Poland’s Jews fear for future under new Holocaust law

Behind the new law denying Polish complicity in Nazi atrocities, many fear there lies a growing strain of antisemitism

Supporters of the far-right National Radical Camp (ONR) gather in support of the Holocaust bill in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw on 5 February. Photograph: Dawid Zuchowicz/Agencja Gazeta via Reuters

Even on a clear day, history hangs over Warsaw like smog. Flattened during the Nazi German wartime occupation and rebuilt during communist rule, what Poland’s capital may lack in architectural charm it makes up for with a litany of monuments, statues, plaques and shrines dedicated to collective suffering and individual sacrifice.

One lesser-known memorial is a small plaque on the wall of the Warszawa Gdańska railway station, a nondescript socialist-era building on the north side of the city. It was from here that many Poles of Jewish origin departed in the wake of the “anti-Zionist campaign” in March 1968, when cold war politics and a power struggle within the Polish Communist party led to an antisemitic propaganda campaign forcing thousands of Polish Jews to leave the country.

“Loyalty to socialist Poland and imperialist Israel is not possible simultaneously,” prime minister Józef Cyrankiewicz had declared in 1968. “Whoever wants to face these consequences in the form of emigration will not encounter any obstacle.” The plaque bears a tribute from the Polish-Jewish writer Henryk Grynberg: “For those who emigrated from Poland after March 1968 with a one-way ticket. They left behind more than they had possessed.”

In a few weeks’ time, Poland’s Jewish community will mark the 50th anniversary of the events of March 1968. They will do so in the wake of arguably the most serious crisis in Polish-Jewish relations since the fall of communism in 1989, after the passage of controversial legislation criminalising the attribution to the Polish state or Polish nation of complicity in the crimes committed by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.

A crowd surround a dead man on the street in the Warsaw ghetto around 1940. Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images

Although popular at home, the legislation signed last week by President Andrzej Duda has proved a diplomatic and public relations catastrophe abroad, as scholars, Holocaust survivors and friendly governments alike have lined up to voice their criticism and concerns about a potentially chilling effect on the study and understanding of the Holocaust.

The ensuing controversy has sparked a war of words between Polish and Israeli politicians, and an outpouring of antisemitic rhetoric in Poland as nationalist and pro-government media seek to portray the country as under attack from an international anti-Polish campaign orchestrated by foreign powers and Jewish advocacy groups abroad.

Ruling party officials have claimed the row has been confected by Jewish advocacy groups seeking compensation for property restitution claims. An editorial on the rightwing TV Republika website described the crisis as “a big test of loyalty for the Polish Jews whose organisations are linked personally and institutionally with American Jews”, and accused them of “too rarely and too weakly defending Poland and the Poles in the international arena”.

“They want to break us – it’s about sovereignty, truth and money,” read the cover of Sieci, a weekly that has close ties to Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party.

Speaking to the Observer, members of the Polish-Jewish community and activists involved in Polish-Jewish dialogue and reconciliation have expressed their shock and dismay at this deterioration in public discourse. While stressing that the present crisis is not comparable to that of March 1968, many said that, with their loyalties once again being called into question, the echoes of the rhetoric of the “anti-Zionist campaign” were too uncomfortable to ignore.

“We are receiving antisemitic, anti-Jewish statements on a daily basis,” said Anna Chipczyńska, president of the Jewish Community of Warsaw. “Members of the community feel that their loyalty is being questioned, that people are expecting them to take a side. Some of them also indicate the silence of friends and work colleagues in the face of these attacks, and this really hurts them.”

“In 1968 they talked about an international Zionist conspiracy; now they talk about an international anti-Polish conspiracy,” said Jan Gebert, who wrote an open letter to Polish parliamentarians on behalf of Polish Jews, expressing concern that the legislation would criminalise giving testimony about Poles who blackmailed or murdered Jews during the Holocaust. “When you’ve grown up in Polish culture, you understand that there is no fundamental difference between these two things.”

Speaking from his office in the neo-romanesque Nożyk Synagogue, Warsaw’s only Jewish place of worship to have survived the war physically intact, Poland’s chief rabbi Michael Schudrich acknowledged that the rhetoric of recent days had left some questioning their future.

“In the last week I’ve heard more young Jews think about leaving Poland than I have ever before,” he said. “They say, literally: ‘Rabbi, is it time to leave?’ That’s a challenge for the Polish government: some of their citizens no longer feel comfortable living in their country.”

Schudrich, a New Yorker with Polish roots, is credited with playing a key role in Poland’s “Jewish revival” of recent decades, having served as the country’s chief rabbi since 2004. He was also at pains to warn that inflammatory rhetoric and exaggerated claims, especially in Israel, as regards the true extent of Polish complicity in the Holocaust were helping to fuel a vicious cycle of mutual recrimination.

