New Android game invites users to ‘play in Auschwitz’

Campo di Auschwitz Online was developed as a smartphone game that allows users to “live like a real Jew” in a concentration camp.

SmpartphoneA disturbing new application was displayed in the “Google Play” store that invites users to “play in Auschwitz” Italian newspaper The Repubblica reported on Sunday.

Campo di Auschwitz Online, which the developers said was designed with a goal of enjoyment, was made available on the Android platform and received online reviews of 3.1 stars out of 5.

The homepage of the application features a Star of David alongside train tracks with the words “Auschwitz Concentration Camp” superimposed above.

As a graphic of what can only be assumed to be a Jewish person escaping from the camp appears alongside the disconcerting mantra of the game appears in letter over an image of the concentration camp’s gate: Live like a real Jew in Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

The developers of the game commented that it was intended to be a parody but confirmed that they support games with violent content. As a graphic of what can only be assumed to be a Jewish person escaping from the camp appears alongside the disconcerting mantra of the game appears in letter over an image of the concentration camp’s gate: Live like a real Jew in Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

The developers of the game commented that it was intended to be a parody but confirmed that they support games with violent content.


Three Auschwitz inmates miraculously saved from death reunite

Among a small group spared the gas chambers at the last moment on Simchat Torah, 1944, these men remained virtual strangers until now

mordechai-eldar-965x543JTA — For over six decades, Chaim Schwimmer has thrown a kiddush every Simchat Torah, but the reason for this kiddush is not only to celebrate the joyful holiday.

The food and the schnapps also mark the anniversary of Schwimmer’s miraculous rescue in 1944 from certain death at Auschwitz. In October that year, the 14-year-old was pulled from a crowd just a few steps from being murdered in the concentration camp’s gas chamber.

Schwimmer was one of the approximately 50 young men selected for labor after having been forcibly disrobed and prepared to be marched to their deaths in the faux showers along with hundreds of others.

The “Auschwitz 50” were the subject of a 2011 column about Mordechai Eldar, an Israeli hoping to locate others like himself dramatically saved that day, who may have survived the war and perhaps are even living still.

Unfortunately, that column proved fruitless. But a guest article elsewhere that mentioned Eldar’s rescue and search for others recently resulted in two emails within a week of each other.

Isaac Schwimmer, a 39-year-old resident of the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood of Borough Park, mentioned his paternal grandfather, Chaim, who lives a few blocks away and was one of the 50 saved. And Harry Ullman wrote from London to tell of a friend nearby, Hershel Herskovic, also among the 50.

My telephone conversation with Isaac Schwimmer then uncovered yet another living person who had survived the selection: Volvish Greenwald, the grandfather of the brother-in-law of Schwimmer’s wife.

When the initial column appeared in 2011, Eldar, of Herzliya, had already established contact with fellow Israelis David Leitner and Nachum Hoch, and had met Mordechai Linder shortly before Linder died in 2011. And in his email, Ullman mentioned a Manchester, England, resident he had known, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Weiss, another Auschwitz 50 survivor, who had died in 2013.

That makes eight of the 50 who have been identified: six living and two now deceased.

Each of the three newly found people recently interviewed — Chaim Schwimmer, Herskovic and Greenwald — evinced surprise that Eldar, whom none knew, was searching for them. Each man related personal details of being saved from the Simchat Torah gassing.

Chaim Schwimmer, 85, recalled what happened after reaching the gas chamber’s building on that rainy afternoon.

“They told us to undress. We were expecting right away that they’d take us to the gas chamber. But we stood — and waited and waited and waited,” he said.

Three German soldiers entered the room. One ordered a young prisoner to sprint to the end of the room — apparently, Schwimmer thought, to test his fitness. Schwimmer boasted of his own ability to work. A soldier berated him, but ordered him to leave the building with the others selected.

Herskovic, now 88, was unusually calm that day, not dreading what likely awaited. He mumbled a passage from the Talmud on keeping the faith even when a sword was pressed against one’s neck.

“I felt that I wouldn’t die, for some reason,” Herskovic said.

After he had undressed, three soldiers appeared. One ordered the boys to line up, three per row.

“When he said that, I knew we’d be saved now. I stood in the second row, and I was immediately picked and sent to the right side, where we were to go back to the camp and remain alive,” Herskovic said.

Greenwald, 87, remembered of his exchange with one officer: “He asked me how old I am and if I was healthy.”

Each man termed what happened a “miracle.”

But Gideon Greif, an Israeli expert on Auschwitz, explained it as a routine labor call.
The Nazis “needed workers, and there was nothing miraculous or extraordinary about this,” said Greif, chief historian at the Shem Olam Institute for Education, Documentation and Research on Faith and the Holocaust. “Life and death were determined by many criteria, including the need for workers. Here were people concentrated in one place. Sometimes it was in the fields, sometimes in the barracks and sometimes in the gas chambers.”

Greif had heard about the episode of the 50 men saved and said he’s come across six similar cases — “but there could have been 70 [cases]; I have no idea.”

Schwimmer went on to establish a paper products company. He has five sons, 53 grandchildren and approximately 200 great-grandchildren, said Isaac Schwimmer, a property manager who studies Torah with his grandfather every morning.

Herskovic was blinded by a combination of a Nazi beating just days before liberation in 1945 and typhus. He became a lawyer and has four children, 22 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Schwimmer is his cousin; the two grew up in Muncacz, Hungary.

