Category Archive: JTA

Nazis’ aerial photography is helping map and preserve Jewish cemeteries

By Cnaan Liphshiz

Photographers capture a ceremony at a Jewish cemetery in Frampol, Poland. (ESJF)

LUBLIN, Poland (JTA) — When German air force pilots took aerial photographs of western Ukraine in 1941, they did it to help Nazi Germany defeat the Soviet Union in a war that saw the genocide of 6 million Jews.

But in a twist of fate, the German government has recently started funding an effort that uses the photographs to identify and preserve Jewish cemeteries.

The effort, in which the Luftwaffe archives are only one of several ingenious tools, began in 2015 with the establishment of an organization called the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative, or ESJF. The largest-ever international project of its kind, ESJF has since fenced more than 100 Jewish cemeteries in seven countries on a modest annual budget of approximately $1 million.

And in Eastern Europe, fencing Jewish cemeteries is “not as straightforward as it may sound,” according to Philip Carmel, a British former journalist, the organization’s CEO since its creation.

Even determining the location of such graveyards can be challenging in towns with entire Jewish populations that were murdered and cemeteries plundered for construction material and then stolen for development.

That’s where the Luftwaffe aerial photographs enter the picture, Carmel said.

“Obviously they were taken to help the German war effort,” Carmel said of the prints and negatives that he pulled from German state archives. “But they were accurate enough to help us identify some Jewish cemeteries right before the destruction.”

In the western Ukrainian town of Buchach — the birthplace of the Jewish Nobel Prize laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal — Jews for generations buried their dead atop a mound that in 1941 stood on the town’s northern margins.

But after the murder of the area’s 10,000 Jews during the Holocaust, the forest adjacent to the cemetery was allowed to swallow it up, leaving exposed only a few dozen headstones. Fragments of others used to lie in piles on the shoulders of the potholed asphalt road that snakes along Buchach’s Torgova Street.

The forest’s progression and the destruction caused to the headstones – locals throughout Eastern Europe steal them to use as sharpening stones or building material – complicated efforts to map the cemetery. The Luftwaffe aerials show its borders clearly, explained Carmel, who last year oversaw its demarcation. It is now set for fencing later this year, complete with retaining walls.

Jewish communities in Eastern Europe are struggling to maintain crumbling heritage sites from the prewar era. (ESJF)

ESJF recently began using engineering drones that can map a Jewish cemetery in a fraction of the time and cost that a team of surveyors would require.

Fencing is crucial, Carmel said, because it prevents further damage. While it neither helps restore damage nor prevent people who are determined to get in from climbing the fence, “It shows ownership, it indicates interest and it vastly reduces the chance of vandalism,” he said.

Jewish communities in Eastern Europe are struggling to maintain crumbling heritage sites from an era when the local Jewish population was many times greater than it is today, as are activists working to preserve Jewish cemeteries.

But ESJF is the best-funded and first international effort of its kind, active in an area with well over 10,000 Jewish cemeteries in various degrees of risk. And it is by far the most transparent, as per stringent reporting demands by the German treasury.

Whereas the bulk of the damage to Jewish cemeteries happened during World War II and under communism, they are still being degraded today at an alarming rate due to unregulated construction and vandalism.

Earlier this month, the construction of a state-funded sports complex in the town of Klimontow, Poland, was completed atop what activists say was a disused Jewish cemetery. Last year, a judge in Belarus cleared the way for the construction of apartments atop two former Jewish cemeteries in Gomel. And in Lithuania, the government is ignoring an international outcry over its plan to build a conference center on what used to be one Vilnius’ largest cemeteries, which the communists razed.

About a quarter of all Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe were destroyed during the Nazi and Soviet periods, according to Rabbi Isaac Schapira, the Israel-based founder and chairman of the ESJF board.

“Most of those that have remained lie neglected principally because their communities were wiped out in the Holocaust,” he said.

This is also the reason the German government decided to bankroll ESJF, according to Carmel.

As a rule, ESJF does not get involved in cemeteries featuring a legal or territorial dispute, like the ones in Klimontow, Gomel or Vilnius.

