Portrait of Papa as a Young Man

In my grandfather’s village, I found the man he’d been before memories of the Holocaust destroyed him

goldstein_121112_620pxOn Aug. 9, 1982, the day before my fifth birthday, my grandfather killed himself. After taking a fatal dose of sleeping pills, he went into the living room and lay down on the couch, where my grandmother found him the following morning.

I have few memories of my grandfather, whom we called Papa. Occasionally, there was a hushed comment or two about “the war,” but when I was young, I had little sense of what that meant. According to my mother, Papa had terrible nightmares, his screams occasionally waking her and my uncle when they were young. Like most Holocaust survivors, my grandparents rarely discussed the war with their kids, and so my mother assumed that the night terrors were perfectly normal, that all fathers occasionally woke their children with their shrieking. It was all she knew.

After the war Papa owned a supermarket in the Bronx, which he sold around the time I was born. Without the store to occupy his time, he was perpetually restless. There was an unmistakable sadness to him, his cheeks lean and hollowed, his icy blue eyes a shade too big for his face. Whenever he visited, he’d take me onto his lap, kiss the top of my head, and tell me that I was his lawyer. It was a joke I didn’t understand then, and it makes little sense to me now. He was gentle and sweet, and I was his lawyer. Then he disappeared. I’ve been searching for him for 30 years now.

***

Over time, I’ve gathered additional bits and pieces of his life story, most of which came from my mother and centered on Papa’s experiences during the Holocaust. He married my grandmother, whom I called Baba, a few months after the Soviets and Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. His brothers were killed in 1941 after the Nazis broke their pact with the Soviets and occupied all of Poland. In 1942, he and Baba were herded into a ghetto in Ternopil and spent time in work camps. The following year, fearing that the ghetto would be liquidated, they fled back to Janow, the small Polish village where they’d grown up. From then until the Russian army liberated the village, they hid in a bunker in the cellar of a house owned by the Kryvorukas, gentile neighbors who risked their lives to save village Jews.

According to one story my mother heard from my grandfather, a Ukrainian policia once held a gun to the head of the youngest Kryvoruka child, Yulka, and demanded to know where the Jews were. Yulka remained silent even after the policia fired a warning shot behind his head and so saved the Jews hiding in the cellar. On another occasion, whoever was supposed to be keeping watch in the attic had taken the night off. My grandfather ran to the lookout in time to see a group of soldiers trudging through a heavy snowdrift. The reason that he had time to gather everyone and scramble to the cellar to hide was that one of the soldiers dropped his pistol, and the others got on their hands and knees and groped and yelled at each other until they found it. Meanwhile, Baba, Papa, and about a dozen other Jews hustled into the bunker to safety. It is The Pianist meets The Three Stooges, and it is only because of absurdities like this that I exist.

In 2003, more than 20 years after Papa committed suicide, Baba died of complications from Alzheimer’s. While sitting shiva, my family gathered to share stories of Baba and Papa, and we realized once again how little we knew. It was then that one of my brothers or cousins first proposed a trip to Janow. Somehow, though, there never seemed to be a good time, and we procrastinated for years.

Finally, in late 2010, we got around to planning our trip. Through Yad Vashem, we were able to find the contact information for the offspring of Yulka Kryvoruka, the brave neighbor who’d saved our grandparents 70 years before. Yulka had died in 1991, and his children wished to have him recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, an honor for gentiles who’d saved Jews during the war. After a few weeks of exchanging letters, Yulka’s children agreed to meet us in Janow. I wasn’t sure what I hoped to learn, but some part of me thought that if I could see the setting of Papa’s nightmares, I could feel closer to him. I thought I might finally find him there.

When we arrived at Janow, we pulled over on a road by the village’s entrance in front of the welcome sign. After taking a picture or two, my brother Jon and my wife Zoe and I ran up to the top of a hill so we could take in a better view of the village. I’d been expecting the village to feel dark and haunted. When I’d dreamed of it, the images were always in black and white, the landscape ghostly and stark, the buildings crude, burnt-out husks.

But Janow, it turned out, was beautiful. And it wasn’t just beautiful, but exquisitely, heartbreakingly, every neuron-in-your-brain-taking-a-giddy-gulp-of-pastoral-ambrosia beautiful. The rolling green hills were covered in purple and yellow wildflowers. There were thick, healthy bees, swollen as grapes. There were low, winding brooks and fruit trees. In the distance we could see the sun glinting off the cross atop a cupola on a moss-green monastery. Below us, the Seret River ran through the village, a turbid bubbling artery, its banks covered in mud and damp grass.

After asking a few villagers where the Kryvorukas lived, we drove up to a small blue house, the path to the front door flanked by gnarled grapevines. A man and a woman walked toward the car. The woman introduced herself as Ludmyla Kryvoruka. The man was her twin brother, Yuri. Yulka’s children.

Inside, we sat and offered each other apologetic smiles. After a few minutes of exchanging pictures, we began to communicate through Alex, our tour guide. I cleared my throat and said what I’d rehearsed in my head a dozen times—something about how unusually brave and heroic their father was and how he was responsible for all of us being here. Ludmyla’s eyes grew damp. Though their father had occasionally talked about the war, he apparently said little about my grandparents. Our encounter with the Kryvorukas was gentle, suffused with a kind of stilted warmth, but clumsy. And I discovered nothing new from them about Papa.

Later we learned that the house where my grandparents had hidden was still standing. It sat at the edge of the village, about two kilometers away. My mother, Ludmyla, and her son drove with Alex. Zoe, Jon, and I walked with Yuri and his dog.

After a kilometer we ambled down a steep grassy embankment to the muddy banks of the Seret. In the distance, at the edge of an untilled field, was the house. A broad, thickly forested hill rose behind it, marking the edge of the village. This was the forest where my Baba’s youngest brother, David, for whom I’m named, was shot and killed. The scattered bones of dozens of victims must still be lodged in the earth.