“What has been very disappointing to me is that we’ve re-entered a kind of a mindset where too many people are not listening to each other. Where we have been successful over the past 25 years is to have an increasing sensitivity to what hurts the other side, and what I’m seeing now is a complete lack of sensitivity, both from the Polish to the Jewish and from the Jewish to the Polish side.”

It is a point echoed by Professor Dariusz Stola, director of the Polin Museum of Polish Jews, which opened in 2013 and is seen by many as a crowning achievement of Polish-Jewish dialogue and reconciliation. “Those who condemn Poles en masse are the best friends and allies of Polish antisemites – they feed each other.”

Sitting in his office in the museum’s iron- and copper-clad structure on a site in the former Warsaw ghetto, on a street named after Mordechai Anielewicz, a leader of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, Stola argued that the recent deterioration in Polish-Jewish relations illustrates a wider deterioration in Polish society.

“It is a sign of a deterioration in the capacity to talk, and the ability to talk is the essence of democracy. If you cannot talk, you cannot reach an agreement; you can only force a solution. The erosion of language is the erosion of democracy and the path to violence.”

The question being discussed now is whether the present crisis can be resolved before the achievements of recent decades are undone entirely.

“A lot of people on the Jewish side are now saying that this was not an honest process – they feel tricked,” said Agnieszka Markiewicz, director of the Warsaw office of the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group, and a former director of external relations at the Forum for Dialogue, a Warsaw-based NGO focusing on Polish-Jewish reconciliation.

“But it was not a trick! It was real. Poland did immense work, but now there is a risk that it will be treated as a kind of cover-up.”

“It’s a sin to let what’s happened in the last week undermine or destroy everything that we’ve built in the last 25 years, and we cannot permit that to happen,” said Schudrich.

But asked what he tells those who ask him about whether they should leave the country, the chief rabbi signalled that the legislation at the centre of the present controversy had forced him to reflect on his own future as well.

“I tell them it’s time to fight. But if it comes a time in this country where I cannot say what the truth is without fear of being imprisoned, I will leave. That time hasn’t come, and I will fight with all my heart and all my soul to make sure it doesn’t come to that.

“But I’m not hanging around here if I can’t say what the truth is.”

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/10/polands-jews-fear-future-under-new-holocaust-law-nazi-atrocities?CMP=share_btn_link

Jewish Republicans want congressman to admit his State of the Union guest is a Holocaust denier

(JTA) — The Republican Jewish Coalition called on Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida to acknowledge that his guest at the State of the Union speech is a Holocaust denier.

In a BuzzFeed News profile of Gaetz, the Republican congressman said that “Chuck Johnson is not a Holocaust denier and he’s not an anti-Semite. He’s a provoker, I should’ve vetted him better before inviting him to the State of the Union, I regret that I didn’t. That’s my fault. I take responsibility for it. But he is not a Holocaust denier.”

Gaetz invited Johnson to attend the State of the Union after his father fell ill and he had an extra ticket. Johnson had visited Gaetz’s office the morning of the address and angled for the ticket. The congressman said he thought Johnson seemed “polite.”

“This organization is deeply troubled by the comments from Charles C. Johnson, and it is incredibly important for the congressman to acknowledge he is a Holocaust denier and has extensive writings that attest to that and that it was wrong to bring him to the State of the Union,” RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks told BuzzFeed in a statement. “We are deeply troubled by any inference that our organization believes otherwise.”

Johnson denied the Holocaust in an “Ask Reddit” session from January 2017. Asked about the “Jewish Question” and the Holocaust, Johnson replied, “I do not and never have believed the 6 million figure. I think the Red Cross numbers of 250,000 dead in the camps from typhus are more realistic.”

A Jewish friend of Gaetz, Joel Greenberg, the elected tax collector of Seminole County, told BuzzFeed that the congressman is a “champion of Israel and the Jewish people.”

“We may have to retroactively throw him a bar mitzvah,” he added.

Source: https://www.jta.org/2018/02/12/news-opinion/politics/jewish-republicans-want-congressman-to-admit-his-state-of-the-union-guest-is-a-holocaust-denier

Poland isn’t the only country trying to police speech about the Holocaust

Several Eastern European nations have introduced legislation that limits discourse, though they have seen far less scrutiny than Warsaw

Veterans of the Latvian Legion, a force that was commanded by the German Nazi Waffen SS during WWII, and their sympathizers carry flowers as they walk to the Monument of Freedom in Riga, Latvia, March 16, 2016. (AFP/Ilmars Znotins)

JTA — In 2015, Ukraine’s president signed a law whose critics say stifles debate on the historical record of World War II and whitewashes local perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Law 2538-1 criminalized any rhetoric insulting to the memory of anti-communist partisans. And it celebrates the legacy of such combatants – ostensibly including the ones who murdered countless Jewish and Polish citizens while collaborating with Nazi Germany.

