Posts on the topic of "Holocaust"
The story of Hungarian Jewry during World War Two is one of the most tragic elements of the Holocaust.
The community of approximately 850,000 Hungarian Jews avoided deportation during much of the war, but in May 1944 sweeping transports were begun to Auschwitz. On a typical day, 12,000 Hungarian Jews were being unloaded from cattle cars and directed straight to the gas chambers.
Over 70% of Hungarian Jewry was wiped out in a span of months – what Winston Churchill would later call "the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world."
And now Hungarian Nazis are back in the news.
Laszlo Csatary, the world's most-wanted Nazi war criminal who was a Hungarian police commander, has now been arrested in Hungary. The 97-year-old Csatary was in charge of the Jewish ghetto in Kassa, Hungary, where in April 1944 he supervised the loading of 16,000 Jews onto trains headed for the crematoria at Auschwitz.
Csatary was convicted in absentia for war crimes and sentenced to death by a court in Czechoslovakia in 1948. He escaped to Canada where he lived under a fake identity for nearly 50 years. He escaped again, before being tracked down in Budapest.
Another "Hungarian Nazi" was in the news this week when it was revealed that Hungarian politician Csanad Szegedi, a member of European Parliament, discovered that his maternal grandmother was Jewish and had been imprisoned in Auschwitz.
The irony is that Szegedi is a member of Jobbik, a radical neo-Nazi party which has proclaimed it the "duty" of all Hungarians to "prepare for armed battle against the Jews."
Szegedi, who now says he is proud of his Jewish heritage, recently met with the Chief Rabbi of Hungary. In response, the Jobbik party is pressuring him to resign his seat in European Parliament.
Nearly 70 years after the war, remnants of Nazism are alive and well in Hungary.
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I read a very moving story about residents of an upscale apartment building in Berlin who began to ask themselves the question: Did Jews used to live in this building? And what ever became of them?
They took the question seriously and conducted a mammoth worldwide hunt to find out the fate of those who inhabited their apartments – some of the 160,000 Jews who lived in Berlin prior to Hitler's rise to power.
The impetus for this project occurred when Peter Schulz, a resident of the building was viewing an exhibition on Jews before World War II. Suddenly he found himself standing in front of a photograph of two children standing on a balcony – Schulz's very own balcony.
He became obsessed with finding out the identity of those two children. After much research, he discovered that one of them, Werner Vohs, died aged 17 at Auschwitz. The girl in the photo, his sister Margot, was the only survivor among her immediate family. She lives today in Peru.
Schulz called a meeting of the other tenants and enlisted them in his project. It took three years of painstaking research to track down the former tenants, with hundreds of hours spent combing through city archives, and sending letters all over the world to gather information.
In all, they discovered that 28 residents of their building had been driven out by the Nazis. Most were murdered at Auschwitz, Theresienstadt or Treblinka.
One of the former residents, Kurt Landsberger, was 18 when he was forced to leave the building. Landsberger is now 90 years old and lives in New Jersey.
When he was located by the current residents, they invited Landsberger to come visit his old apartment. Landsberger flew to Berlin, where he received an emotional tour of the place where he grew up.
As a culmination of the project, the residents have hung a permanent plaque at the entrance of the building, listing each of the 28 names of the former Jewish residents.
Says resident Gabrielle Pfaff: "I was born in 1949 and I often asked my parents what they did under the Nazis. My parents' generation closed its eyes. I want to make sure that such a crime never happens again."
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Back what seems like a lifetime ago, I was making the transition from working in the field of entertainment to working for Jewish causes. The first job I got was as an American liaison for Yitzhak Shamir during his tenure as Israeli Prime Minister (the two of us, pictured here).
Shamir had moved to Israel in 1935, leaving behind his family who were all murdered in the Holocaust. His father had succeeded in escaping from a German death train, only to return to his Polish village where he was promptly beaten to death by childhood friends.
These events greatly informed Shamir's political views, and in the 1940s he became a leader of the Stern Gang whose goal was to drive the British colonialists out of Israel, thus paving the way for Jewish independence.
Yet while Shamir was a firm ideologue, his greatness lay in his ability to be a pragmatist at the same time. Though he was committed to Jewish settlement throughout the Land of Israel, he attended the 1991 Madrid Conference becoming the first Israeli Prime Minister to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians.
