Sunday, May 31, 2015

Yad Vashem Seminar Graduates Promote Holocaust Education in Turkey

by James Joseph McIntosh

A seminar on Holocaust studies for a group of academics from Turkey has generated some exceptional and diverse educational activities just one year later.  In June 2014, the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem, in cooperation with the Aladdin Project, organized a first-of-a-kind seminar which was attended by an outstanding group of educators. The extended program began in 2013, with an international conference at Galatasaray University in Istanbul, followed by  participation in an online course designed by Yad Vashem's experts. This summer, the seminar graduates have already begun to incorporate the study of the Holocaust into their classrooms, effectively become emissaries for Yad Vashem in their home country.

Academics from Turkey attend a session at
 Yad Vashem's International School for Holocaust Studies
One graduate, a professor at a university in Istanbul who requested he remain anonymous, is using Yad Vashem online materials to teach about the Holocaust.  In the lead-up to class discussions on the Holocaust, his students viewed Dr. David Silberklang's online presentation  and read passages from the websites of Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In class, the professor gave a half-hour introduction to the Holocaust, including Jewish life in Eastern Europe, Emancipation, the Dreyfus Affair, the 1881 pogroms and the 1903 Kishinev Pogrom, the rise of Nazism in Germany, and antisemitism.

"The students told me they were profoundly moved when they watched Dr. Silberklang's explanations, and were horrified by the level of cruelty," said the professor. "Some of them admitted to crying while watching the video."
The professor teaches Turkish and international students together, and they had a diverse knowledge base.  "My German student seemed to know more about this subject than all the other students," said the professor. "My Polish student, on the other hand, talked about the increasing interest in Jewish life in Poland. The Turkish students knew much more about World War I, which preceded the Turkish War of National Liberation (1919-1922), than World War II, because Turkey was not involved in the latter."
Yad Vashem staff presentation of cutting-edge educational resources provided participants with essential tools for teaching their students.  James McMillan is a British citizen who teaches English at the Enka Private School in Adapazarı, Turkey.  "The Yad Vashem website is a wonderful help, and one of the few places where I can find accurate information," he said.  Prior to participating in the seminar in Jerusalem, McMillan took a Turkish student group to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial Museum and Jewish sites in Krakow.  "As far as I know, we were the first Turkish school to educate students about the Holocaust, as well as to visit two of the authentic sites where so much terror and murder had occurred," he said.
James McMillian's students during a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau
An active contributor to the Facebook page of the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem, social media has enabled McMillan to make contact and speak with many descendents of Holocaust survivors.  "I have also made friends with Mrs. Toba Abramczyk, whose father survived four camps, including Auschwitz, then survived one of the death marches, said McMillan.  He expressed the hope that his students would have the opportunity to speak with her via Skype and learn about the second generation of Holocaust survivors as well.

Teaching the Holocaust and other genocides to students in Turkey can be very complex and challenging in the context of Turkey's own history and the current mid-east realities." Teaching about life before the war is so important because it gives the victim a face, a life, a background," said McMillan.  "This is our ultimate response to racism and prejudice, and I am committed to transmitting that message to my students."

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Story of Survival

My name is Elysha Varenbut and I am from Toronto, Ontario. Currently I am spending a semester in Jerusalem studying at Hebrew University. I began volunteering at Yad Vashem this year, and met Holocaust survivor Berthe one day while listening to her special story. I instantly felt connected to her and her passion for life.
Berthe in the Hall of  Names
Berthe was born in Lyon, France in 1932 into a Jewish family. Her father, originally from Poland, left for France at the young age of 14 with the help of his two older sisters. His two sisters had sent money for his travels due to the increased tensions in Poland. Berthe's mother, originally from Poland, also left to Lyon, France. Additionally, both of Berthe’s parents were communists and members of the Jewish Communist Organization. They hoped communism would solve the problem in central Europe. When the war started and the Germans invaded France, the Jewish Communist Organization prepared themselves to fight the Germans. Additionally, the organization decided at this time that children should be sent away in order to keep them safe and for the parents to be free to fight in the Jewish underground.

