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.

Germany gears up to fine social networks for Holocaust denial

BERLIN (AP) — German lawmakers are poised to pass a bill designed to enforce the country’s existing limits on free speech — including the long-standing ban on Holocaust denial — in social networks. Critics including tech giants and human rights campaigners say the legislation could have drastic consequences for free speech online.

The proposed measure would fine social networking sites up to 50 million euros ($56 million) if they fail to swiftly remove illegal content, including defamatory “fake news.”

It’s scheduled for a vote in parliament Friday, the last session before summer recess and September’s national election, and is widely expected to pass.

The U.N.’s independent expert on freedom of speech, David Kaye, warned the German government earlier this month that the criteria for removing material were “vague and ambiguous,” adding that the prospect of hefty fines could prompt social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter to delete questionable content without waiting for a court to rule it’s unlawful.

“Such precautionary censorship would interfere with the right to seek, receive and impart information of all kinds on the internet,” he said.

The bill is the brainchild of Germany’s justice minister, Heiko Maas, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party that is the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government. He accuses social networks of failing to prevent their sites from being used to spread inflammatory views and false information long illegal in Germany.

After World War II, the country criminalized Holocaust denial and any glorification of its Nazi past, citing the genocidal results such ideas produced as proof of the need to ban them from public debate.

“Freedom of opinion ends where criminal law begins,” Maas said recently. “Calls to commit murder, threats, insults, incitement to hatred or the Auschwitz-lie (that Nazi death camps didn’t exist) aren’t expressions of freedom of opinion but attacks on the freedom of opinion of others.”

The bill has been spurred by a rise in anti-migrant vitriol that has grown with the arrival of more than 1 million refugees from mostly Muslim countries in the past two years.

Maas blames unbridled social media for stoking tensions that have spilled into real-life violence such as arson attacks on asylum-seeker homes and attempts to kill pro-migrant politicians.

Right-wing websites and social media users have reacted angrily at the bill, accusing the government of trying to silence dissent. Their worst fears appeared to come true when a prominent anti-Muslim commentator, Kolja Bonke, was permanently banned from Twitter earlier this year.

The reason for his ban is still unclear — Twitter refuses to publicly discuss individual cases — but those who hold similar opinions worry they could be next.

“I think (Bonke’s suspension) was a severe blow to countless critics of Islam and the government, including me,” said one female Twitter user from western Germany who runs the account @anna_IIna. Declining to provide her real name for fear of being targeted by political opponents, she described Twitter as a place for getting unfiltered, real-time information about crimes committed by immigrants — an issue she claims mainstream media suppress.

Michael Wolfskeil, who runs the influential Twitter account @onlinemagazin that posts thousands of videos and photos with anti-immigrant content each month, said he was given two days’ notice before being suspended recently.

The 53-year-old German army veteran said the exact reason for his temporary ban, which has now been lifted, was unclear and described Twitter’s policies as “very, very murky” — a claim the company disputes.

Unlike others who have moved to more obscure social media sites, Wolfskeil said he has no plans to stop venting online. “Twitter is the most comfortable place for doing that,” he said.

Opposition to the bill, including from constitutional scholars, prompted several last-minute changes last week, but the core elements remain:

— All social media networks with more than 2 million users have to create a channel to process complaints about potentially illegal content.

— Content illegal in Germany has to be removed within seven days — or 24 hours in clear-cut cases such as Holocaust denial.

— Companies can delegate the review process to an independent third party overseen by the Justice Ministry— a concession to critics who warned against putting censorship in the hands of private companies.

— Social networks have to publish a report every six months detailing how many complaints they received and how they dealt with them.

— Companies that persistently fail to respond adequately to complaints, such as by taking too long to delete illegal content, face fines of up to 50 million euros. Each company also has to designate a person responsible for the complaints procedure who is personally liable for fines of up to 5 million euros.

— Social networks must reveal the identities of users accused of defamation or breaching other people’s right to privacy.

Twitter and Facebook insist they are trying to address the problem of illegal content and hate speech, conscious of the fact that Germany’s justice minister wants to take regulation to the European level as a next step.

Five years ago Germany became the first country where Twitter tested a feature that blocks individual posts or whole accounts due to potentially illegal content. The phrase “account has been withheld in: Germany” is now commonly seen by users there, including for tweets by prominent figures such as the Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders.

More recently, Twitter has created a system of “trusted flaggers” whose complaints receive special attention because they are deemed particularly trustworthy.

The company has also started testing algorithms to identify accounts set up for the sole purpose of abusing other users. It plans to refine the software so that it can automatically suspend users for limited periods of time if they breach its community standards, though presently such suspensions still require human approval.

Facebook is hiring an additional 3,000 people worldwide — on top of 4,500 existing staff — to review objectionable material. It has also designated refugees a “protected group,” meaning that posts directed specifically against that category of people is deemed hate speech.

