Category Archive: Tablet

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.


Is Ukraine’s Holocaust Memorial at Babi Yar in Trouble?

Symbolic commemoration of a massacre is subsumed in national politics

Babi Yar, a patchwork of ravines outside Kyiv where 33,771 Jews were executed by firing squads on Sept. 29-30, 1941, is the most potent symbol of the “Holocaust by bullets” in the Nazi-occupied Soviet territories. Yet more than 75 years after the murder of 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews—a quarter of all Holocaust victims and more than half of all Jews murdered in the Holocaust in the USSR—Babi Yar remains an orphan among the sites of global memory of the Holocaust.

Today the place is no longer empty of monuments, as it was in 1961 when Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote his eponymous poem, which brought the name to the world’s attention. At least a dozen monuments to various groups that died here pepper the site, including memorials to Jews, Ukrainian nationalists, children, and Roma. Yet none of these captures more than a slice of the events that unfolded here. Nor do they capture the significance of the much larger events of which the murders at Babi Yar played a part. While at least two attempts have been made to build a Babi Yar memorial in independent Ukraine, both failed.

The Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC), the latest such attempt, promises to be a landmark event in the field of Holocaust commemoration: In the entire post-Soviet space, there isn’t a single museum specifically dedicated to the unique way in which the Holocaust unfolded in Soviet territories. The center, which aims to open in 2021, promises to combine a state-of-the-art museum with a permanent exhibit, outdoor space for reflection, an educational program, a traveling exhibit, and an archive and research center. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko is said to have played a critical role in providing initial support for the project and allocating a plot of land for the center. At the launch event in 2016, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that he was proud as an ethnic Ukrainian and citizen of Ukraine to have worked with other Ukrainians to initiate the creation of the center. The project’s founders and major funders—Mikhail Fridman, German Khan, Pavel Fuks, and Victor Pinchuk—are well-known figures in the world of Jewish philanthropy. Work on the center to date has earned praise from senior figures at Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum and Warsaw’s POLIN Museum, and the total financial commitment to the center to date is estimated at $100 million.

Natan Sharansky, who chairs BYMHC’s supervisory board and who grew up in Donetsk in Ukraine, told me: “In just about every place where I spent my childhood, there were tens of thousands who had been killed—thrown down the mines, walled up in the shafts. As children, we played right there. Yet we, who only just a few years before that had lost so many loved ones in those very places, knew nothing about it.”

Yet some in Ukraine question whether there is a need for a Holocaust memorial at Babi Yar, and not a few of the politically charged arguments that opponents are employing seem to be aimed squarely at making it go away.


The BYHMC was launched in September 2016 during the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre with the explicit goal of building a Holocaust memorial at the site of the Babi Yar. Several critical milestones have been achieved, including securing a plot of land from the Kyiv municipality and obtaining clearances from international halachic authorities that the site can be built on. (Jewish law prohibits construction over human remains.) Competitions for architectural rendering and design of the center are being organized. The next major milestone will occur this fall, when the memorial’s academic council, which includes some of the world’s best-known scholars of the Holocaust, plans to present its historical narrative (anticipated to weigh in at 500 pages) for public discussion and feedback. In addition to driving tourism, hosting a major Holocaust memorial would help Ukraine take its place in the European community of memory and thus create another significant link between the country and the European space.

Yet opposition to the Babi Yar museum is not inconsequential. One of the central arguments against the BYHMC first surfaced in a public letter signed by a group of Ukrainian historians in March of 2017: “We consider it a mistake to associate Babi Yar only with the history of the Holocaust while ignoring other victims and other dramatic moments of its history,” they wrote. “This approach would only exacerbate the war of memories that has for many years been going on in the territory of Babi Yar.”

