“No Place on Earth” is an amazing story of survival, a testament to the human spirit and, on Yom Hashoah, another reminder that we must never forget.
In 1993, spelunker Christopher Nicola discovered some man-made artifacts while exploring caves in western Ukraine. Only these weren’t the remains of some ancient civilization, but remnants from five Jewish families who hid underground for 18 months during World War II.
The experiences of those families equal the drama of the most harrowing adventure movies. After they were discovered in their first cave some were killed while others bribed their way to freedom and moved to a second cave. Brave souls from the group had to leave the safety of underground to scrounge for food. A few former neighbors were helpful; others sealed a cave entrance when they discovered it — with 38 people inside.
Conditions were horrible. The caves were dark and bone-chillingly cold, even in summer. Supplies frequently ran low. Food disappeared, and fights broke out. But through it all, thanks to some internal time clock, the group kept the Jewish holidays.
Watching “La Rafle,” which dramatizes the painful episode of French police rounding up 13,000 Parisian Jews, including 4,000 children, in July 1942, is difficult enough given its grave subject matter without also having to consider questions of artistic merit.
With the help of thousands of French police working from immigrant registration records, Vichy leader Philippe Pétain and his subordinates packed up foreign Jews and their children for deportation with barely a second thought. The captives were first shunted to Paris’s Vélodrome d’Hiver racing stadium. Within days the place become rank; little food or water was available, human waste blocked up the plumbing, and medical needs threatened adults and children alike. Afterward, these Jews were interned at a bare-bones French transit camp in Beaune-la-Rolande before their final exit from French soil.
Written and directed by Rose Bosch, whose Jewish husband lived in the Butte Montmartre neighborhood where the film’s main characters reside, “La Rafle” is a skillful reconstruction of time and place based on substantial historical research and interviews with survivors. Concentrating on several working-class Ashkenazi families, Bosch sets the stage by presenting vignettes of daily Jewish life under Occupation. Increasing social and professional restrictions isolate the Jews within their enclave. Non-Jewish neighbors rise to the occasion, or not, depending on personal prejudices or temperament. From the vantage point of three lively, sometimes mischievous Jewish boys — 11-year-old Jo Weismann, his friend Simon Zygler and Simon’s 5-year-old brother Nono — the audience shares an innocent worldview knowing that a cynical adult world awaits to rob them of their futures.
Iconic comic book artist and writer Joe Kubert spent most of his life drawing brawny super heroes, lionhearted jungle men and rampaging dinosaurs. But at age 75, Kubert began a journey back to his roots that led him to illustrate Warsaw Ghetto fighters, Holocaust survivors, and ethical mini-lessons for the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic movement. Kubert, who passed away August 12 in New Jersey at age 85, left behind an enormous fan base in the comic book world as well as a growing audience of admirers in the Jewish community.
“I’ve known and interviewed many older comic book artists, and I usually find that their abilities diminish after a certain age,” noted comics historian and publisher Craig Yoe. “But the amazing thing about Joe was that in his 70s and 80s he was at the top of his game, still constantly and passionately drawing new comics and graphic novels of the highest caliber.”
Kubert’s most recent phase was his immersion in his Jewish roots. While keeping up a heavy schedule of comic book illustration he began making time for a number of Jewish projects. He helped design “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust” for the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, a traveling exhibit of 1940s political cartoons from American newspapers about the Jews in Nazi Europe, and served as a judge in a student cartooning contest. For the Lubavitch magazine “Moshiach Times” he drew a series of two-page adventures with moral lessons called “The Adventures of Yaakov and Isaac.” He also wrote and illustrated “Jew Gangster,” a graphic novel about the Jewish underworld figures of yesteryear.
Earlier this week, Leslie Maitland wrote about reconnecting branches of her family separated by the Diaspora of the Nazi years. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
I would not be writing this today but for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, nor could I have written my newly published book, Crossing the Borders of Time. Indeed, but for the dedicated mission of “the Joint” to save imperiled Jews from murder in the Holocaust, I would not be here at all.
It was thanks to the Joint and cooperating agencies that my mother made an eleventh-hour escape from France in 1942 before the Nazis seized the country and sealed its ports. Like thousands of other Jewish refugees, she and her family fled to safety on ships chartered by the Joint from neutral Portugal. There were more than four hundred passengers with her on the Lipari, leaving from Marseille to Casablanca, where they transferred to a freighter, the San Thomé, for a voyage that lasted almost two months before the ship was cleared to land in Havana.
