A Different Kind of Holocaust Museum

Other visitors might have been surprised to see me, a Reform-turned-secular alumna of a pluralistic Jewish day school in Texas, showing up in Brooklyn—wearing a modest black shell top and ankle-length skirt, fresh out of the packaging—at a Holocaust museum created by Orthodox Jews in an Orthodox community. But I was the one who was surprised when I left the museum having found it more resonant for me than any number of other Holocaust museums I’d visited.

I was 11 years old when I began learning about the Holocaust in school. It seemed like we studied the Holocaust in a different class every year, approaching the terrifying events from a new angle each time.

Not only was the Holocaust a part of my intellectual life through school, it was a part of my ritual life through synagogue. In some Reform communities, there is an organization that pairs bar mitzvah boys and bat mitzvah girls with individual children who were killed during the Holocaust, to shine a light on the child’s memory by personalizing ritual objects or leaving a chair empty during the ceremony. I participated in this program because everyone in my synagogue participated. When I think back to my bat mitzvah, I still remember Fani Volf, a young girl from Berlin who was killed in Auschwitz when she was 12.

In a 2013 Pew Report, 73 percent of American Jews said that remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of being Jewish. But this notion of a sort of “Holocaust Judaism” leaves out an important group of Jews: ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities like the ones based in Brooklyn, for whom the Holocaust is but one part of a much larger history of persecution including the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem, the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms.

The Orthodox community of Borough Park, Brooklyn, is in the midst of establishing its own Holocaust museum, the Amud Aish Memorial Museum and Kleinman Holocaust Education Center, opening within the next year. Located in the heart of one of the largest Orthodox communities outside of Israel, this new museum will offer a different narrative from the standard ones put forth by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in which the Holocaust is a unique and defining event of the 20th century.

When I came across an article about Jews who wouldn’t step foot in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum—a place that had always seemed, in my mind, sacred to Jews in America—I had to know more. It’s not that these Orthodox Jews won’t go to the museum because they refuse to interact with members outside of their community. Instead, it has to do with the ways that the museum in D.C. is out of sync with their ideology and their interpretation of Jewish law. For them, in other words, the D.C. museum is not kosher, and therefore not an appropriate place for them to visit.


When I visited the Amud Aish Memorial Museum’s temporary space in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, earlier this year—the actual museum is set to open in the next year—I had the opportunity to shadow a school group. And from the very beginning of the tour, when Director of Education Julie Golding introduced the students to the exhibit, I was puzzled because it was the opposite of the Holocaust learning I had been so immersed in for many years. They’re not looking to scare or to disturb visitors, as Golding explained to me. She has been asked more than once, “When are we going to see the dead bodies?” She proudly answers that they won’t be seeing any of that there.

In her lighthearted introduction, which contained fleeting words in Yiddish, she explained to the students: “This is a museum about life.” In this moment, I realized that these Orthodox students had ahead of them an entirely different Holocaust education from the one I had received. How could teaching about the Holocaust—and, by extension for this Reform-educated writer, Judaism—revolve around anything other than death?

As the tour guide brought the students through the exhibit, we stopped along the way at ritual Jewish items like a challah cover. The woman who made it died in Bergen-Belsen but as our guide explained, “She could have used this fabric to make a blanket, but look—she made a challah cover and kept mitzvot.” Students were being asked to understand the Holocaust through sacrifices made and religious obligations kept.

The most popular artifact among the students and teachers on the tour was a Nazi receipt book that had been used as a lesson-plan book written entirely in Yiddish. The guide dwelled on this book as representative of Jewish religious resistance during the war. The Amud Aish museum focuses on religious and spiritual resistance, while the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum focuses on military resistance by Jews against Nazi soldiers. For instance, in the D.C. museum, there are multiple displays of guns used in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. But when a young boy asked Golding before his Amud Aish tour, “Will we see guns?” she replied, “No, you won’t see guns or anything scary because this is a museum about life, not death.” Amud Aish is a Jewish museum focused on the lives of Jews during the Holocaust—not the weapons used to kill them.

After the tour, I interviewed Miryam Gordon, the program coordinator for school visits. She told me that the tours are designed to emphasize resilience and religion. The Orthodox community’s kids grow up “just knowing” about the Holocaust, she explained, meaning that they grow up hearing stories of what happened from the elders in their community, many of whom are Holocaust survivors. As a result, the museum does not need or want to focus on Hitler and the perpetrators because the students already know about them. They don’t want to see a million pictures of murdered Jews—they want the stories of people who continued living in spite of this. Traditional Orthodox Jewish communities have a perspective on Jewish history outside of the mainstream secular Jewish world. As Rabbi Sholom Freidmann, the museum director, explained to me, “We’re not so concerned with what persecution occurred and what the perpetrators were doing as much as how was the Jewish community responding in that point in history.”

