Category Archive: Tablet

Roberto Saviano, Author of ‘Gomorrah,’ Takes on Internet Nazis

Tired of internet conspiracy theories and vile anti-Semitism, the journalist turns his attention from Italy’s mafia to its white supremacists

Later this month, Roberto Saviano, the renowned Italian journalist, will testify at the first hearing of a trial against 39 Italian neo-Nazis who were accused, among other things, of participating in an online group that incited racial discrimination and violence. For years, between 2009 and 2012, the group held discussions that included white supremacist and anti-Semitic rhetoric on the American hate site Stormfront.

In one of the threads, members of the site posted lists of alleged influential Jews: entrepreneurs, artists, and journalists. Among the people listed, were Carlo De Benedetti, former president of the publishing group L’Espresso, TV host Gad Lerner, and Saviano himself, whose maternal grandparents had Jewish origins, although he identifies as atheist.

An investigation carried out by the Italian police revealed chilling conversations among the members of Stormfront Italy. “I still believe that the great Führer had found the right solution for those damn rats,” wrote Filippo Galbesi, one of the users, in one of the threads. Another member, Alessandro Pedroni, stated: “To build—this time FOR REAL—homicidal gas chambers, applying for real what they pretend happened to them, I believe that would be the REAL FINAL SOLUTION.” All members took part in the discussions under nicknames, but the police discovered and published their names.

Roberto Saviano is no stranger to hatred, online hatred included. After publishing in 2006 his debut novel, Gomorrah, in which he exposed the operations of a cartel of the Neapolitan mafia, the death threats became so serious and frequent that he was put under police protection. As of today, the book has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and was translated into over 50 languages. The hatred toward him remains—from the mafia, of course, but also from the people who bitterly accuse him of capitalizing on his anti-mafia fight to enrich himself.

But what he read in the Italian threads of Stormfront—which was later shut down in Italy—and the thousands of hate emails that followed, calling him a Jew and a Mason, particularly upset him.

“They began creating these lists [of Jews], claiming there was a secret connection between them in order to manipulate public opinion,” Saviano said in an interview at Tablet magazine’s office in New York. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists often claim the existence of a Jewish lobby that controls politics, the media, and the economy. “These lists were very dangerous, as they were successful, getting thousands of clicks.”

These Neo-Nazis could have written a book, Saviano said, and nobody would have paid attention; but these documents being so easily accessible, just one click away, made them so much more widespread.

The reports on the lists, published by the Italian news media in 2011, captured the attention of the police in regards to the site.

A few months later, a member of the forum, Ivan Lomasto, who then was 19 years old, created a thread titled “List of Jewish Communities in Italy, Shops, Restaurants, Schools.”

In 2012, the members returned to focus on Saviano in a new thread regarding his positions on immigration, which he had recently expressed on a popular talk show, Che tempo che fa. A few days later, police raided the homes of several members, and arrested four of the Stormfront Italy activists.

About a year later, Saviano reported the group to the police. Other individuals who had been insulted or threatened in the pages of Stormfront, including journalist Marco Pasqua and former minister Andrea Riccardi, had previously filed police reports, as well.

“This group of people were building a network through which they picked their targets and coordinated [cyber-]attacks,” said Saviano, who splits his time between Italy and the United States and will travel to Rome to testify in court on May 28. His goal, he said, is to create a precedent in the Italian legal system that will help regulate hate speech on the internet.

The trial may last several years. In the meantime, Saviano has been busy with many other projects. The TV series he wrote inspired by his own book, Gomorrah, released in the United States by SundanceTV and now on Netflix, has been particularly successful. During our interview, he revealed that he’s written a new series, entitled Kosher Nostra, on the Israeli mafia in Tel Aviv and New York. “They mainly did pills,” he said, “in the 1990s they were the kings of ecstasy.”

Palomar, an Italian production company, has bought the rights to the subject. Saviano is currently discussing the project with other people in the United States, such as Thomas Benski, one of the producers of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Nadav Schirman, who produced the documentary The Green Prince.

Above everything else, Saviano wants to fight racist conspiracy theories. He said that anti-Semitism is returning to Italy as a form of “translation” of conspiracy theories.

“Try to look up Soros [on Google], you’ll find thousands of pages about him.” According to the theories, Jewish business magnate George Soros, who has donated billions of dollars to several philanthropic causes, wants to import millions of immigrants into Europe to destroy the old continent. “This stems from the fact that Soros is Jewish and that he speculated against the lira. These two elements are used to attack all of the Jews in Italy and consider them Soros’s allies.”

Last summer, Saviano published an article defending the non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders for saving migrants in the Mediterranean. He was criticized for it, with the claim that he was defending the NGO because he is Jewish and he therefore sides with Soros’s alleged plan. Another reason for the online attacks was his participation in a debate on Israel in 2010, despite his openly critical stance on many of Netanyahu’s policies. “In Italy,” Saviano explained, “you cannot have a critical and interlocutory opinion on Israel; either you ask for its immediate dissolution, or you are considered to be part of the conspiracy.”

Stormfront was founded in 1995 by a former director of the Ku Klux Klan. It is considered to be one of the most popular online forums for white supremacists and other racial extremists, counting hundreds of thousands registered members.

Just like their American colleagues, Italian members of Stormfront, before the site was obscured by local authorities, were obsessed with white supremacy, the alleged existence of a Jewish lobby, and Holocaust denial.

“They use a word, a neologism … olomiracolata (Holomiraculous),” continued Saviano. This is the way they contemptuously call Holocaust survivors who “profit and get famous because of their survival. If you profit from your books or your talks on your [experience in the Holocaust], you are an Holomiraculous.”

Saviano gazed back at the papers of the impending trial.

“I’m tired of being a victim of this systematic obscenity,” he said. “The internet has no rules.” You may be able to delete a racial slur from an online thread. “But,” he concluded, “you cannot delete the evil you’ve done.”


How Ewa Kurek, the Favorite Historian of the Polish Far Right, Promotes Her Distorted Account of the Holocaust

In public events across America, including one attended by a U.S. Congressman, the formerly respected scholar accused rich Jews of plotting with the Nazis to kill their poor brethren and argued that the ghettos were voluntary

On April 10, Poland’s consulate in New York announced the cancellation of the Polish-Jewish Dialogue’s annual awards dinner, where the historian Ewa Kurek was scheduled to receive an honor named after Jan Karski, an army officer who risked his life to tell the world about the horrors of Auschwitz and who later became one of Poland’s leading diplomats and elder statesmen. Right-wing non-Jewish participants in the group, which has around 60 members, had nominated Kurek for the award. The Dialogue’s Jews were led to believe that Kurek was a mainstream historian lauded for her extensive use of Jewish sources, and were apparently unfamiliar with her scholarly work and unaware of her actual beliefs.

Kurek has argued that the Jews lie about Polish conduct during WWII in order to smear Poland and hide their own people’s duplicity. She’s alleged that Jews forged a separate peace with the Nazis during the occupation of Poland and had happily confined themselves to ghettos for generations before the Germans showed up. She’s accused Poland’s urbanized and assimilated Jews of being Nazi collaborators during the Holocaust, and drawn pointed and creepily essentialist contrasts between the Jewish and Polish national characters. The award for Kurek was a briefly successful power play among hardline nationalist diasporans in the Dialogue. But Kurek turned out to be too much of an extremist for the Consulate, which was hosting the Karski dinner on its premises but nixed the event once complaints about the recognition for her poured in. Kurek’s award was withdrawn the day after the cancellation was announced, but not before the Polish-Jewish Dialogue had a plaque made for her.

That’s not where Ewa Kurek’s adventures in America ended. In Boston, on April 11, at an event at the Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish sponsored by the eastern Massachusetts chapter of the Polish American Congress and the Kluby Gazety Polskiej of Boston, Kurek spun noxious arguments about alleged Jewish complicity in the Holocaust. On April 14, she gave a speech at a conference to commemorate the Smolensk plane crash—the 2010 disaster that killed Poland’s president and other dignitaries—which was held at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, a center of right-wing Polish diaspora activity in the United States. The event had a number of other far-right participants and sponsors, and also drew Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, who stopped by for approximately 15 minutes according to his Capitol Hill office.

Even more jarring is Kurek’s appearance, on April 18, in the downstairs church at the St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Academy in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn—A writer credibly accused of twisting the historical record of the Holocaust to inflame divisions between Poles and Jews gave a talk in a borough where perhaps as many as one in four residents are Jewish. All three of Kurek’s speeches were in Polish.

“What is particularly alarming,” Mark Weitzman, Director of Government Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a former chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial said of Kurek’s U.S. speeches, “is the fact that professional anti-Semites and Holocaust distorters are finding audiences and mining U.S. communities for support.”

Kurek’s trip around the northeast came at a sensitive moment for relations between Poland and the Jewish world. Earlier this year, a law criminalizing claims of Polish responsibility for the Holocaust sparked a diplomatic confrontation between Poland and Israel while ripping open one of the deepest wounds in both Polish and Jewish history. Kurek’s tour of America shows that the fight over the historical memory of the Holocaust in Poland is taking on a noxious character even in the U.S. As Havi Dreifuss, a historian of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe at Tel Aviv University and Yad Vashem put it, “Kurek is using the Holocaust and using Jewish history and Polish history in order to spread hate.” For a week in April, she was doing that right here in the United States.

Kurek’s highest-profile talk was at the Smolensk commemoration in Doylestown on April 14. A flyer for the event indicates that it was co-sponsored by a number of Polish diaspora groups, including the local chapter of the Polish American Congress, the Coalition of Polish Americans, and the Slavic Federal Credit Union. One notable co-sponsor included the Perth Amboy, New Jersey-based Friends of Radio Maryja, which supports a far-right Polish radio station that the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism called “one of Europe’s most blatantly anti-Semitic media venues,” and whose anti-Semitism is so plentiful that the outlet has en entire dedicated page on the Anti-Defamation League’s website. Friends of Radio Marijya is also a member of the Smolensk Disaster Commemoration Committee, the group most directly responsible for organizing the Doylestown event.  The Committee also includes the Gazeta Polska clubs of New Jersey, New York City, and Philadelphia.

John Czop, the treasurer of the Smolensk Committee and the director of policy planning for the national-level Polish American Congress, said that Kurek discussed a “Hasidic Jewish poet” during her talk who supposedly “claimed that the Polish state had nothing to do with the mass murder of Polish Jewry.” The assertion of official Polish blamelessness for the Holocaust was “the gist of Kurek’s remarks,” Czop said. Czop specified that the Committee “never wrote a check to Ewa Kurek” for her appearance. “She has a lot of wealthy friends in the United States,” he added.

