Category Archive: Tablet

The Most Important Holocaust Story Never Told

A new film tells the tale of Emanuel Ringelblum’s ‘Oyneg Shabes’ Archive, a trove of hidden materials that documented life in the Warsaw Ghetto

By Leonard Felson

It’s taken 70-plus years, but what’s arguably the most important Holocaust story never told is being unveiled in a docudrama this weekend at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.  Who Will Write Our History is the story of the men and women who created the Oyneg Shabes Archive, a trove of once-hidden documents, essays, and reportage that chronicled in real time what life and death looked like in the Nazi-occupied Warsaw Ghetto. The star, if you can call him that, is Emanuel Ringelblum, a Polish-Jewish historian and community organizer, who led the secret project with the sensitivity of a sacred mission.

The film had an under-the-radar world premiere this spring in Warsaw at Polin, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, during the 75th anniversary of the ghetto’s uprising. A 2007 book, also called Who Will Write Our History? by historian Samuel D. Kassow, on which the film is based, was critically acclaimed, but it wasn’t a popular bestseller. Then, by chance, film director Roberta Grossman read a review in The New Republic, and decided she had to turn it into a movie.

With collaborators, Ringelblum fanned out through the ghetto, recruiting some 60 writers, scholars, teachers, community activists, rabbis, poor artisans, wealthy businessmen, and even children to the project. When their survival looked doomed, they hid the archive in two large aluminum milk cans and up to 20 tin boxes.

Ringelblum used the Yiddish term Oyneg Shabes, literally, “the joy of the Sabbath,” as the code name because his staff’s custom was to meet on Saturdays. Instead of toasting the day of rest with schnapps and herring—they were lucky to have scraps of bread—they would clandestinely discuss plans, formulate questions for major projects, review material, make assignments, and keep track of expenditures and money raised for their endeavor.

Among them was Rachel Auerbach, a journalist, who has a prominent role in the film. Ringelblum had asked her to help set up a soup kitchen and write what she observed. She originally turned him down because like so many from the Jewish intelligentsia, she was planning to flee war-torn Warsaw. But she stayed after Ringelblum told her, “Not everyone is allowed to run.”

Although the archive was uncovered in the rubble of Warsaw after the war, the challenge of bringing the stories to the world has been daunting. One of the three caches was never found. Water seepage destroyed a lot of papers that were written in ink. Of the thousands of photographs stored in the archive, only 70 survived. Because the documents, essays, poems, and journalism were written in either Yiddish, Polish or German, many in hard-to-decipher handwriting, translation came at a snail’s pace. Funding was another hurdle.

Nevertheless, this year also comes completion of the long-awaited publication of the archive in book form, all 36 volumes. Because the Jewish Historical Institute, also known as the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute, in Warsaw directs the project, the first edition is in Polish only. An English edition is in the works, several years behind.

Grossman said the docudrama, which used Polish actors and includes as one of the executive producers Steven Spielberg’s sister, Nancy Spielberg, will be released to Jewish film festivals, more than 100 worldwide, though dates have not been announced yet. As screenings are firmed up, the film’s Facebook page will announce release dates. A limited theatrical release in New York, Los Angeles, and other possible cities is also planned. The film also has been delivered to NDR and ARTE, the German and French television networks respectively, Grossman said, where it is scheduled for broadcast next January during Holocaust Remembrance Day.


Fighting for the Americans, Captured by the Germans, Freed by the Soviets

How a Jewish-American soldier in WWII survived in a POW camp—and even managed to celebrate Passover under the Nazis’ noses

By Milton Feldman

I was 19 years old, a Brooklyn kid two semesters into college at Penn State, when I was called up for service in the Army in 1943. For a while, I was lucky; I was sent to school for training as an engineer rather than training for the beach landing of D-Day. But in 1944 that program ended, and in December of that year I was shivering in the snow in western Germany, just across the Belgian border.

