You’ve probably never heard of the world’s oldest Holocaust museum

Founded in 1933, London’s Wiener Library actively collected material in real time throughout WWII, later playing a key role in the Nuremberg, Eichmann and Irving trials

Established in 1933 by Alfred Wiener, a German Jew decorated with the Iron Cross in World War I, the Wiener Library in London is the world’s oldest Holocaust museum. (Courtesy)

LONDON — It is a collection as extensive as its contents are horrifying. Step behind the imposing Georgian façade which houses the Wiener Library in central London’s picturesque, tree-lined Russell Square, and one enters the world’s oldest Holocaust museum.

Eighty-five years ago this year, Alfred Wiener, a German Jew decorated with the Iron Cross in World War I, fled his homeland and established the Jewish Central Information Office in Amsterdam. Its purpose was to alert the world of the dangers posed by Germany’s new rulers.

Wiener’s decision may have been prompted by the Nazis’ recent accession to power. But he had been aware, and trying to warn his fellow countrymen of, the growing menace posed by the German far right for almost the entire period of the Weimar republic.

Indeed, soon after completing his military service in 1918, Wiener published a pamphlet, “Before Pogroms?”, which presciently argued that, if left unchecked, right-wing anti-Semitism would lead to “bestial murders and violence” and the “blood of citizens running on the pavements.”

For more than a decade, Wiener, who worked for a Jewish civil rights group, regularly repeated his warning that anti-Semitism would destroy not just the Jews in Germany, but Germany itself. To inform and document his work, Wiener collected pamphlets, books, leaflets, newspapers and posters, charting the Nazis’ rise and their hatred of Jews.

It is the fact that the library is so deeply rooted in its history and subject matter which makes it so unique.

“Alfred Wiener was able to collect the kind of things that, if you were starting a museum today, you probably wouldn’t be able to find,” believes the library’s director, Ben Barkow.

In the late summer of 1939 Wiener departed Amsterdam for Britain, where on the ill-fated date of September 1, 1939, he reopened the Jewish Central Information Office in London’s Marylebone, as Germany invaded Poland.

Scrambling to better inform themselves about the leaders, military commanders and institutions of the country with which Britain was now at war, the BBC and government departments such as the Ministry of Information paid Wiener to access the resources of what they began to informally call “the library.”

A fortnightly publication — The Nazis At War — was produced. It constituted what Barkow describes in “Alfred Wiener and the Making of the Holocaust Library” as “a fascinating commentary on the political developments of the war … [providing] the British government and the Wiener Library’s other clients with source materials for anti-Nazi propaganda.”

Today, the library has grown to house some 80,000 volumes, numerous periodicals, photographs and AV materials, and a 2,000-strong archival collection; each of those 2,000 items, moreover, may range from a slim folder to 100 boxes of material.

Among them are oral and written histories by survivors — many of them recorded by the library’s staff and volunteers in the early post-war years — together with their papers and photographs.

While the library’s focus remains primarily on the Holocaust, its causes and consequences, over the last decade it has also began to expand its work to collect materials on the wider question of genocide and to examine the relationship between it and the Jewish Shoah.

Examples of the library’s grim exhibits abound. In a brightly colored board game, players compete to arrest Jews and make a town judenrein (free of Jews). Manufactured commercially in the mid-1930s and targeted at families, the SS objected to the game on the basis that it trivialized the serious business of freeing Germany of the Jews’ pernicious grip. No such objections are, however, recorded to a book which allows children to cut out and color uniforms worn by members of the Hitler Youth.

Some of the items leave tantalizingly unanswered questions. An English-language copy of “Mein Kampf” published in 1939 has a picture pasted into it of a relaxed-looking Hitler. The Fuhrer’s signature lies below the snapshot, together with an all-too-brief note of explanation by the book’s owner, a woman identified only as Karen, who is also visible in the picture: “Our visit to Berchtesgarden when AH came into the village, shook hands with tourists, signed standing up in pencil just before our evacuation.”

Others — such as the library’s copies of “The Volunteer,” an SS-veterans monthly magazine which began publication in 1956 and only recently ceased to appear — leave a peculiar chill. Its pages may be glossy and appear contemporary, but they reek of a putrid nostalgia, containing advertisements placed by subscribers looking to reunite with, or honor the passing, of old comrades.

A new chapter

A move from a cramped space on Devonshire Street — its second home in London — to its present premises in 2011 has given the library a new lease of life. Between 8,000 to 10,000 people now visit each year, including students, academics and people in the arts — film makers, authors, playwrights and people staging productions who are looking for visual references. Visitors, who need no appointment to use the library’s facilities, can work in the light-filled reading room.