Kurek appeared on a panel with Marek Jan Chodakiewcz of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for World Politics, who argued that Poland bore little responsibility for the 1968 anti-Semitic purges that resulted in the expulsion of many of the country’s remaining Jews. “Chodakiewcz delivered a lecture on March 1968 in Poland about how the accusation of anti-Semitism leveled at the Polish nation and the Polish people was manufactured and was a creation of Soviet propaganda. The Kremlin wanted to purge the Polish Communist Party of one faction and put the other faction into power,” Czop recalled of Chodakiewcz’s talk. In a Polish-language article earlier this year, Chokadiewcz fretted that the purges would likely be viewed through the prism of Polish anti-Semitism during their upcoming 50th anniversary, and claimed that it was trans-national communists and not Poles who brought about the expulsions.

When reached for comment by email, Chodakiewcz clarified that his speech covered “Soviet policy toward Israel before and after the stunning Jewish victory in 1967. I argued that virtually EVERY major policy was imposed by Moscow and/or vetted by it. I showed how the Six Day War triggered an anti-Jewish propaganda offensive first in the Soviet press. And I explained how the purge in 1968 started at the top: Polish ethnic and other Communists targeted the Communists of Jewish origin, and then the operation spread down, impacting regular folks.”

Kurek was not the only participant in the Smolensk commemoration with a history of problematic statements about Jews. In 2002, Antoni Macierewicz, a former defense minister who headed a parliamentary inquiry into the Smolensk disaster, told Radio Maryja that he thought the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, while possibly fake, might still be an accurate reflection of reality. Jan Zaryn, who was also listed as attending the event, is a far-right parliamentarian who introduced a resolution denying most Polish responsibility for the 1968 purges, and has called for the prosecution of the Princeton Holocaust historian Jan Tomasz Gross.

There were more mainstream figures in attendance too. Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick made a brief appearance, although his Washington office claimed that he did not stick around for the panel discussions and was not familiar with Kurek, Zaryn, or Friends of Radio Maryja. Czop said that a representative from the Polish Consulate in New York was in attendance as well, and the Consulate confirmed to Tablet that vice consul Mateusz Gmura went to the event.

Weitzman said he worried that Fitzpatrick may have “passively legitimized the event,” even if the congressman didn’t know anything about Kurek or the conference’s other participants. “If someone appears on a platform with David Duke or Richard Spencer or Louis Farrakhan, they have to accept responsibility for that,” Weitzman said, adding that he considers Kurek to be roughly analogous to them.

In Czop’s view, Kurek is a serious historian whose work is methodologically rigorous. “She’s done careful research in resources in Israel and in Poland, so she needs to be taken seriously,” he said.

Chodakiewcz defended Kurek’s scholarship, even though he said he didn’t agree with all of it. “[F]or a very long time her scholarship was admired,” he wrote. “She did solid work on rescue during the Holocaust, in particular in convents and monasteries.”

According to Kurek’s online CV, she has presented papers at Princeton and at a 1988 conference at Yad Vashem. Czop said that the first time he saw Kurek speak was at Columbia University in 2007, in a talk introducing the arguments from her bookJewish-Polish Relations 1939-1945: Beyond the Limits of Solidarity. In the speech, Czop recalled, Kurek argued that “Polish Jewry tried to get an autonomy arrangement from Nazi Germany similar to the autonomy arrangement that they had been trying to work out with the Polish state.” According to Czop, Kurek claimed that “at least until the invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941…Nazi policy towards Polish Jewry was essentially one of having them govern themselves in their own ghettos.”

This is an odd definition of self-governance—but it was offered at an event held at an Ivy League institution, by an author of nine books with a PhD from the Catholic University of Lublin. Kurek studied under the late Polish foreign minister and Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, and the forward to her 1992 book Your Life Is Worth Mine: How Polish Nuns Saved Hundreds of Jewish Children in German-Occupied Poland, 1939-1945, was written by none other than Jan Karski (Last month, Karski’s literary executor strongly objected to Kurek being given the Dialogue’s award).

To her critics, Kurek’s credentials are part of what makes her such an alarming figure. She is an expert in the very historical record she’s accused of twisting: Because she gives consideration to Jewish sources, has had multiple books translated into English, and displays a bland professorial evenness during her public appearances, a typical listener might not be able to detect any bad faith lurking behind her words. She is maybe the only legitimate Holocaust scholar to have become an alleged Holocaust revisionist or distorter during a later phase of her career. When asked for potential precedents, David Silberklang, the editor-in-chief of Yad Vashem Studies and a leading expert on the Holocaust in Poland, could only think of the British Holocaust denier David Irving, who lacked Kurek’s extensive formal credentials and was never taken seriously as an academic historian.

Your Life Is Worth Mine, the book for which she is still best known, recounted Polish nuns’ efforts to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. Experts have noted some odd methodological choices in the book, which is based almost entirely on the memoirs of the nuns themselves and might have overestimated the extent to which Polish orders protected Jewish children during the war. “Outside of Poland the book was not considered to be top-notch scholarship,” said Silberklang. Yet to certain ears—and to people who wouldn’t necessarily know better—Kurek does not sound like an ideological extremist, but a fair-minded scholar who bases her work on historical evidence that Poland’s Jews themselves left behind.

“When you hear what was published by her and in her name in the last few weeks or months, you can see that the problem is not that she doesn’t know the history—she knows the historical facts. But she is distorting them,” said Dreifuss.

Katka Reszke, a Polish-born writer, artist, and Jewish educator who attended Kurek’s April 11 talk in Boston, said that Kurek has a favorite rhetorical trick: She’ll quote a contemporaneous`Jewish source, like a diary or a letter, as if it is the final word on a given topic and without providing any context that would complicate the historical narrative she is trying to construct. This tactic enables her to use Jews’ own words to confirm a hardline Polish nationalist narrative of the Holocaust, while also making Kurek herself appear broad-minded and evidentially rigorous. “She does this great job of quoting the sources that she wants to quote while not quoting other sources,” said Reszke. “But as a historian who has clearly read a lot about this, she’s obviously also read the stuff she doesn’t want to quote.”

Silberklang had a similarly unsparing verdict on Kurek’s work. “She doesn’t deny that Nazi Germany wanted to kill the Jews and that Jews were killed. She’s not a Holocaust denier in that sense,” he said. “But she distorts things so radically and so egregiously that she’s basically in the realm of Holocaust denial, or at least extreme distortion.”

Based on her April 18 speech in Greenpoint, which is partially available on YouTube, this is a defensible statement. According to Zygmunt Staszewski, a member of the Polish-Jewish dialogue who helped nominate Kurek for the Jan Karski prize, the Brooklyn talk was planned by Witold Rosowski, a journalist and activist known in Polish diaspora circles for his staunch right-wing views. Rosowski moderated the question-and-answer period at the Greenpoint talk and sat at a front table during her speech. When reached by email, Rosowski said he “helped to ensure the location for Dr. Ewa Kurek’s lecture in Greenpoint.” He said the talk was organized by “just a few people” and wasn’t sponsored by any organization.

During the Greenpoint event, Kurek made the incendiary claim that Poland’s urbanized and assimilated Jews took advantage of the Nazi occupation in order to help exterminate the country’s Hasidic population, whom Poland’s more educated Jews hated. “A few assimilated Jews survived the war: Some doctors or lawyers who during the war were most often members of the Jewish police and murdered Hasidim,” she said. The “enlightened elite” of Polish Jewry—most of whom survived the conflict because of their willingness to work with the Nazis, according to Kurek—had decided that “the rabble must perish.”

Kurek drifted into similarly odd territory when discussing the communist period during her Greenpoint speech, making liberal use of the phrase “żydokomuna”—a loaded term that vaguely translates to “Judeo-communism”—while claiming that much of the Jewish population in Poland today is descended from Jews who arrived with the Red Army at the tail-end of WWII.

Rosowski does not believe Kurek is an anti-Semite. If anything, he wrote, she is “a philo-Semite  since she presented a great interest in Jewish history, culture and faith in her life…There are very few people like her.” He said he was involved in organizing the Greenpoint speech because Kurek “is quite famous in Poland,” partly as a result of the controversies surrounding the country’s Holocaust law. “The alleged anti- Semitism of Dr. Kurek is probably coming from her telling the details of Ghetto in Lodz, where Chaim Rumkowski, as the Jewish commandant of the Ghetto, had a big role in sending Jews to German concentration camps,” Rososwki wrote. “She also stays firm, as have all Polish and Polish- Americans, defending the new law—stating that the death camps were German, built by Germans on the invaded and occupied territory of former Poland.”

As Rosowski suggests, many Poles resent being blamed for a German crime committed on their land. But Kurek’s recent career shows how legitimate grievances can spark much darker impulses. Reszke, the Polish-born author who attended Kurek’s speech at a church in Boston on April 11—the night of Yom HaShoah— explained that one of the eeriest things about the talk came from what she intuited about the other 50 or so people in the room, who might not have borne any specific ill will toward Jews and whose sense of hurt at slanders against the Polish people was sincerely felt. “The people that listen to her and that read her books don’t realize the manipulation behind it,” said Reszke. “They take it at face value and it perpetuates some feelings that they might have and also strengthens this idea that all Jews hate them.” At Kurek’s talk, Reszke said, she could see how seamlessly hatred could be repackaged into a normative worldview that people wouldn’t consciously question. “I think there’s danger in perpetuating anti-Semitism that doesn’t see itself as anti-Semitism,” she added, reflecting on the event. She left the talk wondering “how many decades or centuries” it would take to bridge the divisions on display.

Reszke recorded the entirety of Kurek’s speech, and took copious notes. Kurek returned to the idea that urbanized Jews had aided the Nazis in wiping out most of Poland’s Jewish population: “I’m telling you about the scale of Jewish collaboration in the murder of Jews. Collaboration in the murders and in the catching of Jews and in deporting them was overwhelming,” Kurek reportedly said—“she keeps reporting that it’s all in Jewish sources,” Reszke added.

“Who survived?” Kurek continued, according to Reszke. “Jewish policeman, doctors from the ghetto infirmaries who didn’t cure people but sent them to their death. Such beasts survived and these beasts created the little tale to obscure the truth about what really happened.” That “tale” refers to the widely accepted narrative about the Holocaust, which tends to assign some measure of guilt to societies that either aided in the purge of their Jews or did little to actually halt the carnage. “Most of the time it sounded like she was coming to the defense of the Germans more than the Poles,” Reszke observed. After all, “she’s speaking to a crowd that’s already convinced the Poles had nothing to do with any of the murders.”