The Joint was a curious name I heard often throughout my childhood, eavesdropping on adult conversation in New York’s German-Jewish refugee community—the so-called Fourth Reich—where I was born and lived until the age of nine. (“What joint?” I remember asking, surprised to hear my very formal German grandfather speaking what sounded to me like slang.) But my understanding and appreciation of the humanitarian agency’s vital role in saving European Jews from Hitler grew exponentially as a result of my research into my mother’s story of persecution, romance in wartime, and escape.
Leslie Maitland is the author of Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
In 1989 I accompanied my parents and brother on my mother’s first visit back to her birthplace of Freiburg im Breisgau – a charming medieval city in the Black Forest region of southwest Germany. My mother’s family had fled from their home there in August of 1938, just three months before the terrors of Kristallnacht, and her return trip, more than a half-century later, was sparked by news that the city was reaching out to Jewish former citizens. Hosting a series of annual reunions, Freiburg invited Nazi-era refugees to return for a week of meetings and events aimed at reconciliation and remembrance. At the time I was a correspondent for The New York Times and, in writing about our visit for the paper, forged what would become a lasting friendship with the city’s press secretary, Walter Preker.
About fifteen years later, Walter informed me that a German artist, Gunter Demnig, had launched a remarkable nationwide project in which he was embedding memorial markers into the sidewalks of city streets. Demnig was placing so-called Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” outside the homes where Jews had lived before the Holocaust so that current residents and passersby would be confronted on a daily basis with stark reminders of Hitler’s victims. Each metal-covered “stone” was engraved with the name, birth year, and fate of the former inhabitants of the locations where the stones were set, and Walter wondered whether I would be interested in arranging for Stolpersteine to be placed in front of my grandparents’ Freiburg home at Poststrasse 6. He suggested it might be necessary to obtain permission from the current owners, still the same family, my grandparents’ former neighbors, who had “purchased” it from them at a grossly undervalued price in 1938.
Film still courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem
On December 6 I attended a screening of “Shoah, the Unseen Interviews,” sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 epic is more than nine hours long and features interviews with 70 individuals from 220 hours of footage (no documentary images are in the monumental film, only interviews with witnesses and survivors). This was a chance to see outtakes from the 220 hours that did not make the original film, clips which are part of the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive.
More than 500 people filled the auditorium at Am Shalom synagogue in Glencoe, Illinois, to see these unseen interviews. The outtakes, which feature footage from interviews with three individuals, two of whom are in “Shoah,” will also be screened in January in the New York Jewish Film Festival, and have already been shown in Cleveland and Detroit.
The noted “second generation” author Thane Rosenbaum has rejected the label “Holocaust writer,” saying that Holocaust narratives can only be written by those who personally lived through its horrors. He’d probably say the same about Holocaust music videos — that is, if he could even wrap his head around the notion of such a thing.
Yesterday, Sparks Productions released a slick promo for a Kickstarter fundraising campaign for its Holocaust music video project. Its young producer is seen and heard saying that the video, “Rainbow in the Night,” is necessary because “raised in the age of technology, today’s youth have little patience for large volumes of history, yet there is no question that the memory of those who died must be kept alive.” She says there is great concern about the rising level of Holocaust denial.
British black metal band The Meads of Asphodel are beginning work on an album about the Sonderkommandos, Jewish inmates who operated the gas chambers and crematoria in the concentration camps. According to metal news website blabbermouth.net, the band’s lead singer, Metatron (whose moniker comes from the name of a Jewish angel), is traveling to Krakow in November to research Auschwitz for the project, which will be called “Sonderkommando.”
“The album will lament on the burning death pits, Block 11, the crematoriums, the daily arrival of the trains and their human freight destined to the jaws of murder and to be stacked like logs in a factory of death,” blabbermouth reports. The Meads’ previous albums include “The Excommunication of Christ,” “Welcome to Planet Genocide” and “The Murder of Jesus the Jew.”
It was a memoir I’d been trying to write for three years without much success. I’d been wanting to tell the story of how, in the summer of 2008, I’d traveled to Warsaw, Poland, for a week with my wife and my 13-month-old son, Noah. Mornings we were tourists, while every afternoon was spent hanging out in the apartment of Genia Olczak, who fed us endlessly and kept me running to the Polish-English dictionary every few minutes. The trip marked the second time I’d been to Warsaw in the four years since my dad died. What, I wondered, drew me back there?
