Thursday, December 24, 2015

Remembering the 1+1+1

By: Adina Schreiber

Growing up I was very fortunate to come to Israel on many occasions.  Every trip was full of museums, hikes, fun activities and, without fail, a trip up to Haifa to visit my grandfather's cousin, Dudu, as well as a visit to the cemetery where my grandfather's family is buried. As you can imagine this was not always the highlight of my trip. I mean – who wants to go to a cemetery while on vacation? One time, while we were standing next to the grave of my great-grandmother, whom I am named for, I noticed she had additional names written on her headstone. When I pointed out this oddity, I was explained that those were the names of her siblings who had been murdered in the Holocaust.  Since we do not know where they were killed, or what had happened to them, my family added the names on this headstone in order to remember them. This was the first time the importance of remembrance was called to my attention.  

A few years later, while studying in seminary in Jerusalem, I went on a trip to Poland with a group of girls from my school. Not only would I be going with my teachers and friends, but my mother had decided to join us as well. My trip to Poland was a rollercoaster of emotions, thoughts, and ideas. I saw with my own eyes mass graves, ghettos, and death camps. During my week-long trip there was one moment that really stuck with me. I was sitting in a synagogue in Krakow and my teacher stood up and explained to us the immense importance of remembrance.  We are always taught to remember the atrocities that were committed against us, but most emphasized is that we must remember the six million innocent lives that were brutally taken from this world by the Nazi Germans and their collaborators. Six million. An unfathomable amount. He then continued to explain that just hearing the number six million was not enough; in order to understand the scope of the tragedy we need to think about the individual person. We need to remember the 1+1+1, the one mother, the one father, the one baby.  We need to remember the individual, the person, and not the number. We need to remember that there was someone named Ahava, someone named Sandor, someone named Avraham. Each one of them had a family, friends, hobbies. Each one of them had dreams.  All of a sudden I understood exactly why those names were inscribed onto my great-grandmother's grave, and I understood that I was also responsible for remembering.
I came back to Israel emotionally distraught and felt incredibly lost. And that is when I discovered Yad Vashem. Sure, I always knew it was there and had in fact visited more than once. But this time I discovered that Yad Vashem is not just a museum to go and visit, but also a place that focuses all of its energy on remembering the individual. Remembering the 1+1+1. With the help of the Yad Vashem Archives I began researching my family, and each time I learned a different name, saw a picture of someone else, learned a little about their lives – and just like that I became a partner in the mission to remember.

Several years later, after making Aliyah and beginning university, I had the opportunity to intern at Yad Vashem. Here, I have seen, heard, and learned many things. I have met and heard testimony from survivors, I have learned stories about different artifacts in the museum, and I have watched videos of different people sharing their thoughts and reflections. One of the things that made a large impact on me was my acquaintance with the story of Susan Kerekes. Yad Vashem has an incredible Bar/Bat Mitzvah twinning program, where bar/bat mitzvah boys and girls are given the responsibility of remembering a child from the Holocaust who was never able to celebrate their own bar/bat mitzvah. This November, a Bar Mitzvah boy was twinned with a boy named Sandor Braun. Sandor Braun's story was a bit of a mystery to us and it became my job to find out as much as I could about this boy and his family. That is when I came across Sandor's sister, Susan. Susan survived the camps and participated in the USC Shoah Foundation's project to record testimony, and through this I got to learn Susan's story. Even though I have never met her, nevertheless I connected with her. I laughed with her, I cried with her. And just like that Susan became a part of my life.
To me, this is what Yad Vashem is all about. Yad Vashem is about remembering what happened, and ensuring that it never happens again. To many victims of the Holocaust, this was their dying wish. I came across a quote on the Yad Vashem website that read, "I should like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger." In the Hall of Names, hanging in the dome are pictures of people who have been murdered. It does not show them in Auschwitz, it does not show them emaciated or behind barbed wire, but rather we get to see pictures of people smiling and laughing, some with family and friends, and living their lives. It is our responsibility to remember these people. To not only remember how they died, but also how they lived. And it just takes one person, remembering one person. Just one. And then we are one person closer to remembering the 1+1+1.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Mother's Desperate Plea for her Son

By: Michal Dror

On the night of November 9-10, 1938, the Kristallnacht progrom ("Night of the Broken Glass") raged throughout Germany and Austria.

Kristallnacht was launched in supposed retaliation for the assassination of a Nazi German embassy official in Paris, Ernst vom Rath, by a frustrated young Jewish refugee named Herschel Grynszpan. On November 9, yom Rath died of his injuries.

Within hours, crazed rioting erupted on the streets of cities across the two Nazi-controlled countries. The shop windows of Jewish businesses were smashed, the stores looted, hundreds of synagogues and Jewish homes were burnt down and a large number of Jews were physically assaulted. Some 30,000 Jews, many of them wealthy and prominent members of their communities, were arrested and deported to the concentration camps at Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald, where they were subjected to inhumane and brutal treatment – some even died. During the pogrom itself, some 90 Jews were murdered.

One of the Jewish men arrested was 28-year-old David Buchweitz from Fürth, Germany, who was placed in "protective custody" at Buchenwald.