Formal Holocaust education is a relatively new phenomenon in Orthodox communities. After the war, according to Rabbi Sholom Friedmann, the museum’s director, the focus was on rebuilding, not rehashing the tragic history that had taken place. During our conversation, Freidmann stressed the fact that the Orthodox community did not need the Holocaust to identify as Jewish. “The Holocaust played a big role in nonaffiliated communities as far as their actually identifying as a community,” he said, “But the Orthodox community never needed that.”

The question that tour guides leave all their tour groups with is: “What are you going to do for klal yisrael—for the community, the people of Israel?” This is in direct contrast to the way the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum visit ends. The featured take-away slogans in D.C. are: “Think about what you saw,” or “What you do matters,” or “Never again.”

These museums aren’t just presenting different versions of the Holocaust or emphasizing different aspects of it. They are ultimately teaching different lessons. The dominant lesson of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is fear. Fear that something like this will happen again. Fear for the security of ethnic and religious groups. A disturbing call to action. And the other lesson, at the Amud Aish Memorial Museum, is one of continuity and survival and religious rebirth.

To some, the Holocaust is the defining event of modern Jewish history; there are people like the Jewish-studies teacher at my former day school who said the purpose of taking students to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is “Jewish identity-building.” But then there are people for whom the Holocaust is just one instance of persecution in a long history of similar events—like Gordon, program coordinator at Amud Aish, who said to me: “The Holocaust is not my Judaism.”

To me, the value in considering these questions and approaches and these museums is that we’re engaging with what I would argue is the defining Jewish issue of our time. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is the 11th-most-visited museum in the country, with over 41 million visitors—90 percent of whom are not Jewish—since it opened in 1993.

So many Americans are interacting with all things Jewish through the lens of the Holocaust. And so too are many American Jews interacting with all things Jewish through the lens of the Holocaust. By the time I got to college, I knew far more about the intricacies of the annihilation of European Jewry than I knew about the Tanakh. I could distinguish the Einsatzgruppen from the Gestapo, yet distinguishing Ruth from Naomi was beyond my scope.

For many years, I had been asked to align my Jewish identity with the death of other Jews. From remembering Fani Volf at my bat mitzvah, to school trips that revolved around visiting Holocaust museums and sites—from L.A. to D.C. to Poland—as opposed to thriving areas of Jewish life and culture. Amud Aish showed me how different an education can be—and it’s sticking with me.

Amud Aish will be the first Holocaust museum to open in Brooklyn, which is the area of the country with the highest concentration of Holocaust survivors. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll put a dent in the 73 percent of American Jews who say the Holocaust is the most essential part of being Jewish.

Festival organizers in Krakow ask: Who speaks for Jewish culture?

KRAKOW, Poland – For four days this summer, a trio of artists and performers dressed in rabbinical-looking garb took turns sitting at a table behind an open air booth hawking good luck to passers-by alongside a bustling street in the heart of Kazimierz, this city’s lively Jewish quarter.

Playing the character of the “Lucky Jew,” the actor sat at a desk laden with an accounting ledger, an old-fashioned inkwell and a quill pen in a small theatrical set designed to resemble a picture frame. The scene was a look-alike of a Polish folk painting depicting a traditional-looking Jewish man in a similar pose that is widely popular in post-Holocaust Poland.

With wry humor, warm conversation and theatrics, Jason Francisco, Michael Rubenfeld and Menachem Kaiser brought the mythical image to life, offering good fortune in exchange for a few Polish zlotys. Their street performance both poked fun at the stereotypical trope of Jews as money handlers while provoking serious questions about the lingering attraction of Polish folk figurines of archetypal Jews. Are they anti-Semitic or, as some Poles see them, a form of respect for Jews?

The performance aims to create a “meaningful interaction not with a Jewish stereotype, rather a real living Jew made approachable through a play on a stereotype,” Francisco, a photographer, artist and essayist, explains on his website.

The performance of “Lucky Jews” made its debut as part of the inaugural Festivalt, a series of site-specific, artistic and theatrical events created by Rubenfeld, Francisco and several other Krakow-based international artists and performers. Celebrations of Jewish culture, like the ubiquitous figurines, are familiar in Poland. Festivalt coincided with the 27th Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, a hugely popular Jewish music and arts extravaganza that for its nine days attracted an estimated 30,000 visitors and residents to this splendid medieval city.

The scene at Shalom on Seroka Street, the free concert after Shabbat at the 27th Krakow Jewish Culture Festival. (Michal Ramus/Krakow Jewish Culture Festival)

But there’s an irony to the success of the main festival, noted Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Krakow: Non-Jews created and led an event that helped rekindle Jewish life in Krakow. The festival’s unexpected success raises the question of who speaks for Jewish culture.

“These are complicated issues,” Ornstein said.

Confronting those complex questions through the arts is precisely the reason behind Festivalt, according to Rubenfeld and his partners, who also include writer Maia Ipp and designer Magda Rubenfeld Koralewska. Rubenfeld, who now makes his home in Krakow and Canada, acknowledges the wealth of programs offered at the main Krakow Jewish Culture Festival and by the JCC and Galicia Jewish Museum.

