Polish TV riposte to Holocaust bill criticism: Auschwitz was ‘Jewish death camp’

Israeli condemnation of legislation outlawing linking Poles to Nazi crimes sparks anti-Semitic backlash; nationalists plan protest outside Israeli embassy in Warsaw

Illustrative photo: Workers removing anti-Semitic graffiti from a Holocaust memorial at a former Nazi concentration camp in Plaszow, southern Poland, on Saturday, March 13, 2010. (AP)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A diplomatic dispute between Poland and Israel over pending legislation that would outlaw blaming Poland for the crimes of the Holocaust has led to an outburst of anti-Semitic comments in Poland, including some in the government-controlled media.

In one instance, the head of a state-run channel suggested referring to Auschwitz as a “Jewish death camp,” in response to an outcry over use of the term “Polish death camp” to describe the Nazi killing site in German-occupied Poland.

Poland’s lower house of parliament gave its approval Friday to the bill, which calls for penalties of up to three years in prison for anyone who “publicly and against the facts” accuses the Polish people of crimes committed by Nazi Germany during World War II.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party says the law is meant to fight expressions like “Polish death camps,” to refer to the wartime camps that Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland, but its provisions are wider, to criminalize talk of Polish complicity in the Holocaust.

“Whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich… or other crimes against peace and humanity, or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the actual perpetrators thereof, shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years,” a translation of a key paragraph of the bill reads.

Poles were among those imprisoned, tortured and killed in the camps, and many today feel Poles are being unfairly depicted as perpetrators of the Holocaust.

As part of the same effort, the government launched a website on Tuesday in Polish, German and English with documentary evidence that death camps like Auschwitz were built and operated by Nazi Germany, a historically accurate account.

Germany occupied Poland in 1939, annexing part of it to Germany and directly governing the rest. Unlike other countries occupied by Germany at the time, there was no collaborationist government in Poland. The prewar Polish government and military fled into exile, except for an underground resistance army that fought the Nazis inside the country. However, there were many cases of Poles killing Jews or denouncing them to the Germans, with deadly anti-Semitic pogroms continuing during and in one case even after World War II.

The Israeli government in the past has supported the campaign against the phrase “Polish death camps,” but it has strongly criticized the new legislation, which still must be approved by the Senate and President Andrzej Duda, who both support it.

Israel, along with several international Holocaust organizations and many critics in Poland, argues that the law could have a chilling effect on debating history, harming freedom of expression and leading to a whitewashing of Poland’s wartime history.

Polish Holocaust and World War II scholars, as well as international organizations including Yad Vashem, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Wiesenthal Center, are among groups who have criticized the law. Critics have said they fear the law could lead to self-censorship in academia and that the legislation — which also mentions “other crimes against peace and humanity” — is so broad that it could be used to fight any form of criticism against Poland by authorities already accused of eroding democratic standards.

In a sign of the sensitivities on both sides, Yair Lapid, head of Israel’s centrist Yesh Atid party and the son of a Holocaust survivor, insisted in a heated Twitter exchange with the Polish Embassy that “there were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that.” An Israeli journalist, Lahav Harkov, also wrote a tweet that consisted only of the phrase “Polish death camps” repeated 14 times.

Such Israeli remarks offended many in Poland, including many who oppose the law and any expressions of anti-Semitism in Poland.

Far-right groups have called for a demonstration Wednesday in front of the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw to protest the “anti-Polish” sentiment they say is being propagated by Israel and some media.

And there has been an eruption of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish comments online and in the media, including in state media, which is tightly controlled by the right-wing ruling Law and Justice party.

The director of the state-run television station TVP 2, Marcin Wolski, even went so far as to say Monday on air that the Nazi death camps should actually be called Jewish. “Who managed the crematoria there?” he asked — a reference to the fact that death camp prisoners, usually Jews, were forced to help dispose of gas chamber victims.

Wolski was joined on his show by a right-wing commentator, Rafal Ziemkiewicz, who only a day earlier had used an extremely derogatory term to refer to Jews on Twitter. The comment was later removed.

The gate of the former German Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland, July 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

And on another talk show Saturday on Polish state TV, anti-Semitic messages posted by viewers on Twitter were shown at the bottom of the screen as one participant said that a Jewish guest was “not really Polish.” The state TV director later apologized for the messages, blaming a technical glitch that caused them to go onto the screen unedited.

In another case, a Polish state radio commentator, Piotr Nisztor, suggested that Poles who support the Israeli position should consider relinquishing their citizenship.

“If somebody acts as a spokesman for Israeli interests, maybe they should think about giving up their Polish citizenship and accepting Israeli citizenship,” Nisztor said in a comment carried on the radio’s official Twitter account.

Some commentators in Poland, however, expressed dismay, saying it reminded them of an official state-sponsored anti-Semitic campaign carried out by Communist authorities in 1968.

“There has been a lot of hate speech against refugees and Muslims over the past two years in state media, but anti-Semitism was so far rare,” said Rafal Pankowski, who monitors anti-Semitism and other forms of extremism as head of the Never Again association. “But in the last couple of days it seems the floodgates have opened.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki agreed after speaking by phone Sunday night to try to resolve differences over the legislation by convening a group of history experts, though it was unclear how effective that will be given the strong support for the bill by the ruling Law and Justice party.

Before the outbreak of World War II, Jews had lived in Poland for centuries, thriving in some eras and even becoming the world’s largest Jewish population at one point. But anti-Semitism in the decades before the war had grown virulent, driving many Polish Jews to emigrate.

Relations between Jews and Poles had seen efforts of reconciliation since the fall of communism, but some fear the current controversy has set that back.

Agnieszka Markiewicz, Central Europe director for AJC, a Jewish global advocacy group, called the language on state media “shocking.”

“It is hard to imagine that there is actually space in the Polish public sphere for such anti-Semitic language and discourse,” she told The Associated Press. “It’s unacceptable, I believe, not only for Polish Jews, but also for millions of Poles who know World War II history.”

“Everybody knows that many, many thousands of Poles killed or betrayed their Jewish neighbors to the Germans, causing them to be murdered,” said Efraim Zuroff, a prominent historian on the Holocaust and the Eastern Europe director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, on Sunday. “The Polish state was not complicit in the Holocaust, but many Poles were.”

Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-criticism-of-holocaust-bill-sparks-anti-semitic-backlash-in-poland/

Prison No More

In Ferrara, a prison becomes a new museum of Italian Judaism—and of the Holocaust in Italy

In 1912, a two-story brick prison was inaugurated in Ferrara, a city in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region. Over its 80 years of operation, until it was closed in 1992, this was a bleak spot in the beautiful city. Among its detainees were Jews during the Fascist period. But two months ago, Ferrara saw a key step in the profound transformation of this location: On Dec. 13, 2017, the first day of Hanukkah, Italy’s National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah opened in the old prison. This is the initial phase of a monumental project—known as MEIS, after its initials in Italian—to be completed in 2020, with additional buildings that will create a major Jewish cultural hub.

The inaugural event was standing room only, bustling with news camera crews, international journalists, Ferrara residents, and Italian dignitaries, including President Sergio Mattarella. Curators and staff were ceremoniously thanked and acknowledged for their collaborative work to finally bring MEIS to the public. And the mission of MEIS is ambitious: to raise awareness of the vibrant 2,200 years of Italian Judaism, promoting dialogues on the topics of minorities, and of how different cultures interact through history.