As his personal prisoner's file from Buchenwald indicates, David was admitted to the camp on November 13, 1938. Like other prisoners in the concentration camps, David had to sign several forms, such as a card listing the personal belongings taken away from him when he entered the camp (see the image below).

After the pogrom was over, the Nazis continued with severe anti-Jewish measures. The Aryanization process of seizing Jewish property was intensified; the Jewish community was forced to pay a fine of one billion Reichsmarks, and the Germans set up a Central Office for Jewish Emigration (Zenstralstelle fuer Juedische Auswanderung) to "encourage" the Jews to leave the country. The Nazis conditioned the release of the incarcerated Jewish men upon their immediate emigration from Germany.

Acquiring a visa for emigration was a tiring, almost impossible process, as the quotas for Jewish immigrants to foreign countries were minimal to the extreme.

Like many Jewish families during this time, David's mother, Malka, was extremely frightened for her family and immediately began the process of obtaining visas to the United States, where the family had relatives. She wrote a letter to the camp's commandants begging for David's release. Eventually Malka succeeded in getting the desired papers for only one visa to the US. David was released from Buchenwald on April 12, 1939, and managed to emigrate.

In November 2015, 77 years after Kristallnacht, David's son, Frank, submitted an inquiry to Yad Vashem regarding Malka's fate.

In research conducted by Yad Vashem's Reference and Information Services Department in the Archives Division, David's personal documents from Buchenwald were found.

Among them was his mother's desperate plea for his release.

Like many other German Jewish women, Malka stayed behind. Malka Buchweitz née Knoebel (b. 1879) was most likely deported to her death in 1942.

Her handwritten letter is all that is remains.


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

My Father Kept a Cape in His Closet

"My father must have had a cape hanging in his closet. He was not a superhero, but when he needed to, he put that cape on."

Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, of the 422nd Infantry Regiment in the US Armed Forces, passed away in 1985. Pastor Chris Edmonds, his younger son, recalls that his father didn't speak much about his wartime experiences. As a young adult, Chris found out that his father had spent time as a POW, but little else was revealed. It was only when one of Chris' daughters undertook a project at college to create a video about a family member that his mother, Roddie's wife, handed her granddaughter a diary Roddie had kept during his imprisonment at Stalag IXA. She also revealed a brief account of parts of his life that Roddie had written before he died.

Chris was "blown away. How could I not have been aware of my father's wartime activities? I stayed up that night conducting searches on the Internet to see what else I could find out about him." The first item to pop up was a journalistic piece concerning a property deal between ex-President Richard Nixon and Lester Tanner, in which Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds was mentioned. When Chris and Lester finally made contact, Chris heard the story of how Roddie had saved the lives of his fellow Jewish POWs, and how this one act of incredible bravery had become a lifelong inspiration for Tanner and many other of his fellow soldiers.

Roddie's Code

As a non-commissioned officer (NCO) in the US army, Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds of Knoxville, TN participated in the landing of the American forces in Europe. Taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, Edmonds was interned at Stalag IXA, a POW camp near Ziegenhain, Germany.

The Wehrmacht had a strict anti-Jewish policy, singling out Jewish POWs from the rest of the POW population and then murdering them or sending them to extermination camps. In January 1945, the Germans announced that all Jewish POWs in Stalag IXA were to report the following morning. Edmonds, who was the highest NCO at the camp, and therefore in charge of the prisoners, ordered all the POWs – Jews and non-Jews alike – to follow the order. When the German officer, Major Siegmann, saw all the camp’s inmates standing in front of their barracks, he turned to Edmonds and exclaimed: “They cannot all be Jews!” To this Edmonds replied: “We are all Jews.” Siegmann took out his pistol and threatened Edmonds, but the Master Sergeant did not waver and retorted: “According to the Geneva Convention, we only have to give our name, rank and serial number. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.” The officer turned around and left the scene.

One witness to the exchange was Lester Tanner, who was also captured during the Battle of the Bulge and interned at Stalag IXA. Tanner had been inducted into military service in March 1943, and trained in Fort Jackson, where Master Sergeant Edmonds was stationed. Tanner remembered Edmonds well from his training period: “He did not throw his rank around. You knew he knew his stuff and he got across to you without being arrogant or inconsiderate. I admired him for his command… We were in combat on the front lines for only a short period, but it was clear that Roddie Edmonds was a man of great courage who led his men with the same capacity we had come to know him in the States.” Tanner told Yad Vashem that they were well aware that the Germans were murdering the Jews, and that therefore they understood that the order to separate the Jews from the other POWs meant that the Jews were in great danger. “Over one thousand Americans stood in wide formation in front of the barracks behind Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds… The US Army’s standing command to its ranking officers in POW camps is that you resist the enemy and care for the safety of your men to the greatest extent possible. Master Sergeant Edmonds, at the risk of his immediate death, defied the Germans with the unexpected consequences that the Jewish prisoners were saved.”

A Lifelong Inspiration

In early 2015 the late Roddie Edmonds was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. Of more than 26,000 "Righteous" recognized to date, Edmonds is only the fifth United States citizen, and first American soldier, to be bestowed with this highest of honors bestowed by Yad Vashem on behalf of the State of Israel.