The law generated some backlash, including an open letter by more than 70 historians who said it “contradicts the right to freedom of speech,” ignores complicity in the Holocaust and would “damage Ukraine’s national security.”

But as with similar measures in Europe’s ex-communist nations, the Ukraine law generated little opposition or even attention internationally — especially when compared to the loud objections to a similar measure in Poland that was signed into law on Tuesday by the president. The law had passed both houses of parliament in recent days. The United States and Israel joined historians and Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust authority in decrying the bill.

“The Ukrainian and Polish laws are similar, but in Ukraine’s case we didn’t see anything even close” to the avalanche of condemnations that Poland received, said Eduard Dolinsky, director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee and a longtime campaigner against Holocaust revision in Ukraine. “I wish we had; maybe this law could have been stopped in Ukraine.”

To activists like Dolinsky, the singling out of Poland reflects the ongoing politicization of the debate on Eastern Europe’s bloody World War II history. They say the conversation is distorted by geopolitical tensions involving Russia, populism, ignorance and unresolved national traumas.

There are clear similarities between the Ukrainian and Polish laws, according to Alex Ryvchin, a Kiev-born Australian-Jewish journalist and author who has written about the politics of memory in Eastern Europe.

“Both seek to use the legitimacy and force of law to enshrine an official narrative of victimhood, heroism and righteousness while criminalizing public discussion of historical truths that contradict or undermine these narratives,” he said. Yet, he noted, “The reaction to the Polish law has indeed dwarfed the response to persistent state revisionism elsewhere in Europe in spite of the fact that the rate of collaboration was generally lower in Poland than in Ukraine and Latvia.”

The Baltic nations of Lithuania and Latvia were pioneers in nationalist legislation that limits discourse about the Holocaust in their territories. Critics say these laws also shift the blame for the murder of Jews, which was done with local helpers, to Nazi Germany alone. They also seem to equate the Nazi genocide with political repression by the Soviet Union – which many in the former Soviet Union blame on Jewish communists.

In 2010 Lithuania — a country where Nazi collaborators virtually wiped out a Jewish community of 250,000 — amended its criminal code, prescribing up to two years in jail to anyone who “denies or grossly underestimates” the crime of genocide or “other crimes against humanity or war crimes committed by the USSR or Nazi Germany against Lithuanian residents.”

Similar legislation in Latvia from 2014 imposes up to five years in jail for those who deny the role of “the foreign powers that have perpetrated crimes against Latvia and the Latvian nation,” without mentioning the involvement of Latvian SS volunteers in murdering nearly all of the country’s 70,000 Jews.

The denial of local culpability during the Holocaust is at the root of opposition to Poland’s law, which sets a maximum of six years in jail for “whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation or the Polish state of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich” or ”grossly diminishes the responsibility of the actual perpetrators.” On Tuesday, President Andrzej Duda said he would sign the laws (which he did later in the day), finalizing them, but also refer them for review by Poland’s highest court.

Polish President Andrzej Duda, left, nominating Mateusz Morawiecki to be prime minister at the presidential palace in Warsaw, Dec. 11, 2017. Both support the controversial law on the term “Polish death camps.” (Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in the past has been criticized for not calling out his country’s Eastern European allies on these issues, called the Polish legislation “baseless” and said Israel opposed it. The US State Department in a statement suggested it could have “repercussions” for bilateral relations with Poland.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s scheduled visit to Poland this week was canceled after he criticized the law, which Israel’s embassy in Poland said was generating anti-Semitic hate speech in the media.

Back in Israel, the Polish Embassy condemned what it called ignorant remarks by Yair Lapid, a prominent opposition leader. Citing his credentials as the son of a Holocaust survivor, Lapid said the Polish law is designed to hide how Poland was “a partner in the Holocaust.”

Jewish organizations, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said for their part that they understand the Polish frustration with terms like “Polish death camps,” which seem to shift the blame for Nazi war crimes to Poland – one of the few Nazi-occupied countries where the Nazis did not allow any measure of self-rule or integrate locals into the genocide.

And the term is especially offensive in Poland, where the Nazis killed at least 1.9 million non-Jews in addition to at least 3 million Jews.

But, many Jewish groups added, the legislation in Poland ignores how many Poles betrayed or killed Jews and is therefore detrimental to the preservation of historical record and free speech.

Dolinsky in Ukraine isn’t a fan of the Polish legislation, either.

“But I don’t quite understand why it and only it provoked such a strong reaction,” he added. “We needed that strong reaction two years ago in Ukraine. This fight needs to apply to all these cases. For the pressure to be effective, it shouldn’t be selective.”

Dolinsky believes that Ukraine — which, unlike Poland, shares a border with Russia — is getting a free pass from the West because it is subjected to hostility from Russia under President Vladimir Putin.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine amid ongoing psychological warfare against the Baltic nations, often involving the deployment of Russia’s mighty army around those countries in blunt loudspeaker diplomacy.