In the words of the museum’s president, Dario Disegni, “Ferrara’s former prison, a place of segregation and exclusion, has become a place of inclusion.” Ferrara native Dario Franceschini, Italy’s minister of culture, called the opening “an important step forward, a dream achieved.”

The dream began in 2003 with an Act of Parliament, where all parties unanimously voted to support the initiative. What began as a plan for a Holocaust museum expanded in 2006 to a bigger project: to establish a museum to tell the story of two millennia of the Jewish experience in Italy. “The fact that this is a national project is what makes this museum unique in the world,” said MEIS Director Simonetta Della Seta. And unlike smaller, locally funded Jewish museums in Italy, this one is entirely funded, to the tune of 47 million euros, by the Italian government.

In 2011, Studio Arco of Bologna and SCAPE Sp.A Rome won an international competition to design the project. The team, comprising Italian, Japanese, and American architects, created a plan to retain and renovate two of the original Ferrara prison buildings, and to regenerate the property, opening it up in a light-filled, contemporary style to blend with the city.

Construction of five modern buildings, inspired by the five books of the Torah, will begin this year. These buildings will complete the cultural complex of free public spaces, an auditorium, museum shop, library, archives, educational suites, gardens, and restaurants. Work on the grounds was ongoing during the December opening, adding an energetic pulse, and a model of the completed project was displayed.

The museum’s current offerings comprise two parts. First a 24-minute immersive video, “Through the Eyes of the Italian Jews,” which takes viewers time-traveling through the entire history of Italian Judaism, using different narrative voices to personalize key experiences—from a Jewish man deported to Rome after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple to a scribe in the middle ages and a young girl expelled from school in 1938 because of racial laws. The video defines the MEIS vision: to tell the complicated story of the Jewish experience in Italy, which includes painful periods as well as times of peace and collaboration. Second is a 10,000-square-foot exhibit, filling two floors: “Jews, an Italian Story: The First Thousand Years.” Here large video images, texts from historical writers and curators, and over 200 objects from museums around the world—ancient coins, medieval manuscripts, amulets—present the integrative relationship between Jews and a Christian majority, a beneficial interchange that never involved assimilation or loss of identity.

“We are telling you a story of Italian Judaism through the objects of people who lived it,” said guide and curator Sharon Reichel, as she led guests through the exhibit. “It is a new way of telling the story in a Jewish museum. We are presenting a dialogue between a minority and majority, and that’s what makes this Italian story, that’s never been told this way before, so enriching.”

The exhibit, which will be open until Sept. 16, includes a reproduction of a relief from the Arc of Titus, commemorating Rome’s victory over the Jews in 70 CE. This is a landmark of the Jewish presence in Rome, a presence that has endured uninterrupted to the present day, making it the oldest Jewish community in the Western world. Jewish culture took root and flourished throughout the peninsula in the seventh to 11th centuries, as shown through synagogue mosaics, oil lamps inscribed with menorahs, catacomb frescos, and richly decorated manuscripts.

Much of the contents of “The First Thousand Years” will be retained for the final museum. And in the next couple years, exhibits focusing on the Jews in the Italian Renaissance and then the Shoah will be rolled out, a process that will complete the museum in stages for its 2020 opening. Opening one exhibit at a time, in the words of curator Danielle Jalla, “offers a rare opportunity to test out how the permanent exhibit could shape up, a sort of dress rehearsal before an audience.”

Ferrara was chosen as the location for MEIS because of its long history of active Judaism, documented back to Roman times. The high point of Jewish history in Ferrara came during the reign of the Estes in the 15th and 16th centuries, when the dukes opened the city to Jews who were expelled from Spain, Portugal, Germany, and Italy’s papal states, offering them freedom and protection. Jews thrived here during the Renaissance, working as money lenders, engineers, doctors, and in publishing. By 1589, 2,000 Jews lived in Ferrara, forming a community in what is now the historic center on Via Mazzini, Via Vignatagliata, and Via Vittoria.

But after the Este reign, Jews’ fortunes fell. In 1627, the Ferrara ghetto was introduced, mandating that Jews lived enclosed in its five gates until it was abolished when the Kingdom of Italy was formed in 1859. Liberation opened a period of renewed prosperity for the Ferrara Jews. They fought in WWI and integrated into the city politically: A Jewish mayor, Renzo Ravenna, governed from 1930 until 1938 when Fascist race laws began to be enforced. As WWII began, many of the 700 Jews living in Ferrara escaped. One hundred died in the Holocaust. When the war was over, only 150 returned.

At the museum’s opening, Andrea Pesaro, president of Ferrara’s 100-member Jewish Community, spoke to journalists about Judaism in Ferrara. Despite its small size, he said, the city’s Orthodox community carries on with services at their synagogue on Via Mazzini, which has been in continuous operation since the 15th century.

At 80, Pesaro joked that he brings the average age of the current Jewish community down. All are looking forward to the changes that MEIS will bring—hopefully an influx of new young people, perhaps not only from Italy but also Jews from other parts of the world who are passionate about the project and will revitalize the dwindling population. Inspired by the MEIS opening, the Ferrara tourist board is creating Jewish tourist itineraries for visitors, erecting signage throughout the former ghetto, offering guided tours, and creating a pedestrian path from the synagogue to the museum.

“MEIS will offer a cultural and tourism opportunity on an international scale,” said Franceschini, the culture minister, “just as the city deserves.”

Source: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/253969/ferrara-italy-jewish-museum

Lost and found in Auschwitz

Poland’s parliament chose to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day by making it illegal to claim that  Poles were complicit in perpetrating the Holocaust. I chose to mark it by focusing on the wonder of what’s arisen from the ashes of Auschwitz.

I know exactly where and when I lost it. Thirty years ago, while leading a group of American teenagers to Poland on the way to Israel. To be precise, during the morning shacharitservice the day after our visit to Auschwitz. I can even point to the exact line in the prayerbook I was reciting at the moment it happened: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe Who hears our prayers.” The words stuck in my throat. I’ve been struggling to dislodge them ever since.

“Who hears our prayers.” Really? Standing at ground zero of the most horrific atrocity ever perpetrated by God’s creatures, at the epicenter of human suffering, in a place where six million petitions went unanswered, delivered with the fervor of the unwavering faithful, pronounced by souls righteous and guiltless, uttered by those clinging to a last shred of hope… yes, there and then, at that instant, I lost my faith. Or, at the least, a dimension of it.

I lost my faith in a God that intervenes, directs, orchestrates and causes. I lost my faith in a God with a plan. And since then, I have been mouthing those words while silently struggling with their meaning. So why now, why the confession of agnosticism after three decades of theological sparring? Because I recently returned from another visit to Poland where I unexpectedly found something of infinite value in this place of inexpressible loss. Something I want to share with others who find themselves cloistered in this closet of doubt and uncertainty.

My first visit to Poland took place in the dead of winter. There is no better time to visit the death camps if the objective is to convey the horrors of the Holocaust and glimpse from afar the unimaginable suffering of its victims. That was one of the two windows I was intent on opening for the youngsters in my charge. The other looked out onto the richness of Jewish life that had existed in this Jewish cemetery prior to the Nazi invasion. That was it. There was no attempt to connect with the present-day Jewish community of Poland – essentially because there was none to speak of at the time.

How vastly different things are today. This latter visit, which I undertook on behalf of The Jewish Agency, was about exploring the possibilities for engagement. What I discovered was a Jewish community in an inspiring transitional phase, an evolving generation of indigenous members of the community who – while painfully aware of the past – are emerging from the black shadow of the Holocaust and demonstrating an energetic determination to reclaim and renew the heritage that is rightly theirs: the vibrant Jewish life of their forebears that had been decimated.

