Category Archive: JTA

A brave group of Polish diplomats tried to save my father from the Holocaust

By: Menachem Z. Rosensaft

A letter from the Consulate of the Republic of Paraguay in Bern, Switzerland, offering a Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland citizenship (Courtesy of Menachem Rosensaft)

(JTA) — In recent days, the ongoing controversy over the role played by Poles during the Holocaust has intensified dramatically, with Poland withdrawing from a planned conference in Israel that also was to include Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia following unfortunate accusations by Israeli government officials.

While tensions are running high, a recently rediscovered letter sent to a Jew in 1943 Nazi-occupied Poland reinforces why we must eschew what World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder has termed “obnoxious and offensive stereotypes that have caused so much pain and suffering on both sides over the years,” and instead focus on the unsung individuals who undertook daring and often improbable rescue initiatives during the Holocaust.

I received a copy of the letter on Jan. 30, three days after International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It had been found in a Holocaust-era archive in Israel, and Markus Blechner, the honorary consul of Poland in Zurich, had kindly emailed it to me.

“Dear Mr. Rozenzaft,” the letter reads, “I am herewith honored to inform you that as the result of efforts by your relatives, you as well as your family have acquired Paraguayan nationality (Staatszugehőrigkeit).”

In Nazi-occupied Europe, for a Jew to be in possession of a genuine or forged passport, visa or other document indicating that the holder was a citizen or national of a neutral country, or had the necessary papers to travel to such a country, could mean the stark difference between survival and a more-than-likely death sentence. However tenuous, such documentation had the potential of providing a Jew with some seemingly official legitimacy that might persuade a German bureaucrat to allow the Jew in question safe passage, or at least spare him or her from deportation to a death camp.

The letter was dated Nov. 17, 1942, and was written on the letterhead of the Consulate of the Republic of Paraguay in Bern, Switzerland. It bore both the signature of that country’s honorary consul and the consulate’s seal, and was addressed to my father, Josef Rozenzaft (the Polish spelling of our family name became Rosensaft after the war) in Bendsburg, the Germanized name of his hometown of Będzin in a southern part of Poland that had been annexed by the Third Reich in 1939.

Josef Rosensaft was my father, but this was the first time I had seen this letter. I am quite certain that my father never received it or even knew of its existence.

According to a ledger page I received from Jakub Kumoch, the current Polish ambassador to Switzerland, the letter was sent to my father on May 25, 1943. By then, the Final Solution was in full force. On June 22 of that year, less than a month after the letter supposedly left Bern, my father was deported for the first time to Auschwitz. He escaped before he got there by diving from the moving train into the Vistula River, and although he was struck by three German bullets – one grazed his forehead, another hit his arm and a third remained lodged in his leg the rest of his life – my father managed to return to the Będzin Ghetto, only to be deported to Auschwitz again in late August 1943. He survived many months at Auschwitz followed by several other Nazi concentration camps, and was liberated by British troops at Bergen-Belsen in Germany on April 15, 1945.

The very fact that someone made an attempt, however futile, to rescue my father and his family at the height of the Holocaust is a stark reminder of the fact that heroic individuals in different parts of Europe were desperately trying as best they could to frustrate the Hitlerite plan to annihilate European Jewry.

We have long known that tens of thousands of Jews were able to escape almost certain death thanks to the protective documents issued by  diplomats from SwedenSwitzerlandJapanPortugalBrazilChinaPeru and other countries, often in defiance of their respective governments’ explicit orders.

Less well known, but no less deserving of lasting recognition and gratitude, is the clandestine initiative undertaken by a small group of Polish diplomats and Jewish activists in Switzerland.

Known as the Bernese Group, they forged Latin American passports and issued certifications of Paraguayan nationality for Jews in Poland and elsewhere facing almost certain annihilation. This endeavor was largely funded by the Geneva office of the World Jewish Congress through an organization called RELICO (the Relief Committee for the War-Stricken Jewish Population) headed by Dr. Abraham Silberschein, a former member of the Polish Parliament.