On one hand, Shamir was very forthright in Israel's right to defend itself, while on the other hand during the 1991 Gulf War he took the difficult strategic measure of not striking back when Saddam Hussein was hurling scud missiles onto Tel Aviv.
It is these two sides – tough yet compromising – that enabled him to serve so ably.
When he first came to Israel, he changed his family name to Shamir, which is, according to Talmudic lore (Gittin 68b), the name of a worm which can cut through stone. It was used to produce the blocks of the Holy Temple, since metal cutting implements were not appropriate in a place devoted to peace.
To me this sums up Yitzhak Shamir: Firmly devoted to peace, yet stronger than iron and not afraid to use it when necessary.
Yitzhak Shamir has died at age 96, and is being buried today in Jerusalem. He was not a politician who sought glory, fame or riches; he served with modesty and unswerving devotion. May his memory be for a blessing.
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Brit Milah has been the hallmark of Jewish identification for millennia. This issue was particularly relevant in Nazi Germany when men were often made to strip down to determine their Jewish identity.
The point was made quite powerfully in a movie called "Europa Europa," the true story about a young Jewish boy trying to escape detection by the Nazis. The boy resembles an Aryan and speaks German fluently, so he poses as a non-Jew and is eventually recruited into an elite training program for the next generation of SS officers. Only his circumcision, which he couldn't hide, kept him Jewish. The man survived the war, and made a new life for himself in Israel. Instead, he may have ended up becoming a Nazi officer. It all depended on the Bris.
That's why so many are shocked at the ruling this week by a German court that renders religious circumcisions performed by Jews and Muslims a crime. Germany is home to an estimated 4 million Muslims and 100,000 Jews.
According to a report in Germany's Financial Times, the Cologne District Court declared circumcision is a "serious and irreversible interference in the integrity of the human body." The court also ruled that freedom of religion and the rights of parents cannot justify the practice.
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Mention "Poland" and many people think of the millions of Jews decimated there by the Nazis.
If you're a European soccer fan, you think of Poland as the site of Euro 2012, the European soccer championship currently underway.
One curious side effect is that athletes are taking time off to see the local sites. The national squads of England, Netherlands and Italy are all based in Krakow – and went to visit the Auschwitz death camp.
"Most youngsters today have a glorified image of a ghetto, but the ghettos we have learned about today are not like that," British player Joleon Lescott is quoted in Sports Illustrated. "I did not have a full understanding of what the word means… You see it in films and learn about it in music but to learn the origins of the word ghetto opens your eyes."
While Holocaust education is standard in most of the civilized world, the experience of being at the death camps makes it much more real. As the Talmud says: Aino domeh r'iya l'shmiya – there is no comparison between hearing about something and actually seeing it.
"You see the children's clothes and shoes, it's really sad," British player Wayne Rooney told AP. "You have to see it firsthand. It puts football (soccer) into perspective."
England team manager Roy Hodgson donned a kippah and lit a memorial candle at the site. "There are so many lessons to be learnt and understood from the Holocaust, and we believe football (soccer) can play its part in encouraging society to speak out against intolerance in all its forms," Hodgson told AP.
Those lessons came to the fore for the Holland squad. The day after returning from Auschwitz, at a practice session attended by 25,000 spectators in Krakow, the team's black players were subjected to monkey noises and loud jeers. Unfortunately, hatred and intolerance are still rife today.
I just finished reading Out of the Depths (Sterling, 2011), the phenomenal autobiography of Israel's former Chief Rabbi, Israel Meir Lau. I had the great privilege of interviewing Rabbi Lau for this Aish.com film, in which he describes his rise from the youngest survivor of Buchenwald to becoming one of the most respected individuals of our generation. But I never knew the full extent of his life until reading this gripping book. He describes lengthy conversations with Yitzhak Rabin, Fidel Castro, Pope John Paul II, and visits to every corner of the world.
This one story captures so much of the drama that typifies Rabbi's Lau's life:
He asked for a glass of water. The woman bowed her head, then invited him to come inside. Again the Jew asked to know what had happened to her father, and explained that he had felt like a son to the rabbi, and that he had a responsibility to memorialize him. Finally, the woman recounted her story.