Among the institutions they are building and the experiences they are creating: Flourishing Jewish Community Centers and Hillel Houses in Krakow and Warsaw. A Limmud festival of learning and culture attracting over 700 participants. A diversity of active synagogues, including Orthodox, Progressive, Reform and Chabad, along with an eminently accessible chief rabbi intent on building an inclusive communal structure in which all are respected and welcome. A vibrant Jewish day school in Warsaw that now runs through 9th grade, and a new Jewish preschool in Krakow, the first to open its doors there since the Nazi occupation. A hundred million dollar, state-of-the-art museum telling the story of Jewish life in Poland from its origins through to the present, a cooperative effort of the Polish government and primarily Jewish philanthropists. A Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life. Five kosher eateries in Warsaw alone. Hundreds of graduates of Israel Birthright programs. A Union of Jewish Communities serving as an umbrella for much of this activity. And more that I didn’t have time to see.

No trek to Treblinka this time round. None of the ashes of Auschwitz. Just the enthusiasm of an ever-growing population of young people in their 20s and 30s, newly discovering their Judaism and celebrating it with a passion.

Poland’s  lower house of parliament chose to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day by passing a bill which would make it punishable by incarceration to insinuate that Poles were responsible for crimes committed by the Nazis on its territory, continuing a long and troubling narrative denying any complicity in the atrocities of the Holocaust. By contrast, the Jews of Poland — 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation survivors — have chosen to commemorate its victims by rejuvenating communal Jewish life there with vibrancy and zeal, wholeheartedly rejecting the conventional perception of Poland as an immense Jewish graveyard.

Their fervor is infectious — and rehabilitating. I found myself finding, in what they have found, something of what I’d lost on my last visit. Not a resolution to the toughest theological questions, not a restoration of faith in a God that responds deliberately to our entreaties, but an affirmation, arising from the ashes, that there are energies out there beyond our ability to grasp and mysteries of the soul that transcend any conceivable understanding of the corporal.

Holocaust Remembrance Day is a call to the world never to forget nor never to deny. It should also be an occasion to celebrate the irreducible and indomitable human spirit that refuses to be stifled by the deafening silence of the God we restore daily, who hears our prayers but who responds imperceptibly, if at all. Who better to teach us that lesson than the remnants of the 3,000,000 Jews of Poland who were annihilated?

Visitors to Poland be warned, organizers of March of the Living, beware: Auschwitz is one story; the Jewish community of today is its inspiring sequel. Don’t visit one and ignore the other. As immeasurably insufficient as it might be, there is a tiny bit of compensation to be found in the latter for what we lost in the former.

Source: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/lost-and-found-in-auschwitz/

Sam Bloch, survivor who devoted life to memory of Shoah, dies at 94

Bloch organized gatherings for survivors in US and Israel and helped found international fundraising arms of Yad Vashem and IDF

Sam Bloch speaking during a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen camp on April 17, 2005. (JOCHEN LUEBKE/AFP/Getty Images)

Sam Bloch, a Holocaust survivor who committed much of his life to ensuring that the murder of millions of Jews would not be denied and the lives they led would not be forgotten, died Sunday. He was 94.

Bloch was an executive of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for 50 years.

He was one of the principal organizers of historic survivor gatherings in Jerusalem, Washington, DC, Philadelphia and New York. The New York Times published a lengthy article about Bloch and his family in 1981 as they prepared to attend the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Jerusalem.

”Memory stengthens our humanity, makes us better persons to one another, to our children,” Bloch told The Times. “Maybe we don’t smile or laugh as others do, but we cherish our lives; they were so hard won.”

Bloch was a founder of Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People (then known as the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora) and served as chairman of the American Friends of Beit Hatfutsot and a member of its Board of Governors. For many years he was also a member of the board of directors of the American Section of the World Jewish Congress.

In addition, Bloch was a founding member of the International Society for Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance authority, and a founder of the American Friends of the IDF.

Bloch was born in Ivie, Poland, in what today is Belarus. He attended high school in Vilna, and was home on a school break when World War II broke out, according to information provided by his family.

His father was murdered by the Einsatzgruppen Nazi mobile killing unit, and Bloch, his mother and brother escaped from the Jewish ghetto and hid first with Christian farmers and then in the woods. They later joined the Bielski partisan brigade and were able to survive the war.

He was the youngest leader of the Jewish Committee that governed the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp, the largest Jewish DP camp in Germany and a major center for the rehabilitation of 50,000 survivors of the Holocaust, as well as the flight and rescue operations in Europe that brought survivors to then-Palestine.

He met and married his wife of 69 years, Lilly Czaban, in the DP camp, from where they immigrated to the United States.

Bloch served as president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants; president of the World Federation of Bergen-Belsen Survivors Associations; chairman of the Advisory Council of the Foundation for World War II Memorial Sites in Lower Saxony, Germany, and served as a member of its board.

In 1981, Elie Wiesel, then-chairman of the US Holocaust Memorial Council, appointed him as chairman of the council’s Board of Advisers as well as a member of its Development, Days of Remembrance, and Content committees.

Bloch was appointed by then-New York Mayor Ed Koch to the commission that created the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. As chair of the Jewish section of the Swiss Humanitarian Fund, he assisted in distributing $180 million to needy survivors. He continued to serve on the board of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany until his death.

He published 30 volumes of Holocaust memoirs, history and poetry, in English, Hebrew and Yiddish editions, as editor of the Bergen-Belsen Memorial Press, and edited numerous significant documentary volumes.

“Sam was a giant, one of the last of what was truly the ‘Greatest Generation’ who emerged from the devastation of the Shoah not with bitterness and hatred, but with a determination to create new families, and rebuild Jewish life, all the while devoting his energies to perpetuating Holocaust memory and strengthening Jewish identity,” said Menachem Rosensaft, Bloch’s son-in-law, who himself was born in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp and was the founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. “He was a lifelong Zionist who dedicated himself to the unity of the Jewish people with the State of Israel at its core.”

He is survived by his wife, two daughters, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/sam-bloch-survivor-who-devoted-life-to-memory-of-shoah-dies-at-94/

Chava and Zenia

The friendship of two young writers from Lodz who survived the Holocaust and achieved very different kinds of literary fame

My mother’s best friend when she was growing up in Poland in the 1930s was Zenia Marcinkowska. Zenia would grow up to be an acclaimed novelist in Sweden under the name Zenia Larsson. My mother would also become a writer, the Yiddish novelist Chava Rosenfarb. So this is the story of the correspondence between two writers, both women, both born in Lodz, Poland, both survivors of the Holocaust. Neither writer is particularly well-known today, because they wrote in languages that have relatively few readers, Zenia in Swedish, Chava in Yiddish.

Let me begin with Zenia, whose trilogy about the Lodz ghetto, published in Swedish between 1960 and 1962 received great acclaim, because it was one of the first accounts of the Holocaust to be published in Sweden. Zenia’s trilogy became required reading for an entire generation of Swedes and was for many of them their first introduction to the horrors that the Jews had lived through during World War II.

Of the two women, Zenia was the older by one year, having been born in 1922. By the time she died in 2007, she had authored ten books, most of them novels. Yet despite her literary prominence in Sweden in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, she seems to be very little known there today and I have had a hard time finding out what happened to her papers after her death. However, I do know quite a lot about her life until the early 1970s, because she figures prominently in the memoirs and letters of Chava Rosenfarb, the Canadian writer who wrote in Yiddish and whose first published novel was also a trilogy about the Lodz ghetto.