Pastor Chris is currently participating in a seminar for Christian leaders at the International School for Holocaust Studies. This is his first trip to Israel, and one that comes at a time when his personal family story is likely to become a national, if not international, sensation. The account of his father's heroic actions that Pastor Chris has painstakingly discovered over recent years reads like a fictionalized Hollywood movie. But it is all true, and has been a source of inspiration for both Pastor Chris and the survivors his father saved for the past 70 years.

"My father always had a strong sense of duty, of responsibility to his fellow human being, whoever they were," says Pastor Chris. "He was a man of great religious faith and an unwavering moral code and set of values to which he was completely dedicated. From my conversations with his comrades, it is clear he was also a strong commander, leading by example and taking personal risks in order to safeguard others."

Since discovering the story, Pastor Chris has made relentless efforts to contact all the names of his father's fellow POWs painstakingly recorded in his wartime diary. "Many of these have led to meetings and lifelong friendships with people I could never have imagined: senators and congressmen, survivors and their families – and even the rabbi of a local synagogue. Who could have imagined a Baptist preacher and a rabbi becoming such fast friends?"

Pastor Chris is currently working on having his father be awarded a Medal of Honor – the USA's highest military honor, awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. And when he speaks to young students, Pastor Chris tells them that his father "must have had a cape hanging in his closet. My father was not a  superhero, but when he needed to, he put that cape on. You too have a cape: if you are witness to an injustice, you can choose to ignore it, or to intercede. We all have the power to influence others, and if we invest in this way of life, in making the right decisions, we too can make a tremendous difference in this world."

More information about the Righteous Among the Nations, including background, stories and the Database of Righteous, can be found online here.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Rywka's Diary to be restored and preserved at Yad Vashem

It was a very emotional meeting today at the Yad Vashem Archives as Yad Vashem staff met with relatives, friends, researchers and historians who have been investigating the fate of 14-year-old Rywka Lipszyc.
Born in 1929 to a rabbinical family, Rwyka, kept a diary while she was incarcerated in the Lodz ghetto. When her parents and siblings were murdered, Rywka spent the remainder of the war with her cousins, Mina and Esther Lipszyc. After surviving the hunger of the Lodz ghetto, the horrors of Auschwitz and a grueling death march, the three cousins arrived at Bergen Belsen, weak and very sick. Esther last saw Rywka on her deathbed in the hospital ward. She and Mina slowly recuperated in Sweden, but never heard from their cousin again.

Meanwhile, Rywka's diary had been eventually discovered in the ashes of the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau in early 1945 by Zinaida Berezovskaya, a doctor who arrived at the camp with the liberating Red Army. The diary (in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew) documented Rywka's daily life, along with her hopes, dreams and deepest emotions. Berezovskaya stored it in an envelope, along with a newspaper clipping about the liberation of Auschwitz. For over half a century it remained untouched, until Berezovskaya's granddaughter discovered it among her father's effects in June 1995 and was deposited in the archives of Holocaust Center of Northern California, (relocated in 2010 to Jewish Family and Children's Services (JFCS) to form the Holocaust Center in San Francisco)

Varda Gross, Conservation Laboratory Director showing an
example of how Rywka's diary will be conserved 
Judy Janec, archivist at the center immediately began to investigate the identity and fate of the diary's author, which ultimately led to the discovery the Page of Testimony commemorating Rywka submitted by Mina Boyer in 1955 (updated in 2000). Yad Vashem staff assisted by contacting Hadassah Halamish, Minsa's daughter. The family was deeply moved to learn of the diary's discovery so many years later.

Recently (Sept 3, 2015), the family donated the diary to Yad Vashem for preservation. This week, Rywka's cousin, Hadassah Halamish, visited Yad Vashem together with researcher Judy Janec, Anastasia Berezovskaya, the granddaughter of Zinaida Berezovskaya; Dr. Ewa Wiatr, an historian from Poland who specializes in research on the Lodz ghetto and who assisted in the translation and annotation of the diary from Polish to English, her 14 year old daughter Tosia; and friends hosting them in Israel.
Yad Vashem Archives Director Dr. Haim Gertner hosted a behind-the-scenes tour of the archival facilities and explained the process of how Rywka's diary will be repaired, carefully preserved, protected, and then digitized – in order to make it accessible to interested parties all over the world. It was a meaningful experience for everyone. Hadassah, who has a deep emotional and personal connection to the diary said, "I know that the diary is in the right place." 

Dr. Haim Gertner presenting Hadassah Halamish
with a digital copy of her cousin's diary

Judy Janec agreed. "It feels redemptive to have the diary at Yad Vashem. It belongs in a repository that has the resources to preserve and make it accessible to the public. Now I know that it's safe. It is where it should be." According to a Displaced Persons registration card discovered through Judy Janec's research Rywka indicated that she would like to relocate/emigrate to "Eretz Israel" after she recuperated. "So now at least her diary is in Israel even if she couldn't be."

