make up photographer Tarik Samarah’s exhibit in Sarajevo entitled “You Are My Witness.” As a citizen of the world, and particularly as a Jewish woman, this image struck a deep chord with me. What of ‘Never Again’ and its hollow promise? How quickly were the painful lessons of the Holocaust, unbridled prejudice and unchecked ultra-nationalism forgotten?
Thanks to my academic studies in transitional justice and my identity as a Jewish South African, I have always been fascinated by the interplay between trauma, memory and narrative. The complex historical legacy that these dual heritages hold has shaped who I am today, and I have always sought to explore the issues of justice and transformation wherever I travel. And so, on a recent trip to Bosnia, I decided to see the exhibition “You Are My Witness” currently showing at the Galerija 11/05/95 in the heart of Sarajevo — which is where I first saw that image of the older woman and the young Frank. Their image embodies my struggle to understand how the world, under the long shadow cast by the war crimes of World War II, did not do more to stop the slaughter which gripped the Balkans from 1993 to 1995. This image, just one of many on display in “You Are My Witness,” creates a profound connection between the genocide in the Balkans and the other great crime against humanity, the Holocaust, which took place on European soil.
As I entered the exhibit, I was greeted by a 16 meter wall covered in names of those massacred in the genocide of Srebrenica. This marked the beginning of a collection of photographs all taken by the talented Semerah, a Bosniak photographer from Sarajevo. Part art and part documentation, his work puts into pictures what cannot be described in words. He spent months accompanying international teams of missing persons units in 2002 as they uncovered the mass graves of Srebrenica and performed the grim task of identifying and burying the dead. Taken nearly 10 years after the genocide, Semerah’s photography not only documents this process but also the lives of the women and children who survived the genocide and now live as refugees.
The website XOJane.com published a post by one of its regular contributors, India-Jewel Jackson, entitled “Let’s Talk Paula Deen and Apology Culture – Should Celebrities Be Forced to Apologize In Spite of Their Beliefs?”
However, it wasn’t Jackson’s post on June 24 that caused controversy among the blog’s devoted followers – it was one of her comments. In the comment thread on the piece, Jackson compared slavery to the Holocaust, arguing that black people had suffered more from slavery than Jewish people had from the Shoah.
“BUT, with the slavery vs. holocaust debate, it’s a bit different, as it was ultimately based upon race vs. religion, as in, Blacks were enslaved for hundreds of years, because they were Black. They couldn’t change or alter the appearance so as to escape and fly under the radar. Jews were exteriminated [sic] (@peachgrenade’s words–not mine) for not being blonde + blue and because of their religion–the hair and the religion, they could change,” she wrote in response to another commenter.
The thread then turned into what might be called the Oppression Olympics, with people complaining that certain groups had more right to victimhood than others. Turning systematic oppression into a contest where minority groups vie for the title of “People who had it the worst” serves only to diminish all of our experiences. The post racked up 421 comments, with commenters debating everything from whether Jewishness is a choice to whether Native Americans actually beat both black and Jewish people in the carnival of suffering. The original subject of the post, Paula Deen, was long forgotten.
For years, I skirted around Berlin. Trips to Europe took me to Denmark, Holland and France, but never to their neighbor. When a friend finally convinced me to visit this spring, I got one of two responses from all of my Jewish friends: “Oh, I love Berlin! It’s like Brooklyn. I’ve been thinking about moving.” And then there was, “Oh, I could never.”
Until now, I’ve been firmly in category two. It isn’t personal. My family was lucky enough to have already been in the United States when the Shoah happened. My beef’s with the Ukraine, who chased them out (and which I still won’t visit), not with Germany. But the Holocaust is all over every Jewish kid’s curriculum, and it’s full of German people and German words. I keep thinking of scenes from Eytan Fox’s movie “Walk On Water,” which is basically the German/Jewish conflict illustrated on an individual scale. In fact, one of the reasons I’m in Europe right now is to attend an Austrian friend and former roommate’s wedding.