Reszke did not necessarily plan on confronting Kurek. But she said she had come to her speech out of a sense of moral obligation, both to record Kurek’s statements and to challenge them if the opportunity arose. Toward the end of the talk, Kurek returned to another of her more controversial claims: The idea that Jews had chosen to live in the ghettos during WWII, which afforded protection from the chaos of wartime Poland. “As I was sitting there listening to this babble I kept saying to myself: Don’t say anything, don’t say anything, don’t speak, because it’s really not going to go down very well…In a way, I don’t remember making a conscious decisions to speak. I just heard myself talking.”

How, Reszke asked towards the end of the event amid an increasingly hostile crowd, does Kurek understand the fact that the Warsaw Ghetto was walled, with watchtowers to prevent people from leaving? Is that the sign of a happy and voluntary social arrangement?  “I say: So you’re saying it was the Jewish community’s idea to build a wall around the Warsaw ghetto? She said yes. Then she called me a young, undereducated little person and the crowd applauded.”

Reszke approached Kurek when the talk ended. Kurek asked for her business card. Reszke then tried to give Kurek an idea of the damage she was doing to the already fragile relationship between Jews and Poles. “I told her that I’ve lived in the States for over ten years and I’ve actually been doing quite a lot of work in my writing and in my public speaking talking about Poland today and the Jewish community in Poland and how things aren’t as bad as a lot of people think, and how there’s renewal and there’s Jewish life there—and now it’s because of people like you that I have a problem.” According to Reszke, all Kurek could say in response was a sharp “goodbye.”

Tablet intern Theo Canter contributed reporting to this article


Now Streaming on Amazon, Masterful Documentary Captures the Haunting History of Moldovan Jews

‘Absent’ is a deeply personal and moving work

Had history gone another way, I might have grown up in a rural Moldovan village.

So begins Absent, the masterful 2015 documentary film by director Matthew Mishory. As history did not go another way, Mishory’s father and grandparents left Moldova before WWII, and he grew up in Los Angeles. Absent documents his journey to Mărculeşti, a small village in the country’s north, as the first of his family to return since the war. The film has finally completed its run of the festival circuit and is now streaming on Amazon.

Those expecting a whimsical portrait of the old country are sure to be disappointed. Absent is the anti-Everything is Illuminated, and perfectly captures what the author Robert D. Kaplan calls “the familiar hollowness in the ambience common to cities and towns throughout Eastern Europe where the Jews had either been killed or had emigrated”. In the summer of 1941, Mărculeşti, then almost entirely Jewish, was invaded by Ion Antonescu’s Romanian forces, who massacred its residents. A concentration camp was established on the outskirts of the village, one last stop for the Jews of Bessarabia before their final deportation to the nearby Transnistria Governorate.

Mishory and crew wander through the town, asking the residents what they know about their local history. Predictably, most of the children have only the vaguest notions. A woman, proud of her “Jewish house” (it lets in less of the cold, and she can’t afford to pay for heating), guesses the Jews left because “they have a better life where there are now, but I don’t know why they left their houses behind”. Her daughter says that they were killed for their cleverness. A meeting with the town historian is even more disappointing; he speaks warmly of the town’s pre-war period, with its six synogogues, but denies the massacre and the looting that followed.

Though Absent does not dwell much on Mishory’s ancestral story, it is obviously a work of deep personal meaning for him. He visits the mayor in Mărculeşti’s town hall, formerly the Jewish schoolhouse where Mishory’s own grandfather was principal. “These are minor moments in the film, but personally, they have stayed with me,” Mishory told me in a recent interview. “Mostly what lingers is the landscapes, the feel of the place. The family letters I’ve read, the ones from the 1930s about not wanting to leave Bessarabia and reluctantly setting out to Eretz Israel, suddenly made sense.” Mishory’s father’s grandfather, grandmother, aunt, and her husband were all murdered in the massacres of June 1941, in the “Cleansing of the Land”. “They died in a village not far from Mărculeşti, or on one of the death marches to Transnistria,” he said. “It’s probably impossible to know for sure, but they were almost certainly killed by Romanians and not Nazis. My father’s other set of grandparents were ‘lucky’ to have been deported to Siberia for their Zionism by the Soviets just before the invasion. They lived out the war there and died in Siberia. They never saw my grandmother again.”

With its lingering shots of the village’s asbestos roofs and abandoned Jewish graveyard, and its scoreless soundtrack, Absent is a haunting experience. Mishory cites Claude Lanzmann as an obvious influence, but the film is almost Sebaldian in tone, taking its time to painstakingly circumnavigate Mărculeşti’s atrocities before finally and horrifically homing in on its valley of death.

I asked Mishory what his feelings were before setting out on his journey, and whether they changed over the course of putting the film together. “I came into the project a committed Zionist, and came out with my convictions strengthened,” he said. “But the history of Mărculeşti and the Holocaust pose impossible intellectual and theological questions. All I can say is that my feelings about what happened in Mărculeşti are complicated. I remain a practicing Jew. And I also have serious doubts about human nature. I’m angry that people who live overlooking a killing field lie about their history. But I also have a lot of empathy for the current residents of the village and their difficult circumstances.”

It’s been over four years since Mishory and crew paid a twenty-dollar bribe at the Romania-Moldova border crossing to gain entry to the poorest country in Europe, beginning a shoot which Mishory described as quick and difficult. There were logistical challenges, of course, but also personal ones. “My father was already quite ill when I started the film,” Mishory said. “I think I was very much aware that my living connection to the place would not be around much longer, so it was the time to act. And that came to pass; my father died as I was editing the movie. I am now the only living member of my family who has been to Mărculeşti, and I will probably be the last.”


Distorting the Holocaust in Hungary

Seventy-four years to the day after Nazi Germany’s occupation of Hungary, we are not done defending the truth of what happened in Budapest, of how Otto Komoly carried himself in the war, and whether Rudolf Kasztner’s ‘Blood for Goods’ rescue train was a noble or morally abhorrent act

As a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, I was horrified to discover a recent book by a right-wing journalist called Paul Bogdanor, titled Kasztner’s Crime, in which he accuses the Labor Zionist leader of collaborating with the SS. I’m not a journalist or politician, but I was there! It also happens that Otto Komoly, president of the Budapest Jewish Rescue Committee (JRC), was my uncle, and I have access to his wartime diary, and through it a well-grounded understanding of the heroic work of the JRC. I wish to correct the falsification of history that I lived through before it spreads any further.

The cornerstone of Bogdanor’s argument is the assumption that, had it not been for Rudolf Kasztner’s feigned acceptance of Adolf Eichmann’s proposed Blood for Goodsdeal, in which the Nazis promised to exchange a million Jews for 10,000 trucks and various supplies needed by the German army, an entirely different situation could have materialized, and hundreds of thousands of Jews could, in fact, have been saved. He says outright in places, and implies often between the lines, that there could have been a mass exodus or armed Hungarian Jewish resistance to the oppressors, on the model of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. But latter-day sophistry will not turn a Hungarian Jewish revolt into reality.

Anyone who has not lived through those days must tread very, very carefully if he wants to venture an opinion or criticism. If you were not there, you cannot imagine the fears, the uncertainty, the illusory desire to find some magic solution to our predicament. Feigning acceptance of the Blood for Goods deal was a desperate attempt to salvage something, or gain time for survival, however small the chance. Some of us were lucky that the time ran out for the murderers and we slipped through the net. Most did not.

It is not surprising that Bogdanor picks Kasztner as the target of his book. For a start, Kasztner survived while Otto Komoly died a martyr’s death. The latter was respected by every historian and researcher; he is remembered as the one person who managed to generate a consensus amongst the different fractions and opinions with his considered and powerful arguments. The former was a subject of controversy in postwar Israel both in contrast with Hannah Szenes (who ultimately was herself a victim, but who failed to save anyone) and also as a target of the right (in the famous Kasztner Trial and Hecht’s book Perfidy). As a witness, and as a possessor of historical materials that are crucial to understanding this argument, I want to address these questions about the past from the vantage point of historical truth as filtered through my lived experience, and the experience of my uncle.

Hungary fought on the side of Germany in the last war. Hungarian Jews, with their huge contribution to the industrial, scientific, commercial, and cultural life of the country, could not understand the Damocles sword hanging over their existence when Hitler came to power. In part to appease Hitler, the Hungarian government introduced its own anti-Jewish laws, and in 1943 my father and all Jewish men aged between 18 and 50 were called up into forced labor units of the Hungarian army, doing hard and dangerous work under inhuman conditions.

The German Army physically occupied Hungary in March 1944, and Eichmann arrived with only about 200 SS men. In June 1944 the Budapest government designated around 2,000 apartment buildings for Jewish occupation, each building marked with a yellow star. My home in the suburbs was taken over with all its contents by neighbors and my father’s business by his foreman. We were allowed to go out between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. wearing a yellow star, and the concierge was to report to the Arrow Cross (the Hungarian Fascist organization, which toppled the government of Miklos Horthy, which had refused to transport Hungarian Jews to death camps) on all our movements. People committed suicide. Supervision and enforcement of these edicts were taken overenthusiastically by the 22,000 Hungarian gendarmes and later the Arrow Cross.

The prewar Jewish leadership was out of its depth in the face of these developments. In his book “Dealing With Satan,” Ladislaus Loeb introduced a very useful extension of the classical psychological choice of “fight or flight” that of “freeze.” The freezing is associated with a sense of the utter impossibility of escape, which may lead to total submission. This is what happened. At each of the stages of the Holocaust in Hungary, you can see obedience, falling into line, following orders and self-subjugation.

The Budapest Jewish Council (Judenrat or “Zsido Tanacs”) was formed March 21, by order of the Gestapo. The president of the Council Samu Stern recalled that the Nazis nominated the body’s members, from the former circle of Jewish leaders, and it remained entirely under German command. Its members came from the Neologue and Orthodox religious, at least three different alignments of Zionists, the Palestine Office/ Jewish Agency and a representative of the 100,000 (!) converted Jews. Their role—defined by adherence to law and loyalty to the oppressors—remains disputed.

The members could achieve small compromises and agreements, but at worst there was outright animosity and competition. Understandably some just tried to further their own and their families’ survival. How could they be an example and lead the masses? Cooperating smoothly with the staff of Eichmann, they issued decrees, summoned meetings, sequestered property, organized ghettos and collecting camps, and delivered people for deportation.

Their best efforts included trying to influence the German and Hungarian authorities to obstruct and halt the deportations.

When the Arrow Cross seized power in October, and after the ghetto for 70,000 was set up in Budapest, the Council worked to protect and feed Jews forced into the ghetto. In summary, we can say that the Jewish Council was fundamentally well-intentioned but faced an extreme moral dilemma, without acceptable alternatives. If one accepted membership on the Council, he facilitated the smooth execution of the deportations in accordance with German plans and became morally implicated in the death of his people. If the Council had failed to execute orders, another council would have taken its place without the close ties to various political circles maintained by the traditional leadership. They decided poorly because it was impossible to decide well. Almost the entire rural Jewish population of 500,000-600,000 were deported by July 1944.