This proposed decoupling of Babi Yar from the Holocaust sounds odd—as if someone tried to decouple Auschwitz and the Holocaust. In the Ukrainian context, it comes across as a throwback to Soviet times: For decades the Soviets denied the sui generisnature of the Holocaust, using the phrase “peaceful Soviet citizens” to refer to the murdered Jews. In the history of Holocaust commemoration, the honoring of multiple groups is hardly a unique challenge: Auschwitz, among others, has addressed this issue successfully. BYHMC plans to do so as well – a fact that was confirmed to me in conversations with both the founders and the scholars engaged in the project.

Yet, it is specifically the genocide of the Jews that makes these sites noteworthy and links them together into a single transnational constellation symbolizing one of the worst crimes in human history. For while many different groups suffered at the hands of the Germans and their collaborators during wartime, only Jews were singled out for genocide. In the Soviet territories, including Ukraine, they very nearly succeeded: 97 percent of Ukrainian Jews who remained under the occupation were murdered. For a memorial at Babi Yar to diminish the significance of these facts would be historically false and morally wrong.

The argument against establishing a special connection between Babi Yar and the Holocaust illustrates a line of thinking that is part and parcel of a particular view of history that has taken hold in Ukraine, as well as in other Communist countries, which posits an equivalence between crimes committed by Nazi Germany and those committed by Communists. Proponents of this view assert that yes, Nazi crimes against the Jews were terrible, but Communist crimes against other ethnic groups were as bad or worse. One product, or goal, of this equivalence, is to rehabilitate members of Ukraine’s wartime nationalist movements, most notably the OUN, many of whose members fought for Ukraine’s independence but frequently participated in violence against Jews and other ethnic groups alongside or in competition with the Nazis.

The argument for downplaying Nazi crimes while honoring OUN is centered in the Ukrainian Institute for National Remembrance (UINP), a controversial government agency. Proponents of this tendency argue that Ukraine needs nationalist heroes as symbols to foster patriotism, strengthen Ukrainian national identity, and build national unity. Today, some of the memorials to be found in Babi Yar are to the very nationalists who explicitly supported German anti-Semitic policies. It is also feared that discussion of local collaboration in the Holocaust—a topic that is impossible to avoid in a fact-based conversation about Holocaust in Ukraine—might undermine Ukrainians’ pride in their nation and give a black eye to the country’s image in the West. Some object to the negatively connoted term “collaboration” entirely, pointing out that many Ukrainians viewed Germans as liberators from the hated Soviet power.

When I asked Mikhail Fridman, one of the project’s founders, about this, he said: “There is no question, the Holocaust was organized by Germans but executed to a considerable degree with participation from locals. Having said this, the fact that Ukrainians and whoever else took part in the executions is not an accusation against the whole nation. Because along with those who took part in the repression, there were righteous who took part in the saving of Jews.”

It is a fact that the forgetting that enveloped the Holocaust in Soviet times similarly destroyed the memory of Ukraine’s righteous. The heroism of those who risked their lives to help Jews in this part of the world, where the occupation was so brutal, was incomparably greater than in some other places. Yet this facet of the Ukrainian experience often gets short shrift precisely because so much of the world’s attention has been diverted to Ukraine’s national silence around collaboration.

Ukraine’s fear that an open discussion about this issue would fuel anti-Ukraine propaganda by the Kremlin may also be misplaced. Kiril Feferman, an Israeli historian from Ariel University, emphasized to me that in the history of the Holocaust “there are no people who’ve been one hundred percent pure.” Andrii Rukkas, a historian from Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko National University who is part of the BYHMC’s academic team, put it this way: “An honest and open conversation, but one that is based on facts and documents, is absolutely necessary. … We can’t live in the atmosphere of half-truth. It’s part of becoming a mature nation.”