But as the plane circled Tegel airport, I felt a shadow crawl into my stomach. In the Customs line, I watched an elderly German couple and thought Were they there? What did they do? I was convinced that everyone could look at me and tell, like those guys in the New York City subway who always stop and ask if you’re Jewish.
The Sisterhood has covered Haredi exclusion of women from the Israeli public sphere for some time now. When it comes to the removal of women’s images from public view, we’ve seen the disappearance of women from advertisements; the photoshopping of female leaders like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton out of news photos; the blurring of women’s and girls’ faces on memorial notices and even the erasing of a pair of women’s shoes from an innocuous photo of a family’s shoe drawer.
But now this practice has reached a high — or, rather low — point with the blurring out of the face of a woman in a Holocaust-era photo. Ynet reported that the Haredi newspaper “Bakehillah” (In the community) censored the face of Matilda Goldfinger, the woman who appears to the left of the little boy wearing a yellow star with his hands raised in the iconic photo documenting the final liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in May 1943, following the Jewish uprising there that began on the first night of Passover that year. Goldfinger’s daughter Henka (Hannah) was killed moments after the photograph was taken.
Chelyabinsk. The way my grandparents say the word is nothing like the way the newscasters on CNN pronounced it last week. The L is soft, and the accent is on the A. Chelyabinsk.
The name of this Siberian town deep in the Ural mountains, where meteoric hellfire rained from above and spawned a thousand nightmares, has loomed large in my imagination my whole life. I’ve been grateful for its existence and upset by its inherent strangeness.
I wanted to visit — to mimic the interminable and terrifying train ride there my grandmother and grandfather each took out of the soon-to-be Lodz Ghetto in late 1939 — but when I found out it was considered by many scientists to be the most polluted place on earth in the 1990s due to hushed-up government nuclear waste dumping and three serious nuclear accidents that irradiated everything, I postponed my trip. Indefinitely.
And now? The place that saved my grandparents’ lives, threw them together and, ultimately, allowed me to be born, is getting its 15 minutes.
Every March brings us Women’s History Month. Among this year’s highlights is the publication of a new biography of an American Jewish woman — Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp — by another American Jewish woman, Ann Kirschner.
If the Earp name sounds familiar, that’s because Josephine’s common-law husband, Wyatt, has occupied the limelight of American Old West mythology. Remember that famous shootout in Tombstone, Ariz., in 1881? The one dramatized in films such as “My Darling Clementine,” “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” “Tombstone,” and “Wyatt Earp”? Turns out that the fight had something to do with a certain Jewish girl. In her new biography, “Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp,” Kirschner restores Josephine to her rightful historical place. (In her previous book, the acclaimed “Sala’s Gift,” Kirschner explored her mother’s Holocaust story.)
Kirschner, whose career began as a lecturer in Victorian literature at Princeton University, currently serves as University Dean of Macaulay Honors College of The City University of New York. In a recent interview with The Sisterhood, Kirschner discussed what’s remarkable about Josephine — and what it was like to research her story.
I’m not even certain of the year, but it was sometime after the tattoo and before the death march. Aron Lieb was in his early twenties, but he felt elderly. He was working in a coal mine, forced by the Nazis to supply fuel for their war effort. Every night after he emerged from the earth, guards sprayed the black dust off him and his co-workers with powerful hoses. The burst of water was so sharp that he had to hold his head down to keep from being blinded or drowned. One day he realized he couldn’t bring his head back up after the assault. That was the day he decided to die.
His younger brother was at the mine, too. It was close to Birkenau, close enough that they could both see the smoke of burning people in the sky. Lieb wanted to go anyway. He didn’t think he could work another day.
“You’ll die,” his brother said.
“I know,” he replied.
His brother begged. They knew he would be grouped in the next selection with the weak — those chosen to go to the gas chambers. Lieb asked to leave anyway.