But the organizers of Festivalt envision their programming as an alternative stage that pushes the boundaries with challenging and edgier fare meant to “complement,” not compete, with the cultural festival.

In addition to “Lucky Jews,” Festivalt included programs from a queer arts collective, a mild-mannered street action that took aim at how a former synagogue is now rented out as a pub and disco, and a production of “We Keep Coming Back,” an engaging multimedia play by Rubenfeld. It traces the real-life journey Rubenfeld made with his mother to the Polish towns where her Holocaust survivor parents once lived.

“We did not see a space that placed a specific focus on presenting art that had a critical voice,” Rubenfeld said of the main festival in an email. “This is something we had all been doing one way or another … and felt this was the right year to come together to start something new.”

They were also interested in featuring the work of Polish-Jewish artists and other Jewish artists from around the world.

Still, the influence of the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival cannot be discounted.

In the nearly three decades since staging its first summer concerts of klezmer bands, the festival has evolved from a quirky, bold and even maverick idea to one of the most respected and popular summer festivals in Europe. At the time Janusz Makuch launched the festival in 1988, many Jews thought of Poland only through the lens of the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz, some 40 miles from Krakow.

Makuch, who is not Jewish, had a vision to counter that prevailing perspective through music and the arts that reflected centuries of Jewish presence in Poland rather than its absence.

Janusz Makuch is the founder and director of the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival. (Michal Ramus/Krakow Jewish Culture Festival)

“You can draw a straight line between the Jewish Culture Festival and the rebirth of this 700-year-old Jewish community [in Krakow]. To me that’s amazing,” said Ornstein, whose JCC has year-round programming for all ages, from Holocaust survivors to young people discovering their Jewish roots.

In a conversation at the JCC as the main festival was kicking off (and just five days before his marriage to Kasia Leonardi, who he met at the JCC), the 48-year-old, American-born Ornstein said the festival has brought an appreciation and familiarity of Jewish culture to the thousands of non-Jews who attend. But even more significant is the festival’s impact on Jewish life in the city.

“One of the reasons Krakow is such a welcoming place for the Jewish community today is the work the festival has done for the last 27 years,” Ornstein said. “Jews feel safe coming out of the closet as Jews.”

This year, the JCC and the Galicia Jewish Museum jointly sponsored 10 days of independently produced programs, many in partnership with the festival. The garden courtyard outside the JCC, in the heart of Kazimierz and all the festival goings-on, was turned into a relaxed summer beer garden.

Some 650 people – locals mixed with tourists, scholars and donors — welcomed Shabbat at the Friday night JCC dinner held annually during the festival.

“It’s become the signature, can’t-miss event,” Ornstein boasted.

The theme for this year’s festival was Jerusalem, a nod to the 50th anniversary of the unification of the city following the 1967 Six-Day War. It featured more than 200 events, concerts, exhibitions, tours and talks, including a multisensory culinary program hosted by the National Library of Israel.

Ornstein acknowledged the tremendous overlap in the audiences at the various programs sponsored by the different organizations, and most attendees don’t draw a distinction.

The JCC’s programs showcase Jewish life today, Ornstein emphasizes.

“The festival is a unique, one-week event. It’s important for us that anyone who comes and participates understands that there is a resurgent Jewish community in Krakow,” he said.

Ornstein welcomed Festivalt to the embarrassment of cultural riches during the festival week.

“The city has become a place on the map of Jewish culture in the world,” he said. “They [Festivalt] did interesting programming and I hope they will continue. There is plenty of room in Krakow for Jewish culture.”

(Penny Schwartz, a freelance journalist in Boston, traveled to Krakow on a study trip sponsored by the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, which had no involvement in or knowledge of her reporting.)

Did the Great Italian Cyclist Gino Bartali Actually Save Jews During the Holocaust? An Investigation.

An exhibition at the Italian American Museum in New York recently celebrated Gino Bartali, whose fame as a cycling champion has been amplified in recent years by his alleged participation in the rescue of Jews during World War II. Films and a theater play accompanied Yad Vashem’s recognition of Bartali as a righteous gentile in 2013.

Bartali never claimed to have been a rescuer, nor did any of the organizers of the Italian rescue networks mention him. Historians have kept silent on the matter: None of the scholars in the field have so far endorsed it.

In the absence of reliable research, curators and institutions who present portrayals of Bartali as a rescuer of Jews to their audience, have little to rely on except for the enthusiasm of the press and the endorsement of colleagues.

Regardless of what research may uncover in the future, how does Bartali’s story fit in with what we know of the rescue of Jews? A recent article by Michele Sarfatti, one of the most respected authorities on the history of the Shoah in Italy, offers an overview of existing historical evidence and testimonies. His dispassionate analysis may provide tools to ask relevant questions and ponder on humanity and myths.