On December 16, early in the morning, we heard a bombardment, the first real action we’d seen. Orders came back to the cooks: “Make all the food. Get the men up to feed them and do it fast.” We had a banquet. We had French toast and pancakes and eggs. We were going into battle.

War historians have examined the events that led to the Battle of the Bulge and the miserable days that lay ahead for me and for thousands of my fellow soldiers in the 423rd Regiment, which was part of the 106th Infantry Division. We were unprepared for winter fighting. WWII bombers were mostly effective in clear weather, and low cloud cover had limited our most valuable weapon. And the Allied generals thought the Germans were in retreat, falling back to defend prewar German borders. It didn’t occur to them that the Germans were capable of—or interested in—mounting a major counterattack.

The shelling we heard was that counterattack on a massive scale. To both the north and south of our position, German troops were advancing incredibly quickly—creating the Bulge. We were being surrounded.

Our officers received orders to break out of the trap forming around us. All the vehicles were lined up into a convoy and we were going to fight our way back to St. Vith, a Belgian town we had passed on our way to the front.

My squad’s 57-millimeter antitank gun was the only one in our battalion that was still operational. The convoy’s officers told us, “You are now the rear guard. You’re the last truck in the convoy. As soon as the convoy stops, unhitch your gun from the truck and get it ready to fire to the rear. Stay there for 15 to 20 minutes. If you don’t see the Germans, load up again, get the hell back on the road and catch up to us. OK?”

That’s what we did. We were the last defense between the convoy and any German troops behind us.

It’s astonishing how quickly an army can collapse. In 36 hours, I went from being part of a well-armed, highly mechanized force to a foot soldier to being lost in the woods with three other guys—no other Americans in sight. The attack had cut off our supply and communication lines, so our convoy disintegrated. Trucks ran out of gas. Others got stuck in ice and mud or slid off the road. The road became impassable. We had to leave our truck and gun and start walking.

In the chaos, we all became separated from our divisions and officers. Officers near me tried to organize groups, and I joined one. We had been on the move for an hour or two when we spied a German combat patrol heading right for us. We hid, but four of us at the end of the line had to wait for them to pass and were separated from the rest. We started forward, hoping to catch up, but we lost track of the men ahead. We spent the night hidden under the low-hanging branches of an evergreen tree.

As dawn started to break we could see out through the branches. In the dim light, we could see that the Germans had set up camp right near our hiding place.

Outnumbered and isolated, we broke down our weapons and created a white flag, someone’s handkerchief. We started walking up a hill. Then we started running up. We knew there was a road to St. Vith in this direction but didn’t know how far it was. Maybe we could sneak through. We approached the top of the hill and somebody yelled, “Halt!”

There were four German soldiers. They had rifles. We had a white flag.

From the top of the hill we were able to look down at the road and there was a parade like 42nd Street on Christmas Day: an endless convoy of German vehicles and tanks going in the direction of Saint Vith. We could never have gotten away.

The Germans marched us to a barn. Inside there were other GIs. A German officer came through, looking for American officers. The sergeant I’d been captured with stood up and said something to him. The officer stopped, then motioned for the sergeant to come outside. A little while later the sergeant came in and he had part of a loaf of bread and some kind of sausage. He didn’t share it with anyone. We had already gone four or five days without eating. Here he came back with food. What the hell did he tell the Nazis?

They formed us up and we started marching with hundreds of other American POWs. Mostly we were on country roads. At times, we could look down on a town below us, snow covered, with a church steeple in the middle, as yet untouched by battle. It looked like a Christmas card.

As we passed one farm house, an elderly woman had a basket of apples that she was handing out to the POWs. That one generous German civilian kept me alive.

Finally, we reached the railroad. The train was a line of boxcars, perhaps one they’d used to transport people to the concentration camps. They closed us in the train car and locked it. We still hadn’t eaten, and there was no food. We had no water. At least when we were marching we’d been able to scoop up snow for water. Not now. A steel helmet became the latrine for 80 men. It was terrible.