As a child, I was made to feel as though I were the beneficiary of an enormous and exclusive trust that would earn interest over the course of my life. My brother and I had been gifted the rich and complex inheritance of our grandparents’ survival, and none of the other kids we knew had received a birthright so special. It paid out in dribs and drabs, mostly on Friday nights after kneidlach and kugel, until we were old enough to swallow their story whole.
After a potato dish was served, my grandmother might deftly segue like this: “You know, during the war, I used to gather moldy potatoes and bits of coal that fell off the back of a train so that your aunt should have what to eat.” An hour-long recitation would commence, we’d absorb it, and fall asleep during the car ride home dreaming of Siberian soldiers and snowfalls.
Sometimes we made requests. “Tell us about how you found Uncle Henry after he was liberated from Auschwitz,” we might ask. “Tell us again about when the Nazi punched Papa in the face.”
I knew, logically, that many other kids had Holocaust survivor grandparents. And maybe if I had grown up in New York instead of Los Angeles, I might even have known some of them. Instead, I got to feel smug. So when, at the age of 30, a guy I was interested in revealed during our earliest Internet correspondence (no, it wasn’t on JDate) that not only were his grandparents survivors, but that he could share their story with me merely by cutting and pasting a link to the foundation that supports his deceased grandmother’s 36 lush and intricate fabric art panels that detail her survival story, I didn’t know how to feel. I envied. I bristled. I think I even swooned.
We take lycra and hard-cup bras in bathing suits for granted. But at one time, they actually had to be introduced to beachwear fashion. The person to do so was Gottex founder Leah Gottlieb, who died on November 17 in Tel Aviv at age 94.
Gottlieb, a Holocaust survivor who arrived penniless to Israel in 1949, built a spandex-fueled international empire along with her husband Armin (who died in 1995) and daughters Judith (who died in 2003) and Miriam. Gottlieb, who was born and raised in Hungary, hid with her young daughters from the Nazis while her husband was sent to a forced labor camp. After the war, the couple lived briefly in Czechoslovakia before moving to the new Jewish State.
After realizing that making raincoats (as Armin’s family had done in Hungary) was not a profitable business in sundrenched Israel, the couple soon switched their focus to swimwear. Armin took care of the business side while Gottlieb, known not only for her prodigious talent but also her incredible work ethic, poured her energy into designing the garments.
Every year just before Rosh Hashanah, my mother and I engage in a ritual attempt to approximate my grandmother’s gefilte fish recipe. The recipe itself is an approximation. She cobbled it together from other Holocaust survivors, and perhaps gleaned a few tips from women in a displaced persons’ camp, perhaps remembering bits from what her own mother made do with in her Polish shtetl kitchen. It goes something like this: one-third buffalo carp, one-third pike, one-third whitefish. Naturally, I can’t divulge the whole thing.
When my grandmother retired to Los Angeles from New York in the 1970s, she navigated a whole new Jewish culinary landscape. For her fish, she settled upon Elat Market in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, a store known for its quality, pricing and occasional violence. My mother and I went shopping with her from time to time, and I witnessed a side of my grandmother’s personality I’d never before seen.
We waited in line outside the store for up to half an hour before it opened, sometimes longer if the demand was so strong that the market needed to institute crowd control measures. When we finally made it inside, my grandmother gathered up all 4 feet 10 inches of herself and marched towards the fish counter, deftly and determinedly swerving around the wayward shopping carts for which this market is notorious (seriously — check out the Yelp reviews).
The fish counter swarmed with diminutive elderly women calling out to the Spanish-speaking fishmongers in complete chaos, in a half-dozen languages, each brutally jockeying for attention. “I said no heads,” one might insist in Farsi. “Three pounds, not one third of a pound,” another would complain in Hebrew. Russian wasn’t uncommon. Once, I’m almost certain we heard two women arguing in Ladino. Back in the 1980s, my grandmother wasn’t the only one with a Yiddish accent. She elbowed her way to the front of the mob in a way that I’ve come to believe only a survivor can.