For the past few years, I have been working on a biography of my mother’s life. During the course of my research, I came across a stash of letters written in Polish that were not, as might be expected, letters by Zenia to Chava, but rather Chava’s own letters to Zenia. The first of these letters is dated December 1945—that is, eight months after the two women’s liberation at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945—and the last is dated 1971. Zenia’s original letters to Chava I do not have, nor can I find where in Sweden they might be archived—assuming they are archived at all. What I do have is a book that Zenia published in Swedish in 1972 called Letters from a New Reality that gives her side of the correspondence. All the original correspondence was in Polish, because, unlike Chava, Zenia never went to a Yiddish-language Tsisho school in Lodz, so, while she understood Yiddish and could read it, she was far more comfortable writing in Polish. In order to publish her book she translated her own letters from Polish into Swedish.

The origin of Letters from a New Reality is this: In 1970 Zenia’s Swedish publisher asked her if she had any letters about her early experiences as a Holocaust survivor in Sweden. The Swedish rescue of Jewish Holocaust survivors in 1945 had been the largest such humanitarian undertaking by Sweden up to that time and it meant that a country whose population had been largely homogenous had to learn to accommodate a large group of traumatized foreigners who did not speak its language and whose religion was not Christianity. Zenia’s publisher wanted to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the event by publishing a book of letters by one of the best known of the rescued survivors, Zenia Larsson. Since the only person with whom Zenia had corresponded after settling in Stockholm after the war was Chava, Zenia asked Chava for her letters back, that they might be translated into Swedish and published. Chava, hurt by the request and not knowing the reason behind it, asked for her own letters back and that is how I come to have them.

Because I know neither Polish nor Swedish, I had to have Chava’s letters and Zenia’s book translated, so all the quotations that follow are the work of two translators, Krzysztof Majer from Polish to English, and Sylvia Soderland from Swedish to English. I am grateful to them both, because without their work I would never have known the story of this friendship. But the need for translation also underlines the complicated linguistic reality in which many Holocaust survivors lived after the war and which also determined the literary fates of the two women writers. I met Zenia only once, when I was a teenager on a trip to Europe with my parents. I remember her as a dark, slight, rather fragile-looking woman to whom I could not speak because she did not know English. Her Swedish husband made a greater impression on me because his English was fluent and we could converse—an example of how even memory has its linguistic component.

Zenia published Letters from a New Reality (in Swedish: Brev Fran En Ny Verk Lighet) in 1972. It is a very strange book. For one thing, the names have been changed. My mother’s very Jewish name Chava has become the very Swedish name Linn. My father’s name has morphed from the biblical Henekh to the non-descript Gover. My own name is changed from Goldie—the name I was given in honor of my grandmother who perished at Auschwitz—to Sandy. Why the changes? I have no idea. It might have been to protect the identity of my family or to circumvent libel laws. But even so, why give us such non-Jewish names? Equally puzzling is the fact that while some names are changed, others are not. The well-known Yiddish poet, Rokhl Korn, who stopped in Sweden on her way to resettlement in Montreal, is referred to by her actual name.

Zenia’s only comment on the name changes occurs in the introduction to her book. “Sometimes,” she writes, “it was necessary to change proper names, or replace them with a letter,” as she does with the name of the ghetto poet Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, who becomes merely the letter “S” in her book. She adds: “The letters are addressed to Linn—that in real life she has another name is of no consequence.”

Other changes are equally puzzling. For instance, Zenia describes Chava as a flaming redhead with brown eyes. This is, in fact, a description of my aunt, Chava’s younger sister. Chava was a brunette with hazel eyes. Nor can this simply be an honest mistake on Zenia’s part, because she and Chava were too close for too long. They saw each other regularly during the four and a half years they and their families were imprisoned in the Lodz ghetto. It was Chava who discovered the body of Zenia’s father, who had committed suicide in order that his wife and daughter receive his food rations. When the Nazis liquidated the ghetto in August 1944, Zenia and her stepmother joined Chava’s family in hiding in a second room in the Rosenfarbs’ flat that was hidden behind a dresser; they were deported to Auschwitz together, passed the selection together and then worked together in a forced labor camp at Sasel before finally being liberated at Bergen-Belsen. As Zenia reminds Chava in one of her letters, “We always made up the same group of five at roll-call in the camps.” It is simply not possible that Zenia forgot Chava’s hair color. Later in her book, Zenia implies that Linn—that is, Chava—is living in Australia, rather than in Canada.

As if all these changes were not puzzling enough, Zenia’s book ends very oddly, with a letter to an unidentified Swedish writer colleague that has no bearing on anything that has gone before and no further explanation of why the correspondence with Linn ends in 1971, nor of what happened to the two correspondents. There are undoubtedly other distortions and changes that Zenia’s letters underwent in being prepared for publication, not least in the translation from Polish to Swedish. It is almost as if Zenia is equally torn between the impulse to conceal and the urge to reveal.

Yet for all the distortions, I do believe that Zenia’s book, which gives only her side of the correspondence, is a valuable document, especially when set beside Chava’s own letters, because taken together the book and the letters chronicle the lives of two female Jewish writers, who lived through the horrors of the Holocaust together and then experienced the alienating reality of having to adjust to new lives in their adoptive countries.

Taken as a whole, the letters delineate an intense, if ambivalent, friendship—“the deep friendship of soulmates,” as Zenia puts it—especially in the early years, before time and distance and Zenia’s request for the return of her letters slowly estranged the two women from one another. They have much in common, not least similar artistic and literary aspirations. And then there is the fact of having just lived through one of the Jewish world’s greatest catastrophes.

The early letters of both women are filled with requests for information. Who of their acquaintance has survived? Where are they living? Chava is particularly anxious to get in touch with her former Latin teacher, who she believes is in Sweden. It takes a few years, but Zenia finally tracks down the teacher recuperating in a Stockholm hospital and eventually comes up with a mailing address.

Not surprisingly, many of the early letters are suffused with despair and a strong sense of alienation. Chava, in particular, is unsettled and her letters chronicle the anxiety of her statelessness. During the period from December 1945, when the first letters are exchanged, until 1950, she and her family are living illegally in Belgium. They must emigrate in five years. Where should they go? What country will take them?

On Zenia’s side, the letters are full of anxiety about fitting into her new country of Sweden. She is 23 years old when she arrives in 1945. She needs to learn Swedish, but there are no Swedish language classes for the new arrivals. She must find a job to support herself. The only jobs on offer are factory work, house cleaning, or working as a hospital orderly. There is no understanding of her wish to continue her schooling. In the meantime, she is totally alone and without resources.

She washes dishes to make money; she does odd jobs. But what she really wants is to study sculpture. She applies to the Swedish Academy of Art and is turned down. The Academy only accepts three applicants out of a hundred. They think she is talented, but not yet ready. Moreover, she does not speak Swedish. How will she understand the instruction? It will take another attempt before she is admitted.

The adjustment to life in a new country is initially harder for Zenia, who lost her beloved stepmother in the aftermath of the liberation at Bergen-Belsen. Zenia has no other family. “I am totally, utterly alone,” she writes in her first letter to Chava. When she trips and falls while crossing a busy Stockholm street and is nearly run over by a car, she writes that perhaps it would have been better if the driver had not braked in time, because there would be no one to miss her, no one to know that she is gone. She writes: “In order to live, people need some kind of stable ground under their feet, a bit of warmth, a home. But with me, my home is floating somewhere on air.”