“There is a lot of Russophobic sentiment worldwide and it means international silence on countries with a conflict with Russia,” said Joseph Koren, chairman of the Latvia Without Nazism group.

“Poland and Hungary are in a different category,” agreed Dovid Katz, a scholar of Yiddish in Lithuania and longtime campaigner against Holocaust distortion there. The singling out of Poland and Hungary, he said, is “not least because the issues of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and restrictions on democratic expression in these countries have never been perceived primarily through the same binary lens of pro-and anti-Putin.”

The railway track leading to the infamous ‘Death Gate’ at the Auschwitz II Birkenau extermination camp, on November 13, 2014, in Oswiecim, Poland. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images via JTA)

Under that alleged cover of silence, in Ukraine and the Baltic countries there is a rapid lifting on taboos that had been in place for decades on the honoring of war criminals, even including SS volunteers who enthusiastically participated in the mass killings of Jews and Poles.

Largely ignored by the international media, Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis last week gave the final approval for a law that offers financial benefits to all World War II veterans – including SS volunteers who murdered Jews. Latvia is the only country in the world known to have an annual march by SS veterans, which takes place with the approval of authorities’ on the country’s national day in the center of its capital, sometimes with mainstream politicians in attendance.

Last year, the municipality of Kalush near Lviv in Ukraine decided to name a street for Dmytro Paliiv, a commander of the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, also known as the 1st Galician.

Ukraine’s state television observed a moment of silence for the first time last year for Symon Petliura, a nationalist killed by a Jewish communist for Petliura’s role in the murder of 35,000 to 50,000 Jews in a series of pogroms between 1918 and 1921, when Petliura was head of the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

“There is less willingness to speak out on Ukraine in media, in the scientific community and in Western governments, so it seems,” Dolinsky said.

But this alleged turning of a blind eye, he added, is a disservice. “Ukraine needs to join Europe as a civilized member of that family of nations. And for that to happen, it needs to speak honestly and openly about its history,” he said.

To Ryvchin, the Australian author, the “particularly forceful reaction to the Polish law is likely because Poland is seen as the epicenter of the Holocaust,” he said. The Germans built extermination camps only in Poland, according to Holocaust historian Efraim Zuroff.

“Any attempt to distort or disguise what happened in Poland is seen as a particularly egregious attack on the history of the Holocaust and the memories of the dead,” Ryvchin said.

Ironically, Poland is perhaps singled out for criticism because of the country’s vocal civil society and the lively debate it is generating over the politics of memory, Katz suggested.

Even today, he said, Poland and Hungary “have robust liberal movements that themselves counter official government policy on many issues — unlike the Baltics, where dissent is often quashed using the full force of the law.”

Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/poland-isnt-the-only-country-trying-to-police-speech-about-the-holocaust/?preview_id=1786731

Polish TV riposte to Holocaust bill criticism: Auschwitz was ‘Jewish death camp’

Israeli condemnation of legislation outlawing linking Poles to Nazi crimes sparks anti-Semitic backlash; nationalists plan protest outside Israeli embassy in Warsaw

Illustrative photo: Workers removing anti-Semitic graffiti from a Holocaust memorial at a former Nazi concentration camp in Plaszow, southern Poland, on Saturday, March 13, 2010. (AP)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A diplomatic dispute between Poland and Israel over pending legislation that would outlaw blaming Poland for the crimes of the Holocaust has led to an outburst of anti-Semitic comments in Poland, including some in the government-controlled media.

In one instance, the head of a state-run channel suggested referring to Auschwitz as a “Jewish death camp,” in response to an outcry over use of the term “Polish death camp” to describe the Nazi killing site in German-occupied Poland.

Poland’s lower house of parliament gave its approval Friday to the bill, which calls for penalties of up to three years in prison for anyone who “publicly and against the facts” accuses the Polish people of crimes committed by Nazi Germany during World War II.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party says the law is meant to fight expressions like “Polish death camps,” to refer to the wartime camps that Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland, but its provisions are wider, to criminalize talk of Polish complicity in the Holocaust.

“Whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich… or other crimes against peace and humanity, or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the actual perpetrators thereof, shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years,” a translation of a key paragraph of the bill reads.

Poles were among those imprisoned, tortured and killed in the camps, and many today feel Poles are being unfairly depicted as perpetrators of the Holocaust.

As part of the same effort, the government launched a website on Tuesday in Polish, German and English with documentary evidence that death camps like Auschwitz were built and operated by Nazi Germany, a historically accurate account.

Germany occupied Poland in 1939, annexing part of it to Germany and directly governing the rest. Unlike other countries occupied by Germany at the time, there was no collaborationist government in Poland. The prewar Polish government and military fled into exile, except for an underground resistance army that fought the Nazis inside the country. However, there were many cases of Poles killing Jews or denouncing them to the Germans, with deadly anti-Semitic pogroms continuing during and in one case even after World War II.