Greenwald, a native of Hajdunanas, Hungary, worked for 55 years as an administrator at Yeshiva Chasam Sofer in Borough Park. He has 12 children; he did not provide the number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

While Greenwald lives four blocks from Chaim Schwimmer, he hasn’t attended the Simchat Torah spreads at the Satmar synagogue on 52nd Street. Schwimmer has thrown the annual kiddush there for 38 years, and before that for 29 years in Montreal, where he first settled after the Holocaust.
It’s what’s known as a “seudat hodaya” — a gratitude meal. No announcement is made to proclaim the backstory, but Isaac Schwimmer says that congregants know. They invariably bring children to his grandfather and ask that he relate what happened in 1944.

“I’m thankful to God that I’m alive,” Chaim Schwimmer says.

Some of his progeny attend the kiddush, while his metaphorical kin extend far beyond the room.

“It’s like my family in the widest possible meaning. We walked out alive,” Eldar, 86, said of the fraternity.


Germany jails ex-Auschwitz guard, 94, for five years

Reinhold Hanning found guilty on 170,000 counts of accessory to murder; volunteered for SS at 18; was at camp from 1942-4, claimed he wasn’t involved in killings

Germany-Auschwitz-Tri_Horo-e1465672102396-635x357BERLIN (AP) — A 94-year-old former SS sergeant who served as a guard at Auschwitz was sentenced to five years in prison after being found guilty Friday of 170,000 counts of accessory to murder on allegations he helped kill 1.1 million Jews and others at the Nazi death camp in occupied Poland.

Reinhold Hanning admitted to the Detmold state court during his trial that he volunteered for the SS at age 18 and served in Auschwitz from January 1942 to June 1944, but said he was not involved in the killings in the camp.

“It disturbs me deeply that I was part of such a criminal organization,” he told the court in April. “I am ashamed that I saw injustice and never did anything about it and I apologize for my actions.”

Despite his age, Hanning seemed alert during the four-month trial, paying attention to testimony and occasionally walking in to the courtroom on his own, though usually using a wheelchair.

Several equally elderly Auschwitz survivors testified at the trial about their own experiences, and were among about 40 survivors or their families who joined the process as co-plaintiffs as allowed under German law.

Leon Schwarzbaum, a 95-year-old Auschwitz survivor from Berlin who was used as slave laborer to help build a factory for Siemens outside the camp, told the court at the start of the trial that he regularly saw flames belching from the chimneys of the Auschwitz crematoria.

Reinhold-Hanning-195x293“So much fire came out of the chimneys, no smoke, just fire,” he told the court. “And that was burning people.”

Schwarzbaum later said he does not want Hanning to go to prison and is happy that he apologized, but had hoped that he would have provided more details about his time in Auschwitz for the sake of educating younger generations.

“The historical truth is important,” Schwarzbaum said.

Hanning joined the Hitler Youth with his class in 1935 at age 13, then volunteered at 18 for the Waffen SS in 1940 at the urging of his stepmother. He fought in several battles in World War II before being hit by grenade splinters in his head and leg during close combat in Kiev in 1941.

He told the court that as he was recovering from his wounds he asked to be sent back but his commander decided he was no longer fit for front-line duty, so sent him to Auschwitz, without him knowing what it was.

Though there is no evidence Hanning was responsible for a specific crime, he was tried under new legal reasoning that as a guard he helped the death camp operate, and can thus be tried for accessory to murder. Though the indictment against Hanning focused on a period between January 1943 and June 1944 for legal reasons, the court said it would consider the full time he served there.

The same argumentation used in Hanning’s case was used successfully last year against SS sergeant Oskar Groening, to convict him of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder for serving in Auschwitz. Germany’s highest appeals court is expected to rule on the validity of the Groening verdict sometime this summer.

Groening, 95, was sentenced to four years in prison but will remain free while his case goes through the lengthy appeals process and is unlikely to spend any time behind bars, given his age.

In Hanning’s case, prosecutor Andreas Brendel recommended six years in prison while his defense attorneys argued for an acquittal, rejecting the new legal reasoning.

The precedent for both the Groening and Hanning cases was set in 2011, with the conviction in Munich of former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk on allegations he served as a Sobibor death camp guard. Although Demjanjuk always denied serving at the death camp and died before his appeal could be heard, it opened a wave of new investigations by the special prosecutor’s office in Ludwigsburg responsible for Nazi war crime probes.

The head of the office, Jens Rommel, said two other Auschwitz cases from that renewed effort are still pending trial — another guard and also the commandant’s radio operator, contingent on the defentants’ health, which is currently being assessed — and a third is still being investigated by Frankfurt prosecutors.

Rommel’s office, which has no power to bring charges itself, has also recommended charges in three Majdanek death camp cases, and has sent them on to prosecutors who are now investigating.

Meantime, the office is still poring through documents for both death camps, and is also looking into former members of the so-called Einsatzgruppen mobile death squads, and guards at several concentration camps.

Rommel said even though every trial is widely dubbed “the last” by the media, his office still plans on giving more cases to prosecutors and politicians have pledged to keep his office open until 2025.

“That seems to me to be the outside boundary,” said Rommel, who’s not related to the famous German field marshal of the same surname. “If the cases will make it to trial that’s hard to say, you can’t really look into the future — but we have the mandate to keep investigating as long as there’s still the possibility of finding someone.”