Also, because she left Bergen-Belsen DP camp as part of a Swedish government initiative to resettle Holocaust survivors, Zenia was kept for several weeks in quarantine in a detention camp in a small town in northern Sweden, and, as she writes, “imprisoned again,” after first being subjected to “all kinds of baths and disinfections and only after thorough medical examinations finally allowed to settle in Sweden.”

Chava, on the other hand, was luckier—if one may use such a word without irony in this context. Both her mother and her younger sister survived the war. She was also reunited with her prewar boyfriend, Henekh Morgentaler, who had survived Auschwitz and Dachau and come looking for her in Bergen-Belsen. From him, she learned that her father was dead, killed when the Allies bombed the train on which inmates were being transported from Dachau deeper into Germany. So, with the exception of her father, Chava survived the war with her immediate family intact.

With her father dead, there was no more reason for Chava, her mother, and sister to remain in Germany, because, as she put it, “the German soil burned under our feet.” The problem was where to go? No country seemed willing to accept these “insignificant leftovers of a dead nation.”

Eventually the Bund—the socialist political organization to which both Chava’s and Zenia’s parents belonged—organized illegal border crossings into Belgium. The survivors were smuggled into that country like an “unwelcome cargo of goods” (Zenia’s words). Chava, her mother, and sister make it to Brussels, where they settle, living first in a rented attic with one bed, in which they all sleep, eventually finding work and starting to return to life. In this way too Chava is luckier than Zenia. Not only does she have most of her immediate family with her, but there are members of the Bund in Brussels who are eager to help and provide support. And because, unlike Zenia, she is not “rescued” by any government, she does not have to submit to quarantines or other bureaucratic restrictions. On the other hand, she has no right to stay in Belgium and her identity papers are marked with the stamp “doit émigrer,” must emigrate. For the next four years, her letters to Zenia will be filled with various plans for emigration, with applications to America, to Uruguay, to Argentina, and finally, successfully, to Canada.

It is not surprising, then, that of the two women, Zenia appears initially to be more affected by what they had just lived through. She tries constantly to push the past out of her mind. She does not want to look back; she wants to move forward. In fact, that was her motive in accepting the Swedish offer of relocation and leaving Bergen-Belsen and Chava’s family, which had become her adopted family. Too much togetherness, too many bad memories of what they had all lived through. I am guessing that this is what she means when she writes in the introduction to Letters From a New Reality that she felt relieved to leave all the other survivors behind and make her way to Sweden alone. So determined is she to leave the past behind that she destroyed all letters as “unnecessary ballast,” except for Chava’s letters to her. “I thought I had succeeded in erecting an impenetrable screen between myself and a Europe that was still shaking from the chaotic aftermath of the war,” she writes. “When I left Bergen-Belsen, it was with a firm determination to draw a line over my whole past, forget everything and begin anew. This has not been possible. There are difficult moments. The past returns.”

She is also far angrier than Chava, at least superficially. She refuses to write to Chava while the latter remains in Germany, explaining in the first letter that she sends to her in Brussels, “I told you when we parted in Bergen-Belsen that I will write no letters to Germany, not even to you, nor will I have anything more to do with that country. When it comes to Germany, the only thing I want is revenge.”

Both women suffer from survivors’ guilt. Zenia torments herself for not having done more to prevent the suicide of her father in the ghetto, or the death of her beloved stepmother, who died just days after the liberation from eating tins of fatty meat distributed by the British forces who liberated Bergen-Belsen. Chava writes of her guilt at not comforting the poet Shayevitch, who was in love with her, when they were on their hellish cattle-car train ride to Auschwitz. “He wanted just one comforting word, and I refused to give it to him. I cannot forgive myself,” she tells Zenia. Shayevitch was later gassed at Dachau.

Chava also harbors what she calls “a secret guilt” with regard to Zenia, although her reasons are vague: “My memory has retained certain images which stand as a rebuke of my behaviour in the camps. Maybe you have harboured a secret grievance against me, but you were able to rise above it, and thanks to that, those hellish days didn’t kill our friendship.”

Zenia responds: “You write that during the war you so often left me to my fate, forgot me and let me struggle alone. Perhaps you did at times, but that is not the whole truth.” She then reminds Chava of the incident in the Sasel labor camp when a kaposlapped Zenia as the women inmates were scrambling for their ration of soup. Without stopping to think, Chava slapped the kapo in retribution, an act of disobedience so serious that it could have resulted in Chava’s being sent to the gas chambers, along with the rest of her group. Instead, Chava’s slap brought the kapoback to a sense of her own morality. After a day’s reflection, during which Chava and her group of five were separated from the others in their barrack, the kapo relented: “You were right to slap me,” she told Chava. “I have turned into an animal.”

From that time on, Chava, her mother, sister, Zenia, and her stepmother received an extra ration of soup every day. (This incident inspired one of Chava’s most complex stories, “Edgia’s Revenge,” which is told from the point of view of a kapo.)


As time goes on the focus of the letters shifts away from the war. Both women had literary ambitions when they were young, and they continually inquire about each other’s creativity. Before their incarceration in the ghetto, Chava had written poetry, Zenia prose, and they had been each other’s first and most avid readers. This continues in the letters. “Are you writing?” Zenia asks Chava, reminding her of how much comfort she had derived from the poems that Chava read aloud to her in the ghetto.

Both are very aware of the problems of being female in the mid-20th century and wanting to lead a creative life. When they were younger they had formed the Free Woman’s Club, which had just the two of them as members. Zenia writes of a friend in Sweden who had ambitions to become a composer, but instead got married and had a child. The care of her husband and baby now totally preoccupies her friend’s mind and she has no time to devote to her music. Is this the way it must always be for women, Zenia wonders. Must a woman always give up her own artistic ambitions for marriage and motherhood? Is it not possible to have both?

Chava too has worries. The exigencies of earning a living in a land where she does not speak the language overwhelm her. She cannot write. She is ecstatic when, after many delays, Henekh, who had remained in Germany to attend medical school, joins her in Brussels and they begin their married life together. But what will happen if she becomes pregnant? A baby would be a terrible calamity at this stage in her life. Neither she nor Henekh is making enough money and then there is the problem that she would have even less time for creative work. How to juggle her various employments in Brussels with raising a child?

These are the kinds of problems that many ambitious women have faced. What differentiates Zenia and Chava from others like them is that the experiences they have lived through make creativity an imperative as a way of exorcising and coming to terms with the past. And their lives are complicated by other issues. One of the most poignant passages in the letters occurs when Zenia meets the man whom she will marry, Per-Axel Larsson. He is not Jewish, but she loves him: “If I lived with him,” she writes, “would it be a sin? Are my feelings for him a crime against my loved ones who perished because they were Jews? Write to me, Linn; perhaps it will help me to see more clearly.”

In the meantime, despite their worries about the impossibility of simultaneously living a normal woman’s life and being creative, both women forge ahead with their artistic endeavors. Zenia is accepted into the Swedish Academy of Art and becomes a sculptor. In 1946, Chava publishes her long poem, “Di Balade fun Nekhtikn Vald” [“The Ballad of Yesterday’s Forest”] in the New York Yiddish journal Di Zukumft and begins her literary career. Zenia, whose Yiddish is not fluent, writes of how she reads the poem slowly, but with great pleasure. “I find you in every line,” she writes.