The Israeli government in the past has supported the campaign against the phrase “Polish death camps,” but it has strongly criticized the new legislation, which still must be approved by the Senate and President Andrzej Duda, who both support it.

Israel, along with several international Holocaust organizations and many critics in Poland, argues that the law could have a chilling effect on debating history, harming freedom of expression and leading to a whitewashing of Poland’s wartime history.

Polish Holocaust and World War II scholars, as well as international organizations including Yad Vashem, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Wiesenthal Center, are among groups who have criticized the law. Critics have said they fear the law could lead to self-censorship in academia and that the legislation — which also mentions “other crimes against peace and humanity” — is so broad that it could be used to fight any form of criticism against Poland by authorities already accused of eroding democratic standards.

In a sign of the sensitivities on both sides, Yair Lapid, head of Israel’s centrist Yesh Atid party and the son of a Holocaust survivor, insisted in a heated Twitter exchange with the Polish Embassy that “there were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that.” An Israeli journalist, Lahav Harkov, also wrote a tweet that consisted only of the phrase “Polish death camps” repeated 14 times.

Such Israeli remarks offended many in Poland, including many who oppose the law and any expressions of anti-Semitism in Poland.

Far-right groups have called for a demonstration Wednesday in front of the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw to protest the “anti-Polish” sentiment they say is being propagated by Israel and some media.

And there has been an eruption of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish comments online and in the media, including in state media, which is tightly controlled by the right-wing ruling Law and Justice party.

The director of the state-run television station TVP 2, Marcin Wolski, even went so far as to say Monday on air that the Nazi death camps should actually be called Jewish. “Who managed the crematoria there?” he asked — a reference to the fact that death camp prisoners, usually Jews, were forced to help dispose of gas chamber victims.

Wolski was joined on his show by a right-wing commentator, Rafal Ziemkiewicz, who only a day earlier had used an extremely derogatory term to refer to Jews on Twitter. The comment was later removed.

The gate of the former German Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland, July 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

And on another talk show Saturday on Polish state TV, anti-Semitic messages posted by viewers on Twitter were shown at the bottom of the screen as one participant said that a Jewish guest was “not really Polish.” The state TV director later apologized for the messages, blaming a technical glitch that caused them to go onto the screen unedited.

In another case, a Polish state radio commentator, Piotr Nisztor, suggested that Poles who support the Israeli position should consider relinquishing their citizenship.

“If somebody acts as a spokesman for Israeli interests, maybe they should think about giving up their Polish citizenship and accepting Israeli citizenship,” Nisztor said in a comment carried on the radio’s official Twitter account.

Some commentators in Poland, however, expressed dismay, saying it reminded them of an official state-sponsored anti-Semitic campaign carried out by Communist authorities in 1968.

“There has been a lot of hate speech against refugees and Muslims over the past two years in state media, but anti-Semitism was so far rare,” said Rafal Pankowski, who monitors anti-Semitism and other forms of extremism as head of the Never Again association. “But in the last couple of days it seems the floodgates have opened.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki agreed after speaking by phone Sunday night to try to resolve differences over the legislation by convening a group of history experts, though it was unclear how effective that will be given the strong support for the bill by the ruling Law and Justice party.

Before the outbreak of World War II, Jews had lived in Poland for centuries, thriving in some eras and even becoming the world’s largest Jewish population at one point. But anti-Semitism in the decades before the war had grown virulent, driving many Polish Jews to emigrate.

Relations between Jews and Poles had seen efforts of reconciliation since the fall of communism, but some fear the current controversy has set that back.

Agnieszka Markiewicz, Central Europe director for AJC, a Jewish global advocacy group, called the language on state media “shocking.”

“It is hard to imagine that there is actually space in the Polish public sphere for such anti-Semitic language and discourse,” she told The Associated Press. “It’s unacceptable, I believe, not only for Polish Jews, but also for millions of Poles who know World War II history.”

“Everybody knows that many, many thousands of Poles killed or betrayed their Jewish neighbors to the Germans, causing them to be murdered,” said Efraim Zuroff, a prominent historian on the Holocaust and the Eastern Europe director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, on Sunday. “The Polish state was not complicit in the Holocaust, but many Poles were.”

Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-criticism-of-holocaust-bill-sparks-anti-semitic-backlash-in-poland/

Prison No More

In Ferrara, a prison becomes a new museum of Italian Judaism—and of the Holocaust in Italy

In 1912, a two-story brick prison was inaugurated in Ferrara, a city in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region. Over its 80 years of operation, until it was closed in 1992, this was a bleak spot in the beautiful city. Among its detainees were Jews during the Fascist period. But two months ago, Ferrara saw a key step in the profound transformation of this location: On Dec. 13, 2017, the first day of Hanukkah, Italy’s National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah opened in the old prison. This is the initial phase of a monumental project—known as MEIS, after its initials in Italian—to be completed in 2020, with additional buildings that will create a major Jewish cultural hub.