The house itself, like most homes in the village, was simple and crude, a dirty white-and-blue façade with a weathered brown roof. From 100 yards away, I could see the tiny attic window through which Papa kept watch.

By the time we crossed the field, Mom, Ludmyla, her son, and Alex were on the porch with the middle-aged woman who now owned the house. Inside, the floor was coated in dust and covered in bent metallic wires. Next to a low pile of splintered wood planks was a naked doll missing its legs, its head twisted all the way around.

To our left was the room where the policia took Yulka and fired a shot over his head. To our right, through the room covered in bent wire, was the entrance to the cellar.

The cellar was only about six stairs deep. By stair three, my throat started to close as I felt a rising sense of panic, a combination of claustrophobia and fear of insects and rats and whatever else might have been skittering around in that dank, pitch-black hole.

How 13 or 14 people could have fit down here was beyond me. I tried to engage in the imaginative exercise that I’d thought was the point of the trip, tried to picture what it would have been like to hide here, all those cramped and trembling bodies, the damp and mold in their lungs, the yeasty tang of animal fear, the knowledge that a cough or sneeze would mean instant death.

But it’s impossible to really imagine it. I saw it the way I’d see a suspenseful scene in a movie, staged and artificial. The idea of being down there, choked with dust, possibly moments away from oblivion, simply wasn’t something I could grasp. It certainly brought me no closer to my grandfather, and I’d begun to appreciate how insane it had been to assume that it would.

When we returned to Yuri’s home, Alex, Mom, and Ludmyla were talking to an old man who lived down the road. He had bright blue eyes and bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows. Alex asked the old man if he knew my grandfather’s family—Pohoryles was their name. He thought for a moment and then nodded, tentatively at first, then emphatically. “Yes,” said Alex. “He knows the name.”

“Nahmush,” Mom said, her voice earnest and hopeful. “My father’s name was Nahmush.”

The man thought again and this time his eyes lit up as he slapped the back of one hand into an upturned palm.

“Yes, yes,” Alex translated. “Nahmush Pohoryles. His family sold grain. Lived right over there.” He gestured to a house up the road. “Yes. I’m sure of it.”

As if on cue, we spotted an elderly woman hobbling toward us with a crude walking stick. She wore a black headscarf, even though it was probably 90 degrees in the midday sun. When Alex addressed her, her face brightened and she began speaking with great animation. The moment she heard the name Pohoryles, she nodded and pointed to the same house the old man had. She then went on a long monologue, and we listened with astonishment as Alex translated and revealed an impressive array of biographical detail. Her mother used to deliver milk to the Pohoryles. Baba’s mother used to give her a roll on Shabbat. Papa was the youngest of three brothers; he was handsome and charming, but very serious, a good businessman. Everyone knew and liked him.

Suddenly I could see Papa as a young man, his hair thick and black, his lean and handsome face radiating a friendly professional intensity. In the 1930s, Janow was a village of over 2,000 people, and everyone knew him. I’d devoted so much mental energy to picturing Papa in hiding that I hadn’t once attempted to picture him in his day-to-day prewar life. In 1938, he was 25 years old, a decade younger than I am now. That’s the only Nahmush these villagers knew. The tormented old man with the large bloodshot eyes, the man I knew when I was a child, would be totally alien to them.

Surely my grandfather wasn’t simply sitting around Janow waiting for the Nazis to invade, for his life to become a hopeless tragedy that would end in suicide. Standing there on a flower-dotted hill, drinking in the gorgeous sun-struck landscape, listening to these charming villagers talk about my Papa, I got a small taste of what it might have felt like to be in Janow before the war. I’d thought that the point of the trip was to see the blasted, war-torn landscape where he’d almost died, but instead I found the gorgeous pastoral village where he’d lived, where he’d been more than just a victim, where he’d been an actual three-dimensional person who played and loved and thrived, and perhaps this was a far richer, more valuable thing to discover.

For a moment, I found him. I can imagine my prewar grandparents as young and in love, splashing in the Seret, surrounded by wildflowers and turkeys, giggling and happy. Such simple joys don’t begin to make up for what happened to them. Nothing can. But there’s value in remembering that their lives were more than the war and its attendant trauma. It’s something that, in a moment of terrible loneliness and pain, my gentle Papa forgot.

***

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Auschwitz Memorial Sees Record Number of Visitors in 2016

World Youth Day was a large boost to attendance. But how about Pokémon Go?

The memorial and museum and Auschwitz-Birkenau announced on Monday that a record 2,053,000 people visited the former Nazi concentration camp in 2016. Tops among attendees are from Poland, the UK, the U.S., and Italy; 97,000 visitors came from Israel, a 59 percent increase from the year prior. Also boosting yearly attendance were the 155,000 people who visited for World Youth Day, including Pope Francis. Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński, the museum’s director, said eloquently, “In today’s world—torn by conflicts, increased feeling of insecurity and strengthening of populist tones in public discourse—it is necessary to re-listen to the darkest warnings from the past.”

A few weeks before the Pope visited Poland, there was hubbub about the fact that kids had begun playing Pokémon Go—a newly-released, augmented reality GPS-enabled videogame in which players try to catch, say, a Jigglypuff—at Auschwitz. The museum’s spokesman called it “disrespectful.” Tablet senior writer made the case otherwise, arguing that the forced emotion, the requisite sadness, that is struck upon young visitors is oppressive. “When urged to bow before death, life finds a way.”

Let these kids play their game, then, not even in Auschwitz, but especially there. Let them feel again that mad methectic magic Huizinga spoke about. They can’t make sense of Auschwitz, anyway; they can’t fathom what led to such brutality, can’t make sense of such hate. But they can catch a Jigglypuff and feel a burst of life whistling through the airless chambers of the factory of death. And that’s no small thing, no minor testament to the same resilience the Nazis eagerly and futilely tried to extinguish. Where better than Auschwitz to admit we’ll never have real knowledge, and where better to declare we’ll always have great games?