“We have been working hard on this problem and have made substantial progress in removing illegal content,” Facebook said in a statement. “We believe the best solutions will be found when government, civil society and industry work together to tackle this important societal problem.”

The company has faced a backlash elsewhere for perceived over-zealous removal of content, such as in the case of AP photographer Nick Ut’s iconic “Napalm girl” photo taken during the Vietnam War of a naked girl fleeing an attack.

If passed with the government’s large Parliamentary majority, the law is likely to be challenged in courts at the national and European level. Free speech groups argue that political debate in Germany will suffer if companies are forced to police every user’s comments.

Users such as @anna_IIna say they won’t back down in the online battle for ideas if the law is passed.

“If my account is blocked I’ll be sad but then I’ll create a new one and start over,” she said.

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press.

Simone Veil, French feminist and politician who survived Auschwitz, dies at 89

Simone Veil, a well-known French politician and Holocaust survivor, died at the age of 89.

Veil, a scholar, former judge, feminist activist and former minister of health who in 2012 was awarded France’s highest honor, passed away this week in her home in Paris, her family told the media in France Friday.

Veil, a lawyer by education, served as minister of health under the center-right government of Valery Giscard d’Estaing and later as president of the European Parliament, as well as a member of the Constitutional Council of France. In 1975, she led the legislation that legalized abortions in France.

President Emmanuel Macron offered his condolences.

“May her example inspire our fellow countrymen, who will find in her the best of France,” Macron said in a message to the family.

Former French President Francois Hollande presented Veil with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour at the Elysee Palace in 2012. Fewer than 70 people have received the Grand Cross since Napoleon Bonaparte established it in 1802.

Veil, who was born in Nice, was imprisoned at Auschwitz but managed to survive the Nazi death camp. She published a best-selling autobiography in 2007 titled “A Life.” The following year, she was admitted to the Academie Francaise — a highly prestigious institution comprising individuals, often philosophers and writers, recognized for scholarly excellence.

The institution, which has 35 members, of whom only six are women, was “revolutionized” by admittance of Veil, a longtime campaigner for women’s rights, according to an obituary written about Veil by the RTL broadcaster.

The president of CRIF, the umbrella organization representing French Jewish communities, wrote in a statement that he is “immensely saddened by the passing of Veil.

“With her high standards and loyalty, this activist for women’s rights has left an indelible mark on French politics and its intellectual life,” CRIF President Francis Kalifat wrote, adding Veil had done so “with courage and dignity.”

In 2012, CRIF described Veil as “one of France’s most cherished personalities and someone who plays an important role in keeping her camp from succumbing to the temptation of allying with the Front National” nationalist party.

“Her name is associated with women’s equality, the memory of the Shoah and the European community,” CRIF added.

‘Best of France’
Veil became a towering figure in French politics after pushing to legalize abortion in the face of fierce opposition.

A model of composure who always wore her hair in a sleek bun and dressed in Chanel suits, she was seen as something of a secular saint for her unwavering stance on moral issues.

Her standout achievement as a politician was shepherding a 1974 abortion law through parliament after a 25-hour debate during which she endured a torrent of abuse, with some lawmakers likening pregnancy terminations to the Holocaust.

“I never imagined the hatred that I would unleash,” the former health minister said later.

Born Simone Jacob in the Mediterranean city of Nice on July 13, 1927, Veil was deported to Auschwitz in 1944.

Her father, mother and brother died in the Nazi death camps, while she and her two sisters, one of whom later died in a car crash, survived.

After the war she studied law and married Antoine Veil, who died in April 2013. The couple had three sons.

As a young judge she lobbied for improved conditions in French prisons before throwing herself into the battle to end backstreet abortions.

A staunch believer in European integration, she became the first elected president of the European Parliament in 1979, a post she held for three years.

Polls consistently showed her to be one of France’s most popular and trusted figures.

She also frequently took part in World War II commemorations and spoke out against the far-right National Front (FN).

FN leader Marine Le Pen said Veil had “undeniably left her mark on French political life”.

How Margaret Thatcher’s family sheltered an Austrian Jew during the Holocaust

LONDON — On January 21, 1939, Edith Mühlbauer received a letter from a small town in England which would save her life.

The 17-year-old’s life had been a comfortable one. The Mühlbauer family lived on Schubertsgasse in Vienna’s Alsergrund district, an area where many Jewish professionals — doctors, lawyers, businessmen and bankers liked Mühlbauer’s father — had made a home away from the unassimilated Hasidic Jews of the old walled Leopoldstadt ghetto across the Danube.