Unsurprisingly, some critics have sought to strengthen their case against the memorial by focusing on the backgrounds of the three of the project’s four founders—Mikhail Fridman, German Khan, and Pavel Fuks. While all three men are Jewish and were born and raised in Ukraine, they made most of their wealth in Russia—a fact that may raise some eyebrows. (The fourth major donor is Victor Pinchuk, whose identity is firmly Ukrainian and doesn’t cause any questioning.) Yet none of the three men is new to philanthropy inside Ukraine. Fridman, who grew up in Lviv, is the founder of the massively popular annual jazz festival there. Fuks’ philanthropic contributions to his native city of Kharkiv earned him the designation of Honorary Citizen. Khan, who was born in Kyiv, is one of the co-founders of Genesis Philanthropy, which has sponsored numerous projects on the Holocaust and Jewish identity in the former Soviet states, including Ukraine.

The personal family connections of all four men to the Holocaust are an important motivating factor behind funding the project. Fridman’s eight great-grandparents and one of his grandfathers were killed by the Nazis. Khan has at least seven and possibly as many as 13 family members who were murdered at Babi Yar. In the view of Paul Shapiro, director for international relations at Washington’s Holocaust Museum, there is no evidence that the founders have any other goal in mind but to construct a successful Holocaust memorial at the site of Babi Yar. The only way to do, he said, is to adhere to a historical record. Khan confirmed to me that this is precisely the goal. “The purpose of this project is to be maximally removed from every kind of political influences and convey the historical truth of these events that took place then,” he explained.


Yet there are signs that the ambition to create a memorial free of political influences and devoted to historical truth may be running into trouble. Over the last few months, an additional Babi Yar project has arisen, driven by Josef Zissels, a well-known Ukrainian-Jewish anti-Soviet dissident. The museum he is proposing is explicitly not a Holocaust memorial. It is, rather, a museum of the history of the Babi Yar, in which executions of the Jew would be presented as a part of its larger history of violence.

There is also a new commission in place under the auspices of President Poroshenko, which, Mr. Zissels told me, he and his organization lobbied the government to establish. Its raison d’être is to coordinate the work of these two projects plus the additional project, which proposes to improve the landscape of the site and to turn it into a space of reflection. (This project is championed by the Canadian philanthropic group Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter.)

In a free and democratic Ukraine, it is certainly possible for three projects to co-exist, and this is precisely how BYHMC’s leadership is choosing to look at it. Mark Siwiec, the project’s CEO, told me: “We support others, with the hope that others support us.”

Yet only one of these projects is explicitly about commemorating the Holocaust, and this is what makes it of concern beyond Ukraine. The Holocaust was a transnational crime. And far from being of significance only to the Jewish people, it has long become a universal symbol that stands for the worst crime humanity can commit against its own.

The world has been waiting for a Holocaust memorial at Babi Yar for nearly 80 years. Ukraine should not let this opportunity slip away.


Was Nazi Germany Made in America?

A new history argues convincingly that Hitler’s policies were inspired by institutionalized racism and common-law pragmatism in the United States

On July 26, 1935, about a thousand anti-Nazi demonstrators attacked the SS Bremen, a sleek, state-of-the-art German ocean liner that had docked in New York. The protesters succeeded in tearing the swastika flag off the ship and throwing it into the Hudson River. It was the climax to a long, hot New York summer of street fighting between pro-Nazis and anti-Nazis.

Five of the rioters in the Bremen incident were arrested, but when they appeared before Judge Louis Brodsky in September of 1935 something remarkable happened: Brodsky dismissed all charges, arguing that the swastika was “a black flag of piracy” that deserved to be destroyed, the emblem of “a revolt against civilization … an atavistic throwback to pre-medieval, if not barbaric, social and political conditions.”

The law behind Brodsky’s brave proclamation was questionable, and it wasn’t long before FDR’s Justice Department apologized to Germany for the judge’s decision. Hitler praised the Roosevelt administration for disavowing Brodsky’s ruling. But the Jewish Brodsky’s acquittal of the anti-Nazi vandals still became a cause celèbre for Hitler’s party. The Nuremberg Laws of September 1935, which imposed harsh restrictions on German Jews, were, so the Nazis claimed, a “reply” to Brodsky’s “insult.”

