HOW KARL LAGERFELD CLEARED CHANEL OF ITS ANTISEMITIC, NAZI ROOTS

Not only was Chanel in bed with the Nazi cause, but there is strong evidence to suggest that she actively worked for the Nazis as a secret agent.

BY JTA/MICHELLE HONIG

Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

(JTA) — If you walk into any wealthy Jewish American neighborhood, a careful eye will spot designer duds – Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton – sported by well-coiffed men and women as they walk through town. But in a sea of expensive excess, one designer’s name is spoken of with an air of reverence: Chanel.

It is a brand that can at once whisper and scream one’s bourgeois status. The boxy tweed jackets and white camellia flower pins are logo-less signatures that boldly state their coveted designer status without saying (or, in this case, embroidering or printing) a word.

It’s that unique mix of modesty and immodesty that makes Chanel a household name among Orthodox and secular Jewish women alike. Chanel provides bewigged and be-hatted Hasidic women with stiff, below-the-knee boucle skirt suits while simultaneously appealing to the languorous Long Island crowd with its less understated interlocked “CC” logo branded crop tops and chokers.

But Chanel wasn’t always beloved by the upwardly mobile Jewish American elite. The namesake French founder Coco Chanel, despite her contributions to the development of modern fashion and luxury sportswear, was, as other writers have put it, a “wretched human being” and an “incorrigible antisemite.”

Not only was she in bed with the Nazi cause, but there is strong evidence to suggest that she actively worked for the Nazis as a secret agent.

And yet it was a wealthy Jewish family, the Wertheimers, who helped finance her prolific rise and still control the company today. And it was Karl Lagerfeld, who died Tuesday at age 85, who has made the brand so iconic and polished that it was easy to forget everything problematic about Chanel herself.

In 1924, the Wertheimer family provided financing to produce Chanel’s first and most iconic fragrance, Chanel No. 5, in exchange for a 70 percent share of the perfume division of her company. Theophile Bader, the Jewish businessman who introduced Chanel to Pierre Wertheimer at a racetrack, received an additional 20 percent  as a finder’s fee, leaving just 10 percent for Chanel herself. Chanel was not involved in the production of the perfume, but she soon came to resent the agreement, both because of her latent antisemitism and the financial success of her perfume business. Chanel began trying to take back control of her company, unsuccessfully suing the family enough times that the Wertheimers reportedly had a lawyer dedicated solely to dealing with her litigious efforts.

Before the Nazis invaded France, the Wertheimers escaped to family in New York. Nazi laws forbade Jewish ownership of property and businesses, and in 1941, after Germany invaded France, Chanel petitioned the Vichy government and Nazi officials for sole ownership of her perfume company. But even that effort proved fruitless — the family, knowing Chanel’s obsessive desire to take control of her perfume business and the Nazi anti-Jewish laws that were already in effect in Germany, took steps to ensure that would never happen. The Wertheimers bequeathed full control of their stake to a French Christian businessman named Felix Amiot, himself a collaborator who sold arms to the Nazis, for the duration of the war.

Chanel, for her part, would go on to spend the rest of the war years as the lover of Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage. But she was more than just a passive paramour. According to journalist Hal Vaughan in his book “Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War,” there is evidence that Chanel was an active Nazi intelligence operative.

Despite her involvement with Nazis and her underhanded tactics to usurp the Wertheimers’ control of her company, about a decade after the war the Wertheimers – in a move that was part business, part turning the other cheek – helped Chanel re-establish the House of Chanel (which had ceased operations after the Allies invaded France and Chanel moved to Switzerland), even going as far as financing her daily living expenses and paying her taxes for the rest of her life.

It was in her unrepentant postwar years that Chanel really established what would become the design signature that Lagerfeld would later reinvent and recycle again and again until it became almost comically repetitive – the boucle jackets, the flat-topped wide brimmed hats, the pencil skirts and the pearls.

Following Chanel’s death in 1961, the brand languished, searching fruitlessly for an appropriate successor who could be trusted with continuing her legacy.

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It was only in 1983, 22 years after Chanel died, that a young Lagerfeld – by then already known as a fashion wünderkind – was tapped to head up the languishing Chanel house. He was chosen because of his acknowledged creative genius, as well as his innate understanding and respect for what Coco Chanel had created, and had proven his chops while establishing the heritage French brand Chloe as an “it” brand that embodied the bohemian sensibility of the early ’70s.

Lagerfeld’s first couture collection played on the tight-and-trashy look that was in vogue in Paris at that time – a trend that Lagerfeld had helped shape before he was tapped to helm Chanel. The skirt suits were slimmer and sexier and worn with wide obi belts; evening dresses were flounced and tiered and topped with tulle boleros; gems were sewn onto a dress bodice as a trompe l’oeil of a necklace; white pique four leaf clover flowers were pinned onto the shoulders of suits.

This debut collection for Chanel received mixed reviews. Some believed the Chanel brand should have died with its founder, since she and her aesthetic were irreplaceable, while others thought that Lagerfeld’s touch paid proper homage that also showcased how he would shape the brand in the years to come.

It was the latter opinion that proved to be the most accurate.

That initial couture collection, with notes of verve and excitement usually reserved for ready-to-wear collections, was a success, setting in motion a lifetime contract with Chanel. Within a few seasons of his tenure, Chanel became the most exciting and coveted ticket at Paris Fashion Week. The shows were theatrical, the clothes were at once experimental and traditional; both fashion-forward and classic. Over the years, Chanel shows – mostly housed in Lagerfeld’s favored venue of choice, the Grand Palais – became grand productions where a runway could become a dreamy beach, a swanky airport, a French bistro and once even a supermarket in which every product bore the Chanel name and models carried grocery baskets edged in Chanel’s signature braided bag chain.

Under Lagerfeld, Chanel could appeal to a multitude of clients: old and young, staid and trendy. His expertise in taking the classic Chanel tropes, like the camellia and the tweed boucle, and reworking them into the trend of the day – whether that be logos or micro-minis – made the Lagerfeld name synonymous with Chanel. With his hauteur demeanor and rarely changing personal aesthetic – gloved hands, sunglasses even indoors and hair tied in a Beethoven-esque low pony – Lagerfeld wasn’t just the designer at Chanel; he was Chanel.

But Lagerfeld’s greatest service to the Chanel brand was his ability to erase the negative associations with Chanel, including the founder’s anti-Semitism. In fact, his contribution to the brand’s aesthetic and ethos was so extensive that his work often eclipses that of Coco Chanel herself. Many books written about the Chanel collections over the years often overlook the early years pre-Lagerfeld (much to the chagrin of Amazon book reviewers). Indeed it was only in recent years that the depth of Chanel’s involvement in Nazism has come to light. Lagerfeld made the brand so iconic and inclusive that it was easy to forget everything that was problematic about Chanel herself.

