Category Archive: Times of Israel

Yad Vashem changes Holocaust memorial prayers to include North African victims

Prayer for the perished said to be updated on museum’s website following query from 12th grader; it now refers to ‘Diaspora’ rather than ‘European Diaspora’

Israeli soldiers stand below a monument at a ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, as Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 11, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli soldiers stand below a monument at a ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, as Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 11, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yad Vashem has changed two of its key prayers for Holocaust Remembrance Day — the Yizkor prayer and El Maleh Rahamim — to include Jewish victims from North Africa, a report said Tuesday.

The change came after Yael Robinson, a 12th grade student from Zichron Yaakov whose grandfather was a Holocaust survivor from Tripoli, Libya, took issue last year with the fact that the local remembrance ceremony did not mention victims outside of Europe, Haaretz reported.

Robinson wrote to the ceremony organizers, saying: “It was strange for me that the Yizkor read at the ceremony only mentioned Jews who died in Europe, and the El Maleh Rahamim prayer again mentions the Holocaust in Europe but doesn’t mention the Holocaust in North Africa even once,” noting that she meant no disrespect toward the victims in Europe.

People stand still on the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv as a two-minute siren is sounded across Israel to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 12, 2018 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A group called “A Movement for a Clean Memory” took on responsibility for the organization of Robinson’s local ceremony and received a copy of the letter. Upon closer examination of the issue, it was discovered that the prayers used were taken from the website of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

According to Haaretz, the Yad Vashem website already has the updated version of the prayers.

In the Yizkor prayer, a sentence that previously recalled those in the “European Diaspora” who perished in the Holocaust now reads just “Diaspora.”

Likewise, the word “European” was removed from the El Maleh Rahamim prayer when referring to the six million victims of the Holocaust.

“There is no one version of the Yizkor prayer and it’s known that at memorial ceremonies for various communities and organizations, they adapt it as is fitting,” Yad Vashem said in a statement to Haaretz.

“In general, at the different ceremonies conducted by Yad Vashem, this prayer is not used. In response to a query regarding one of the versions on the Yad Vashem website, which includes the words, ‘all the communities of Beit Israel in the European Diaspora,’ the text was changed to ‘all the communities of Beit Israel in the Diaspora,’ which is more accurate.”

Before Robinson’s grandfather died, he told her that as a child he saw his father arrested and thrown “like a sack of potatoes” into a truck that took him to the ghetto, from where he escaped and returned home a few weeks later.

“When they wanted to take his father, he tried to grab hold of him so he wouldn’t go, and the German, who had metal tips on the edge of his shoe, kicked him, and until his dying day he had the scars,” she said, according to Haaretz.

‘Green Book’ producer Charles Wessler helping establish new Warsaw Ghetto museum

Hollywood producer posts video asking anyone with artifacts from site to donate them to new museum opening in Polish capital

Charles B. Wessler arrives at the 91st Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019, at The Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Charles B. Wessler arrives at the 91st Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019, at The Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

JTA — Along with a group of contributors, Hollywood producer Charles B. Wessler is working on a new museum on the Warsaw Ghetto — and he’s asking for help.

In a video message posted Thursday, the “Green Book” producer asked anyone with artifacts from the Warsaw Ghetto to donate it to a new museum set to open in the Polish city in 2023.

Wessler got involved in the museum during a private visit to Warsaw last month, when he met the museum’s director, Albert Stankowski, and offered to help with collecting materials for the opening.

Memorial for 400-year-old Jewish community to be built in town next to Auschwitz

Few visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp pass through Poland’s Oswiecim. That might change as sites tied to the city’s Jewish past are preserved, restored, and digitized

OSWIECIM, Poland – Eighty years after the Great Synagogue of Oswiecim was set ablaze by the German occupiers of Poland, a memorial park will be built where the legendary shul once hosted up to 2,000 worshipers.

Located a few miles from the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Great Synagogue of Oswiecim was the centerpiece of a thriving, 400-year-old Jewish community. Some of Poland’s leading Jewish scholars came from Oswiecim — renamed Auschwitz in German — and Jewish families set up some of Poland’s first factories there.

