Volunteers from 7 countries clear historic Jewish cemetery in Poland

An international group of 18 volunteers from Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, the Czech Republic and Turkey with the help of seven volunteer Polish scouts from Poznan are cleaning a Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.

The work on the Jewish cemetery at Okopowa Street in Warsaw began on August 16 and will continue through August 24. The organizer of the project, the Cultural Heritage Foundation, has been carrying out cleaning work in this cemetery for three years. This year, together with the One World Association, the foundation invited young people from abroad to participate.

Participants will take part in discussions, lectures and thematic walks connected to Jewish culture in Warsaw, as well as visit the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Warsaw synagogue.

“The cemetery is largely undiscovered, and access to many cemetery quarters is hampered by wild plants. Thanks to the help of over 100 volunteers, we managed to organize almost 3 hectares of the cemetery,” coordinator of the volunteer projects of the Jewish Heritage Foundation, Ola Waszak, told JTA.

Cleaning work consists mainly of cleaning of the oldest part of the cemetery and removing broken tree boughs and plants. Preliminary cleaning of the cemetery is essential to allow qualified conservationists and visitors to gain access to historic gravestones. All work is supervised by the director of the cemetery, the Jewish Community in Warsaw and the Jewish Historical Institute.

Founded in 1806, the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw’s Wola district is one of the largest in the world, with over 80,000 identified gravestones

JUDGE SENTENCES ANTISEMITIC TEEN VANDALS TO MEET HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR

Three teens pleaded guilty to criminal damaging charges for twisting a large decorative menorah in the front yard of an Arizona family’s home into a swastika.

The teens, who were arrested in March and charged as juveniles in the December incident in a residential neighborhood in Chandler, Arizona, offered the guilty pleas Thursday in Maricopa County Court.

They were sentenced to serve 30 hours of community service, along with writing an apology letter to the victims and paying restitution. They also must meet with a Holocaust survivor and write an essay on what they learned about the Holocaust and how their desecration of the menorah affected the community, the CBS affiliate in Phoenix reported.

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has not yet decided how to charge the fourth vandal in the incident, Clive Jamar Wilson, 19, who posted an apology to the family on Facebook after he was arrested.

The Hanukkah candelabra damaged on Dec. 30, 2016, was made of gold spray-painted PVC pipes and solar-powered lights.

Parents Naomi and Seth Ellis said they built the 7-foot menorah in front of their house after their three sons, ages 5, 6 and 9, asked for lights in their yard like their neighbors’ Christmas decorations.

Police helped Naomi and Seth Ellis dismantle the swastika early in the morning before Ellis children saw it. The menorah was rebuilt and replaced. About 100 members of the family’s synagogue and their rabbi and neighbors gathered in the Ellis front yard to light the rebuilt menorah.

Archaeologists uncover the heart of Nazi-razed Vilnius synagogue

A team of Israeli, American and Lithuanian archaeologists have uncovered the heart of the Great Synagogue in Vilnius, which was razed by the Nazis 70 years ago. The discovery of the ritual baths, considered a vital part of an active Jewish community, is the most exciting find in this second year of excavations at the site.

The Great Synagogue is actually a large compound that was considered the beating heart of Lithuanian Jewry for some 300 years. It contained the renowned Strashun Library, 12 synagogues, Jewish schools, ritual baths, the local Jewish community council building, and even kosher food places. When Nazi soldiers occupied the city in June 1941, these Jewish buildings were burned to the ground.

Vilnius, a community of some 70,000 when World War II broke out, supported over 100 synagogues and half a dozen Jewish dailies and was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” Under Nazi occupation, 95 percent of Lithuanian Jewry was murdered in the Holocaust and Soviet rule drove out many who survived. In the 1950s, the synagogue compound was turned into a basketball court and kindergarten.