When ‘Never Forget’ Becomes ‘I Don’t Remember’

By Leonard Felson

My father always told us about how he survived the Holocaust. Now that dementia has taken his memories away, it’s my turn to tell his stories.

“Where was I during the Holocaust?” my father—a widower, living in an assisted-living apartment—asked during a recent Skype call with my brother.

My brother and I knew very well where he had been during the Holocaust; we’d heard stories since we were children. But now that my father has been diagnosed with progressive dementia, “Never forget” has often turned into “I can’t remember.”

From an early age, I knew my father was a survivor. I knew how he and one of his two brothers made it through the war fighting the Germans as Jewish partisans in the Belorussian forest. Dad always talked about the war years. He’d spend hours around the kitchen table after dinner, drinking tea with my mother and their friends; or a little vodka with his landsmen with names like Yisroel Chanowitz and Judah Yungelson, talking loudly in Yiddish about how they survived and others had not.

In later years, I would feel pride and gratitude over how Dad made it through those years that forever defined who he was. Yet as a kid, I looked on with an array of other emotions. Acceptance—this was my family. Bewilderment—we heard a story here and there, but never a full chronology. Even embarrassment when I was put in between our two worlds—the “old country” and the new world—like at an elementary-school open house, when Dad’s foreign-accented English stuck out. I also felt disappointment when, for example, he never became a fan of my budding Little League baseball career, or other parts of my life as I grew up, perhaps because he never grasped baseball, or the other games of modern American life, like a native.

His survivor-hood hung like a cloud over our household. Though I couldn’t tell you as a youngster what was wrong, he suffered from survivor’s guilt. His mother and youngest brother, both of whom I’m named after, were shot and killed after the secret hiding place he had secured for them was discovered. The Nazis had shot to death his father, an aunt, and cousin as punishment after my father and his only other brother joined the Jewish resistance. I didn’t know that as a kid. All I knew was that when my two younger brothers and I would horse around, my mother would shush us. Somehow we understood. Our father had suffered enough already.


In the early 1990s, after the Iron Curtain fell, a group of fellow survivors organized a return to their town of Glebokie—part of Poland before the Soviet and Nazi invasions during the war, and now part of Belarus—ostensibly for a memorial service 50 years after its destruction. Dad was ambivalent about returning, facing his tortuous past, but when he decided to go virtually at the last minute, my brothers and I joined him, for we too wanted to journey into a world we had grown up hearing about, often harassed by the same nightmares our father endured.

Back in Eastern Europe, Dad was a man transformed. Normally reticent to show emotions, he burst into heartfelt sobs as he entered the apartment of our Lithuanian driver’s Jewish grandmother. She embraced him like a mother meeting her lost son. At the Vilna synagogue, by chance, he met a thin, gray-haired man whom he last saw when they were second-grade classmates. They hugged, as my father cried uncontrollably.

Such outbursts occurred again and again, unpredictably, culminating when we finally reached Glebokie. Fellow survivors, who had arrived from Israel, Germany, other parts of Belarus, and the United States, swarmed to our car in a bubbling mixture of Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian, hugging and kissing each other through tears and joyous laughter.

I had never seen my dad so alive. That week, when he cried I could feel the pain and sorrow. When he laughed, it was uninhibited joy. From early morning until after midnight, I saw my dad engaged with life, talking mostly in Yiddish to long-ago friends whose lives the Holocaust also had haunted.

When my dad searched for his old family house, I watched his determination as we walked in vain up and down his old street, through neighbors’ cabbage, beet, and potato gardens. Throughout that week, though his town was a shadow of its prewar years, my dad felt like he belonged, and I saw in him a level of contentment often absent as he’d negotiated life in an American society that even after 50 years often made him feel like a foreigner.

At our breakfast table the morning I was to fly home, the two of us sat alone, sipping tea and eating thick brown Russian bread and wild blueberries. Silence filled the little kitchen until my dad announced: “This is probably the best vacation I’ve ever had,” his voice cracking as tears began to swell in his eyes. I nodded my understanding, unable to speak, as both of us silently wept.


Earlier this year, going through a photo album of that trip in his apartment, I found a picture of him and his fellow landsmen. We were sitting together on his sofa and I showed him the photo.

He stared at it, then handed it back.

“It’s hard for me to see it,” he said, a reference to his increasingly poor vision due to macular degeneration.

“When were we there?” he asked.

“August 1993,” I said.

“I don’t remember,” he said.

Similar incidents have surfaced since his diagnosis last year. Once while visiting, I pulled a book about the Holocaust from his bookshelf. He didn’t remember that 6 million Jews had perished.

Recalling stories he’d told me since childhood, I wondered if he’d remember other details, like the circumstances over how he was accepted into the partisans. Or how his friend David Eiges hid in a barrel of flour in a bakery, listening to the sound of machine guns as German soldiers rounded up his neighbors during the liquidation of the Glebokie ghetto in 1943—a story I first heard from David himself when I was just 13. Not long ago, my questions would have triggered an hour worth of storytelling. “Did I ever tell you about … ?” Inevitably, the answer, was, “Yeah, Dad.” But he’d go on, telling the story with full detail.

Now when I asked him for some of those same details, he replied simply, “I forget.”

