Romania lights the way in fighting Holocaust revisionism

Croatia, Poland, and Hungary should take note of Bucharest’s critical lessons on how to accept their guilt

Roundup of Jews during a pogrom in Iasi, Romania, June 1941

Roundup of Jews during a pogrom in Iasi, Romania, June 1941

Brussels – It’s a surprising success story.

While my new study on Holocaust revisionism details how many other Central European governments are rehabilitating World War II collaborators and minimizing their own guilt in the death of Jews, one former communist country has gone in the other direction – Romania.

It has recognized the findings of an international commission that the country’s wartime government is responsible for the murder of up to 380,000 Jews and more than 11,000 Roma. Laws outlaw revisionism and rehabilitation of war criminals. Holocaust educational programs are widespread, even at the National College of Defense, where the army’s top officers learn about wartime history and the responsibility to disobey illegal, immoral orders.

The Romanian example offers important lessons about what countries need to do to accept their guilt – and how this acceptance helps them both at home and abroad. It is a path to be followed by other Central European countries such as Croatia, Poland, and Hungary, recently liberated from communism, but who have now fallen into the grip of ugly nationalist populism.

Romania now holds the six-month rotating European Union Presidency and brought its fight to Brussels at a crucial moment, when anti-Semitism is rising across the continent. In a survey addressing more than 16,000 Jewish people in 12 European countries late last year, the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency found 90% of respondents felt anti-Semitism was growing in their country and 30% had been harassed. Over a third avoided going to Jewish events or sites because of safety fears.

But the danger goes beyond these attacks. Issues that, on the face, have nothing to do with Jews – migration or a protest movement sparked by fuel prices – suddenly are made to be all about the Jews. Centuries-old stereotypes have reappeared: the conniving Jewish financier, the all-powerful Jewish conspirator buying political influence or acting as “globalist,” pulling the levers of power for their own enrichment. The common theme is that the Jewish people are an Other who do not belong within European society.

During World War II, these themes infected Romania. In November 1940, the country joined the Axis alliance. Anti-Semitic laws proliferated. The Romanian Iron Guard attacked the Jewish population. Under General Ion Antonescu, Romania joined forces with the Germans in June 1941 for the invasion of the Soviet Union. Romanian and German troops together began a systematic massacre of the Jewish population in Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, deporting the survivors to Romania operated concentration camps. The Antonescu regime extended the deportations to Southern Bukovina and Dorohoi. Between 280,000 and 380,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews were murdered or died during the Holocaust in Romania, with an additional 135,000 Romanian Jews in Northern Transylvania perishing.

Under the communists, Jewish victims were ignored. In 1957, a court convicted Radu Dinulescu, a notorious war criminal responsible for organizing and carrying out the deportations of Jews from Bukovina and Bessarabia. His second sentence was not for killing Jews, but for his “intense activity against the working class and the revolutionary movement.”

After communism fell, Antonescu was rehabilitated as a great military strategist, a fighter against communism, and often credited with saving the Jews in Romania. The country began to rehabilitate war criminals. In 1998 and 1999 respectively, the Supreme Court of Romania acquitted notorious war criminals Radu Dinulescu (chief of the Second Section in the General Staff of the Romanian Army) and his assistant, Gheorghe Petrescu. In 2003, President Ion Iliescu stated that “the Holocaust was not unique to the Jews.”

The country began to come clean about its past when Romania negotiated entry into NATO and the European Union. Romania responded like a star student. It joined the International Holocaust and Research Alliance (IHRA) in 2004, chaired the alliance in 2016, and adopted the IHRA’s working definition of Antisemitism in 2017.

Crucially, in 2003, the Romanian government appointed Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Romanian Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel to preside over an International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania. The Commission found Romanian civilian and military authorities responsible for the murder of up to 380,000 Jews and more than 11,000 gypsies. The Romanian government recognized the report’s findings.

Since then, Romanians have, for the most part, come clean about the dark spots in their past. The country has created alternative and unprecedented educational programs at the National College of Defense. Since 2002, the college has trained Romanian military leaders about what their predecessors did during World War II. Three years ago, it began to organize training with magistrates, policemen, judges, and prosecutors. Similarly, the Elie Wiesel Institute organizes training with police officers and each year holds a summer course. Police officers can choose from among various topics, one of which is on the Holocaust.