James Q. Whitman dedicates his new book Hitler’s American Model “to the ghost of Louis B. Brodsky.” But Whitman disagrees with Brodsky’s claim that the Nazism of the mid-1930s was a throwback to the Middle Ages. Whitman shows that the Nuremberg Laws, instead of being a barbarous anomaly, were in part modeled on then-current American race law. The Nazi regime saw itself at the cutting edge of racial legislation, and America was their inspiration. “Nazi lawyers regarded America, not without reason, as the innovative world leader in the creation of racist law,” Whitman remarks. In the 1930s, the American South and Nazi Germany were the world’s most straightforwardly racist regimes, proud of the way they had deprived blacks and Jews, respectively, of their civil rights.

Scholars have long known that the American eugenics movement inspired the Nazis; now Whitman adds the influence of America’s immigration policy and its laws about race. Today, Whitman’s idea that Nazism looked to America for inspiration is liable to throw us into a moral panic. But there’s another side to the story, and in the Trump era, especially, we can benefit from taking a hard look at it. Our president was elected in part because he capitalized on an America-first nationalism that hunts ruthlessly for external and internal enemies. In this view, rootless cosmopolitans, immigrants, and the lawless inner cities constantly threaten the real America.

Historians have downplayed the connection between Nazi race law and America because America was mainly interested in denying full citizenship rights to blacks rather than Jews. But Whitman’s adroit scholarly detective work has proved that in the mid-’30s Nazi jurists and politicians turned again and again to the way the United States had deprived African-Americans of the right to vote and to marry whites. They were fascinated by the way the United States had turned millions of people into second-class citizens.

Strange as it may seem to us, the Nazis saw America as a beacon for the white race, a Nordic racial empire that had conquered a vast amount of Lebensraum. One German scholar, Wahrhold Drascher, in his book The Supremacy of the White Race (1936), saw the founding of America as a “fateful turning point” in the rise of the Aryans. Without America, Drascher wrote, “a conscious unity of the white race would never have emerged.” Rasse and Raum—race and living space—were for Nazis the keywords behind America’s triumph in the world, according to historian Detlef Junker. Hitler admired the American commitment to racial purity, praising the anti-Indian campaigns that had “gunned down the millions of Redskins to a few hundred thousand.”

In the 1930s the American South and Nazi Germany were the world’s most straightforwardly racist regimes, proud of the way they had deprived blacks and Jews, respectively, of their civil rights.

Hitler was not wrong to look to America for innovations in racism. “Early 20th-century America was the global leader in race law,” Whitman writes, more so even than South Africa. Spain’s New World Empire had pioneered laws tying citizenship to blood, but the United States developed racial legislation far more advanced than that of the Spaniards. For nearly a century African-American slavery was a monumental stain on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and its claim that “all men are created equal.” The Naturalization Act of 1790 stated that “any alien, being a free white person” could become an American—the Nazis noted with approval that this was an unusual case of racial restriction on citizenship. California barred Chinese immigration in the 1870s; the whole country followed suit in 1882.

World War I gave an added impetus to the focus of racialist doctrines on immigration and immigrants. The Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917 banned Asian immigrants along with homosexuals, anarchists, and “idiots.” And the Quota Law of 1921 favored Northern European immigrants over Italians and Jews, who were mostly barred from immigrating. Hitler praised American immigration restrictions in Mein Kampf: The future German dictator lamented the fact that being born in a country made one a citizen, so that “a Negro who previously lived in the German protectorates and now resides in Germany can thus beget a ‘German citizen.’ ” Hitler added that “there is currently one state in which one can observe at least weak beginnings of a better conception … the American Union,” which “simply excludes the immigration of certain races.” America, Hitler concluded, because of its race-based laws, had a more truly völkisch idea of the state than Germany did.

In the area of racial restrictions on marriage, America stood alone as a pioneer. The American idea that racially mixed marriage is a crime had a strong impact on the Nuremberg Laws. In the 1930s nearly 30 American states had anti-miscegenation laws on the books, in some cases barring Asians as well as African-Americans from marrying whites. The Nazis eagerly copied American laws against miscegenation. The Nuremberg Laws, following the American model, outlawed marriages between Jews and non-Jews.