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French candidate under fire for Holocaust comparison

Vincent Peillon, running in Socialist Party primaries ahead of elections, said Nazi persecution of Jews similar to situation of French Muslims today

Vincent_Peillon_Mutualité_11102-e1483584907819-635x357French Jews accused a left-wing presidential candidate of encouraging Holocaust denial following his comparison of the Nazi persecution of Jews to the situation of French Muslims today.

Vincent Peillon, who is running in the Socialist Party primaries ahead of the elections this year, made the analogy Tuesday during an interview aired by the France 2 television channel.

Peillon, a former education minister who has Jewish origins, was commenting on a question about France’s strict separation between state and religion, referred to in France as “laicite.”

“If some want to use laicite, as has been done in the past, against certain populations … Forty years ago it was the Jews who put on yellow stars. Today, some of our Muslim countrymen are often portrayed as radical Islamists. It is intolerable.”

In a statement Wednesday, CRIF, the umbrella group of French Jewish communities, accused Peillon of making “statements that only serve those trying to rewrite history.”

Peillon neither retracted his remark nor apologized in a statement published Wednesday on his website, but said he would wanted to elaborate on what he meant in light of the controversy it provoked and to “refine my view, which may have been misrepresented because of brevity.”

Peillon wrote that he “clearly did not want to say that laicite was the origin of anti-Semitism of Vichy France,” which was the part of the country run by a pro-Nazi collaborationist government. He also wrote that “what the Jews experienced under Vichy should not be banalized in any way” and that he was committed to fighting racism and anti-Semitism.

“I wanted to denounce the strategy of the far right, which always used the words of the French Republic or social issues to turn them against the population. It is doing so today with laicite against the Muslims,” Peillon wrote.

But in its statement condemning Peillon’s remark, CRIF wrote that the history concerning the deportation of more than 75,000 Jews from France to concentration camps and death and the looting of their property, “as well as discriminatory laws such as the one about wearing yellow stars, should not be instrumentalized to create a false equivalence of suffering.”

CRIF “demands a clarification and immediate correction on the part of Vincent Peillon,” it said.

Peillon, a lawmaker in the European Parliament, announced his candidacy in December to succeed President Francois Hollande as party leader and run as its candidate in April. He was appointed education minister in 2012 and served for two years.

In the Socialist primaries, Peillon will face Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who has strong support in the Jewish community. Peillon’s mother, Françoise Blum, is Jewish.

Peillon, who rarely talks about his Jewish roots publicly, signed a petition by the left-wing Jcall group, the European counterpart to J Street, supporting Palestinian statehood.

In 2009, he celebrated the bar mitzvah of his son Elie at a Paris synagogue. He has another son, Isaac. Peillon is married to Nathalie Bensahel, a journalist who has written about France’s anti-Semitism problem.

Peillon opposed the ban last summer on women wearing the burkini, the full-body swimsuit favored by some Muslims, on public beaches. Valls supported the ban, citing what he said was its use by radical Muslims to oppress women.

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Through studying the Holocaust, Cambodians deal with own genocide

In a meeting of minds, a small town Indiana teacher and a Cambodian scholar documenting the Khmer Rogue atrocities create a workshop for comparative genocide education in Battambang

Kelly-with-intepretor-e1481836641970-965x543NOBLESVILLE, Indiana — Neighbor turned against neighbor. Family members disappeared. Faced with ostracism or even death, youth pledged allegiance to a cause they hadn’t necessarily sought — and committed unspeakable crimes against their countrymen.

There are still landmines in Cambodia, where an estimated 1.7 million people died between 1975 to 1979 under the extremist Khmer Rouge government. Today, however, many of these landmines are not physical, rather unspoken tragedy that looms from the past into the nation’s future.

Some 70% of Cambodians were born after the notorious Killing Fields, but mandatory education about the genocides only began in 2009. And while the Khmer Rouge government ostensibly fell in 1979, in a pragmatic attempt to unify and stabilize a nation reeling from murder and betrayal, Cambodian politicians quickly formed alliances with Khmer Rouge members: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the longest-serving leaders in the world, is himself a former member.

Cambodia is now facing a turning point, said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), the world’s largest archive of photography and documents relating to the Khmer Rouge.

“On the one hand, Cambodians run a real risk of losing a firm grip on understanding, memorializing and ultimately accepting a difficult past. On the other hand, a rapidly globalizing Cambodia must take on new challenges of sustainable growth, democratic integrity and human rights,” said Chhang, who was named Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” of 2007.

DC-Cam was founded in 1994 through a grant to Yale University from the United States Congress’ Cambodian Genocide Justice Act. Today an NGO, the organization addresses the country’s genocidal past while working to preserve memory and justice.

Chhang told The Times of Israel that one way to deepen the understanding of the Cambodian tragedy is through the study of other global genocides.

Enter Kelly Watson, an eighth grade English teacher from Noblesville, Indiana, who recently spent a week in Battambang, Cambodia, teaching about the Holocaust.

Sound like the wrong cue for this post-genocide Cambodian stage play? That’s because Watson wasn’t exactly typecast.

The long windy road to Battambang

Meeting with The Times of Israel a day after running a marathon — not her first or last for this year — Watson said she was born and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The small city near the Ohio border has, among its quaint nicknames, the moniker “The City of Churches.”

In a cute coffee shop chosen to show off the historic Noblesville town square, Watson said that in her first gig as an English teacher back in the mid-1990s in Lebanon, Indiana, she wasn’t what one could call an expert in the Holocaust when her department chair handed her a rummage sale copy of Elie Wiesel’s “Night” to teach the class.

Watson laughed and said at that point in her life the sum-total of her Holocaust education was a vague memory of watching Meryl Streep’s “Holocaust” mini-series in 1978 and a supposition she’d probably once read “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

Reading the Wiesel masterpiece memoir set in the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, she quickly understood she just didn’t have the professional background or tools to do the topic justice. But she couldn’t find the appropriate resources in Indiana.