Konstanty Rokicki, a Polish consul, together with Julius Kuhl, a Jewish attache at the legation, bribed Latin American diplomats – in particular the above mentioned honorary consul of Paraguay – to obtain blank passports, which Rokicki then proceeded to forge manually. Rokicki also obtained blank signed letters from the honorary consul, such as the one sent to my father, stating that the recipient was a Paraguayan national.

Aleksander Lados, the Polish ambassador to Switzerland, oversaw both the operation and its cover-up, provided his fellow conspirators with diplomatic support and convinced the Swiss authorities to turn a blind eye to the group’s efforts. Helped by Jews in Switzerland with contacts in various ghettos of Poland, including Alfred Schwartzbaum, a refugee from my father’s hometown living in Lausanne who gave the diplomats my father’s name, the Bernese Group compiled lists of Jews for whom the forged passports or nationality letters could be created, and then arranged for the fake documents to be smuggled to the Warsaw Ghetto, Będzin and other locations in Nazi-occupied Poland.

The Bernese Group also provided passports to Dutch, Slovakian, Hungarian and German Jews. One such false passport, in the name of Jan Lemberg, enabled a future French prime minister, Pierre Mendès-France, to travel from Geneva through occupied France to Portugal and from there to London.

While most of the thousands of passports and letters of nationality manufactured by the Bernese Group either did not reach their intended destination or proved to be of little if any avail, hundreds of the documents were in fact honored or resulted in their holders receiving preferential treatment from the German authorities that enabled them to survive.

We cannot and must not overlook those Poles who betrayed their Jewish neighbors to the Germans, who killed Jews or who profiteered from the ghettoization and deportation of Polish Jewry. But at a time when historians and politicians debate what did and what did not happen in Poland during the years of the Holocaust, it is equally important for us to publicly acknowledge and honor those Poles, like the diplomats in Bern, who altruistically sought to save Jewish lives.

The current Polish ambassador to Switzerland, Kumoch, dedicates himself to integrating the accomplishments of the Bernese Group into the historiography of the Holocaust. He emphasized in an interview on Polish radio in 2018 that the Bernese Group was “a Polish-Jewish operation,” and that those who categorize it as only Polish or only Jewish “falsify history.”

Kumoch is indeed an admirable and worthy successor to Ambassador Lados and the other members of the Bernese Group who did not know my father but nonetheless tried to throw him a lifeline in what was truly humankind’s darkest hour.

MENACHEM Z. ROSENSAFT is general counsel at the World Jewish Congress and teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell universities. His father, Josef Rosensaft, headed the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany from 1945 to 1951.

Daughter of high-ranking Nazi honored with Jewish award


(JTA) – The daughter of a Nazi who was given a 20-year sentence in Nuremberg is one of several recipients of the 19th annual Obermayer German Jewish History Awards.

Hilde Schramm, 82, the youngest daughter of Hitler’s war production minister, the architect Albert Speer, received the honor for her humanitarian work, including founding an organization – Stiftung Zurueckgeben (Giving Back) – to help Jewish women artists.

The ceremony, one of many events marking international Holocaust Remembrance Day, was held Monday in the Berlin Senate.

Schramm, a Green Party politician, used money she received from selling art inherited from her father to finance the creation of her nonprofit. In an interview before the ceremony, she said she had searched in vain for the original owners of the paintings before selling them and creating the foundation. She has supported some 150 Jewish artists over the years.

Schramm also has raised awareness about the huge amount of property — from art to furniture to jewelry — that was stolen from Jewish families from 1933 to 1945. Much of it remains in the possession of Germans today, she said.

The Obermayer Award was established by the late U.S. philanthropist Arthur Obermayer and his wife, Judith, to honor non-Jewish Germans who have helped preserve local Jewish history and reconnect Jews with roots in Germany. Most are nominated by Jews with family connections to Germany whose lives they have touched.

Five other honorees also received awards at the ceremony.


Following protests, London mosque cancels planned Holocaust exhibition

(JTA) – Following protests by Muslims, a mosque in London dropped plans to host an exhibition on Muslims who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

The Centre for Islamic Understanding in Golders Green, which did not say why it cancelled the event, was due to hold the exhibition about Muslim Albanians who rescued Jews on Sunday.

It abandoned the plan after some Muslims protested the planned event’s links with Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, the Jewish News of London reported Friday.