But all that had changed nearly a year before on March 12, 1938, when the Wehrmacht had crossed the border and, without a shot being fired, occupied Austria. Within days, some 70,000 people — many of them Jews — had been rounded up. Less than a month later, the first convoy departed for Dachau, just across the former German border near Munich. Jewish-owned businesses were subject to a boycott. Jews were made to scrub the streets. Shortly afterwards, the Nuremberg Laws were applied to Austria, Jews were stripped of their citizenship and the doors to many professions barred to them.

Worse was to come on November 9, 1938 — Kristallnacht — as all but one of Vienna’s 42 synagogues were burned to the ground. Mobs attacked and looted shops owned by Jews. The police responded by arresting 8,000 Jews, sending 5,000 of them to Dachau.

For the Mühlbauers and their fellow Jews, the situation was now desperate. At some point during the unfolding tragedy, Mühlbauer wrote to her English penpal, Muriel Roberts, asking if she could come and stay. Muriel passed the letter to her father, Alfred, a grocer who owned two shops. Mühlbauer’s father then wrote directly to Alfred.

Muriel’s sister later recounted the English family’s reaction: “We had neither the time — having to run the shops — nor the money.” However, her father was keen to help. An active member of his local Rotary club, Alfred read out the Mühlbauers’ appeal at the next meeting. His fellow Rotarians agreed to pay Mühlbauer’s travel, to provide her a guinea a week pocket money and to each host the teenager in their homes for a month or so.

Alfred’s letter to Mühlbauer thus contained a permit allowing her to apply for a visa to travel to England. Using her typewriter, she replied immediately: “I thank you very much for sending it. I will never in my whole live forgett [sic] it you.” With a hint at the mixture of pain and relief which must have accompanied the news of their daughters’ impending departure, Mühlbauer wrote: “Even my parents were happy that it is possible now for me to go to England.” She also asked Alfred what his “dear family” might want by way of a present. Would his daughters like a “pocket” — which, confusingly, is the word for handbag in German — and what would Alfred’s “dear wife” like?

While her departure was delayed due to the sheer number of people trying to gain visas to Britain, Mühlbauer was eventually on her way by mid-April 1939. In her luggage, two red handbags: one for Muriel, who was the same age as Mühlbauer, and the other for her 13-year-old sister, Margaret.

Mühlbauer’s arrival in Grantham — a provincial Middle England town about as far from Mitteleuropa as it is possible to imagine — would have a profound effect on Margaret, who, almost 40 years later to the day, would enter No.10 Downing Street as Britain’s first female prime minister.

If not of the violent kind Mühlbauer was leaving behind, anti-Semitism was not uncommon in 1930s Britain. In October 1932, one newspaper reported that “at least nine-tenths of the inhabitants of the British Isles think the worst of a man if they are told that he is a Jew.” Newspaper job advertisements casually discriminated. “No Jewess,” demanded one. “No Jews or men of color” stated another. Jews were barred from sports clubs. Hotels declared “No Jews catered for.” In parliament, anti-Semitic voices were occasionally raised in opposition to immigration by “alien Jews” who were “scurrying” from Germany to Britain.

Nor was antipathy to Nazism as deeply felt and passionate as it would become after the outbreak of war. In May 1934, Roberts’ Rotary club in Grantham received a lecture from Prof. H. Brose of Nottingham University on his recent visit to Germany.

‘A grocer’s daughter would be more likely to have been an anti-Semite than a philo-Semite’
“Everybody was clothed and well fed,” he reported; a reading of “Mein Kampf” showed Hitler to be “extremely straightforward and sincere.”

The club would later hear from a local cinema owner who had also visited Germany. The headline on a report of J.A. Campbell’s talk — “The Great Hitler” — gives an indication of its content. Around the same time, Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, drew a crowd of 1,000 when he visited Grantham as part of a five-month speaking tour. As Charles Dellheim later wrote: “A grocer’s daughter from a classic lower-middle class background… [would] more likely to have been an anti-Semite than a philo-Semite.”

But Alfred Roberts appears to have had a greater aversion to fascism and sympathy for Jews than many others in pre-war Middle England. Deeply religious — he was a regular preacher at the Grantham Wesleyan Methodist chapel — Roberts was also a town councilman.

While his daughter’s upbringing may have been provincial and austere, it was not insular. Roberts encouraged and shared her precocious interest in politics and current affairs, taking young Margaret to “extension lectures” conducted by the University of Nottingham.

Father and daughter visited the library once a week. He encouraged her to read “serious” books, like Douglas Reed’s “Insanity Fair,” a vivid account of the author’s journey through 1930s Germany and central Europe, which provided a graphic picture of the persecution of the Jews.

At her father’s urging, Margaret also read Robert Bruce-Lockhart’s searing critique of appeasement, “Guns or Butter.” And, although Alfred forbade his daughter from reading his copy of “Out of The Night,” in which a German communist wrote of the Nazis’ sadistic violence, Margaret would sneak it out from its hiding place.

