Claude Lanzmann’s posthumous ‘Shoah’ sequel ‘Four Sisters’ is sadly relevant

Hanna Marton in “Noah’s Ark,” one of the four films that make up Claude Lanzmann’s “Four Sisters.” (Cohen Media Group)

(JTA) — Before Steven Spielberg, there was Claude Lanzmann.

Prior to the birth of what is now the USC Shoah Foundation — Spielberg’s Holocaust testimony archive, which was funded originally by the Oscar-winning director’s share of his “Schindler’s List” profits in 1994 — Lanzmann’s landmark 1985 documentary “Shoah” provided an earlier opportunity for survivors to share their harrowing World War II testimonies, as well as to document the mass extermination of Jews.

Over the course of its nine-plus hours, “Shoah” conveyed the horrors to a world that didn’t believe — or didn’t want to. Six million dead is unimaginable, but the words of one person at a time are more difficult to ignore. Like politics, genocide is local.

In the more than three decades since “Shoah,” Lanzmann — who passed away in July at 92 — released a series of ancillary films with footage not used in the original, such as “A Visitor From the Living” and “Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.”

The latest installments, “The Four Sisters,” is about four women who aren’t related by blood, just by their wartime experiences. The series of four separate films opens this week in New York and next week in Los Angeles, followed by a national release. All four films will be available in theaters, and moviegoers can see two of them per ticket.

Lanzmann’s approach here is different in format from the original. In “Shoah,” he used many voices to tell the larger story, splicing in interviews with survivors and perpetrators. With this project, he has given each “sister” her own film — her own opportunity to tell her horrifying and powerful story. They vary in length from 52 to 89 minutes.

Another stark difference: “Four Sisters” involves female perspectives, which were largely missing from the original “Shoah.”

But like “Shoah,” the “Four Sisters” films are difficult to watch. In “Baluty,” Paula Biren, originally of Lodz, Poland, tells Lanzmann that she hoped England or France would have stepped in to help after the German invasion.

“Poland had pacts with both countries,” she notes.

The two powers did declare war on Germany, but there were no large-scale military actions for months. All the city’s Jews were transferred to the infamous Lodz Ghetto. However, the Nazi-appointed head of the Jewish community, Chaim Rumkowski, made a deal with the Germans — to forestall deportation to the camps, Jews would engage in hard slave labor. It was a Faustian bargain: Some 45,000 Jews died of starvation or other causes in the ghetto.

When the Nazis said they were going to send every child younger than 9 to a special camp, Paula describes how one mother pulled her daughter back. An SS officer grabbed the mother by the neck, turned her around and shot her in front of her daughter.

But because of the deal, Paula attended a special high school and later was recruited to become a police officer. Upon realizing that she had unwittingly become complicit in sending black market merchants she had arrested to their deaths, Biren quit. But her guilt lingered.

Over the years, the guilt has transformed to anger.

“I felt then I had no choice,” she says. The world “should feel guilty for what was done to me.”

Ruth Elias, given the spotlight in “The Hippocratic Oath,” was 19 when the Nazis invaded the small town where her family lived for generations. Soon afterward, her father was barred from the sausage factory he owned  — by workers he had employed for years.

Ruth eventually was deported to Theresienstadt, where she witnessed drunken SS soldiers invade the women’s block and rape whomever they wanted. When it was discovered she was pregnant, Josef Mengele — the Nazi physician who performed horrific experiments on prisoners and became known as the “Angel of Death” — took over her care.

After she delivered her child, Mengele had her breasts strapped so she could not nurse the baby. He wanted to learn how long a newborn could survive without food. A Jewish camp doctor gave her medication that allowed her to kill her own child so she wouldn’t have to watch it suffer.

Paula Biren shown in “Baluty.” Lanzmann’s original “Shoah” film largely involved male testimonies. (Cohen Media Group)

In “Noah’s Ark,” Hanna Marton, like Paula, is guilt-ridden because she realizes that her survival was purchased at the expense of the 450,000 Hungarian Jews murdered in the late stages of the war. Her husband worked with Rudolf Kasztner, who had negotiated a deal with Adolf Eichmann that rescued nearly 1,700 Jews for a fee of $1,000 each.

“The Merry Flea” tells the story of Ada Lichtman, one of only three woman selected to work at Sobibor from among an estimated 250,000 Jews gassed there. Their job was to clean and refurbish the dolls stolen from Jewish children before they were sent to Germany. Dolls became constant reminders of what she went through.