It was morning, after services. Her father was sitting beside the table wearing his tallis and tefillin, studying Talmud. Suddenly they heard a savage pounding on the door. "I opened the door. Three Gestapo men burst into the room. They threw me on the ground. I got up and ran to see what they wanted. They pushed their way into my father's room. He raised his head and gave them a look that I won't forget until my dying day. He stared at them as if to ask, What do you want from me? What can I do for you? That was to be his last look. One of the three slung the rifle off his shoulder and pounded the butt on my father's head... His beautiful white beard reddened, and he fell onto the open Talmud.
"What do you want from me? Can't you understand the source of my bitterness? Can't you understand my anger? That's how they took my father," she ended.
The man sat before her and wept for his rabbi, the daughter weeping along with him. "My sister," he said, "you cannot possibly understand how much I understand you. I also have many questions, but I have no answers. No human being can answer such questions. The Torah cautions that the secret things belong unto the Lord our God ― we, however, have the responsibility to act. But the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever: that we must fulfill all the words of this Torah.
"Your child's grandfather has only one grandchild," he continued. "A fateful and historic decision now lies in your hands. If he continues in his present direction, you are handing your father's murderers their victory. That is exactly what they wanted ― to put out the fire, the flame of Judaism, so that it would never burn again. But if your child follows his grandfather's path, then they have lost the war, and your father has won. Who deserves to win? The key is in your hands. Do you want to finish their work? Will you finish spiritually what they did not finish physically? Or will your father win, and his grandson pick up his grandfather's studies on the very page of Talmud where he left off?"
With these words, the Jew walked out of the house. The daughter was stunned. She ran after him, got into his car, and said, "I want to get him out of [the monastery] right now." Then she added, "On the condition that you take responsibility for his education. I have no one else who can do it." He agreed, on his own condition: that she assist him, so as not to traumatize the child by the abrupt transition. "You draw him near to you, and through you, I will draw near to him," he proposed.
Today, this child is a rosh yeshiva in Jerusalem. He is the only living descendant of the old rabbi from Warsaw.
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My visit to Poland in 2006 was filled with great pain ― the overwhelming sense of destruction, emptiness and loss. But one spot that carried a sense of hope was Krakow.
Prior to World War II, Krakow was a burgeoning Jewish center that comprised 30 percent of the city's population, with 100 synagogues and a rich rabbinic tradition dating back to the 12th century.
During the Holocaust, like the rest of Poland, the Jews of Krakow were confined to a ghetto and then murdered in concentration camps.
The physical infrastructure of Jewish Krakow, however, remained largely intact. Following the Nazi invasion in September 1939, the Germans turned Krakow into their regional headquarters. So unlike the rest of Poland, Krakow was not subject to devastating bombings. Many of the synagogues were used as warehouses, and emerged from the war relatively undamaged. This preserved Krakow's Jewish historical and architectural legacy, and the synagogues stand today as a testimony to the grandeur that once was.
My visit to Krakow coincided with the annual Jewish Cultural Festival, a week-long summer event focusing on Jewish culture, history and religion that flourished in Poland before the Holocaust. It is fascinating to see tens of thousands of Poles converge on Krakow's old Jewish district, Kazimierz, looking to discover and experience the Jewish life that was so brutally snuffed out.
Now, a new Jewish institution is thriving in Krakow ― an American-style Jewish Community Centre. The local Jewish population, numbering around 500, partakes in Hebrew classes, lifecycle events, and weekly Shabbat dinners. There is even a staff genealogist to assist those seeking to uncover their long-dormant Jewish roots.
I've often thought that if given the opportunity to spend a month of quiet writing and study, the location I'd choose is Krakow. Walking the cobbled alleys of Kazimierz hearkens back to the life my own ancestors must have led in Eastern Europe. There is the original Beis Yaakov building founded by Sara Schenirer; the old cemetery where Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Remah) and the Tosfos Yom Tov are buried; and some of the grandest synagogues you could imagine. As strange as it may sound, Krakow ― though steeped in Jewish suffering ― remains full of Jewish inspiration.
Elie Wiesel, the famed Nobel Prize-winning author and Holocaust survivor, is jumping into the fray these days about the highly-charged political situation in Iran.
Last week, when Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu compared the Iranian nuclear threat to a second Holocaust, Wiesel shot back:
"Iran is a threat, but can we say that it will make a second Auschwitz? I don't compare anything to the Holocaust... Only Auschwitz was Auschwitz."
This week, Wiesel accompanied President Barack Obama on a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Following the visit, as reported by the Washington Times, President Obama said:
"It's a bitter truth. Too often the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale, and we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save."