Calls for a boycott were spearheaded by Roshan Salih, editor of the British Muslim news site 5 Pillars.

“Commemorations must never be done in conjunction with Israeli oppressors or their supporters,” he said. In response to the cancellation, he wrote that the mosque “is to be commended for responding to community concerns.”

Jews who helped community leaders at the mosque set up the exhibition had said prior to the cancellation that they saw the event as a significant moment in Jewish-Muslim relations in Golders Green, which is one of the United Kingdom’s most-heavily Jewish areas.

It’s “incredibly important to remember that Jewish and Muslim communities have always historically supported each other and will always continue to do so,” Rabbi Natan Levy, head of operations at the Faith Forums for London, which helped organized the cancelled event, told the Jewish News.

“By spending more time together and seeking to understand our commonalities and appreciate our differences we can provide a united front against hatred,” he added.

Nelly Ben-Or risked all to play the piano. It helped her survive the Holocaust.

That discipline helped Ben-Or, 86, became an international concert pianist and the person most widely recognized for adapting the Alexander technique for posture and movement improvement for musicians.

But unlike most of her peers, much of Ben-Or’s musical training in her native Poland took place while her family was hiding in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, where her mother, Antonina Podhoretz, time and again risked everything to afford her daughter access to the then scarce instrument.

Ben-Or, who now lives in London and still teaches master classes in piano and the Alexander technique, unfolds the story of her unlikely survival in an English-language autobiography that was published this year titled “Ashes to Light: A Holocaust Childhood to a Life in Music.”

The frank and short account tackles personal issues like the author’s bouts of depression and her unprovoked cruelty toward one of her music teachers after the war. It was celebrated as a “brilliant and deeply moving personal account” by Jonathan Vaughan, a director of the prestigious Guildhall School of Drama & Music.

Rabbi Andrew Goldstein, the president of Britain’s Liberal Judaism movement, called it “an inspiring story, beautifully written” in a forward he penned for the book.

The strength of Ben-Or’s story, which was featured on the BBC World Service radio in July, stems partly from the author bearing witness to momentous wartime events, including the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. But its uniqueness lies in how it marries opposites, such as betrayal and heroism, hunger and artistic creativity, and survival and self-sacrifice.

Throughout the packed 180-page narrative, one character — the piano — makes repeated and unlikely appearances.

The instrument features in Ben-Or’s earliest memories, from her childhood home in Lwow, which was part of Poland before World War II, now Lviv in Ukraine. She recalls that at 6, German soldiers carried off the piano on which she had practiced in her family’s living room.

“I shivered in fear and despair, huddled against my mother’s body as I watched them taking away the instrument which had become for me such a wonderful source of magic,” Ben-Or writes.

Her family was about to lose much more than their prized possessions.

Ben-Or’s father, Leon, was taken away and, she later learned, killed at the Janowska concentration camp.

Her mother and older sister were able to obtain false “Aryan” identities, but they became homeless, exchanging one hiding place for another. Her sister was left to hide on her own. Ben-Or and her mother scrambled to leave Lwow for Warsaw, where they had a better chance of surviving.

Through one of many twists of fate, the pair missed the last train to Warsaw. They ended up leaving as hitchhikers aboard a military train full of Nazi SS officers. One SS man even tucked in Ben-Or with his green army coat when she feigned sleep on the long journey, she recalls in the book.

That civilian train they missed ended up being searched. Several Jews traveling under false identities were caught and sent to be murdered, Ben-Or’s mother later learned.

In Warsaw, mother and daughter became subtenants of a Polish working class family, the Topolskis. Their hosts quickly caught on that Ben-Or and her mother were Jewish but, at great personal risk, did not report them. Still, neighbors became suspicious, forcing the two Jews to seek a new hiding place. Ben-Or’s mother found employment as a maid with a wealthier non-Jewish Polish family, the Kowalskis.

That’s where Nelly, then 7 or 8, again saw a piano.

“My desire to get to that instrument and play it made me nag my mother” to ask the Kowalskis for permission to play, Ben-Or writes. But doing so would have blown their cover as a working class maid and her daughter, her mother feared.