After Sept. 8, 1943, all Jews in Italy under the Italian Social Republic and German occupation were at risk of arrest and deportation. Their survival depended on, among many factors, their ability to go into hiding with fake names and falsified identity cards.

Because of frequent police checks, all Italians needed identity cards to move within cities as well as to reside in pensions and boarding houses. They also needed identity documents to obtain ration cards to purchase food.

Italian Jews needed false identity cards for these same reasons. This was especially the case in Florence, the only city in Italy where Jews who went to register for ration cards exhibiting their “true” identities were arrested.

Gino Bartali bicycle promotional postcard, 1950-55. (Image courtesy Michael Haddad, Guest Curator, Italian American Museum)
Foreign Jewish refugees—particularly numerous in Florence—needed false identity cards primarily to reside in pensions or boarding houses, because, given their limited knowledge of Italian, they generally avoided roaming the streets.

Typically, false identity cards bore addresses from areas of southern Italy that had already been freed by the Allies, thus rendering verification impossible. However, this was also a source of danger, since the carriers of false documents might have cards from Puglia or Sicily but speak with strong Venetian or Florentine accents. Or, in the course of police checks, they might meet people who purposely engaged in conversations that required knowledge of details about those municipalities.

The fabrication of false identity cards occurred in several phases that could be carried out at the same time or in separate places. First, original blank forms were either stolen by anti-fascist city clerks or printed clandestinely. Next, personal data had to be filled in on each card. Finally, photographs and falsified municipal stamps, with the city name and seal, had to be affixed on cards. After this final stage, the cards needed to be distributed.

It should be noted that in Italy under the Italian Social Republic and German occupation, the first individuals to seek false identity cards were anti-Fascists who had been particularly exposed during the “45 days” between the deposition of Mussolini and the armistice.

In 1978, Alexander Ramati, a Polish-American journalist who had been a reporter during World War II, published a volume in English on the Nazi occupation of Assisi and the hiding of Jews, which was translated into Italian in 1981. The book’s U.S. edition was titled The Assisi Underground: The Priests Who Rescued Jews: as Told By Padre Rufino Niccacci. Ramati’s examination of the Nazi occupation of Assisi story was based on the account of Father Rufino Niccacci. According to the Ramati-Niccacci account, the latter, on Nov. 23, 1943, went to Archbishop of Florence Elia Dalla Costa to talk about Jews hidden in Assisi. Dalla Costa told Niccacci that he had seen the false identity cards that had been fabricated in Assisi, and asked him to produce some for the Jews hidden in Florence as well.

The book continues stating that Dalla Costa enlisted as courier the cyclist Gino Bartali (the name used by Ramati in both the U.S. and British editions is “Gino Battaglia.” In the Italian translation, it was replaced with “Gino Bartali”), who reached Assisi on a bicycle “bringing photographs and then returning with identity cards a day or two later.” The material was concealed in the bicycle. Ramati declared, “As usual, he [Bartali/Battaglia] pulled the grips off his handlebars and unscrewed his seat to take out the photographs and papers hidden inside the bicycle frame.”

Ramati-Niccacci also writes that the bishop of Assisi “had a meeting in Perugia with Cardinal della Costa’s [sic] emissary Giorgio La Pira.” A few pages later he states that documents were fabricated “for those whose photographs were carried to Assisi by Gino Battaglia or Giorgio La Pira.”

The narrative of Ramati-Niccacci contains many errors and inventions. For example, the book argues that on the day of Niccacci’s arrival in Florence, Nov. 23, 1943, the press reported the Italian government’s order to arrest all Jews present on Italian territory. Further, according to the book, on the same day, the Nazis raided Florentine convents searching for Jews in hiding there.

Ramati has Father Nicacci state: “I saw a whole family lined up against a wall and machine-gunned because a revolver had been found on one of them.”

In reality, the order of the Italian Social Republic was announced by the radio Nov. 30 and published by the press Dec. 1. The Nazi raid was carried out Nov. 26-27, and no one was shot.

Similarly, the courier activity between Florence and Assisi attributed by Ramati-Niccacci to the Florentine Catholic anti-Fascist Giorgio La Pira is not consistent with historical evidence. In fact, La Pira lived in the Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence.

On Sept. 29, 1943, that religious house was searched and La Pira, sensing danger, moved to the home of friends at Fonterutoli, near Castellina in the Chianti region. On November 17, the monastery received an arrest warrant for La Pira. The Dominican Father Cipriano Ricotti brought La Pira the news, and consequently, La Pira went into hiding in the nearby village of Tregole. On Dec. 8, he moved to Rome, where he remained until the liberation of the city.

It is clear that the undoubtedly brave anti-Fascist Giorgio La Pira was not in the position to be a courier, nor did he ever claim to have been one.

Likewise, the courier activity between Florence and Assisi attributed by Ramati-Niccacci to Gino Bartali is not mentioned either in the testimonies of Florentine rescue organizers nor in Bartali’s private writings or public statements. All publications that describe it are based more or less explicitly on Ramati’s book.