The early 1990s, however, was a tipping point for Holocaust awareness in the United States. With “Schindler’s List” and the much publicized opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in 1993, the topic was becoming more accessible to a growing audience.

And so, although she’d never before left the state of Indiana on her own, Watson applied and was accepted to the Washington, DC, museum’s Belfer National Conference for Educators. That conference led to a subsequent fellowship at USHMM, and eventually Watson became a part of the museum’s Regional Education Corps.

In between her day job as an eighth grade English teacher (now at Fishers Junior High) and parenting, Watson began to lecture, among other places, at Indiana’s Bureau of Jewish Education, which today supports the Holocaust Education Center of Indiana. She had become the resource she herself had sought.

While acquiring the skills to be an expert Holocaust educator at USHMM, Watson met a number of like-minded teachers who wanted to apply the lessons learned from the genocide against the Jews in other conflict zones. Independently, these friends organized trips to teach in Rwanda and Bosnia, before eventually founding a non-profit in 2011 called the Educators’ Institute for Human Rights.

Watson is currently an educational program director for EIHR. The project, she said, teaches the best practices of Holocaust and comparative genocide education to teachers, who bring them into the classroom.

Two years ago, with the Rwandan and Bosnian programs ongoing since 2011, EIHR was ready to expand to other conflict zones. Watson chose Cambodia and said she “blindly emailed” DC-Cam’s Youk Chhang, whom she calls “a force.” He immediately responded and the past two years were spent in planning.

In October, Watson was the first EIHR emissary to Cambodia, where she presented on the Holocaust to 100 Cambodian history teachers.

Searching for Anne Frank of the Killing Fields

With enough troubles of their own in their recent past, why should Cambodians want to learn about the Holocaust?

“The history that precipitated the Holocaust carries lessons for every human being regardless of culture, religion, or circumstance,” Chhang explained to The Times of Israel.

“Cambodians, even the generations born after the genocide collapsed in 1979, understand the suffering of survivors and the impact of genocide on a people and society,” he said. “No genocide, mass atrocity, or social upheaval can be compared to another, but there are certainly general trends, insights, and lessons that have great value in the classroom. We need to study and teach these lessons not only for our own society but other societies suffering today and in the future.”

In 2002, Chhang initiated and edited a translation of “The Diary of Anne Frank” into Khmer. It was distributed to high school students and also broadcasted on local radio stations “to inspire the local population to learn about their own Anne Frank of the Killing Fields at home,” said Chhang.

“Cambodians studying the Holocaust… can discern lessons that are useful today. The resilience of the survivors of the Holocaust is a reference for how Cambodians can overcome their past,” Chhang said.

In 2007, DC-Cam published its high school history text book, which included Cambodia’s own genocidal past. “In 2009, it became compulsory for all high schools across the country – which is over 1,700 high schools,” said Chhang.

Despite exposure to “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Cambodians know little about Jews or Judaism, or the Holocaust, said Watson. With Watson’s help and that of teachers like her, Chhang is hoping to change that. He said DC-Cam has a variety of proposed national projects to integrate more Holocaust and other cross-cultural mass atrocity education into Cambodian public schools.

“As the principle partner working with the Cambodian Ministry of Education, we intend to incorporate more educational modules addressing the Holocaust as well as other examples of mass atrocity,” said Chhang.

Finding patterns amongst the pain

The US Holocaust Museum is currently hosting two exhibits through October 2017, which highlight the Khmer Rouge period: “Cambodia 1975-1979” features survivor testimony, photographs and videos, and “I Want Justice!” depicts efforts of post-genocide retribution on perpetrators — from the Nazi Nuremberg trials to today’s prosecution of several key Khmer Rouge members.

In late November, a 2014 conviction was upheld of two surviving top Khmer Rouge leaders of crimes against humanity, including extermination, enforced disappearances and political persecution. Currently, they are on trial for, among other crimes, separate allegations of the genocide of Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese and Chams.

In addition to museums, the comparative study of genocide among scholars is now de rigueur. Across the globe, there are undergraduate and graduate university programs for Genocide Studies, most with a concentration on the Holocaust.

The Yale University Genocide Studies Program, however, was founded in 1998 after originally concentrating on Cambodia (the genesis for the NGO DC-Cam). Today, the program covers topics ranging from Ancient Genocides to War Crimes and Truth Commissions.

Prof. Ben Kiernan is the founding director of the Yale program. In an email exchange with The Times of Israel, he said teaching about genocides in countries that have experienced them highlights patterns and “offers citizens access to very important data for predicting and hopefully preventing future outbreaks.”

Exhaustively collecting information and comparing it with other cases, allows scholars to “explore what similarities exist (for instance in the statements, plans, and activities of the perpetrators), and therefore try to identify in advance what might become the signposts to the next case of genocide, and enable humanity to stop it before it occurs,” said Kiernan.

“At the very least, careful comparison of different cases of mass murder often reveals unexpected similarities,” he said.

In many instances, what may seem like politically motivated “purges” could in fact be something even more sinister. Taking the case of Cambodia as an example, he stated, “although the mass murder that took place there in 1975-1979 appeared to many observers to be far from an ethnic genocide, but rather a case of political mass murder, in fact the groups that suffered the highest proportions of killings were ethnic groups, namely the Vietnamese, Muslim Cham and ethnic Chinese minorities, even though in absolute numbers the ethnic Khmer majority suffered the most.”

Using the ‘other’s genocide as safe space

Through learning about the Holocaust and the seven stages of genocide, Watson felt Cambodian history teachers “did see the connections and that’s what I was hoping for.”

According to Watson, teaching a comparative study of genocide has other, more immediate and personal implications as well. In looking at their own genocide through the prism of the Holocaust, after decades of suppression of memories, the Cambodian teachers may feel “safer” in addressing them, she said.