Another important current initiative is a new Museum of the Holocaust in Bucharest, which is under construction and soon to be opened. A small Museum of the History of the Jews and the Holocaust already exists in a synagogue.

Romania today holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Council. It has made the fight against anti-Semitism and Holocaust revisionism a priority. It recently hosted a major conference inside the European Parliament. Another conference is underway this week in Bucharest.

Compare this with its neighbors Hungary and Croatia. Both countries refuse to appoint an independent commission to study their troubled Holocaust pasts. Both continue to rehabilitate war criminals. Both continue to deny their own responsibility.

Romania shows that they can improve. An important first step for its neighbors would be to appoint an independent Commission to study its past. Let the facts fall where they might. This would help depoliticize the debate over the past and move it onto a solid, impartial ground.

Polish right-wing newspaper’s front page teaches ‘how to recognize a Jew’

Anti-Semitic nationalist weekly, Tylko Polska, or ’Only Poland,’ appears at Polish parliament as part of press kit for lawmakers


Historian Jan Gross on the front page of a Polish weekly that instructs readers on how to recognize Jews. (Misiek Kaminski/via JTA)

Historian Jan Gross on the front page of a Polish weekly that instructs readers on how to recognize Jews. (Misiek Kaminski/via JTA)

JTA — A right-wing newspaper with national distribution in Poland ran on its front page an article that instructs readers on “how to recognize a Jew.”

The Polish-language weekly, Tylko Polska, or “Only Poland,” lists on its front page “Names, anthropological features, expressions, appearances, character traits, methods of operation” and “disinformation activities.”

The text also reads: “How to defeat them? This cannot go on!”

The page also features a headline reading, “Attack on Poland at a conference in Paris.” The reference is to a Holocaust studies conference last month during which Polish nationalists complained that speakers were anti-Polish. That article features a picture of Jan Gross, a Polish-Jewish Princeton University scholar of Polish complicity in the Holocaust and a frequent target of nationalist attacks.

Only Poland is published by Leszek Bubl, a fringe nationalist political candidate and sometime musician who has sung about “rabid” rabbis. The paper was spotted Wednesday at the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, as part of this week’s packet of periodicals.

Michał Kamiński, a conservative lawmaker, protested the article and its presence at the Sejm, Polsat news reported.

The Sejm Information Center responded by saying that “the Chancellery of the Sejm will request the publication’s removal from the press kit.”

The monument was erected just four months ago in memory of the city’s fifty Jews who were deported to Auschwitz during the Holocaust, where they perished.


Holocaust memorial in central Greece vandalized

A man walks past a graffiti dedicated to the Holocaust in the northern port city of Thessaloniki. (photo credit: ALEXANDROS AVRAMIDIS/REUTERS)

A Holocaust memorial in the central Greek city of Trikala was allegedly found to be vandalized a few days ago. 

The local Jewish community discovered the desecration and complained to the police, which launched an investigation to locate the perpetrators of the antisemitic act, Arutz 7 reported.

The monument was erected just four months ago in memory of the city’s fifty Jews who were deported to Auschwitz during the Holocaust, where they perished.

During the Holocaust, 450 Jews from Trikala managed to escape the city and fled to isolated villages in the mountains and Turkey, later on also getting to Israel. 

However, in 1944, the Nazis arrested 50 Jews from the Trikala community who had been in hiding, and deported them to the Auschwitz death camp.

In October, the city’s Jewish cemetery was also desecrated by vandals in an act of antisemitism. Eight tombs were destroyed, two of which belonged to the parents of the city’s Jewish community president.

In more antisemitic incidents in Greece this year, a Jewish school in Athens was spray-painted with antisemitic slurs, while the monument commemorating the Jews of Thessaloniki, located at the University of Aristotle, was desecrated in January.

The menorah and Star of David adorning the memorial were broken and left lying on the ground, while headstones inside the memorial were pushed over.

Last year, there were 15 reported incidents of antisemitism across Greece.

High school plastered with swastikas after Holocaust survivor visit

By Stephanie Becker, CNN

(CNN)Flyers with Nazi swastikas were posted at a California school just days after a Holocaust survivor shared her firsthand horrors with students who had posted anti-Semitic photographs during a party.Ten flyers were discovered at Newport Harbor High School on Sunday morning. Police were called and the flyers were removed. While posting the flyers is not a crime, Newport Beach police are investigating.School principal Sean Boulton said in a statement: “Again we condemn all acts of anti-Semitism and hate in all their forms. We will continue to be vigilant with our stance, and the care of our students and staff.”But one senior at the school, Max Drakeford, called the latest episode “super disheartening — a step backward.”Drakeford, whose grandmother survived the Holocaust, said the posters “send a message that we aren’t welcome at our own school.”