This isn’t to say that Lagerfeld hasn’t had his own brushes with antisemitism, racism and bigotry. In 2017, he used the legacy of the Holocaust to attack German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, saying, “You cannot kill millions of Jews and then take in millions of their worst enemies afterwards, even [after] decades.”

But what Lagerfeld created in the Chanel brand is so iconic, so overwhelmingly representative of wealth and luxury, so removed from controversy and politics (even a runway show dedicated to feminist slogans and protesting felt excessively bland because it lacked edge or controversy), that even Lagerfeld’s most problematic moments somehow got excused and pushed aside — that is the power of Lagerfeld’s Chanel.

But now that Lagerfeld is dead, the future of Chanel is again in peril: Who can replace a man who was such a virtuoso that he made Chanel into the most important, most recognizable brand – both in name and aesthetics – in fashion today? Let’s just hope that Chanel doesn’t languish for decades once more as the company searches for a designer who can respect and understand Lagerfeld’s vision, even as she or he remakes the brand in his or her image.

https://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Antisemitism/How-Karl-Lagerfeld-cleared-Chanel-of-its-antisemitic-Nazi-roots-581267

‘That’s enough’: Thousands rally in France to oppose recent anti-Semitic acts

‘Every time a French person, because he or she is Jewish, is insulted, threatened — or worse, injured or killed — the whole Republic’ is attacked, says Macron at Shoah memorial

By SAMUEL PETREQUIN and SYLVIE CORBET

PARIS (AP) — Rallies against anti-Semitism attracted crowds of thousands in Paris and other French cities Tuesday following a series of aggressive acts with Jewish targets, including a cemetery where about 80 gravestones were spray-painted with swastikas overnight.

In the French capital, former presidents Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy joined a rally led by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Republic Plaza.

Political parties from across the spectrum participated in the nationwide rallies with the theme “That’s enough”, although Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party held a separate event.

French President Emmanuel Macron went to the Shoah Memorial, a Holocaust museum in Paris, to observe a moment of silence with parliament leaders.


A man wearing a yellow vest holds a placard reading “I am jew”, during a gathering at the Republique square to protest against anti-Semitism, in Paris, France, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus

“Every time a French person, because he or she is Jewish, is insulted, threatened — or worse, injured or killed — the whole Republic” is attacked, Macron said at a news conference in Paris.

Hours before the rallies started, Macron visited the vandalized Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, a small town in the northeastern Alsace region. He said he felt shame at the sight of the defaced grave markers.

“This looks like absurd stupidity,” the French leader said, looking visibly sad and concerned.

Macron observed several moments of silence in front of the vandalized graves while local Jewish community representatives stood by.

“We will take action,” he promised.

France is home to the world’s largest Jewish population outside Israel and the United States. Among the incidents arousing worries of renewed anti-Semitism was a torrent of hate speech directed at Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut during a Saturday march by yellow vest protesters.


People gather at Republique square to protest against anti-Semitism, in Paris, France, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

In recent incidents, swastika graffiti was found on street portraits of Simone Veil — a survivor of Nazi death camps and a European Parliament president who died in 2017. The word “Juden” was painted on the window of a bagel restaurant in Paris, and two trees planted at a memorial honoring a young Jewish man tortured to death in 2006 were vandalized, one cut down.

Two youths were arrested Friday after they allegedly fired shots at a synagogue with an air rifle in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles, where a large Jewish community lives. Sarcelles mayor Patrick Haddad told BFMTV on Tuesday that prosecutors believe the motive was anti-Semitism.

According to sociologist Danny Trom, author of “France Without Jews,” thousands of Jewish people leave France every year because of anti-Semitism.

“This is a low-intensity war, perhaps, but let’s not forget the murder of children killed at close range by Mohamed Merah in a school,” Trom told French magazine Telerama, referring to the 2012 slayings of three children and a teacher from a Jewish school by an Islamic extremist in the southwestern city of Toulouse.

“It is without equivalent in the history of France,” he said. “Jews have been present in France since the dawn of time. Now, the pressure is such that they are led to consider their country inhospitable.”


French Muslim gather at the Republique square to protest against anti-Semitism in Paris, France, Feb. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

The French government reported a big rise in anti-Semitism last year: 541 registered incidents, up 74 percent from 311 in 2017.

Leaders from France’s main religious communities, including Christian, Muslim and Jewish representatives, met at France’s Interior Ministry on Tuesday. In a joint declaration, they solemnly condemned anti-Semitic acts and called on people to make individual commitments to combat all forms of racism and hatred.

https://www.timesofisrael.com/thousands-rally-in-france-to-oppose-recent-anti-semitic-acts/

Poland’s envoy recognizes individual Holocaust crimes, firmly rejects complicity

Amid controversy over Nazi era, Marek Magierowski complains ‘little is known worldwide about what really occurred in German-occupied Poland’; notes diverging views with Yad Vashem

By RAPHAEL AHREN

Polish Ambassador to Israel Marek Magierowski poses for a picture in Jerusalem, October 11, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Polish Ambassador to Israel Marek Magierowski poses for a picture in Jerusalem, October 11, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Some Poles “committed abominable crimes” against Jews, Poland’s ambassador to Israel acknowledged this week, saying he had no problem admitting that Polish nationals were involved in anti-Semitic atrocities before, during and after World War II.

But in a far-ranging interview dealing with the whole breadth of bilateral relations between Poland and Israel — historical and political — Marek Magierowski also said that in addition to the need to remember the painful past, there was a “moral obligation to tell the whole truth.” For instance, he strongly rejected the term “Polish complicity,” arguing that it implies the country deliberately aided the Nazi regime in carrying out the Holocaust.

“It insinuates that Poland was consciously and willingly collaborating with Germany in the extermination of the European Jewry. No, it was not,” he insisted.

During the war, six million Polish citizens died — half of them Jews, the ambassador noted — and the country’s cities and villages were destroyed. “Poland was devastated. This is the not-so-unimportant context that is too frequently missing from the spectacular headlines about the alleged ‘Polish complicity,’” Magierowski, 48, said.

“And yes, some of my fellow countrymen committed abominable crimes against their Jewish brethren — before, during and after the war. I have no reservations in saying that they were Poles. Not ‘bandits,’ not ‘criminals,’ not ‘non-Jewish neighbors.’ No need to conceal their nationality. They were Polish, they spoke Polish, they were born in Poland.”