“Our objective is to fence as many Jewish cemeteries as possible in as little time as possible for the lowest cost,” Carmel said.

Instead of duking it out with local authorities and developers, ESJF tries to find compromises.

On a recent project, ESJF even purchased a small and cheap plot of land in a small Ukrainian town so it could serve as a Christian cemetery. It was the simplest way of getting the local Orthodox church, which did not want to bury Seventh-day Adventists in its Christian cemetery, to stop burying them atop older graves at a disused Jewish cemetery, Carmel said.

When it comes to halachah, or Jewish law, ESJF is strict in observing its rules on burial, Carmel said. But whenever possible, he said, the organization tries to compromise, keeping with its view that local partnerships are the only guarantee for the organization’s long-lasting impact.

“The cemeteries we fence, they are not being guarded,” Carmel said. “Ultimately the only way of making sure these places don’t get destroyed is to get the local population to think of their local Jewish cemetery as part of their own heritage.”

One success has been in Frampol, Poland, where dozens of schoolchildren joined ESJF’s fencing and cleanup of the local Jewish cemetery.

Another is the story of Katy Kryvko, a 17-year-old high school student from the Ukraine village of Derazhne, located about 100 miles north of Buchach. Two years ago Kryvko, who is not Jewish, contacted ESJF about a Jewish cemetery behind her home that the local children used as a playground.

“I was shocked when I realized that kids are playing literally at the cemetery,” she told JTA. “I didn’t understand why it was neglected and nobody cared about it.”

Her interest in the cemetery led Kryvko to study the tragic history of the region’s Jewish population, and to ESJF, which cleaned it up and fenced it last year.

“It’s so important for me because I know that I’m the only one person who can save the cemetery,” she said. “I mean, who can take care of it.”

Source: https://www.jta.org/2018/09/26/news-opinion/nazis-aerial-photography-helping-map-preserve-jewish-cemeteries

Ex-Nazi soldier loses final appeal to keep Canadian citizenship

MONTREAL (JTA) — A former Nazi who lied to enter Canada decades ago lost his appeal to keep his citizenship and faces deportation.

Canada’s Federal Court ruled Thursday that it was “reasonable” that Helmut Oberlander, 94, of Waterloo, Ontario, be stripped of his citizenship.

It was the first time Oberlander lost an appeal in four tries since 2001, when the Canadian government first ruled to revoke his citizenship.

Oberlander was appealing a decision made in July 2017.

Oberlander was an interpreter for the Einsatzkommandos, mobile killing squads that targeted Jews in the former Soviet Union during World War II, although he was never charged himself with killing Jews.

“This is a very positive decision from the court,” said David Matas, legal counsel for B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights. “The federal government must now take the next step towards removing Oberlander from Canada immediately.”

An ethnic German born in Ukraine, Oberlander claims to have been a low-level interpreter for the Einsatzkommandos who was conscripted under duress, that he never took part in killings and he would have been shot had he tried to escape.

He served with the squad as an interpreter from 1941 to 1943. He later was an infantryman in the German army.

Oberlander immigrated to Canada in 1954 and became a citizen in 1960 without disclosing his wartime record. His case rose to prominence in 1995.

Source: https://www.jta.org/2018/09/28/default/ex-nazi-soldier-loses-final-appeal-keep-canadian-citizenship

This year’s Oscar foreign film race is full of movies on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism

Christopher Lambert, right, portraying a German Nazi officer in “Sobibor.” (Courtesy of Rosiya Segondiya)

(JTA) — Russia nominated a film about the Nazi death camp Sobibor as its entry for the Academy Award for best foreign language film.

“Sobibor,” a multimillion-dollar production with state funding, centers on the 1943 escape by Jewish inmates from the camp under the leadership of Russian inmates. It was one of only two such occurrences during the Holocaust, with the other happening that same year in Treblinka.

The two-hour film features Konstantin Khabenskiy, one of Russia’s best-known actors, along with an international cast as well as unusually gory visuals. It is based on historical research of the history of the camp in Poland, where SS guards and Ukrainians murdered 250,000 Jews.

The Holocaust and anti-Semitism featured in the submissions of five other European countries: The Netherlands, Austria, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland.