A large ground-level space is used to host talks and exhibitions, many of which then travel around the country, often visiting schools and campuses.

No topic is too big, small or controversial to tackle. Earlier this year, the uncomfortable (and for many Britons unknown) story of the German occupation of the Channel Islands, and the consequent persecution and murder of Jews on British soil, was examined.

It followed previous exhibitions on Britain’s approach to the Jewish refugee crisis in the 1930s and 1940s and the country’s responses to the Holocaust, which touched on difficult questions such as the extent of anti-Semitism within British society, information about the Holocaust in the press, and the stance of the British government to the unfolding violence against Jews in Europe.

The library is also popular with family historians and those wishing to explore their own relationship to the Holocaust. Since 2014, the library has housed Britain’s copy of the Red Cross’ International Tracing Service. Every year, several hundred people — the occasional survivor, survivors’ families and relatives of refugees — now use the huge resource.

Barkow, who has worked at the library for 30 years, believes that “interest and curiosity” is stronger among the grandchildren of survivors and refugees than their children. He has also detected what he believes to be a less welcome trend in the manner in which this history is working its way through the generations.

“In my early days, when there were plenty of survivors and refugees about, they always spoke in terms of a willingness to forgive these events but never forget them,” he says. “Now that they’ve just about all gone, the younger people — their grandchildren — are often much more uncompromising and angry about these events and you hear a language of wanting revenge that was almost inconceivable in their grandparents.”

First-hand accounts of horrors

Wiener himself might not have appreciated this shift. He knew first hand the horrors that had befallen European Jews. While he spent much of the war in the United States collecting materials for the JCIO, his family were trapped in Amsterdam.

His daughters survived Bergen-Belsen but his wife, Margarethe, died of exhaustion and malnutrition hours after being liberated. Nonetheless, during the 1950s he traveled frequently to Germany, reaching out in particular to Christians and young people. The latter, he told the library’s bulletin in 1958, “seem willing to learn the lesson of the past, and they have decided, once and for all, to wash their hands of the terror of totalitarian reaction.”

During this period, and for much of the next three decades, the library’s very survival seemed at stake. After Germany’s defeat, funding began to dry up and the library led a hand-to-mouth existence. Complex, protracted proposals to incorporate it into the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Yad Vashem were explored and abandoned.

Yad Vashem, ‘a hand and a name,’ was established in 1953 to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and recognize non-Jews who helped Jews survive the war. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Long after Wiener’s death in 1964, a deal was struck with Tel Aviv University. In 1980, a swath of the collection was shipped there, but, at the 11th hour, money was raised in Germany and the US to microfilm what was being sent to Israel.

The existence, survival and struggles of the library were a testament to, and reflection of, Wiener’s personality. As Barkow describes in his book, its founder was both a charismatic “natural diplomat” — good at persuading people and winning them over to his project — and a secretive man with an authoritarian streak.

But what is undeniable is the critical role played by the library in adding to, and helping to shape, early post-war thinking about, and studies of, Nazi ideology, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

Gerald Reitlinger’s classic 1953 study of the Holocaust, “The Final Solution,” was, for instance, mainly researched at the library. It also supported Lionel Kochan’s 1957 book, “Pogrom: November 10 1938,” the first detailed analysis of Kristallnacht.

In later years, the library’s reputation was such that it was able to attract scholars of the caliber of Robert Wistrich, and directors Walter Laqueur and David Cesarani, to work there.

Crucially, the library also began to assemble and publish eyewitness accounts of the Nazis’ war on the Jews almost as soon as Hitler was dead.

From the mid-1950s, this work became more systematic and was regarded by the library as “a safeguard against any future attempts to falsify the events of those years.” It was, argues Barkow, “a remarkable instance of the foresight of the library. In the 1950s the phenomenon of so-called revisionism or Holocaust denial was little known, yet from the 1960s on it became an important issue.”

Making the history it records

But the library has not just related and recorded history, it has also helped to make it.

It provided documentation to the prosecutors at Nuremberg that was available nowhere else.

“The help [the library] has given has been invaluable in the preparation of charges against the leaders of Nazi Germany,” suggested the Belgian commissioner of the UN War Crimes Commission after the conclusion of the trials. A large proportion of the materials generated at Nuremberg were then deposited at the library.

Nearly 15 years later, it performed the same function at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. As well as providing background materials to the prosecutors in Jerusalem, the head of Israeli police, Chief Superintendent Abraham Selinger, visited the library shortly after Eichmann’s capture. The library’s assistant director, Caesar Aronsfeld, became its point man for the trial, helping Selinger gather the evidence to link the Nazi war criminal to specific crimes.