A project of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, the memorial park is one of several sites managed by the organization. Chief among them is the so-called “Auschwitz Synagogue,” built in 1913 and the only Jewish house of worship that survived the Nazi onslaught intact. The modest prayer hall has been restored and connected to an adjacent building with a small Jewish museum. Together, they comprise the Auschwitz Jewish Center’s headquarters.

Site of the coming memorial park where the Great Synagogue of Oswiecim, Poland, once stood, May 2019 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

“The memorial park is another project to commemorate and educate about the destroyed Jewish community which until the war constituted nearly 60 percent of the town next to the site of Auschwitz,” said Tomasz Kuncewicz, the Auschwitz Jewish Center’s director, in an exchange with The Times of Israel.

“It is a project connecting the current non-Jewish residents of the town and the descendants of the Oswiecim Jews living in Israel and other countries around the world,” said Kuncewicz, who pioneered the use of apps to teach visitors to Oswiecim about the city’s Jewish history.

To fund the project, the Auschwitz Jewish Center conducted crowd-funding campaigns in Polish and English, said Kuncewicz. Each of the campaigns yielded about 100 donors, including current residents of Oswiecim.

In Oswiecim, Poland, during the Nazi occupation, workers from Auschwitz dismantled the Great Synagogue that was burned down in November of 1939. (Auschwitz Jewish Center)

Among the legends associated with the Great Synagogue, a Simchat Torah “death dance” once brought out the departed spirits of Oswiecim’s Jews for a night of mystery. One of the most astounding tales about the house of worship, however, took place more recently.

‘A welcoming and reflective space’

The Jews of Oswiecim had some warning time before the Nazis occupiers set the Great Synagogue ablaze in November of 1939, and they put it to good use.

Underneath a floor near stairs leading up to the women’s gallery, a trove of sacred items was hastily buried. The Torah scrolls, candlesticks, and prayer books were placed in the ground without any coverings or container.

More than six decades after the clandestine burial, former Oswiecim resident Yariv Nornberg told archeologists about the secret cache. He’d heard about the burial from another Oswiecim native, completing a circle that helped researchers find the items.

Ritual objects from the Great Synagogue of Oswiecim in Poland, on display at the Auschwitz Jewish Center, October 2017. The Great Synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis in 1939, and these artifacts were uncovered during excavations in 2004 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Toward the end of excavations in 2004, archeologists found the shul’s Eternal Light, 10 chandeliers, a bronze menorah, and the remains of holy books. At other locations on the grassy plateau, objects pulled from the earth included the remains of charred pews and marble decorative elements.

According to archeologists, a remarkable aspect of the unearthed Great Synagogue artifacts has to do with the site’s use during World War II. Following clearing away of the synagogue’s rubble, the ground was “crisscrossed” by the construction of shelters. Despite all this human activity, the treasures a few inches below the ground remained untouched — or at least some of them did.

During the next five months, the land on which the Great Synagogue stood will undergo its latest transformation. The shul’s former perimeter will be marked by a curb and greenery, and a small portion of the excavated original floor will be displayed for visitors.

A colorized photo of the Great Synagogue, left, which dominated the ‘Jewish street’ in Oswiecim, Poland, prior to its destruction by the Nazis in 1939 (Auschwitz Jewish Center)

“The focus will be on the biodiversity and on making it into a welcoming and reflective space,” said the Auschwitz Jewish Center’s Kuncewicz, who advocated for a “minimalist” approach to on-site construction.

Viewed from above, the park’s main feature will be large recycled stone slabs arranged as a path to symbolize the destruction, said Kuncewicz. To encourage use of the space, benches will be placed along with a model of the candelabra found in 2004. The replica will hang between trees near the center of the former synagogue.

Former ‘Jewish Street’ in Oswiecim, Poland; the facade of the Great Synagogue was located near the grass, May 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

‘A broken star of David’

After the Holocaust, several dozen Jews returned to Oswiecim, the remnant of a community that numbered at least 6,000 before the war. As in other parts of Poland, many of these survivors were displaced again when they fled the country beginning in 1946, after the Kielce pogrom, or in later years during waves of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism.