Yad Vashem’s Gathering the Fragments national campaign to rescue personal items from the Holocaust era is now continuing into its fifth year. The campaign encourages people with Holocaust related material in their possession to bring them to Yad Vashem, where they will be protected for posterity, along with the stories behind the items. Since the beginning of the program in 2011, some 165,000 items have been brought to Yad Vashem, including photos, documents and artifacts. People who want to donate material should email or call 02-644 3888. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Discovering New Family

This is yet another incredible and unexpected story of a family reunited as a result of documentation found in Yad Vashem's Archives. Pages of Testimony are an excellent tool in filling in the missing pieces of family histories and uniting a family that was dispersed because of the Holocaust.

Valery Simonov, who lives in Pinsk, Belarus, recently began looking for information about the father he never knew.  What he discovered was so much more, including a half-sister living here in Israel.

Valery and Dalia holding family pictures
Growing up, Valery's mother, Olga Simonov, never spoke about who his father was or that he left her when she was pregnant. When Valery was born his mother named him Valery Volfovich Simonov - a combination of her name and his father's name, Wolf.  Around a year and a half ago Valery discovered from Svetlana, a family friend who helped raise him, that his father's surname was Sternik. Valery proceeded to reach out to Yad Vashem and requested information about his father, Wolf Sternik. Rita Margolin a researcher in Yad Vashem's Reference and Information Services Department, searched for Wolf's name in the Yad Vashem archival documents from Pinsk. With the help of Pages of Testimony and other documentation Rita was able to find out what had happened to Wolf Sternik during the war, and later discovered from Svetlana's friend, Rima that Wolf had remarried and had a daughter, Dalia, who currently lives in Jerusalem. Neither Dalia nor Valery knew about the other.

Wolf Sternik, a journalist, was born in Dabrowa Gornicza. He fled with his family from Warsaw to Pinsk in 1939 and later in 1941, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, escaped to Kazakhstan. His first wife, Rachel, and son, Pawel, were murdered in Pinsk; his mother and sister were murdered in Western Ukraine.  Wolf returned to Pinsk in 1945 with Olga Simonov and her two children. Later that year, Wolf left for Poland while Simonov, who was pregnant at the time stayed in Pinsk where Valery was born in 1946. 

Dr. Haim Gertner and Rita Margolin reading archival documents
with information about the siblings
Once in Poland, Wolf married and had a daughter Dalia. Dalia and her mother moved to Israel in 1957 leaving Wolf behind in Poland where he lived until his death in 1993.

Upon discovering that Valery has a half-sister, Rita contacted Dalia immediately to tell her the exciting news. The next day Dalia visited Yad Vashem and Rita showed her all the documentation she had uncovered about Dalia's father. Dalia also had numerous documents left to her by her father.  After receiving additional information from Dalia, Rita found in the Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names Pages of Testimony filled out by Wolf Sternik in 1980. Rita also found relevant documents about other family members.
Rita, Dalia, Valery and Tamara at Yad Vashem Archives

As for the news about her half-brother, Dalia was skeptical at first. However, after an initial meeting on Skype, Dalia saw an unmisktable familial resemblance and realized that they were relatives. Both siblings even had the same photo of their father that they had both saved over the years.

Shortly after their Skype meeting, Dalia travelled to Pinsk to meet Valery for the first time in person.  At the end of their week together, she invited him to come visit her in Israel. During their emotional meeting at Yad Vashem, an overjoyed Valery exclaimed that he was "so excited to be here with Dalia and still can't believe that something like this could happen."


Monday, November 9, 2015

Check out the New York Times article featuring a photo from the Yad Vashem Archives

Among the pictures in Yad Vashem's extensive Photo Archive is one dated July 1945. Alan Golub, donated the photo of a group of young Hungarian women, whom he helped clothe, to Yad Vashem in 1999 with the women's names carefully written on the back.  He also donated a thank-you note he received from the women. Read their story in today's New York Times.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

"My Mission: To Film and to Record"

Interview with Rex Bloomstein

"Just before his execution in 1941, the famous Jewish historian Simon Dubnow told his fellow inmates in the Riga ghetto 'Yidn, shraybt un farshraybt (Jews, write and record).' My life's mission has been 'Film and Record.'"
So explained acclaimed British documentary film-maker Rex Bloomstein at a fascinating lecture yesterday in Yad Vashem's Visual Center as he took the audience through a journey of his epic career spanning over three decades. Beginning his profession with the BBC, Bloomstein has to date created over 150 films, TV documentaries and series, including the trilogy The Longest Hatred (1989) charting the unique history of antisemitism and its manifestation in modern society; Auschwitz and the Allies (1982), investigating how much the Allies knew of the greatest death camp in history; and KZan award-winning film described as 'the first post-modern Holocaust documentary,' and nominee for the first Yad Vashem Chairman's Award in Holocaust-related film ten years ago.
Bloomstein has been at Yad Vashem for the past week, hard at work in the Visual Center and Archives, undertaking painstaking research for his upcoming film about the Second World War ("I can't tell you more than that at this point. I don't want to risk sabotaging the project"). Calling Yad Vashem "an institute of immense importance," Bloomstein emphasized the "vital role" played by the Visual Center – the world's largest repository of Holocaust-related films in all genres. "Film plays a crucial role in examining, exploring and confronting the Holocaust," Bloomstein stated. "Over 5,500 films have been made about the event since the Eichmann Trials in the early 1960s, and the explosion of interest in the Holocaust continues to the present day."