After the Nazis destroyed the compound, three pieces from the Great Synagogue of Vilna survived: a bas-relief with the Ten Commandments, a door from an Ark where Torah scrolls were kept, and a table upon which the scroll was read. All other traces of the compound virtually disappeared.

In 2015, a team of archaeologists led by Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dr. Jon Seligman and Prof. Richard Freund, director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, conducted a ground-penetrating radar survey and found promising indications of where the underground ruins of the buildings still stood.

In 2016, the excavations uncovered the underground rooms and this summer, the bathhouse and ritual baths continued to be excavated.

“The mikveh was used for the ritual use of all the Jews who went to this synagogue here in the city,” said Seligman, sitting on a concrete lip above a yellow tiled floor in an IAA video taken at the dig site.

“This is the classic form of a mikveh, of a modern mikveh, with the tiling and the concrete steps. The Great Synagogue was not only a community center, it was also a religious center and a place where everyone had to go, multiple times during the day,” said Freund.

“But the mikveh was a place where people performed a ritual which was unique to the Jews. It was for some people a monthly, for some people a weekly, and for some people a daily ritual, that they would come to the mikveh to purify themselves in order to pray,” said Freund.

The archaeologists have also discovered the “treasury,” where natural water was stored for kosher use in the ritual bath.

The discovery of the ritual baths, said the scholars, gives another dimension to the reconstruction of the daily life of a slaughtered Jewish community.

Polish TV station parodies ‘Arbeit macht frei’ sign at Auschwitz in story about Germany

WARSAW (JTA) — The museum at Auschwitz criticized a right-wing television station in Warswa that adapted the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” sign above the gates of the Nazi death camp into an illustration for a story about German reparations.

The illustration for the story on Republika TV about the call by some Polish lawmakers for Germany to compensate Poland for its losses in World War II changed the words of the Auschwitz sign from “Work sets you free” to “Reparations set you free.”

Following complaints, Republika removed the graphic from its Twitter account but not from its website.

“The primitive manipulation of painful symbols shows the moral level and understanding of history by its authors,” the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum said Monday on its Twitter account.

Social media users also criticized the graphic.

Krystyna Pawlowicz, a member of parliament representing the Law and Justice Party, wrote last week on Facebook that perhaps President Donald Trump would support Poland’s claim for compensation from Germany. She also suggested that the government should ask for help of “the best American Jewish law firms” who fought for “compensation from Germany for the holocaust [sic].”

Boston Holocaust memorial vandalized for second time this summer

BOSTON (JTA) – A pane of glass was shattered Monday evening at the New England Holocaust Memorial, the second time in less than two months the Boston memorial was vandalized.

A 17-year-old male suspected of the vandalism is in custody, a spokesman for the Boston Police Department told JTA. Two passers-by tackled the suspect and held him until police arrived, according to the Boston Globe, which reported that the police are investigating whether it was a hate crime.

A visitor to the memorial, which is located along Boston’s historic Freedom Trail, told the Globe he heard the sound of glass shattering as he was reading panels at the memorial and later saw police make an arrest.

“It’s a reminder that we as a community need to be united, both in our opposition to all forms of hate, but also in the important role that memorials play in our community,” Robert Trestan, the region’s director of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Globe.

Trestan said it was a second blow to the community.

“It comes at a time when most of Boston is standing in solidarity [against] the hatred that we saw in Charlottesville over the weekend,” he said.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston published a joint statement with Combined Jewish Philanthropies linking the vandalism to the deadly violence at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend.

“We are appalled and saddened that the New England Holocaust Memorial was vandalized Monday night for the second time in just 6 weeks,” the statement said. “The images of Nazis marching in the streets of America over the weekend in Charlottesville and now shattered glass once again at this sacred space in Boston are an affront to our Jewish community and to all those who stand up against bigotry, hatred and anti-Semitism.

“We thank the Boston Police and the Public Works Department for their rapid response and for their continuing support during this difficult time. We will remain resilient and will have a timeline for rebuilding the memorial once we have assessed the damage.”