In addition, Bartali’s role as a courier is explicitly contradicted by Don Aldo Brunacci, a presbyter of the Assisi Cathedral, who had been charged by his bishop to organize assistance for the Jews who had taken refuge there. Don Brunacci was, therefore, the main organizer of assistance in Assisi. As such he coordinated the fabrication of false identity cards and was informed of the existence of “ties” with the clergy of Florence and Genoa.

One of Brunacci’s valued associates was, in fact, Father Rufino Niccacci, who joined the group at a later time, giving, according to Brunacci, “a remarkable help because of his courageous entrepreneurship.” Brunacci added that “through his many contacts and courageous entrepreneurship he brought a great contribution to the whole organization” (Brunacci 1985, 12, 24). Brunacci further commented the entire book by Ramati: “This is nothing but a novel. The author certainly had in mind a script for a movie and could not find a person more suitable for this intent and above all with a more fervent imagination than Father Rufino.” After writing that he himself had gone several times to Perugia by bicycle for some “delicate mission,” Brunacci added, “Maybe this detail that Ramati learned through my articles gave him the idea of introducing Bartali among the characters of his novel!”

In short, Ramati-Niccacci invented Bartali’s role as a courier. But then, who produced and carried identity cards for Florentine Jews? Here the testimonies by the protagonists abound, even if they may not be enough to reconstruct the full picture of the facts. It is best then to present them separately.

The main actors were members of the Florentine Catholic Church; Tuscan Jews and those from Emilia-Romagna, some of whom were members of the Action Party; Catholic young women partisans also affiliated with the Florentine Action Party; perhaps a Bolognese Communist; and probably others. Many others collaborated with these principal actors, including an official at the Florence police station.

In October 1943, Don Leto Casini, a parish priest in Florence, was asked by Dalla Costa to work for a relief committee for foreign Jews, who needed “identity cards — of course, false.” In charge of the printing “was a clandestine typography in Bologna. I collected passport-size photographs and I handed them over to a young Jew from Bologna who was traveling almost every day between my location and the printing company. … The truly exceptional courier I am referring to was Mario Finzi.” Mario Finzi was arrested in Bologna in April 1944, deported to Auschwitz and killed.

Don Leto Casini was arrested in Florence on Nov. 26, 1943. In his pocket at the time, he had “25 photos delivered two minutes before, that I was supposed to send to Bologna on that same evening, to be attached to the same number of identity cards.” He was subsequently released.

A Jew from Pisa, Giorgio Nissim, was the organizer of the relief for the Jews in the area of Lucca. Initially, he obtained false identity cards in Genoa, where he went by train. In his memoirs, he wrote that once Father Ricotti had given him 30 photographs of Jewish women in hiding “to fabricate false cards” and that he returned from Genoa to Florence with counterfeit documents a few hours after the roundup of Nov. 26-27, 1943 in which most of those women had been arrested.

Later, Nissim arranged to manufacture the cards in Lucca. Because it was difficult for him to obtain blank ration cards, he organized exchanges of blank documents in unusual ways. For example, he later recorded that on one occasion, “In Florence I was in contact with Maria Enriquez Agnoletti [Anna Maria Enriques Agnoletti], whom I met in a church where the friendly exchange took place: blank identity cards on which photos were affixed with stamps that I carried in my pockets, for ration cards,” Nissim continued. “I remember the last time I saw her, she gave me a big pack of ration cards, while both of us were kneeling at an altar in the church of Santa Maria del Fiore.”

Anna Maria Enriques Agnoletti, daughter of a “mixed” marriage and nominally exempted from anti-Jewish persecution, had joined the Christian Social Movement (MCS). She worked with the Action Party in Florence, during the war. She was arrested for anti-Fascist activities in May 1944 and killed.

Anna Maria Enriques Agnoletti’s role in Nissim’s and other ID distribution networks is corroborated by many testimonies. On Nov. 20, 1943, Don Giuseppe Spaggiari, chaplain of the Cathedral of Livorno, one of Giorgio Nissim’s contacts, recorded a meeting with her. The anti-Fascist Emilio Angeli, father of Father Roberto Angeli, a parish priest in Livorno, and rescuer of Jews—later arrested and deported to Mauthausen, where he survived—recalled that Anna Maria Enriques Agnoletti and two municipal clerks from that city who were members of the MCS distributed identity and ration cards to local Jews. Speaking of her, Action Party member Maria Luigia Guaita wrote, “she helped and saved a great many Jews.”

Guaita herself fabricated false identity cards in Florence. It is not known whether those cards were for Jews or partisans, or both. She later wrote, “I remember that once I made a large number of identity cards with the stamp of the Municipality of Caltanissetta spelled with only one ‘S,’ and it was hard to track them down and replace them with correct ones.” Guaita also provided ration cards.