The inaugural event was standing room only, bustling with news camera crews, international journalists, Ferrara residents, and Italian dignitaries, including President Sergio Mattarella. Curators and staff were ceremoniously thanked and acknowledged for their collaborative work to finally bring MEIS to the public. And the mission of MEIS is ambitious: to raise awareness of the vibrant 2,200 years of Italian Judaism, promoting dialogues on the topics of minorities, and of how different cultures interact through history.

In the words of the museum’s president, Dario Disegni, “Ferrara’s former prison, a place of segregation and exclusion, has become a place of inclusion.” Ferrara native Dario Franceschini, Italy’s minister of culture, called the opening “an important step forward, a dream achieved.”

The dream began in 2003 with an Act of Parliament, where all parties unanimously voted to support the initiative. What began as a plan for a Holocaust museum expanded in 2006 to a bigger project: to establish a museum to tell the story of two millennia of the Jewish experience in Italy. “The fact that this is a national project is what makes this museum unique in the world,” said MEIS Director Simonetta Della Seta. And unlike smaller, locally funded Jewish museums in Italy, this one is entirely funded, to the tune of 47 million euros, by the Italian government.

In 2011, Studio Arco of Bologna and SCAPE Sp.A Rome won an international competition to design the project. The team, comprising Italian, Japanese, and American architects, created a plan to retain and renovate two of the original Ferrara prison buildings, and to regenerate the property, opening it up in a light-filled, contemporary style to blend with the city.

Construction of five modern buildings, inspired by the five books of the Torah, will begin this year. These buildings will complete the cultural complex of free public spaces, an auditorium, museum shop, library, archives, educational suites, gardens, and restaurants. Work on the grounds was ongoing during the December opening, adding an energetic pulse, and a model of the completed project was displayed.

The museum’s current offerings comprise two parts. First a 24-minute immersive video, “Through the Eyes of the Italian Jews,” which takes viewers time-traveling through the entire history of Italian Judaism, using different narrative voices to personalize key experiences—from a Jewish man deported to Rome after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple to a scribe in the middle ages and a young girl expelled from school in 1938 because of racial laws. The video defines the MEIS vision: to tell the complicated story of the Jewish experience in Italy, which includes painful periods as well as times of peace and collaboration. Second is a 10,000-square-foot exhibit, filling two floors: “Jews, an Italian Story: The First Thousand Years.” Here large video images, texts from historical writers and curators, and over 200 objects from museums around the world—ancient coins, medieval manuscripts, amulets—present the integrative relationship between Jews and a Christian majority, a beneficial interchange that never involved assimilation or loss of identity.

“We are telling you a story of Italian Judaism through the objects of people who lived it,” said guide and curator Sharon Reichel, as she led guests through the exhibit. “It is a new way of telling the story in a Jewish museum. We are presenting a dialogue between a minority and majority, and that’s what makes this Italian story, that’s never been told this way before, so enriching.”

The exhibit, which will be open until Sept. 16, includes a reproduction of a relief from the Arc of Titus, commemorating Rome’s victory over the Jews in 70 CE. This is a landmark of the Jewish presence in Rome, a presence that has endured uninterrupted to the present day, making it the oldest Jewish community in the Western world. Jewish culture took root and flourished throughout the peninsula in the seventh to 11th centuries, as shown through synagogue mosaics, oil lamps inscribed with menorahs, catacomb frescos, and richly decorated manuscripts.

Much of the contents of “The First Thousand Years” will be retained for the final museum. And in the next couple years, exhibits focusing on the Jews in the Italian Renaissance and then the Shoah will be rolled out, a process that will complete the museum in stages for its 2020 opening. Opening one exhibit at a time, in the words of curator Danielle Jalla, “offers a rare opportunity to test out how the permanent exhibit could shape up, a sort of dress rehearsal before an audience.”

Ferrara was chosen as the location for MEIS because of its long history of active Judaism, documented back to Roman times. The high point of Jewish history in Ferrara came during the reign of the Estes in the 15th and 16th centuries, when the dukes opened the city to Jews who were expelled from Spain, Portugal, Germany, and Italy’s papal states, offering them freedom and protection. Jews thrived here during the Renaissance, working as money lenders, engineers, doctors, and in publishing. By 1589, 2,000 Jews lived in Ferrara, forming a community in what is now the historic center on Via Mazzini, Via Vignatagliata, and Via Vittoria.