When Chava moves to Canada in 1950, the correspondence between the two women becomes more erratic. Neither is a particularly diligent letter-writer and life events hamper the exchange of letters. Chava gives birth to her daughter at the same time as she is forced to deal with the illness of her mother, who arrives in Montreal in 1951, suffering from the cancer that will kill her eight years later. Working at her various jobs, caring for her mother and taking care of her new baby leave Chava with very little time for letter writing, although she persists. Of the two, Chava is the more prolific, writing two letters to Zenia’s one. What Chava does not tell Zenia is that in what little spare time she has, she has been at work on a novel, a trilogy about life in the Lodz ghetto.

Zenia has been a poor correspondent from the start. When she does write her letters are long and detailed, but she is busy with her own life, her marriage, her sculpting. She learns that she cannot have children, which is a severe blow. To fill the void, she and Per-Axle adopt a persnickety dachshund and many of Zenia’s letters from this period are taken up with descriptions of the dog’s doings, possibly as a counter to Chava’s rapturous descriptions of her new motherhood. What Zenia does not tell Chava is that she too has been writing; in fact, she has been at work on a novel, a trilogy about life in the Lodz ghetto.

Thus, independently, both women come to write about their experiences during the Holocaust and both choose fiction as a way of recreating the past. Curiously, they both conceive of their novels in three volumes. For both of them, the novels serve as an exorcism and a memorial. But while Chava ambitiously seeks to memorialize the entire Jewish community of Lodz, Zenia’s original intention is to memorialize her father, who died in the ghetto. Despite this divergent focus, Zenia speaks for them both when she writes: “The book is simply the monument I wanted to erect to the memory of our loved ones, to speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves. Such a monument I once wanted to carve in stone with my own hands. So now I have written a book instead.”

Zenia’s trilogy has a single protagonist, Paula Levin, who is a stand-in for the author and whose experiences follow closely the outlines of Zenia’s own life. The first volume is called Shadows by the Wooden Bridge, a reference to the wooden bridge that the Nazis erected to link the two sections of the Lodz ghetto. The novel tells the story of the inhabitants of one building on Marynska Street in the Lodz ghetto—the street on which Zenia and her family actually lived—and follows their fate through all the years of the ghetto’s existence. The plot focuses on the interaction of the heroine with the man who is modeled on Zenia’s father, a barber, described by Chava in her memoir of Zenia, as “a type of proletarian intellectual whose hobby was writing poetry.” Zenia’s father contracted tuberculosis in the ghetto and killed himself so as not to deprive his wife and daughter of his rations. This first volume of Zenia’s trilogy encompasses all four and a half years of the Lodz ghetto’s existence, culminating in its liquidation. It includes a description of Chaim Rumkowski, the Jewish boss of the Lodz ghetto, who had the power of life and death over its inhabitants, although he is not one of the novel’s main characters.

By contrast with the multi-year span of Shadows by the Wooden Bridge, the second volume of Zenia’s trilogy, Long is the Dawn, covers only two months, beginning with the “unforgettable” (Zenia’s word) 15th of April 1945, the day of Bergen-Belsen’s liberation by the British, and ending when Paula Levin leaves the camp for Sweden. What Zenia hopes to convey in this volume is “a picture of the human being’s gradual awakening from absolute zero, and that this awakening takes place in the immediate vicinity of the Bergen-Belsen death camp.”

The last volume of Zenia’s trilogy follows her protagonist through all her travails as an immigrant trying to adjust to life in Sweden. Zenia writes that this last volume, called Meeting Life, is her favorite because it deals with her happy ending in Sweden, which she describes as “this calm, wonderful country, where I began to believe in the future again.” This is the only novel in the trilogy for which Zenia did research in libraries in order to document what had happened in Sweden during the war years, and how the Swedes reacted to the arrival of the Jewish survivors.

Chava’s The Tree of Life covers much the same territory as Zenia’s first volume, Shadows by the Wooden Bridge, but it does so in much greater detail and particularity. Her trilogy’s overall conception is both broader than Zenia’s and more narrow, in that the narrative never moves beyond the ghetto. Instead, it attempts to capture within the span of its three volumes, the life of an entire doomed Jewish community. Volume One begins on New Year’s Eve 1939, nine months before the German invasion of Poland, when life was still “normal.” This establishes the Jewish community of Lodz as it was before the war. That volume ends on New Year’s Eve 1940, four months after the Germans invaded Poland. Volume Two deals with the years 1940–42, when the Nazis set up the ghetto and the deportations began. Volume Three encompasses the years 1942–44 when conditions in the ghetto deteriorate even further as deportations intensify and starvation and disease claim more and more lives. All three volumes of Chava’s trilogy are thus focused on the Lodz ghetto and its population, ending with the liquidation of the ghetto in August 1944.

Like Zenia, Chava creates an alter ego for herself in the person of Rachel Eibushitz, a politically committed high school student. But Rachel is only one of The Tree of Life’s ten protagonists, a diverse group, who run the gamut from impoverished carpenters to wealthy factory owners, from assimilationist Polish school teachers to fanatical Yiddishists, from the Jewish thugs and prostitutes of the Lodz underworld to the educated members of the intelligentsia. Because the ten major characters of The Tree of Life come from all walks of life, the novel recreates, in all its complexity, an entire Jewish ghetto community, capturing in detail the everyday life in the ghetto workshops and food distribution centers, the ideological responses of the various political parties—the Zionists, Communists and Bundists—and the Lodz ghetto’s artistic community, of which Chava had been a member. Like Zenia, Chava writes about Rumkowsky, the puppet boss of the ghetto, but Chava’s Rumkowski is not a distant ominous presence, as he is in Zenia’s novel. He is, in fact, one of the ten protagonists of The Tree of Life, observed up-close, as Chava struggles to get under his skin, to imagine what made him tick.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the two trilogies is language. Unlike Chava, whose attitude towards Canada was always ambivalent, Zenia embraces Sweden with all her heart and becomes a true Swedish patriot. She writes her novels directly in Swedish, because she dislikes Polish, although it is her first language; it reminds her too much of the past. But Swedish is a language that she has only learned as an adult, without formal instruction, so she never feels that she has mastered it. She complains to Chava that her writing is full of mistakes in grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. It is her husband, Per-Axel, who corrects her Swedish, retypes her manuscripts, argues with her over words and phrases, and generally plays the role of editor, translator, and critic.

‘You are the only person who binds me strongly to life. A friendship like ours can exist only once. For me, this is the only point of light in my present.’

Zenia envies Chava the ability to write in Yiddish: “What a thing it is to have a mother tongue at your disposal, to own your own language and use it as an instrument you have mastered. You have everything at your command; you need only pick from abundance. Whereas I have one single instrument, with which I must try to represent an entire symphony orchestra. I sit down at the typewriter, hopelessly aware of my linguistic homelessness.” When Zenia announces the publication of her novel in 1961, Chava writes: “Who could have imagined this—that you will one day write something that I won’t be able to read! I see in this a symbol of that whole chaos that we lived through. Such are the consequences.”

The consequences are more severe than either of them realizes. Chava may have an advantage in being able to write in Yiddish, a language that she knows, “like the map of my own heart,” but it is Zenia who, from a reputational point of view, is more successful. Because it is in Swedish, Zenia’s trilogy is accessible to non-Jewish Swedes, one of whom, the celebrated Swedish author, Johan Borgen, writes a rave review of the first volume of Zenia’s trilogy in the pages of Expressen, Sweden’s largest newspaper. From then on, Zenia’s books will become known to the Swedish public, who value them as a testament to the recent past and turn Zenia Larsson into an important literary figure in Sweden.