At the turn of the century, the library figured in another courtroom case, this time one played out in London, when the Holocaust-denying historian David Irving sued American author Deborah Lipstadt for claiming that Irving had deliberately distorted evidence. The library was the main source used by the researchers who authored Lipstadt’s expert report — an 800-page analysis of Irving’s writing and speeches which helped demolish his case.

Irving’s defeat – the judge’s excoriating verdict branded him an “active Holocaust denier … anti-Semitic and racist” – appeared to strike a deadly blow to those who seek to question the truth of the Shoah. Sadly, this provided a false dawn.

In its own modest way, the Wiener Library helps to continue the fight.

“Above all,” argues Barkow, “we hold this material. Anybody can come in and look at this and make their own mind up. The evidence is here. If other people are saying: ‘This didn’t happen’ or ‘It wasn’t nearly that bad,’ you can come here and you can check it out for yourself and you can learn the truth.

“We have a simple belief in the power of the truth,” he says.


Menachem Krigel spent 15 months hiding in a cramped wood store in the home of a Ukrainian peasant who hid him and his mother during World War II. In the weeks after the liberation, as the frontline moved back and forth, they were separated. He has no idea what became of his mother. In his home in Haifa, as he makes coffee in his kitchen, he said recently: “This was for me the moment of trauma. I can never get it out of my mind.”

Orphaned and alone, Krigel was eventually reunited with a cousin and together they traveled to Krakow where they joined a group of survivors intent on making their way to Palestine. They were two of the 100 survivors of the 10,000 Jews who had lived in his Polish hometown of Buczacz, now Buchach in Ukraine.

Krigel became one of the 70,000 Jewish refugees who flooded into Italy after the war. He was cared for in a children’s home in Selvino in the mountains above Bergamo. The home, a former holiday camp that had been built for the children of Italy’s fascist elite, was run by Jewish soldiers from Palestine who had fought in the British army. After the liberation of Milan, the members of the Jewish Brigade and the engineering company Solel Boneh, who had fought in Italy as part of the Allied forces, devoted their energies to helping the survivors rebuild their lives and start a new life in Palestine.

The hub of the operation was a few minutes’ walk from Milan’s magnificent cathedral at via dell’Unione 5. The grand 16th-century Palazzo Erba Odescalchi, a former billet for fascist militias, was turned into a reception center to help the local Jewish community put their lives back together. It would soon become the pulsating heart of the bricha, the Hebrew name for the mass emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe after the Holocaust, as the address traveled like wildfire along the bricha bush telegraph. Over 35,000 survivors passed through its doors.

Primo Levi, the young chemist who had been in Auschwitz, was a frequent visitor to the repurposed palazzo, and he described it in his novel, If Not Now, When?: “There were men, women, and children encamped in the corridors, families that had built themselves shelters with sheets of plywood or strung-up blankets. … The air was torrid, with odors of latrine and kitchen.”

The imposing Palazzo Erba Odescalchi has four wings surrounding a central courtyard with an arched loggia. The building is marked with an information board that describes in detail the palace’s architecture. Of its place in Jewish history, the text mentions only it was the temporary home of the community’s synagogue until 1951. Few people remember what happened here.

The survivors who arrived in Italy had no intention of staying and the vast majority wanted to start a new life in Palestine. Their hopes rested on Yehuda Arazi, a secret Haganah agent who had been sent by the Jewish Agency to help bring the survivors to Palestine. His headquarters was a secret camp outside the city of Magenta, west of Milan.

The British, who at this point controlled Palestine, had imposed strict immigration controls. The only way to get the thousands of desperate survivors out of Italy was to put them on illegal immigrant ships and try to run the British blockade. This illegal operation was known as Aliyah Bet. Krigel was to sail on one of these ships, the Josiah Wedgwood, and jokes that this was how as a skinny teenager he became “an enemy of the British empire and took on the British navy!”


Elisabetta Bozzi, an enthusiastic activist for the Associazione Nazionale Partigiani d’Italia, the national partisan’s association that campaigns to highlight their role in WWII and the founding of the republic 72 years ago this week, only recently discovered the story of the Arazi house. When I visited with her, she stopped her car outside a run-down piece of land surrounded by a barbed wire fence within which sat a large turreted villa. Today, even though the house is still known as the La Casetta di Ebrei, the Little Jewish House, most of the locals have no idea why.