The Hungarian Zionist movement was divided along the same lines as in Palestine. On the left were the Ihud (later the Mapai) Hashomer Hatzair, Maccabee Hatzair, Bné Akiva, Gordonia and the Dror. On the right was Betar amd Klal, and the religious Mizrachi. Their open animosity among the various groups was difficult for even the Jewish leadership to understand, and it continued during the German occupation.

My uncle Otto Komoly stepped into this quagmire, as leader of the Hungarian Zionist Association, in 1940. Born as Nathan Kohn (March 26, 1892) into a Zionist family, he was educated as an engineer and drafted in the Hungarian Army in WWI. He was injured in action and subsequently decorated. After the war, his military honors gave him credibility with government and the military. He wrote two books on Zionism: A zsidó nép jövője (The Future of the Jewish People; 1919), and Cionista életszemlélet (Zionist View of Life; 1942). His family was considering emigration to Palestine in 1939, but he decided to stay in Hungary to help local Jews escape persecution by using his status and influence. He was exempted from discriminatory anti-Jewish laws.

Seeing the hopeless antagonisms among Zionists and within the Jewish Council (which at this point he refused to join), Komoly joined together with Rudolf Kasztner, Joel and Hansi Brand and others to create the Aid and Rescue Committee(Va‘adat ‘Ezrah ve-Hatsalah), which provided assistance to Jews fleeing from Poland and Slovakia, as well as Hungary. After the Germans occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944, Komoly also became the head of the International Red Cross department in charge of helping Jewish children. With the help of the embassies of Switzerland (Carl Lutz), Sweden (Raoul Wallenberg) and other neutral countries, they created 35 refuges for about 6,000 children and 600 volunteers, and safe houses for tens of thousands of others. These (including myself) were ultimately saved from deportation and possible extermination.

Komoly’s committee initiated and carried on negotiations with both German and Hungarian authorities. He negotiated with the Hungarians (the so-called Line A), carrying on discussions with members of the Hungarian government and with associates of the political and ecclesiastic elite, using his connection with the son of the governor and military leaders. Under his leadership, the Aid and Rescue Committee organized non-Jewish protests against Nazi policies in Hungary, especially among the clergy and politicians. Brand and Kasztner concentrated on the German Line B.


Some interesting facts emerge from Komoly’s 1944 diary, which starts with the sentence: “I wonder whether these pages will ever be filled?” After hundreds of references to meetings and individuals, there are notes such as “terribly tired, not least because of the news of deportations,” “had little sleep, can hardly stay awake at the meeting” and (about the train’s passenger list): “unceasing flow of people, I and Szilagyi despair at the task of selecting people and the associated unavoidable injustice.” And when being asked by Mester (the minister for justice and religion) to consider joining a future government: “God forbid that a Jew should ever get involved in Hungarian internal politics.”

By the winter the JRC operated indirectly nine offices, together with 31 children’s refuges, eight kitchens, 14 food stores and supported 21 hospitals. Although Otto supposedly had at his disposal a government driver, he often did not turn up, and on a typical day, he would have to walk over 6 miles. He still wanted to maintain his family life, and after a tiring day he would return home late and sit down to play chess with his daughter Lea. When his brother Lajos was rounded up in October he managed to rescue him, but despite every effort, he was despairingly unsuccessful in finding either my aunt Ilona or my father in November, and they perished.

Beginning Oct. 22, 1944, Komoly decided to become a member of the Jewish Council, to try to influence their activities. The threat made some Jewish leaders work closer together, while in other cases, antagonisms deepened. Although the Zionist Komoly and the anti-Zionist Stern were gradually able to cooperate, the relationship with Fülöp Freudiger, the Orthodox member of the Jewish Council, had its ups and downs. As for Miklós Krausz, secretary of the Palestine Office, his talks with Komoly and Kasztner were always tense. The tension was heightened among the Zionist leaders by the escape of Freudiger and his family and friends to Romania, and by the role Krausz played. Stern eventually went into hiding.

Gaining time was about the only objective on which there could be agreement between Zionists and anti-Zionists. Knowing from his diary and many other sources about the difficulty of achieving even a small compromise and agreement within the Jewish Council, it is appropriate to ask who could have achieved anything in the way of the rescue of the majority.

In the midst of all this, the position of the Jewish Rescue Committee became abundantly clear: There was no hope of receiving assistance from abroad or from domestic sources. Eichmann launched the Blood for Goods deal to Kasztner and Brand on the basis of the release of 1 million Jews to neutral territory in exchange for 10,000 trucks and other goods from the Allies. The Rescue Committee bluffed and pretended to subscribe to the deal, knowing full well that whatever international connections they could muster, they would never be able to persuade the Allied leadership to bring forth the goods. It was never more than a high-stakes poker game, to gain time.

The Germans, on the other hand, wanted to test whether this was an avenue to gain something material for their fight on the Eastern front, and to generate an anti-Soviet coalition (as in 1917-21). All of this was, of course, totally unrealistic, but nonetheless, it was also the only hope for the possible rescue of Hungarian Jews. Following the Allied landing in France, and the Red Army advances, the Germans could feel the heat and had every reason to try to create alibis.

In June 1944, the so-called Kasztner Train was allowed to leave as a test of the scheme, with 1,684 Jews departing Budapest for the safety of neutral Switzerland. Neither Kasztner nor Komoly were amongst the passengers. Most historians argue that Kasztner’s negotiations saved another 20,000 Hungarian Jews by diverting them to an Austrian labor camp instead of Auschwitz. (Hailed by some as a Holocaust hero and reviled by others as a collaborator, Kasztner was assassinated in 1957 in Israel.)

When the Hungarian fascists took over the government in October 1944, they enthusiastically restarted the deportations that had been suspended in July (my aunt Elvira committed suicide on Oct. 17). In November they ordered the setting up of a ghetto. The decree of the Minister of Defense issued Oct. 22, 1944, ordered all remaining Jews, men between 16 and 60 and all women between 16 and 40, to report for forced labor. By then the Allies led day and night bombing raids while we were squatting in the cellars, engaged in a strange wishful thinking, hoping that the bombs reached their targets while at the same time knowing that we could equally be the victims. If we got hit too, so what? That was our fighting chance for survival.


So at which point does Paul Bogdanor suggest that we should have started resisting? Who could have risen to the challenge? Uncle Fisher, the blind friend of my grandmother? The Jewish concierge of our yellow star house, who betrayed my father to the Arrow Cross when he came home to see my mother from forced labor? The rich Jews who tried to bribe their way onto the Kasztner train? The mothers who aborted their children? My aunt, Elvira? The 100,000 converted Jews who didn’t believe themselves to be Jewish?

People like Bogdanor can glibly speak about Jews taking a chance to escape or fight. But is he serious? Perhaps most illustrative example I know of concerns my mother, who at one point found herself among a group of 200 women rounded up by four Arrow Cross men and being marched toward a collection camp. When my mother made a run for it, the young recruits took shots at her but missed. The ensuing confusion was the perfect opportunity for some or even most of the others to try and do likewise—make a run—but instead, they stayed put and awaited their fate.

In neighboring countries, there was a natural if sporadic resistance to the German occupiers, but the Warsaw and Slovak uprisings were quashed in August, notwithstanding local support and the Soviet Army within reach. Who would have supported a mass uprising of Hungarian Jews, had such an event somehow occurred? There were no partisans in Hungary. The Hungarian population was 90 percent aligned with the Fascists, both out of anti-Semitism and for personal gain. Only Protestant priests visited some Jewish families and christened their children in the vague hope of ensuring their survival.

By this time, Budapest Jewry consisted largely of older women and men, children, and the sick and disabled. Escaping to the hills, never mind fighting, was a daydream for half-a-million middle-class weaklings, for whom hiding and bribery were the furthest feats that they could imagine undertaking. The remaining miserable Jews of Budapest were waiting for a miracle. We were willing with a few exceptions to obey orders just because civilized members of society do so. The option was clear-cut: Behave yourself, follow instructions, lie low and you’ll have a small chance of survival—resist, and you’re sure to die. In the eyes of Hungarian Jewry, the only tradeoff was between following orders (including being loaded onto trains) or being subjected to the immediate physical brutality of the Nazis. Our resistance consisted of false papers, hiding valuables, cheating and lying, and conversion to Christianity. Some also made conscious attempts to preserve the history and communal life of the Jewish people despite Nazi efforts to eradicate the Jews from human memory. The only exceptions were the Zionist youth in hiding.

The young Zionists’ mentality differed from that of average Hungarian Jews; it never occurred to them to respect the law and obey orders. The Zionist youth was the only faction of our community that considered resistance, but they were basically toothless. Joel Brand wrote in his memoirs that by May 1944 they had a weapons cache of 150 pistols, three handguns, 40 grenades, and two machine guns.

Ultimately, the Zionists were only involved in secret talks, printing false documents, investigating secret routes out of the country (Romania—from the frying pan into the fire!), not taking up arms, but followed the tactics of bribery, hiding and forging high-quality official papers such as Palestine visas and Christian identity cards that were essential for staying alive, and assisting refugees. As one of them put it: “I do not wish to have a kibbutz in Palestine be named after me; I hope to live there myself.” The Zionist youth who tried in some of the ghettoes and collecting camps to spread the terrifying news about the death camps were received in most cases with animosity and incredulity. People called the information scare-mongering. In some cases, they were chased away, and in others, they were handed over to the police or gendarmes.

From October until the liberation, the Zionist headquarters was the “Glass House” in Vadász Street, Budapest. Dressed in German and Hungarian army uniforms and presenting fake orders, they fanned out across the city to rescue people from the hands of Arrow Cross gangs. This was the place where they produced for distribution documents proving Christianity, and an increasing number of forged protective Schutzpass. Members of Zionist youth organizations brought food and other provisions to the children’s homes, and they took an active part in efforts to supply the “large” ghetto of Pest with food.

Against this background, the decision by the Palestinian Zionists to drop three ill-trained volunteers into Yugoslavia with instructions to enter Hungary, and generate armed resistance seems retrospectively ill-judged. Hanna Szenes was arrested immediately as she crossed into Hungary along the southern border, and she was tortured and executed by the Arrow Cross in November. Two of her companions, Emil Nussbacher (aks Yoel Palgi) and Ferenc Goldstein were also nabbed. Nussbacher managed to escape from captivity, while Goldstein lost his life in a Nazi concentration camp.