In one respect American race law proved too harsh for the Nazis. In America, the “one drop” rule reigned: Often, you were counted as black if you had as little as one-sixteenth Negro blood. But the Nazi hardliners’ proposal to define Germans with one Jewish grandparent as Jews did not get approved at Nuremberg. Instead, quarter- and even half-Jews were treated with relative leniency. Mischlinge, half Jews, could be counted as Aryans, unless they were religiously observant or married to a Jew.

The American treatment of voting rights was also crucial to the Nazi platform. Hitler aimed to turn German Jews into resident noncitizens who would lack the vote as well as other rights. In Mein Kampf he proposed a tripartite division between Staatsbürger (citizens), Staatsangehörige (nationals) and Ausländer (foreigners). The United States already had such a division when it came to certain ethnic groups, notably African-Americans, most of whom could not vote in the South. White Southerners saw blacks the way Nazis saw Jews, as, in Whitman’s words, an “ ‘alien race’ of invaders that threatened to get ‘the upper hand.’ ” The Nazi jurist Heinrich Krieger in a 1934 article was particularly excited that the U.S. deprived not just blacks but also Chinese of voting rights. Detlef Sahm, another legal scholar, applauded the denial of the vote to American Indians, and noted that under U.S. law Filipinos, like the Chinese, were noncitizen nationals.

‘How Race Questions Arise.’ A map of the 48 states showing ‘Statutory Restrictions on Negro Rights,’ which appeared in the Nazi propaganda magazine Neues Volk in 1936. (Courtesy of University of Michigan Library, appearing in James Q. Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model

The Nazis were not just enthusiastic about the content of American race law, they also embraced its common-law basis. Erich Kaufmann, a right-wing German Jewish professor of law who survived the war years in hiding, praised in 1908 the way that American legal decisions, with their “wealth of life and immediacy,” as opposed to the rigid civil-law code that guided German jurisprudence, responded to “the living legal intuitions of the American people.” Thirty years later Kaufmann’s hint would be picked up by Nazis who saw common law, which embodies the powerful intuitions of the people, as a way to legislate racial prejudices. True, they conceded, there was no firm biological definition of Jewishness, but the people’s anti-Semitic instincts were nevertheless correct. Roland Freisler, one of the most radical and pitiless of Nazi jurists, wrote:

I believe that every judge would reckon the Jews among the coloreds, even though they look outwardly white. … Therefore I am of the opinion that we can proceed with the same primitivity that is used by these American states. A state even simply says: ‘colored people.’ Such a procedure would be crude, but it would suffice.

Freisler liked American common-law racism, with (in Whitman’s words) “its easygoing, open-ended, know-it-when-I-see-it way with the law.” Scientific definitions of race were not needed; popular bias was more than enough to go on. The American experience spoke volumes: Jim Crow racism was legal realism, rooted in the feelings of the people.

Other Nazi jurists, like Bernhard Lösener, made the case against a common-law approach. They complained that individual judges could not be allowed to make judgments based on racial hunches when they had no scientific way of determining what was Jewish. “Vague sentiments of Jew hatred” were not sufficient, Lösener insisted, making the case that anti-Semitism needed a sound basis in racial “science.” Lösener stood for one side of Nazi ideology, the emphasis on the hard, scientific facts of race and peoplehood; the other side was the improvising of new rules to further German power. Improvisation won out: lack of clarity about who counted as Jewish allowed the Nazis during the war both to employ Mischlinge and to murder them if necessary.

The Nazis were aware that America was run on egalitarian, liberal principles. But, they pointed out, we made race-based exceptions to our ideal. America showed, in the words of law professor Herbert Kier, that “the elemental force of the necessity of segregating humans according to their racial descent makes itself felt even where a political ideology stands in the way.” Hitler celebrated America in Mein Kampf for its gospel of social mobility, on the grounds that Nazism was an equal opportunity project for Aryans. Until the very late ’30s, FDR’s New Deal was popular among Nazis: The president, they said, had assumed dictatorial powers in order to further the prospects of all white Americans, while leaving segregation in place in the South.