For three years this building was camp A, the nerve center of Arazi’s operation, where everything that was needed to kit out the 34 ships that sailed from Italy was prepared. “This place was the most top secret place in the Aliyah Bet,” she said, as the breeze rustled the leaves on the trees. From 1945 to 1948, this scrubby deserted garden was covered in military tents and teeming with people.

The story of how thousands of Holocaust survivors were both cared for and then spirited out of Italy on illegal immigrant ships was largely forgotten when it became inconvenient for the pro-Palestinian left in Italy to remember the help that they had given Aliyah Bet to ship people and arms to Palestine. The story of the weapons that were hidden in the fields around the villa is not something the left are yet ready to discuss, but the story of the Jewish refugees and the help they were given is suddenly politically useful. It is a stick with which the left can beat the right, who campaign against the illegal migrants who have flooded into the country in recent years.

The campaign to remind people of the forgotten story of 1945-48 has centered on the village of Selvino, where over 800 of the most vulnerable survivors were cared for. The children had survived the camps and had lived feral in the forests. Today, a small exhibition is the first step in what activists hope will be a larger project to restore the house where the children were cared for and to turn it into a museum of the Aliyah Bet, together with a conference center. To highlight the campaign, Giovanni Bloisi, a wiry man in his early 60s, last year completed an epic 1,466-mile bike ride from his home in Varano Borghi, hard on the Italian side of the border with Switzerland, to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

A lifelong left-wing activist, Bloisi, who is not Jewish, was inspired to make this extraordinary trip when he met survivors Avraham Aviel and his late wife, Ayala Lieberman, when they returned to the now-ruined orphanage in Selvino for the first time in 2015. Aviel had survived by hiding in the forests of what is now northern Belarus after his family had all been murdered.

Bloisi said, “It is vital in this difficult moment in Europe, with nationalism and anti-Semitism on the rise, that we remember what happened.” Referring to the orphans from the Selvino home, he said: “These kids had seen unimaginable horrors but were welcomed in Italy, cared for, and brought back to life.”

Music played a crucial part in this rehabilitation. Krigel recalled he not only sang in a choir but was taken to see the opera at La Scala in Milan. All the children had their photographs taken and given to them, and for many it was the only memento that they brought with them from Europe to Palestine.

One of those who cared for the children was Eugenia Cohen, a young Milanese Jew who during WWII was saved by the Madinina family in Pandino, a small town on the Lombardy plains, after her family was arrested and sent to Bergen-Belsen. The Madinina family never spoke about how they had hidden Cohen; the story was discovered by the local history society. The mayor of Pandino, Maria Luise Polig, recently announced that the city, which is famous for its cheese, will commemorate Cohen’s story in a special exhibition to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, 2019.

Cohen played a key part in rehabilitating the children of Selvino. At first many were frightened to sleep in beds with sheets and hid bread in their pockets, fearful of where their next meal would come from. The children spoke Yiddish, Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian. Although Cohen could only speak Italian, she recalled in an interview shortly before her death last year that she “spoke to them in kisses, in hugs, and in love.” The children looked upon her as a mother.

Cohen fell in love with one of the Jewish soldiers, Reuven Donath. Their son Nir Donath, who was in Pandino when I was there, said that although his mother had never been a Zionist, like most Italian Jews at the time, she changed her name to Noga, which means Venus in Hebrew. “When my father was discharged from the army he was allowed to take his wife with him home to Palestine,” he said. “She believed it was fate, as when she was 16, a clairvoyant had told her that she would meet a Jew from far away across the sea with whom she would fall in love. It was written in the stars.”

Mayor Polig, a member of the left-wing party Partito Democratico, thinks that the story has an important educational role. “If we do not record stories like this we lose everything as the generations pass,” she said. Polig, who trained as a teacher, believes “What we can learn from real people and their stories is irreplaceable and makes the past easier to understand.” She added that Pandino is currently home to six African refugees.


By Abbey Hartley

I started an awesome new job at the beginning of this year: I’m a social media producer for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C.

I know, it doesn’t necessarily sound awesome in the typical sense. Usually, when I tell people where I work, they respond with something less like “Cool!” and more like, “Oh wow, I went there in eighth grade and it was really sad.” And, yes — of course — it’s sad. I work with stories from the Holocaust all day, every day. But that’s also why I love my job so much. Each morning, I come into work and learn something new that either shakes me up or makes me believe in humanity again. Shall I give some examples? It’s time for a listicle.

1. Interacting with Holocaust survivors is unreal.

There are about 70 Holocaust survivors who volunteer their time at the museum — whether it’s staffing the Donor Desk in the Hall of Witness or telling their personal stories in our First Person series.