With regard to the actions of the Resistance, we should also recall that on Oct. 24, 1943, Leonardo Tarozzi, Communist of Bologna, brought to Florence a group of blank identity cards. But it is not known whether they were used for clandestine Jews.

Finally, two historians, Pandolfi and Cavarocchi, wrote: “Father Ricotti and Giancarlo Zoli [young Florentine Catholic anti-fascist] managed to obtain valuable documents with the help of members of the Resistance” and “Father Ricotti remembers that a woman partisan who had studied with him handed him a dry stamp of a city occupied by the Allies. It was then possible to start producing identity cards with the collaboration of the police officer [Vincenzo] Attanasio, whom the priest defined as very faithful to the organization.”

On Feb. 9, 1980, Matilde Cassin, a young Florentine Jew heavily involved with rescue efforts, told me that Don Casini and Father Ricotti were autonomous and somewhat in competition with one another. This could explain the duplication of the fabrication of identity cards in November 1943. The whole story indeed requires careful research. However, she stated that most of the Identity Documents she distributed were the work of Giorgio Nissim and of the San Marco monastery, while Casini provided others.

Matilde Cassin also told me that in May 1944, she brought to Milan some identity cards, maybe three, made by Father Ricotti. In fact, she went to Milan from the 26th to the 29th of April and returned on May 16 to then reach Switzerland as a clandestine.

Now that it is unfortunately too late to find any first-hand confirmation, I wonder if one of those three cards was for Giacomino Sarfatti. My father Giacomino had gone to England after the promulgation of anti-Jewish laws in Italy. There, after June 1940, he enlisted in the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), who sent him to Italy (before July 25, 1943) as a radio operator.

At the beginning of April 1944, Giacomino Sarfatti met in Milan with the partisan and Action Party member Maria Assunta Lorenzoni, called Tina, who had just escorted a group of clandestine Jews from Florence to Switzerland. The group consisted of Gualtiero Sarfatti, Eloisa Levi, and their son Gianfranco (Giacomino’s brother). Gianfranco then returned to Valle d’Aosta to participate in the Resistance and was killed in combat.

Back in London, Giacomino Sarfatti reported about his meeting in Milan with partisan and Action Party leaders, and added, “later she managed to get him an identity card and some ration cards.” It seems to me, although it is no longer verifiable, that the person who “managed to get him cards” referred to Matilde Cassin.

Tina Lorenzoni was killed during the battle for the liberation of Florence in August 1944. Historian and Action Party member Carlo Francovich wrote that Lorenzoni “provided [the Jews] with false documents and lodging, with help from the clandestine organization of the C.T.L.N.,” the Tuscan National Liberation Committee.

As we can see, these testimonies seem to fit together in part, but also illustrate overlaps and duplications that seem incomprehensible to us today, while they may have made more sense at the time. They present a picture that deserves a much wider and more thorough study than can be done in this essay.

Most important, the history of false identity cards for clandestine Jews in Florence is filled with great humanity and tragic losses which do not need myths and demand the most profound respect.

Israeli student steals artifacts from Auschwitz for art project

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum will reportedly file a criminal complaint against an Israeli granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who admitted to stealing historical objects from the death camp for an art project.

The decision by the museum came two days after the Yedioth Ahronoth daily published an interview with student Rotem Bides, 27, in which she admitted to stealing objects from Auschwitz for her senior project during six trips to the Nazi death camp in Poland.

“This is a painful and scandalous act. This is a protected site and proof of the tragedy of the Holocaust that needs to be preserved for future generations,” Yedioth on Wednesday quoted a spokesperson of the museum as saying.

In addition to the expected move by the museum, Beit Berl College in Kfar Saba, where Bides is an art student, said it will not display the artifacts that she stole from Auschwitz in the exhibition, which opens next week, and will hold a disciplinary hearing.

“I felt that that this was something I have to do,” she said in the interview published Monday. “Millions of people were murdered because of the moral laws of a particular country, under a particular regime. If these are the rules, I can come and act according to my rules.”

Bides, who said a number of her grandparents were Holocaust survivors, including one who survived Auschwitz, added, “I always felt that my raw material was in Poland and not Israel,” and said she had no regrets about taking the objects, which included glass shards, small soup bowls, a screw, and a sign saying that it is forbidden to remove objects from the museum. She also took water from a lake into which the ashes of murdered Jews were thrown.

A friend of Bides’s at Beit Berl told Yedioth that while “she is definitely worried” about the potential consequences of stealing from Auschwitz, where over 1 million Jews are estimated to have been murdered during the Holocaust, from “her perspective this is a sense of mission” and something she deals with in both her life and art.

“To display these objects here in Israel, in particular as the granddaughter of a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp, is a continuation of her research. She put this under the title of art and is asking the tough questions,” the unnamed student said.

2014 Israel Prize winner Michal Na’aman, who instructed Bides on the project, described to Yedioth why her student’s art “interested her in such an unusual way.”