Alongside his more conventional reading — the Daily Telegraph, the voice of the conservative middle-classes, and the Methodist Recorder — Roberts also took the mass market, anti-fascist weekly, Picture Post. Edited by a Hungarian Jewish émigré, Stefan Lorant, the magazine meticulously reported the persecution of the Jews and the evils of Nazism, while cheerleading for Winston Churchill, whose anti-appeasement views were confined to the fringes of British politics.

As his daughter later recalled, unlike many conservative-minded Britons, Roberts refused to accept the idea that General Francisco Franco should be supported as a bulwark against the spread of communism.

“We knew just what we thought of dictators,” Thatcher later wrote. Indeed, as her memoirs recorded, one Friday evening young Margaret got into an argument in the queue at the fish and chip shop after a fellow customer praised Hitler for giving Germans back their self respect and — a very British preoccupation — making the trains run on time. “Oh, she’s always debating,” laughed the owner.

Alfred Roberts was thus aware of the plight of Europe’s Jews and prepared to answer a call for help. But, despite his sympathies, Mühlbauer found it difficult to settle into the Roberts’ home. The house the family shared above their shop on North Parade was, Margaret remembered, “very small… [with] no mod cons” (modern conveniences) — a reflection, noted the historian John Campbell, of Roberts’ “parsimony and puritanism” rather than his straitened economic circumstances.

Family life revolved around the shop and church: grace was said before meals, on Sundays the girls attended chapel up to four times, and dancing, games and parties were banned.

“We didn’t have a proper bathroom in those days,” the former prime minister wrote of Mühlbauer’s stay in her memoirs. “She was used to better things.”

Her sister, Muriel, agreed. Mühlbauer was “a nice girl” with a “wonderful wardrobe” indicating that they were “well-breeched in Austria.” The family’s Sunday afternoon strolls in the countryside beyond Grantham did not appeal to Mühlbauer, either. “It’ll ruin my shoes,” Muriel recalled her complaining.

‘We didn’t have a proper bathroom in those days’
While Mühlbauer confided to a friend that she found the Roberts household “repressive,” Alfred worried that the “very grown-up 17-year-old”, as one Grantham contemporary remembered her, might lead his daughters astray. His fears were not unreasonable: Mühlbauer smoked Balkan Sobranie cigarettes, enjoyed a night out, and flirted with local boys. She was “very sophisticated,” suggested a boyfriend she met in the town. Seeing her staring into the street from her bedroom window, Roberts, suggested a family friend, feared that Mühlbauer was behaving “like one of those girls in Amsterdam.”

Mühlbauer probably only have stayed at the Roberts’ home for around a fortnight before moving on to stay with another Grantham family. However, she developed an affection for Roberts. “I often go for a walk to see your dear father Mr. Roberts,” Mühlbauer wrote to Muriel on one occasion.

‘If I would have stayed in Vienna they would have killed me’
Later, of course, the full impact of Roberts’ actions would be recognized by Mühlbauer.

Speaking to a reporter who located her in Brazil after Thatcher had left Downing Street, Mühlbauer said, “If Muriel had said, ‘I am sorry, my father says no,’ I would have stayed in Vienna and they would have killed me.”

These were no idle words. While Mühlbauer’s parents were able to flee after their daughter’s departure, her aunts and uncles were murdered by the Nazis.

“What can one person do?” Thatcher suggested in response. “That is the question that people so often ask. Never hesitate to do whatever you can, for you may save a life.”

It is unlikely that Margaret had ever met a Jew before Mühlbauer. It is not hard to see how she might have viewed her as impossibly glamorous. A contemporary photograph shows an attractive young woman with dark, styled hair, wearing lipstick. In her memoirs, Thatcher described her as “tall, beautiful, well-dressed [and] evidently from a well-to-do-family.”

But it was not simply her sophistication that Thatcher remembered.

“She told us what it was like to live as a Jew under an anti-Semitic regime,” she recounted. “One thing stuck in my mind: the Jews, she said, were being made to scrub the streets.”

Thatcher recalled a feeling of “total shock.”

“You know, you hear of a lot of terrible things, but they never happen to you…” she wrote. “That it could happen in Europe which had known the deepest feelings of religion, which had been the cradle of civilization, which had known every culture. Then I remember someone saying ‘But you know cruelty and culture can go together.’ These things we didn’t just read about. They came right into our house.”

The British Jewish community has had few greater admirers, or Israel closer friends, than Thatcher. For 30 years, she represented Finchley, with its large Jewish population, in parliament.

“My, they were good citizens,” she told a biographer. She had never, she suggested, had a Jew come to one of the constituency advice surgeries in “poverty [or] desperation. They had always been looked after by their own community.”

These words underline the connection between the Methodist values instilled in Thatcher by her father — individual responsibility and self-reliance, the work ethic, the moral obligation to both better oneself and give something back to others — and those she encountered in the synagogues and on the doorsteps of Finchley.