In a post on Twitter, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said the city stands against hate.

“I’m saddened to see such a despicable action in this great city,” he said.

The 22-year-old memorial was recently repaired and rededicated following the earlier vandalism in which one pane of glass was shattered, the first time it was struck by vandalism, allegedly by a 21-year-old man with a history of mental illness. The six-towered memorial, designed by architect Stanley Saitowitz, features 132 panels of glass etched with seven-digit numbers symbolizing the numbers tattooed on the arms of Jews during the Holocaust.

Speaking at the July 11 rededication, Israel Arbeiter, a prominent 92-year-old Boston-area Holocaust survivor, said the public ceremony brought a sense of renewal.

“The horrible suffering that we, the survivors, endured in concentration camps cannot be forgotten. When we repeatedly say ‘remember,’ we turn first of all to the world around us,” Arbeiter said at the ceremony, which was attended by Walsh and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, as well as leaders of the Jewish community and other faith and civic groups.

A tropical story of diamonds and Holocaust survival in ‘Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels’

HAVANA, Cuba — On a hot and steamy Shabbat afternoon in early July, 50 or so Jews gathered in the social hall of Cuba’s largest synagogue to relive a little-known piece of their own history.

The island’s premiere screening of “Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels: A Haven in Havana” didn’t disappoint. This poignant 46-minute documentary by co-directors Judy Ann Kreith and Robin Truesdale tells the obscure story of thousands of European Jews who not only escaped extermination by the Nazis during World War II, but also brought Cuba a thriving yet short-lived diamond cutting industry.

The movie is a counterpoint of sorts to “Voyage of the Damned,” a 1976 drama starring Faye Dunaway and Orson Welles that chronicles the tragic voyage of the SS St. Louis — a German steamship that in 1939 sailed from Hamburg to Havana carrying 937 Jewish passengers.

Those on board the St. Louis had no idea the Cuban visas they had purchased from corrupt officials were invalid, and only 28 were allowed to disembark upon arrival in Havana. The ship — denied permission to dock in Miami and other US ports — eventually returned to Nazi-controlled Antwerp after a month at sea. About 250 of the St. Louis’s passengers later died in concentration camps.

“Forgotten Jewels” has a much happier ending. In this case, Cuba under Gen. Fulgencio Batista took in some 6,000 Jewish diamond cutters and their families from Belgium and elsewhere — joining roughly 6,000 German and Austrian Jews who had arrived in an earlier wave before the doors slammed shut.

“We tried to touch on the St. Louis because that’s what most people think about when they think about Cuba and the fact that all the refugees were turned away,” said Kreith, interviewed over café con leche at the Patronato — the largest of Havana’s three functioning synagogues.

“This is a very personal story,” she told The Times of Israel. “My mother, Marion Finkels Kreith, came in 1941, originally from Hamburg. She spent three years trying to escape the Nazis. Her father, who was interned in a camp in southern France, heard there were a few visas to Cuba, so they were able to get visas for the whole family. All of the characters in the film were in Belgium when the Nazis invaded on May 10, 1940.”

Kreith grew up hearing how her mother arrived in Cuba at the age of 14 on a boat called the Colonial, and soon went to work polishing diamonds in a stifling hot factory. At one time, between 30 and 50 such facilities operated in Havana — turning the tropical Caribbean island for a short time into a major world diamond-polishing center.

“Some were very small factories, operating in people’s homes, and others were very large,” Kreith said. “When Hitler invaded on May 10, the Belgian refugees and some from Holland took what they could on their bodies, but it was their connections that helped them start over again. They used those connections with the diamond syndicates in London and New York, convincing the Cuban authorities to keep the industry going.”

Most of these Jews saw Havana as just a temporary stop on the way to Miami or New York. But after Pearl Harbor, it became nearly impossible for refugees in Cuba — or any refugees for that matter — to get US visas, so they ended up staying put for years.