In contrast, because of troubles in her own life, the breakdown of her marriage, the need to raise two children, Chava’s novel, which was begun in Brussels in the late 1940s, will not be published until 1971, and then only in Yiddish. And because it is written in Yiddish, it is accessible only to Jews; and then only to those Jews who know Yiddish. The publication of The Tree of Life was treated as a major event in the Yiddish-speaking world and its author was flooded with mail and showered with prizes. But knowledge of the novel’s existence remained within this relatively small community. Chava could not find a publisher for the English translation until 1985, nearly 15 years after its Yiddish publication. Zenia’s novel, on the other hand, while enjoying a large readership in Sweden was never translated into English, and so, ironically, has fallen into even greater obscurity today than Chava’s Tree of Life, which was eventually published in English and Hebrew translations and has recently been published in Polish.

There are other linguistic ironies: that the two women, who were so close to each other, communicated in Polish, a language they both disliked, and that, as time passed, became ever more remote to them, because neither lived in a Polish-speaking country nor had Polish-speaking friends. They both complain about having to communicate in this language which they are forgetting. Worse, they cannot read each other’s works. The letters are filled with plans to meet, usually in Europe, and confessions about the fear of meeting. Zenia writes of her anxiety about meeting Chava’s children: “If we eventually meet, I will have to communicate with your children through an interpreter—have you thought about that, Linn? The thought does hurt.”

Despite these linguistic problems, the correspondence makes clear how important each woman was to the other. Zenia writes: “You are the only person, Linn, who binds me strongly to life. A friendship like ours can exist only once. For me, this is the only point of light in my present.”

Despite these strong feelings of emotional dependence and attachment, the friendship eventually faded. Perhaps this was inevitable given the passage of time and how far away the two women lived from one another, which meant that they seldom met and so were not active presences in each other’s lives. But what really precipitated the decline was Zenia’s request for the return of her letters. This hurt Chava deeply. In an article about Zenia in the Yiddish literary journal, Di Goldene Keyt, Chava wrote: “Zenia’s request came as a terrible blow to me. I felt as though a part of my life was being ripped away.”

For her part, Zenia alludes to the pain caused by the letter exchange in her introduction to Letters from a New Reality: “The exchange of letters turned out to be more painful than I had anticipated—but then there was no way to start over. Something that probably had been coming for a long time had been completed and the letter exchange marked the end of an epoch—a contact that, with the exception of a few years’ interruption, comprised a quarter century.” In the packet of her letters that Zenia sent back to Chava there is one conspicuously absent: the one that contains Chava’s reaction to Zenia’s request for the return of her letters. Did Chava destroy it? Did Zenia deliberately not send it back? I will never know.

If life were fiction, then the story of this friendship would end right here, dramatically, with the return of the letters. But, in fact, the friendship did not end there. Zenia sent Chava a copy of her book when it was published, and Chava, finally understanding the reasons for Zenia’s request for the return of her letters was pleased and flattered that her friendship with Zenia would be immortalized in a book, even a book that she could not read. So their correspondence resumed, although with less frequency and intensity, until gradually it died out altogether.

Both women are now gone. Zenia died in 2007 and Chava in 2011. The letters, however, remain. And because they remain, they serve as a monument to an emotional attachment between two women writers, who had suffered through some of the most horrific events of the twentieth century and emerged with their humanity and ability to love intact. My favorite image of the two friends comes from Chava’s memoir, and it may serve as a symbol of their friendship. When the two were still schoolgirls in Lodz, Chava writes: “Any rain, especially a summer storm, always cheered us. We would hold hands, run out into the middle of the street, laughing, jumping up and down, and shouting loudly enough to outshout every clap of thunder.”

Source: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/253817/chava-and-zenia

Ancient Synagogue, Which Nazis Gutted, Restored, Returned to Amsterdam Jews

The 677-year-old Maastricht Synagogue, the second oldest in Europe, which was looted and partially destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, was returned to the surviving Jewish community here today, completely restored at the expense of the municipality.

During the occupation, the Nazis removed from the synagogue 500 liturgical objects made of copper, silver and gold, wrecked the Ark and inflicted structural damage on the building. The synagogue and religious objects have now been restored in every detail. The Maastricht Synagogue was completed in 1290. It is exceeded in age only by the Old-New Synagogue in Prague, Czechoslovakia, which was built in the early part of the 13th Century. But the remnants of the historic Jewish community here is small.

Also but a fraction of its former size is the Jewish community of Edam, where a monument was unveiled today in memory of the Jews who were deported by the Nazis during the occupation.

Source: https://www.jta.org/1968/01/02/archive/ancient-synagogue-which-nazis-gutted-restored-returned-to-amsterdam-jews

The 1924 trial of Adolf Hitler that made the Nazi party a household name

According to a new book, the future architect of the Holocaust was tried long before his genocidal crimes — and ironically, his guilt launched him into popularity

Adolf Hitler addresses leaders and members of the Nazi party in Munich, Germany on November 8, 1934. They are gathered in the Munich restaurant where Hitler staged the unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch on November 8, 1923. This gathering, 11 years later, is in honor of the Nazis who were killed in the failed ‘putsch.’ (AP Photo)

Ten defendants, led by Adolf Hitler and other Nazi party members, gathered in a packed Munich courtroom on February 26, 1924, to begin their trial for high treason.

The charges were related to an event from the previous November, when Hitler and his Nazi comrades attempted a coup to bring down the Weimar Republic.
The failed coup became known as the Beer Hall Putsch.

The subsequent trial was expected to bring about the final nail in the coffin for the Nazi party — then just four years old, and which garnered little support across Germany.

Indeed, when the trial was announced in December 1923, the international press predicted Hitler would either be executed, serve a long prison sentence, or face deportation.

Instead, the courtroom drama, which took place over 24 days, worked wonders for Nazi propaganda. Hitler turned the dock into a platform for both himself and his party in an attempt to put the young Weimar Republic on trial.

Hitler was, in fact, found guilty. But his prison time would amount to just eight-and-a-half months of what was supposed to be a five-and-a-half-year sentence.

As US historian and author David King explains in his recently published book “The Trial of Adolf Hitler: The Beer Hall Putsch and the Rise of Nazi Germany,” the court room drama turned its star defendant into an unlikely international celebrity and statesman in the making.

“When the trial opened in February 1924 in Munich, Hitler had a chance to redefine himself as this national hero,” says the historian, whose book has recently been long listed for the JQ Wingate Prize.

“The incident caused headlines all over the international press, and Hitler’s name became known thereafter. He could not have bought the kind of publicity he got at the trial even if he wanted to,” King adds.

Even if some members of the liberal media at the time were condemning the trial as a grave miscarriage of justice, King says that the sensationalist headlines and extensive coverage the trial received gave Hitler a much larger and more prominent audience than he had ever known.

“During the trial the socialist and communist newspapers called Hitler a racist and said, ‘Don’t fall for this guy,’” says King. “But a lot of the far-right media built Hitler into a martyr and national hero from this moment on, because he brought the far right together by taking some responsibility and [leadership], and then created an enemy by attacking the Jews.”

The first half of King’s book gives a blow-by-blow account of the Putsch itself, which was mostly a farce. By November 1923, Hitler and his associates had plotted a plan to seize power of the Bavarian state government, that involved using Erich Ludendorff — the right-wing World War I general— as a figurehead to lead a march on Berlin to overthrow the Weimar Republic.