“Musical gifts were so often associated with the Jewish people,” Ben-Or writes.

But “a part of my mother wanted me to keep playing,” Ben-Or told JTA in an interview at her home near London, where she keeps two pianos in a study full of books and orchid plants. Antonina relented, but only on the condition that Nelly pretend not to know how to play, recalled Ben-Or, a frail-looking woman with lively eyes.

At the height of World War II, when the Nazis were hunting and executing people on the streets just below her home, Ben-Or was playing music on a grand piano that brought her brief hope of normalcy.

Noticing her talent, the Kowalskis suggested that Ben-Or join their granddaughter’s weekly piano lessons, to which her mother reluctantly agreed. The teacher suggested that Ben-Or attend a music school, but Antonina vetoed it.

“The fewer people who noticed me, or you, the safer we were,” Ben-Or’s mother told her.

As a little girl, “playing the piano for chosen periods in the day became moments of paradise on Earth,” Ben-Or recalls. The teacher insisted that Nelly play at a students’ concert, and she was was allowed to play, becoming the talk of the block for a while.

But her mother’s fears turned out to be justified. Soon after the concert, rumors that Antonina and Nelly were “not who they pretended to be” started circulating among the neighbors, forcing the two to leave yet another hiding place, Ben-Or writes.

They were rounded up in German army operations targeting Warsaw citizens who had joined a massive resistance operation that followed the doomed uprising of Jews inside the Warsaw Ghetto.

In yet another narrow escape, Nelly and Antonina eventually were released in the countryside because the concentration camp where the Germans had planned to place them was full. Penniless and hungry for food, the two found shelter in a pig sty that locals had made livable for refugees like them from Warsaw.

But even there, “my ear caught the sound of piano from a neighboring house,” Ben-Or writes in her book. It was the home of the piano teacher in the town of Pruszkow, and again Ben-Or’s mother reluctantly allowed her daughter to play. The teacher allotted the girl half an hour each day.

“I went on eagerly from one piece of music to the next, playing anything that was available,” including Johann Strauss waltzes considered too demanding for 8-year-old piano pupils, Ben-Or writes.

“Yet today, as a concert pianist, I am convinced that I owe to that unorthodox but invaluable experience of piano playing,” she writes. It helped her hold on to her humanity and hopefulness in hours of despair and panic, she says.

After the war, Ben-Or was enrolled in a school for gifted musicians. She and her mother emigrated from Poland to Israel in 1950. A decade later, Ben-Or went to study in England and stayed. She married in 1964. She and her husband have a daughter who lives in London.

The book describes her development as an artist and her experiences as a survivor in three countries.

“It seems as if my voracious appetite for academic and musical progress was partly a reaction to the years of repression,” Ben-Or writes. “It was as if the darkness of the war years had been lifted, and the bright light and fresh air of freedom filled my whole being with the need to receive as much as possible of all that I had missed before.”


Georges Loinger, French Resistance fighter who saved Jewish children from the Nazis, dies at 108


(JTA) — Georges Loinger, a member of the French Resistance during World War II who saved hundreds of Jewish children from the Nazis, has died.

Loinger died on Friday in Paris at the age of 108, France’s Holocaust Memorial Foundation confirmed on its website.

Loinger, who was Jewish but looked Aryan with his blonde hair and blue eyes, smuggled at least 350 Jewish children whose parents had been killed or sent to Nazi concentration camps in small groups across the Franco-Swiss border, the French news service AFP reported. The children he saved were in the care of the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, or OSE, a Jewish children’s aid society founded in St Petersburg in 1912.

He was awarded the Resistance Medal, the Military Cross and the Legion of Honour by France.

He was taken prisoner by German armed forces in 1940 while serving with the French army, and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Germany. He was able to escape and return to France where he worked with the OSE, according to AFP.

He was a cousin of the mime artist Marcel Marceau, who was a fellow Resistance fighter.


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez compared the migrant caravan to Jews fleeing Nazi Europe. Is it a fair take?

Migrant children play as Mexican riot police look on outside the El Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, Nov. 22, 2018. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is just one of 435 members of the incoming U.S. House of Representatives, but her youth, surprise primary win in her Bronx-area district, socialism and, above all, outspokenness have attracted outsize attention.