Poland’s President Andrzej Duda speaks during commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of a massacre of Jews in Kielce, Poland, Monday, July 4, 2016. (AP Photo/ Czarek Sokolowski)

And they “excluded themselves from Polish society,” he added, citing a speech Polish President Andrzej Duda delivered two years ago at an event commemorating the 1946 Kielce pogrom, during which Poles killed 42 Jewish Holocaust survivors.

Historians estimate that between 1,000 and 2,000 Jews were killed by Poles in the aftermath of World War II.

The role of Poles during the Holocaust has been a major sticking point in Israeli ties with Poland, after the Polish government passed a law last year prohibiting blaming the Polish nation for the atrocities.

The law was heavily criticized in Israel and elsewhere, leading Warsaw to amend it so that such claims are no longer a crime punishable by prison. Israel and Poland also subsequently issued a joint declaration that many Israeli historians condemned as inaccurately adopting Poland’s narrative of the Holocaust.


Holocaust survivors protesting Poland’s new bill on Holocaust rhetoric in front of the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv, February 8, 2018. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP/Getty Images/via JTA)

For instance, the statement condemned “every single case of cruelty against Jews perpetrated by Poles during…World War II,” but noted “heroic acts of numerous Poles, especially the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jewish people.”

Critics said the wording downplays anti-Jewish atrocities committed by Poles while overstating the role of Poles who rescued Jews.

The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center recognizes 6,863 Poles as Righteous Among the Nations, the highest number among any nation. Historians debate how many Poles aided the Nazi death machine during World War II, with estimates ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.

Magierowski, who started his term as Poland’s envoy to Tel Aviv last August, did not respond directly when asked if he disputes Yad Vashem’s assertion that “at least tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Polish Jews perished during the war due to actions of their Polish neighbors.”

But he did express “boundless” appreciation for Yad Vashem, stressing the need to “work together to preserve the memory of the Holocaust.” At the same time, he acknowledged “diverging views we may have on several issues regarding historical research” and “differing narratives.”


Auschwitz survivor Miroslaw Celka after paying tribute to fallen comrades at the ‘death wall’ execution spot in the former Auschwitz concentration camp in Oswiecim, Poland, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp on January 27, 2015. (AFP/Odd Andersen)

The joint declaration, issued simultaneously by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, on June 27, 2018, also rejected, in the same paragraph, both anti-Semitism and “anti-Polonism.”

Some opponents of the statement argued that the juxtaposition appeared to equate the two phenomena, a claim Magierowski rejected.

“There is no intention to draw a parallel between anti-Semitism and anti-Polonism,” he said. “Nonetheless we cannot turn a blind eye to the anti-Polish commentaries, statements and even unsavory jokes, based solely on ethnic prejudices.”

Magierowski, who speaks fluent Hebrew, also addressed at great length the increasingly warm political and diplomatic ties between Jerusalem and Warsaw, calling Israel “one of our most important partners in the Middle East.”

At the same time, he said Poland currently has no plans to move its embassy to Jerusalem, because “we cherish our international credibility.”


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) shakes hands with Polish Ambassador to Israel Marek Magierowski on the day Israel and Poland announced a joint declaration about the Holocaust in Tel Aviv, June 27, 2018 (Haim Tzach/GPO)

Netanyahu is set to travel to Warsaw on Tuesday to attend the government’s so-called “Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East,” a conference expected to deal heavily with Iran. Magierowski said the summit is “definitely not anti-Iranian,” but rather a “serious, global initiative aimed at reviving the moribund talks about the future of the Middle East.”

Next week, Morawiecki is due in Israel to attend a meeting of the so-called Visegrad Group, a consortium of four Central European nations. Netanyahu is working to strengthen ties with the group because he believes it can help fight what he considers the European Union’s unfair policies toward Israel.

“My personal view is that Poland perhaps understands Israel’s sensitivities a little better than some of our partners in the EU,” Magierowski said.

Asked if Warsaw recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, the ambassador replied that Poland recognizes Israel “as a state, within its internationally acknowledged borders,” adding that it was up to Israelis to define their own state.

Magierowski was born in Bystrzyca Kłodzka, a small town in southwestern Poland that was part of Germany until 1945. He worked as a journalist for most of his adult life, until he became President Duda’s spokesperson in 2015. Two years later, he quit to become deputy foreign minister, a position he held until the summer of 2018, when he moved to Tel Aviv.

Following is a transcript of our interview, which was conducted via email, lightly edited for clarity.

The Times of Israel: Prime Minister Netanyahu is headed to Poland on Tuesday; Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki is scheduled to visit Israel next week, in the framework of the V4 Summit. It seems we’re currently witnessing springtime for Israel-Poland relations. What’s the reason for this blooming of bilateral diplomatic relations?

Marek Magierowski: Let’s leave diplomacy aside for a while. First of all, it’s about people. Thousands of Israeli tourists visiting Poland, thousands of Poles landing at Ben Gurion, day in, day out. Nearly 40 direct flight connections between major Polish cities and Israel. A 90 percent increase of the number of Polish visitors in Israel, an 80 percent increase of the number of Israeli tourists in Warsaw, Kracow, Gdańsk…

I have worked here as ambassador for seven months now and I have yet to meet someone who has not been to Poland recently, for a holiday or on a business trip. And all talk about Poland highly: it’s safe, friendly, modern. Israelis appreciate high living standards and excellent food. Many are truly bewildered: “I expected a drab, post-communist, gray landscape. And suddenly I encountered a Western country in Eastern Europe.”


View of Old Town in Krakow, Poland, August 15, 2018. (Yahav Gamliel/Flash90)

Now, fast forward to old school diplomacy. Last year you celebrated the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. So many of Israel’s founding fathers spoke Polish (also to each other!), so many Polish Jews — most of them Holocaust survivors and their descendants ­– were instrumental in the social and economic development of your country.

And, conversely, it’s impossible to talk about Polish history, Polish culture, without mentioning the invaluable contribution of Jewish writers, musicians, entrepreneurs, politicians.

That’s why our bilateral relations are so vital. Israel is, quite obviously, one of our most important partners in the Middle East, for political, economic and historical reasons. There’s no doubt whatsoever that the unwavering support for the very existence of the State of Israel is one of the pillars of Poland’s policy in the Middle East. As is its relentless combat against terrorism.


Incoming Polish Ambassador to Israel Marek Magierowski, left, with President Rivlin in Jerusalem, August 2, 2018 (Mark Neiman/GPO)

We also share the same ironclad alliance with the United States. The political and military cooperation between the US, Poland and Israel is of utmost relevance to us.

