Thursday, May 31, 2012

Remembering Eliezer Ayalon

Eliezer Ayalon, a Holocaust survivor who passed away earlier this week, was a lovely gentleman, always full of life and energy. A resident of Jerusalem, Eliezer shared his story with countless groups of all ages and backgrounds here at Yad Vashem and around the world. Every week, and sometimes every day, he volunteered to tell his remarkable story of survival as a young teenager during the Holocaust.    Born in Radom, Poland, in 1928, Eliezer was incarcerated in the ghetto in 1942 with his family. However, his family begged him to save himself. His mother told him, “If there is anyone in the family with a chance to stay alive – it’s you. Azoy ist Beshert [This was meant to be]. May you have a sweet life.” She accompanied him to the gate with a cup of honey. Eliezer was transferred to the Blizyn camp near Kielce, where he worked as a shoemaker. His mother, father, sister and two brothers were all murdered at Treblinka.

In the spring of 1944, Eliezer was moved to Plaszow, and then to Mauthausen and Melk in Austria. In April 1945, he was sent on a death march. Despite a previously broken leg, he made it to Ebensee. On 6 May 1945, the camp was liberated by American forces. “Soldiers from the Jewish Brigade took us from hell and prepared us for aliyah. I remember the joy, the dancing and the singing when we heard we had received visas for Eretz Israel.”

In 2010, Eliezer was one of the six torchlighters at the Holocaust Remembrance Day opening event at Yad Vashem.  We were privileged to know and work with him.  His smile and presence will be missed.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Righteous Among the Nations Receives US Presidential Medal of Freedom

Today, Righteous Among the Nations Jan Karski will posthumously receive America's highest civilian honor - the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Jan Kozielewski (he later took on his non de guerre Karski) was born in Lodz. In 1935, after completing his studies at Lwow University, he embarked on a career as a civil servant at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This was cut short four years later by the war, and when Poland was occupied by Germany, Kozielewski joined the Polish underground – the Home Army (Armia Krajowa). His photographic memory made him ideal for the job of courier between the underground in Poland and the Polish government-in-exile that was seated first in France and moved to London, after the fall of France.

In October 1942, at the height of the destruction of Polish Jewry, Karski was ordered to clandestinely go to the West and deliver a report on the situation of occupied Poland to the Polish government-in-exile in London. The situation of the Jews in Poland was to be one section of that report. Since the government in exile was concerned with the internal politics of the Poland’s underground parties, Karski held meetings with the different factions, including the Jewish Zionist and the Jewish Socialist Bund movements. Thus, shortly before his departure, Karski met with two Jewish leaders who asked him to inform the world’s statesmen of the desperate plight of Polish Jewry and of the hopelessness of their situation. Their message was: "Our entire people will be destroyed".

The Jewish leaders' appeals touched Karski and he decided to see things with his own eyes in order to make his report. With great risk to his life, he was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto and into a camp in the Lublin area. The horrors he witnessed marked him deeply and propelled him to become not only the messenger of the Polish underground, but to concentrate on giving voice to the suffering of the dying Jews.

In November 1942, Karski reached London, delivered the report to the Polish government-in-exile, and set out to meet Winston Churchill, other politicians, journalists, and public figures. Upon completing his mission, Karski went on to the United States, where he met with President Roosevelt and other dignitaries, and tried in vain to stir up public opinion against the massacre of the Jews. In 1944, while in the United States, Karski wrote a book on the Polish Underground (Story of a Secret State), with a long chapter on the Jewish Holocaust in Poland.

After the war, Karski stayed in the United States where he was later appointed Professor at Georgetown University, Washington DC. He became committed to perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust victims, identified whole-heartedly with the tragedy and suffering of the Jewish people, and was unable to come to terms with the world’s silence at the slaughter of six million Jews. These notions were well reflected in a speech he delivered in 1981 to a meeting of American military officers who had liberated the concentration camps. He stated that he had failed to fulfill his wartime mission, and said: “And thus I myself became a Jew. And just as my wife’s entire family was wiped out in the ghettos of Poland, in its concentration camps and crematoria – so have all the Jews who were slaughtered become my family. But I am a Christian Jew… I am a practicing Catholic… My faith tells me the second original sin has been committed by humanity. This sin will haunt humanity to the end of time. And I want it to be so”.