“You don’t compare genocides in terms of the amount of pain they caused. Every genocide is absolutely unique,” said Watson. It’s not easy to address an issue “when you’re surrounded by it,” she said. In Cambodia, “the war is still very much with them.”

Many teachers in conflict countries are survivors of genocide themselves, if not the children of survivors. It is important, said Watson that they feel part of a community that understands what it means to be facing a classroom filled with children or grandchildren of perpetrators.

After this first initial visit by Watson, there are plans for more Educators’ Institute for Human Rights teacher trainings in Cambodia, as well as a swap with teachers in the US. Through the dissemination of their personal experiences, alongside the acquisition of theoretical knowledge of genocide, DC-Cam’s Chhang hopes these teachers can make a positive change in the world.

“The circumstances that precipitated the descent into violence and the dehumanization of people bear witness to ways to improve the human condition and make the statement ‘never again’ really matter,” said Chhang.

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The Auschwitz museum has a Twitter account, and this ex-journalist runs it

Whether he’s engaging the misguided (he prefers not to) or tweeting historical facts, Pawel Sawicki sees his job as shielding the memory of the victims

sawicki-1-965x543OSWIECIM, Poland (JTA) — Long before he moved here to become the spokesman for the Auschwitz museum and lead its social media effort, Pawel Sawicki’s life was intricately connected to this sleepy town near Krakow.

A Warsaw-area radio journalist, Sawicki used to visit Oswiecim as a boy on holidays to stay with his grandparents and play with his cousins, who had moved to the town shortly after World War II.

When he was 10, Sawicki learned that Auschwitz was an epicenter of the Nazi genocide against the Jews — he gleaned the details from a book about the camp that he found in his grandparents’ home.

“Most people visiting Oswiecim, especially from outside of Poland, are shocked to discover there’s a town next to the former German Nazi camp, the memorial which they come to visit. For me it was somehow the other way around,” Sawicki said.

That realization, he said, sparked an interest that led him here a decade ago as a reporter — and it consumes him to this day.

This initial connection to the history of Auschwitz was the beginning of a “constant presence in my life that kept sending me to look for more information,” said Sawicki, 36, who began working at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in 2007. Sawicki has encyclopedic knowledge about Auschwitz, which he has shared in countless articles, guided tours, and several radio and video documentary productions.

But the advent of social media has highlighted another role fulfilled by his office: as “a shield protecting the memory of victims” against rampant abuse online, he said.

A case in point was Sawicki’s intervention last month on Twitter when he called out Kurt Schlichter, a columnist for the conservative news site Townhall, for writing that Jewish supporters of Barack Obama and John Kerry “would have made a fine helper at Auschwitz.”

After some deliberation, Sawicki decided to tweet Schlichter’s message on the Auschwitz memorial account, adding: “The tragedy of prisoners of Auschwitz and their complicated moral dilemmas which today we can hardly comprehend should not be instrumentalized.”

With 40,000 likes and retweets, it became the memorial’s most retweeted message ever, topping the one about Pope Francis’ visit in July and exposing Schlichter to withering criticism.

This reach and intense reaction demonstrate the reasons for Sawicki’s careful consideration on whether to intervene, he said.

“In some cases, such actions risk offering a platform to abuse, thereby amplifying it,” he said. “But exposing and correcting such behavior can have a positive effect that sometimes justifies this risk. But it’s always a fine balance.”

The overwhelming rejection by Twitter users shows that calling Schlichter on his words was the right move, said Sawicki, whose office once was the pharmacy of the SS troops serving in Auschwitz.

But he does not engage Holocaust mockers and deniers as a matter of policy.

Sawicki has also demanded corrections from journalists who apply the word “Polish” to death and concentration camps built by Nazi Germans on Polish soil; doing so is a felony in Poland. And the museum will seek apologies or corrections from those who note that the camps are in Poland without adding that they were built under Nazi occupation.

But much of the online activity of the museum is to highlight positive examples of online engagement with Auschwitz, in Polish, German, English and other languages. There are regular “this day in history” tweets, links to articles and comments from recent visitors (“Where was man?” asks one), and news articles referring to Auschwitz and Holocaust commemoration. Earlier this week there were photos of the camp under a blanket of snow with the message: “New year brought snow which changes the landscape of the historical site.”

On the ground, the museum’s task is to safeguard the buildings and environs and to gather, study and publish evidence on German atrocities. But online, “our main goal is to provide education on the scale of the crime and what made it possible,” Sawicki said.

The Nazis murdered more than 1.1 million Jews at Auschwitz as well as 70,000 non-Jewish Poles, 25,000 Roma, and some 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war.

“Our social media policy is an extension of our guidelines as an institution, but it is developing week by week because we’ve never had such direct interaction with so many people,” Sawicki said. It’s both a chance to “educate people from all corners of the world, many of whom will never be able to visit the memorial.”

But abuse online is also a growing problem.

Amid a renewed wave of interest in the Holocaust in recent years in films, books and other media, as well as in visits to the museum — it registered a record of more than 2 million entries last year — the “instrumentalization,” trivialization and denial of the Holocaust has been growing as well, Sawicki said.

“It’s a daily, fast-changing challenge,” he said.

At the museum, Sawicki navigates the institution’s 470 acres with certainty, demonstrating an intimate knowledge of almost all aspects of life — and death — here. Unlike some visiting guides who resort to pathos or sanctimony, Sawicki, wearing a colorful scarf that his mother-in-law made for him, shares in an informal but precise manner illustrative facts and anecdotes that he has spent a decade collecting.

At the Death Wall, an execution site that is located in the yard adjacent to Block 11 in Auschwitz I, Sawicki dryly explains to a group of journalists that around the wall there was sand mixed with sawdust designed to drain blood.