Katrina Foley, mayor of the neighboring city of Costa Mesa, where the party was held, said she felt there was a sinister motive.”That tells me that there is a small group of people who want to intimidate students from speaking out. We should not allow that to happen, she told CNN’s Sara Sidner. “They are trying to intimidate an entire community from speaking out.”Rabbi Reuven Mintz, who has been working with the school district to educate students about the Holocaust, said he believed the posters were put up by an outside group, not students.He had been alarmed by the participation of some Jewish students in the initial incident on March 3 when teenagers posted photos of themselves with arms raised in a Nazi salute around a swastika made of plastic cups. “The fact that they didn’t stop it is disturbing to me.”

Eva Schloss, a Holocaust survivor and stepsister of Anne Frank, spoke to children who posted photos online with Nazi imagery.

Eva Schloss, a Holocaust survivor and stepsister of Anne Frank, spoke to children who posted photos online with Nazi imagery.

After the images were shared online and reported in the media, Mintz helped to bring Eva Schloss, an Auschwitz survivor and stepsister of Anne Frank, to talk to the school.Schloss was brutally honest about the horrors she and other teenagers endured at the hands of the Nazis. She told the students about the Nazi gassing of Jewish people and targeting of disabled people and their children.Those who were there say many of the teenagers involved with the viral pictures were crying. Many of the students have also written open letters of apology to the Jewish community, the city, the school district, friends and family.

Students wrote letters of apology for their actions at the party.

Students wrote letters of apology for their actions at the party.

In the series of letters obtained by CNN, the authors said they take responsibility and did not consider the impact of the Nazi imagery.The person who took the photos and posted them on Snapchat wrote: “I had the opportunity to step up and voice that what was going on was not right. I also had the choice to leave but I did not and for that I am so very sorry.”Another wrote: “Please give us the chance to show who we really are. We can’t erase what we did, but we have to try to make it better and show you we are not the people we seemed to be during a few minutes of stupidity.”Even as the posters were being discovered on Sunday, Mintz was with some of the students from the photo at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, where they met another Holocaust survivor.She reminded the students that when she was their age, she was in a concentration camp, Mintz said. And he said he believed the interventions were having an impact.”I’ve seen amazing things from these students,” he said. “They really want to be outspoken advocates against hate. These kids are being transformed.”


Oscar nominee Ari Folman said he struggled with the decision to create ‘Where is Anne Frank?’


Anne Frank animated film coming from ‘Waltz with Bashir’ director

Anna Frank as imagined for the new animated film by Ari Folman. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Ari Folman, the Academy Award-nominated director of the 2008 film Waltz with Bashir, is completing production of an animated film on the life of Anne Frank. Details of the upcoming feature film, titled Where is Anne Frank? were unveiled last week at the Cartoon Movie forum in France. Variety reported on Monday that a session on the animated movie was one of the most attended overall at the industry gathering. At the event, Folman explained that he was originally reluctant to tell the story through animation because of its dark psychological themes, according to Variety. To overcome that, he said, he decided to tell the story through the eyes of “Kitty,” Frank’s imaginary friend, to whom she addressed her diary entries. In the film,  Variety reported, Kitty wakes up in modern times, and imagines that if she’s alive, Anne must be as well, and so she sets out to find her. 

According to Animation Magazine, Folman said that he first thought about the film after he reread Frank’s original diary for the first time in decades. He and illustrator David Polonsky recently turned the diary into a graphic novel, published in collaboration with the Anne Frank Fonds Foundation.

“I hadn’t read the diary since I was 14,” Folman said, according to the magazine. The filmmaker said he spoke to his Holocaust survivor mother – who is currently 96 – about making the movie, and she said: “‘If you do decide to do this movie, I will live for the premiere whenever that may be.’ So I decided to do it because I want her to live to be at least 100!”

The film began production last year in Folman’s animation studio in Jaffa, and was created in partnership with production houses in Belgium, Luxembourg, France and the Netherlands.

According to Animation Magazine, Folman said the 92-minute film has been completed and the voices have been recorded in English.