There’s another intriguing parallel: the astonishing economic growth of both Poland and Israel over the last three decades. Polish startups and young entrepreneurs are seeking new opportunities in the Israeli market. Israeli companies have heavily invested in Poland, mostly in real estate, the retail sector and high-tech, lured by the stable business environment and highly educated workforce. No wonder that all those flights between Poland and Tel Aviv are fully booked…

Netanyahu is traveling to Warsaw in order to attend the Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East. This conference is said to focus mainly on criticizing Iran and on strategizing against it. Why did Poland choose to organize a conference focused on attacking Iran, something that pleases Israel and the US but not so much your European neighbors?

Firstly, the event will not focus on a particular country but the whole region and the challenges it is facing, be it civil wars, terrorism, energy or cybersecurity. So the nature of the upcoming conference is, in our view, definitely not anti-Iranian.

By the way, we have excellent relations with the US, although we support the JCPOA [the Iran nuclear deal] and the Americans withdrew from it. And it was a Polish deputy foreign minister who traveled to Tehran to explain to the Iranians what the conference will actually be about.

Secondly, the summit is not about “pleasing” this or that country. It is not about empty slogans and hollow promises. It is a serious, global initiative aimed at reviving the moribund talks about the future of the Middle East, probably the most volatile region of the world.

We co-organize this conference not in spite, but — precisely — because of our EU membership, our special relationship with the United States and our good relations with most Arab countries, which we have nurtured for decades. Poland is simply the most appropriate host in terms of diplomatic convenience.

Poland perhaps understands Israel’s sensitivities a little better than some of our partners in the EU

Thirdly, the primary objective is to assemble all the pivotal actors in one place and kickstart a process in which everybody would hold a stake. Peace and stability in the Middle East are our common responsibility. It is about time to put all hands on deck.

We can’t solve the regional problems with the European Union and without President Trump. But we also cannot solve the same problems with Trump and without the key players from all over the world.

Will the Israeli-Palestinian conflict play any role at the conference, and if so, in what way?

We are not entitled to restrain participants from touching upon a particular topic, but we do not intend to focus on the Middle East peace process at the Ministerial. There are other international fora dedicated to this important issue.


Polish then-foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski, right, talks with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during their meeting in Warsaw, May 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

What are Poland’s positions on the core issues of the conflict: settlements, Jerusalem, security? Would Poland consider moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem even before a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is signed? The US and Guatemala recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Russia, the Czech Republic and Australia have recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. What’s Poland’s stance?

Very briefly: in this respect, we stick to international law. As an EU member state and as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, we have our commitments and, like I said before, we cherish our international credibility. Therefore, the relocation of the Polish embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is not being contemplated right now, surely not before the status of Jerusalem is finally defined.

Does Poland recognize Israel as a Jewish state (as Germany, the US and other states have done?)

Poland recognizes Israel as a state, within its internationally acknowledged borders. How the Israelis define their own state — it is up to you.

Netanyahu has made no secret of his desire to get closer to Eastern and Central European nations to subvert what he describes as the EU’s “hostile” attitude toward Israel. How do you view Warsaw’s role vis-a-vis Israel-EU relations? Would you agree to let Netanyahu instrumentalize warming bilateral Israel-Poland ties to improve his country’s standing in Brussels?

All EU member states run their own foreign policies, even though there is coordination in multiple areas. Besides, several different formats exist within the European community — V4 being one of them. It is no secret that some Western governments have a “cooler” approach to the Israeli government and Mr. Netanyahu himself.

My personal view is that Poland perhaps understands Israel’s sensitivities a little better than some of our partners in the EU. However, the warming bilateral ties with Israel do not necessarily jeopardize our relations with other EU countries.


PM Netanyahu and the leaders of the Visegrad Group — Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland — in Budapest, July 19, 2017 (Haim Tzach/GPO)

One of the most controversial topics in Israel-Poland ties was last year’s joint statement on Poland’s role in the Holocaust. How do you respond to the harsh criticism Yad Vashem (and senior Holocaust historians) issued of the statement? Is Yad Vashem’s understanding of what happened during the Holocaust flawed?

The Polish embassy cooperates with Yad Vashem on a regular basis. My appreciation for this institution and its research efforts is boundless. On the other hand, the Yad Vashem historians also realize how important Poland and the Polish contribution is in the wider context of their commendable endeavor, particularly in terms of managing the archives and sharing the scholarly expertise.

Notwithstanding the diverging views we may have on several issues regarding historical research, despite the differing narratives, I strongly believe it is our common duty to overcome the discrepancies and work together to preserve the memory of the Holocaust.

Why did the Polish government make such great efforts to promulgate this document, translating it into several languages and publishing it in newspapers across the globe?

Every Polish government, regardless of its political leanings, has the duty to combat stereotypes and plain lies about Poland’s role in World War II. It is really puzzling how little is known worldwide about what really occurred in German-occupied Poland during the Holocaust.

The infamous term “Polish death camps” is just the tip of the iceberg. Let me give you an example of another blatant semantic distortion. “Germans” are no longer “Germans.” They are “Nazis.” Unless you read a story about, say, a “German woman who rescued a Jewish family.”

Whereas when you read about Poles who collaborated with the German occupiers and denounced Jews, they are invariably “Poles.” Unless you read a story about a Pole who rescued a Jewish family. Then this Pole, quite mysteriously, becomes… “a non-Jewish neighbor.” It’s a gross manipulation.


An ad with the Israeli-Polish joint declaration on the Holocaust in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, July 4, 2018 (courtesy)

Israeli historians took particular offense to the joint declaration seemingly downplaying Polish complicity in Nazi crimes and equating anti-Semitism with “anti-Polonism.” In hindsight, can you understand their criticism? Or do you maintain that the joint declaration correctly juxtaposes those two terms?

Let me quote one of the paragraphs of said declaration: “It is obvious that the Holocaust was an unprecedented crime, committed by Nazi Germany against the Jewish nation, including all Poles of Jewish origin. Poland has always expressed the highest understanding of the significance of the Holocaust as the most tragic part of the Jewish national experience.”

The Holocaust was unique and incomparable to any other genocide in the history of mankind. As is anti-Semitism —  an unacceptable, abhorrent attitude that we should do our utmost to eradicate. There is no intention to draw a parallel between anti-Semitism and anti-Polonism.

Nonetheless we cannot turn a blind eye to the anti-Polish commentaries, statements and even unsavory jokes based solely on ethnic prejudices.


Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks to six Poles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust in Warsaw, Poland, February 26, 2018. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

Poland makes great efforts to remember the Holocaust, but seems very keen on minimizing, if not entirely ignoring, Polish complicity in Nazi crimes. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day earlier this month, Polish officials issued statements hailing Polish people risking their lives to rescue Jews and highlighting the suffering of Poles at the hands of the Nazis, but making no mention whatsoever of Poles keenly aiding the Nazi death machineDo you dispute Yad Vashem’s assertion that “at least tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Polish Jews perished during the war due to actions of their Polish neighbors”? If so, how would you describe Polish complicity in Nazi crimes? Do you think it serves the memory of the Holocaust, and Polish-Jewish relations, to entirely ignore Polish complicity, as if there had been no such thing?

Firstly, let me quote again the Morawiecki-Netanyahu joint statement: “We acknowledge and condemn every single case of cruelty against Jews perpetrated by Poles during World War II.” What does the Polish government try to hide here?

Secondly, I must strongly protest against the very term “Polish complicity.” It insinuates that Poland was consciously and willingly collaborating with Germany in the extermination of the European Jewry. No, it was not.

Poland was invaded and occupied — by Germany and the Soviet Union. Polish soldiers fought the Germans on all fronts. There was no Polish puppet government. No Polish [Vidkun] Quisling, no Polish [Phillipe] Petain. No Waffen-SS division composed of Polish nationals.

We must not forget the painful past, but it is also our moral obligation to tell the whole truth, no matter how complex, in all its aspects

We lost six million citizens, approximately half of them of Jewish descent. We lost cities, villages, infrastructure, artworks. Poland was devastated. This is the not-so-unimportant context that is too frequently missing from the spectacular headlines about the alleged “Polish complicity.”

And yes, some of my fellow countrymen committed abominable crimes against their Jewish brethren. Before, during and after the war. I have no reservations in saying that they were Poles. Not “bandits,” not “criminals,” not “non-Jewish neighbors.” No need to conceal their nationality. They were Polish, they spoke Polish, they were born in Poland.

And they “excluded themselves from the Polish society,” as Polish President Andrzej Duda once famously said [in a July 2016 speech], referring to the perpetrators of the pogrom in Kielce in 1946. We must not forget the painful past, but it is also our moral obligation to tell the whole truth, no matter how complex, in all its aspects.


The funerals for the dozens of Jews killed in a 1946 post-Holocaust pogrom in Kielce, Poland (screen capture: YouTube)

https://www.timesofisrael.com/polands-envoy-recognizes-individual-holocaust-crimes-firmly-rejects-complicity/


Holocaust Survivors And Victims’ Families Receive Millions In Reparations From France


Le Mémorial de la Déportation des Juifs de France names Jews deported in the Holocaust. Some got word this week they are receiving payments from the French government in reparation.Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Around three-quarters of a century after the Holocaust ended with the extermination of six million Jews, some survivors, as well as victims’ families and estates, are receiving reparations from France, in acknowledgment of the government’s role in deporting them to Nazi death camps via French trains.

Forty-nine people who made it out of the Holocaust alive are receiving around $400,000 each, according to former Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, the State Department’s expert adviser on Holocaust-era issues, who helped negotiate the agreement. He said 32 spouses of deportees who died will get up to $100,000, depending on how long their spouse lived. Heirs and estates of deportees or their spouses are also getting paid.

The money is the second and last round of payments from $60 million France provided following a 2014 agreement in exchange for recipients relinquishing the right to sue.

The State Department’s Holocaust Deportation Claims Program was charged with processing applications and divvying up the funds specifically for non-French victims deported from France via the state-owned railway system S.N.C.F. That group had been ineligible for compensation under prior agreements and settlements.

“These people were largely ignored,” Eizenstat said.

Leo Bretholz, who in 1942 escaped from an Auschwitz-bound French train, helped change that. After relocating to Maryland, he fought to prevent the S.N.C.F. from bidding on a local rail system and also urged France to pay reparations.


Holocaust survivor Leo Bretholz, photographed in 2014, sought reparations from French railway S.N.C.F.Linda Davidson/The Washington Post/Getty Images


The Vienna-born man died in 2014 at the age of 93. But Eizenstat said his heirs are receiving around $400,000 under the agreement.

In all, Eizenstat said around 900 people have been approved.

“It’s about justice and recognition and feeling acknowledgement,” Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany told NPR.

And for some, the funds also provide a financial lifeline.

Studies show many Holocaust survivors live at or beneath the poverty line for reasons that are manifold.

“There is no inherited wealth,” Schneider said of survivors whose family assets may have been stolen in the Holocaust. “They may have been denied education opportunities. When others were in high school, they were in Auschwitz, so they weren’t able to build careers.”

Elderly survivors also may not be able to rely on family — wiped out in the Holocaust — to provide support as they become infirm.

“They feel like it is transformative,” Eizenstat said of recipients, “so in their dwindling years, as they need medical care this can provide it.”

The agreement also highlights the role France and the Vichy government played abetting the attempted extermination of the Jews. “The railways, owned by the government, were complicit in the machinery of murder,” Schneider said.

In 2011, France’s national railway system S.N.C.F. formally apologized for sending thousands of Jews to concentration camps.

Millions of non-Jews were also targeted in the Holocaust, with resisters, homosexuals and the disabled among those killed. Non-Jews are also receiving the payouts.

Several Canadian airmen shot down in battle over France were taken by the Vichy government or Nazis and deported “and we were able to pay them or their relatives,” Eizenstat said.

Still, others may be disappointed.

“There were 867 claims and we approved 386,” Eizenstat said. Some were denied because the claimants were French nationals or citizens, ineligible under this agreement. Others were too distantly related to Holocaust victims.

The money is the final amount to be paid under the agreement; roughly half had already been paid to survivors and families in 2016.

“The page is closed on this chapter,” Eizenstat said.

Source: https://www.npr.org/2019/02/07/692376994/holocaust-survivors-and-victims-families-receive-millions-in-reparations-from-fr

California Holocaust ceremony interrupted by man shouting anti-Semitic slurs

Driver in black SUV spews abuse against Jews and Israel as he passes march hosted by church in town of Salinas

Members of Church of Jesus Christ Temple Philadelphia in Salinas California march on January 27, 2019 to mark International Holocaust Memorial Day (Screencapture/Twitter)

Members of Church of Jesus Christ Temple Philadelphia in Salinas California march on January 27, 2019 to mark International Holocaust Memorial Day (Screencapture/Twitter)

A peaceful walk to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day in central California was interrupted by a motorist shouting insults against Jews.

KSBW-TV reported that about 100 people gathered in Salinas on Sunday for the event following a service at the Church of Jesus Christ Temple Philadelphia.

The man then circled back and harassed the walkers for a second time before driving off.

Temple Philadelphia said  it has been building ties with the Jewish community in Salinas for decades, teaming up with a local synagogue for events and hosting Holocaust survivors for talks.