Adolf Hitler speaks at the Munich beer hall on the 15th anniversary of the abortive putsch of 1923. Shortly after he left on November 8, 1939, a tremendous explosion would rock the hall, killing six and injuring 60. (AP photo)

On November 8 — along with hundreds of armed Brownshirts in tow — Hitler marched into a meeting at the Bürgerbräukeller (beer hall) in Munich. The group seized two nationalist politicians — Gustav Ritter von Kahr, and General Otto Hermann von Lossow — as well as Munich’s police chief, Colonel Hans Ritter von Seisser.

The Nazi revolutionaries subsequently forced their Weimar government captives to support a demand to march to Berlin and seize power.

But Hitler’s prisoners broke free, calling in police and army reinforcements. And so the attempted coup was quashed fairly quickly.

Hitler had hoped to grasp power just as Benito Mussolini had the year before, when the Italian fascist marched on Rome with his far right comrades. Instead, the Beer Hall Putsch — where 16 Nazis and four police officers were killed in the fighting — was an abysmal failure. Still, it was a landmark moment for both Hitler and the Nazi party.

“Hitler wasn’t very well known before the Putsch,” King explains. “He sounded funny, almost like a buffoon. He wanted to take over [the Weimar] government, but instead of taking over a military barracks, he took over a beer hall.”

“Hitler and his troops fired a shot and declared a national revolution. Later in the shoot out, a bullet missed Hitler. By Sunday morning he was arrested,” says King.

King’s book recalls how a New York Times article documented the Putsch at the time: The reporter pointed out that even though Hitler presented himself as the leader of the so called new right-wing dictatorship, “he scarcely seemed to fill the part and seemed [like] a little man in an old waterproof coat.”

Munich certainly didn’t appear to be in the throes of a revolution on November 9, the day after the Putsch. However, the Nazi Völkischer Beobachter reported the news with hubris and unapologetic racism.

That paper described how Hitler had triumphed over “five years of the most atrocious shame and disgrace perpetrated by Jews and the Jewish regime.”

For Munich’s Jewish community, the Putsch would indeed be a night of terror.

Nazi street fighting units and Stormtroopers prowled the downtown Munich area looking for Jews to rob or attack, while others smashed Jewish owned stores and dragged away Jews they found on their rampage.

“There were gangs of hooligans just roaming the streets, going through telephone books and names on door bells that sounded Jewish for people they could attack,” says King. “So a lot of Jews were beat up the night of the Putsch. The police records document about 50 or 60 Jews being seized from their homes.”

“But the trial [only] covered Hitler’s high treason,” Kings adds. “And so crimes like attacking the Jews, or storming the [Jewish] printing press just didn’t get coverage in the trial.”

King spends an entire chapter in his book documenting Hitler’s closing speech in a Munich courtroom on March 27, 1924.

“The [final] speech in the trial helped define Hitler from this buffoon to an international [figure],” says King. “It was Hitler’s biggest audience hitherto, his moment in the spotlight and arguably one of the most important talks of his career.”

Hitler began his speech in the trial declaring that the Weimar Republic was founded on a “crime of high treason.”

Before the war, said Hitler, Germany had boasted an army and civil service that stood as the envy of the world. It was only defeated, he went on, because the army had been betrayed by a “stab in the back.”

Hitler then went on to blame socialists, revolutionaries, Marxists, and what he called “the racial tuberculosis of the people in the international Jews.”

Hitler concluded his speech by claiming that even if he was found guilty, the eternal court of history would acquit him.

Crucially though, much of the speech was reproduced in “Mein Kampf,”the hate fueled anti-Semitic blueprint for National Socialism that was first published in 1925, and which sold 12 million copies in 18 languages by 1945.

As King’s book explains, the most notable similarities between the trial speech and the bestselling book were in Hitler’s long rants about developing a pathological hatred of Jews while living in cosmopolitan early-20th century Vienna. It was a place where Jews played a central role in the economic and cultural vibrancy of public life.

However, Kings says this narrative may not be as clear cut as it appears at first glance. In fact, the historian claims that not a single anti-Semitic comment from Hitler can be traced back to his Vienna days. Moreover, his closest friend at the time was a Jewish copper polisher named Josef Neumann, while his art dealer, Samuel Morgenstern, was Jewish too.

“There is a big debate between Hitler biographers about how much Vienna changed him and made him an anti-Semite,” says King. “And while there was a lot of anti-Semitism at the time in Vienna, now biographers are saying that Munich was a pretty big [influence] too.”

“Munich had a communist revolution that made a lot of people turn towards the right. And so this gave Hitler an enemy at the time to thrive on,” King adds.

So if there was no prominent anti-Semitic sentiment coming from Hitler during this period, why then did he insist that his anti-Semitism manifested so intensely in Vienna?

“He wanted to cover up part of his past,” King explains.

That past, the historian notes, involved being a representative of the Demobilization Battalion of the Second Infantry Regiment to the Revolutionary Council, which seized power in the chaos following Germany’s defeat in World War I.

Hitler became a deputy battalion representative of Munich’s “Red Republic” during this postwar period, too — and some of his duties involved delivering propaganda to the left-wing regime.

“Munich had a revolution at the end of the war. But German historians have pointed out that Hitler had actually served the revolutionary government, which he never admitted to,” says King.

And so Hitler did his utmost during the trial of 1924 to distance himself from a narrative that might have seen him openly rubbing shoulders with socialists, Marxists, or Jews.

King says he was surprised to find out that no book length account of the trial has ever appeared in English, especially given the wealth of archival material available on it. This included court documents, pretrial investigations, police files, the trial transcript, and the papers of lawyers for both the defense and the prosecution.

The trial itself took place in the so-called People’s Court, which had been set up in Bavaria as an emergency measure in November 1918. It was subsequently reestablished in July 1919.

The name of the institution was derived from the fact that the court operated as a tribunal of five judges: two professionals and three laymen. With the absence of any judicial review, however, the presiding judges of the People’s Court were — as one Munich lawyer put it at the time — “judicial kings.”

The closing statements of the prosecution team, led by Ludwig Stenglein, ensured that justice would never be served accordingly, says King.
The author recalls in his book how Stenglein had commended Hitler in his closing address to the court as “a brave soldier [who] was filled with genuine, blazing enthusiasm for a great German Fatherland.”

The prosecutor then added how Hitler “created from the smallest beginnings a great party — the Nationalist Socialist Workers Party.”

“A lot of the foreign newspapers that were covering the trial were saying ‘This is the worst prosecution speech I’ve ever heard,’” says King, “because the prosecutor praised Hitler. [The Press ] at the time said, ‘The judge likes Hitler and is a Nazi.’”

One of the most notable concerns of the trial at the time was the fact that the Austrian-born Hitler was not a German citizen.

“Being Austrian, the law said Hitler should have been deported,” King explains. “But the judge in the trial called him a German-Austrian, referring to his service in the German army.”

King points out how turning a blind eye to Hitler’s nationality in the trial was a crucial turning point in German and world history.

“Hitler was guilty in the trial. He bragged about being guilty, but he got a slap on the wrist and was out by the end of 1925, a year after the verdict was delivered,” King says.

King believes the 20th century might have turned out very differently had the trial of Adolf Hitler in 1924 gone in another direction.

“In the late 1920s, less than three percent of the population in Germany voted for Hitler,” says King, “and then as the Great Depression hit in 1929, those numbers went up and up.”

“Hitler was actually on parole when he did the Beer Hall putsch. This was another fact that did not come out in the trial,” King concludes. “At the end of the trial there was such a miscarriage of justice that a lot of people were saying the judge should have been sentenced.”

Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/the-1924-trial-of-adolf-hitler-that-made-the-nazi-party-a-household-name/