“Some testimonies mentioned that an adult male bleeds about two liters [67 ounces] when shot, so on days with dozens of executions this place was quite literally soaked in blood,” he said.

Sawicki once interviewed a survivor who recalled laughing at the sight of a fellow prisoner wrestling free from under cadavers that had collapsed on him from a cart. SS guards also laughed. Such testimony illustrated to Sawicki the complexities of surviving at Auschwitz, “but also the amazing human personal strength” doing so required, he said.

While most of the hundreds of thousands of people who visit Oswiecim annually likely associate it with death and horror rather than a town with 900 years of history, for Sawicki it is also the place where he started a family after moving in 2007 with his wife, Agnieszka, whom he married while living here. His son, Wojtech, attends kindergarten near here.

For Sawicki, the town’s dark history is no impediment to loving it.

“It has always been a second home to me, and now it is even more so,” said Sawicki, who grew up in the quiet Warsaw suburb of Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki. “We have to accept these aspects of history in Poland and strive to make a better future.”

Agnieszka, however, has had a tougher time acclimating “because she’s a real city person, a Warsaw girl who needed some time to get used to the different pace,” Sawicki said.

The couple have told their son neither about the Holocaust nor about his father’s workplace except to say that it’s a museum.

“We don’t want to introduce it before he’s ready to take it in,” Sawicki said. “So we’re kind of waiting for him to ask the questions.”

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Court faults German TV for calling Nazi camps ‘Polish’

Polish citizen Karol Tendera, 95, brought the case against Germany’s ZDF channel over wording in a promotional trailer

aushwitz-copy-635x357WARSAW, Poland — An appeals court in Poland on Thursday ruled that a German broadcaster must publicly apologize to an Auschwitz survivor for having described Nazi-German death camps as “Polish”.

“Every Pole won’t necessarily be offended but the plaintiff was. He went from being a victim to the culprit” because of the erroneous wording, the judge wrote in his ruling.

Polish citizen Karol Tendera, 95, brought the case against Germany’s ZDF channel over the wording in a 2013 promotional trailer for a documentary about the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek.

The Nazi death camps were set up and entirely controlled by Germany in occupied Poland.

A lower court had earlier dismissed the case by saying ZDF had “effectively” explained its behavior in two letters it sent to Tendera and a statement posted on its website.

But the appeals court in the southern city of Krakow overturned the earlier decision and called for more, asking ZDF to publish its apology for a month on its website.

It said the wording had violated Tendera’s rights, including his dignity and national identity.

Warsaw monitors global media closely for descriptions of such camps as Polish, having also censured British and US media in the past.

Even if the term is used as a geographical indicator, Warsaw says it can give the impression that Poland bore responsibility for the Holocaust, whereas it was one of the greatest victims of the slaughter.

Poland was attacked and occupied by Nazi Germany in World War II, losing six million of its citizens, including three million Jews in the Holocaust.

The government said this year it would seek fines or jail terms of up to three years against anyone who referred to the camps as Polish.

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The Christmas Cookie That Changed Jewish Lives

Lebkuchen have long been a Christmas treat in Germany. But for two Jewish families fleeing the Nazis, these cookies offered hope for the future in a new country.

Like many Americans before her, Sandy Lee stumbled into culinary nirvana while living abroad in Europe. But while most people return home raving about the spectacular cheese or wine or charcuterie, Lee fell in love with a cookie. The particular object of her fascination was lebkuchen—a complexly spiced cousin to gingerbread that is ubiquitous in Christmas markets across Germany.

Lee, a New Yorker who works in the world of advertising and finance but has a penchant for passion projects, first tasted the cookie while living in Berlin. “It was such a magical combination of flavors,” she said, speaking of lebkuchen’s ginger, cardamom, and cloves, its rich nuttiness, and candied citrus peel. “I kept going back and trying different kinds, and I got a little obsessed.” After discovering that lebkuchen are all-but-impossible to find in New York, she started to make them at home. Never mind that she had no German background and had never been much of a baker—she was on a mission.

Her deep dive into lebkuchen resulted in an impressive collection of vintage cookie tins and 19th-century German baking trade manuals, and a year’s worth of trial-and-error attempts to re-create the cookie she loved. “I would travel to Nuremberg to try every type of lebkuchen I could find, remember what I liked best, and reverse-engineer the recipe based on the ingredient lists,” she said. Lee’s research began as a personal quest but soon morphed into a business. In 2011, Lee launched Leckerlee, a boutique business that sells an authentic (and very delicious) take on classic lebkuchen throughout the Christmas season.

Through founding Leckerlee, Lee also tapped into an unexpected, and rather astonishing, side story. It turns out, her beloved Christmas cookie played an instrumental role in the survival of two families of Jewish Holocaust survivors.

Shortly after launching Leckerlee, Lee was contacted by a man named Bill Freund. Freund, now 90, is the former chief economist of the New York Stock Exchange and a retired economics professor. But he is also, as he told Lee over the phone, the author of a 2011 children’s book called The Cookie That Saved My Family. In 1937, his family left Nuremberg and the escalating persecution that Jews were facing there. In the weeks before their departure, his mother, Paula, whom Freund described as “a marvelous baker,” persuaded a local pastry chef to teach her how to make traditional lebkuchen—a recipe that tends to be closely guarded by those lucky enough to know it.

“Nuremberg is the lebkuchen capital of the world,” Freund told me. “And she was thinking of ways to make a living in our new home.” Although he was just a child at the time, Freund has distinct memories of the baker coming to his house to instruct his mother on which spices to use and how to properly form and glaze the cookies.

Upon arriving in Manhattan, Freund’s parents took menial jobs to scrape by. But in 1939, when WWII broke out and German goods could no longer be imported to the United States, they started a bakery called Paula’s Lebkuchen in their Washington Heights neighborhood. Open from Labor Day through January, they sold the Christmas cookies and other turnovers to the neighborhood’s heavily German immigrant population.