Honestly, any opportunity I get to interact with the survivors is a highlight of my day — they’re each incredible. I got to meet a new volunteer on her first day with us, and after I explained what I did for the museum and that I was new too, she looked at me and said, “I’m going to tell you something I don’t normally talk about.”

She described fleeing Nazi Germany on the last day that Jews were allowed to have passports. Her family had managed to get visas for the Dominican Republic, but it was still difficult for them to leave—a Nazi official watched them pack their bags to make sure they didn’t bring anything of value with them, and then they were searched again as their train crossed the border with France. Still, her older brother somehow managed to smuggle her father’s ring, a treasured family heirloom, past all the checkpoints. Her father was furious when he found out: if he’d been discovered, the entire family would have been severely punished. But, miraculously, the ring remained a secret until they were all safely out of Germany. It was clearly a very scary moment for her to recall, but I was so grateful that she shared it with me.

A few weeks later at my new employee orientation, a woman who survived Auschwitz as a teenager told me, “I’m so happy that good people like you care about what happened to me,” and I’m pretty sure that was the moment I peaked as a human being.

2. All kinds of people visit the museum — and that’s a good thing.

I’ll never forget this: It was a few weeks before I started work, and I stopped by the museum to have my ID badge made. I walked out of the building in the best mood, thinking about how amazing my new job was going to be and all the important things I’d do, only to bump into a pack of young men on their way into the museum. One of them was wearing a shirt with Jimmy Kimmel’s face on it, surrounded by the words, “SCHUMER’S B***H.”

I was furious. How could someone walk into the Holocaust Museum with that shirt on? I called my boyfriend to vent while I walked home, and he reminded me, “Well, don’t you think that’s exactly the kind of person who needs to see the Holocaust Museum?” It shut me up pretty quick.

In the five months I’ve been at the museum, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the reminder, “We’re a public institution.” Regardless of their views, anyone can come here. And I think everyone should come here.

3. There are always new and infuriating things to learn about Nazis.

For example, did you know that Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister who helped convince an entire country that disabled people were “life unworthy of life,” had a clubfoot and walked with a limp? The hypocrisy knew no bounds. Sometimes I have to get up from my desk and walk around because I get so steamed reading about these people. I’ve always known that Nazis are Very Bad, obviously, but every little detail I pick up puts their atrocities in sharper perspective.

4. We aren’t just a history museum.

I didn’t know this until I started working here, but preserving history is only part of the museum’s mission to be a “living memorial” to the Holocaust. The Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide studies and identifies areas where crimes against humanity and acts of genocide could occur. Some of the work CPG is doing right now includes the Rohingya people in Myanmar and the tense political situation in Mali. After all, there’s no point in learning our history if we don’t apply it to what’s currently happening right now.

5. Self-care is not optional.

Working at the Holocaust Museum can get heavy. I spend a lot of my time digging through the archives, and there have been moments when I’ve stumbled across something that ruined my entire day.

More than any job I’ve ever had, I have to pay attention to how I’m feeling and take breaks when I need them. If I read something really upsetting or accidentally watch some footage I didn’t want to see, I make sure to go outside and get some sunshine on my face to clear my head. I also eliminated my History Channel binges at home.

And, since I have an anxiety disorder, I make extra-double-sure to take my medication every day.

6. And finally: Hitler had both testicles, and he also wasn’t ~secretly Jewish~.

There are a lot of popular rumors about Hitler having a “shocking secret” that fueled his aggression, and I’ve heard all of them. I’m afraid he was just an anti-Semite in high-waisted pants.

Abbey Hartley is a social media producer from South Carolina, and currently finds herself juuust too far north to find decent sweet tea. When she’s not helping run the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s TwitterFacebook, and Instagram, she is usually either in yoga class or cooking along to Julia Child reruns.



Who killed a Polish Holocaust hero? His family may be close to finding out

Long-forgotten testimony by the victim’s sister — the family’s sole survivor — may help solve the decades-old mystery behind the murder of Sobibor escapee Josef Kopf

Amit Hirsch, right, recites the mourner’s prayer at what used to be the Jewish cemetery in Turobin, Poland, June 2017. (Courtesy of Lea Hirsch)

JTA — Josef Kopf survived Sobibor by killing a guard and staging the first successful escape from that death camp in Poland, where the Nazis murdered 250,000 Jews.

But Kopf, whose unlikely escape in 1943 preceded by several months a full-scale uprising at Sobibor, did not live to see Nazi Germany’s defeat.

After the liberation in 1944, he returned to his hometown of Turobin to reclaim some possessions — and was never seen or heard from again.

“We always assumed Josef was killed by a local, but we never knew for sure. We never even knew where he was buried,” said Lea Hirsch, Kopf’s niece from Israel.