We arrived at Stalag IV-B on New Year’s Eve, having gone two weeks without food. The Stalag was near an eastern German town called Mühlberg, 300 miles from where we’d first boarded the train. We got there at about midnight and lined up in front of a barracks. It was snowing and again very cold. That New Year’s Eve, we were not celebrating.

When my turn came to enter the building, I saw there were six desks with a line of maybe five men in front of each, waiting to be interrogated. At each desk was an officer in a British uniform. They spoke with English accents. Whether it was from delirium or fear or reasonable suspicion, I was not persuaded by these officers’ uniforms or perfect English. It did not make sense to me that I would be registered at a prison camp by British officers. I was sure they were Germans.

As I got nearer to the desks I could hear the questions being asked of the men in front of me. In our training, we had been told that the only information we should supply was name, rank, and serial number. Now the questions were clear:

Serial number
What was your outfit?
Where were you captured?
Where are you from?
Parents’ names?
… on and on, about 30 questions in all.

When my turn came, I answered the first three questions, then kept answering “Sorry, sir. Sorry, sir,” as we had been trained. My questioner went through the whole list then stopped and said in his English accent, “How long has it been since you’ve eaten, soldier?” This question I answered: “Two weeks, sir.”

“Soldier, I will ask these questions one more time. If you don’t answer, you won’t eat for another month!”

To not answer now would be suicide, so I answered. When it came to religion, lying seemed the safe thing to do. I hadn’t heard anyone else admit to being Jewish. But I didn’t care. In my mind I said, “Fuck you!” I was young, angry, and by any measure stupid. I answered, “Jewish.”

I fully expected to be pulled out of the line by my interrogator, but I wasn’t. I was led out with others and assigned to a barracks.

The next morning we were lined up and counted. The officer in charge barked out a number of orders in English:

“All medical personnel take one step forward.”

“All cooks and bakers take two steps forward.”

“All Jews take three steps forward.”

Again, I was sure that those of us who identified ourselves as Jewish would be marched off to who knows what fate. We knew the Nazis enslaved and murdered Jews, though we did not then know the extent of the slaughter at the death camps. Along with a handful of other Jewish GIs, I stepped forward anyway. We were not rounded up. Some prisoners who had not stepped forward were picked out for work details. The rest of us were dismissed.

Had I been in another prison camp, that moment might have turned out differently. A contingent of Jewish-American GIs and other “troublemakers” were sent from Stalag IX-B to the Berga slave camp, part of the Buchenwald complex. Some were worked to death. More died on a forced march as Allied troops approached.

Over time, I learned how my camp worked, and why Jewish soldiers were not abused there. By this point in the war, the Germans had minimized the number of German guards at POW camps to send more soldiers into battle. Most of the guards were not German, but from the countries Germany had annexed. Allied officers, mostly British, were in charge of a lot of the internal workings at the camp. They did their best to protect Jewish soldiers, keeping us from interacting with German guards or civilians. My interrogator had in fact been British, and the comprehensive information he’d demanded allowed him to report my capture to the War Department, the Red Cross, and, in turn, my parents. My defiant pronouncement of my religion probably helped save my life.

I have also heard that the Germans themselves did not want Jewish prisoners on work details outside the camp, where we would meet German civilians. They did not want civilians to know that there were brave, strong American Jews, willing to fight. It belied their propaganda.

My best friend in the Army, Blue Caldwell, was in my barracks. Blue was from Mississippi, and culturally we could not have been more different. But we’d hit it off while training in Indiana. We got together to try to support each other. We shared our food and tried to do our best to survive. The food was inadequate and it seemed the temperature just kept dropping. The barracks had no heat.

On the 11th day in prison camp, I felt desperately weak and cold. I’d heard the infirmary was heated. If you went on sick call, it would take an hour or two before you were examined and for a while you’d be warm.