It’s difficult not to view this new project in relation to the recent Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Questions like “do we need another Holocaust film?” assume, wrongly, that their lessons have been learned. The Jews of Pittsburgh would disagree, as would parents of Jewish students at Pascack Valley High School in suburban New Jersey, where a set of swastikas was discovered for a second time in six weeks.

In an essay from 1981, Lanzmann wrote, “Like the indestructible phoenix, anti-Semitism is arising virtually everywhere from its own ashes.” He probably could have written the same essay today.

In an ironic twist, “Four Sisters” was released in Europe on July 4, and Lanzmann died the next day. It was as if he recognized his job was done, or that he had done all he could. Our job continues.


Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in George Orwell’s satire on the Soviet Union, Animal Farm, is when the packhorse Boxer, who worked hardest for the “animal revolution” is murdered by the Stalin-pig named Napoleon.

The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), formed by Josef Stalin during World War II to raise funds for the Soviet war effort, was the human equivalent of Boxer. Stalin“rewarded” their tireless efforts on behalf of anti-fascism by murdering them on trumped-up charges beginning in 1948, a mere three years after the Holocaust.

The JAC fatally paid for their belief that Stalin was anti-Nazi; indeed they would realize far too late that Stalin was as anti-Semitic as Hitler.

As the Soviets engaged in a life-and-death struggle against their Nazi invaders during World War II, Stalin cynically formed the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee for Soviet security needs.  Composed of prominent Russian Jews (among them Soviet government officials, Solomon Lozosky and Solomon Bregman along with writers Shakne Epstein and Ilya Ehrenberg), the JAC was tasked by the Soviet leader to tour the West in search of funds for the Russian war effort.

Amazingly, much of this heavy lifting was done by two Soviet Jews, Solomon Mikhoels and Itzik Feffer, who served as Stalin’s emissaries to the Western nations.

During a seven-month tour of the West in 1943, including a rally in the United States attended by 50,000 people—the largest pro-Soviet event in the United States—the JAC raised $16 million from the United States, $15 million from England, and $1 million from Mexico.

The successful fundraising efforts earned Mikhoels and Feffer praise for their efforts from the official Soviet media organ, Pravda:

“Mikhoels and Feffer received a message from Chicago that a special conference of the Joint initiated a campaign to finance a thousand ambulances for the needs of the Red Army.”

In addition, they tirelessly did propaganda work for Stalin, assuring foreign audiences that there was no anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.

In the postwar period, after Hitler’s armies had been defeated, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee continued their passionate anti-Nazism. They gathered material about the Final Solution. The result of their documentation efforts was “The Black Book of Soviet Jewry,” a compilation of evidence and testimony of Nazi persecution of Soviet Jews compiled by the Soviet-Jewish writer Ilya Ehrenburg and his compatriot Vasily Grossman, a writer whose work has grown considerably in esteem in the years after his death. Both men were JAC members and in the book, in addition to recording evidence of Nazi crimes, they singled out for praise those Jews who had resisted Hitler.

This would be the first nail in the committee’s coffin. For Stalin was angry that the book focused specifically on Jewish resisters to Hitler. Instead, he wanted the Soviet citizenry as a whole praised. In an omen of what was to come, the full publication of the book was never allowed and in 1948 the manuscript was destroyed.

In 1948, Stalin used the burgeoning Cold War as an excuse to unleash his anti-Semitism and began by liquidating the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. The paper-thin charges were that the JAC had been “turned” by Western anti-Soviets during their wartime tour of the United States. They were accused of trying to establish an anti-Soviet government in the Crimea to invade the Soviet Union.

That same year, Stalin had Mikhoels murdered by the secret police. The cover story was that Mikhoels had died in a car accident. The secret police dumped his body in the snow to be found by Soviet citizens. Following Mikhoels, many other JAC members were rounded up and murdered.

A year later, in a replay of the 1930s Purge Trials, 15 members of JAC were tried, tortured off stage into “confessing” to Zionist spy work for the United States (what assured their murders was the JAC’s support for Israel) and executed.

Aware of these executions, JAC member and Yiddish poet Perets Markish, who had once lauded Stalin as the world’s premiere anti-Nazi in a 20,000 verse poem, came to see the Soviet leader’s goals as the same as Hitler’s:

“Hitler wanted to destroy us physically; Stalin wants to do it spiritually.”