The Great Synagogue Memorial Park of Oswiecim will acknowledge this complex past with its symbolic installation. Visitors will peer into a large triangular structure to see historic photographs of the synagogue, with the triangle symbolizing both a broken star of David and – according to Kuncewicz — directions in which Holocaust survivors emigrated from Poland after 1946.

One of several photographs taken during the deportation of Oswiecim’s Jews to ghettos in the region during the Nazi occupation of Poland. (Auschwitz Jewish Center)

The triangle motif occurs throughout properties managed by the Auschwitz Jewish Center, including in part of the square adjacent to the small Auschwitz Synagogue and Jewish museum. In that square, 5,000 of the town’s Jewish residents were gathered prior to being deported to several ghettos, and from there to death camps.

A stone’s throw from where the Great Synagogue stood is the location of the former Haberfeld House, once home to the town’s most famous Jewish family. For generations, the family distilled vodka and produced other beverages for use in Poland and to export around the world. Their mansion and adjacent distillery were demolished in 2003, and a Hampton Inn by Hilton recently opened on the site.

The only remaining Jewish cemetery in Oswiecim, Poland, May 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Oswiecim’s only remaining Jewish cemetery is a 15-minute walk from the city’s historic core. The grounds shrunk significantly since 1939, when the cemetery covered what are now adjacent roads and parking lots. The placement of several dozen tombstones in recent years can only be symbolic, since the original grave markers were removed by the Nazis or used in post-war building efforts.

Covered in ivy and moss, the tree-filled cemetery has two relatively new burial tombs. One is for Shimshon Kleuger, who was known as “the last living Jew in the city of Auschwitz” until his death in 2000.

Door to the former home of Shimshon Kleuger, the so-called ‘last living Jew in the city of Auschwitz,’ Oswiecim, Poland, May 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

For decades after the Holocaust, Kleuger lived as a hermit in his family home adjacent to the Auschwitz Synagogue. Townspeople placed food, water and coffee in a bucket for him, and journalists dared not knock on the feisty Kleuger’s door.

In 2014, the Auschwitz Jewish Center turned Kleuger’s former home into an Oswiecim-themed café, called Cafe Bergson. A deep mezuzah indentation can be seen next to the burgundy door, close to where people anonymously left Kleuger the necessities of life.

Inside the restored building, a collection of books, postcards and memorabilia recall the past of Oswiecim, which was known as “not a bad place to live” among Polish Jews. The cafe also hosts lectures about the history of Oshpitzin — the Yiddish name for Oswiecim, which means “guests.” After four centuries of relative prosperity in Oshpitzin, Jews proved to be temporary guests.

Currently, the Auschwitz Jewish Center receives a few hundred visitors a month, whereas more than 2.1 million people visited Auschwitz-Birkenau last year. With developments like the “Oshpitzin” app, the museum’s Cafe Bergson, and the coming Great Synagogue memorial park, Oswiecim the erased “city of Israel” is again being turned into a welcoming place for Jewish guests.

German far-right hosting lectures by Nazi veterans, security agency warns

Report says some 60 events, featuring six former Waffen-SS and Hitler youth members, were held last year

Former SS officer Karl Münter has justified his units massacre of 86 French civilians during the Second World War and now delivers lectures to German Neo-Nazi groups. (YouTube screenshot)

Former SS officer Karl Münter has justified his units massacre of 86 French civilians during the Second World War and now delivers lectures to German Neo-Nazi groups. (YouTube screenshot)

German neo-Nazis are hosting Waffen-SS and Hitler youth veterans as inspirational speakers in an attempt to radicalize young people, Germany’s domestic security agency warned in a recent report.

According to German news magazine Focus, which gained access to the classified document by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, around 60 such meetings were held last year, featuring around six “zeitzeugen,” or historical witnesses.

The security agency warned against the “ideology-forming function” of the meetings, which are intended to legitimize the war actions of the German Wehrmacht as “a defensive struggle of the German people.”