“It has to do with my Methodist upbringing,” she explained to then-Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin of her deep respect not simply for Judaism but what she would call “the Jewish way of life.” “Methodism means method. It means sticking to your guns, dedication, triumph over adversity, reverence for education — the very qualities you Jews have always cherished.”

As Lord David Young, one of six Jews who would later serve in her Cabinet, simply put it: “She was a Judeophile.”

‘Methodism means method. It means sticking to your guns’
Jewish Conservatives — once a rare breed, but, under her leadership, increasingly prominent in the party and the country — would prove critical to her rise. Sir Keith Joseph, the most important Jewish Tory of his generation, and Sir Alfred Sherman, a youthful Communist and later an ardent evangelist for the free market, acted as her praetorian guard during the long march to Downing Street and the architects of what later became known as “Thatcherism.”

While Christian leaders demurred at her attempt to link her political project to her religious beliefs, she found an ally in the Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits. “Oh how I wish our own church leaders would take a leaf out of your own chief rabbi’s book,” she suggested to Begin as she lauded his “inspiring commitment to the old-fashioned virtues.”

As prime minister, Thatcher did not always see eye to eye with Begin or Yitzhak Shamir, but her commitment to Israel — an oasis of democracy, in her eyes — was never in doubt. It was symbolized by her visit to the Jewish state in 1986 — the first ever by a sitting prime minister.

These associations soon caught the attention of the media.

“Judaism,” one newspaper approvingly declared in 1986, had become “the new creed of Thatcherite Britain,” while another political commentator pronounced the Prime Minister “in some senses, an honorary Jew herself.”

Cynics, of course, pointed to the “Finchley factor” and Thatcher’s reliance on the “Jewish vote.” But the roots of her lifelong abhorrence of anti-Semitism, which later morphed into an admiration for Jews and Jewish values, ran much deeper than that. Instead, the seeds were planted with the arrival of a glamorous young refugee from Austria in Grantham on the eve of the outbreak of war.

This essay is a condensed excerpt from Robert Philpot’s book “Margaret Thatcher The Honorary Jew: How Britain’s Jews Helped Shape the Iron Lady and Her Beliefs,” which will hit the shelves on June 29.

‘Terezin,’ a Play by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Jewish Great-Grandson, Now Showing Off-Broadway

The Tolkien family has writing in its blood. Christopher Tolkien, the son of J.R.R. Tolkien, the famous author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series, edited his father’s works. Christopher Tolkien’s son, Simon, went on to write historical fiction. Simon Tolkien’s son, Nicholas, also fulfilled his great-grandfather’s legacy—he wrote a play. In a sense, he has honored the legacy of the other side of his family, too. Nicholas Tolkien’s mother is Jewish, and his play, Terezin—named after the former military compound in the Czechoslovakia where the Theresienstadt concentration camp was located—is now playing off-Broadway through July 2 at the Peter Sharp Theater in New York.

Tolkien’s play follows two young Jewish girls, Alexi and Violet, who are trying to survive the horrors of the camp. When Violet goes missing, Alexi does everything she can to find her—including making a deal with a Nazi commander. She’s a beautiful violinist, and gives the Nazi violin lessons in exchange for his help in finding Violet.

The musical inclinations of Alexi touch on the historical character of Theresienstadt; some prisoners’ works have been commemorated through revivals and publications, such as performances of Verdi’s “Requiem,” and the children’s opera “Brundibár.” In fact, the books I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from the Terezin Concentration Camp and The Terezin Diary of Gonda Redlich, drew Tolkien to the story of Terezin, and to the children who found an escape from the suffering around them through art.

The 27-year-old grew up in London, where he spent a lot of time at his Jewish-American mother and grandparents’ store, Steinberg & Tolkien. His grandfather Mark is the one who first taught him about Judaism. “My grandfather prepared me for my bar mitzvah,” he told Aish. “He was the one who introduced me to my faith, to the humor and the stories… He was always reading the Torah to me,” Tolkien said, adding that his grandfather was “the biggest Jewish influence I’ve had.” Now living in California, he expands on those lessons by studying Jewish texts, keeping Kosher, and observing Shabbat.

Regarding other patriarchs of his family, Tolkien said that his famous Catholic great-grandfather was an ally to Jews during the war. “He was one of the voices of reason in the British community and was one of Britain’s most pro-Jewish writers,” he said.

While Tolkien is pursuing the same endeavors of his great-grandfather, he’s also shaping his own legacy. He wanted to create something that would make audiences remember the atrocities committed in the past and to remind them what humans are capable of. “The reason I wrote this story,” the play’s website reads, “is to give a voice to the millions who were denied a chance to talk about their experiences during the Shoah, especially in Terezin—a place where the voice of an artist was their last hope of survival.”