In 1952, Stalin ordered the murder of Markish along with 13 other JAC members and Yiddish poets; an event known as The Night of Murdered Poets.

Thankfully, Stalin died a year later. But even toward the end, he was trying to execute Soviet Jews. Thirty-five years later, as part of perestroika, the Russian government honored the members of the JAC.


Teens remanded for robbery, attack on Holocaust survivor, 76

While relatives say they are ‘good kids,’ victim Reli Shemesh asks, ‘How do you raise children like that?’

The Petah Tikva Magistrate’s Court on Thursday extended the remand of three youths suspected of assaulting an elderly woman and stealing her handbag.

The teenagers will remain in custody for five days, after security footage Wednesday captured their assault on the 76-year-old Holocaust survivor.


According to police, the youths have admitted to the attack and expressed remorse for their actions.

A family member of one of the teens expressed regret for the incident, but maintained that the attack was out of character for the youths.

“They are good children and the incident surprised us, it is not like them and we are shocked by what has happened. We hoped that the woman would be here so that we could ask for her forgiveness,” they told the Ynet Hebrew-language news site.

Shemesh responded to the comments, telling Ynet that she was surprised that the family had defended the youths as being well-behaved.

“They say they are good children? I have children and grandchildren their age and I don’t think for a second that one of them would do something like this,” Shemesh said. “How do you raise children like that?”

Shemesh also expressed a desire to meet with her attackers, to try to make them understand what they did.

“I would very much like to see the youths who assaulted me, to look them in the eyes and ask them how they would react if it happened to their mother or their grandmother.”


What the last survivor of Rome’s Jewish ghetto raid leaves behind

Lello Di Segni, who died at age 91, is mourned by his community and internationally — but he might be missed most inside the classroom

Lello Di Segni. (Courtesy/ Press Office of the Jewish Community of Rome)

Lello Di Segni. (Courtesy/ Press Office of the Jewish Community of Rome)

On a cloudy autumn morning 75 years ago, the inhabitants of Rome’s Jewish ghetto were abruptly awoken by the sound of heavy footsteps, doors slamming, and the barking of orders in a foreign accent.

At 5:30 a.m. on October 16, 1943, 300 German soldiers began their hunt and round-up of Roman Jews while their victims were still blissfully asleep, expecting a usual Shabbat morning. It was not to be.

Just 16 of the victims — 15 men and one woman — returned home two years later. Among them was Lello di Segni, the last remaining survivor of that deportation, who died on October 26 at the age of 91.

Born on November 4, 1926, Di Segni was the eldest of the four children of Cesare De Segni and Enrichetta Zarfatti. He attended an interfaith, mixed school until 1938, when Fascist racial segregation laws were passed. The family lived in a house on Portico d’Ottavia — a street in the historic Jewish ghetto along the Tiber River.

In a 1995 interview with historian Marcello Pezzetti, Di Segni recounted how on the evening of October 15 German soldiers warned the local Jews not to leave the neighborhood. They discouraged any attempt to escape, Di Segni said, by spraying automatic gunfire at the outer walls of neighborhood homes.

A family bakery/delicatessen shop on Portico d’Ottavia, 1921. (Courtesy/ Press Office of the Jewish Community of Rome) Indeed, despite the fact that an armistice between Italy and the Allies had been signed that September, many Jews opted to remain in Rome. They were lulled into a false sense of security, having paid an ostensible “ransom” of 50 kilograms (110 lbs) of gold to the Germans on September 28 in order to avoid handing over 200 people for deportation.


Deceived by the Germans, the Roman Jews were deported regardless; the identification number given to each concentration camp prisoner burned forever into the forearms of the survivors.

During Di Segni’s internment in Auschwitz and then Dachau, he was known only as “158526.” Deported with his entire family, he was the only child to survive, along with his father Cesare, who was sent to work in the coal mines of Upper Silesia.

“Like a horse, the number pinned to my clothes said that I was nothing but a beast,” Di Segni told Pezzetti.

After 30 days in Auschwitz, Di Segni was transferred to the Warsaw Ghetto, where he was responsible for the removal of debris and rubble, as well as the construction of new crematoriums and gas chambers at the Warsaw concentration camp.

As soviet troops began to advance on the Eastern front, however, Di Segni was sent to the sub-camp of Allach, and then Dachau, where he was eventually freed by United States forces.