Rex Bloomstein in the Yad Vashem Visual Center
During his stay, Bloomstein "took advantage of the level of scholarship at Yad Vashem, conversing with a number of experts in their fields, such as Liat [Benhabib, Director of the Visual Center] and Efrat [Komisar, Head of the Footage Section in the Archives Division], who have dedicated their lives to furthering our knowledge of the Shoah."
The presentation, part of an enrichment program for Yad Vashem guides, took the audience through Bloomstein's changing perspectives and styles of Holocaust film-making over the years. From the "traditional elements" of interviews, music, footage and images, such as in The Longest Hatred and Auschwitz and the Allies, in the 1990s Bloomstein endeavored to "pare down his technique" when he and the late Robert Wistrich created "Lessons of the Holocaust" – a 60 minute video as part of an educational pack for UK secondary schools – as well as in Liberation, a documentary he produced to mark 50 years since the end of WWII. Liberation features one particular interview with a former American GI, who was extremely distressed as he recounted his first impressions on entering the Ordruf concentration camp. "I was not interested in manipulating feelings with music and images," Bloomstein explained. "I continued to try to remove as many barriers as possible between the viewer and the event."
Indeed, it is the belief in this vital component of witness testimonies that had led Bloomstein at the beginning of the previous decade to film Gathering, a seemingly haphazard and dizzying recording of the first world assembly of Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem and the media frenzy that surrounded it. "These were witnesses to a universe almost beyond belief and understanding," said Bloomstein. "They needed no narration to tell their story. I let them speak for themselves."
In 2005, Bloomstein released KZ, a feature-length film exploring the legacy of Austria’s Mauthausen concentration camp and its impact on visitors and residents today. Guides take tourists through the appalling history of the camp, while mere kilometers away the locals enjoy a few pints at the local beer garden. Noticeably absent are any survivor testimonies. "This film is about the interface between then and now," explained Bloomstein. "It is set in the landscape of the concentration camp but it is a film about today, and the task we face of continuing to find new ways to inform the next generation about what happened when the survivors will not be around to tell their story."

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

David Cesarani (1956-2015)

"A Scholar of Tremendous Depth and Breadth"
Dr. Robert Rozett
Director of the Libraries, Yad Vashem

Yesterday evening, I heard the sad news that my dear friend and colleague Professor David Cesarani of Royal Holloway in London had passed away unexpectedly. David was a scholar of tremendous depth and breadth, great brilliance and remarkable eloquence. It often seemed to me that having had the privilege to study with the great George Mosse (as I had), David had learned one of the most important tasks of the historian: to deflate myths and replace them with well-grounded and well-stated historical narrative and analysis.

It is not by chance that his two most important scholarly projects about the Holocaust reflected all of those qualities. His book Eichmann: His Life and His Crimes, published in 2004 presented a more historically accurate portrait of Eichmann, removing him from the clouds of partial truth and contradictory images that had emerged from his trial in Israel in the early 1960s. Eichmann was neither the master mind of the Holocaust nor a mundane desk bureaucrat only following orders. David drew a more complex portrait of the man, and no less important, he set him in the context of events that led to the unfolding and carrying out of the "Final Solution" against the Jews. He showed that Eichmann was not a decision maker, but certainly had initiative. He revealed that the man changed over the course of the war, from a gung-ho young officer to a rather jaded murderer. Throughout the book, David provided the historical envelope, harnessing the most up-to-date understanding of the events of the Holocaust available at the time he wrote.
Professor Cesarani at a Yad Vashem workshop in 2010

Over the last two years or so, David was engaged in another project that demanded depth and breadth of knowledge. He wrote a one-volume history of the Holocaust that remained unpublished at the time of his passing. Last year David asked me to read the manuscript and comment on it. What I read revealed an encyclopedic knowledge of the Holocaust and the most recent writing about it.  Moreover, David tried to ensure that his narrative closely followed the events of WWII. To do so, he read scores of diaries and memoirs of leading figures and less well-known figures of the time, as well as monographs on the war. One of the rooms on the second floor of his home is lined with them; they literally fill an entire book case. David also tried to bring balance back to the history of the Holocaust, especially when he wrote about Jewish behavior. In much of the literature over the decades since the end of the war, the image of the Jews in the Holocaust has moved from being portrayed as one-dimensional victims, to being nearly lionized for having gone through the Holocaust. David sought to show that first and foremost the Jews were human beings, and as such had many diverse qualities, strengths and foibles, and displayed a great range of behaviors.
Professor Cesarani addressing the public at the
inaugurtaion of the Oppenheim Chair, 1998

David was an excellent speaker. His public lectures were not only well grounded in history, lucid and interesting, but they almost invariably contained some sort of punch line that not only made a good point, but engendered laughter. David was a frequent guest of Yad Vashem at international research conferences and symposia, and in 1998-1999 he was a fellow of the International Institute for Holocaust Research as the Baron Friedrich Carl von Oppenheim Chair for the study of Racism, Antisemitism and the Holocaust. In private, David was a great story teller, and it was always a pleasure to sit and talk with him over a meal or glass of wine, and hear about some arcane but amusing piece of history or something from his personal experience.