With negotiations still going on but increasingly endangered, Otto moved into the Hotel Ritz where Hans Weyermann, the other representative of the International Red Cross, and many German officers lived, thereby enabling Komoly to maintain continual contact. On Jan. 1, 1945, just before the arrival of the Soviet army in Budapest, the Arrow Cross militia picked him up. Nothing else is known about him, and it is assumed that he was murdered by them. Komoly received posthumously an award from the Hungarian post-war President Tildy for his activities. The B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and KKL-JNF held a ceremony at its Martyr’s Forest Scroll of Fire Plaza on April 8, 2013—Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day—to commemorate the rescue activities of Otto Komoly. Several letters from the surviving children were read out to the audience. In his honor, a moshav in southern Israel (Yad Natan), is named after him. A number of towns in Israel have streets named after him.

There was only one group of criminals in this story: the Germans and their Hungarian helpers. The accusations brought against Kasztner and others who worked to save Jewish lives, at enormous risk to themselves and their families, are therefore totally unacceptable.

David Ben Gurion once said:

The Jews who were safe and secure during the Hitler era ought not to presume to judge their brethren who were burned and slaughtered, nor the few who survived … and those of our generation who did not experience this hell would do best (in my view) to remain silent in humility and grief.

One only need turn to Otto Komoly’s diary, and his repeated comments about total impotence and helplessness, about the horror of making the choices between those who would or would not go, to have even the slightest understanding of the situation. None of us should go around accusing a fellow Jew for what he or she did in those times, and certainly nobody who has not participated and suffered through those months and years, or lost substantial parts of their family, has any right to pontificate on the matter, whatever their credentials may be, or the amount of paperwork they may have sifted. It is a great shame that some think otherwise and that others again give them the space to spread their groundless accusations. If you’re lucky enough to not have lived through such horrendous times, you record the facts, praise the noble, but otherwise bow your head in humility. You have no right to judge.



The parade was what my father first saw when he arrived from Nazi Germany

The author’s father’s immigrant identification card issued March 17, 1939. (Courtesy of the author)

My father arrived in America from Germany in 1939, 75 years ago. It was March 17, St. Patrick’s Day—a holiday my father had never heard of—and New York City’s marching bands and colorful parade amazed him. If this was how America welcomed immigrants, it was truly fantastic.

St. Patrick’s Day would become my family’s special holiday, as unfailingly celebrated as Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July in our Chicago home. It was a day to wear green, see the Chicago River dyed emerald, watch the parade, and throw a party for my father.

Yet in the story of my father’s escape from Nazi Germany—a story he told hundreds of times until his death at 93—the bright St. Patrick’s Day arrival was inextricably linked to the dark memory of Kristallnacht, the violent night that marked the beginning of the Holocaust.

The two events were knotted together by luck, a confluence of circumstances and chance as unlikely and rare as the four-leaf clover that my father adopted as a personal symbol of his journey to America. That’s because on November 10, 1938—the very morning after Nazi storm troopers burned synagogues across Germany and Austria, trashed and looted Jewish homes and businesses, and sent some 30,000 Jewish men to concentration camps—my father had an appointment at the American Consulate in Stuttgart, Germany, 60 miles from his home in Mannheim, for his visa application.

My father’s boyhood friend, Karl, had joined the Nazi Party at age 18. He and my father argued bitterly, yet remained uneasy friends. Karl even took my father to hear the Nazi leader speak. Hitler “had everyone spellbound against the Jews,” my father would tell me. “They were the evil of everything wrong with Germany. On and on. Raving.”

“This Hitler is nuts,” he told Karl. But in 1933, when Hitler rose to power, Jewish professionals were fired, Jewish businesses “Aryanized” by forced sales. My father, a pharmacist’s apprentice, was summarily fired. He found another job, but was fired again in 1935, for the same reason.

“Get out of Germany, Eric,” Karl urged him. “We’re going to bury the Jews.”

But where could they go? Applicants for U.S. visas needed affidavits—usually from wealthy American relatives—promising support so the immigrant would not become a public charge. This requirement, often harshly interpreted, meant that quotas for German immigrants were never filled.

An affluent American relative? My father’s parents could think of no one.

Then, as if in a fairy tale, his mother awoke one morning having dreamed of an American woman who’d visited her family many years before. After a query to a cousin, they learned the visitor was Lucille Loveman, a distant and wealthy relative from Nashville, Tenn.

My father immediately wrote asking for help, and without any further questions, Mrs. Loveman sent an affidavit. It was 1937 when my father applied for a visa, and it would be a year before his number came up.

On November 8, 1938, Karl came to my father’s apartment to warn the family of the violence to come the following day. He urged them to hide and offered to take their valuables—gold rings and watches, a braided silver breadbasket, Shabbat candlesticks—for safekeeping. He wished them luck.

The next day and night, the family hid in the attic, nearly paralyzed with fear. But the following morning, my father had to keep his long-awaited visa appointment. On his way to the train station he walked alone through streets littered with shards of glass and burnt rubble, past the destroyed synagogue with its burned Torahs. He stopped to rescue a Torah that was still intact, hiding it among the ruins.

The American Consulate was ominously quiet. Usually, the building was jammed with applicants, a line flowing from the second floor offices to the street, winding around two blocks. Today, though, there were only two SS officers guarding the door. Bravely, my father strode past them.

He did not get a U.S. visa that day. A physical examination determined that he needed a hernia operation, and he went straight from the consulate to the hospital. But six weeks later, his visa was granted, and my father said goodbye to his family and left Germany for Holland, boarding a ship bound for America in late February 1939. Because of storms at sea, the passage lasted longer than expected and the ship arrived in New York on St. Patrick’s Day, Its passengers greeted by a band playing Irish music at the pier. My father’s uncle, a recent immigrant himself, insisted they go to Fifth Avenue to see the spectacular parade.

“I thought this is a wonderful country, to welcome the immigrants with a band and a parade!” my father always said.

Of course, America was not always so welcoming to many of the Jewish immigrants desperate to flee Nazi-controlled Europe. And my father’s happy ending depended heavily on luck—his mother’s dream of a wealthy relative in Tennessee, plus the unlikely help of a Nazi friend (who did, by the way, return the valuables).

Yet in remembering my father’s story I’m reminded that mourning one’s losses does not preclude finding joy where one can. And so for my family, St. Patrick’s Day will always be sufficient reason to celebrate.

Toby Sonneman is the author of Shared Sorrows: A Gypsy Family Remembers the Holocaust.


Prison No More

In Ferrara, a prison becomes a new museum of Italian Judaism—and of the Holocaust in Italy

In 1912, a two-story brick prison was inaugurated in Ferrara, a city in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region. Over its 80 years of operation, until it was closed in 1992, this was a bleak spot in the beautiful city. Among its detainees were Jews during the Fascist period. But two months ago, Ferrara saw a key step in the profound transformation of this location: On Dec. 13, 2017, the first day of Hanukkah, Italy’s National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah opened in the old prison. This is the initial phase of a monumental project—known as MEIS, after its initials in Italian—to be completed in 2020, with additional buildings that will create a major Jewish cultural hub.

The inaugural event was standing room only, bustling with news camera crews, international journalists, Ferrara residents, and Italian dignitaries, including President Sergio Mattarella. Curators and staff were ceremoniously thanked and acknowledged for their collaborative work to finally bring MEIS to the public. And the mission of MEIS is ambitious: to raise awareness of the vibrant 2,200 years of Italian Judaism, promoting dialogues on the topics of minorities, and of how different cultures interact through history.

In the words of the museum’s president, Dario Disegni, “Ferrara’s former prison, a place of segregation and exclusion, has become a place of inclusion.” Ferrara native Dario Franceschini, Italy’s minister of culture, called the opening “an important step forward, a dream achieved.”

The dream began in 2003 with an Act of Parliament, where all parties unanimously voted to support the initiative. What began as a plan for a Holocaust museum expanded in 2006 to a bigger project: to establish a museum to tell the story of two millennia of the Jewish experience in Italy. “The fact that this is a national project is what makes this museum unique in the world,” said MEIS Director Simonetta Della Seta. And unlike smaller, locally funded Jewish museums in Italy, this one is entirely funded, to the tune of 47 million euros, by the Italian government.

In 2011, Studio Arco of Bologna and SCAPE Sp.A Rome won an international competition to design the project. The team, comprising Italian, Japanese, and American architects, created a plan to retain and renovate two of the original Ferrara prison buildings, and to regenerate the property, opening it up in a light-filled, contemporary style to blend with the city.

Construction of five modern buildings, inspired by the five books of the Torah, will begin this year. These buildings will complete the cultural complex of free public spaces, an auditorium, museum shop, library, archives, educational suites, gardens, and restaurants. Work on the grounds was ongoing during the December opening, adding an energetic pulse, and a model of the completed project was displayed.

The museum’s current offerings comprise two parts. First a 24-minute immersive video, “Through the Eyes of the Italian Jews,” which takes viewers time-traveling through the entire history of Italian Judaism, using different narrative voices to personalize key experiences—from a Jewish man deported to Rome after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple to a scribe in the middle ages and a young girl expelled from school in 1938 because of racial laws. The video defines the MEIS vision: to tell the complicated story of the Jewish experience in Italy, which includes painful periods as well as times of peace and collaboration. Second is a 10,000-square-foot exhibit, filling two floors: “Jews, an Italian Story: The First Thousand Years.” Here large video images, texts from historical writers and curators, and over 200 objects from museums around the world—ancient coins, medieval manuscripts, amulets—present the integrative relationship between Jews and a Christian majority, a beneficial interchange that never involved assimilation or loss of identity.

“We are telling you a story of Italian Judaism through the objects of people who lived it,” said guide and curator Sharon Reichel, as she led guests through the exhibit. “It is a new way of telling the story in a Jewish museum. We are presenting a dialogue between a minority and majority, and that’s what makes this Italian story, that’s never been told this way before, so enriching.”

The exhibit, which will be open until Sept. 16, includes a reproduction of a relief from the Arc of Titus, commemorating Rome’s victory over the Jews in 70 CE. This is a landmark of the Jewish presence in Rome, a presence that has endured uninterrupted to the present day, making it the oldest Jewish community in the Western world. Jewish culture took root and flourished throughout the peninsula in the seventh to 11th centuries, as shown through synagogue mosaics, oil lamps inscribed with menorahs, catacomb frescos, and richly decorated manuscripts.

Much of the contents of “The First Thousand Years” will be retained for the final museum. And in the next couple years, exhibits focusing on the Jews in the Italian Renaissance and then the Shoah will be rolled out, a process that will complete the museum in stages for its 2020 opening. Opening one exhibit at a time, in the words of curator Danielle Jalla, “offers a rare opportunity to test out how the permanent exhibit could shape up, a sort of dress rehearsal before an audience.”