Neo-Nazi organization The Third Path, one of the groups organizing the events, was cited as describing the significance of such talks by saying that “our forefathers have made it clear to us … it is no use just to name the evil [you have to] to fight it and to eliminate the danger to your own people.”

German Neo-Nazis have made extensive use of social media in promoting these talks, which have been given by figures such as SS veterans Klaus Grotjahn and Richard Neubrech, both of whom are in their early nineties.

All of the veterans appear to be unrepentant supporters of Nazism. One of them, 96-year-old SS Panzer veteran Karl Münter, made waves earlier this year when he justified his unit’s massacre of 86 civilians, including children, in France during the war.

Swedish neo-Nazis disrupt exhibition of Holocaust survivors’ portraits

Nordic Resistance Movement tries to block visitors from viewing the ‘Fading Stories – pass them on’ exhibit, enter premises and shout Holocaust is a ‘myth’

Illustrative: Supporters of the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement hold flags during a demonstration at the Kungsholmstorg square in Stockholm, Sweden on August 25, 2018. (Fredrik Persson/Getty Images/AFP)

Illustrative: Supporters of the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement hold flags during a demonstration at the Kungsholmstorg square in Stockholm, Sweden on August 25, 2018. (Fredrik Persson/Getty Images/AFP)

Neo-Nazis in Sweden blocked the entrance to an exhibition of portraits of Holocaust survivors and intimidated visitors already viewing the display.

In the incident Tuesday in the southern city of Visby, several men from the Nordic Resistance Movement gathered outside the venue displaying the exhibition “Fading Stories – pass them on” by the Raoul Wallenberg Academy and photographer Sanna Sjosward.

In this week’s incident, the men tried to block the entrance but one woman pushed passed them, leading them to follow her inside.

“Three Nazis followed and also went into the room,” she told Expressen. “Inside they yelled “F***ing myths.”

Police arrived at the scene but did not arrest the neo-Nazis, who left the premises.

“It was unpleasant. It was very clear that they were here intimidate,” another witness told Expressen.

In 2015 and 2017, skinheads twice disrupted lectures in Swedish schools by Holocaust survivors.

Germany extends Holocaust compensation to survivor spouses

New York-based advocacy group successfully lobbies German government to continue payments to 30,000 elderly

Holocaust survivors attend a ceremony at the Mishan home for the elderly in Tel Aviv as Israel marks annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. May 04, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Holocaust survivors attend a ceremony at the Mishan home for the elderly in Tel Aviv as Israel marks annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. May 04, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

BERLIN (AP) — The organization that handles claims on behalf of Jews who suffered under the Nazis said Tuesday that Germany has agreed to extend compensation to their surviving spouses and to increase other payments, taking the total to be paid out in 2020 to around $1 billion.

Until now, pension payments to Holocaust survivors had been stopped upon their death, but the New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany said Berlin has now agreed to continue survivor pensions for nine months after a death to the spouse.

“We have survivors who have been just getting by for many years,” Schneider said in a telephone interview from New York. “This extra nine months of income gives a cushion for the family of the survivor to figure out how to deal with their new circumstances.”

Illustrative: Members of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims in Luxembourg for the signing of the Reparations Agreement between the German Federal Republic, the State of Israel, and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims, in 1952. Among those pictured is Benjamin Ferencz (second row from the front, second from the left). (Ben Ferencz/USHMM)

The Claims Conference carries out continuous negotiations with the German government to expand categories of people eligible for compensation for suffering and losses resulting from persecution by the Nazis. Since 1952, Germany has paid more than $80 billion.

The Claims Conference established its own fund in 1963 to also aid so-called Righteous Gentiles — non-Jews who helped Jews survive the Holocaust — and this year the German government agreed to help fund those payments.

Schneider said there are some 277 Righteous Gentiles still alive today, whose average age is 91, who have indicated they need financial assistance.

“These are non-Jews who risked their lives and the lives of their families to save Jews during the Holocaust. They literally put their lives at stake to save others,” Schneider said. “Every one of these people should live with the greatest of dignity, so it was important for us to ensure an ongoing funding stream.”