One answer was Genia herself: Ninety-five at the time, still cogent and solid, she lived not far from an apartment building where, beginning in 1942, she’d risked her life creating hiding places for my grandmother, great-uncle and aunt, while my father (then 7) hid out in the open, as her son out-of-wedlock. Another answer, it turned out, had less to do with the Holocaust and a good deal more to do with my father and me, our challenging and sometimes distant relationship, and the ways we’d both hidden in our lives. The result of this investigation is “A Wrinkle in Time,” my first “digital story,” or three-minute narrated visual essay that I created with the help of The Center for Digital Storytelling, in Washington, D.C.
Watch ‘A Wrinkle in Time’:
If Anne Frank hadn’t died of typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March, 1945, she might have turned a grand 82 years old on June 12. It’s useless to try and imagine what she — or the world — would have been like had she survived. What is certain, however, is that Frank is as present in the public consciousness as ever.
In one of the quirkier stories to come out in recent weeks, the Jewish Chronicle reported that a London theater company is taking their production of “And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank” on its second tour of China only months after a sold-out first run. As the article points out, China has a unique relationship to the Holocaust. Not only did the country suffer brutally under Japanese occupation, but it also provided a safe haven to tens of thousands of Jewish refugees in Shanghai. In addition to the story of Anne Frank, Chinese interest in the Holocaust also includes the recent animated film, “A Jewish Girl in Shanghai,” which The Arty Semite covered when it screened at the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival, and which is currently making the rounds of Jewish film festivals worldwide.
András Mezei (1930-2008) was a major Jewish-Hungarian poet who left behind a retrospective exploration of the Holocaust for our time. There are many voices speaking to us of terror, folly, greed, cruelty and absurdity, but Mezei’s poetry makes them sound like our own voices. His testimony has been published in England, in my translation, as “Christmas in Auschwitz” (Smokestack Press, 2010).
Mezei survived the Holocaust as a child in the Budapest Ghetto where some 17,000 people perished from hunger, disease and the fancy of uniformed bandits. Mezei’s father, a jobbing fiddler usually engaged to play in taverns and fairgrounds, perished at Auschwitz.
Unlike the other great poets of the Holocaust such as Paul Celan, Primo Levi and Miklós Radnóti, Mezei refused to come to terms with death. Indeed, his work is a celebration of the unconquerable spirit of his people. And unlike Anne Frank, he had the time to give voice to the concerns of the victims while he was at the height of his literary powers. This is how he sums up the experience of the survivor in a single couplet:
Among the Nazis’ persecuted minorities were Jewish and non-Jewish artists, musicians and writers branded “degenerate” by the regime.
“Radical Departures: The Modernist Experiment,” an exhibition currently showing at the Leo Baeck Institute/Center for Jewish History in New York, gathers together work by these “degenerate” artists, including Georg Stahl, Samson Schames, David Ludwig Bloch and others.
Although compact, the exhibit presents a whistlestop tour through the major European art movements from the turn of the 20th century, taking in German Expressionism and Weimar Modernism, through to the Second World War period, and the Surrealism and Abstract art of the postwar era.
To last week’s “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Holocaust” published here in the Forward, another significant contribution can be added: Jerome Rothenberg’s “Triptych,” which assembles three serial poems — “Poland/1931,” “Khurbn” and “The Burning Babe.”
Today on The Arty Semite, we’re featuring an excerpt from the middle section. As Rothenberg poignantly points out in the preface, the word “Holocaust” never quite captured the experience for him, being “too Christian & too beautiful, too much smacking of a ‘sacrifice,’” while Khurbn (Yiddish for “destruction”) projected the meaning more vividly. Indeed, a “sacrifice” is something torn from the self and forever given up on, while the ruins implied by the Yiddish term remain as a phantom limb, the ever-living other-worldly part that continues to exist and communicate.
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
Since coming to Washington, D.C., 18 months ago, I’ve had lots of rewarding experiences, but none quite as memorable as my recent excursion to the U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command at the D.C. Navy Yard, where I delivered a speech in commemoration of the Holocaust to a varied and engaged audience of military personnel and civilians.