Naomi Zeveloff has a story in this week’s Forward about a full-size replica of the Western Wall in the works in Wichita, Kansas targeted towards women who have had abortions.
An anti-abortion group, the Word of Life Church, is proposing to build this multimillion dollar “National Pro-Life Memorial and International Life Center” in the same city where abortion provider Dr. George Tiller lived and was gunned down by an anti-choice terrorist.
Included as a central aspect of the memorial, should it be built, will be a garden of crosses to represent what leaders call the “Holocaust” and “genocide” of the unborn, in addition to the replica of the wall. Pro-choice website RH Reality Check sees the memorial’s plans as part of a dangerous “my pro-life is bigger than your pro-life culture” which fosters extremism.
This plan is problematic, even offensive in so, so, so many ways. First of all, if any memorial gets built in Wichita it should be for Dr. Tiller who was a friend to women and a deeply compassionate provider.
Actress and my new favorite Jewess Kat Dennings tweets: “Every time a magazine Photoshops my nose, a Nazi gets its wings.”
Israeli couples are looking to create more egalitarian wedding ceremonies while still staying within the confines of Jewish law, but it isn’t easy, reports JTA. Some rabbis make the women take mandatory “bride classes” in which they “are told that if they don’t observe the laws of family purity and go to the mikvah regularly, they or their children will be plagued by disease.” You would think they would save that one for “new mom” classes. You would also think they would say things that are, ahem, true.
At Huffington Post, via Heeb, Jayson Littman writes about his experience with a Jewish organization that helps men rid themselves of “unwanted same-sex” attraction and how it actually helped him build up the confidence to come out.
Myriam Halberstam had very personal reasons for establishing Ariella Books, the first post-Holocaust Jewish children’s book publishing company in Germany, in the spring of 2010. The German-American documentary filmmaker and children’s book author and editor simply could not find any decent German-language Jewish children’s books for her two young daughters, who are growing up in Berlin.
Written by Halberstam and illustrated by American book artist Nancy Cote, it is a story about a girl who wants a horse for Hanukkah but comes to regret her wish when the Hebrew-speaking horse creates havoc during her family’s holiday celebrations. The book will be available this fall in both Germany and the U.S. A second title, a German translation of Leah Goldberg’s Israeli children’s classic “Dirah L’haskir” (Apartment For Rent) is due out in October in time for the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth.
Holocaust Remembrance Day is an annual event in Israel. As in previous years, Yad Vashem held a moving ceremony honoring those who died in the Holocaust and those who survived through luck, a miracle and the help of neighbors and strangers.
At 10 a.m., the siren wailed — a mournful cry heard throughout the country. Jews around the country stood still, literally. Drivers stopped their cars in the middle of the street, opened the door and stood at attention.
For me, the one departure this year was my kids’ sudden curiosity about the Holocaust. Almost nine, our twins wanted to know exactly who in our families died during the Shoah.
One of my neighbors died recently, a Jewish woman known best for her commitment to the cause of another minority, the Kurds.
I want to honor the memory of Vera Saeedpour, who died early this month at 80, after turning a grand Prospect Heights townhouse into an institution called The Kurdish Library. The Kurdish Library, which she began in 1986, was best known by researchers and journalists, but Vera was well known around the neighborhood as well.
I would occasionally see her walking down the main shopping street, though less in recent years. Tiny, gray haired and indomitable, she often walked around in a long Victorian-looking dress that I assumed was traditional Kurdish clothing.
Though she was a colorful and tireless advocate on behalf of the Kurdish people, she told me that her motivation came from a Jewish place. She would often compare persecution of the Kurds to the persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust.
There’s been a lot of fantastic Web writing around this week’s PBS premiere of a brand new version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” (see the Forward’s interview with star Ellie Kendrick here). On PBS’s blog, Remotely Connected, author and researcher Alexandra Zapruder, who compiled a collection of Jewish children’s Holocaust journals, wrote about the mystery of Anne Frank’s diary ascending to immortality, while dozens of other Holocaust-era children’s diaries have gone out of print. When she embarked on the project, Zapruder felt that this was unfair. As she watched the film, however, Zapruder answered her own question.