Fortunately, my father has already recorded his personal history. The USC Shoah Foundation interviewed him about his life for several hours back in 1997. I transcribed those interviews, and they served as the basis of a memoir he commissioned another writer to compile. My uncle also published his own memoir before he died. And my father had a yizkor or memorial book on the destruction of Glebokie translated into English.

But as his memory fades, I’m losing a part of my dad, losing the fact that we no longer can rely on him for detailed stories or go to him to clarify questions. That’s more than sad. I’m grateful that he shared as much as he did, but I’m only now coming to terms with the reality that Dad no longer remembers his saga or can tell it—like a TV series you thought would always being there that finally goes off the air. That’s how dementia works, erasing its victims’ past. I credit him and my mom for instilling within my brothers and me the value of our family’s story. So, I also feel a responsibility to carry his story forward.

I’ve heard it said about other Holocaust survivors with dementia that it’s a blessing that they can let go of those painful memories. I don’t buy it. If a few years ago, we suggested Dad could live the rest of his life unburdened by his tragic past, but at the cost of forgetting everything else, too, he’d pass at the offer. Or so I believe. He would have said, “I can handle the pain. It’s part of life. It’s not worth what I’d give up.”

But he didn’t get that choice. And I mourn that my dad, the last link to that generation of my family, struggles to remember his town, the people, and his past.

I’m a believer that anchoring Judaism to the memory of the Holocaust and the survival of Israel will never be enough to sustain or reinvigorate vibrant Jewish life in the Diaspora. But like the biblical commandment to never forget what Amalek did to the Israelites, remembering my father’s Holocaust history is a part of my DNA.

His dementia marks a signal for me to pick up his torch; to remind my millennial kids of their zayde’s life story, a saga they know, but like me, will always have more questions about. One of my first cousins has already taken up that torch, helping lead the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, which develops educational material about the 20,000 to 30,000 Jewish fighters and their life lessons.

It’s also not too late to switch roles and begin re-telling Dad’s stories back to him. When we visit or call him, we sometimes try engaging him by telling his stories.

Recently, while visiting, I showed him an old framed family photo. He’s sitting by his father’s side, all of about 6 years old. My uncle, then about 3, is sitting next to their mother. Their grandmother is in the photo, along with a cousin and an aunt.

LFelsonPhotos_400“Remember, Dad. When you were a little older, you used to work in your father’s shop? He sold grain, right?

“Flour,” my dad corrected me. “Different kinds of flour.”

“How old were you when you worked for your father?”

He paused for a moment. “Twelve. 13. He used to buy grain from farmers, take it to a mill and make flour,” Dad recalled.

Soon he may not remember those details, finally letting go of this piece of his past, too. In the meantime, though, I wonder when he dozes off, as he frequently does these days, if he’s back in his town or the forests, knowing full well where he was during the Holocaust.



Tom Bird Bears Witness to Two Wars and the Holocaust

A Vietnam veteran wanted to bring to the theater a story about his father, a veteran of World War II. It meant facing the horrors of war with brutal honesty and love.

By Samuel G. Freedman

On the last Monday in April, the traditional month for Holocaust commemoration, actor and playwright Tom Bird seated himself at a bare table in a rehearsal studio a few blocks west of Manhattan’s theater district. He laid a 39-page script in front of him, a first-person narrative of two wars and one genocide with the rather prosaic title Bearing Witness.

Over the next 75 minutes, it became clear there was nothing at all ordinary in this text and performance. Bird had, in fact, created a wholly unique and arresting meditation on World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Shoah, with their valor and tragedy lashed together by a father-and-son story.

Bearing Witness also stands as a kind of summary of Bird’s life and career. At the age of 69, he has been defined by war and theater. He is a veteran and the son of a veteran. Theater rescued him from the embittered and self-destructive aftermath of the military duty in Vietnam, and, in turn, the art that Bird made with the Vietnam Veterans Ensemble Theater Company helped reconcile a divided America to the men who fought a failed and divisive war.

Nothing in Bird’s professional résumé, though, prepared him to produce a work of Holocaust literature. As a Roman Catholic, he was removed from the irreducibly Jewish nature of the Nazi mass murder. Yet a primal, filial motivation wound up leading him there—literally to the Mauthausen concentration camp, where his father had tended to survivors as an Army medic.

“To tell you the truth, I never looked at the story from the outside in,” Bird explained in a recent interview. “I was always telling it from the perspective of my relationship with my father. I loved my father, and I wanted to tell a story about him, and the best way to do that was to tell a story about us. The difference between our two wars was the most dramatic period of our life together. And concurrently, there was always Mauthausen. Even in my most troubled times after Vietnam, I always had a deep admiration for my father and who he was and what he’d done.”

The staged reading in April was intended to stir interest in the work among commercial producers. So is an invitation-only show in Los Angeles on June 20—appropriately enough, the day after Father’s Day. Already Bird is scheduled to perform Bearing Witness in September at the World Peace Initiative Film Festival in Orlando, Florida, and at Mauthausen in May 2017, marking the anniversary of the camp’s liberation.