At the infirmary, I tried to position myself so as not to be taken early. When my turn came, a South African doctor examined me, dictating to his orderly. Although some of the words he spoke were English, he was primarily speaking Boer. At one point he said, “TBC.” With that, they wrapped me in a blanket and carried me off to the camp hospital on the stretcher. “TBC” was tuberculosis. Now I could admit to myself that I really was sick.

Someone helped me remove my clothes and put on a hospital gown. I got in bed and they put my filthy clothes under my pillow.

I shared the ward with about 15 other men. As I lay there, an ambulatory patient came to my bed, reached under my pillow, and took my clothes. I thought, “This is the end. I’m in a prison camp. I have tuberculosis. Now my clothes have been stolen and I am too weak to do anything about it.”

Several hours later, this same patient returned. He had cleaned my clothes and folded them neatly. He put them under my pillow. This was my introduction to my Dutch friend, Ben ter Beck.

The first several days in the hospital I was too weak to get out of bed. The doctors determined I didn’t have tuberculosis but pneumonia, which was only slightly better. With close quarters, malnourishment, and no heat, many Allied prisoners died of disease in German POW camps. Ben took on the job of being my caregiver. He would almost force me to have my cup of soup and when I could eat no more, I noticed he would take any uneaten bread and eat it himself. Cynical, I was sure that’s why he was taking care of me.

As the days wore on I started to improve and my appetite returned. Now when they brought food, I didn’t eat it, I devoured it. Then I noticed something. When my food came, I’d find an extra slice of bread on my plate. Ben was paying me back.

About two weeks after I entered the hospital, I was well enough to be up and around. But what happened when Ben walked in one afternoon still brings tears to my eyes. Somehow, he had traded wheat germ from our Red Cross packages for the necessary ingredients and baked a cake. The frosting on top spelled out: CHEERS FOR USA.

It was the heaviest cake—and the most delicious one—I have ever eaten.

The first day of Passover in 1945 was March 29. A Jewish soldier, Joe Sedaka, came by my barracks. He said, “Come with me.” We got near a barracks and Joe looked to make sure no guards were watching.

When we went inside, there was a group of Jewish soldiers celebrating Passover. Not a Seder—we didn’t have the food—but a Passover service under the noses of the Nazis. Joe had a lucky charm in his wallet that his grandfather had given him at a Seder before Joe left for the Army: It was a small piece of matzo wrapped up in a cloth. For our prison camp Passover, we were able to bless a real piece of matzo.

Finally, on April 23, a Russian officer rode into camp—I’m not exaggerating—on a white horse. He had weapons coming out of his boots: a submachine gun and a rifle and everything else. He was armed to the teeth. He came into the camp and said, “You’re free.”


In 2018, there aren’t too many of us Jewish-American POWs left. The sniper of time has been steadily picking us off in ways that German shells and bullets tried but failed to do 74 years ago. As my generation dwindles, interest in WWII veterans has been rekindled, and I’m asked about it, thanked, celebrated and congratulated at every turn. I never thought I was a hero, and do not think so now. But to many, even survival is a form of heroism. So is living to 94.

When I tell my story, I sometimes choke up at the memory of being frozen and starved, or when I think about my parents—it’s still that alive for me. I don’t pretend it was easy. But I know that I was lucky in ways large and small. I was lucky to have been sent to school through part of the war, missing many months of battle. I was lucky to meet Blue Caldwell, lucky to have been issued an overcoat, lucky to have avoided the shells and bombs and bullets, lucky to have contracted pneumonia and not tuberculosis. I came back alive and healthy and mentally stable. I came back to lead a happy, prosperous life. I’m lucky to be 94 and able to write about my experiences.

But every day I read the papers and watch the news. I see American citizens who, astonishingly, seem bent on pulling us toward becoming the kind of brutal, prejudiced society we went to war against in 1941. The war led to tremendous social and global changes, from the end of Jim Crow to the creation of modern Europe and Japan and the progress of the women’s movement. By and large, American soldiers set an example for the world: We won without resorting to torture or rape or subjugation, then, with the Marshall Plan, showed that the U.S. valued functioning societies over national punishment. The global admiration for democracy, and for the United States, soared in the decades after the war.