Meanwhile, 10 miles away and across the East River, another Jewish lebkuchen story unfolded in Jackson Heights, Queens. In 1939, Ed Klugman said goodbye to his parents and his hometown of Nuremberg and boarded a kindertransport train to England. It would be one of the last before the war began. As he left, his parents gave him a book of recipes with the urgent instruction to keep it safe until the family could be reunited in the United States. The book, which came from a high-end pastry shop, was fat and heavy, filled with detailed illustrations for decorating pastries and cakes—and a recipe for lebkuchen. Klugman’s father was in the liquor business in Nuremberg but, like Freund’s mother, had researched other possible professions to pursue in America.

“I’m not sure how my parents originally got the recipe book, but it was a wise move,” Klugman, 91 and a retired professor of early childhood development, said. “It would become the backbone of my father’s new career in the United States.” Indeed, the Klugman family, who reunited in New York in 1940, would eventually open the Liberty Brand Cookie Company in Jackson Heights, a bakery that specialized in lebkuchen and other high-end cookies.

According to Luisa Weiss, a Berlin-based food writer and author of the recently published cookbook Classic German Baking, lebkuchen is a blanket German term for gingerbread, encompassing “multiple dozens” of spiced and honeyed cookies baked during the Christmas season. They date back to the 13th century, where they originated in German monasteries. As Gil Marks wrote in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, the monks often “maintained not only baking ovens, but also apiaries and orchards, which provided honey and walnuts” for baked goods.

The most renowned variety, and the one that Lee re-creates at Leckerlee, is Elisenlebkuchen from Nuremberg—a dense, chewy pastry made primarily from almond paste and ground hazelnuts, studded with candied orange and citron peel, and covered with a thin sugar or velvety chocolate glaze. They are baked on top of small, edible wafers called oblaten, Weiss told me, which helps keep the batter from spreading in the oven. Oblaten are very similar in shape and composition to the communion wafers used in Catholic services. Freund told me that after World War II began, the oblaten his family had imported from Holland became unavailable. “We went to a Catholic Church and asked where they got their wafer from,” he told me. “They pointed us to a manufacturer in Chicago.” Problem solved.

There is no denying that lebkuchen are a Christmas specialty. But they were also enjoyed in Germany’s Jewish communities. According to Marks, Jewish families began baking different varieties lebkuchen as early as the 15th century, preparing them at home so as to avoid the monasteries. “Its pareve nature made it ideal for meat occasions,” he wrote. The cookie was served on Rosh Hashanah because of the honey it contained, and also during Hanukkah since it was Christmas-adjacent. The earliest Jewish American cookbooks, from Aunt Babette’s Cook Book to The Settlement Cook Book (both written by German-Jewish immigrants) contained recipes for lebkuchen.

For decades, when neighborhoods like Washington Heights and Yorkville on Manhattan’s Upper East Side were home to sizable German immigrant populations, lebkuchen were widely available. Today, imported versions (and also Lee’s lebkuchen) are sold at a few specialty shops like Schaller & Weber. But without Lee’s renewed enthusiasm for the cookie, they would have been essentially lost to New York history. Meanwhile, without Lee, Freund and Klugman would never have connected. Despite their geographical proximity and parallel histories, Freund and Klugman had never heard of one another, nor of their competing businesses, until Lee connected them over the phone. “What amazes me is how well we were both able to fare, despite the odds,” Klugman told me. “I’m grateful.”

Two Jewish boys from Nuremberg, two recipes for lebkuchen shuttled across the Atlantic Ocean, two unlikely stories of survival. You might just call it a Christmas miracle.

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Report on Anne Frank’s capture sparks frustration among experts

Following release of study suggesting Holocaust diarist and her family were not betrayed, Anne Frank House responds to criticism of its ‘obvious mistakes’

amsterdam-132-e1400073323897-847x543Exactly how the Holocaust’s most famous victim came to be captured by the Nazis has intrigued the public for decades. A new study produced by the Anne Frank House is providing the latest set of theories to embroil researchers yet again.

Released earlier this month, the report examines events and people surrounding the arrest of Anne Frank, her family and four other Jews who hid in the backrooms of an Amsterdam office building belonging to the company of Anne’s father, Otto Frank. Unlike most prior studies, the new report focuses on possibilities other than the traditionally accepted “betrayal phone call” narrative, wherein someone who knew of the Jews in hiding reported them to authorities.

Calling the betrayal “an assumption that simmers on,” the Anne Frank House’s chief researcher, Gertjan Broek, told The Times of Israel the topic of the arrest is “one of the most frequently asked questions.”

To prepare their report, Broek and his team spent two years looking into details tied to the Nazis’ August 4, 1944, raid on the Secret Annex. According to Broek, there is no hard evidence behind a phone call having taken place, and it is just as likely that authorities descended on the office to investigate illegal workers, forged ration coupons, or other suspicious business practices.

In other words, Anne Frank and her family were not necessarily “betrayed,” but could have been the victims of happenstance in a Nazi-occupied city brimming with resistance activities. In Amsterdam, “everything was a risk, everything. [People could not] evade taking chances or risks,” said Broek.

However, the focus on possibilities other than a betrayal has irked some researchers, including Germany-based Melissa Müller, author of an acclaimed biography on Anne Frank published in 1998. According to Müller, the Anne Frank House’s new study is short on new facts and makes “obvious mistakes,” she said.

“This theory is not new at all, and there are not enough reliable sources to switch over to these ‘new’ explanations for the raid on the Prinsengracht,” said Müller. The Prinsengracht is a winding Amsterdam canal along which Frank’s office building resided, adjacent to a neighborhood — the Jordaan — filled with black market and resistance activity during 1944.

According to Müller and researcher Gerlof Langerijs, with whom she partnered to answer The Times of Israel’s questions, mistakes and “a lack of proof” in the Anne Frank House’s report have damaged its credibility.