Bird HellicopterIn some respects, the theater piece had its genesis when Bird was 6 years old, the son of a Long Island doctor named Sam Bird. The elder Bird had enlisted a month after Pearl Harbor and went through the D-Day invasion and the Battle of the Bulge before entering Mauthausen the day after its liberation on May 5, 1945. The Austrian camp, used for slave laborers to mine nearby granite, had nearly 198,000 prisoners during its seven years of operation. Some 95,000 died, 14,000 of them Jews, and the crematoria were running until a week before American forces arrived. (These statistics are from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.) After being discharged, Sam Bird rarely spoke about his service. Early in Bearing Witness, Tom Bird recalls rummaging through his father’s duffel bags of Army memorabilia in the attic:

In the middle drawer, under sheets and mothballs, I found a big pistol, a jewelry box with a Bronze Star with a little “v” on it, a black-and-white patch of a skull’s head, and an envelope. In it was an antique-looking black-and-white picture of a pile of naked, bleached white, skeleton-looking bodies, stacked up against a building. I’d never seen anything like it. It was hard to imagine they were real people. My young soul was shocked and I’ve never forgotten them. I was caught that day and my plea, “Who are they, Dad?” was cut off, “You’re too young!”

Imbued with WWII’s aura of justice and righteousness, eager to claim his place in a family heritage, Tom Bird enlisted in the Army for a two-year stint in late 1964. He was in Vietnam for 10 months of that time, ending when he was evacuated out with malaria in June 1966.

Entering college back on Long Island as a prized football recruit, Bird found himself called a “war criminal” during a student protest one day. He responded by punching the heckler and breaking his jaw. Convicted and sentenced to two years in Nassau County jail, Bird had the punishment shifted to mandatory psychiatric care, which included the drug Thorazine and electroshock treatments.

By the time Bird returned to campus in 1969, he felt alienated from everyone—protesters, veterans, football teammates. His only acceptance came from the theater geeks, and he ended up performing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and then was typecast as a prison guard in Marat/Sade, acting opposite the same student he had assaulted two years earlier. One scene, in fact, called for Bird to strike him onstage. Filled with remorse, Bird told the director he wouldn’t do it. Then the fellow actor said to him, “You have to. It’s for the play. The past is forgiven.” After Bird thanked him, the actor added, “Just don’t hit me too hard. My jaw still hurts.”

That moment infused Bird with the sense that theater could heal him. He moved to Manhattan, tending bar and studying with the renowned Lee Strasberg. Then, in the mid-1970s, a Korean War veteran floated the idea of Bird assembling a theater troupe for his era’s ex-soldiers—largely as a way of getting those men paying work, since the stereotype of the ticking-time-bomb Vietnam vet was pervasive in the performing arts.

Bird took out an ad in a theater trade paper, and 40 veterans showed up for an initial meeting. Out of it grew Vetco, as the Vietnam veterans’ theater group became known. It burst onto the national theater scene, with Bird as its artistic director, in the 1985 show Tracers. Presented at the Public Theater by Joe Papp, himself a WWII veteran, Tracers largely drew upon the actor-veterans’ own experiences in Vietnam. Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times, “When a nation’s horror tale is told by its actual witnesses—and told with an abundance of theatricality, a minimum of self-pity—it can still bring an audience to grief.”

Two years later, under the aegis of HBO, Bird produced the documentary film Dear America, whose script was entirely composed of letters sent home by American men and women serving in Vietnam. “There have been a lot of movies made about Vietnam, some of them good,” wrote Hal Hinson in the Washington Post. “Now a great one has been made.”

Indeed, Bird and Vetco did something much more than make hit shows. Like other works of art created by or about Vietnam veterans—Ron Kovic’s memoir Born on the Fourth of July, Tim O’Brien’s debut novel Going After Cacciato, W.D. Ehrhart’s poetry, Bruce Springsteen’s acerbic anthem Born in the U.S.A.—Tracers and Dear America contributed to a major change in the American understanding of the Vietnam War. Those who lauded it and those who loathed it could now agree on a central, unifying premise: After a decade or more as pariahs, the men who fought it deserved their nation’s embrace.

During the years Bird was developing this body of work, two events occurred that set Bearing Witness into motion. In 1984, on the morning after confiding a secret about his time in Mauthausen to Tom, Sam Bird died. In 1989, when HBO was preparing to release a feature film about Simon Wiesenthal, The Murderers Among Us, Bird was introduced to the legendary Nazi-hunter at a press luncheon.

An HBO executive, who knew that Wiesenthal had been imprisoned at Mauthausen, mentioned that Bird’s father had helped there after liberation. Bird then recounted some of the few stories of Mauthausen he had gleaned from his father—the mass graves, the living people hidden among the corpses. Wiesenthal confirmed: Yes, it was all true. He had weighed less than 100 pounds at liberation. And he always remembered the tenderness of the American Army doctors.

“Have you visited? Wiesenthal asked Bird.


“You must, to truly understand.”

Up until that moment, Bird explained, he had never even thought of it.

“Do it for your father,” Wiesenthal told him.

Seventeen years passed before Bird followed the admonition. In 2006, his godmother died and left Bird a small bequest. He used it to travel to Mauthausen. Although he had been working for years already on a memoir about himself and his father, Bird had not been a student of the Holocaust, beyond having seen Schindler’s List and the Claude Lanzmann documentary Shoah.

In the aftermath of his trip to Mauthausen, however, the Holocaust became the third leg of an evolving script, joined with Sam Bird’s service in WWII and Tom Bird’s service in Vietnam. The text grew to 100 pages, then shrank down to 40. An experienced producer and director—Barbara Ligeti and David Schweizer, respectively—came on board. There was never any question that Bird himself would perform the piece. He had gotten to know the brilliant monologist Spalding Gray when they acted together in the 1984 film The Killing Fields. (Bird gets mentioned in Gray’s one-man show about the movie and the Khmer Rouge genocide, Swimming to Cambodia.) And during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bird had written and performed two first-person theater pieces, Walking Point and Point of Origin.