Although he had not saved individual Jews, The Commission for the Designation of the Righteous decided that he had risked his life in order to alert the world to their murder. He had incurred enormous risk in penetrating into the Warsaw ghetto and a camp, and then committed himself wholly to the case of rescuing the Jews. Karski’s case is quite exceptional in many ways. While other rescuers had taken the difficult decision to leave the side of the bystanders, not to remain silent and to stand up and act, Karski, after he reached the West, brought this dilemma to the doorstep of the free world's leaders. On June 2, 1982, Yad Vashem recognized Jan Karski as Righteous Among the Nations.

In 1994, Professor Karski was awarded honorary citizenship of Israel. In a speech he gave on the occasion, he stated: “This is the proudest and the most meaningful day in my life. Through the honorary citizenship of the State of Israel, I have reached the spiritual source of my Christian faith. In a way, I also became a part of the Jewish community… And now I, Jan Karski, by birth Jan Kozielewski – a Pole, an American, a Catholic – have also become an Israeli.”

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Prayer Book Returned to Family of Original Owners Murdered in the Holocaust

by Deborah Berman

In September of 1938 Shmuel Rosenberg of Hajdunanas, Hungary presented his daughter Margitte with a Machzor – a special prayer book for the Jewish High Holidays. Rosenberg, a Melamed - a teacher of Jewish studies, lovingly inscribed the Machzor in poetic Hebrew, as follows: “I purchased this for my remarkable daughter as a reflection of my deep love for her/ to inspire her heart to pray from this finely crafted book/ in her youth, in her father’s home.”

In the aftermath of the war torn years that followed, as the winds of the Nazi invasion wreaked devastation on European Jewry, only the Machzor and a father’s warm wishes for his daughter survived - Shmuel and Margitte were both murdered.

Over half a century later in 1997, Yishai Shachor, an Israeli studying medicine in Budapest, who says he has always been fascinated by relics from the past, found the Machzor in a local Synagogue’s collection of old books from the Holocaust period and found himself captivated by the dedication and with a strong curiosity to learn more about the book’s original owners. After completing his studies, Shachor asked to bring the prayer book back to Israel with him and has used it since for his High Holiday prayers year after year - always wondering about the fate of Shmuel and Margitte Rosenberg.

Recently Dr. Shachor decided to contact Yad Vashem to learn more about the book and it’s owners. Yad Vashem researchers were able to decipher the name of Rosenberg’s hometown as well as Margitte’s Yiddish name, Meittel. A search on Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victim’s Names revealed that Pages of Testimony were submitted for Shmuel and Margitte Rosenberg by Shmuel’s granddaughter Esther Rosenberg-Weisel in the year 2000.

Shachor immediately contacted Esther and told her the story of the how the Machzor came to be in his possession. He told her that he wanted to hand the prayer book back to the descendents of Shmuel Rosenberg and scheduled a meeting with the extended Rosenberg family in Kfar Saba.

Chaya Eichel, Esther’s daughter described her anticipation before the meeting. “I was very excited and couldn’t sleep all night. When I think about how things have worked out, I believe that there is nothing more appropriate to honor the soul of Shmuel Rosenberg. After all these years the Machzor is being returned to the family - a family who will continue to use the book for prayers on Yom Kippur,” she said.

Esther, herself a Holocaust survivor, said that her aunt Margitte was engaged to be married before her life was brutally cut short, and spoke of the importance of submitting Pages of Testimony to Yad Vashem, like the one she submitted for her grandfather that ultimately enabled Dr. Shachor to find the Rosenberg family. “Yad Vashem is doing very important work; without [Yad Vashem] none of this could have happened.”
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Visit www.yadvashem.org to  Search the Names Database, get information about submitting a Page of Testimony, or learn about the Shoah Victims' Names Recovery Project.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Recalling the rescue of Mir Yeshiva

The Mir Yeshiva Building
in the Shanghai Ghetto, 1945
(Courtesy: The Association of
Former Mir Resident)
Yesterday, the Foreign Minister of Japan was at Yad Vashem and in the course of his visit he paid tribute to Chiune Sempo Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who rescued many Jews during the Holocaust and was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.   The visit brought to mind the incredible story of the Mir Yeshiva, which continues to flourish today, in part thanks to Sugihara's visas.  You can read more about the rescue of the Mir Yeshiva here.  