Ferrara was chosen as the location for MEIS because of its long history of active Judaism, documented back to Roman times. The high point of Jewish history in Ferrara came during the reign of the Estes in the 15th and 16th centuries, when the dukes opened the city to Jews who were expelled from Spain, Portugal, Germany, and Italy’s papal states, offering them freedom and protection. Jews thrived here during the Renaissance, working as money lenders, engineers, doctors, and in publishing. By 1589, 2,000 Jews lived in Ferrara, forming a community in what is now the historic center on Via Mazzini, Via Vignatagliata, and Via Vittoria.

But after the Este reign, Jews’ fortunes fell. In 1627, the Ferrara ghetto was introduced, mandating that Jews lived enclosed in its five gates until it was abolished when the Kingdom of Italy was formed in 1859. Liberation opened a period of renewed prosperity for the Ferrara Jews. They fought in WWI and integrated into the city politically: A Jewish mayor, Renzo Ravenna, governed from 1930 until 1938 when Fascist race laws began to be enforced. As WWII began, many of the 700 Jews living in Ferrara escaped. One hundred died in the Holocaust. When the war was over, only 150 returned.

At the museum’s opening, Andrea Pesaro, president of Ferrara’s 100-member Jewish Community, spoke to journalists about Judaism in Ferrara. Despite its small size, he said, the city’s Orthodox community carries on with services at their synagogue on Via Mazzini, which has been in continuous operation since the 15th century.

At 80, Pesaro joked that he brings the average age of the current Jewish community down. All are looking forward to the changes that MEIS will bring—hopefully an influx of new young people, perhaps not only from Italy but also Jews from other parts of the world who are passionate about the project and will revitalize the dwindling population. Inspired by the MEIS opening, the Ferrara tourist board is creating Jewish tourist itineraries for visitors, erecting signage throughout the former ghetto, offering guided tours, and creating a pedestrian path from the synagogue to the museum.

“MEIS will offer a cultural and tourism opportunity on an international scale,” said Franceschini, the culture minister, “just as the city deserves.”


Chava and Zenia

The friendship of two young writers from Lodz who survived the Holocaust and achieved very different kinds of literary fame

My mother’s best friend when she was growing up in Poland in the 1930s was Zenia Marcinkowska. Zenia would grow up to be an acclaimed novelist in Sweden under the name Zenia Larsson. My mother would also become a writer, the Yiddish novelist Chava Rosenfarb. So this is the story of the correspondence between two writers, both women, both born in Lodz, Poland, both survivors of the Holocaust. Neither writer is particularly well-known today, because they wrote in languages that have relatively few readers, Zenia in Swedish, Chava in Yiddish.

Let me begin with Zenia, whose trilogy about the Lodz ghetto, published in Swedish between 1960 and 1962 received great acclaim, because it was one of the first accounts of the Holocaust to be published in Sweden. Zenia’s trilogy became required reading for an entire generation of Swedes and was for many of them their first introduction to the horrors that the Jews had lived through during World War II.

Of the two women, Zenia was the older by one year, having been born in 1922. By the time she died in 2007, she had authored ten books, most of them novels. Yet despite her literary prominence in Sweden in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, she seems to be very little known there today and I have had a hard time finding out what happened to her papers after her death. However, I do know quite a lot about her life until the early 1970s, because she figures prominently in the memoirs and letters of Chava Rosenfarb, the Canadian writer who wrote in Yiddish and whose first published novel was also a trilogy about the Lodz ghetto.

For the past few years, I have been working on a biography of my mother’s life. During the course of my research, I came across a stash of letters written in Polish that were not, as might be expected, letters by Zenia to Chava, but rather Chava’s own letters to Zenia. The first of these letters is dated December 1945—that is, eight months after the two women’s liberation at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945—and the last is dated 1971. Zenia’s original letters to Chava I do not have, nor can I find where in Sweden they might be archived—assuming they are archived at all. What I do have is a book that Zenia published in Swedish in 1972 called Letters from a New Reality that gives her side of the correspondence. All the original correspondence was in Polish, because, unlike Chava, Zenia never went to a Yiddish-language Tsisho school in Lodz, so, while she understood Yiddish and could read it, she was far more comfortable writing in Polish. In order to publish her book she translated her own letters from Polish into Swedish.

The origin of Letters from a New Reality is this: In 1970 Zenia’s Swedish publisher asked her if she had any letters about her early experiences as a Holocaust survivor in Sweden. The Swedish rescue of Jewish Holocaust survivors in 1945 had been the largest such humanitarian undertaking by Sweden up to that time and it meant that a country whose population had been largely homogenous had to learn to accommodate a large group of traumatized foreigners who did not speak its language and whose religion was not Christianity. Zenia’s publisher wanted to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the event by publishing a book of letters by one of the best known of the rescued survivors, Zenia Larsson. Since the only person with whom Zenia had corresponded after settling in Stockholm after the war was Chava, Zenia asked Chava for her letters back, that they might be translated into Swedish and published. Chava, hurt by the request and not knowing the reason behind it, asked for her own letters back and that is how I come to have them.

Because I know neither Polish nor Swedish, I had to have Chava’s letters and Zenia’s book translated, so all the quotations that follow are the work of two translators, Krzysztof Majer from Polish to English, and Sylvia Soderland from Swedish to English. I am grateful to them both, because without their work I would never have known the story of this friendship. But the need for translation also underlines the complicated linguistic reality in which many Holocaust survivors lived after the war and which also determined the literary fates of the two women writers. I met Zenia only once, when I was a teenager on a trip to Europe with my parents. I remember her as a dark, slight, rather fragile-looking woman to whom I could not speak because she did not know English. Her Swedish husband made a greater impression on me because his English was fluent and we could converse—an example of how even memory has its linguistic component.

Zenia published Letters from a New Reality (in Swedish: Brev Fran En Ny Verk Lighet) in 1972. It is a very strange book. For one thing, the names have been changed. My mother’s very Jewish name Chava has become the very Swedish name Linn. My father’s name has morphed from the biblical Henekh to the non-descript Gover. My own name is changed from Goldie—the name I was given in honor of my grandmother who perished at Auschwitz—to Sandy. Why the changes? I have no idea. It might have been to protect the identity of my family or to circumvent libel laws. But even so, why give us such non-Jewish names? Equally puzzling is the fact that while some names are changed, others are not. The well-known Yiddish poet, Rokhl Korn, who stopped in Sweden on her way to resettlement in Montreal, is referred to by her actual name.

Zenia’s only comment on the name changes occurs in the introduction to her book. “Sometimes,” she writes, “it was necessary to change proper names, or replace them with a letter,” as she does with the name of the ghetto poet Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, who becomes merely the letter “S” in her book. She adds: “The letters are addressed to Linn—that in real life she has another name is of no consequence.”

Other changes are equally puzzling. For instance, Zenia describes Chava as a flaming redhead with brown eyes. This is, in fact, a description of my aunt, Chava’s younger sister. Chava was a brunette with hazel eyes. Nor can this simply be an honest mistake on Zenia’s part, because she and Chava were too close for too long. They saw each other regularly during the four and a half years they and their families were imprisoned in the Lodz ghetto. It was Chava who discovered the body of Zenia’s father, who had committed suicide in order that his wife and daughter receive his food rations. When the Nazis liquidated the ghetto in August 1944, Zenia and her stepmother joined Chava’s family in hiding in a second room in the Rosenfarbs’ flat that was hidden behind a dresser; they were deported to Auschwitz together, passed the selection together and then worked together in a forced labor camp at Sasel before finally being liberated at Bergen-Belsen. As Zenia reminds Chava in one of her letters, “We always made up the same group of five at roll-call in the camps.” It is simply not possible that Zenia forgot Chava’s hair color. Later in her book, Zenia implies that Linn—that is, Chava—is living in Australia, rather than in Canada.

As if all these changes were not puzzling enough, Zenia’s book ends very oddly, with a letter to an unidentified Swedish writer colleague that has no bearing on anything that has gone before and no further explanation of why the correspondence with Linn ends in 1971, nor of what happened to the two correspondents. There are undoubtedly other distortions and changes that Zenia’s letters underwent in being prepared for publication, not least in the translation from Polish to Swedish. It is almost as if Zenia is equally torn between the impulse to conceal and the urge to reveal.

Yet for all the distortions, I do believe that Zenia’s book, which gives only her side of the correspondence, is a valuable document, especially when set beside Chava’s own letters, because taken together the book and the letters chronicle the lives of two female Jewish writers, who lived through the horrors of the Holocaust together and then experienced the alienating reality of having to adjust to new lives in their adoptive countries.

Taken as a whole, the letters delineate an intense, if ambivalent, friendship—“the deep friendship of soulmates,” as Zenia puts it—especially in the early years, before time and distance and Zenia’s request for the return of her letters slowly estranged the two women from one another. They have much in common, not least similar artistic and literary aspirations. And then there is the fact of having just lived through one of the Jewish world’s greatest catastrophes.

The early letters of both women are filled with requests for information. Who of their acquaintance has survived? Where are they living? Chava is particularly anxious to get in touch with her former Latin teacher, who she believes is in Sweden. It takes a few years, but Zenia finally tracks down the teacher recuperating in a Stockholm hospital and eventually comes up with a mailing address.

Not surprisingly, many of the early letters are suffused with despair and a strong sense of alienation. Chava, in particular, is unsettled and her letters chronicle the anxiety of her statelessness. During the period from December 1945, when the first letters are exchanged, until 1950, she and her family are living illegally in Belgium. They must emigrate in five years. Where should they go? What country will take them?

On Zenia’s side, the letters are full of anxiety about fitting into her new country of Sweden. She is 23 years old when she arrives in 1945. She needs to learn Swedish, but there are no Swedish language classes for the new arrivals. She must find a job to support herself. The only jobs on offer are factory work, house cleaning, or working as a hospital orderly. There is no understanding of her wish to continue her schooling. In the meantime, she is totally alone and without resources.

She washes dishes to make money; she does odd jobs. But what she really wants is to study sculpture. She applies to the Swedish Academy of Art and is turned down. The Academy only accepts three applicants out of a hundred. They think she is talented, but not yet ready. Moreover, she does not speak Swedish. How will she understand the instruction? It will take another attempt before she is admitted.

The adjustment to life in a new country is initially harder for Zenia, who lost her beloved stepmother in the aftermath of the liberation at Bergen-Belsen. Zenia has no other family. “I am totally, utterly alone,” she writes in her first letter to Chava. When she trips and falls while crossing a busy Stockholm street and is nearly run over by a car, she writes that perhaps it would have been better if the driver had not braked in time, because there would be no one to miss her, no one to know that she is gone. She writes: “In order to live, people need some kind of stable ground under their feet, a bit of warmth, a home. But with me, my home is floating somewhere on air.”