In December 1941, when Berthe was only nine years old, her mother packed her a suitcase and Berthe left her family. About to leave behind her family and the only life she had ever known, she was scared and uneasy, but somehow understood it had to be done. Berthe was taken to a Christian family, but under the guise of a Christian child in order to hide her true Jewish identity. She was taken to a widowed woman, Madame Massonnat, and her three children. Madame Massonnat was a farmer and lived in a village in the Alpes about 100 kilometers outside of Lyon. Madame Massonnat lived a very simple life as a farmer; she was strict yet sensible, and treated Berthe as one of her own. Berthe explains, “She knew I was Jewish but never said a word… not to me, nor to her children.”

Berthe lived in a stable household with Madame Massonnat and her family for about two years before German soldiers began to invade the town in 1943. “When I was walking I would look down… I was afraid they would see my face and see I was a Jew. I was so afraid to say the word ‘Jew’." Not only was Berthe afraid for her own life, she feared that Madame Massonnat and her family were also at risk. It was forbidden for French citizens to help Jewish people; some French rescuers were punished and either deported or even murdered. However, although Madame Massonnat understood the risks of hiding Berthe this did not deter her from hiding her in her home with her children.

Elysha and Berthe at Yad Vashem 
On September 3, 1944, French units liberated Lyon, and Berthe safely returned home to her mother and father in Lyon. Berthe continued living in Lyon with her parents until 1956, when she made Aliyah to Israel. Her parents later joined her in Israel in 1971.

Elysha and Berthe at Yad Vashem 
Looking back and thinking about the hard times Berthe and her family went through, she still manages to remain positive and have an optimistic outlook on life. “Because I learned to be tough, I learned to survive,” she said. "I am grateful to the Massonnat family for saving my life. It is my duty to remind you that there are good people in the world.” Berthe’s story is just one of many that display actions of courage, bravery, and strength. The Massonnat family, along with other Righteous Among the Nations families and individuals who risked their lives to save Jews will forever be appreciated and admired.

Berthe has been through so many struggles and losses, such as the loss of her first grandson who was an officer in the army and killed in the first Intifada in 2002, and yet she is able to wake up every day with a smile and focus on the good in the world. Spending time talking to Berthe and listening to her stories has been a wonderful learning experience. Every moment I spend with her is very special, and she is continually helping me to learn and grow more as a person. She helps young individuals every day realize the importance of listening to the voice of survivors in order to keep their memories alive.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Fighting for Freedom

New online exhibition marking 70 years since VE Day

"Fighting for Freedom" is a special new online exhibition marking 70 years since VE Day, the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Allied forces. This new exhibition tells the personal stories of some of the 1.5 million Jewish soldiers who served in the Allied Forces during WWII, through items such as artifacts, photographs, uniforms, prized medals and more, each telling a singular wartime tale. These treasured items express the unique encounters and individual experiences these combat soldiers faced when liberating their fellow Jews from the horrors of the Nazi concentration and death camps. 

Cloth wall decoration found in an
abandoned Jewish home in Lithuania
Moshe Domb enlisted in the Lithuanian division of the Red Army. During the war, Domb was wounded and hospitalized. While journeying to  rejoin his unit, he passed through many Lithuanian villages, seldom finding a Jewish child or woman who had miraculously survived. In one of the villages that he passed through, he entered the empty home of a Jewish family where he discovered an embroidered cloth decoration on the kitchen wall. Embroidered on the cloth is an image of a woman in a kitchen with the Yiddish saying "die Reinkeit liegt in Scheinkeit" (Purity lies in Cleanliness.) As Domb's unit marched through these villages they began to understand the magnitude of the destruction of the Jewish people and felt that they had arrived too late. In a letter Domb wrote, "We have already lost the war, no Jews are left in Europe, there is no hope of finding any of our family." Moshe later donated the cloth he found to the Yad Vashem Artifacts Collection.