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

An Iconic Photograph



By Richelle Budd Caplan

A bit after 8 pm on April 18, 2012, the eve of Holocaust Marytrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day, I had just tucked  my sons into bed. Since the rest of my family was attending the opening commemoration ceremony of Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem, I decided to open the Yad Vashem website in order to catch a glimpse of the proceedings. However, as I watched the opening flash presentation on our website, my eyes became shockingly fixated on this iconic photograph.

Could this be “Savta Marianne”? The woman in the photograph strongly resembled Marianne Gerstenfeld, a Holocaust survivor, and who gave her personal testimony at Yad Vashem whenever called upon. Marianne died approximately three months ago, and her grandchildren and my children have essentially grown up together.

Although I must have stared at this image for at least seven minutes, I still was not certain, so I decided to consult Marianne’s daughter-in-law. As soon as the photograph appeared on her computer screen, I heard the gasp on the end of the telephone line. Shortly thereafter, Marianne’s son was staring at his mother performing her Holocaust Remembrance day tradition. The family had never seen this photograph before.

After our emotional phone discussion, I immediately wrote to the Director of Yad Vashem's Internet Department, Dana Porath, in order to request a copy of the photograph for the Gerstenfeld family.

At 8:47 pm, I sent the following e-mail:

Shalom Dana,

I hope all is well. I can imagine that it has been and still is a very busy week for you.

I literally just went on the website and had a look at the special flash opening that you created for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
As I was watching, I suddenly saw that the third photo is of Marianne Gerstenfeld z"l placing flowers in The Hall of Remembrance. I was stunned as Marianne passed away about 3 months ago and she is very much missed by all who knew her. Marianne gave countless testimonies to many groups, in different languages, over the years. Moreover, it was noted a few times at her funeral that "when Yad Vashem calls, she will not say no." Her commitment to passing on the legacy of Holocaust memory was beyond measure, and her grandson tonight is at the ceremony at Yad Vashem.

Her family, who are close friends, would greatly appreciate a copy of this photo. As you can imagine, the Gerstenfelds are very moved by it and I would appreciate you sending it to me so that they will have a copy of this special photograph that captures their mother and grandmother's spirit.

On their behalf, thank you very much for making this even a more meaningful Holocaust Remembrance Day.
At 9:56 pm, approximately an hour later that same night, I received the following reply:

Dear Richelle,


Here is the photo that was taken on Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2009.

We too obviously immediately fell in love with this picture when we took it and felt that it was an iconic picture vis-a-vis commemoration.

Thank you for such a lovely e-mail and sharing with us the background of Marianne Gerstenfeld. It really was very meaningful to us as well.

Dana

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Yad Vashem not only has the largest archive of digitized photographs of the Holocaust period, but also a growing collection of contemporary photos connected to Holocaust commemoration - capturing rare glimpses of Holocaust survivors that their families may never have seen before. As fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors are among us, these photographs will also become part of Yad Vashem’s colossal databases.

As an educator, this photograph also embodies an important educational message: honoring Holocaust victims has been a responsibility carried by the survivors, but this has become a duty incumbent upon us and the future generations.

It seems as though before she passed away, “Savta Marianne,” made many “to do” lists for her family members, including laying flowers in the Hall of Remembrance  every year in memory of her grandmother who was killed in Bergen Belsen. She asked that her annual tradition continue following her death.

This photo, sent to her family on the evening of Holocaust Remembrance Day this year, reminded Marianne’s family of her last wishes. Consequently, the following afternoon, her son and daughter-in-law visited Yad Vashem carrying flowers to the Hall of Remembrance. Next year they plan to bring four of Marianne’s grandchildren with them.