An important role David played was that of public historian. He was involved in films, such as about the last survivor from Treblinka, as well as in establishing the Holocaust exhibit at London's Imperial War Museum. David was frequently interviewed in the British media on subjects relating to the Holocaust and antisemitism, and indeed was a well-known figure in the UK. For his work in advancing Holocaust commemoration in Britain he was awarded an OBE by the Queen. Most recently during the British chairmanship of IHRA, David returned to that body, lending the British delegation his prestige, experience and vast knowledge.

Over more than twenty years of our friendship I spent many hours with David. I learned many things from him and although I'm the Yad Vashem Library Director, I even received more than one good suggestion for a book to read. But mostly, I just enjoyed his company: sitting in his backyard on a cool April evening; taking our children on a hike in Israel followed by a barbeque in "Little Switzerland"; meeting for coffee when we both happened to be in Budapest; driving back and forth to Yad Vashem when he was here for research and bunking at my home; enjoying a Shabbat meal with our families and other friends – and all the while moving from talking about our work, to current events, to subjects more personal.

It is hard to believe that David is no longer here and that we will no longer benefit from his knowledge, his critical thinking, his wisdom, his eloquence, his wit and his warmth.

May his memory be blessed.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Setting the Record Straight

Yad Vashem Chief Historian Professor Dina Porat:
It is a well-documented and undisputable fact that many years before his rise to power, Adolf Hitler was already obsessed by the notion that the Jews constituted an existential danger to the humankind, and thus world Jewry needed to be eliminated at all costs. 

This ideology began to be formed by Hilter when he was a solider during World War I.  Hitler believed that the war had not only been caused by the Jews, but also that the Jews had stabbed Germany in the back.  Hitler went on to develop his obsession with the Jewish problem in his infamous manifest, Mein Kampf, and later in other central documents of the Nazi Party that began to establish itself in the 1920s.  Finally, in a speech at the Reichstag on January 30, 1939, Hitler stated outright that if world Jewry would ‘once again drag the entire world into a World War’ then the only possible outcome would be the extermination of the Jewish people. 

All of these facts clearly show that Adolf Hitler was determined to annihilate the Jews, and subsequent historical events demonstrate how this mania developed them into official Nazi policies.  Hitler didn't need anyone else, including the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseni, to come up with the idea to implement the "Final Solution." 

The Grand Mufti's visit, over two years after the outbreak of WWII, came once many "Final Solution policies were already in full swing.  Almost immediately following the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Reinhard Heydrich received instructions from Berlin giving the orders to establish ghettos and Jewish Councils in the occupied Polish territories.  It was widely understood amongst the SS that the ghettoization process of the Jews in Europe was a stepping stone for the implementation of the "Final Solution."  In addition, after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 the SS Einsatzgruppen began the mass murders of the 1.5 million Jews in Lithuania, Russia, and the Ukraine.  The first extermination camp, Chelmno, began operations at the beginning of December 1941 just days after the meeting with the Grand Mufti.  The building of the death camp had already been underway for several months when these two leaders met. 

Therefore, the way Prime Minister Netanyahu worded his comments was historically inaccurate from the perspective of the "Final Solution" of European Jewry, but was on point for plans to expand this policy to Jews living in Mandatory Palestine. The Mufti had a specific agenda in meeting Hitler in 1941. The Protocol from this fateful meeting specifically states that "The Fuehrer replied that Germany stood for uncompromising war against the Jews and that naturally included active opposition to the Jewish national home in Palestine."  Hitler promised that he would carry on the battle to the total destruction of the "Judeo-Communistic Empire" in Europe.  The Mufti of Jerusalem was no lover of the Jewish people.  He was an ardent antisemite, but the idea of the "Final Solution" was Hitler's alone, as was the implementation of its appalling policies and actions.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Courage, Strength and Humanity

"I look at my family and I see a miracle!" exclaimed Tova at the ceremony at Yad Vashem on Monday. "It's marvelous to be here" she said with a big smile on her face.  Tova was attending a special ceremony honoring the late Angele Larose. Angele saved Tova's life during the war by hiding her from the Nazis. During an emotional speech, Tova expressed her gratitude to André and his family who were attending the ceremony honoring their late grandmother for her wartime heroism. Tova reminisced about many happy memories she had from living on the farm and came to personally thank Angele's grandson for rescuing her. "Angele saved my life by her actions…my parents understood what they owed her. I did not because I was too young. Now, however I fully understand and appreciate her courage, strength and humanity."
Before the war, Hersch and Esther Lowenbraun emigrated from Poland to Charlerio, Belgium together with their two daughters; Sala (born 1925) and Matylda (born 1929). Their third daughter, Theresa-Tova, was born in Belgium in 1938.  Sala was arrested and deported with the first transport from Belgium to Poland in 1942.  In an attempt to save their two remaining daughters, Esther brought both Matylda and Theresa-Tova to the Saint Joseph Hospital and Convent. There, she asked the Mother Superior, Sister Julienne Aneuse, to hide the girls. Before leaving Esther instructed Matylda to recite the "Shema" prayer with her younger sister Tova in order not to forget their Jewish heritage. 