The Dutch submission is “The Resistance Banker,” based on the actions of Walraven van Hall, a banker who financed the resistance during Nazi occupation, including efforts to save Jews. He was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations — Israel’s title for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust – in the 1970s.

Austria’s “The Waldheim Waltz,” by the Austrian-Jewish director Ruth Beckermann, is a biographical drama about former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, and the controversy of his participation and role in the Nazi regime during World War II.

“I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians” tells the story of a theater director seeking a re-enactment of the barbaric massacre of thousands of Jews in Odessa by occupying Romanian troops.

Slovakia’s “The Interpreter” follows a Jewish man’s efforts to find the Nazi officer who may have killed his parents.

“Eldorado,” the Swiss submission, looks at the hardships faced by modern-day immigrants to Europe but juxtaposes their situation with the realities experienced by asylum seekers during World War II, including many Jews.

Hungary’s submission, “Sunset,” was directed by Laszlo Nemes, a Jewish-Hungarian filmmaker whose previous feature, “Son of Saul,” won the category’s 2016 Oscar. The later film is set in 1913 Budapest and follows the trials of Irisz Leiter, a newcomer to the city whose parents’ shop is burned.

“Throughout the film, Irisz and those around her make so much of her name that one wonders if the Leiters were Jewish, casting a dark shadow over” the fire, The Hollywood Reporter wrote in a review this month. “But this is never explicitly stated in the film and remains only a possibility.”

Israel’s submission is “The Cakemaker,” which centers on a German pastry maker who travels to Jerusalem in search of the wife and son of his dead lover. It is Israel’s 51st submission to the award; the country has received 10 nominations but has yet to win.

The Palestinian submission is “Ghost Hunting,” a documentary about prisoners from Israeli detention reliving their incarceration and alleged torture.

Source: https://www.jta.org/2018/09/20/top-headlines/years-oscar-foreign-film-race-full-movies-holocaust-anti-semitism?utm_source=JTA%20Maropost&utm_campaign=JTA&utm_medium=email&mpweb=1161-6135-185509

After foot-dragging, Romanian Holocaust victims got $10 million since 2015

(JTA) — Romanian Holocaust survivors have received $10 million in payments since 2015, the World Jewish Restitution Organization said.

The funds have been distributed to thousands of recipients from that country, which after decades of resistance and foot-dragging has in recent years taken some major steps toward offering compensation to victims of the genocide perpetrated by its former ally, Nazi Germany, and local collaborators.

During the High Holidays, WJRO distributed extra aid among 142 impoverished recipients, including a 104-year-old who lives alone in Israel, the organization said.

“These funds help Holocaust victims live with the dignity they deserve,” Gideon Taylor, WJRO chair of operations, said in a statement last week.

Over the past three years, payments of over  $1,900 were made to 1,393 needy Holocaust survivors from Israel from funding obtained after 2015. Another 1,067 needy survivors reveiced $600 payments.

In 2017, extra funds for Romanian Holocaust survivors living outside Israel and Romania were set aside and $600,000 distributed among those recipients. Another $1.3 is to be given out to the same group this year.

The program for Romanian Holocaust survivors is administered by the Claims Conference on behalf of the Caritatea Foundation, which was formed as a partnership of the WJRO and the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania.

In 2016, legislation making it easier for Holocaust survivors to press restitution claims passed in Romania’s Parliament.

But Romania has not addressed heirless or unclaimed property left by victims of Holocaust persecution. Years after the expiration of a deadline for filing claims for private-owned property stolen during the Holocaust, Romanian authorities have processed less than half of some 250,000 claims.

Source: https://www.jta.org/2018/09/21/default/romanian-holocaust-victims-got-10-million-since-2015

Polish town accused of turning Jewish cemetery into soccer field

By Cnaan Liphshiz

Polish school children at a ribbon cutting ceremony at the field in Klimontow, Poland, Sept. 6, 2018. (Courtesy of the Municiplaity of Klimontow)

(JTA) — A state-funded sports complex was built on a disused Jewish cemetery in southeastern Poland, several Jewish groups complained.