In his concluding pages, Whitman suggests that the Nazis’ approval of American legal culture is worth pondering. The American taste for common law, usually seen as a sign of our pragmatic, flexible approach to legal decision-making, can also enshrine popular prejudices. Popular moods like the urge to get tough on crime, or on illegal immigrants, can carry the seeds of authoritarian fanaticism.


The Best WWII Children’s Museum You’ve Never Heard Of

Amsterdam’s Dutch Resistance Museum Junior offers spectacular interactive education

My family spent Thanksgiving in Amsterdam. We stayed in the Jordaan neighborhood, two blocks from Otto Frank’s old warehouse. Every night, we went to sleep to the sound of ringing church bells. Anne Frank used to listen to them, too. (On July 11, 1942, she wrote in her diary: “Father, Mother and Margot still can’t get used to the chiming of the Westertoren clock, which tells us the time every quarter of an hour. Not me, I liked it from the start; it sounds so reassuring, especially at night.”) Of course we took the Anne Frank House tour. Of course it was powerful. I’d last visited in the early ’90s; since then the museum has been thoughtfully expandedand renovated. My older daughter, Josie, 16, found the visit particularly potent, though she and I both made a quiet snorting noise when the tour concluded with a quote from bestselling young-adult novelist John Green.

To our surprise, however, a different museum wound up being even more powerful for both my daughters. The Verzetsmuseum, aka the Dutch Resistance Museum, has a large section aimed entirely at kids. If you’re visiting with your family, skip the main exhibit, dedicated to the Netherlands’ experience during the war, and go straight to Dutch Resistance Museum Junior, further back in the building. It is practically a Ph.D.-level course in effective museum design for kids—interactive without being infantilizing, engaging without being pandering, thoughtful about how young kids experience narrative, reflective about how much historical scariness young museumgoers can be expected to handle. Maxine, 13, was spellbound. As we left, after two hours that positively flew by, Josie gave it the highest rating an ironic hipster teen can give: “Mom. That museum was fire.”

You can get a sense of the space on the museum website. A large central area paneled with textured murals and filled with models of tree stumps, munitions crates, and suitcases (some of which actually open into plush upholstered chairs) introduces us to four kids: Eva, Jan, Nelly, and Henk. We see videos of each kid; a headset lets you hear them tell their own stories in the language of your choice. Eva is a Jewish girl whose family has fled Austria for (presumed) safety in Amsterdam. Jan is a minister’s son whose father preaches opposition to the Nazis. Nelly is the daughter of a small-town mayor in the southwest Netherlands, a fervent member of the Dutch Nazi party. Henk lives in Haarlem, loves his little toy soldiers, and sees war as a thrilling adventure—he’s giddily delighted every time the Germans open fire on British planes overhead because afterward he finds bits of shrapnel, bullets, and broken glass to add to his collection. (“I don’t think Henk is very smart,” Maxie confided.) Gradually, like the other children, Henk begins to understand the magnitude of war.

From the center room, you can follow each young narrator’s story through a warren of other little rooms—bedrooms, dining rooms, train cars—all filled with audio and video recordings, furniture, and screens you can touch to answer questions about what you’d do in each child’s situation. As you weave through each kid’s wartime story, examining their toys and hats and posters, watching clever bits of animation showing their day-to-day lives, you also move through four different experiences of resistance, oppression, and collaboration.

Eva, for example, tells us she lives around the corner from Anne Frank. She really likes Anne’s cat Moortje, but finds Anne (“a popular girl”) shallow and annoying. “She and her friends were always giggling about boys…I thought it was stupid,” she says dismissively. Both my daughters burst into shocked giggles at that; who’d ever expect to hear criticism of such an icon?