So when Ocasio-Cortez, 29, likened the crisis at the U.S. border with Mexico to Jewish refugees that the United States turned away before World War II, the reactions came thick and fast.

“Asking to be considered a refugee & applying for status isn’t a crime,” Ocasio Cortez said Sunday on Twitter after U.S. border agents repelled Central American migrants with tear gas. “It wasn’t for Jewish families fleeing Germany. It wasn’t for targeted families fleeing Rwanda. It wasn’t for communities fleeing war-torn Syria. And it isn’t for those fleeing violence in Central America.”

Attached to her tweet was a now viral Reuters photo of a mother fleeing the tear gas clutching two toddlers, one in diapers.

A number of conservatives seized upon the tweet to suggest that Ocasio-Cortez was likening the migrants that President Donald Trump has labeled as “invaders” to the 6 million Jews who perished in the Nazi Holocaust.

“New York Democratic Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Sunday compared members of the migrant caravan attempting to enter the United States to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany during the Holocaust” was how the conservative online news site the Daily Caller framed its report on Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet.

“I recommend she take a tour of the Holocaust Museum in DC,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is close to Trump, said Monday in his own tweet. “Might help her better understand the differences between the Holocaust and the caravan in Tijuana.”

Here’s the thing: The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum wasn’t exactly distancing itself from Ocasio-Cortez’s comment.

Asked for comment on whether it is appropriate to liken the Central American refugees to Jews fleeing Germany, a museum spokesman pointed to its statement in 2017 when Trump announced plans to shrink refugee access to the United States. The statement suggested it is not out of place to liken the flight of Jews in the 1930s to subsequent refugee crises, even if the conditions in the home countries of the asylum seekers differ in scale or torment.

“The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is acutely aware of the consequences to the millions of Jews who were unable to flee Nazism, as noted in our November 2015 statement on the Syrian refugee crisis,” the 2017 statement said. “The Museum continues to have grave concern about the global refugee crisis and our response to it. During the 1930s and 1940s, the United States, along with the rest of the world, generally refused to admit Jewish refugees from Nazism due to antisemitic and xenophobic attitudes, harsh economic conditions, and national security fears.”

The Twitter account of Auschwitz, the museum and memorial at the site of the former Nazi concentration camp, also appeared to back Ocasio-Cortez in a tweet Tuesday.

“When we look at Auschwitz we see the end of the process,” the tweet read. “It’s important to remember that the Holocaust actually did not start from gas chambers. This hatred gradually developed from words, stereotypes & prejudice through legal exclusion, dehumanisation & escalating violence.”

The most famous case is that of the St. Louis, the German “voyage of the damned” turned away from the United States and Canada in 1939. (Historians estimate that a third of the 900 or so Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis perished in the Holocaust.) Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently apologized for his nation’s decision to turn away the ship; no U.S. president has.

Melanie Nezer, a vice president of HIAS, the lead Jewish refugee organization, said the laws governing how nations accept and process refugees were determined with the Holocaust as an immediate memory.

“The laws we have today in this country were based on the U.N. convention of 1951, which was based on Jewish refugees being turned away during World War II,” she said.

Migrants climb up a bank of the nearly dry Tijuana River as they attempt to make their way past a police blockade to the El Chaparral port, Nov. 25, 2018. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

That’s why, Nezer said, it made sense for Ocasio-Cortez to invoke not only the Jews turned away in the 1930s and ’40s, but subsequent refugee crises.

“The point she was making, and I think it was an appropriate one, was that countries must hear asylum claims,” said Nezer, who added that the Trump administration’s shutdown of the border at Tijuana was unprecedented in recent history and, in the view of HIAS, illegal.

Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America and the son of Jewish refugees, has become the most outspoken defender of Trump’s immigration policies among Jewish organization heads. In a series of tweets Sunday, Klein suggested that the Central American migrants aren’t actually refugees.

“Stop illegal immigration. They’re mostly healthy looking young men,” he said in one tweet, referring to the migrants at Tijuana.

He also asserted, “If these illegals were all conservatives who would likely vote republican, none of these leftwing supporters of these illegals would be supporting the illegals. None!”