The complex, comprising a basketball and soccer court, was inaugurated on Sept. 6 at a ribbon- cutting ceremony in Klimontow, a town located 20 miles northeast of Krakow, according to the municipality’s website. It said the project has received more than $90,000 in government funding.

But according to the Shem Olam Holocaust museum near Hadera in Israel, the complex is located atop the former Jewish cemetery fo the town, which before the Holocaust had thousands of Jewish residents.

“This is deeply offensive to the Jewish People,” the museum’s director, Rabbi Avraham Kriger, wrote to the municipality last week, the news site Kipa reported.

Meir Bulka, an Israeli Holocaust commemoration activist and founder of the J-Nerations organization, told JTA that he believes the municipality was aware of the cemetery’s location when it built the complex on it. “They laid down piping there. There is no doubt they encountered graves,” he said Friday.

The municipality of Klimontow did not reply to telephone calls and an email from JTA requesting their reaction to the claims.

Yaakov Haguel, acting director of the World Zionist Organization, said he holds the Polish government responsible for the construction in Klimontow, which he called “a kick delivered to Polish Jewry Poland.”

In a statement, he noted the passing in January in Warsaw of a law prohibiting blaming the Polish nation for Nazi crimes, calling it “an attempt to blur history, compounded by insensitivity to Polish Jews” in Klimontow. “The Polish government must respect Jews as it does any other citizen. Such events must not be allowed to recur in Poland and beyond,” he added.

Source: https://www.jta.org/2018/09/21/default/polish-town-accused-turning-jewish-cemetery-soccer-field

2 Republican congressmen attended fundraiser with Holocaust denier

(JTA) — Two Republican congressmen who have been criticized for associating with a Holocaust denier attended a fundraiser with him.

The far-right activist Charles Johnson was invited to and attended the yacht fundraiser in Newport Beach, California, for Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida on July 20, according to a report Thursday by the Mother Jones magazine. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California also attended.

Last October, news reports revealed that Rohrabacher had welcomed Johnson to a Capitol Hill meeting with Sen. Rand Paul. In response, the Anti-Defamation League urged Rohrabacher to “discontinue any association with Johnson and repudiate his views.”

Gaetz had also invited Johnson to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech in January.

Gaetz was criticized for the invitation in light of Johnson’s assertions on Twitter in 2017 about Holocaust victims.

“I do not and never have believed the six million figure,” he wrote. “I think the Red Cross numbers of 250,000 dead in the camps from typhus are more realistic. I think the Allied bombing of Germany was a ware [sic] crime. I agree … about Auschwitz and the gas chambers not being real.”

Referring to Johnson’s presence at the July 20 event, Jason Pitkin, Rohrabacher’s campaign finance director, told Mother Jones: “I don’t remember who invited him there.” Asked whether Johnson had come at the invitation of Gaetz, Kip Talley, the chief of staff for Gaetz’s re-election campaign, replied in an email, “It was a private event and you’re welcome to check the FEC reports to see who donated. Thanks for reaching out.”

Source: https://www.jta.org/2018/09/14/news-opinion/2-republican-congressmen-attend-fundraiser-holocaust-denier?utm_source=JTA%20Maropost&utm_campaign=JTA&utm_medium=email&mpweb=1161-6021-185509

Yad Vashem questions honors for 3 Poles as Holocaust-era rescuers of Jews

Jonny Daniels

Jonny Daniels’ From the Depths organization honored three Poles last month for risking their lives to save Jews. Israel’s Yad Vashem museum took issue with the move. (Jonny Daniels/Facebook)

(JTA) — Israel’s state Holocaust museum expressed concerns over a Polish group honoring three people it did not recognize as having risked their lives to save Jews.

Joel Zisenwine, the director of the Yad Vashem museum’s Righteous Among the Nations department, said there is “fear that these actions may lead to misleading the public” in an email he sent this month to Holocaust commemoration activist Meir Bulka in Israel, who runs the JNerations group.

Bulka had written to Zisenwine to complain about the honoring of three people in Warsaw last month by the From the Depths organization, which was founded by Jonny Daniels, an Israeli-British Holocaust commemoration activist. Daniels has said the three honorees saved some 3,000 people by granting them documents that allowed them to escape.