By 1948, however, with the war over and Europe rebuilding, Cuba’s fledgling diamond industry disappeared without a trace.

‘Once most of the main experts in the trade received their visas, they left Cuba’
“Once most of the main experts in the trade received their visas, they left Cuba,” said Kreith. “Many went to the US, some back to Belgium and others to Israel. The Cuban government would have very much liked to keep the trade going, but without the worldwide connections of the diamond merchants and the top-level expertise, they were unable to keep the industry in Havana.”

Kreith’s mother emigrated to Miami, eventually moving to Los Angeles, where she met her husband. The couple settled in Boulder, Colorado, where they raised their family.

A dance instructor by profession, Kreith first came to Cuba in 2000 and fell in love with Afro-Cuban dance. Since then, she’s traveled to the island at least 25 times — frequently on trips funded by the Alaska State Council on the Arts. Kreith lived in Alaska for a time, and has spent the last seven years researching the subject of her documentary.

“I started mostly by talking to my mom and trying to get all the information I could. I purchased every book I could,” including “Tropical Diaspora” by Robert Levine, she said. “I began writing the story and gathering photos. Then I came back here in 2008 and talked with Adela Dworin [current president of Cuba’s Jewish community]. I realized that people here had almost no idea about the diamond industry.”

Kreith’s co-director, Robin Truesdale, interviewed the elder Kreith in 2013, then did the same with other refugees, most of whom are now in their 80s and 90s. Some B-roll filming was done in Cuba as well.

“I realized that if we were going to make this film, we’d have to make it while people are still alive,” said Kreith, 56. “My mom didn’t realize how much she remembered. And the more you interview, the more the doors of the past open up.”

‘My mom didn’t realize how much she remembered. And the more you interview, the more the doors of the past open up’
“Forgotten Jewels” was made on a $200,000 budget; Kreith and Truesdale were helped by a $10,000 JDC Archive Documentary Film Grant from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, as well as $3,500 from New York-based AE Ventures. The film’s nonprofit sponsor and distributor is the National Center for Jewish Film.

“We are so proud to recognize the outstanding contribution that ‘Forgotten Jewels’ makes to both our understanding of Jewish history and of humanity’s capacity to overcome great odds,” said JDC board member Jane Swergold, an adjunct professor at Fairfield University, and Linda Levi, director of the JDC Archives.

Besides at the Patronato, the film has been screened so far this year at the Farthest North Jewish Film Festival in Fairbanks, Alaska; at Colorado’s Boulder Jewish Film Festival, and at the Cinematheque in Haifa. The reception so far has been positive.

“Many of the diamond retailers saw the story and said this is a lost part of our history,” Kreith said. “Our dream is to bring it to Yad Vashem. We’d like to have it be a part of their archives, and we’d also like to screen it as widely as we can.”

That includes the Havana Film Festival in December, as well as upcoming film festivals in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

“People are ready to hear stories of survivors,” Kreith said. “There’s so much pain around the Holocaust, but I feel that keeping the stories alive is absolutely essential. As the child of two Jewish refugees, I feel a certain responsibility because I lived it.”

Charlottesville car-ramming suspect idolized Hitler, Nazism, ex-teacher says

FLORENCE, Ky. (AP) — The young man accused of plowing a car into a crowd of people protesting a white supremacist rally was fascinated with Nazism, idolized Adolf Hitler, and had been singled out by school officials in the 9th grade for his “deeply held, radical” convictions on race, a former high school teacher said Sunday.

James Alex Fields Jr. also confided that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was younger and had been prescribed an anti-psychotic medication, Derek Weimer said in an interview with The Associated Press.

In high school, Fields was an “average” student, but with a keen interest in military history, Hitler, and Nazi Germany, said Weimer, who said he was Fields’ social studies teacher at Randall K. Cooper high school in Union, Kentucky, in Fields’ junior and senior years.