As the Nazi hold on the Netherlands tightens, we experience it through each kid’s lens. Eva is sad because isn’t allowed to go see Snow White; Jews can’t go to the movies anymore. Her beloved big brother Heinz draws her a picture of Snow White on the blackout paper covering the windows. Winter coats hang on hooks, each with a yellow star saying “Jood” stitched on it. There’s a café window with a small sign in the corner: “Verboden Voor Juden.” When the family has to go into hiding—Vati and Heinz in Soesdjik, Mutti and Eva in Amsterdam—we see a video of Eva’s hands making shadow animals on the ceiling, her idle fantasies of being able to ride a bike again (flowers bloom around the bike as she imagines it) and getting to dance like Shirley Temple, which she’s no longer allowed to do because she can’t make noise. “BORING!” the wall text huffs. We see sad-looking paintings by Heinz, poems, postcards. We hear bits of radio broadcasts. A righteous gentile hides Eva and her mom in a small space behind a false wall with a hatch next to the toilet—it’s even more stark-looking than the bookcase that swung out to reveal steps to the Franks’ Secret Annex.

Eventually, all four family members are captured and sent to Auschwitz. A video impressionistically shows us the cattle-car journey and Eva’s newly tattooed arm.

Among the four kids’ stories in the museum, Eva’s is the most tragic. Not everyone in her family survives. Nevertheless, her experience is presented in a way that’s manageable for children. I was endlessly admiring of this museum’s balancing act. Parents still may have to do some explaining, especially to younger kids (and I don’t think kids younger than 8 or 9 are emotionally ready for this experience at all), but the storytelling is developmentally appropriate for most kids older than 9. Regular readers know how critical I am of most Holocaust narratives for kids; this one really is spectacularly done.

At the end, you come out into a big open room—called Liberation—and are confronted with big photographic portraits of Eva, Jan, Nelly, and Henk as elderly folks. (Until the final room, I hadn’t been positive that the four were real people.) All had survived. I gasped, and tears came to my eyes. Something about suddenly seeing them as wrinkly old folks, with kind bubbe-and-zayde-like faces, when we’d only ever known them as children, felt at once jarring and consoling.

All four took different lessons from the war. An interactive display lets you watch snippets of interviews with them as adults on topics such as prejudice, dictatorship, the meaning of freedom. You can also write your own thoughts about war and intolerance on bits of paper all over the walls. (I took a picture of a carefully printed, blue-penciled note, in little-kid writing, the vowels dotted with circles. It read, “Hitler Is Gewoon Stom Dom”—“Hitler is just stupid” in Dutch. Beneath it was the word “Hitler” in a circle, crossed out, and a picture of a hand pointing thumbs-down. Take that, Hitler.

What I found most striking in that last room: Nelly never feels bad for her leadership in the Youth Storm movement or for her father’s role in the Dutch Nazi party. She sees herself as a victim, dwelling on being called “Nazi scum” by her classmates and being forced to flee to Germany with her family as the British and American armies approach the Netherlands. Eventually, she and her family are held accountable for their actions…but at no point does Nelly take responsibility. Even as an 86-year-old, she insists she had no idea what was happening to the Jews and doesn’t feel guilty about her family’s wartime activities. What did she learn from her experiences? “You shouldn’t tease others because they are different,” she says in an interview as a grownup. “I personally experienced what it is like to be different and I would not wish that on anyone else.” She sounds like today’s parade of racists and homophobes: “What about the prejudice I experience as a conservative? What about respecting my values?” I loved that the museum presented her perspective without comment or censure. It felt like a sophisticated, non-pandering choice that gave parents plenty of room for discussion with their kids.

The Dutch Resistance Museum proved a wonderful counterpoint to Anne Frank House. As Jews, we all know Anne’s saga. She’s one girl, but also larger than life. To pair her story with those of four other real people, unknowns, people who didn’t become fodder for John Green novels and Halloween costumes and Japanese mangamakes for a more layered, nuanced museum-going experience.