Nino Macias, who participated in the walk with his son, said days of remembrance are important to teach children about history and the importance of tolerance. “To forget what happened is to allow history to repeat itself,” he said.

ToI Staff contributed to this report

Polish PM: Hitler’s Germany responsible for Holocaust, not Nazis

Mateusz Morawiecki says absolving German nation, people of genocide of European Jews serves to ‘relativize evil’

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks at a commemoration event at the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp, Auschwitz, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2019.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks at a commemoration event at the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp, Auschwitz, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2019.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

OSWIECIM, Poland — Hitler’s Germany was responsible for the Holocaust, and the Nazis were not, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Sunday, as Poland marked 74 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

“Hitler’s Germany fed on fascist ideology… But all the evil came from this (German) state and we cannot forget that, because otherwise, we relativize evil,” said Morawiecki, at an official ceremony at Auschwitz.

“I want to make a promise here to (preserve) the complete truth about that era,” he added, in a speech in the southern city of Oswiecim to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

Sunday’s ceremony at Auschwitz was attended by a number of former prisoners at the camp.

Former prisoners lay a wreath at the Death Wall marking the 74th anniversary of the liberation of former German Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oswiecim, Poland, on January 27, 2019. (Janek SKARZYNSKI / AFP)

Morawiecki’s speech comes after last year’s row over a Polish law that made it illegal to accuse the Polish nation or state of complicity in Nazi German crimes.

After protests from Israel and the US, Poland amended the law to remove the possibility of fines or a prison sentence.

Morawiecki appeared to be responding to an idea often mentioned in Poland, which claims that historians try to attribute responsibility for the genocide of Jews exclusively to the Nazis, without recalling the role played by the German state and Germans as a nation.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was set up by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland. With one million Jews killed there between 1940 to 1945, the camp has become a symbol of Nazi Germany’s genocide of the European Jews.

A group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing in the Oswiecim (Auschwitz) Nazi concentration camp, photographed just after the liberation by the Soviet army, in January 1945. (AP Photo/ File)

More than 100,000 other people including non-Jewish Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and anti-Nazi resistance fighters also perished there.

Last February, Morawiecki had to defend himself against criticism from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who denounced “unacceptable” comments he made about the Holocaust.

Morawiecki’s office insisted that he has repeatedly opposed Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism in all its forms.

Does focus on Holocaust tourism dim the memory of vibrant prewar Jewish life?

Prof. Daniel Walkowitz claims the Jewish heritage industry risks obscuring a world that thrived in Central and Eastern Europe before the Shoah

BUDAPEST — When one first hears the term “Holocaust tourism” there can be an urge to shudder, or even an unsettling feeling of anxiety.

But the rather strange turn of phrase describes a stark reality — Holocaust history is a thriving global tourist industry attracting millions of visitors per year.

Over the last seven decades, tourists seeking to understand this dark epoch of Jewish history have grown exponentially. In 1946 around 100,000 people visited Auschwitz. By 2014 that figure peaked to almost 1.5 million annually.

Indeed, Holocaust memorial sites in Poland — and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe — have largely come to dominate what scholars, educators, travel writers and memorialists now commonly refer to as Jewish heritage tourism.

The question is whether there is a cultural cost for tourists viewing certain parts of the map of Central and Eastern Europe almost exclusively through the dark prism of the Holocaust, especially as many of those tourists are Jews seeking to understand their own complex history.

Daniel J. Walkowitz believes there is. The American academic claims that by focusing almost exclusively on Holocaust tourism — which largely incorporates graveyards, synagogues, and religious iconography into its narrative — the Jewish heritage industry is in danger of erasing from collective Jewish memory a vibrant world that existed before the Shoah.

Berlin Stumbling Blocks. ‘Here lies Alex Rosenberg, b. 1919, deported 1942, murdered in Auschwitz’ (left). ‘Here lies Gertrud Rosenberg (née Brenner), b. 1879, deported 1942, murdered in Auschwitz.’ (Courtesy Walkowitz)

“I had [a number of] relatives that perished in the Holocaust, but much of my own Jewish culture and roots came from the Jewish experience in Eastern and Central Europe before the Second World War,” the 76-year-old historian tells The Times of Israel from his office at New York University, where he currently holds a joint appointment with the Department of History and the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis.

“My concern, however, is the Holocaust narrative not only devalues all of that, but that it also replicates the work that the Holocaust itself did,” Walkowitz says. “And so we [as Jews] have to make sure there isn’t a double erasure, that the Holocaust obliterates Jews, and that we in our Holocaust narrative obliterate the rest of our history.”

The historian has recently published “The Remembered and Forgotten Jewish World,” a book that charts how the Holocaust narrative became particularly important for Jews in Israel in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War.

It was then, the historian says, that “a renewed concern arose for Jews around the defense of Israel, coupled with feelings that the Holocaust should never happen again.”

A group of Israeli school children, accompanied by an armed guard, pose with an Israeli flag before Natan Rapoport’s 1948 Monument to the Ghetto Heroes to memorialize their visit and mark its meaning for the Israeli state. (Courtesy Walkowitz)

But Walkowitz believes focusing on this narrative exclusively has meant a substantial amount of Jewish history and culture has been sidelined in the process.

This is mainly because “it views the history of Jews as victims, without affirming the agency that Jews had in the Second World War — in the Warsaw Ghetto and elsewhere,” he says.

Walkowitz also claims a muddled narrative of Holocaust history — which he says wrongly accuses all Poles of anti-Semitism — has made its way into Israel’s education system, too. Despite warm ties between Israel and a growing number of right-wing governments, including Poland’s, Walkowitz says that a skewed view of history is being encouraged by the present Israeli government, which he says possesses a “hyper-nationalist [agenda].”

“Many Israeli historians have already focused on the role that the [Education Ministry] in Israel has played in cementing a policy in which Jews go to concentration camps in Poland with an attitude that says all Poles are anti-Semites,” Walkowitz says. “But many Poles fought to save Jews [during the Holocaust]. Indeed, today some are quite enamored with Jewish life.”

‘Zachor,’ or ‘remember,’ memorial gravestone in front of the cemetery outside Mostyska. (Courtesy Walkowitz)

“[Israeli students] now come to Poland with deep prejudices,” he says.

Walkowitz’s book provides a critical first-person analysis of the flourishing Jewish heritage industry in numerous cities where Jews once had — and in some instances still do have — a dominant influence on public intellectual, economic, and cultural life. His research took him to cities and towns such as Łódź, Lviv, Kiev, Kraków, Warsaw, Belgrade, Budapest, Bucharest, London, New York, and Berlin.