A community decimated

Di Segni was among the 2,489 Jews arrested by the Nazis in Italy. Though in Rome local residents were often uncooperative with deportation efforts against the Jews and police were deemed unreliable, throughout the country 1,898 more Jews were arrested by Italians.

Lello Di Segni (Screen capture: YouTube)

An additional 312 were arrested in joint actions by both forces. There is no evidence for those responsible for the remaining 2,314 arrests.

In a phone interview, Aldo Pavia, vice president of the National Association of Italian Political Deportees to Nazi Concentration Camps — and himself the son of deported Jews — told The Times of Israel that once back in Rome, Di Segni was silent about his ordeal for years.

Di Segni wanted to return to his normal life, forget what he had seen and endured, and was afraid that people would not have even believed his story, Pavia said.

“Our friendship went beyond his experience in the camps. I was fascinated by the way he described the atmosphere in Rome in the years preceding and following those tragic events,” Pavia said. He added that the roundup on October 16, 1943, had a strong impact not just on the Jewish community but also on the entire city.

Pavia underlined how Di Segni used to downplay his role as a witness, saying that his testimony would, after all, have just added to what was already said by his cousin Settimia Spizzichino.

Spizzichino was the one woman among those 16 survivors who returned to Rome, and became a leading Italian figure in the testimony of the crimes committed during the Shoah.

Aldo Pavia, vice president of the National Association of Italian Political Deportees to Nazi Concentration Camps, in a 2015 YouTube video. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Remembering the long conversations the two used to have at a bar on Catania Street in Rome’s center which Di Segni used to call his “office,” Pavia said that when the two were together, Di Segni overcame his characteristic reluctance to speak. Di Segni shared harrowing stories, Pavia said, such as hiding behind a tree to avoid been seen by a passing SS truck after he left Birkenau.

Although he was reserved and sometimes needed to be prompted to speak, Di Segni would go to schools to share his story with students as long as his health allowed it, the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation’s Sandra Terracina told The Times of Israel.

Di Segni also wrote a book, “Buon Sogno Sia lo Mio,” or “I Hope To Have Good Dreams,” whose title was inspired by a little prayer Di Segni’s parents taught him to say before going to sleep, Pavia said.

A loss of a man — and his memories

Leaders of the Italian and Roman Jewish communities mourned the loss of Di Segni.

A Jewish delicatessen in the area of the Rome Ghetto, at the corner of Santa Maria del Pianto and Costaguti streets, 1938. (Courtesy/ Press Office of the Jewish Community of Rome)

“With his loss, we lose the memories of those who suffered the October 16 raid and survived to tell us about it,” said Ruth Dureghello, president of the Jewish community of Rome.

Community councilman Lello Mieli told The Times of Israel that Di Segni had been like a father to him. Because every member of the Jewish community has lost relatives in the Holocaust, Mieli said, they tried to take care of survivors like Di Segni, whom he called “one of the diamonds of the community.”

“As people disappear, we fear that their testimony will disappear as well,” said fellow Holocaust survivor and Italian senator for life Liliana Segreduring a conference at Gelasio Caetani High School in Rome.

Rome’s Mayor Virginia Raggi also posted her message of condolence on Twitter.

Segre, who like Di Segni has embraced the mission of bearing witness to what Jews endured under the Nazis, commented earlier this month on the climate of hatred that seems to have emerged in Italy in last few months.

In fact, according to the Antisemitism Observatory, anti-Semitic incidents in Italy have increased considerably over the last four years. In 2018 alone, there have so far been 159 episodes, including racist graffiti and social media posts.

Screen capture from video Selene Ticchi, an activist with the Italian neo-fascist Forza Nuova movement, wears a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Asuchwitzland’ on it at a rally in the northeast town of Predappio, October 28, 2018. (YouTube)

During the October 29 neo-Fascist rally at Benito Mussolini’s burial place in Predappio, political activist Selene Ticchi — previously a mayoral candidate in the city of Budrio with the far-right New Force party — wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the word “Auschwitzland,” comparing the death camp to an amusement park.

Asked about what can be done to stem this tide of hatred, Pavia said that the danger today, as it was 75 years ago, is to “neglect these signals and let them fall into indifference,” adding that “anti-Semitism often hides behind anti-Zionist claims.”