Folman said he agreed to do the film under two conditions, according to the magazine.

“That I will make it an animated film for young children, because my kids will never read a 360-page diary,” he said. “The other was to look at what happened to Anne after the family was caught in the secret annex. It was a big challenge because nobody knows what really happened. So the solution was to tell the story from her point of view of Kitty, her imaginary friend.”

How one Swiss nurse hid hundreds of pregnant women and their kids from the Nazis

‘The Light of Hope’ shares the little-known story of Elisabeth Eidenbenz, who saved young refugees during the Spanish Civil War and WWII through her French maternity clinic


When refugees fled the Spanish Civil War and World War II, a brave Swiss nurse provided crucial help in southwest France to a niche group of displaced persons — pregnant women and their children.

Despite hostility from Vichy France and Nazi Germany, Elisabeth Eidenbenz is credited with saving the lives of almost 600 children — 400 Spanish refugees and 200 Jewish refugees — through the Maternity of Elne, her maternity hospital in the French municipality of Elne.

Relatively little-known, Eidenbenz (1913-2011) lived to be nearly 100 and was honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations in 2002. A new historical dramatic film aims to amplify her heroism.

The 2018 Spanish film “The Light of Hope” shares Eidenbenz’ story with audiences across the US this year. It made its New York premiere at the New York Jewish Film Festival in January, and was screened at the Chicago JCC Jewish Film Festival on March 9.

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Spanish director Sílvia Quer called Eidenbenz a woman and a heroine “silenced by society.”

Elisabeth Eidenbenz, founder of la Maternité d’Elne in southwest France, who saved hundreds of women and children during World War II. (Facebook)

“I felt that it was necessary to make this film,” she said.

Quer read an interview between the then-90-year-old Eidenbenz and Catalan journalist Assumpta Montellà, and also found an inspirational quote from a child who had lived in the Maternity of Elne: “My mother gave me life, motherhood gave me milk, and Elisabeth gave me the hope.”

To play Eidenbenz, Quer found Swiss actress Noémie Schmidt, a 2015 nominee for a French César award for best supporting actress.

“For the character of Elisabeth, it was important that the nationality of the actress be Swiss,” Quer said, adding, “Noémie read the script and had no hesitation in participating.”

Elisabeth Eidenbenz (2nd row: 2nd from left) meeting Swiss Red Cross staff, Château de la Hille, 1941 (Archive Swiss Red Cross / Archiv SRK, via wikipedia)

The other cast members, Quer said, include acclaimed Catalan actresses along with the talented child actors who portray three friends living at the Maternity: Pat, Neus and David.

Pat, the most innocent of this trio, is the narrator of the film. Neus is a witness to the horrors of the notorious Rivesaltes concentration camp in France, and David is a Jewish refugee whose pregnant mother, Maya, is acutely aware of the particular dangers her family faces.

Of the three children, Quer said, “Through their games [which we see in the movie] they complement each other and learn from one another.”

The same can be said for the others living at the Maternity as the film unfolds.

Shot in Catalonia to evoke southwestern France, “The Light of Hope” depicts Eidenbenz trying to help the women she cares for: Maya, who fears for her son and newborn daughter; Victoria, who considers giving military aid to the Resistance, which is prohibited at the Maternity; and Aurora, who suffers the tragedy of a stillbirth.

In this still from the new historical dramatic film ‘The Light of Hope,’ Swiss nurse Elisabeth Eidenbenz speaks with Pat, one of the children at her maternity hospital that she ran for refugees from 1939 to 1944 in Elne, France. (Courtesy)

Beyond the hospital walls, its existence is threatened by a persistent Vichy commissioner and his Nazi overlords. The Maternity is ordered to close. Eidenbenz comes up with a plan to save the hospital, which hinges on her exposing a scandal to France — the atrocities of the Rivesaltes concentration camp.

Civilians including Catalans, Jews and Algerians were detained at the camp in its grim history spanning 70 years. In 1942, the year the film opens, 2,251 Jews, including 110 children, were transferred from Rivesaltes to the Drancy concentration camp and then to Auschwitz.

Children in Rivesaltes camp during World War II. (Courtesy Midas Films)

Throughout these tensions, Eidenbenz tries to preserve a measure of community for the hospital with a midsummer celebration on St. James’ Day. The ensuing climax reveals tragedy and valor by adults and children alike.