The America I love and risked my life for is one where Blue Caldwell and I could recognize each other as friends and not stereotypes, where we could have each other’s backs through every kind of adversity. It’s one where immigrants like my parents can make a life they could not have hoped for in their native country. It’s a country built on laws and morality, where we recognize right and wrong, that ends don’t always justify means. It’s one for which people from countries all over the world might, like my Dutch friend Ben ter Beck, consider risking their freedom to bake a cake that says, “CHEERS FOR USA!”


Menachem Krigel spent 15 months hiding in a cramped wood store in the home of a Ukrainian peasant who hid him and his mother during World War II. In the weeks after the liberation, as the frontline moved back and forth, they were separated. He has no idea what became of his mother. In his home in Haifa, as he makes coffee in his kitchen, he said recently: “This was for me the moment of trauma. I can never get it out of my mind.”

Orphaned and alone, Krigel was eventually reunited with a cousin and together they traveled to Krakow where they joined a group of survivors intent on making their way to Palestine. They were two of the 100 survivors of the 10,000 Jews who had lived in his Polish hometown of Buczacz, now Buchach in Ukraine.

Krigel became one of the 70,000 Jewish refugees who flooded into Italy after the war. He was cared for in a children’s home in Selvino in the mountains above Bergamo. The home, a former holiday camp that had been built for the children of Italy’s fascist elite, was run by Jewish soldiers from Palestine who had fought in the British army. After the liberation of Milan, the members of the Jewish Brigade and the engineering company Solel Boneh, who had fought in Italy as part of the Allied forces, devoted their energies to helping the survivors rebuild their lives and start a new life in Palestine.

The hub of the operation was a few minutes’ walk from Milan’s magnificent cathedral at via dell’Unione 5. The grand 16th-century Palazzo Erba Odescalchi, a former billet for fascist militias, was turned into a reception center to help the local Jewish community put their lives back together. It would soon become the pulsating heart of the bricha, the Hebrew name for the mass emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe after the Holocaust, as the address traveled like wildfire along the bricha bush telegraph. Over 35,000 survivors passed through its doors.

Primo Levi, the young chemist who had been in Auschwitz, was a frequent visitor to the repurposed palazzo, and he described it in his novel, If Not Now, When?: “There were men, women, and children encamped in the corridors, families that had built themselves shelters with sheets of plywood or strung-up blankets. … The air was torrid, with odors of latrine and kitchen.”

The imposing Palazzo Erba Odescalchi has four wings surrounding a central courtyard with an arched loggia. The building is marked with an information board that describes in detail the palace’s architecture. Of its place in Jewish history, the text mentions only it was the temporary home of the community’s synagogue until 1951. Few people remember what happened here.

The survivors who arrived in Italy had no intention of staying and the vast majority wanted to start a new life in Palestine. Their hopes rested on Yehuda Arazi, a secret Haganah agent who had been sent by the Jewish Agency to help bring the survivors to Palestine. His headquarters was a secret camp outside the city of Magenta, west of Milan.

The British, who at this point controlled Palestine, had imposed strict immigration controls. The only way to get the thousands of desperate survivors out of Italy was to put them on illegal immigrant ships and try to run the British blockade. This illegal operation was known as Aliyah Bet. Krigel was to sail on one of these ships, the Josiah Wedgwood, and jokes that this was how as a skinny teenager he became “an enemy of the British empire and took on the British navy!”


Elisabetta Bozzi, an enthusiastic activist for the Associazione Nazionale Partigiani d’Italia, the national partisan’s association that campaigns to highlight their role in WWII and the founding of the republic 72 years ago this week, only recently discovered the story of the Arazi house. When I visited with her, she stopped her car outside a run-down piece of land surrounded by a barbed wire fence within which sat a large turreted villa. Today, even though the house is still known as the La Casetta di Ebrei, the Little Jewish House, most of the locals have no idea why.