Tolkien sees a greater purpose for his work than creating something for people to enjoy. “It’s the responsibility of the living to tell the stories of the dead,” he said.

Estonian politician vows to legalize Holocaust denial

An Estonian nationalist politician vowed in his election campaign to decriminalize denial of the Holocaust and outlaw instead revisionism on the Soviet domination of this country.

Georg Kirsberg, who is running for a lawmaker’s seat for the Conservative People’s Party in Estonia’s elections in October, was quoted as saying this on Wednesday by the Estonian National Broadcasting Company.

“We will decriminalize Holocaust denial and enter a correct teaching of the history of the Third Reich,” Kirsberg said.

His far-right party supports revoking he citizenship and deporting what it defines as “Russians hostile to Estonia” – a reference to Ethnic Russians or mother-tongue speakers of that language living in Estonia, including most of the country’s Jews. Last month, the party, which was founded in 2012 and currently has seven out of 101 seats in the Estonian parliament, submitted a bill proposing such deportations. It is likely to be defeated.

The party also supports a ban on the construction of new mosques and Orthodox churches.

Doing away with Estonia’s laws against denying the Holocaust is however not an official party position, Martin Helme, the party’s leader, told the broadcasting authority.

“He does not claim that it is the party’s position, it is only the thought of one person “, Helme said. Asked whether the party plans to sanction Kirsberg over his comment, Helme said he “‘sees no reason to do this.”

Expressions of anti-Russian sentiment have increased dramatically in prevalence the Baltic countries – Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia — and elsewhere in Eastern and Central Europe, where Russia’s expansionist policies under President Vladimir Putin is reawakening bitterness over Moscow’s domination of that part of the world before the fall of communism. This development coincided with a wave of nationalism.

Estonia has a Jewish population of 2,500, according to the European Jewish Congress.

Hollywood’s Other Great Anti-Nazi Movie

Amid all the (quite justified) hoopla over the 75th anniversary of the release of Casablanca—propelled by Noah Isenberg’s marvelous appreciation We’ll Always Have Casablanca and the distinctly unmarvelous relevance of its beset-refugee theme—another septuagenarian classic from 1942 is in danger of being drowned out by the rousing choruses of “La Marseillaise” ringing out from Rick’s Café Américain. Like Casablanca, the film features an ensemble of indelible character actors, a phalanx of arrogant Nazis with no sense of humor, and a romantic triangle whose lovers realize that the problems of three little people in this crazy world must be sacrificed in service to a greater cause. And though more brightly lit and broadly played, To Be or Not to Be—Ernst Lubitsch’s racy, risky black comedy of manners—is every bit the expression of wartime values and classical Hollywood style as its more famous birth cousin. Skeptics can decide for themselves when To Be or Not To Be is screened as part of a two-week repertory festival commemorating the 125th anniversary of Lubitsch’s birth, beginning tonight at New York’s Film Forum.

Set in Nazi-occupied Poland—not the obvious locale for a laugh-riot night out at the movies in wartime America—To Be or Not to Be opens with a bracing sight gag: Adolf Hitler, alone, is walking the streets of Warsaw in August 1939—or rather his dead ringer is, the actor Bronski (Tom Dugan) who impersonates der Führer in an anti-Nazi play being mounted by a plucky Polish theatrical troupe. “Heil myself,” he ad-libs, a bit player stealing the spotlight from the egomaniacal star. That would be the “great, great Polish actor Josef Tura” (as Josef Tura puts it), an insecure grade-A ham played by radio superstar Jack Benny, who jumped at the chance to work with Lubitsch. Tura’s wife and co-star Maria (Carole Lombard) gets second billing but is first in the hearts of her countrymen, especially the heart of a dashing young flyer, Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack), who sighs over her from the second row. Since an actress has a duty to her adoring public, or at least its really handsome representatives, Maria agrees to meet the lieutenant in her dressing room when her husband is soliloquizing on stage. The signal for the assignation is the line “to be or not to be”—Tura is playing the Prince of Denmark. When Tura asks the question, the flyer leaves his seat to get cozy with Maria backstage. Lubitsch being Lubitsch, what transpires between the pair is left to the imagination: harmless flirtation or sexual tryst?

The Nazi invasion of Poland interrupts the backstage shenanigans. As the curtain of history slams down, the mood shifts from effervescent to somber. In the winter of its discontent, snow-smothered, war-ravaged Poland suffers under the jackboot of Nazi oppression. “And there was no censor to stop them,” mutters Greenberg (Felix Bressart), another bit player from the troupe, his line a self-reflexive comment on how the morality enforced on the American screen is not operative in the European theater.