But after the Este reign, Jews’ fortunes fell. In 1627, the Ferrara ghetto was introduced, mandating that Jews lived enclosed in its five gates until it was abolished when the Kingdom of Italy was formed in 1859. Liberation opened a period of renewed prosperity for the Ferrara Jews. They fought in WWI and integrated into the city politically: A Jewish mayor, Renzo Ravenna, governed from 1930 until 1938 when Fascist race laws began to be enforced. As WWII began, many of the 700 Jews living in Ferrara escaped. One hundred died in the Holocaust. When the war was over, only 150 returned.

At the museum’s opening, Andrea Pesaro, president of Ferrara’s 100-member Jewish Community, spoke to journalists about Judaism in Ferrara. Despite its small size, he said, the city’s Orthodox community carries on with services at their synagogue on Via Mazzini, which has been in continuous operation since the 15th century.

At 80, Pesaro joked that he brings the average age of the current Jewish community down. All are looking forward to the changes that MEIS will bring—hopefully an influx of new young people, perhaps not only from Italy but also Jews from other parts of the world who are passionate about the project and will revitalize the dwindling population. Inspired by the MEIS opening, the Ferrara tourist board is creating Jewish tourist itineraries for visitors, erecting signage throughout the former ghetto, offering guided tours, and creating a pedestrian path from the synagogue to the museum.

“MEIS will offer a cultural and tourism opportunity on an international scale,” said Franceschini, the culture minister, “just as the city deserves.”

Source: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/253969/ferrara-italy-jewish-museum

Lost and found in Auschwitz

Poland’s parliament chose to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day by making it illegal to claim that  Poles were complicit in perpetrating the Holocaust. I chose to mark it by focusing on the wonder of what’s arisen from the ashes of Auschwitz.

I know exactly where and when I lost it. Thirty years ago, while leading a group of American teenagers to Poland on the way to Israel. To be precise, during the morning shacharitservice the day after our visit to Auschwitz. I can even point to the exact line in the prayerbook I was reciting at the moment it happened: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe Who hears our prayers.” The words stuck in my throat. I’ve been struggling to dislodge them ever since.

“Who hears our prayers.” Really? Standing at ground zero of the most horrific atrocity ever perpetrated by God’s creatures, at the epicenter of human suffering, in a place where six million petitions went unanswered, delivered with the fervor of the unwavering faithful, pronounced by souls righteous and guiltless, uttered by those clinging to a last shred of hope… yes, there and then, at that instant, I lost my faith. Or, at the least, a dimension of it.

I lost my faith in a God that intervenes, directs, orchestrates and causes. I lost my faith in a God with a plan. And since then, I have been mouthing those words while silently struggling with their meaning. So why now, why the confession of agnosticism after three decades of theological sparring? Because I recently returned from another visit to Poland where I unexpectedly found something of infinite value in this place of inexpressible loss. Something I want to share with others who find themselves cloistered in this closet of doubt and uncertainty.

My first visit to Poland took place in the dead of winter. There is no better time to visit the death camps if the objective is to convey the horrors of the Holocaust and glimpse from afar the unimaginable suffering of its victims. That was one of the two windows I was intent on opening for the youngsters in my charge. The other looked out onto the richness of Jewish life that had existed in this Jewish cemetery prior to the Nazi invasion. That was it. There was no attempt to connect with the present-day Jewish community of Poland – essentially because there was none to speak of at the time.

How vastly different things are today. This latter visit, which I undertook on behalf of The Jewish Agency, was about exploring the possibilities for engagement. What I discovered was a Jewish community in an inspiring transitional phase, an evolving generation of indigenous members of the community who – while painfully aware of the past – are emerging from the black shadow of the Holocaust and demonstrating an energetic determination to reclaim and renew the heritage that is rightly theirs: the vibrant Jewish life of their forebears that had been decimated.

Among the institutions they are building and the experiences they are creating: Flourishing Jewish Community Centers and Hillel Houses in Krakow and Warsaw. A Limmud festival of learning and culture attracting over 700 participants. A diversity of active synagogues, including Orthodox, Progressive, Reform and Chabad, along with an eminently accessible chief rabbi intent on building an inclusive communal structure in which all are respected and welcome. A vibrant Jewish day school in Warsaw that now runs through 9th grade, and a new Jewish preschool in Krakow, the first to open its doors there since the Nazi occupation. A hundred million dollar, state-of-the-art museum telling the story of Jewish life in Poland from its origins through to the present, a cooperative effort of the Polish government and primarily Jewish philanthropists. A Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life. Five kosher eateries in Warsaw alone. Hundreds of graduates of Israel Birthright programs. A Union of Jewish Communities serving as an umbrella for much of this activity. And more that I didn’t have time to see.

No trek to Treblinka this time round. None of the ashes of Auschwitz. Just the enthusiasm of an ever-growing population of young people in their 20s and 30s, newly discovering their Judaism and celebrating it with a passion.