In 1943, Esther decided to move the girls to a safer location. Tova was taken to the farm of Angele Larose in the village of Villers-Poterie. The Larose family treated Tova well, and Tova benefited from the quiet life of the village, enjoying the animals. Occasionally, Esther would visit but, as Tova told Yad Vashem, "I didn't remember her as my mother, just a woman who visited and brought me a doll." Tova would accompany the Larose family to church every week, and at a certain stage asked the Priest to convert to Christianity. The Priest told her she would be able to do so when she was older. At the end of the war, Esther came to get her daughter and along with Hersch and Matylda, they immigrated to the United States. 

André was also very moved by the experience. "Who would've thought I would be talking about my grandmother here in Jerusalem. Her name will forever be remembered at Yad Vashem. It's wonderful to see Tova and all of her family."  

On March 16, 2015, Yad Vashem recognized Angele Larose and Sister Julienne Aneuse as Righteous Among the Nations.

Irena Steinfeldt, Director of the Department of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem concluded the ceremony by noting that "not only were the Righteous extremely courageous for risking their lives to save others, but also the survivors themselves are remarkable as hiding is an enormous challenge. We can only admire them."

For more information about the Righteous Among the Nations:

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Behind-the-Scenes at Yad Vashem: Reference and Information Services Department

This first in a series of Q &As with Yad Vashem staff, takes a behind-the-scenes look at the Reference and Information Services Department of the Archives Division.  Department Director Lital Beer gives an overview of the their current challenges and accomplishments:

Lital Beer, Director of the Reference and Information Services Department
Why was the Reference and Information Services Department established?

The Reference and Information Services Department was established in 2000 in order to streamline public enquiries directed at Yad Vashem's Archives, Library and Hall of Names. Until this point, these three branches offered separate services to people seeking information about the fate of certain individuals during the Holocaust. The precedent-setting decision to unite them, stemmed from the understanding that in most cases, this kind of query requires a search across multiple databases, producing a far more comprehensive answer. 

Over the years, the Department employees have developed specialties in database management, particularly the ability to cross-reference accurate information and documentation about Holocaust victims.

Which people or groups seek help finding information, and in what fields?

Approximately 10,000 people per year come to Yad Vashem’s Reading Room, and around 20,000 more contact us in writing from all over the world – from Israel, Europe, America, and even from Arab countries. A considerable amount of requests deal with clarifying the fate of Holocaust victims, mostly from relatives, but our services also help professionals in the fields of genealogy and law.

I'll give you an example. Recently, Henry Horvath from Ecuador visited the Archives with his son, Ronny. Henry's father, Aladar Benjamin Horvath Goldstein, was born in 1907 in Zagon, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today located in Romania. Aladar survived the war in France, where he was located for business purposes, and from there he escaped to Portugal. He was the only surviving member of his family. His son Henry sent us the names of his father's brother and sisters, about whom he had no information. Rita Margolin, a senior researcher in our Department, was able to locate information about each and every member of Aladar's family.

Other inquirers are Israeli and international researchers from various disciplines looking for archival and academic sources, as well as book publishers and even film producers seeking information to complete their research. We also assist museums and other memorial institutions searching for sources and information for exhibitions and ceremonies.
Searching for Archival material in the Reading Room

What challenges do you see for the Department in the future, and what tools do you already have to help solve them?
Nowadays, people are exposed to a wealth of information and documentation on the Internet, and therefore their inquiries are more challenging in terms of the material itself, its context and its significance. If a large part of our work in the past involved assisting people with accessing available materials on Yad Vashem’s physical campus, our role in the future will focus more on the need to help the public identify what’s relevant from the variety of accessible materials from around the world. This challenge demands that we learn and continuously develop specialties, and we do this both by training new staff members and by regular professional development programming.
Another challenge is the gap that often exists in the third and fourth generation’s knowledge of the Holocaust versus that of the first and second. In many cases, we receive requests for information from people who don’t know all the family details, such as names, birthdates, and places. In my opinion, this trend will increase in the future, so we have to be able to fill in the missing information in a variety of means. Often this is real detective work. The greatest difficulty is understanding that it is not always possible to be completely sure of the final fate of a particular person.

Why is it important for people to know about your services? How do you reach people that are unaware of your work?

Despite the distance of time, the Holocaust continues to be an important and major subject in the consciousness of people in Israel and the entire world.  Many are unaware of the vast information stored at Yad Vashem. The material accumulated here is meant to assist the public – as individuals and as groups – in researching the Holocaust and the history of individuals during that time, and commemorating them.We aren’t fulfilling our mission if our sources aren’t being used by the public in the most effective way.  As such, we maintain working contacts with a great many Holocaust-related institutions and organizations; we initiate and participate in conferences and study days; and we also work with universities and colleges to inform people studying the topic about our services. 