Tom BirdFor anyone who sees Bird in Bearing Witness, it will be nearly impossible to conceive of any other actor doing it. The meld between real life and stage presentation is inseparable. Starting with that moment of discovering his father’s photograph of the victims at Mauthausen, Bird loops forward and backward in time and memory. The questions that compel his journey are these: Why was my father’s war so good and mine so bad? When I was suffering so much after Vietnam, why did my father just keep telling me to get over it?

Bird spares neither himself not anyone else in recounting his experiences in Viertnam. Several of the most wrenching events in Bearing Witness had been summoned up when Bird was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder in 2008. A therapist then told him, “You have to go back to the one event that most traumatized you, that made you go numb.”

On a patrol near Cambodian border, Bird recalls in the play, his unit is ambushed by North Vietnamese soldiers. After most escape, one remains behind, wounded, but still holding a live grenade. Bird briefly makes eye contact before gutting the man with a bayonet. Then, checking over the body, Bird finds a photograph of the soldier with his wife and child and also a good-luck amulet of Buddha. “I instantly passed through the membrane to the other side of civilization,” Bird says in Bearing Witness, “not sure I’d ever be the same.”

In another incident, Bird leads an American patrol through a village of Vietnamese lepers. They appear friendly at first, but then shots ring out. Bird and his comrades start beating villagers at random and radio in for permission to fully attack. Instead, 30 minutes later, two South Vietnamese helicopter gunships swoop in, pouring thousands of rounds into the hamlet. “Explosions and screams came from the village we’d just terrorized,” Bird recalls in the theater piece. “We changed fast and wanted to shoot the gunships down. The first chopper banked out and the second one came with the same deadly symphony. … More screams, explosions, fires, and screams. We were ordered to stay put! It wasn’t American! We should’ve been helping them! I should’ve disobeyed! Watching this slaughter was unbearable.”

As relentlessly honest as Bird keeps his gaze on Vietnam, he similarly refuses to treat WWII through the rosy tint of “Greatest Generation” nostalgia. For all of Sam Bird’s insistence that his son put the war behind him, for all the father’s seeming equilibrium as a beloved suburban doctor, it turns out that he, too, has been futilely trying to silence the past. His persistent ulcer attests to his unsettled conscience.

In the theater piece, Tom Bird recalls visiting Mauthausen and thinking in free-associated fragments of the memories that his father had sporadically revealed:

Just past dawn … warm already … we came up a back road … the pungent odor of death and decay was everywhere in the air … engineers exhuming a hastily dug mass grave about a 100 meters outside the camp … over a thousand bodies … living people had been buried … rescued four Italian soldiers, only one survived … no water, sewage, food, power … hard to tell who was live … we knew if their eyes moved or they blinked … skin was jaundiced, yellowish, tore when we picked them up … too weak to move … they needed fluids … couldn’t find veins … they were covered in lice … eight in ten had typhus … diarrhea was rampant … frozen feet and gangrene … amputations … a woman begged for a cigarette … peeled off the paper… ate the tobacco, choked, couldn’t swallow, had to be rescued … used medicine droppers to feed them … liberated prisoners beat some hated kapos to death … buried 1500 in first week week … 1500 more the second … dying went on for weeks … we froze emotionally in order to work.

Sam Bird spent a month in Mauthausen after liberation. On a Sunday dinner in 1984, with a table set by his wife with their best linen and china and silver, he faced Tom and said, “I’ve never told this to anyone, son.” Then he spoke about the second week he was in the camp. One group of survivors seemed to be recovering well. Sam Bird figured he’d give them some milk, help their bones rebuild. Instead, 13 of them died. After all the years of forced starvation, their maladapted bodies reacted to so much nutrition by going into metabolic shock and cardiac arrest. On the morning after Sam Bird confessed all this, he died.

More than 30 years later, Tom Bird is left with the same ontological question that has haunted so many Jewish survivors of the Shoah. “I’m going to be 70 in September and I’m on a search for God,” he said during an interview. “I want to come to peace with God before I die. Doing this show, having this experience, is part of it. And if people like Wiesenthal, who went through the Holocaust, can come back to God, then so can I.”

Samuel G. Freedman is a journalism professor at Columbia University and a regular contributor to Tablet. He also writes the “On Religion” column for The New York Times.


Michigan high schools required to teach Holocaust, genocide

(JTA) — Michigan public schools must teach about genocide, including the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide, under a new law.

The legislation, which was signed into law on Tuesday by the state’s governor, Rick Snyder, calls for six hours of instruction about genocide between eighth and 12th grade. It specifically mentions the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide, which began in 1915, but other mass killings must be taught, according to The Associated Press.

“Teaching the students of Michigan about genocide is important because we should remember and learn about these terrible events in our past while continuing to work toward creating a more tolerant society,” Snyder said in a statement following the signing.

“There are, unfortunately, other instances, of atrocities that would be beneficial for students to learn about regardless of whether they meet a certain definition. When and how to teach students about these events would be best left to the educational experts trained to do so.”