Her mother, Genia, and Josef Kopf were the only ones from their family of eight children who survived the Nazi death machine.

Last year, though, the 75-year-old mystery was partially solved. A long-forgotten testimony led Hirsch and other relatives to Kopf’s presumed burial place, launching them into a murder investigation whose specifics lie at the heart of the debate in Poland about local complicity and resistance during the Holocaust.

The testimony that triggered the investigation was on an old recording of Genia Kopf, who passed away in 2011. She hardly ever spoke about the Holocaust to her children, Lea Hirsch said. But in the recording, which the family only recently discovered, Genia recounted in detail the last time she saw her brother alive and the story of her own rescue by her non-Jewish neighbor.

According to Genia’s testimony, Josef Kopf found her at the home of her rescuer, Antek Teklak, just days after the Red Army liberated Turobin and eastern Poland. But the siblings’ reunion was short lived, she said. Josef Kopf told Genia and Teklak that he would return to Turobin to “work out” some business that he had had before the war with a friend, whom he did not name.

Teklak warned Josef Kopf not to go, saying he would not make it out of his hometown alive. Trusting Teklak, Genia Kopf begged her brother to stay. But Josef Kopf “just laughed and said he’d be back the next day,” his sister said in the recording of their last meeting.

This information last year led Lea Hirsch and her son, Amit, to Poland with a dual mission: Locate the Teklak family to honor his bravery and find Josef Kopf’s grave and killer.

“Something in me just woke up, an unstoppable drive to find out what happened,” said Lea Hirsch, a 65-year-old marketing and sales professional and mother of three children from the Haifa area.

In Poland, she and other relatives hired an interpreter and a cameraman. Within a couple of days, witnesses told Hirsch that a former partner of Kopf had killed him, and that a friend of Kopf buried his body in a wheat field in the town of Żolkiewka, six miles north of Turobin.

The witnesses provided partial information, claiming not to know who killed Kopf. But they led the family to the field where they say Kopf was buried. The family is raising funds for an exhumation with the intention of bringing Josef Kopf’s remains to Israel for burial. They will be returning for further interviews in July with the hope of finding out who killed him.

“We don’t have a lot of time because the witnesses are old, but it’s a gradual process,” Lea Hirsch said of her talks with Polish villagers in the area. “People have to open up; if we rush it they’ll clam up. A bottle of vodka here, a conversation there — you have to pave their path to the truth.”

For Hirsch, uncovering the identity of her uncle’s killer is secondary in significance to finding the place where he is said to have been buried

Reconnecting with the descendants of her mother’s rescuers also was important to Lea Hirsch and her family, she said. Risking a summary execution of his entire family, Teklak hid Genia for two years in what she described in the recording as “a hole in the ground.” Teklak took her in after she escaped the ghetto where the rest of her family was kept before they were murdered.

Teklak’s son, Totko, and his family met Hirsch, her son and other relatives in Turobin in an encounter last year that Hirsch said was “extremely emotional.”

Her mother’s rescue and uncle’s murder left Hirsch with “mixed feelings” about the polarizing debate gripping Polish society in recent months about the behavior of the Polish people during the Holocaust. Thousands of Jews died at the hands of non-Jewish Poles; thousands more were rescued by them.

In January, Poland’s parliament passed a law that criminalizes blaming the Polish nation for Nazi crimes. The measure triggered a diplomatic crisiswith Israel amid criticism by the Jewish state and many Jewish organizations that it risked silencing public debate and research about the Holocaust. And the debate also unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic rhetoric.

“I have an undying appreciation for the people who saved my mother,” Hirsch said. “I was shocked to stand on the ground under which a non-Jewish hero kept her alive for years.”

But Hirsch also has “tremendous anger” over the murder of her uncle, who “survived the hell of Sobibor only to be killed and dumped at an unmarked grave because he was just a Jew.” Like many descendants of Holocaust survivors, Hirsch said she grew up in a very small family.

“I could have had an uncle,” she said.

Amit Hirsch, Lea’s son, said his family history reflects “the complexity of the historical record on the Holocaust in Poland.” Poland has 6,706 Righteous Among the Nations – non-Jews who were recognized by Israel as having risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust. And while this is the highest number of righteous in any nation, “there was also betrayal and deadly pogroms and anti-Semites,” Amit Hirsch said.

He said the law on rhetoric about the Holocaust in Poland is designed to “manipulate history so that only the rescue stories are heard.”

Rescue stories “indeed need to be heard,” Amit Hirsch said, “but alongside the terrible things that happened.”