Also, because she left Bergen-Belsen DP camp as part of a Swedish government initiative to resettle Holocaust survivors, Zenia was kept for several weeks in quarantine in a detention camp in a small town in northern Sweden, and, as she writes, “imprisoned again,” after first being subjected to “all kinds of baths and disinfections and only after thorough medical examinations finally allowed to settle in Sweden.”

Chava, on the other hand, was luckier—if one may use such a word without irony in this context. Both her mother and her younger sister survived the war. She was also reunited with her prewar boyfriend, Henekh Morgentaler, who had survived Auschwitz and Dachau and come looking for her in Bergen-Belsen. From him, she learned that her father was dead, killed when the Allies bombed the train on which inmates were being transported from Dachau deeper into Germany. So, with the exception of her father, Chava survived the war with her immediate family intact.

With her father dead, there was no more reason for Chava, her mother, and sister to remain in Germany, because, as she put it, “the German soil burned under our feet.” The problem was where to go? No country seemed willing to accept these “insignificant leftovers of a dead nation.”

Eventually the Bund—the socialist political organization to which both Chava’s and Zenia’s parents belonged—organized illegal border crossings into Belgium. The survivors were smuggled into that country like an “unwelcome cargo of goods” (Zenia’s words). Chava, her mother, and sister make it to Brussels, where they settle, living first in a rented attic with one bed, in which they all sleep, eventually finding work and starting to return to life. In this way too Chava is luckier than Zenia. Not only does she have most of her immediate family with her, but there are members of the Bund in Brussels who are eager to help and provide support. And because, unlike Zenia, she is not “rescued” by any government, she does not have to submit to quarantines or other bureaucratic restrictions. On the other hand, she has no right to stay in Belgium and her identity papers are marked with the stamp “doit émigrer,” must emigrate. For the next four years, her letters to Zenia will be filled with various plans for emigration, with applications to America, to Uruguay, to Argentina, and finally, successfully, to Canada.

It is not surprising, then, that of the two women, Zenia appears initially to be more affected by what they had just lived through. She tries constantly to push the past out of her mind. She does not want to look back; she wants to move forward. In fact, that was her motive in accepting the Swedish offer of relocation and leaving Bergen-Belsen and Chava’s family, which had become her adopted family. Too much togetherness, too many bad memories of what they had all lived through. I am guessing that this is what she means when she writes in the introduction to Letters From a New Reality that she felt relieved to leave all the other survivors behind and make her way to Sweden alone. So determined is she to leave the past behind that she destroyed all letters as “unnecessary ballast,” except for Chava’s letters to her. “I thought I had succeeded in erecting an impenetrable screen between myself and a Europe that was still shaking from the chaotic aftermath of the war,” she writes. “When I left Bergen-Belsen, it was with a firm determination to draw a line over my whole past, forget everything and begin anew. This has not been possible. There are difficult moments. The past returns.”

She is also far angrier than Chava, at least superficially. She refuses to write to Chava while the latter remains in Germany, explaining in the first letter that she sends to her in Brussels, “I told you when we parted in Bergen-Belsen that I will write no letters to Germany, not even to you, nor will I have anything more to do with that country. When it comes to Germany, the only thing I want is revenge.”

Both women suffer from survivors’ guilt. Zenia torments herself for not having done more to prevent the suicide of her father in the ghetto, or the death of her beloved stepmother, who died just days after the liberation from eating tins of fatty meat distributed by the British forces who liberated Bergen-Belsen. Chava writes of her guilt at not comforting the poet Shayevitch, who was in love with her, when they were on their hellish cattle-car train ride to Auschwitz. “He wanted just one comforting word, and I refused to give it to him. I cannot forgive myself,” she tells Zenia. Shayevitch was later gassed at Dachau.

Chava also harbors what she calls “a secret guilt” with regard to Zenia, although her reasons are vague: “My memory has retained certain images which stand as a rebuke of my behaviour in the camps. Maybe you have harboured a secret grievance against me, but you were able to rise above it, and thanks to that, those hellish days didn’t kill our friendship.”

Zenia responds: “You write that during the war you so often left me to my fate, forgot me and let me struggle alone. Perhaps you did at times, but that is not the whole truth.” She then reminds Chava of the incident in the Sasel labor camp when a kaposlapped Zenia as the women inmates were scrambling for their ration of soup. Without stopping to think, Chava slapped the kapo in retribution, an act of disobedience so serious that it could have resulted in Chava’s being sent to the gas chambers, along with the rest of her group. Instead, Chava’s slap brought the kapoback to a sense of her own morality. After a day’s reflection, during which Chava and her group of five were separated from the others in their barrack, the kapo relented: “You were right to slap me,” she told Chava. “I have turned into an animal.”

From that time on, Chava, her mother, sister, Zenia, and her stepmother received an extra ration of soup every day. (This incident inspired one of Chava’s most complex stories, “Edgia’s Revenge,” which is told from the point of view of a kapo.)


As time goes on the focus of the letters shifts away from the war. Both women had literary ambitions when they were young, and they continually inquire about each other’s creativity. Before their incarceration in the ghetto, Chava had written poetry, Zenia prose, and they had been each other’s first and most avid readers. This continues in the letters. “Are you writing?” Zenia asks Chava, reminding her of how much comfort she had derived from the poems that Chava read aloud to her in the ghetto.

Both are very aware of the problems of being female in the mid-20th century and wanting to lead a creative life. When they were younger they had formed the Free Woman’s Club, which had just the two of them as members. Zenia writes of a friend in Sweden who had ambitions to become a composer, but instead got married and had a child. The care of her husband and baby now totally preoccupies her friend’s mind and she has no time to devote to her music. Is this the way it must always be for women, Zenia wonders. Must a woman always give up her own artistic ambitions for marriage and motherhood? Is it not possible to have both?

Chava too has worries. The exigencies of earning a living in a land where she does not speak the language overwhelm her. She cannot write. She is ecstatic when, after many delays, Henekh, who had remained in Germany to attend medical school, joins her in Brussels and they begin their married life together. But what will happen if she becomes pregnant? A baby would be a terrible calamity at this stage in her life. Neither she nor Henekh is making enough money and then there is the problem that she would have even less time for creative work. How to juggle her various employments in Brussels with raising a child?

These are the kinds of problems that many ambitious women have faced. What differentiates Zenia and Chava from others like them is that the experiences they have lived through make creativity an imperative as a way of exorcising and coming to terms with the past. And their lives are complicated by other issues. One of the most poignant passages in the letters occurs when Zenia meets the man whom she will marry, Per-Axel Larsson. He is not Jewish, but she loves him: “If I lived with him,” she writes, “would it be a sin? Are my feelings for him a crime against my loved ones who perished because they were Jews? Write to me, Linn; perhaps it will help me to see more clearly.”

In the meantime, despite their worries about the impossibility of simultaneously living a normal woman’s life and being creative, both women forge ahead with their artistic endeavors. Zenia is accepted into the Swedish Academy of Art and becomes a sculptor. In 1946, Chava publishes her long poem, “Di Balade fun Nekhtikn Vald” [“The Ballad of Yesterday’s Forest”] in the New York Yiddish journal Di Zukumft and begins her literary career. Zenia, whose Yiddish is not fluent, writes of how she reads the poem slowly, but with great pleasure. “I find you in every line,” she writes.

When Chava moves to Canada in 1950, the correspondence between the two women becomes more erratic. Neither is a particularly diligent letter-writer and life events hamper the exchange of letters. Chava gives birth to her daughter at the same time as she is forced to deal with the illness of her mother, who arrives in Montreal in 1951, suffering from the cancer that will kill her eight years later. Working at her various jobs, caring for her mother and taking care of her new baby leave Chava with very little time for letter writing, although she persists. Of the two, Chava is the more prolific, writing two letters to Zenia’s one. What Chava does not tell Zenia is that in what little spare time she has, she has been at work on a novel, a trilogy about life in the Lodz ghetto.

Zenia has been a poor correspondent from the start. When she does write her letters are long and detailed, but she is busy with her own life, her marriage, her sculpting. She learns that she cannot have children, which is a severe blow. To fill the void, she and Per-Axle adopt a persnickety dachshund and many of Zenia’s letters from this period are taken up with descriptions of the dog’s doings, possibly as a counter to Chava’s rapturous descriptions of her new motherhood. What Zenia does not tell Chava is that she too has been writing; in fact, she has been at work on a novel, a trilogy about life in the Lodz ghetto.

Thus, independently, both women come to write about their experiences during the Holocaust and both choose fiction as a way of recreating the past. Curiously, they both conceive of their novels in three volumes. For both of them, the novels serve as an exorcism and a memorial. But while Chava ambitiously seeks to memorialize the entire Jewish community of Lodz, Zenia’s original intention is to memorialize her father, who died in the ghetto. Despite this divergent focus, Zenia speaks for them both when she writes: “The book is simply the monument I wanted to erect to the memory of our loved ones, to speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves. Such a monument I once wanted to carve in stone with my own hands. So now I have written a book instead.”

Zenia’s trilogy has a single protagonist, Paula Levin, who is a stand-in for the author and whose experiences follow closely the outlines of Zenia’s own life. The first volume is called Shadows by the Wooden Bridge, a reference to the wooden bridge that the Nazis erected to link the two sections of the Lodz ghetto. The novel tells the story of the inhabitants of one building on Marynska Street in the Lodz ghetto—the street on which Zenia and her family actually lived—and follows their fate through all the years of the ghetto’s existence. The plot focuses on the interaction of the heroine with the man who is modeled on Zenia’s father, a barber, described by Chava in her memoir of Zenia, as “a type of proletarian intellectual whose hobby was writing poetry.” Zenia’s father contracted tuberculosis in the ghetto and killed himself so as not to deprive his wife and daughter of his rations. This first volume of Zenia’s trilogy encompasses all four and a half years of the Lodz ghetto’s existence, culminating in its liquidation. It includes a description of Chaim Rumkowski, the Jewish boss of the Lodz ghetto, who had the power of life and death over its inhabitants, although he is not one of the novel’s main characters.

By contrast with the multi-year span of Shadows by the Wooden Bridge, the second volume of Zenia’s trilogy, Long is the Dawn, covers only two months, beginning with the “unforgettable” (Zenia’s word) 15th of April 1945, the day of Bergen-Belsen’s liberation by the British, and ending when Paula Levin leaves the camp for Sweden. What Zenia hopes to convey in this volume is “a picture of the human being’s gradual awakening from absolute zero, and that this awakening takes place in the immediate vicinity of the Bergen-Belsen death camp.”