“Young people cannot be blamed for this because they don’t and can’t have the memory of those facts,” Pavia said, underlining how just speaking about the horror of the Holocaust “risks turning such memories into a movie.”

According to Pavia, a collective memory must be built through a combination of historical documentation, education and the explanation of not just how, but why certain things happened, with an emphasis on those responsible.

Pavia said that Di Segni’s most vivid memory was probably the moment when, unable to stand on his feet, he was carried out of the wooden barracks in Dachau by his fellow inmates and realized that the camp had been liberated by US troops.

In that moment, said Pavia, Di Segni remembered exclaiming: “Now I’m finally happy.”

Polish nun who helped hide Vilna ghetto rebels during Holocaust dies at 110

Cecylia Roszak was thought to be the oldest nun in the world; poet Abba Kovner was one those she and her sisters saved at a local convent

Cecylia Maria Roszak, right, who was awarded the 'Righteous Among Nations' honor for helping to save Jews during the Holocaust, seen here in Krakow, Poland, May 2018. (Piotr Jantos/Archdiocese of Krakow)

Cecylia Maria Roszak, right, who was awarded the ‘Righteous Among Nations’ honor for helping to save Jews during the Holocaust, seen here in Krakow, Poland, May 2018. (Piotr Jantos/Archdiocese of Krakow)

A Polish Catholic nun who was honored by Israel for helping to hide Jewish would-be resistance fighters in her convent during World War II died last week aged 110.

Among those who hid in the small convent of nine Dominican nuns during the war was poet and activist Abba Kovner, who in 1942 circulated among the Vilna Ghetto residents a manifesto, titled “Let us not go like lambs to the slaughter,” that warned of Nazi Germany’s plans to wipe out the Jews of Europe. It marked the first time a victim of the Holocaust had sounded the alarm over what was happening to the Jewish population and called for rebellion against the Nazis.

Along with photos of Roszak posted to its Twitter feed, the archdiocese wrote: “In Krakow the oldest sister in the world died – sister Cecilia Maria Roszak from the monastery of Dominican sisters.”

Roszak was born on March 25, 1908 in the village of Kiełczewo in west Poland and joined the Dominican monastery of Gródek in Krakow when she was 21, the Independent reported.

In 1938 Roszak traveled with a group of nine nuns to Vilnius in Lithuania to set up a new convent, but war interrupted the plans.

According the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial page dedicated to Anna Borkowska, the mother superior of the convent, the sisters took in 17 members of an illegal Jewish underground movement that formed to fight back against the extermination of the ghetto’s residents.

One of the underground members was Kovner, who, according to Yad Vashem, wrote his landmark manifesto within the walls of the convent. Kovner tried unsuccessfully to organize armed resistance inside the ghetto. Borkowska smuggled the first hand grenades into the community.

Abba Kovner (back row, center) with members of the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (The FPO – Eng: United Partisan Organization) in Vilna, 1940s (Courtesy Israel National Library)

Kovner escaped the ghetto and survived the war after fighting among Polish resistance partisans. He later testified at the trial in Israel of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

Borkowska was arrested in 1943 and the convent closed down. She and Roszak both survived the war and the latter returned to the monastery in Krakow, where she worked as an organist and cantor.

In 1984 Yad Vashem gave the members of the convent, including Borkowska and Roszak, its Righteous Among Nations award, which honors non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Kovner participated in a tree-planting ceremony at Yad Vashem and then traveled to Warsaw, where he personally presented Borkowska with the award and a bottle containing soil from the planting ceremony.

From Elie Wiesel’s classroom, lessons in sainthood and redemption

As the late Holocaust survivor’s teaching assistant, Ariel Burger learned to unpack his own personal life with guidance from Nobel Laureate Wiesel, his mentor of two decades

Elie Wiesel (left) with student Ariel Burger, author of a book based on Wiesel as an educator (courtesy)

Elie Wiesel (left) with student Ariel Burger, author of a book based on Wiesel as an educator (courtesy)

BOSTON, Massachusetts — When Ariel Burger was 17 years old, he told his father he wanted to be a saint.

Preoccupied with the concept of perfection, Burger was on a quest to find answers to life’s vexing questions. Having received what he called “mixed messages” about Judaism from his divorced parents, the aspiring rabbi decided to move to Israel. For seven years, Burger immersed himself in Jewish texts and sought guidance from rabbis.