British blogger who sang about Holocaust denial convicted

Alison Chabloz, 54, is found guilty of writing, performing and disseminating three songs, including one about Anne Frank and another claiming the genocide was ‘a bunch of lies’

Blogger Alison Chabloz, accused of posting anti-Semitic songs on her site, arrives at Westminster Magistrate’s Court in London on January 10, 2018. (AFP/Tolga Akmen)

A British blogger who posted songs on YouTube denying the Holocaust was convicted in London of sending “offensive, indecent or menacing messages.”

On Friday, a Westminster Magistrates’ Court judge found Alison Chabloz, 54, guilty of writing, performing and disseminating three songs about Nazi persecution. One was about the young diarist Anne Frank.

Chabloz, who claimed in one of her songs that the Holocaust was “just a bunch of lies,” will be sentenced next month.

During one session of her trial in January, Chabloz sang along in the courtroom as the judge reviewed the videos of her singing.

The Campaign Against anti-Semitism watchdog initially brought a private prosecution against Chabloz before the Crown Prosecution Service took over.

“This verdict sends a strong message that in Britain, Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories will not be tolerated,” said Gideon Falter, the group’s chairman.


Krakow’s Jewish community copes with Poland’s controversial Holocaust law

© Alcyone Wemaëre, France 24

Kamilla, who calls herself a Judeophile, studied Judaism and named her daughter Hannah, “like Hannah Arendt”. Why? “I have no idea. I love the Jewish religion,” she says. She is part of the generation that, as schoolchildren visiting Auschwitz, was told the victims were Poles and Russians, but not Jews.

Very critical of a government that “every week finds a new Polish hero” and “opens the floodgates of xenophobia”, Kamilla believes one must be vigilant. She cites Marek Edelman, one of the instigators of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, who said, “Don’t forget that evil can grow bigger.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.


Jewish group questions sainthood for WWII-era cardinal

American Jewish Committee tells Vatican that August Hlond was ‘extremely’ hostile to Jews and failed to condemn 1946 pogrom

In this May 25, 2006 photo, Pope Benedict XVI visits the tomb of Polish Cardinal August Hlond in Warsaw’s St. John Cathedral. (AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito)

A leading Jewish organization has criticized the Vatican’s decision to move World War II-era cardinal August Hlond along the path to possible sainthood, saying the Polish primate was “extremely” hostile to Jews and failed to condemn a 1946 pogrom.

In a letter to top Vatican officials released Wednesday, the American Jewish Committee said it was “profoundly” concerned that Pope Francis approved a decree recognizing Hlond’s “heroic virtues,” the first main step in the sainthood process.

AJC’s director of interreligious affairs, Rabbi David Rosen, cited a 1936 pastoral letter Hlond wrote in which he urged Poles to stay away from the “harmful moral influence of Jews” and to boycott Jewish media.

Hlond refused to condemn the 1946 Kielce pogrom, which left 42 Jews dead and at least 40 wounded.

“It is a fact that the Jews are fighting against the Catholic Church, persisting in free thinking, and are the vanguard of godlessness, Bolshevism and subversion,” Hlond wrote in the letter, which frequently has been cited as evidence of the Catholic Church’s institutional anti-Semitism prior to the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

“Cardinal Hlond held a press conference but he did not condemn the pogrom nor urge Poles to stop murdering Jews,” wrote Rosen. “Rather, he pointed out that the Jews were all communists or supporters of communism and that the pogrom was their own fault.”

Hlond, who was highest ranking church official in Poland during 1926-48, remains highly respected in the overwhelmingly Catholic country for having kept the faith strong and protected the church’s independence during the German Nazi occupation and the first years of post-war communism.

His initiatives safeguarded Poland’s Church from the kind of persecution and subjugation that took place in nearby nations.

While living in exile during World War II, Hlond used his influence and personal contacts to speak to the world about Poland’s plight under Nazi occupation. When the Germans arrested him, he refused an offer to form a collaborative government.

His devotion to Catholic faith laid the foundations for the emergence of such key figures in Poland’s church as Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II, now a saint.

Francis’s decree that Hlond lived a life of heroic virtue came after investigators compiled a full study of his life, writings and works to determine their theological soundness. The Vatican must still confirm a miracle attributed to his intercession for him to be beatified, and a second one for him to be made a saint.


Germany loses Holocaust reminder as survivors dwindle

As far-right parties make gains, educators and historians say the country needs to urgently find new ways of remembering the past

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, Germany (AFP) — Renowned for its relentless confrontation of its Nazi past, Germany’s culture of remembrance faces new 21st-Century challenges as survivors of World War II and the Holocaust disappear and far-right politics reemerges.