But Wiesel wondered aloud why world leaders have not "learned anything" from the Holocaust.
"How is it that Assad is still in power?" Wiesel asked, referring to the 10,000 civilians who have died in Syria since popular protests began about a year ago.
"How is it that the Holocaust's No. 1 denier, Ahmadinejad, is still a president? He who threatens to use nuclear weapons… to destroy the Jewish state. We must know that when evil has power, it is almost too late."
So Wiesel did in fact use the Holocaust Museum as an opportunity to push for protection of Israel today.
My take on all this is that while there are clear parallels ― i.e. Israel's 6 million Jews are being threatened with annihilation by a dictatorial madman ― using the term capital-H "Holocaust" is best reserved for that horrific singular event in world history, the Nazi destruction of European Jewry.
Now it's up to each of us to stop Iran and ensure that nothing of the sort ever happens again.
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Just when you think you've seen the height of insensitivity, there's this:
The "hipster" clothing company Urban Outfitters is now selling a t-shirt bearing a six-pointed Star of David patch that ― along with the bright yellow shirt fabric ― is clearly suggestive of the infamous "yellow star" worn by European Jews under Nazi persecution.
This is not the first time that Urban Outfitters has offended Jewish sensibilities. In 2004 they marketed a shirt bearing the words "Everybody Loves a Jewish Girl" surrounded by dollar signs and shopping bags.
During the second Intifada, the chain sold Palestinian kaffiyehs which they referred to as "antiwar scarves." Another shirt showed a Palestinian youth carrying an AK-47 assault rifle over the word "Victimized."
And now, marketing Nazi concentration camp symbols to impressionable youth? There's no excuse.
Update: Wood Wood, the Danish producers of the shirt, is apparently marketing it under the rubric of "Mescaline Mathematics" - fashion featuring interconnected geometrical shapes. So is the Nazi connotation genuine, or just another Rorschach test for those attuned to the Holocaust?
Update #2: Now it's getting more interesting. Wood Wood has issued a statement acknowledging that "when we received the prototype of this particular style we did recognize the resemblance" to the Star of David. The statement is signed by Wood Wood co-founder, Brian SS Jensen (no kidding - "SS").
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With each passing year, as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, the idea of a "new" Holocaust story becomes almost unimaginable.
Now, as reported by AFP, a woman who lives in an Arab town in northern Israel ― matriarch to a large clan of children and grandchildren ― has come clean.
In 1941, the Brashatsky family ― mother, father and two young boys ― was deported from Yugoslavia to the Auschwitz death camp. The parents were assigned as housekeepers for a Christian doctor at Auschwitz. To spare them, he hid the entire family under the floor of his house inside the camp.
A few months later, Mrs. Brashatsky gave birth to a baby girl, Helen.
The Auschwitz doctor hid the baby, too.
She was given a Hebrew name, Leah.
Three years later, the war ended. Auschwitz was liberated, and the Brashatsky family was free.
They moved to Israel in 1948, a few months prior to the declaration of statehood.
The family settled in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv. When Helen was 17, she met an Arab man named Ahmed Jabarin. They married and she ran off to make a life in the northern Arab town of Umm al-Fahm.
Although Helen's husband and children knew she was Jewish, she never revealed any details of her past. Over the decades, she became known as Umm Raja, Arabic for "Raja's mother," after her first-born son. She adopted the traditional Muslim dress code of hijab and long robes.
Helen's true heritage got buried deeper when her oldest son became 18 and ― as the child of a Jewish Israeli ― was summoned into the Israeli Army. In order to avoid the draft, Helen "converted" to Islam.
"I hid my pain for 52 years and the truth about my past from my children and grandchildren," Helen told AFP. "I was just waiting for the right moment to tell them."
This week, as Holocaust Memorial Day came around once again, Helen finally told them.
The memories poured out: Of wearing striped pajamas. Of eating dry bread soaked in water. Of witnessing horrific beatings in the camp. Of gas chambers, crematoria and death all around.
"Mom used to cry on Holocaust Memorial Day watching all the ceremonies on Israeli television," her son Nader told AFP. "We never understood why. We all used to get out of the way and leave her alone in the house… We understand her a bit more now."
Maybe now "Umm Raja―Helen―Leah" will feel a bit more comfortable speaking not only Arabic and Hebrew, but some of the Yiddish she still remembers as a child.