Medal received by Ernestina-Yadja Krakowiak
 for service in the battle for Berlin
Another Jewish solider featured in the exhibition is Ernestina-Yadja (Minz) Krakowiak who was one of a number of Jewish women who served in the Allied Armies during WWII. Krakowiak, was born in Warsaw and fled to Soviet territory early in the war and was sent to a detention camp in Siberia. When a Polish unit of the Red Army was founded, Krakowiak joined its ranks, becoming only one of two women in her unit to serve in the artillery division. For her involvement in various combat operations, she was awarded both Polish and Soviet ribbons and medals which she later donated to Yad Vashem. 

To view other captivating stories of these Jewish soldiers in the online exhibition "Freedom Fighters" click here.

The exhibition is generously supported by the Genesis Philanthropy Group. 

Ernestina-Yadja (Minz) Krakowiak, 

Red Army, Polish Division

Yad Vashem's Artifacts Collection is comprised of over 28,000 itiems donated over the years by Holocaust survivors and members of their families, as well as various organizations in Israel and abroad.  The many personal effects in the collection unveil the individual stories of people, families and at times, entire communities.  Yad Vashem's national campaign "Gathering the Fragments" has been operating since 2011, in an 11th hour effort to collect Holocaust-related personal items from the general public in Israel. The items are then preserved, and their stories made available to researchers, students and the public. 

Information about donating items to Yad Vashem for safekeeping is available at 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

North Carolina High School Class Finds Relatives of Holocaust Victims

A local public school in North Carolina, U.S.A concluded an intensive year-long research project where students worked diligently to return a Holocaust-era letter to living relatives of the writer.
Professor Todd Singer's American History class at the East Henderson High School embarked on a year-long journey to find a living relative of Betty Erb, who together with her fiancé, Martin Selling, were murdered in Auschwitz. More than 75 years ago, Betty wrote a desperate letter to a John B. Erb in the United States, in hopes that they were related, requesting help to be able to escape Germany and immigrate to Bolivia. As a Jew in Germany in the 1930's, she understood that her life and that of her fiancé were in danger. The letter survived, but, like too many, Betty and Martin did not.

Todd Singer asked his class to help him research and find out what happened to Betty. The class worked persistently to search for information, and also to search for a living relative, to whom they would present the letter. Malka Weisberg, from Yad Vashem, assisted their continued search and using the ITS Tracing Service, a living relative was found in Australia -  Andrew Blitz - who then connected the class with his sister, Suzanne, in Florida.

"The search for a living relative of Betty Erb, who together with her husband, Martin, was murdered in Auschwitz, began as Todd Singer taught his class about the Holocaust," noted Weisberg. "Todd showed the class a letter, which Betty wrote to an Erb in the United States asking for his help. She did not know if they were related but she tried anything as her situation became desperate.   From there, the class embarked on a journey of discovery.   They used the Yad Vashem website and found out that Betty and Martin had been murdered. They then decided to find a relative, to whom they would present the letter. They wanted to make sure the memory of Betty and Martin would survive. They unraveled information about an individual, but through this learned about an entire nation, hunted down and murdered because they were Jews.  Anyone can search our database, as we continue to digitize the 179 million pages of documentation contained in our Archives.  The students at East Henderson High School found Betty's information through our website. They could not find Pages of Testimony filled out about them, because tragically, there was no one close to them who survived to fill them out. They turned to us and we continued the search where they left off."  

The culmination of this memorable project took place yesterday as the students, who vowed to remember Betty Erb and Martin Selling, filled out Pages of Testimony in their memory that will be kept at Yad Vashem. 

Blitz, Erb's relative, said, "We are now able to gift the legacy of remembrance to Betty Erb…When we commemorate the victims of the Holocaust we will incorporate memorial prayers to her, recall her plight, and stand in honor of her testimony. (The students') gift to us is not just history, but the recovery of memory itself that would otherwise have been lost from our world."

The original letter was presented to Betty's relatives, who have generously decided to donate the letter to Yad Vashem's Archives, where it will be preserved for generations to come.