It’s a history that is not without complication, trauma, controversy and collective amnesia on the part of Europeans locals, as well. The historian says the further east one travels behind the old Iron Curtain, narratives connected to the Holocaust tend to get more complex and bound up with unresolved ghosts of history.

The case of Hungary

Hungary, situated along the old Cold War East-West division, is a good example of a country refusing to face up to the role it played during the Holocaust, says the historian.

Walkowitz claims Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian, self-proclaimed “illiberal” Fidesz government is still distorting Hungary’s Holocaust narrative to suit its own nationalistic political agenda.

Hungarian Jews were marched down Wesselenyi Street in the heart of Budapest’s Jewish Quarter, on their way to be deported to Auschwitz. (Bundesarchiv Bild)

Before delving into this topical issue, though, Walkowitz says it’s important to remember some hard historical facts, which his book documents in detail.

By the time Hungary was liberated by the Soviet army in April 1945, 568,000 Hungarian Jews had been liquidated in the Holocaust. Many of them died in Auschwitz. Nearly 80,000 Jews were killed in Budapest itself, shot on the banks of the Danube and then thrown into the river.

Tens of thousands of others were forced on death marches to the Austrian border, while numerous other Jews died in the closed Budapest ghetto of cold, disease, and starvation.

Historians unanimously agree that Hungary’s culpability in the Holocaust is undeniable. Indeed, anti-Semitic laws were in place in Hungary as early as 1938. Paradoxically, because Hungary sided with the Nazis, for a time the Jews remained relatively safe compared to other European Jews during World War II.

That changed, however, in the spring of 1944 when German troops invaded Hungary. Between May 15 and July 9 of that year, 437,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to to death camps in Poland, handed over to the Nazis by Hungarian leader Miklós Horthy.

Regent of Hungary Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya (left) with Adolf Hitler, year unspecified (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, that tragic history still courts controversy in Hungary, raising the difficult question of where exactly the responsibility lies for the massacre of over half a million Hungarian Jews. Walkowitz says Hungary’s two state-sponsored Holocaust remembrance projects don’t really engage with this question as much as it deserves.

“Budapest is a serious problem for Jewish heritage,” the historian stresses, “because its Holocaust tourism is framed by rethinking the Holocaust and [completely] exonerating Hungarians from it.”

Walkowitz points out, for example, that Budapest’s two major state museums — the Holocaust Memorial Center and the House of Terror — display what he calls “the full appropriation of the Holocaust as regime propaganda.”

The academic also notes that the latter museum on Budapest’s Andrássy street is located in a building that once served as the headquarters of the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party — a pro Nazi party led by the ruthless Hungarian fascist Ferenc Szálasi, who introduced a reign of terror for Jews in Budapest during the last six months of WWII.

Budapest’s House of Terror also presents what the historian claims is essentially a diluted and simplified version of late 20th century Hungarian history, depicting Hungary as a helpless underdog smothered by the dark outside forces of totalitarian terror.

Hungarian President Janos Ader, center, and his wife, Anita Herczegh, right, are escorted by Maria Schmidt, left, as they tour the House of Terror museum to pay tribute on the memorial day for victims of communism in Budapest, Hungary, Wednesday, February 25, 2015. (AP Photo/MTI, Tamas Kovacs)

But Walkowitz says it makes almost no distinctions in its narrative between the Nazi and Soviet eras. Consequently, any details of collaboration by Hungary against Jews are merely swept over or even ignored. This historical omission, he says, is both problematic and insulting to the Jewish community in Budapest, which now stands at around 80,000, making it the third-largest Jewish community in Europe.

Hungary’s refusal to deal with its checkered historical record during WWII is today exacerbating international tension within the EU, and between Israel and Hungary, in a narrative where anti-Semitism is always the underlying theme.

Walkowitz points out two recent public political controversies connected to this narrative. One is the closure of the Central European University in Budapest which was funded by the Jewish Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros.

This came after a huge public poster campaign in 2017 depicting Soros as financing a plan to invade Hungary with migrants. Things eventually culminated with what became known last year as the anti-immigrant “Stop Soros” laws.

The Hungarian government suffered severe international criticism for this legislation, which was said to have fed into stereotypical age old narratives about cosmopolitan Jewish financiers plotting to corrupt and undermine a country’s national identity.

The House of Fates Holocaust museum and education center in Budapest. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

A second controversy, says Walkowitz, centers on the upcoming House of Fates museum, which is set to open this year in Budapest to mark 75 years since the onset of the extermination of Hungarian Jewry in 1944.

Both the Hungarian Jewish Federation and Israel’s Yad Vashem have expressed open criticism of the museum’s approach to Hungary’s role in the Holocaust. This has even led to recent talks between the Hungarian and Israeli governments to try and smooth over what is quickly becoming a fiery diplomatic sparring match.

“Both of these events [show that] prospects for Jews in Budapest are dire,” says Walkowitz.

The Holocaust in the public domain

As his working field trip moved back towards Western Europe, Walkowitz says he observed a noticeable shift in how the Holocaust is treated in the public domain — especially in Germany.

The historian even dedicates an entire chapter to a city that was once the headquarters of the Third Reich. Entitled “Berlin, A Holocaust Cityscape,” the chapter explores the fact that the former Nazi capital has clearly owned up to and dealt with its shameful genocidal past in an open and transparent manner.

With a prominent Jewish museum, and a dozen other public memorials and monuments scattered around the city, Berlin itself is a kind of Holocaust museum, says Walkowitz.

The memorial to the 1943 German Jewish women’s protest. The sculpture shows women protesting and the men behind bars. In the distance one can see remnants of the Old Synagogue wall. (Courtesy Walkowitz)

Berlin’s Jewish population before the Nazis came to power in 1933 was around 160,000. By the end of WWII only 8,000 remained, surviving by hiding or marrying non-Jews. Today that number has swelled to somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000, though figures are hard to pin down since many are non-German Jews and do not register with the authorities.

“Berlin has now become the focal point for a lot of progressive Jews as part of a larger cosmopolitan culture,” says Walkowitz. “The irony, of course, is that this new population is not people whose family grew up in Berlin or who were German Jews.”

“It’s third and fourth generation post-Holocaust Jews coming primarily from Israel and Russia,” Walkowitz says. “A lot of them are interested in recapturing a vibrant prewar socialist and progressive Jewish culture.”

While the Holocaust still remains the dominant narrative of 20th century Jewish history, Walkowitz’s book also looks at another side of that narrative — one that has been almost completely overshadowed by the dark shadow of the Shoah. He calls this “a new Jewish history.”

It’s a radical political and cultural tradition that began in the Pale of Settlement in the late 19th century, and which flourished in Central and Eastern Europe before it was obliterated by the Nazis.