“The basis for Daniels’ awarding of honors to rescuers of Jews is entirely unclear,” Zisenwine wrote.

One of the honorees, Julian Kulski, reportedly “had been appointed by the Nazis as acting mayor of Warsaw, demanding the leadership of the local Ghetto to reduce its size, vacate apartments etc.” Zisenwine wrote.

Yad Vashem had considered a request for recognition by the man’s son, but rejected it in the 1980s “due to conflicting testimonies and contradictions with other sources, that give a slightly different picture of his attitude to Jews,” Zisenwine said.

Among those who said Kulski helped saved the lives of Jews was Duda Falik, who told Yad Vashem in 1980 that Kulski hid her parents from 1940 to 1944.

Daniels told JTA that his group did not give any titles but defended its decision “to say thank you” to Kulski and any other person that it deems worthy of such a gesture based on its research and that of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance.

Recognition of Poles for saving Jews in the Holocaust is a sensitive issue.

Efforts in this field by Poland’s right-wing government have exposed it to criticism by some Jews who say it is highlighting Holocaust-era heroism to eclipse complicity.

Yad Vashem has recognized 6,863 Polish Righteous — far more than in any other country. But in February, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that Warsaw alone had 90,000-150,000 people who risked their lives to save Jews.

Daniels’ advocates say he has made partnerships that reduce anti-Semitic rhetoric there. His critics, including Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, have accused him of helping the government politicize debate over the Holocaust, including in its passing this year of a controversial law making it illegal to blame Poland for Nazi crimes.

Daniels, who in February criticized a statement by Morawiecki as a form of “Holocaust denial,” defended his work as apolitical and devoted to preserving the memory of the Holocaust, as well as building cultural ties between Poland and Israel.

“We wish there were more Jewish foundations stepping forward to say thank you,” Daniels told JTA about the Yad Vashem criticism. His group, which interviews survivors and rescuers for testimonial films, will be holding additional events in the coming weeks to express gratitude to those it considers rescuers, he said, as “time is absolutely running out.”

Source: https://www.jta.org/2018/09/13/news-opinion/yad-vashem-questions-honors-for-3-poles-as-holocaust-era-rescuers-of-jews

Polish city of Lublin sees first Jewish wedding in decades

LUBLIN, Poland (JTA) — The city of Lublin in eastern Poland, once a hub of Jewish learning, saw what the local media called its first real Jewish wedding in decades.

Yohanan Petrovsky-Stern and Anastasiia Simferovska, two academics with Ukrainian roots, wed last month in Lublin’s old city at a ceremony described as “probably the first after Holocaust,” the TVP television station reported. Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, conducted the ceremony on Po Farze Square.

A wedding celebration for several dozen guests was held at Ilan, a kosher-style hotel that the Jewish Community of Warsaw opened in 2013 inside what used to be the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, staff told JTA on Wednesday. The building, a massive structure built in the Eclecticist style of the 1920s, was opened in 1930 in Lublin, whose 40,000 Jews constituted at least half of its population.

Today, only several dozen Jews live in Lublin. Locals periodically organize fake Jewish weddings here during heritage festivals as a tribute to the city’s rich Jewish past.

The yeshiva once was the most prestigious in Eastern Europe. It also was revolutionary in that its six floors featured a luxurious synagogue, a library with more than 20,000 volumes, spacious classrooms and dormitories, freeing students from worrying about rent and allowing them to immerse themselves in the study of Jewish scripture.

The Nazis confiscated the building in 1939 and burned the library and other artifacts on a square adjacent to the synagogue. The fire raged for 20 hours.

Communists took over the building, at one point turning it into a movie theater. It was finally returned to the Jewish community in 2003; the synagogue reopened in 2007.

Today, the hotel operating there is a 4-star establishment with 42 rooms, 22 staff and an Israeli restaurant. It is a major attraction for Jewish and non-Jewish tourists who arrive in buses from across the region.

Source: https://www.jta.org/2018/09/07/news-opinion/polish-city-lublin-sees-first-jewish-wedding-decades