Specifically, Burger told Wiesel he was not satisfied with the answers he was receiving during conversations with rabbis. Deep spiritual growth seemed to elude him, he said, even while immersed in Jewish texts and surrounded by well-known thinkers.

Not for the first time, Wiesel knew how to help Burger “re-frame” his thoughts.

In a nutshell, Wiesel suggested that Burger might be looking for something less concrete and final than “answers.” Perhaps, Burger was looking for “responses” to his questions, fears, and aspirations — in other words, responses to his life.

“Answers close things down, responses do not,” said Wiesel, who died at age 87 in 2016. In Jerusalem, the author helped Burger see his challenges not as roadblocks to spiritual growth, but as helpers in achieving that growth.

“I began to see life and experience not as obstacles to spiritual growth but as the language God used to communicate with us,” wrote Burger, who now lives outside Boston with his family.


This conversation between a teacher and his student about “answers,” along with many others, form the crux of Burger’s new book, “Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom.”

There have been quite a few biographies about Wiesel, but this is the first based on the late Holocaust survivor as a teacher. Other authors have focused on — for example — Wiesel’s prolific writing career, or his global activism for human rights.

Although Burger first met Wiesel as a 15-year old, most of the book takes place during the five years in which Burger served as Wiesel’s BU teaching assistant, a period that ended in 2008. Based on five years of journal entries and piles of classroom notes, “Witness” follows Wiesel’s personal interactions with Burger, as well as how Wiesel related to the students chosen for his intensive seminars.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Holocaust was rarely a major focus of Wiesel’s seminars on ethics or historical memory. Sometimes, the only Holocaust-related book on the reading list was “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and the professor’s own works seldom appeared. Wiesel made use of texts from many eras and cultures, all of which he helped students connect to current events and ethical behavior.

In the classroom, students were encouraged to grill Wiesel and each other with questions. There were debates about what “chosen people” means, and about Joan of Arc’s visions. Often, Wiesel’s response to a student’s heated question was, characteristically, “Tell me more.”

Wiesel and Burger’s relationship far exceeded the probing of Jewish texts. The book reveals several turning points in Burger’s life during which Wiesel provided guidance, ranging from marital issues to the difficulties of being a Jewish educator in bureaucratic systems. In all of these encounters, Burger attempts to bring the venerated Wiesel down to Earth for readers.

“He loved chocolate, was afraid of policemen, never learned how to swim, and didn’t like celebrating his birthday,” wrote Burger. He called Wiesel an “anchor” during the trials of his life.

‘To renounce despair’

For both the teacher and the student, an issue of overriding concern was how to keep one’s faith in a world beset by evil.

“If I had not had my faith, my life would have been much easier,” said Wiesel on many occasions.

Ariel Burger speaks at Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Massachusetts, November 13, 2018 (courtesy: Michael Bogdanow)

With his typical wryness, Wiesel was pointing to the difficulty of integrating his experience during the Holocaust with his belief in God. After the war, as soon as Wiesel had access to books again, he opened a Talmud to the same page he had been studying before the Nazis deported his family to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Burger summed up the role of faith in Wiesel’s life: “Faith can coexist with tragedy, can survive it, and that we carry it with us in spite of — or perhaps because of — our wounds.”

From among the Bible’s narratives, Wiesel found the Book of Job to be the most personally relevant. In Job, Wiesel could see himself — a servant of God who had everything taken away from him, but who refused to give up his faith. Job argued with God, but he did not forsake his faith and validate Satan’s belief that he, Job, would cave-in.

“To renounce despair is an act of will. And it is the only way to continue and be able to confront, to resist, darkness,” wrote Wiesel.

Although Wiesel’s Holocaust experiences are not a primary focus of “Witness,” Burger demonstrates ways in which Wiesel, a Nobel Laureate, sometimes brought the voices of victims and survivors into the classroom.

Ariel Burger (left) and Elie Wiesel (courtesy)

“Wiesel frequently pointed to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust who, hiding in bunkers from the Nazis, scratched their names into the walls and wrote invisible messages in urine, who buried manuscripts in tin cans under the ghetto streets so that one day their names, their words, their lives might be remembered,” wrote Burger.

In addition to renouncing despair, it helps if one has a sense of humor. According to Burger, Wiesel would sometimes muse in class, “Come on, Mr. God, really? Why did You do that?”