Daniel J. Walkowitz stands before the memorial to the 1905 socialist uprising, Grzybowski Square, June 2014. (Courtesy)

Walkowitz’s exploration of this radical history can be read alongside books such as “Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism” and “Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s.” Both focus on a working class, radical left wing Jewish tradition that was a prominent force in Central and Eastern Europe until the eve of WWII.

Building on the work explored in these books and others, Walkowitz argues that communist and socialist accounts have been almost entirely obliterated from 20th century Jewish history. They have, he says, been lumped together into one vision of Stalinism instead of being given the complex expression they had in progressive and egalitarian Jewish labor organizations such as the Bund.

Walkowitz believes the Freudian phrase “psychic disavowal” is a fitting way to try and come to terms with this complex and often paradoxical approach to 20th century Jewish history, where what is forgotten is always revealed even if it is marginalized in its presentation.

Walkowitz then references Irvine Howe’s 1976 Pulitzer Prize winning book, “World of Our Fathers,” which he says captured the vibrant past of Yiddishkeit  (Judaism) — a word he says best describes a world in which Jews in Eastern Europe communicated a secular culture predominantly about social justice through songs, newspapers, political activism, and theater. And, most importantly, where the lingua franca was always Yiddish.

The Jewish State Theater, Bucharest, September 2013. (Courtesy Walkowitz)

“That [radical] history of the Jewish street has largely disappeared in Central and Eastern Europe,” says Walkowitz. “It’s a social history where people struggled and debated to make a better life for themselves to create a modern Jewish identity.”

The historian concludes the conversation by coming back to his own Jewish roots. He says writing this book felt like a voyage of sorts — one where he learned just as much about larger Jewish heritage as he did about his own ancestry.

The tome includes a number of family stories that includes figures such as the author’s grandmother, Ida Lubertofsky Walkowitz, and his grandfather Max Margel — two Polish Jews who emigrated to the United States in the early 20th century and kept with them the fiery spirit of Jewish socialism on their westward journey.

“Writing this book, I came to appreciate that the stories we inherit are often romanticized,” says Walkowitz.

“I learned that my grandmother and grandfather’s life were flawed and more complicated then I had previously understood them to be,” he says, “and that there were lessons from the past on which to build a new future.”

Auschwitz survivors pay homage as world remembers Holocaust

Ceremonies held at site of death camp in Poland 74 years after its liberation, but knowledge of Nazi atrocities during World War II is declining

Former prisoners and their guests arrive for the ceremony marking the 74th anniversary of the liberation of KL Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2019. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

Former prisoners and their guests arrive for the ceremony marking the 74th anniversary of the liberation of KL Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2019. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday amid a revival of hate-inspired violence and signs that younger generations know less and less about the genocide of Jews, Roma and others by Nazi Germany during World War II.

As survivors of Auschwitz marked the 74th anniversary of the notorious death camp’s liberation, a far-right activist who served time in prison for burning an effigy of a Jew placed a wreath there with about 50 other Polish nationalists to protest the official observances.

“It’s time to fight against Jewry and free Poland from them!” Rybak said as he marched to the site, according to a report by Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza on its website.

A Polish far-right activist, Piotr Rybak,right, and other nationalists gather outside the memorial site of Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2019. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

Rybak’s claim is incorrect. The ceremony at the state-run memorial site paid homage Sunday, as it does every year, to all of the camp’s victims, both Jews and gentiles, while Christian and Jewish religious leaders recited a prayer in unison together.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also stressed that the Third Reich targeted Poles as well as Jews.

Since last year’s observances, an 85-year-old French Holocaust survivor, Mireille Knoll, was fatally stabbed in Paris and 11 Jews were gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue during Shabbat services, the deadliest attack on Jews in US history.

Human Rights First, a US organization, recalled those killings and warned that “today’s threats do not come solely from the fringe.”

“In places such as Hungary and Poland, once proudly democratic nations, government leaders are traveling the road to authoritarianism,” said Ira Forman, the group’s senior adviser for combating anti-Semitism. “As they do so, they are distorting history to spin a fable about their nations and the Holocaust.”

Former Auschwitz prisoners placed flowers early Sunday at an execution wall at Auschwitz, paying homage before the arrival of the nationalists at the same spot. They wore striped scarves that recalled their uniforms, some with the red letter “P,” the symbol the Germans used to mark them as Poles.

Former prisoners place candles and flowers at the Death Wall marking the 74th anniversary of the liberation of KL Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oswiecim, Poland, Sunday, January 27, 2019. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

Early in World War II, most prisoners were Poles, rounded up by the occupying German forces. Later, Auschwitz was transformed into a mass killing site for Jews, Roma and others, operating until the liberation by Soviet forces on January 27, 1945.

In Germany, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned in an op-ed in the weekly Welt am Sonntag that across Europe populists are propagating nationalism and “far-right provocateurs are trying to downplay the Holocaust.”

“We shall never forget. We shall never be indifferent. We must stand up for our liberal democracy,” Maas wrote.

Over the past year, Germany has seen a rising number of often violent attacks against Jews carried out by neo-Nazis and Muslims, prompting the government to appoint a commissioner against anti-Semitism and to start funding a national registration office for anti-Semitic hate crimes.

Survivors of Auschwitz arrive at the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp KL Auschwitz II-Birkenau walk to place candles on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2019. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

The appearance by nationalists at Auschwitz comes amid a surge of right-wing extremism in Poland and elsewhere in the West. It is fed by a broader grievance many Poles have that their suffering during the war at German hands is little known abroad while there is greater knowledge of the Jewish tragedy.

However recent surveys show that knowledge of the atrocities during World War II is declining generally.

A new study released in recent days by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the Azrieli Foundation found that 52 percent of millennials in Canada cannot name even one concentration camp or ghetto and 62% of millennials did not know that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

Its findings were similar to a similar study carried out a year before in the United States.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, left, and deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, right,place candles at the Monument to the Victims at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau, during on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2019. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

In Britain, a new poll by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust found that one in 20 adults in Britain do not believe the Holocaust took place.

The poll of more than 2,000 people released Sunday also found that nearly two-thirds of those polled either did not know how many Jews had been murdered or greatly underestimated the number killed during the Holocaust.

“Such widespread ignorance and even denial is shocking,” Chief Executive Olivia Marks-Woldman said.

Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs said in its Global Antisemitism Report released Sunday that 13 Jews were murdered in fatal attacks in 2018, marking the highest number of Jews murdered since a wave of attacks on Argentinian Jews in the 1990s.

The report found that around 70% of anti-Jewish attacks were anti-Israel in nature and that most of the attacks were led by neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

The United Nations recognized January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005.