In other negotiations, Germany agreed to increase social welfare service funding for survivors by 44 million euros ($50 million) to a total of 524 million euros for 2020.

Those funds go to welfare groups that help Holocaust survivors with a range of services, including psychological counseling and in-home care. Some 132,000 victims of the Nazis currently receive such assistance.

The new payments for spouses of survivors would fall into this category but the costs have not yet been determined to add to the 2020 figure.

Germany has also agreed to increase direct compensation pensions, which are specific payments for a person’s particular suffering that go to some 60,000 survivors in 83 countries.

Pensions were increased from 415 euros a month to 446 euros retroactive to Jan. 1 as of Monday, then will increase to 513 euros a month on Jan. 1, 2020, and 580 euros a month on Jan. 1, 2021.

In all, the Claims Conference expects to distribute 340 million euros in direct compensation pensions in 2020 — a total of 864 million from Germany when combined with the social welfare payments.

Germany to return painting stolen by Nazis to Italy

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to travel to Florence where he will hand over ‘Vase of Flowers’ by Dutch artist Jan van Huysum to Uffizi Gallery

In this photo made available on January 1, 2019, Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi Gallery, poses for a photo as he holds onto a copy of a still-life "Vase of Flowers," by Dutch artist Jan van Huysum, with writing in red reading "stolen," inside the Uffizi gallery, in Florence, Italy. (Uffizi Gallery press office via AP)

In this photo made available on January 1, 2019, Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi Gallery, poses for a photo as he holds onto a copy of a still-life “Vase of Flowers,” by Dutch artist Jan van Huysum, with writing in red reading “stolen,” inside the Uffizi gallery, in Florence, Italy. (Uffizi Gallery press office via AP)

Germany said Saturday it will return to Italy a painting by Dutch artist Jan van Huysum that was stolen by Nazi troops during World War II.

The government said in a statement that Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and his Italian counterpart Enzo Moavero will travel to Florence soon to hand the still-life “Vase of Flowers” back to the Uffizi Gallery.

The oil painting, a still-life which measures 47×35 cm (18×14 inches), had been part of the Pitti Palace collection in Florence from 1824 until the outbreak of World War II. It was stolen by German troops and didn’t surface again until after Germany’s reunification.

“Vase of Flowers” by Jan van Huysum. (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

After being shipped to Germany the work’s whereabouts remained unknown until 1991, after Germany was reunified.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the family that currently possesses the painting would be compensated.

Van Huysum was a well-known specialist of still-life paintings. In January Schmidt appealed to Berlin asking that the painting be returned and saying at the time that until it is “the wounds of the Second World War and Nazi terror will not be healed.”

In the meantime, a black and white copy of “Flower Vase” was hung at the Uffizi Gallery, with the word “stolen” in English, German, and Italian on it.

A brief explanation tells visitors that the work was stolen by Nazi soldiers in 1944 and is now in a German private collection.

At Auschwitz, an exhibit takes an unprecedented look at religion and survival

‘Through the Lens of Faith’ focuses on 21 survivors who discuss how their relationship with God and the divine evolved during and after their internment at the death camp

Auschwitz survivor Avraham Zelcer stares intently into the camera. His rolled-up sleeve reveals the number tattooed onto his left forearm over three-quarters of a century ago, when he was deported to the infamous concentration camp from his native Czechoslovakia. Although the camp was liberated on January 27, 1945, Zelcer did not return to his Jewish faith until a year later.

It is understandable that experiencing the horrors of Auschwitz could try one’s religious beliefs. The camp claimed over 1.1 million lives during World War II, including almost a million Jews. Yet some prisoners managed to hold onto their faith. Their story is told in an upcoming exhibit at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim, Poland, which will run through most of 2020, the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.

Over three years, Englander, the chair of the International Center of Photography, shot color photographs of each survivor while they were being interviewed by Lustiger Thaler, the chief curator of the Amud Aish Memorial Museum in Brooklyn, the first museum to address the Holocaust from a faith-based perspective. Israeli-American Libeskind — a Polish-born son of Holocaust refugees, whose projects include the Ground Zero redesign and the Jewish Museum Berlin — created steel panels to encase the photos, with glass sections displaying testimony from the interviews.