Of all the questions Wiesel’s students asked him over the decades, the most common had to do with how — and why — Wiesel maintained his religiosity after the destruction of his family in the Holocaust.

“You must turn hate into something creative, something positive,” was one of Wiesel’s responses. He modeled this approach for his students, including when Wiesel publicly forced the hand of president Bill Clinton to intervene in Bosnia during a well-remembered speech outside the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1992.

‘A generation haunted by ghosts’

A modern-day renaissance man, Burger’s professional hats include rabbi, artist, musician, and poet. Only in recent years, though, has he learned to meld these facets into an interconnected whole, he told The Times of Israel in an interview.

“My teaching almost always involves a deep dive into text, whether a religious text or literary work, but increasingly it also centers on questions of ethics and application,” said Burger. These days, Burger said he is responding to what he called “the new American moment of 2016,” which includes tackling issues of bullying and public discourse.

Elie Wiesel (center) inside a Boston University theology classroom, April 1977 (Boston University Photography)

Without his lifelong mentor Wiesel to guide him, Burger has given thought to his teacher’s views on perpetuating Holocaust memory in the absence of survivors.

“As a member of a generation haunted by ghosts, Wiesel was on a quest to make his memories redemptive,” wrote Burger, who related that Wiesel saw the challenge of his generation of survivors to be, “What would we do with our memories?”

For Wiesel, transforming the murder of his family into something resembling “redemption” involved writing about the Holocaust. But even more so, it involved teaching.

“Listening to a witness makes you a witness,” said Wiesel. For Burger, these words translated into his book’s title, and they also helped him find solace after Wiesel’s death.

To The Times of Israel, Burger explained how he and other educators can foster Holocaust memory in the spirit of Wiesel’s teachings.

Art by Ariel Burger, 2010 (courtesy)

“I know that Professor Wiesel wanted to see more education — but not just the transmission of information,” said Burger. “He wanted to see approaches to learning that have a high probability of changing someone’s mind to the point they he or she will respond differently to injustice. In other words, he wanted to see greater investment in effective moral education,” said Burger.

Among the challenges for educators, said Burger, is to teach about the Holocaust “without causing students to despair and turn to apathy as a response,” he said.

One of the remarkable traits about Wiesel, said Burger, was his ability to accept other people’s “natures, gifts, and limitations.” Eventually, even Burger let himself off the hook in his quest for perfection and sainthood, he said.

In the process of realizing that Wiesel had embraced Burger’s “natures, gifts, and limitations,” the student was able to accept these things himself.


The night before my family had its property seized and was kicked out of Egypt, everyone went to the movies. This may seem like callous, even glib behavior on the eve of what was probably one of the most difficult events one can endure, but it is also a Jewish tradition as old as time. As was the case with French Jews who threw lavish parties in the months leading up to their deportation, or the Poles who helped manufacture the very weapons that would be used against them a year later, for my family the impending loss of their property, their homes, and even their lives seemed so surreal as to be almost impossible. They don’t actually mean it. They’ll make a show of it but we’ll be fine. There’s no chance we’ll really be gone tomorrow. The tragedy is that we don’t recognize how intractable these political climates are with a sudden timely realization, but rather as a slow burn—imperceptible until only after the damage is done.

This year, as the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht approaches, the Leo Baeck Institute developed the 1938Projekt—an online exhibit that demonstrates just how quickly the lives of German and Austrian Jews imploded. 1938Projekt uses diary entries, letters, and news bulletins from Jews in 1938 to stitch together a story about European Jewry and allow us to experience what it was like to be a Jew in the year that changed everything.

Every day since the start of 2018, the 1938Projekt website has posted a new story showing what happened on that specific day in 1938. In entries from January, it’s obvious that Jews sensed only the first rumblings of disaster on the horizon. Although almost 20,000 Jews had immigrated to the United States by 1938, most did not yet feel the need to leave. And while the Projekt shows us that some German Jews were making arrangements to emigrate in the early months of ’38, we also learn of the businessmen who believed, or at least told themselves and others, that the growing animosity toward the Jews wasn’t alarming enough a reason to leave behind the family business. We can watch, day by day, the slow erosion of rights, peeled away one at a time: the seizure of Jewish businesses, orders that restrict the movements of Jews, rules about what kind of artwork can be shown. We watch the pincers close in a way that simply isn’t possible if you’re living it.