Poland’s  lower house of parliament chose to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day by passing a bill which would make it punishable by incarceration to insinuate that Poles were responsible for crimes committed by the Nazis on its territory, continuing a long and troubling narrative denying any complicity in the atrocities of the Holocaust. By contrast, the Jews of Poland — 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation survivors — have chosen to commemorate its victims by rejuvenating communal Jewish life there with vibrancy and zeal, wholeheartedly rejecting the conventional perception of Poland as an immense Jewish graveyard.

Their fervor is infectious — and rehabilitating. I found myself finding, in what they have found, something of what I’d lost on my last visit. Not a resolution to the toughest theological questions, not a restoration of faith in a God that responds deliberately to our entreaties, but an affirmation, arising from the ashes, that there are energies out there beyond our ability to grasp and mysteries of the soul that transcend any conceivable understanding of the corporal.

Holocaust Remembrance Day is a call to the world never to forget nor never to deny. It should also be an occasion to celebrate the irreducible and indomitable human spirit that refuses to be stifled by the deafening silence of the God we restore daily, who hears our prayers but who responds imperceptibly, if at all. Who better to teach us that lesson than the remnants of the 3,000,000 Jews of Poland who were annihilated?

Visitors to Poland be warned, organizers of March of the Living, beware: Auschwitz is one story; the Jewish community of today is its inspiring sequel. Don’t visit one and ignore the other. As immeasurably insufficient as it might be, there is a tiny bit of compensation to be found in the latter for what we lost in the former.

Source: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/lost-and-found-in-auschwitz/

Sam Bloch, survivor who devoted life to memory of Shoah, dies at 94

Bloch organized gatherings for survivors in US and Israel and helped found international fundraising arms of Yad Vashem and IDF

Sam Bloch speaking during a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen camp on April 17, 2005. (JOCHEN LUEBKE/AFP/Getty Images)

Sam Bloch, a Holocaust survivor who committed much of his life to ensuring that the murder of millions of Jews would not be denied and the lives they led would not be forgotten, died Sunday. He was 94.

Bloch was an executive of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for 50 years.

He was one of the principal organizers of historic survivor gatherings in Jerusalem, Washington, DC, Philadelphia and New York. The New York Times published a lengthy article about Bloch and his family in 1981 as they prepared to attend the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Jerusalem.

”Memory stengthens our humanity, makes us better persons to one another, to our children,” Bloch told The Times. “Maybe we don’t smile or laugh as others do, but we cherish our lives; they were so hard won.”

Bloch was a founder of Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People (then known as the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora) and served as chairman of the American Friends of Beit Hatfutsot and a member of its Board of Governors. For many years he was also a member of the board of directors of the American Section of the World Jewish Congress.

In addition, Bloch was a founding member of the International Society for Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance authority, and a founder of the American Friends of the IDF.

Bloch was born in Ivie, Poland, in what today is Belarus. He attended high school in Vilna, and was home on a school break when World War II broke out, according to information provided by his family.

His father was murdered by the Einsatzgruppen Nazi mobile killing unit, and Bloch, his mother and brother escaped from the Jewish ghetto and hid first with Christian farmers and then in the woods. They later joined the Bielski partisan brigade and were able to survive the war.

He was the youngest leader of the Jewish Committee that governed the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp, the largest Jewish DP camp in Germany and a major center for the rehabilitation of 50,000 survivors of the Holocaust, as well as the flight and rescue operations in Europe that brought survivors to then-Palestine.

He met and married his wife of 69 years, Lilly Czaban, in the DP camp, from where they immigrated to the United States.

Bloch served as president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants; president of the World Federation of Bergen-Belsen Survivors Associations; chairman of the Advisory Council of the Foundation for World War II Memorial Sites in Lower Saxony, Germany, and served as a member of its board.

In 1981, Elie Wiesel, then-chairman of the US Holocaust Memorial Council, appointed him as chairman of the council’s Board of Advisers as well as a member of its Development, Days of Remembrance, and Content committees.

Bloch was appointed by then-New York Mayor Ed Koch to the commission that created the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. As chair of the Jewish section of the Swiss Humanitarian Fund, he assisted in distributing $180 million to needy survivors. He continued to serve on the board of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany until his death.

He published 30 volumes of Holocaust memoirs, history and poetry, in English, Hebrew and Yiddish editions, as editor of the Bergen-Belsen Memorial Press, and edited numerous significant documentary volumes.

“Sam was a giant, one of the last of what was truly the ‘Greatest Generation’ who emerged from the devastation of the Shoah not with bitterness and hatred, but with a determination to create new families, and rebuild Jewish life, all the while devoting his energies to perpetuating Holocaust memory and strengthening Jewish identity,” said Menachem Rosensaft, Bloch’s son-in-law, who himself was born in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp and was the founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. “He was a lifelong Zionist who dedicated himself to the unity of the Jewish people with the State of Israel at its core.”

He is survived by his wife, two daughters, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/sam-bloch-survivor-who-devoted-life-to-memory-of-shoah-dies-at-94/