In London, meanwhile, Lt. Sobinski, now a flyer for the Royal Air Force, discovers that a seeming Polish patriot is actually a Nazi double agent; the traitor must be stopped before he exposes the entire Polish underground. Parachuting into Warsaw, he is sheltered by Maria and suspected by Josef, but the possibly cuckolded actor forgoes husbandly revenge when he learns about the threat to the Polish resistance. The film is dead serious about the instinctive patriotism of the Poles and the casual brutality of the Germans.

Marie toys with her Nazi admirers, Josef impersonates a Nazi commandant (“So, they call me ‘Concentration Camp’ Ehrhardt?”), and the entire troupe mounts an elaborate charade to foil the Nazis. Mission accomplished, the actors escape by plane to Great Britain. Once safely in the air, the Hitler impersonator dispatches the real Nazis by ordering them out the side door of the fuselage. “Jump!” he barks. “Heil Hitler!” they salute, before obediently leaping to their deaths.

Title notwithstanding, the best-remembered soliloquy in the film is not from Hamlet but The Merchant of Venice. In a plot machination too convoluted to recap, the perennially second-billed Felix Bressart, a Jewish character actor and Lubitsch stock-company regular, is given his moment in the spotlight, reciting the anguished monologue from the role he was born to play, Shylock. “Have we not eyes? Have we not hands, organs, senses, dimensions, attachments, passions?” he asks the Nazis, who are mesmerized despite themselves. (The post-Holocaust spectator will be especially spooked by the accusation: “If you poison us, do we not die?”) Spoken against a backdrop of Nazi uniforms, helmets, and swastikas, Bressert’s performance is transfixing. He seems to know already that wartime Hollywood cinema will never produce a more eloquent plea for religious tolerance than the one written in the 1590s.

Curiously, though, Bressart does not speak the trigger word that in Shakespeare launches the litany of rhetorical questions: “Hath not a Jew eyes?” Still radioactive, the word “Jew” was seldom heard on the Hollywood screen, even in war-minded scenarios where the topic of anti-Semitism was front and center. In The Mortal Storm (1940), for example, the Jewish professor murdered by the Nazis is never named as such—only called a “non-Aryan” with the letter “J” printed on his concentration-camp uniform.

Alas, no paper trail seems to have survived to explain the significant omission from Shylock’s speech. The Production Code overseers, who were often leery of Jewish content, raised no objections. “The studio bosses were always—even at this point—afraid of thrusting Jews into the spotlight,” speculates film historian Lester D. Friedman, author of Hollywood’s Image of the Jew, trying to make sense of the decision. William Paul, professor of film and media studies at Washington University and author of Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy, points out that To Be or Not To Be went into production in the wake of the U.S. Senate’s investigation of “Propaganda in Motion Pictures” (Sept. 9-26, 1941). In the highly publicized hearings, a group of Hollywood moguls were hauled before a dais of nativist senators and accused of using anti-Nazi films to sucker Christian America into the European maelstrom. Antony Polansky, professor emeritus of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University, offers a nation-specific explanation. Since many Poles did not consider Polish Jews to be true Poles, the substitution of the pronoun “we” for “Jews” actually expanded the net of inclusion: Greenberg, the Polish Jew, was speaking as a Pole, not a Jew.

If Casablanca is hailed as the definitive example of the collaborative magic of “the genius of the system,” To Be or Not to Be is imprinted with the genius of one man, the great, great director Ernst Lubitsch. In the days before the auteur theory, Lubitsch was one of a handful of Hollywood directors whose name above the title meant something to average moviegoers. His trademark “Lubitsch touch” promised an effervescent European sophistication laced with risqué banter and sexual sparks—but that never crossed over into the smarmy, that skated right up to the edge of the Production Code without breaking through the ice. Even Joseph Breen, the straight-laced enforcer of the code, gave Lubitsch a longer leash than most Hollywood directors because, like everyone in Hollywood, he knew the man was a genius.

Though a German Jew, Lubitsch was not a refugee from Nazism: He abandoned the Weimar Republic for Hollywood in 1922, lured over by Mary Pickford, who wanted him to direct her as Gretchen in Faust, a concept that fortunately never came to light. Lubitsch thrived in the emergent Hollywood studio system with elegant costume dramas like Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925) and So This Is Paris (1926) before gliding effortlessly into the sound era with The Love Parade (1929) and The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), each starring another European import, Maurice Chevalier. In 1932, when Lubitsch returned to Germany for a visit, he was asked if he ever planned to return to his native land. Already attuned to the bad vibes in the air, he replied, “In California, the sun shines every day.” Not that he forgot his less fortunate brethren as the Nazis consolidated their gangster state. He was a leading voice in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and a founding member of the European Film Fund, which tithed its members 1 percent of their salaries to support a community of film-minded refugees from Nazism so numerous that Hollywood was dubbed “Berlin on the Pacific.”