Of the 21 survivors, 11 are women and 10 are men. (Poignantly, two of the 21 have died since being interviewed.) They include 18 Jews, two Polish Catholics and one Sinti, or Romani. The number of Jews reflects the numerical value of the Hebrew word “chai,” or “life.”

A profile of Avraham Zelcer as part of ‘Through the Lens of Faith,’ running through 2020 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. (Courtesy Henri Lustiger Thaler)

“It’s really an interfaith exhibit, trying to understand the role of faith and religion for survivors able to get through Auschwitz,” Lustiger Thaler said.

Some, like Zelcer, struggled to return to their faith. Others, like Lea Friedler of Israel, said that God was working in the camp to keep them alive through a combination of miracle, blessings and messengers.

Lustiger Thaler said that “religion was, one could assume, important to the majority of people deported to Auschwitz,” including Jews, Polish Catholics and Sinti/Romani. He added that the exhibit represents “the first time this element of faith is being incorporated, and the first time it’s going to be in front of the gates of Auschwitz.”

A profile of Lea Friedler as part of ‘Through the Lens of Faith,’ running through 2020 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. (Courtesy Henri Lustiger Thaler)

‘Invisible faces’

Extending for 25 meters, the exhibit is situated on both sides of a path off the route leading to the memorial and museum. The vertical steel panels evoke the stripes of a concentration camp prisoner’s uniform, while their mirrored exteriors reflect the freedom of the wider world outside.

The location of the exhibit is “really where all people disembark when they are about to enter the camp itself,” Libeskind said. “It’s where people first encounter where they are, a large gathering point just before the entrance to the actual site… Of course, it does not negate that every place [in Auschwitz] is a place of death.”

As he noted, there is “the question of other invisible faces, those who did not survive, 99.99 percent of the story.”

‘Through the Lens of Faith,’ an exhibit running through 2020 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. (Courtesy Daniel Libeskind)

The Auschwitz death toll includes an estimated 960,000 Jews, 74,000 non-Jewish Poles and 21,000 Sinti, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Lustiger Thaler, Englander and Libeskind all lost family members in the Holocaust — including members of Lustiger Thaler’s family who died at Auschwitz. (His mother was liberated at Bergen-Belsen.) The camp’s victims also include German-Jewish artist Felix Nussbaum, whom Libeskind memorialized in one of his earliest projects, the Felix Nussbaum Haus in Osnabrück, Germany.

“The Felix Nussbaum Haus made me realize that when people say 6 million Jews were murdered [in the Holocaust], I realized you cannot identify with, you don’t understand, what 6 million means,” Libeskind said.

However, he added, the Nussbaum Haus showed “how the power of a single individual, a single story, told me beyond any statistic with a number of zeros after it” — just as the “few portraits” of the Auschwitz exhibit are “almost bigger than the story you read in an encyclopedia or book that can’t possibly connect you.”

“We cannot identify with one million, one thousand, one hundred people,” Libeskind said. “We might [identify] with one [person], 18, 20, 30.”

‘Through the Lens of Faith,’ an exhibit running through 2020 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. (Courtesy Daniel Libeskind)

Adding a dimension

“Through the Lens of Faith” began as a concept that Lustiger Thaler successfully pitched to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. He brought Englander on board for the interviews with survivors over the next few years across a variety of locations, including New York, Florida, Israel, Poland and Canada.

They were children and young adults when they arrived at Auschwitz, with the youngest four years old and the oldest 20. Now, located through survivor networks at Aish Amud and through the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, they ranged from ages 80 to 102, with most in their 90s and many, including Friedler and Zelcer, having raised large families.

Museum curator Henri Lustiger Thaler. (Courtesy)

“These are very aged individuals,” Lustiger Thaler said. “We have captured the last living survivors of Auschwitz — a very important metaphor for the 75th commemoration [of liberation].”