“What is interesting is that she is taking this to the most extreme place in which she feels the need to shock herself before she shocks others,” Na’aman said. “She is not manipulative in the uninteresting sense, in that she wants money, success or fame. I am of course referring to to the act of stealing from Auschwitz.”

The decision by Beit Berl to not display Bides’s work and call her to a disciplinary hearing marked a reversal for the college, after the dean of the art faculty, Gabi Klezmer, defended Bides on the grounds of freedom of expression.

“Every time a conflict arises, we return to the point in which the college is obligated to [defend] creative and cultural freedom, different opinions and views, the multiplicity of voices and pluralism,” he told Yedioth. “It is at once rich and complex.”


The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited the former Nazi concentration camp of Stutthoff, near Gdansk on Tuesday, where 65,000 people were killed during World War II.

Britain’s Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge spoke with Holocaust survivors Manfred Goldberg and Zigi Shipper and signed the visitor book of the former camp. Goldberg and Shipper met in a subcamp of Stutthof and today speak in schools throughout Britain about their experiences.

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Reports said the royal couple were visibly moved by what they saw, including displays with piles of shoes that had belonged to camp inmates and gas chambers where inmates were killed. They placed stones at the camp’s memorial to its victims, a Jewish custom.


How the ‘Indian Oskar Schindler’ took in 1,000 Polish children during WWII

NEW YORK — The elegant ballroom of the Indian consulate general in New York has been the venue for many cultural and other events attended by Indian and American audiences. But on June 29 a special event brought two communities, Indians and Jews, together to witness a hitherto unknown chapter of history, captured in a documentary film called “Little Poland in India.”

The docufilm, which had a special screening in New York with the support of the Indian consulate general and the American Jewish Committee, looks back to the dark chapter of history during World War II when Hitler’s deadly war machinery rolled over Europe, spreading terror and destruction on the continent.

Orphaned Polish children — Jews and Catholics alike — faced an uncertain future, but in the midst of the gloom a ray of hope appeared when a kindhearted Maharaja (member of Indian nobility) in a princely state in Gujarat agreed to accept the Polish children and look after them.

The emotionally charged subject of children finding refuge in an alien culture is deftly handled in “Little Poland in India,” produced by enterprising Delhi-based female Indian filmmaker Anu Radha whose films generally deal with children’s issues.

As the horrors of the Holocaust and WWII unfolded in Europe, General Władysław Sikorski — the first prime minister of the Polish Government in Exile and Commander in Chief of the Polish armed forces — wrote to British prime minister Winston Churchill to plead for the safety and protection of the starving young children, the “treasure of Poland,” as he called them.

Though India was in the midst of an independence struggle against colonial British rule and faced a famine, the “Jam Sahib” (a nickname stemming from the words for “king” and “owner”), as Maharaja Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja of Nawanagar was affectionately called, stepped in to help in the dire situation.

The Polish consulate in Bombay at the time had launched a drive to raise awareness in India about Jewish refugees, and had been arranging for their travel to India during the Holocaust.

A group of about 1,000 Polish children departed for India in 1942 from Siberia, where, lost and orphaned in the midst of death and destruction caused by WWII, they had been shifted after the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland. The children were welcomed by their benefactor, the Jam Sahib, but only after a tortuous journey.

The ships carrying Polish refugees from the former Soviet Union, including a large number of children aged two through 17, were denied entry when they called on ports while sailing through Iran to Bombay (Mumbai), then under British colonial rule. When the Maharaja, who was a member of the Imperial War Council, was made aware of the plight of the children in the gulags, he became concerned and established a camp in Balachadi, about 25 km (15 miles) from the capital city Jamnagar, for the Polish arrivals.

The camp existed until early 1946; subsequently, the children were transferred to the Valivade camp in Kolhapur.

“Little Poland in India” is the product of a joint Indo-Polish collaboration, and is the first documentary film based on the lives of WWII survivors who were given protection in India by the Jam Sahib. The film was jointly produced by Doordashan (India’s state TV channel), the Government of Gujarat and the National Audio-Visual Institute and Polish TV.

While the Red Cross, the Polish Army in exile and the colonial administration jointly helped set up the camps, it was the Maharaja who played the crucial role in the children’s welfare.

Professor Piotr Klodkowski, a former Polish ambassador to India, has gone on record as saying, “A fairly large school was established for the children at Balachadi, and the Maharaja is well remembered.”

‘You may not have your parents, but I am your father now’
Indeed, according to Polish sources, the Maharaja told the children, “You may not have your parents, but I am your father now.” The children, in turn, called him “our Bapu” (“father”).

Poland has shown its gratitude to the Maharaja in various forms. Warsaw has a “Good Maharaja Square” named after the Maharaja. Poland also named a school after the Maharaja, who was passionate about children’s education. The Maharajah was awarded the President’s Medal, Poland’s highest honor; filmmaker Radha was conferred Poland’s Bene Merito award.