For three years this building was camp A, the nerve center of Arazi’s operation, where everything that was needed to kit out the 34 ships that sailed from Italy was prepared. “This place was the most top secret place in the Aliyah Bet,” she said, as the breeze rustled the leaves on the trees. From 1945 to 1948, this scrubby deserted garden was covered in military tents and teeming with people.

The story of how thousands of Holocaust survivors were both cared for and then spirited out of Italy on illegal immigrant ships was largely forgotten when it became inconvenient for the pro-Palestinian left in Italy to remember the help that they had given Aliyah Bet to ship people and arms to Palestine. The story of the weapons that were hidden in the fields around the villa is not something the left are yet ready to discuss, but the story of the Jewish refugees and the help they were given is suddenly politically useful. It is a stick with which the left can beat the right, who campaign against the illegal migrants who have flooded into the country in recent years.

The campaign to remind people of the forgotten story of 1945-48 has centered on the village of Selvino, where over 800 of the most vulnerable survivors were cared for. The children had survived the camps and had lived feral in the forests. Today, a small exhibition is the first step in what activists hope will be a larger project to restore the house where the children were cared for and to turn it into a museum of the Aliyah Bet, together with a conference center. To highlight the campaign, Giovanni Bloisi, a wiry man in his early 60s, last year completed an epic 1,466-mile bike ride from his home in Varano Borghi, hard on the Italian side of the border with Switzerland, to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

A lifelong left-wing activist, Bloisi, who is not Jewish, was inspired to make this extraordinary trip when he met survivors Avraham Aviel and his late wife, Ayala Lieberman, when they returned to the now-ruined orphanage in Selvino for the first time in 2015. Aviel had survived by hiding in the forests of what is now northern Belarus after his family had all been murdered.

Bloisi said, “It is vital in this difficult moment in Europe, with nationalism and anti-Semitism on the rise, that we remember what happened.” Referring to the orphans from the Selvino home, he said: “These kids had seen unimaginable horrors but were welcomed in Italy, cared for, and brought back to life.”

Music played a crucial part in this rehabilitation. Krigel recalled he not only sang in a choir but was taken to see the opera at La Scala in Milan. All the children had their photographs taken and given to them, and for many it was the only memento that they brought with them from Europe to Palestine.

One of those who cared for the children was Eugenia Cohen, a young Milanese Jew who during WWII was saved by the Madinina family in Pandino, a small town on the Lombardy plains, after her family was arrested and sent to Bergen-Belsen. The Madinina family never spoke about how they had hidden Cohen; the story was discovered by the local history society. The mayor of Pandino, Maria Luise Polig, recently announced that the city, which is famous for its cheese, will commemorate Cohen’s story in a special exhibition to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, 2019.

Cohen played a key part in rehabilitating the children of Selvino. At first many were frightened to sleep in beds with sheets and hid bread in their pockets, fearful of where their next meal would come from. The children spoke Yiddish, Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian. Although Cohen could only speak Italian, she recalled in an interview shortly before her death last year that she “spoke to them in kisses, in hugs, and in love.” The children looked upon her as a mother.

Cohen fell in love with one of the Jewish soldiers, Reuven Donath. Their son Nir Donath, who was in Pandino when I was there, said that although his mother had never been a Zionist, like most Italian Jews at the time, she changed her name to Noga, which means Venus in Hebrew. “When my father was discharged from the army he was allowed to take his wife with him home to Palestine,” he said. “She believed it was fate, as when she was 16, a clairvoyant had told her that she would meet a Jew from far away across the sea with whom she would fall in love. It was written in the stars.”

Mayor Polig, a member of the left-wing party Partito Democratico, thinks that the story has an important educational role. “If we do not record stories like this we lose everything as the generations pass,” she said. Polig, who trained as a teacher, believes “What we can learn from real people and their stories is irreplaceable and makes the past easier to understand.” She added that Pandino is currently home to six African refugees.


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.