Michigan had not mandated Holocaust or genocide education, Michigan Department of Education spokesman Bill DiSessa told the AP, but added that high school students in the state do learn about the Holocaust.


Who owns the diary of Anne Frank?

On the occasion her 87th birthday, an update on the world’s latest commercial incarnations of the human face of Holocaust victims

‘She was just a young girl who was caught up in terrible times’

Anne Frank GravesiteBOSTON — World-renowned for proving that “diaries” written by Jack the Ripper and Adolf Hitler were forgeries, Kenneth W. Rendell has been collecting World War II artifacts since 1959. His Museum of World War II outside Boston houses more than 10,000 artifacts, but an item belonging to Hitler’s most famous victim had so far eluded the historian — until last month.

In a once-in-a-lifetime bid for Rendell, the 72-year old museum founder paid $50,000 for a German edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that belonged to Anne Frank, who inscribed her name and that of her sister, Margot, on a page inside. The book had been left behind by Frank in the family’s Amsterdam apartment when they went into hiding in July of 1942, and its provenance includes a 1977 note by Otto Frank, the diarist’s father.

Having missed other opportunities to own an object that belonged to Anne Frank, Rendell said he went into the auction determined to obtain the book for his museum, where it will join other artifacts and letters belonging to Frank family members and friends, as well as an “extremely rare” first edition of the diary with dustjacket intact.

“You’re looking at something very personal when it comes to this book we acquired,” said Rendell in an interview with The Times of Israel. “She was very young and I think that can be lost on history — that she was just a young girl who was caught up in terrible times,” said Rendell, whose museum is widely acknowledged to have the strongest WWII collection in the country.

Swann-Auction-GalleriesThe Frank sisters’ fairy tale book will join items belonging to Oscar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg, and others associated with the plight of European Jewry during the Shoah, as well as everyday items used by Nazi criminals and their victims. Captivated by Anne Frank for decades, Rendell also owns a letter from Otto Frank about the diary’s publication, and another letter from Alice Stern Frank, Anne’s grandmother, about the death of her granddaughters.

He might be unique in his purchasing power and academic auspices, but Rendell is one of many enthusiasts seeking a personal connection to Anne Frank, who would have been 87-years old on Sunday. With a slew of new films, plays, and tourist attractions, the diarist’s legacy is anything but static. Hovering over all the creative spin-offs, however, is one ruling meta-question: who owns the diary of Anne Frank?

A dispute with no end date?

Much of the world anticipated that Frank’s writings would enter the public domain in January of this year, 70 years after her death in Bergen Belsen. However, the Anne Frank Fonds in Basel — Otto Frank’s universal heir and legal successor — delivered an “early warning” to publishers against printing the diary. In citing Otto Frank as the co-author of his daughter’s diary, the Fonds maintains the 70-year “public domain” waiting period did not start until 1980, with Otto Frank’s passing.

Anne FrankDue to an array of copyright laws in the European Union and the publication of several versions of the diary, the Fonds has been able to secure protection for Frank’s writings in many courts. For instance, because so-called versions A and B of the diary were not published until 1986, the Fonds can withhold that version from the public domain until 2036, which is 91 years after Anne Frank’s death. Using a controversial process called “geo-blocking,” the Fonds has been able to prevent the diary’s appearance online in most of Europe, eliciting strong reactions in the process.

“Given the fact that Otto Frank spent years of his life having to prove that Anne Frank’s diary was the original work of his daughter and nobody else, and that, yes, he was its editor but nothing more, it outrages me that the Fonds even considered establishing Otto as co-author,” said Melissa Muller, author of a seminal Anne Frank biography published in 1998 and revised three years ago.

“The Fonds provided for the future a while ago by renewing contracts with its major publishing-partners, who have made various very good diary editions available for the long term,” Muller told The Times of Israel. “This should finance the Fonds’ activities to ‘protect’ Anne Frank through meaningful projects even in the future, with no need to search for loopholes in the law.”

Since 1963, the Fonds has granted or denied thousands of license applications for the use of Anne Frank’s diary, short stories, and other writings. An unpaid, honorary board runs the Swiss foundation, and all copyright proceeds go to causes stipulated by Otto Frank, including paying medical bills for people who helped Jews during the war. From its point of view, the Fonds is “making sure that Anne Frank stays Anne.”

Critics, however, accuse the Fonds of practicing “copyfraud.”

The beloved Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam has long been a legal target of the Fonds, including disputes over the ownership of Frank family documents and photographs possessed by the museum. The contours of the next showdown have already been drawn, as the museum prepares “an elaborate web version to the diary.” The project will help users draw connections between Frank’s story and the tragedy of Dutch Jewry in general, as well as probe cultural references in Frank’s text.
When contacted by The Times of Israel, long-time Fonds board member Yves Kugelmann reiterated his organization’s stance on the public domain issue, as explained on the Fonds’ website. This week, Kugelmann is visiting Israel for the opening of “ANNE,” the Fonds-supported stage production that has played in a custom-built Amsterdam theater for two years. Following a sneak peek last month, the Hebrew-language play will open at Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater on Tuesday.

Both the high-tech “ANNE” production and this spring’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” film in Germany made heavy use of words from Frank’s diary, the same words which are not allowed to appear on the Internet. For the German-language film, producers took the step of using Frank’s diary prose as speeches for her to address the audience, in order to “address the question of who Anne really is,” as put by director Hans Steinbichler.