The real-life Eidenbenz showed plenty of courage in trying circumstances.

In this still from the new historical dramatic film ‘The Light of Hope,’ Swiss nurse Elisabeth Eidenbenz, right, is shown at her maternity hospital in Elne, France, with one of the children she cares for, Neus, who has escaped from the notorious Rivesaltes World War II concentration camp. (Courtesy)

“Elisabeth was only 25 years old when she founded [and] opened [the] Maternity,” Quer said. “You have to be very brave to accept this work.”

The daughter of a Swiss Protestant minister, Eidenbenz initially volunteered to help the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War — a cause that became desperate with the fall of Barcelona in 1938. In January and February of 1939, a half-million Republican refugees fled on foot to France. On the way, they were bombed by Nationalist and Italian planes — an exodus, termed “La Retirada” (The Retreat), that is being commemorated this year, eight decades later.

French authorities allowed refugees to cross the border but interned them at camps with names that became infamous: Argelés-sur-Mer, Rivesaltes and Saint-Cyprien.

Group of internees at Rivesaltes camp in France in March 1941. (AP Photo/Vitchy)

“There was nothing at most but barbed wire and guards,” said Soledad Fox Maura, a professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Williams College whose specialties include the Spanish Civil War, and Women’s and Gender Studies. “Spanish Republicans interned in the camps had to build very basic shelters to protect themselves, try to survive on cold beaches in the middle of winter.”

“People died of disease, hypothermia, the cold,” said Alejandro Baer, the Stephen C. Feinstein Chair of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, adding that “it was common to see bodies piled up, left out in the open, in the area of the camp.”

In this still from the new historical dramatic film ‘The Light of Hope,’ Jewish inmates at the Rivesaltes concentration camp in France are deported on boxcars during World War II. In 1942, the year the film begins, over 2,200 Jews, including 110 children, were sent from Rivesaltes to the Drancy concentration camp near Paris and then to Auschwitz. (Courtesy)

“Being on beaches, there was not proper hygiene, warmth, any kind of health care — at first, at least,” Fox Maura said. “Many people died, many babies and children,” with an infant mortality rate of over 95 percent.

She said that “eventually it really became a scandal in the French press. Women were being mistreated, many raped by guards. There were just horrific conditions for women.”

Eidenbenz initially helped these refugees through the organization Swiss Aid. Fellow volunteer Karl Ketterer bought a castle that was “half in ruins,” Fox Maura said. It would become the Maternity, with each room named after a Spanish city including Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao.

Group of children is at the Rivesaltes camp for internees in France on May 7, 1941. (AP Photo)

The first pregnant woman arrived in January 1939. There would be many more under the care of Eidenbenz and her staff of 12. Expectant mothers arrived four weeks before their delivery date; they could stay up to four weeks after giving birth, after which Eidenbenz would look to place them in a job to keep them out of the camps. The hospital would see 20 births each month in 1940 and 1941.

By this time, the Spanish Civil War had given way to WWII, and the Maternity became funded by the Red Cross. New refugee populations needed help, but Eidenbenz was constrained by the Red Cross’ policy of not aiding political refugees, which excluded Jews.

Jewish refugee Maya Cohen, right, and her son David are shown in this still from the new World War II historical dramatic film ‘The Light of Hope.’ (Courtesy)

“She hid the identities of most of the refugees to circumvent these laws,” Fox Maura said, describing the hospital as “funded by the Red Cross and at the same time working around it.”

The Nazis were harder to overcome.

“Elisabeth had many threats from the Gestapo but did not go down,” Quer said. “[She] hid Jewish women and their children when they were banned. Elisabeth faced the head of the police, fought for deported women.”

The Germans ultimately ordered the Maternity closed in 1944. Eidenbenz returned to Switzerland but continued fighting on behalf of “unprotected children,” according to Quer.

Section of women’s barracks at Rivesaltes camp for internees in France in March 1941. (AP Photo/Vitchy)

On Easter 2002, 60 former refugees who had lived as children at the Maternity of Elne returned to the town for a celebration of their rescuer, Eidenbenz.

“They all gathered to honor her,” Fox Maura said. “It was very moving.”

In 2006, University of Minnesota professor Baer, a native of Spain, visited the site of the Maternity. Taking a tour of the building with a group of Spanish educators, he said that it still had an “incredible aura” of “la memoria del bien,” the memory of good.