“This is my birth certificate, with the Nazi swastika on the bottom,” white-haired Ralph Dannheisser told a class of rapt teenagers, passing the document around the packed library at Frankfurt’s Liebig secondary school.

Born in 1938, less than two years before his parents fled Europe for the United States, Dannheisser grew up speaking German and praying for the survival of relatives left behind as World War II and the Holocaust savaged the Old Continent.

The students pressed 80-year-old Dannheisser with questions for more than an hour, asking how the loss of his grandparents in the camps at Sobibor and Auschwitz-Birkenau affected his childhood, or how American children reacted to German-Jewish refugees.

A memorial at the site of the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland. (Public domain)

“My mother never got over the murder of her parents and her brother… I also felt a real loss because I grew up without an Oma or Opa (granddad or grandma) and grew up knowing no uncles, aunts or cousins,” Dannheisser recounted.

“It was really detailed, we didn’t learn things this way in class,” 15-year-old Ronan Chollet-Richard said afterwards.

“You could see clearly in his eyes how it felt. It’s unimaginable for me as a pupil, as a child.”

Dannheisser, smiling from behind his glasses and neat beard, declares himself “impressed” by the students’ engagement.

“They had intelligent questions and gave me a lot of hope,” he said.

“I think it’s important to tell our stories and to keep the memory alive in newer generations while we’re still around,” he added.

The dwindling number of survivors makes the question of how to pass knowledge of Germany’s totalitarian past on to future generations more acute now than it has been in decades.

“As we draw further and further away from the Holocaust and World War II, it’s all the more urgent to find new ways of communicating this,” said Stephan Peters, who has taught history at the Liebig school since 1992.

‘180-degree turn’

Germany broke free of the post-war decades of silence and repressed memories to probe the depths of its Nazi past in the late 20th Century, a process imitated in places like South Africa.

But last year the far-right nationalist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) surged into parliament with 12.6 percent of the vote, turbocharged by the arrival of more than one million mostly Muslim refugees since 2015.

Workers block the street in front of Bjoern Hoecke, front left, German state of Thuringia’s chairman of the Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) party, April 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

Ahead of the election, regional AfD leader Bjoern Hoecke called for a “180-degree turn” in the country’s “daft policy of coming to terms with the past.”

And party leader Alexander Gauland has said “we have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars.”

AfD’s contempt for the culture of remembrance stems not from hatred of Jews so much as from its rejection of many lessons post-war Germany drew from its history.

The 1949 Basic Law, later adopted as united Germany’s constitution, is anchored around a deep concern for individual rights, with clear limits to state, police and military powers and a commitment to host refugees.

Away from the far-right, Germany’s 200,000-strong Jewish community fears growing numbers of anti-Semitic crimes by Muslim perpetrators, from the burning of Israeli flags at protests to street violence or bullying in schools.

“I would advise individual people against openly wearing a kippah (traditional Jewish skullcap) in big German cities,” Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in April after a spate of such incidents.

No ‘inoculation’ for extremism

As Holocaust survivors gradually vanish, the focus of remembrance culture is turning towards the physical evidence of Nazi crimes at former camps and other scenes of atrocities.

Some politicians have even called for obligatory visits to Holocaust memorials.

The infamous German inscription that reads ‘Work Makes Free’ at the main gate of the Auschwitz I extermination camp in Oswiecim, Poland, on November 15, 2014. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images via JTA)

Teacher Peters cautions that the encounters can be “psychologically very, very difficult to bear for some pupils, to withstand the pressure they feel at this place.”

What’s more, many sites are “at the limits of our capacity,” says Stephanie Billib, a spokeswoman for the Holocaust memorial at Bergen-Belsen.

“We have more school groups than we can manage, we are always having to turn down requests.”

While memorials hope for more state funding, the disappearance of those who lived through the Holocaust as adults means “important advocates for the memorials will soon no longer be there,” Billib laments.

In any case, she says visits are not so effective that “you can give people some kind of inoculation, that all the young people will be good democrats” afterwards.

That hasn’t stopped people trying — most notoriously in the case of German rappers Farid Bang and Kollegah.

After the duo’s top-selling album, which features anti-Semitic — or at least extremely tasteless — lines about Auschwitz inmates, won Germany’s biggest music award, the Echo, the resulting scandal lead to the prize being scrapped earlier this year.

Now the apparently contrite pair are set to visit the former Nazi German camp in Poland.

“They’ll be paying homage to the victims and the survivors,” said Christoph Heubner, vice-president of the International Auschwitz Committee.