Lustiger Thaler had conducted hundreds of previous interviews with survivors for Amud Aish. He said that Englander brought a new aspect to the work, “a whole other dimension — the image.”

Englander recalled facing “agonizing” decisions over the photoshoots: “Black and white? Standing? Sitting? Face shots?” She said that she “looked at tons of books, portraits in Auschwitz,” and “discussed it with a lot of people — rabbis, scholars, philosophers.”

She decided on “very colorful” portraits taken with her digital Canon 5D Mark IV.

“All of them were dressed in their best Shabbat clothes or wedding clothes,” she said. “They looked really handsome and beautiful… I wanted them to be proud. They are heroes.”

And, Englander noted, “These are not victims. They’re gorgeous people with hope, resilience, appreciation, kindness,” with most of them urging people to be kind to each other. “I learned so much from them,” she said.

So did Lustiger Thaler.

“The question is, how does that culture of faith interact with what they were experiencing, the deathworld they walked into,” he said. “There were a lot of good questions I posed to survivors around the relationship of faith individually to them and also faith collectively with other Jews.”

Photographer Caryl Englander. (Courtesy)

Searing impressions

Survivors Zelcer and Friedler both recalled arriving at Auschwitz on the holiday of Shavuot. Each was 16 years old. Friedler arrived with her mother and two orphans. A fellow prisoner told her mother, “Stay with your daughter.” Friedler said this was divine intervention that saved the lives of her and her mother.

“I remember every single interview of the 21 very clearly,” Lustiger Thaler said. “Each one gave me another viewpoint on how to understand faith and the Holocaust, and the complex relationship between the two.”

It’s a relationship that historically has not received much attention, according to exhibit organizers. (There is also a nonreligious side to the Auschwitz narrative; its dead include 15,000 Soviet POWs, and the camp was liberated by the Red Army.) Lustiger Thaler said that as recently as the 1990s, while Orthodox accounts of the Holocaust appeared in published memoirs and stories, they were absent from the larger memorial world, which he describes as secular.

Architect Daniel Libeskind. (Stefan Ruiz)

Englander said that while the Holocaust brought suffering and brutality to all of its victims, it might bring “a different, additional layer to a religious population,” such as a man whose peyos, or sidelocks, were shaved off, or a “very modest” woman forced to take a shower or use a toilet in the presence of a male guard with a machine gun.

She added that religious people who survived the Holocaust and said that God had a purpose for them were mocked by others who asked, “What God could do that to you?”

“If they committed to have new families, as some religious people did — Hasidic, Orthodox, Haredi, non-Orthodox religious — they held back their stories,” Englander said, adding that not only did they refrain from telling the next generation, they also did not share their accounts with famous Holocaust researchers such as Steven Spielberg.

“They could tell right away [the researchers] had no connection with how they felt,” Englander said, “being willing to die to hide tefillin [phylacteries] or giving [up] a piece of bread so they could have matza for the haggada for Passover.”

She called these “nuances really not seen before” in Holocaust testimony.

Libeskind recalls multiple members of his family who drew upon their religion to help them survive the Holocaust. Among them was an uncle from his mother’s side who endured Auschwitz, immigrated to Mandatory Palestine, remained in the State of Israel and founded a devout Hasidic family. Libeskind also mentioned his father’s only sister, a survivor who remarried; both bride and groom had lost children in Auschwitz.

‘Through the Lens of Faith,’ an exhibit running through 2020 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. (Courtesy Daniel Libeskind)

“Strangely enough, I never thought about people I knew who survived, who did survive, and continued through their faith as Jews,” Libeskind said. “It interested me. I never thought about faith as a way to survive.”

“It’s something I was very interested in pursuing with the installation. The installation is a space, a place of encounter, between what you know and what you don’t know,” he said.

For Lustiger Thaler, it’s a different kind of mixture of opposites that make the exhibit so powerful.

“It will speak about freedom at the end of it — freedom, resilience, hope emerging from the deathworld, a life-negating place, this deathworld of Auschwitz,” he said, “a combination between meeting the holy in the space of the profane.”