A still from the new historical dramatic film ‘The Light of Hope,’ screening at the Chicago JCC Jewish Film Festival. (Courtesy)

“It’s very moving to visit that place,” Baer said. “It’s why I think it should be known more, especially by those who are close by, and also by people who visit Spain.”

“Fortunately, nowadays school groups are going there,” he said. “I think the effort should be much more, it should multiply. The kind of lessons from that time are worth remembering. There was so much evil — and light in the midst of evil.

“As an educator, [regarding the] way we should remember the Holocaust, WWII, the [Spanish] Civil War, they are completely different historical events.” But, Baer added, in “figures like Eidenbenz, we see a common, incredible value. We can recognize one history in one person. There’s so much to learn.”

Fox Maura notes that “exiles last so much longer than we give credit for, unfortunately. It’s always more recent than we think it is in terms of consequences. The Spanish Civil War ‘ended’ in 1939; [but] it didn’t end in 1939 for the refugees, it ended a lot later.”

Eighty years after La Retirada, and the events that precipitated the Maternity of Elne, many people might not recognize Eidenbenz’s name or her work with refugees. Baer said that “stories of helpers, saviors … unless there’s a specific effort by certain individuals and organizations to bring [these stories] to the public, they will go unnoticed.”

In this still from the new historical dramatic film ‘The Light of Hope,’ Victoria, who considers aiding the French Resistance during World War II, rides her motorcycle through the municipality of Elne. (Courtesy)

Individuals like Eidenbenz “did what they thought was normal,” Baer said. “They did not think they were heroic. We think and look back at it as heroic, an incredible act.”

And, he said, such people did not personally try to publicize their story: “Others need to shed light. It’s an important task. Eidenbenz and others are not visible to the general public. It’s a task for scholars, activists, organizations and advocates, to pursue efforts that mean so much. They embody crucial lessons for our time.”

Quer illustrates one such lesson in the closing credits, connecting Eidenbenz with volunteers helping refugees in Europe today. She said that humanity “does not learn from the acts of the past.”

As she explained Eidenbenz’s heroism 80 years ago: “Elisabeth did not make distinctions between nationalities, race, religion. She wanted to help all women who were pregnant to maintain self-esteem, to fight for the children they had in exile, far from home.”

When fashionista Karl Lagerfeld helped fund a synagogue for Holocaust survivors

The Chanel director who died last month was famous for his style, attitude, and to one small congregation on the French Riviera, for his contribution to the shul fund


Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld walks over the stage at Chanel's pre-fall Metiers d'Art fashion show in the new Elbphilharmonie concert house in Hamburg, northern Germany, Wednesday, December 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld walks over the stage at Chanel’s pre-fall Metiers d’Art fashion show in the new Elbphilharmonie concert house in Hamburg, northern Germany, Wednesday, December 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

If you ask Rabbi Shalom Betito who Karl Lagerfeld is, he’ll probably point to a marble plaque on his French Riviera synagogue’s wall.

Lagerfeld, who died February 19, was famous for reviving the Chanel brand and recognized the world over by his signature look — black sunglasses, fingerless gloves, and high-collared shirts (Glamour magazine reportedthat he had 1,000 of them).

Even after his death, the quirky — and sometimes contentious — Chanel creative director continues to make headlines. He’s reportedly left a significant chunk of his $195 million estate to his pet Choupette, which will do far more than keep the cat in kibble. Her lavish lifestyle includes the attention of two personal assistants, dinners of caviar and pate served on designer dishes and private air travel. Choupette herself has some 300,000 Instagram followers.

But at Betito’s small congregation in Menton, a quiet town of 28,000 located on the French Riviera, Lagerfeld also has quite a reputation — for his contribution to the synagogue’s building fund back in the early 1980s.

Speaking with The Times of Israel this week, Betito said the synagogue was started in 1964 by a small group of Holocaust survivors who accidentally discovered that they had the numbers to build a congregation.

“It began with a circumcision,” Betito said. “They brought in a mohel from Nice, the closest big city, and they put the word out, hoping to get some guests. They were completely surprised when 200 people showed up.”

Centre Altynter, the synagogue in Menton, France, to which Karl Lagerfeld made a donation. (Courtesy Shalom Betito)

Betito, who is originally from Lyon and has been the synagogue’s spiritual leader for the last eight years, said that following the celebration the local Jews were inspired to form a community. They started out in a temporary space, and then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, decided it was time to expand.