“The reactions in the Netherlands are very negative,” said Müller. “[Broek] does not have any proof and is just causing confusion,” she said.

For instance, Müller took issue with Broek’s claim that the two-hour raid on the canal building was significantly longer than a normal Nazi arrest of Jews in hiding. According to Müller, two hours for such a raid was “not long at all, measured in 1944 circumstances and slower life speed,” said the author.

Müller also disagreed with the report’s claim that a lack of working telephone lines in Amsterdam during early August 1944 would have made a betrayal phone call unlikely. In Müller’s opinion, this is an example of researchers boosting a theory with questionable assumptions.

Müller does, however, agree with Broek that the betrayal phone call is something of a red herring, or, as she put it, “a mystification, and a typical example of how a story is passed on from one person to the next,” said Müller.

Another point of contention for Müller and Langerijs is the study’s assessment of workers in the warehouse below the Secret Annex, as well as travelling sales representatives who regularly visited the building. That some of these men and women were under the gaze of authorities for illegal activities has been known for decades, said Müller, yet there is still no evidence connecting one of them to the raid.

“Saying that there was ‘messing around with ration cards and illegal workers’ [as the study] suggests much, but proves nothing,” said Müller.

According to Broek and others at the Anne Frank House, the new research “doesn’t make claims that can’t be substantiated,” and possibilities such as the arrest being tied to something other than a phone call about Jews in hiding should be considered.

“Despite decades of research, betrayal as a point of departure has delivered nothing conclusive,” said Annemarie Bekker, spokesperson for the Anne Frank House, one of the Netherlands’ top tourist attractions.

“Our new investigation does not refute the possibility that the people in hiding were betrayed, but illustrates that other scenarios should also be considered,” Bekker told The Times of Israel. “Hopefully more researchers will see reason to follow up on new leads,” she said.

The ultimate ‘cold case’

For several decades, according to biographer Melissa Müller, the Anne Frank House “thought it was not their task to do any deeper research on the story by themselves, although they had some fine researchers on their staff,” she said.

“Back then the suggestions to take a deeper look into certain subjects were constantly put off the table,” said Müller. “To go public with this kind of research is new to them,” she said, referring to the report released this month about the fateful raid on Otto Frank’s office building.

In 2002, researchers including Müller’s colleague, Gerlof Langerijs, presented the Anne Frank House with a flowchart of possible “external factors,” or leads, which the Nazis might have been pursuing when they decided upon a raid, said Müller.

That it took the Anne Frank House 14 years to pursue these leads is “remarkable,” said Müller, who published an updated and expanded edition of her Anne Frank biography in 2013.

“In the past there were more and more urgent moments to point out this possibility,” said Müller.

“Many people think it is not much more than a publicity attempt,” said Müller of the study. “Just another theory after many theories have already been published — lacking convincing facts. In their letters to the editor, people complain about the study’s conclusion [being] based on ‘coincidences,’” she said.

According to Broek, he and Müller have met several times to discuss “every detail of Anne Frank’s life, and [the arrest] is always a part of the conversation,” he said. Broek emailed Müller a series of questions related to his study one year ago, to which the author responded, he said.

“I have not heard of any confusion inside of the Netherlands or outside of it,” said Broek about Müller’s claim the study is causing confusion.

Among other researchers of Anne Frank and the Nazi occupation in Amsterdam, there is general admiration for the arrest study. However, there is also frustration about an ongoing lack of closure.

“I still have the same opinion as I had before the publication of the new study of the Anne Frank House,” said Ad van Liempt, an expert on the deportation of Jews from the Netherlands during WWII and author of the book, “Hitler’s Bounty Hunters.”

Calling the study “well done and very interesting,” van Liempt added, “it is disappointing that there is no concrete conclusion. We cannot blame Mr. Broek and his research team. They did a good job, offered us a new view but couldn’t prove it. That is what, unfortunately, often happens in history research,” said van Liempt, who provided feedback to the Anne Frank House during the report’s creation, according to Broek.

“We know about thousands of Jews in the Netherlands, whether they were betrayed or not,” van Liempt told The Times of Israel. “But we don’t know about the most famous family of all, and sure, this bothers. I am still very curious, but I am afraid that I will never know what happened in this case,” said van Liempt.

Researchers close to Anne Frank’s story have expressed similar frustration, along with concerns that future research be directed toward appropriate ends.

“I cannot imagine that this new theory of happenstance rather than betrayal would have made one iota of difference to Miep Gies and the rest of the helpers, much less to Anne and the other six people in hiding who were murdered,” said journalist Steve North, referring to the Dutch woman who took care of the Jews in hiding and rescued Frank’s diary after the arrest.

North was the last journalist to interview Miep Gies before her death in 2010. He told The Times of Israel that Gies — were she still living — “might question why a new vague and ambiguous ‘research study’ was necessary at this particular time,” said North, whose 1998 interview with Gies took place in her Amsterdam apartment, where some of the Frank family’s furniture remained after the war.

‘I can only hope that this study was motivated by the search for an historical truth, and not by a need to keep the rewarding business of Anne Frank well-marketed’
“I can only hope that this study was motivated by the search for an historical truth, and not by a need to keep the rewarding business of Anne Frank well-marketed and flourishing,” said North.

Another writer who interviewed Gies is Alison Leslie Gold, author of the 1987 book, “Anne Frank Remembered,” in which Gold partnered with Gies to tell Frank’s story from the perspective of the woman who hid and cared for eight Jews in the Secret Annex and — rarely mentioned — an “underground” Dutch student who hid in her and husband Jan Gies’ apartment.

“I hesitate to weigh in,” said biographer Gold, “since analyzing the arrests from this ‘new’ angle — though it might shut some doors — also opens new doors, presents new implications, poses new questions,” Gold told The Times of Israel.

“It seems as if many more dots need to be connected before we reconfigure the tragedy that ended or blighted the lives of so many,” said Gold.

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