At the consulate’s film screening, some of the Jewish guests were privately discussing that Israel could posthumously honor the Maharaja as it had done with Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who had helped save the lives of some 1,200 Jews in Nazi Germany.

The Maharaja’s help is all the more noteworthy considering that while the world was at war, India was fighting its own battle — a non-violent battle for self-determination and independence from British colonialism, even as a severe famine and drought ravaged India at the time.

“Little Poland in India” appeals to the heart and head. In an interview in New York, Radha explained how she became interested in the subject for her film.

“I was having a conversation a few years back with then-Indian ambassador to Poland, Monika Kapil Mohta, who asked me, ‘Why don’t you do this interesting story about an Indian Maharaja protecting Polish children?’” said Radha.

Seized by the idea, Radha began researching the subject.

“Having worked with cable television earlier, I had learned the ropes of the trade. The idea of making a film about Polish refugee children in India had set me thinking… cinema is my obsession, my passion. Being a screen writer is an added advantage because it enhances the creative power for the film,” she said.

But she acknowledged the help she received from the Polish embassy in New Delhi, which helped her get a hold of a book called “Poles in India: 1942-1948.” The book turned out to be a treasure trove of information about how the Poles exiled in Siberia made their way to safety and protection in India.
Producer and Director Anu Radha (Courtesy Anu Radha)

And she is “ever grateful” for the active support she received from “Jam Sahib’s” family.

“The doors to the palace were opened by Jam Sahib’s son… this was a rare opportunity which has never been granted to an outsider before,” she noted.

Radha reveals that she is making a commercial film about the second camp in Valivade in the state of Maharashtra.

“There were Polish refugee children in Valivade from 1943 to 1948. They moved away thereafter with the help of the International Red Cross and the Polish Red Cross which could successfully locate their relatives across the world, including in Poland. Depending on where they had relatives, some of the children left for the UK, others returned to Poland,” she explained.

Those who returned to Poland even formed an association called “Poles in India.” Both the Jews and Catholics, housed in the camps, became very attached to India, and often reminisce in their sunset years in other countries about that crucial phase of their lives there.

Germany curbs Holocaust denial and hate speech on social networks

BERLIN (JTA) — Germany passed a bill designed to curb Holocaust denial on social networks.

Under the measure passed Friday by the parliament, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube must remove material with obviously illegal content and fake defamatory “news” within 24 hours of it having been reported. Previously, illegal material did not have to be removed after being reported.

The law places the onus on the social media platforms to remove the material or be subject to heavy fines, reportedly as much as about $56 million.

Heiko Maas, Germany’s federal minister of justice, who submitted the proposed law for consideration in March, said the internet would now be held to the same legal standards as other printed material. A study showed that major social media platforms were slow to react to reported illegal content — including slander, incitement to hate, Holocaust denial and glorification of national socialism, all of which are illegal in Germany.

The parliament passed the bill in its last meeting before summer break.

Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, praised the new law as a strong instrument against online hate speech and said an evaluation period would help determine its efficacy.

In an official statement, Schuster noted that social media has become a hotbed of anti-Semitic incitement, which is easily spread worldwide. Since platform operators generally failed to stick to agreements of a voluntary nature, “this law is the logical consequence,” he said.

Legislators from the Left Party and the Greens criticized the law over fears about granting internet companies the power to set the boundaries for free speech online.

But Schuster said in his statement that curbing hate speech against minorities or religious groups “has nothing to do with freedom of expression. … The Internet must not become a free space.”

World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer had supported the bill.

Thieves exhume Holocaust victims from Crimean killing trench

Police in Russia-annexed Crimea are investigating the desecration of a mass grave of Holocaust victims near the city of Simferopol.

The investigation opened Tuesday following the unauthorized exhumations performed last week at the site of a firing trench where Nazis and their collaborators killed hundreds of Jews, the Russian TASS news agency reported. Russia annexed the territory from Ukraine in 2014.

“A local resident saw at night strangers digging and immediately informed us,” Anatoly Gendin, head of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Crimea, told the news agency. His organization also complained to police about the dig, which he said was likely the work of robbers looking for precious items.

The incident, the second case of its kind in five years in Crimea, came amid preparations for enclosing known burial sites with concrete.

“There is a preliminary decision of the Crimea State Committee and Jewish community organizations on setting up concrete enclosures and establish there a surveillance system,” Grigory Ioffe, a deputy speaker of the parliament of Crimea, one of Russia’s semi-autonomous regions, told TASS.

The Germans captured Simferopol in November 1941 when it had approximately 12,000 Jews, including many Krymchaks — a nearly extinct ethnic group of Jews of Turkmen descent who had lived in Crimea for many centuries before the Holocaust.

They were ordered to wear white armbands with a Star of David on both sleeves or on their chests, according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Some of those who ignored the order to report for registration by the German occupying forces were hanged on the city streets in order to intimidate the Jewish population.

Nearly all of Simferopol’s Jews were shot to death. Many of the victims had been betrayed to the Germans by the local population.