At the time, Lagerfeld lived in the La Vigie mansion in neighboring Monaco. When he was informed of the project by his friend, Jewish philanthropist Edmond Safra (known for supporting countless synagogues the world over, including funding the renovation of the Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg), Lagerfeld was moved to make a donation.

Uncharacteristically, the usually flamboyant Lagerfeld insisted that his contribution be anonymous.

Contradicting recent reports that Lagerfeld funded the bulk of the renovations made to the small residence that would be the synagogue’s new home, Betito said that the fashion designer’s donation was not among the largest – though it was far from insignificant.

“I don’t know exactly how much he gave, but to get on the plaque you had to give at least the equivalent of 2,000 euro [$2,260 US] in today’s money,” Betito said. “But it wasn’t only about the money. The community really benefited from the moral support that Lagerfeld gave, too.”

“He knew that most of the community was survivors of the Shoah, and so he wanted to participate,” Betito said.

The plaque in the synagogue of Menton, France, listing Karl Lagerfeld among the donors. (Daniel Bensoussan)

Though he requested to remain anonymous, in the end, Lagerfeld’s name was discreetly – if somewhat incongruously – listed among the roughly two dozen donors on the otherwise run of the mill plaque, not unlike others decorating synagogue walls the world over.

And while it is unusual to find a non-Jewish name on a list of synagogue backers, in the case of Lagerfeld it is even more unique given his history of heading up the company founded by Coco Chanel — a notorious anti-Semite who was the lover of a Nazi officer and was even thought to be a Nazi intelligence agent.

Then again, Lagerfeld’s apparent soft spot for Holocaust survivors also seemed at odds with accusations against him of insensitivity (or outright bigotry) towards women and minorities.

Lagerfeld, born in Hamburg, Germany in 1933, sparked controversy in 2017 when he criticized German PM Angela Merkel’s open-door policy to Muslim refugees.

“You cannot kill millions of Jews and then take in millions of their worst enemies afterwards, even if there are decades [between the events],” he said during an appearance on a French talk show.

Regardless of Lagerfeld’s motivations for making the contribution, one thing remains fairly certain: Had Lagerfeld not chosen to donate the money to the nascent congregation, there’s a good chance it would have eventually gone toward cat food.


In a tweet on Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said, “when bigotry of any kind rears its ugly head, it must be and often is condemned.”

Jeremy Sharon and Seth J. Frantzman contributed to this report.

David Friedman (L) and Ilhan Omar (R)

David Friedman (L) and Ilhan Omar (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman weighed in on the recent antisemitism controversy on Capitol Hill stirred up by Congresswoman Rep. Ilhan Omar’s public remarks.

In a tweet on Wednesday, Friedman said that “when bigotry of any kind rears its ugly head, it must be and often is condemned.” Read More Related Articles

“Why isn’t antisemitism afforded the same treatment?” he questioned. “When, as now, antisemitism is front and center in the Halls of Congress, why can’t it be called out and rejected without qualification?”Severe thunderstorms to jolt southern US this weekend

The comments come after Omar (D-Minn.) was once again enveloped in antisemitic controversies because of several tweets she has posted over the last few months.

In Omar’s most recent remark, she claimed that domestic support for Israel amounts to “allegiance to a foreign country.”

She made the remarks during a town hall meeting in Washington last week, during which she said, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” The comments were in reference to the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. 

After being heavily criticized for the town hall meeting remarks, Omar tweeted, “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee.”

This was the third time in the last three months that Omar has made negative comments in reference to Israel. 

Following her comments, US President Donald Trump slammed the congresswoman on Tuesday.

In February, Omar was caught up in a major Twitter storm in which she accused the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) of paying American politicians to support Israel.

Omar received heavy backlash for the comments and was accused of antisemitism as a result with leaders on both the Right and Left condemning her remarks. Even her own Democratic Party issued a statement that called Omar’s statements “deeply offensive. We condemn these remarks.”

Omar apologized for her statement. 

“Antisemitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of antisemitic tropes,” she wrote. “My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry.”

Trump called the apology “lame” and said she should resign.

Just weeks prior to the comments, Omar defended her infamous tweet from 2012 in which she attacked Israel for how it “hypnotized the world.” 

Following heavy backlash, she later said the tweet was “unfortunate and offensive.”