Later, however, Klein conceded that seeking asylum in the U.S., with or without legal status, is not illegal. What’s new is a Trump policy saying those who enter the United States from Mexico between ports of entry are ineligible for asylum.

“Any person who is facing serious danger or oppression should be given every opportunity for asylum in the United States, just as my parents, survivors of the Holocaust, from Poland and Czechoslovakia, were given asylum,” Klein tweeted Sunday.

Nezer said the Central American refugees were denied the opportunity to apply for refugee status from a distance the way Jewish refugees could from the relative safety of a displaced persons camp. Others say the current system is not designed to facilitate the processing of large numbers of asylum seekers at the designated crossing points — especially families — although the administration counters that many of the migrants are gaming the system by falsely claiming persecution back home.

“A refugee is someone who has crossed a border because they don’t feel safe in their country,” Nezer said, obviating the prospect of the Central Americans applying for refugee status in their home countries.

She said the refugees have little choice but to turn up at the border and exercise their right to request asylum.

“There are no displaced person camps, Mexico is not safe for asylum seekers, particularly along the border,” where gangs and drug smugglers proliferate, Nezer said. “There’s no safe place for people to be processed, you’re not providing them a safe alternative place for them to apply.”


Claude Lanzmann’s posthumous ‘Shoah’ sequel ‘Four Sisters’ is sadly relevant

Hanna Marton in “Noah’s Ark,” one of the four films that make up Claude Lanzmann’s “Four Sisters.” (Cohen Media Group)

(JTA) — Before Steven Spielberg, there was Claude Lanzmann.

Prior to the birth of what is now the USC Shoah Foundation — Spielberg’s Holocaust testimony archive, which was funded originally by the Oscar-winning director’s share of his “Schindler’s List” profits in 1994 — Lanzmann’s landmark 1985 documentary “Shoah” provided an earlier opportunity for survivors to share their harrowing World War II testimonies, as well as to document the mass extermination of Jews.

Over the course of its nine-plus hours, “Shoah” conveyed the horrors to a world that didn’t believe — or didn’t want to. Six million dead is unimaginable, but the words of one person at a time are more difficult to ignore. Like politics, genocide is local.

In the more than three decades since “Shoah,” Lanzmann — who passed away in July at 92 — released a series of ancillary films with footage not used in the original, such as “A Visitor From the Living” and “Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.”

The latest installments, “The Four Sisters,” is about four women who aren’t related by blood, just by their wartime experiences. The series of four separate films opens this week in New York and next week in Los Angeles, followed by a national release. All four films will be available in theaters, and moviegoers can see two of them per ticket.

Lanzmann’s approach here is different in format from the original. In “Shoah,” he used many voices to tell the larger story, splicing in interviews with survivors and perpetrators. With this project, he has given each “sister” her own film — her own opportunity to tell her horrifying and powerful story. They vary in length from 52 to 89 minutes.

Another stark difference: “Four Sisters” involves female perspectives, which were largely missing from the original “Shoah.”

But like “Shoah,” the “Four Sisters” films are difficult to watch. In “Baluty,” Paula Biren, originally of Lodz, Poland, tells Lanzmann that she hoped England or France would have stepped in to help after the German invasion.

“Poland had pacts with both countries,” she notes.

The two powers did declare war on Germany, but there were no large-scale military actions for months. All the city’s Jews were transferred to the infamous Lodz Ghetto. However, the Nazi-appointed head of the Jewish community, Chaim Rumkowski, made a deal with the Germans — to forestall deportation to the camps, Jews would engage in hard slave labor. It was a Faustian bargain: Some 45,000 Jews died of starvation or other causes in the ghetto.

When the Nazis said they were going to send every child younger than 9 to a special camp, Paula describes how one mother pulled her daughter back. An SS officer grabbed the mother by the neck, turned her around and shot her in front of her daughter.

But because of the deal, Paula attended a special high school and later was recruited to become a police officer. Upon realizing that she had unwittingly become complicit in sending black market merchants she had arrested to their deaths, Biren quit. But her guilt lingered.

Over the years, the guilt has transformed to anger.