Researching in the Reading Room
Our greatest satisfaction is when we can help those who have approached us by supplying them with information they were unable to reach alone. After returning to Ecuador, Henry Horvath wrote: "My father was the only survivor of his family. I lament the pain that accompanied him during his lifetime. He was never able to talk about it or share whatever information he had, and suffered in silence. I understood from an early age not to ask questions, since they caused him pain. I only recorded in my mind the few comments that once in a while would escape him… We are especially grateful to everyone who helped put together the story of my family. Now I know the names of the husbands and the wives of my uncle and aunts, and also the names of their children and how many of them existed... Now I know when they were deported and where. Now I have been able to put names to the people in one family photograph that dates back to 1937… [this has] finalized an open question I have wrestled with my entire life."


Thursday, September 10, 2015

That Refugee Crisis and This Refugee Crisis

Op-ed written by Dr. Robert Rozett as seen in the Times of Israel.

In spring 1938, on the heels of five years of persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany that had recently extended to newly annexed Austria, it was clear that Europe, and the world, were in the throes of a severe refugee crisis. The term "refugee crisis" was essentially a euphemism, since it was not an amorphous situation, but rather circumstances resulting directly from masses of Jews fleeing dire Nazi persecution.  Of course this was still nearly three years before systematic mass murder would strike the Jews. And it was still six months before orchestrated massive violence would erupt on November 9th and 10th in the pogrom that came to be known as Kristallnacht. Yet even in spring 1938 Germany's persecution of the Jews was real, humiliating, profoundly painful and much too frequently, violent.

By the start of 1938 roughly one third of the 523,000 Jews residing in Germany proper in 1933 had left, or were on the verge of leaving. In addition, in the newly annexed German territories of Austria, Adolf Eichmann was poised to employ new coercive tactics to expedite the emigration of as many of the roughly 200,000 Jews of Austria as possible. He would be very successful.

In spring 1938, President Roosevelt and his Administration decided to convene a conference to deal, ostensibly, with the problem of Germany's fleeing Jews. Between the 6th and 15th of July, representatives from 32 countries met in the French spa town of Évian-sur-les-Bains.  It became rapidly clear at the time, and even clearer subsequently, that the Evian conference yielded no substantial solutions to the ongoing stream of refugees.  The various countries' emissaries set forth reasons why their nations could do little or nothing more than had already been done to help.  Each emissary voiced hopes that other countries would provide a solution.  In short the Evian conference was a dismal failure, ultimately fortifying the foundations of the Nazis' Final Solution.

"Evian, France, Representatives from various nations, sitting around a table at the Evian Conference."
Courtesy of Yad Vashem Photo Archives
Today Europe and the world face another refugee crisis of great proportions. Today's crisis appears in some ways much greater than that of the 1930s, with more complex and diverse characteristics and causes. It extends beyond several hundreds of thousands of persecuted persons belonging to one ethnic group, in one nation. Now, millions of people in extremis around the world are on the move and seek relief, refuge and a safe future.  It is truly a global problem.

Since 2011 more than 4 million have fled the brutal and bloody multi-sided war in Syria alone, a war that has left an estimated quarter of a million dead.  In Iraq, ISIS has targeted its enemies killing, enslaving, terrorizing and raping large segments of minority groups like the Yazidis, various Christians and those Muslims who do not follow the ISIS line, engendering massive flight.  As of the end of 2014, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 19.5 million people around the world have been driven from their homes because of armed conflict.

When today's refugees reach the shores of Europe or other safe havens, their new hosts are faced with daunting task of trying to accurately determine their status: Who among these unfortunate people is in immediate life threating danger. Whose life is threatened potentially? And who is seeking safety from places where life is "merely" wretched beyond the imagination of comfortable First World citizens? Clearly, weighty considerations, and not a little prejudice and selfishness to boot, preclude better-off countries from dramatically opening their doors wide to all the refugees. Yet, perhaps, we can derive a modicum of wisdom from history to help us grasp and deal sensibly and morally with this tragic, worsening situation.

When the world faced the crisis of Europe's persecuted German and Austrian Jews in the 1930s and might have solved the problem together, it failed miserably because it didn’t really try. It didn’t really want to try.

What is needed today is a new international initiative to aid the refugees - certainly not a sham like the Evian Conference, but a sincere and resolute effort to actually make a practical difference for the miserable millions.  This would go a long way towards the saving of many lives, and would also constitute an important gesture toward making amends for the world's past failures of conscience and action. Clearly many countries together can achieve more than one country acting alone. There are a number of already existing international organizations and agencies that could be part of such an effort, such as the UN, the World Bank, and major relief and charity organizations.   

In acting, we should all be guided by the saying attributed to Rabbi Tarfon in the Pirke Avot (The Sayings of the Fathers), a compilation of ethical teachings by early Jewish sages: "It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it."
It may not be achievable to succor all or even the greater part of the tens of millions who need our help, but that does not mean that organized and concerted efforts should not be made to do whatever can already be done. Those efforts should begin now.

Dr. Robert Rozett is the Director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, author of Conscripted Slaves: Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front, Yad Vashem 2013, and co-editor with Dr. Iael Nidam Orvieto, of a forthcoming anthology of letters written by Holocaust Survivors and Allied soldiers after liberation to be published by Yad Vashem.