Because Anne Frank is Anne Frank, that’s why. Because of the place she holds in our imaginations and our culture. Because her story is a long, rich, complex narrative that rises and falls, and carries us with it. Because her voice is intimate, contradictory, youthful, wise, and earnest. That’s why.
In the opinion of this young writer ,who embraced Anne Frank’s diary with great ferocity, reading it twice in primary school alone, Frank’s iconic status has a twofold reason beyond what Zapruder correctly identifies.
I’ll never forget the spring day many years ago when my 4-year-old son began coming home from kindergarten chattering about someone named “Eet-er.”
This kid, whoever he was, seemed make everyone miserable. I wondered who he was and where he came from. Who in the world was “Eet-er” and why was he getting away with such terrible behavior? It took a while, but I finally pieced it together. “Eet-er” was none other than his interpretation of his Israeli teacher’s pronounciation of Hitler. They said “Heet-ler,” he heard “Eet-er.”
I was shocked. How could it be, that at such a tender age, the children were beginning to learn about evil in its most unfathomable dimensions? And so began one of my most difficult cultural adjustments. In middle-class American life, being a mother means protecting your kids from the more disturbing aspects of life until they can handle them. At least, that’s the kind of mother I intended to be.
For anyone who stood on line, week after week, for the Saturday midnight screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in the 1970s, the West Village theater now known as the IFC Center will forever be branded the Waverly. For a time during my teens, going down to that theater with friends to watch the brash and then-shocking floor show and film was the ultimate Saturday night destination.
It was therefore completely surreal to be standing in the back of the IFC Center, watching “Four Seasons Lodge” play to a crowd of hipsters who were as vocal and enthusiastic about this documentary about a Catskills bungalow colony founded by Holocaust survivors as the “Rocky Horror” audience had been three decades earlier.
A new documentary by New York Times reporter Andrew Jacobs, “Four Seasons Lodge” allows the viewer to visit the remarkable summer community built by Shoah survivors in the Catskills mountain town of Ellenville, N.Y. Though it takes place in a bungalow colony, the themes of “Four Seasons Lodge” are about as different as one can get from the two most famous films set in the Catskills: “Dirty Dancing” and “Walk on the Moon.”
While such films focus on youthful sexuality and marital infidelity against the magical backdrop of the Catskills summer – the business of rebuilding after the ashes of the Holocaust informs “Four Seasons Lodge.”
Last week, my 15-year-old son, a Facebook junkie like all his peers (and his mother), showed me the newly public only extant video footage of Anne Frank, which has raced around the Internet, mesmerizing many of us.
I think I’ve watched it 20 times.
The all-too-brief clip of a girl unknowingly at the apex of her all-too-brief life, shows Anne hanging out her apartment window as a newly-wedded, chicly attired bride and groom come out to the building’s entrance below and ride away in a car.
The newlyweds are presumably off to their honeymoon, though if they were Jewish, we now know that it was ultimately probably to the same fate faced by Anne and 5,999,999 other Jews during the Shoah.
According to this new article in the Los Angeles Times, the 21 second-long snippet of motion picture was taken on July 22nd, 1941.
Anne was a coltish girl of 12, who a year later would be in hiding with her family in an attic and penning the diary that has, for so many young people, put the only human face on the Holocaust that they will ever see.
The motion picture snippet we see of Anne has haunted me as it has Sarah Seltzer, who wrote about it here.
Sarah wonders if the burden of being the human face of the Holocaust should be borne on the shoulders of one young girl.
That responsibility became Anne’s with the first publication of her diary, in Dutch in 1947, and in 1952 in English.
The newly unearthed video of Anne haunts me because it is like seeing a ghost – the ghostly image of a lively young girl whose horrifying, terrifying fate we all know.
It has the shock of unexpectedly seeing video of someone we love who has died too young and yet still seems so alive to us.