In many cases, even for those who did feel a sense of alarm it was still subdued and it was difficult to understand how a series of unfriendly bureaucratic rules could eventually lead to Kristallnacht only 10 months later: On Jan. 31, the Projekt’s website highlights a postcard from a Jew on vacation in the French Riviera. Jews were still going on vacation rather than selling all their belongings and leaving. Butthree weeks later comes one of the earliest of many heartbreaking letters: Writing to a friend, a young lover contemplates being apart from his beloved because his family had decided to emigrate and hers had chosen to stay behind.

In April, the early deportation of small numbers of undesirables to Buchenwald begins. By summer, the bulletins on the Projekt’s website are more desperate. OnJune 16, a young woman writes to an American man she has met only once, asking for his help in arranging transit. Jews begin writing to distant relatives in the US asking for help. By September, those who had managed to secure papers to emigrate were making their final arrangements. By the end of the month, entire German-Jewish congregations would be empty. The Projekt tells the story a bar mitzvah of 15 teenagers in September attended by people who were planning  to emigrate and leave their homes forever only days later—some of them already had their suitcases packed. Still, they decided to congregate and celebrate together one last time for what would perhaps be one of the final services that this synagogue would ever host.

Among the documents that make up the Projekt are a series from the family of the artist Eva Hesse, whose father kept scrapbooks. “We’re emigrating,” says one of the entries in late September. They’d had enough.

The Projekt’s mission isn’t to highlight how German Jews didn’t get the picture. In fact, they may have understood it too well: Anti-Semitism felt like a fact of life and therefore was nothing to be alarmed by. Most of them simply didn’t believe that there was any credible reason why things would suddenly surpass normal levels of anti-Semitism and go from bad to catastrophic. You’d have to have been crazy to have predicted such a thing as the Holocaust. The story of 1938Projekt is more than just a catalogue of the final days of the European Jewry. It is the story of how easy it is to become inured to the progression of a deteriorating situation. Through its lens, we see the time more clearly for what it was: not just another brief chapter in the thousands-of-years-old story called anti-Semitism, but a tinderbox heating up with the passage of each day. It’s easy to look now and see a series of warnings plastered onto the walls of the past, plain and clear for all Jews to see, only for fools to ignore. But if someone were to tell you about a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and swastikas graffitied on the Upper West Side and Nazi marches and Jewish cemeteries being defaced and a president who calls himself a nationalist and ordinances that dissolve the rights of immigrants and of the queer community and a caravan of refugees, and told you to leave behind your family business and your belongings and your home and move across the world to a place where you didn’t know a soul and didn’t know the language, would you? You’d have to be crazy.

Instead, you might just go to the movies.


After Kristallnacht, American Jews Did Little to Demand Action from Their Government

On the evening of November 9, 1938 Nazi party operatives orchestrated anti-Jewish violence across Germany that left scores dead and hundreds of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses destroyed. The German government followed up by sending some 30,000 Jews to concentration camps. While these events, known to posterity as Kristallnacht, garnered the attention of the international media, the organized response of American Jewry was tepid. Matt Lebovic explains:

Most notably, the influential General Jewish Council insisted on maintaining radio silence following Kristallnacht. Composed of leaders from the so-called “defense” organizations, the council issued instructions in the pogrom’s aftermath [that] “there should be no parades, public demonstrations, or protests by Jews.” . . . The council also reminded American Jews that it was in their interest not to advocate for admitting more Jewish refugees into the country. [Meanwhile], most prominent American Jews were afraid of how their fellow citizens would react to “demands” from the Jewish community. Few Americans supported going to war with Hitler, and anti-Semitism was more widespread than at any other point in U.S, history. . . .

The most prominent American Jewish leader to petition President Roosevelt [to respond to Kristallnacht] was Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. With FDR reluctant to condemn the Nazi regime in public, the venerable Wise pleaded with the president to issue—at least—a statement against the violence.

In his four-sentence “condemnation,” the president did not mention the Nazis or Hitler by name. With few Americans in favor of going to war, FDR was keen to prevent anti-Nazi rhetoric emanating from his bully pulpit, even after Hitler began to carve up central Europe. . . . President Roosevelt’s Jewish advisers pressured him to make some gestures after Kristallnacht. FDR recalled his ambassador to Berlin for “consultations,” and he helped solidify the status of some Jewish refugees already in the U.S. The president refused, however, to support legislation that would have permitted an additional 20,000 German Jewish children into the country.