By the end of the 1930s, Lubitsch was at the height of his creative powers and box-office popularity. As American entry into WWII loomed, he was coming off two of his most intoxicating concoctions: Ninotchka (1939), in which a straight-laced Soviet commissar (played by Greta Garbo, who famously laughed) is seduced by the champagne and chapeaux of decadent Paris, and The Shop Around the Corner (1940), in which Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan conduct an epistolary love affair while squabbling like cats and dogs face to face. He died too young, at 55, in 1947, his last film, The Lady in Ermine (1948), completed by Otto Preminger. At Lubitsch’s funeral, eulogizing his beloved friend and mentor, the director Billy Wilder explained the sensibility that defined the Lubitsch touch. Lubitsch, Wilder observed, never wanted to follow the bride and bridegroom into the honeymoon suite and spy on their first night together; he wanted to observe the couple at breakfast the next morning.

Presented by Alexander Korda, produced as well as directed by Lubitsch, and written by Edwin Justus Meyer from and original story by Lubitsch and Melchior Lengyel, To Be or Not To Be went into production on Nov. 6, 1941. By the time the film wrapped on Dec. 24, it confronted a radically different zeitgeist. In the interim between Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941) and the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo (Apr. 18, 1942) the war news for America was all bad: The Nazis dominated huge swaths of Europe, the Wehrmacht was locked in a death grip with the Soviet Army, and the Japanese controlled much of the Pacific Theater. Hitler and the Nazis—so lately fit subjects for hilarity in The Three Stooges’ You Nazty Spy! (1940) and Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940)—were no longer laughing matters.

Closer to home, another piece of grim news cast a shadow over the film. On Jan. 15, 1942, in Indianapolis, Carole Lombard joined fellow Hoosier Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, for a huge war-bond rally. “Great day today,” Hays telegrammed Clark Gable, whom Lombard had married in 1939. “Carole was perfect.”

Hours later the actress was dead when the plane carrying her back to Hollywood crashed into the mountains 35 miles west of Las Vegas, killing all 22 souls on board, including 15 Army aviators.

Unhinged with grief, Gable rushed to the crash site to help search for her body. “Carole Lombard gave her life in the service of America,” Will Hays declared in a public statement. FDR sent Gable a telegram of condolence. “She gave unselfishly of her time and talent to serve her country in peace and in war. She loved her country.” A stricken Jack Benny withdrew from his broadcast that Sunday night. Summing up the reaction throughout the industry, Variety noted that “no tragedy has struck the theatrical field with such widespread sorrow since the death, also by airplane disaster, of Will Rogers, in August 1935.” Pearl Harbor had claimed 2,400 American lives, and more telegrams from the War Department were being delivered every day, but Lombard was the first casualty of World War II everyone felt they knew.

United Artists announced “a respectful period of time” would be allowed to elapse before the release of Lombard’s last picture. On Feb. 19, 1942, To Be or Not To Be premiered in New York and Los Angeles; on Mar. 6, it went into general release.

Reviews were positive but mindful of the clouds hanging over the comedy. Watching the gorgeous star—lithe, supple, and radiant in a form-fitting gown—it seemed impossible that she was dead. “Individual reaction to the film is tempered, one way or another in all cases, by the fact of Miss Lombard’s death,” wrote William R. Weaver in Motion Picture Herald. He also noted the bigger picture. “Mass audience reaction is subject to variation with the tenor of the day’s war news.” For Polish neighborhoods, Weaver suggested, “it is well to test out specifically the local attitude toward a comedy which utilizes blizted Warsaw as a background for humor.” The reaction of one moviegoer verged on the traumatic. At the film’s premiere in New York, Jack Benny’s father took one look at his son in a Gestapo uniform, became nauseated, and bolted for the lobby.

Contrary to myth, however, To Be or Not To Be was a not a box-office flop. It was the year’s top attraction for United Artists, grossing $1.5 million, though, as with all Lubitsch films, it played better in the big cities than in the hinterlands. To put things in perspective, however, each of the four films starring Abbot and Costello that year outgrossed To Be or Not To Be.

In the years since, due to repertory screenings, the rise of auteurism, frequent television screenings, and ready DVD availability, To Be or Not To Be has gained steadily in stature. As the war and the memory of Lombard’s death receded, audiences were able to experience the dark satire without the queasy dread that filled the air of the first half of 1942. In 1983, it was well-enough-known to be remade by Mel Brooks, whose own directorial hand felt more like a grope than a touch.

“What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology,” Lubitsch explained to critics who felt his breezy style and glib quips were in poor taste. The tone and temper of the film “cannot leave any doubt in the spectator’s mind what my point of view and attitude are toward these acts of horror.” To Be or Not To Be may never be as vivid in the cultural memory as Casablanca, its lines as fluently quoted, but its bedrock anti-Nazism and spirit of resistance is just as fierce. It is also a whole lot funnier—and a laugh, as Felix Bressart remarks, speaking for the director, is nothing to sneeze at.