According to Frank biographer Muller, however, Germany’s first Anne Frank film was “a big disappointment, a missed chance.”

“Storytelling is so much more powerful than history-telling,” said Muller. “But the makers of the movie got stuck in old knitting patterns, they did not find a convincing approach for today´s audience and had nothing to add to a story that has been retold many times,” she said of the film.

As a 15 year old in hiding, Frank’s developing worldview blended pride in Judaism with a hunger to learn languages and know the world, having drawn inspiration from her father’s pre-marriage experiences in the German army and New York City. Since her diary’s publication, Frank’s legacy has been stretched to cover every cause under the sun, worrying some critics that the lessons of the Holocaust and her Jewish identity have been diluted.

“Anne Frank came from a family that saw itself in a tradition that is loyal both to one’s roots and to a common human destiny of peace and justice,” said Muller. “If this can be accepted as a description for the word ‘universalism,’ then Anne Frank — a free-minded person who did not intend to give up her Jewish identity and at the same time believed in ‘individual emancipation’ — is an example for universalism in the most positive sense,” she said.

Germany seeks to prosecute ex-SS Auschwitz radio operator, 92

Helma M. to undergo medical evaluation to determine if she is fit to stand trial for complicity in murders of 260,000 Jews

800px-Auschwitz_II-Birkenau_-_Death_Camp_-_Railway_CarriageA 92-year-old former SS guard accused of complicity in the murders of 260,000 people at the Auschwitz death camp will undergo medical evaluation to determine if she is fit to stand trial for her participation in Nazi Germany’s genocide of European Jews.

German prosecutors have alleged that Helma M., who served as a radio operator for camp commander Rudolph Hess in 1944, received details of incoming shipments of Jews to be murdered at the Nazi camp.

An estimated 1.2 million European Jews and other victims of Nazi Germany were murdered at the camp in occupied Poland. Among the 6,500 former SS personnel at Auschwitz who survived the war, fewer than 50 have been convicted to date.

Medical experts are expected to present an evaluation of Helma M. to the Kiel District Court in Northern Germany next month, a Saturday report in the UK’s Daily Mail said.

Described as “deaf and frail,” her defense has maintained the nursing home resident is unfit to stand trial for her complicity in Nazi war crimes.

According to a 2015 indictment, the former radio operator “was a helper in the systematic murder of the Jews transported there.”

Despite camp duty rosters that reportedly confirm she was in Hess’s service from April to July 1944, Helma M. escaped prosecution at the end of the war because no evidence that she personally harmed any Auschwitz inmates during her time at the camp was ever presented to German courts.

In recent years however, Germany’s laws regarding the prosecution of former Nazis has shifted, and now defines suspects’ involvement in death camps as sufficient grounds for culpability in Nazi war crimes, even without proof of committing a specific crime.

As a result, a wave of new investigations into former Nazi guards, medics and other camp workers has led to a handful of trials against a dwindling number of aging suspects.

In 2015, Jens Rommel, Germany’s top Nazi hunter, charged Helma M. with complicity in the murders of 260,000 people in the Auschwitz death camp.

In her role as a radio operator, Rommel claimed she received and transmitted details of the number of people to be exterminated — most of them Hungarian Jews — between April and July 1944.

“Helma M. was involved in the so-called ‘Hungarian Action’ which saw the destruction of at least half the Jewish population of Hungary,” Rommel said on Saturday according to a report in the Mail.

“Three to four trains arrived daily. Of 360,000 people, at least a quarter of a million of them were murdered immediately, most of them women and children unfit for work,” he said.

Rommel — who bears no relation to Hitler’s Field Marshal Erwin Rommel — said the murders of the Jews were coordinated in the command area where she worked, and she would have undoubtedly known of their fate.

Helma M., Rommel said, “would have known what was happening in Auschwitz, would have heard the sound of the shootings and [smelt] the smell of burning bodies.”

“We have learned from other interrogations that people in the command center talked of the daily events, and as such we say she was a part of the murder machine which made Auschwitz function,” he added.

In a separate trial against a former Auschwitz guard, German defense attorneys on Saturday called for the acquittal of Reinhold Hanning, claiming the trial failed to produce evidence the defendant was directly involved in specific crimes against Nazi victims.

According to the German news agency dpa, defense attorney Johannes Salmen told the Detmold state court in his closing remarks that Hanning never killed or beat anyone, or helped others do so, and that he was never in the part of the camp where the gas chambers were located.

Prosecutors are seeking a six-year-prison sentence. They argue that Hanning is guilty of being an accessory to murder in at least 100,000 cases because, as a guard, he helped the death camp function.

In April, Hanning admitted to serving as an Auschwitz guard. He said he was ashamed that, although he was aware Jews were being gassed and their corpses burned, he did nothing to try to stop it.

Hanning did not take the opportunity to make a closing statement himself. A verdict is expected on Friday.

The trials of Hanning and Helma M. come on the heels of a high-profile case last year against Oskar Groening, dubbed the “Bookkeeper of Auschwitz.”

Groening was sentenced in July to four years in prison, even though he had previously been cleared by German authorities after lengthy criminal probes dating back to the 1970s.

Another case is currently being heard by a German court against former SS medic Hubert Zafke, 95, who is charged with at least 3,681 counts of complicity in killings.

That case has however been suspended twice due to the defendant’s poor health, raising questions on whether it can proceed.

Agencies contributed to this report.