I came to the Navy Yard wearing two hats. One was that of an historian, whose charge was to suggest something of the ways in which history complicates and enriches the world we currently inhabit. Toward that end, my talk, “Past Imperfect,” explored how the past relentlessly and inexorably intrudes on the present, especially when it comes to the continuous stream of new revelations — archival, cinematic and material — about the Shoah.
Last week, Deborah Lipstadt wrote about eerie anniversaries and Hannah Arendt. Her blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:
This blog entry appears during the time that we mark Yom HaShoah. It is also the time of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. I am reminded of a small article which appeared on the front page [upper half] of the New York Times on April 22, 1943. The article read as follows:
The secret Polish radio appealed for help tonight in a broadcast from Poland and then suddenly the station went dead. The broadcast as heard here said: The last 35,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto have been condemned to execution. Warsaw is echoing with musketry volleys.
The people are murdered. Women and children defend themselves with their naked arms.
On Wednesday, Deborah Lipstadt wrote about eerie anniversaries. She is the author of the new book “The Eichmann Trial.” Her blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:
I have spent much of the past few weeks talking about my new book, “The Eichmann Trial.” I don’t want to make this blog entry about the book. (To be blunt, I’d rather have folks read the book.) But something has struck me in the talks and interviews I have conducted.
For so many people the issue of the Eichmann trial remains Hannah Arendt. They seem to have a hard time conceiving of the Eichmann trial independent of Arendt’s “analysis.” I am speaking of who abhor what she said as well as of those who espouse her views.
Deborah Lipstadt’s most recent book, “The Eichmann Trial,” is now available. Her blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:
It was the 50th anniversary of the start of the Eichmann Trial and the 11th anniversary of the verdict (judgment) in my libel trial in the U.K. when David Irving sued me for libel for calling him a Holocaust denier.
More significantly, on April 11 I spoke at the United States State Department to mark the anniversary of the Eichmann trial. In addition to State Department staff members, there were a number of diplomats present (Turkey, Morocco, Ukraine, and Israel among others), as well as friends and colleagues. It was quite meaningful that I was speaking about this seminal act of genocide to an audience composed in part of people who deal with genocide and persecution-related issues. One of the people with whom I spoke has spent years working to rid the world of land mines. Another had been involved in the genocide in Darfur. Another had worked on issues related to the former Yugoslavia. Tragedies all.
Ronny Wasserstrom, left, as Mr. M, accomanied by his pigeon, center, played by Theresa Linnihan, and his shadow, right, played with finger puppets by Michelle Beshaw. Photo by Lee Wexler.
In its evocation of “Terezin humor” — the grim recognition that if we didn’t laugh, we’d hang ourselves — “Mr. M,” by the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre, is both the same as, and unlike, every other Holocaust play you’ve ever seen. The play, which runs at the Theatre for the New City through May 1 and at the JCC in Manhattan from May 5 to 8, draws on familiar themes, but does so in an altogether original way. It is performed in the “zivacek” style of Czech theatre, in which the cast, some of whom work with puppets, nonetheless remain visible throughout. In practice, the technique gives the story a beautifully layered feel, in which each object holds the potential to be several things at once.
It sounds like a high-concept Hollywood pitch: Feisty 86-year-old Holocaust survivor meets tough inner-city high-school kids. In fact, a documentary about the indefatigable Fanya Gottesfeld Heller — and her conversations with students at Brooklyn’s “alternative” Pacific High School — airs on PBS affiliates throughout April. Richard Gere narrates “Teenage Witness: The Fanya Heller Story,” partly based on Heller’s 1993 autobiography “Love in a World of Sorrow.” Heller spoke to the Forward’s Michael Kaminer from her Upper East Side apartment — on the day she learned that Pacific High School was slated to close.
Michael Kaminer: What do you hope the film accomplishes beyond what you’ve already achieved with your lectures and book?
On Monday, Austin Ratner wrote about Hillel sandwiches. His first book, “The Jump Artist,” is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:
People who have read “The Jump Artist” sometimes ask me what’s fact and what’s fiction. My answer is that it’s all fiction, but it’s fiction that incorporates as many facts as I could uncover and reasonably include. Years of research yielded certain results that tested me as a fiction writer — and none more so than those concerning Karl Meixner. To write about him truthfully was to risk caricature or cliché. Did he really keep Max Halsman’s head in a jar? Lest anyone think I invented him and his bizarre activities with human remains, here are some of the historical facts I uncovered about him:
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