The last volume of Zenia’s trilogy follows her protagonist through all her travails as an immigrant trying to adjust to life in Sweden. Zenia writes that this last volume, called Meeting Life, is her favorite because it deals with her happy ending in Sweden, which she describes as “this calm, wonderful country, where I began to believe in the future again.” This is the only novel in the trilogy for which Zenia did research in libraries in order to document what had happened in Sweden during the war years, and how the Swedes reacted to the arrival of the Jewish survivors.

Chava’s The Tree of Life covers much the same territory as Zenia’s first volume, Shadows by the Wooden Bridge, but it does so in much greater detail and particularity. Her trilogy’s overall conception is both broader than Zenia’s and more narrow, in that the narrative never moves beyond the ghetto. Instead, it attempts to capture within the span of its three volumes, the life of an entire doomed Jewish community. Volume One begins on New Year’s Eve 1939, nine months before the German invasion of Poland, when life was still “normal.” This establishes the Jewish community of Lodz as it was before the war. That volume ends on New Year’s Eve 1940, four months after the Germans invaded Poland. Volume Two deals with the years 1940–42, when the Nazis set up the ghetto and the deportations began. Volume Three encompasses the years 1942–44 when conditions in the ghetto deteriorate even further as deportations intensify and starvation and disease claim more and more lives. All three volumes of Chava’s trilogy are thus focused on the Lodz ghetto and its population, ending with the liquidation of the ghetto in August 1944.

Like Zenia, Chava creates an alter ego for herself in the person of Rachel Eibushitz, a politically committed high school student. But Rachel is only one of The Tree of Life’s ten protagonists, a diverse group, who run the gamut from impoverished carpenters to wealthy factory owners, from assimilationist Polish school teachers to fanatical Yiddishists, from the Jewish thugs and prostitutes of the Lodz underworld to the educated members of the intelligentsia. Because the ten major characters of The Tree of Life come from all walks of life, the novel recreates, in all its complexity, an entire Jewish ghetto community, capturing in detail the everyday life in the ghetto workshops and food distribution centers, the ideological responses of the various political parties—the Zionists, Communists and Bundists—and the Lodz ghetto’s artistic community, of which Chava had been a member. Like Zenia, Chava writes about Rumkowsky, the puppet boss of the ghetto, but Chava’s Rumkowski is not a distant ominous presence, as he is in Zenia’s novel. He is, in fact, one of the ten protagonists of The Tree of Life, observed up-close, as Chava struggles to get under his skin, to imagine what made him tick.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the two trilogies is language. Unlike Chava, whose attitude towards Canada was always ambivalent, Zenia embraces Sweden with all her heart and becomes a true Swedish patriot. She writes her novels directly in Swedish, because she dislikes Polish, although it is her first language; it reminds her too much of the past. But Swedish is a language that she has only learned as an adult, without formal instruction, so she never feels that she has mastered it. She complains to Chava that her writing is full of mistakes in grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. It is her husband, Per-Axel, who corrects her Swedish, retypes her manuscripts, argues with her over words and phrases, and generally plays the role of editor, translator, and critic.

‘You are the only person who binds me strongly to life. A friendship like ours can exist only once. For me, this is the only point of light in my present.’

Zenia envies Chava the ability to write in Yiddish: “What a thing it is to have a mother tongue at your disposal, to own your own language and use it as an instrument you have mastered. You have everything at your command; you need only pick from abundance. Whereas I have one single instrument, with which I must try to represent an entire symphony orchestra. I sit down at the typewriter, hopelessly aware of my linguistic homelessness.” When Zenia announces the publication of her novel in 1961, Chava writes: “Who could have imagined this—that you will one day write something that I won’t be able to read! I see in this a symbol of that whole chaos that we lived through. Such are the consequences.”

The consequences are more severe than either of them realizes. Chava may have an advantage in being able to write in Yiddish, a language that she knows, “like the map of my own heart,” but it is Zenia who, from a reputational point of view, is more successful. Because it is in Swedish, Zenia’s trilogy is accessible to non-Jewish Swedes, one of whom, the celebrated Swedish author, Johan Borgen, writes a rave review of the first volume of Zenia’s trilogy in the pages of Expressen, Sweden’s largest newspaper. From then on, Zenia’s books will become known to the Swedish public, who value them as a testament to the recent past and turn Zenia Larsson into an important literary figure in Sweden.

In contrast, because of troubles in her own life, the breakdown of her marriage, the need to raise two children, Chava’s novel, which was begun in Brussels in the late 1940s, will not be published until 1971, and then only in Yiddish. And because it is written in Yiddish, it is accessible only to Jews; and then only to those Jews who know Yiddish. The publication of The Tree of Life was treated as a major event in the Yiddish-speaking world and its author was flooded with mail and showered with prizes. But knowledge of the novel’s existence remained within this relatively small community. Chava could not find a publisher for the English translation until 1985, nearly 15 years after its Yiddish publication. Zenia’s novel, on the other hand, while enjoying a large readership in Sweden was never translated into English, and so, ironically, has fallen into even greater obscurity today than Chava’s Tree of Life, which was eventually published in English and Hebrew translations and has recently been published in Polish.

There are other linguistic ironies: that the two women, who were so close to each other, communicated in Polish, a language they both disliked, and that, as time passed, became ever more remote to them, because neither lived in a Polish-speaking country nor had Polish-speaking friends. They both complain about having to communicate in this language which they are forgetting. Worse, they cannot read each other’s works. The letters are filled with plans to meet, usually in Europe, and confessions about the fear of meeting. Zenia writes of her anxiety about meeting Chava’s children: “If we eventually meet, I will have to communicate with your children through an interpreter—have you thought about that, Linn? The thought does hurt.”

Despite these linguistic problems, the correspondence makes clear how important each woman was to the other. Zenia writes: “You are the only person, Linn, who binds me strongly to life. A friendship like ours can exist only once. For me, this is the only point of light in my present.”

Despite these strong feelings of emotional dependence and attachment, the friendship eventually faded. Perhaps this was inevitable given the passage of time and how far away the two women lived from one another, which meant that they seldom met and so were not active presences in each other’s lives. But what really precipitated the decline was Zenia’s request for the return of her letters. This hurt Chava deeply. In an article about Zenia in the Yiddish literary journal, Di Goldene Keyt, Chava wrote: “Zenia’s request came as a terrible blow to me. I felt as though a part of my life was being ripped away.”

For her part, Zenia alludes to the pain caused by the letter exchange in her introduction to Letters from a New Reality: “The exchange of letters turned out to be more painful than I had anticipated—but then there was no way to start over. Something that probably had been coming for a long time had been completed and the letter exchange marked the end of an epoch—a contact that, with the exception of a few years’ interruption, comprised a quarter century.” In the packet of her letters that Zenia sent back to Chava there is one conspicuously absent: the one that contains Chava’s reaction to Zenia’s request for the return of her letters. Did Chava destroy it? Did Zenia deliberately not send it back? I will never know.

If life were fiction, then the story of this friendship would end right here, dramatically, with the return of the letters. But, in fact, the friendship did not end there. Zenia sent Chava a copy of her book when it was published, and Chava, finally understanding the reasons for Zenia’s request for the return of her letters was pleased and flattered that her friendship with Zenia would be immortalized in a book, even a book that she could not read. So their correspondence resumed, although with less frequency and intensity, until gradually it died out altogether.

Both women are now gone. Zenia died in 2007 and Chava in 2011. The letters, however, remain. And because they remain, they serve as a monument to an emotional attachment between two women writers, who had suffered through some of the most horrific events of the twentieth century and emerged with their humanity and ability to love intact. My favorite image of the two friends comes from Chava’s memoir, and it may serve as a symbol of their friendship. When the two were still schoolgirls in Lodz, Chava writes: “Any rain, especially a summer storm, always cheered us. We would hold hands, run out into the middle of the street, laughing, jumping up and down, and shouting loudly enough to outshout every clap of thunder.”


A Conversation With Selfhelp, a Non-Profit Dedicated to Helping Holocaust Survivors

In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day: Remembering and serving the 43,000 survivors living in the New York area

In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, Tablet’s podcast, Unorthodox, spoke with Sandy Myers and Desiree Nazarian of Selfhelp, a New York based non-profit dedicated to “maintaining the independence and dignity of seniors and at risk population through a range or housing, home health care, and social services.”
The organization was founded in 1936 under the name “Selfhelp for German Refugees” by a group of recently arrived German refugees in New York, with the mission of offering support to others who had been forced to flee. Providing services to survivors continues to be at the forefront of Selfhelp’s mission.

Who is eligible for services? And how is a survivor defined? Beyond those who survived concentration camps, the term survivor extends to anyone who disguised their Jewish identity, fled their home, went into hiding during the period of the war, or experienced persecution because of their Jewish heritage. Even those in utero until 1945 qualify as survivors.

Now located in 27 sites in Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Nassau County, 25 percent of Selfhelp’s services go to to assisting the 43,000 survivors currently living in New York. A staggering 50 percent of these survivors are living at or below the federal poverty line. The Russian speaking population has faced severe difficulty, with 80 percent living at or below federal poverty line. The Russian population has faced challenges not only due to aging and lingering physical trauma, but lack of steady employment and negotiating language barriers.

Last year, 970 survivors approached Selfhelp, and in 2018 Selfhelp expects to surpass that number as word travels and survivors continue to come forward as they realize their eligibility.

In addition to more practical services, Selfhelp offers community programming like Coffee Houses where survivors can meet locally for refreshments and dancing. Another facet of the community programming is The Witness Theater Program, which pairs survivors with high school students to share their stories and memories, culminating in a performance during Yom Hashoah.

Selfhelp’s training for home aide workers is unique, with an emphasis placed on sensitivity for survivor’s past trauma. For example, home aide workers enter a home knowing loud noises or barking dog could be particularly disturbing for a survivor.

How to Help:

1. Identifying survivors. The definition of a survivor is broad, and does not just extend to individuals who were in concentration camps.

2. Consider your immediate network. Think about your parents, your grandparents and stories you might have heard about WWII. Is there anyone who could be eligible? Be aware that people might not want to talk about their past, so even knowing what countries people in your community were living might help assessing their eligibility for Selfhelp.

3. Get the word out. Find Selfhelp on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter and encourage those you know to spread the word that resources exist in New York.

4. If you’re a second or third generation survivor and want to get involved, go on the website or connect on social media to speak with someone about how to help.

5. This is the last generation of survivors and time is of the essence. The needs of survivors are growing more intense and costly and there are ways to make sure people are connected and able to live in an environment where they can thrive.

If you know a survivor, visit their website or call 212-971-7795. And for those outside of New York, you can contact your local Jewish Family Services or a local federation chapter for assistance.