“I felt then I had no choice,” she says. The world “should feel guilty for what was done to me.”

Ruth Elias, given the spotlight in “The Hippocratic Oath,” was 19 when the Nazis invaded the small town where her family lived for generations. Soon afterward, her father was barred from the sausage factory he owned  — by workers he had employed for years.

Ruth eventually was deported to Theresienstadt, where she witnessed drunken SS soldiers invade the women’s block and rape whomever they wanted. When it was discovered she was pregnant, Josef Mengele — the Nazi physician who performed horrific experiments on prisoners and became known as the “Angel of Death” — took over her care.

After she delivered her child, Mengele had her breasts strapped so she could not nurse the baby. He wanted to learn how long a newborn could survive without food. A Jewish camp doctor gave her medication that allowed her to kill her own child so she wouldn’t have to watch it suffer.

Paula Biren shown in “Baluty.” Lanzmann’s original “Shoah” film largely involved male testimonies. (Cohen Media Group)

In “Noah’s Ark,” Hanna Marton, like Paula, is guilt-ridden because she realizes that her survival was purchased at the expense of the 450,000 Hungarian Jews murdered in the late stages of the war. Her husband worked with Rudolf Kasztner, who had negotiated a deal with Adolf Eichmann that rescued nearly 1,700 Jews for a fee of $1,000 each.

“The Merry Flea” tells the story of Ada Lichtman, one of only three woman selected to work at Sobibor from among an estimated 250,000 Jews gassed there. Their job was to clean and refurbish the dolls stolen from Jewish children before they were sent to Germany. Dolls became constant reminders of what she went through.

It’s difficult not to view this new project in relation to the recent Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Questions like “do we need another Holocaust film?” assume, wrongly, that their lessons have been learned. The Jews of Pittsburgh would disagree, as would parents of Jewish students at Pascack Valley High School in suburban New Jersey, where a set of swastikas was discovered for a second time in six weeks.

In an essay from 1981, Lanzmann wrote, “Like the indestructible phoenix, anti-Semitism is arising virtually everywhere from its own ashes.” He probably could have written the same essay today.

In an ironic twist, “Four Sisters” was released in Europe on July 4, and Lanzmann died the next day. It was as if he recognized his job was done, or that he had done all he could. Our job continues.


This German group renovates Holocaust survivors’ homes in Israel for free

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski, right, wrote a Facebook post about his conversation with a German man who travels to Israel to renovate Holocaust survivors’ apartments. (Wishedski)

(JTA) — Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski had an unexpected encounter on a recent flight to Israel.

Wishedski, who was flying on Monday from Basel, Switzerland, where he works as a Chabad emissary, was praying when a man seated next to him handed him a piece of paper.

The note was from an organization called the Saxon Friends of Israel and described how the group brings volunteers from Germany to Israel to renovate Holocaust survivors’ apartments for free.

The two started talking and the man, a house painter named Roland, said that he had been traveling to Israel twice a year for around five years from his home in the south German state of Baden-Wurttemberg to do the volunteer work.

“I cannot change or repair the whole world, I cannot repair all my people did 70 years ago,’” the rabbi recalled 54-year-old Roland telling him. “All I can do is painting. It’s what I’m doing, bringing a little bit of good to the world.”

Wishedski, who was born in Israel but has been living in Basel for 16 years, was touched by the selfless story.

“This was very, very good because sometimes we give up because we can’t change the entire world, and he told me that if you can change the house of one woman, it’s worth it,” the rabbi told JTA.

Wishedski snapped a selfie with Roland and shared it on his Facebook profile. The post, which he wrote in Hebrew, received over two thousand likes. Writer and public speaker Emanuel Miller translated it into English in a post that received over three thousand likes.

JTA attempted to contact the Saxon Friends of Israel to get in touch with Roland but did not receive a response.

Meanwhile, Wishedski has been fielding calls from journalists from Israel and the United States.

“I’m enjoying my 15 minutes [of fame],” he said.

This promotional video from 2013 gives a little more information on the Saxon Friends of Israel and shows them in action fixing Holocaust survivors’ houses. One volunteer explains that both of his parents were avid Nazis and that he is the only one in his family who wants to “deal with the issue.”