“Once you talked to James for a while, you would start to see that sympathy towards Nazism, that idolization of Hitler, that belief in white supremacy,” Weimer said. “It would start to creep out.”

Police charged Fields with second-degree murder and other counts for allegedly driving his silver Dodge Challenger through a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, killing a 32-year-old woman and wounding at least 19 other people. A Virginia State Police helicopter deployed in a large-scale police response to the violence then crashed into the woods outside of town and both troopers on board died.

The 20-year-old Fields had been photographed hours earlier carrying the emblem of Vanguard America, one of the hate groups that organized the “take America back” campaign in protest of the removal of a Confederate statue.

The group on Sunday denied any association with the suspect, even as a separate hate group that organized Saturday’s rally pledged on social media to organize future events that would be “bigger than Charlottesville.”

The mayor of Charlottesville, political leaders of all political stripes, and activists and community organizers around the country planned rallies, vigils and education campaigns to combat the hate groups. They also urged President Donald Trump to forcefully denounce the organizations, some of which specifically cited Trump’s election after a campaign of racially charged rhetoric as validation of their beliefs.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced late Saturday that federal authorities would pursue a civil rights investigation into the circumstances surrounding the crash.

Weimer recalled that school officials had singled out Fields when he was in 9th grade for his political beliefs and “deeply held, radical” convictions on race and Nazism.

“It was a known issue,” he said.

Weimer said Fields left school for a while, and when he came back he was quieter about politics until his senior year, when politicians started to declare their candidacy for the 2016 presidential race. Weimer said Fields was a big Trump supporter because of what he believed to be Trump’s views on race. Trump’s proposal to build a border wall with Mexico was particularly appealing to Fields, Weimer said. Fields also admired the Confederacy for its military prowess, he said, though they never spoke about slavery.

As a senior, Fields wanted to join the army, and Weimer, a former officer in the Ohio National Guard, guided him through the process of applying, he said, believing that the military would expose Fields to people of different races and backgrounds and help him dispel his white supremacist views. But Fields was ultimately turned down, which was a big blow, Weimer said. Weimer said he lost contact with Fields after he graduated and was surprised to hear reports that Fields had enlisted in the army.

“The Army can confirm that James Alex Fields reported for basic military training in August of 2015, said Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson. “He was, however, released from active duty due to a failure to meet training standards in December of 2015,” she said.

Fields’ mother, Samantha Bloom, told the AP late Saturday that she knew her son was going to Virginia for a political rally, but she had no idea it involved white supremacists.

“I just told him to be careful,” she said, adding she warned him that if there were protests “to make sure he’s doing it peacefully.”

“I thought it had something to do with Trump. Trump’s not a white supremacist,” said Bloom, speaking from the condominium in Maumee, Ohio, where she had lived with her son until he moved out a few months ago.

In photos taken before the rally, Fields was shown standing Saturday with a half-dozen other men, all wearing the Vanguard America uniform of khakis and white polo shirts. The men held white shields with Vanguard America’s black-and-white logo of two crossed axes. The Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee was in the background.

The photo was taken about 10:30 a.m. Saturday just hours before authorities say Fields crashed his car into the crowd at 1:42 p.m. The Anti-Defamation League says Vanguard America believes the US is an exclusively white nation, and uses propaganda to recruit young white men online and on college campuses.

In a Twitter post, the group said it had handed out the shields “to anyone in attendance who wanted them,” and denied Fields was a member. “All our members are safe an (sic) accounted for, with no arrests or charges.”

In blog posts after the violence, the Daily Stormer, a leading white nationalist website that promoted the Charlottesville event, pledged to hold more events “soon.”

“We are going to start doing this nonstop,” the post said. “We are going to go bigger than Charlottesville. We are going to go huge.”

Saturday’s chaos erupted as neo-Nazis, skinheads, Ku Klux Klan members and other white supremacist groups arrived for the rally. Counter-protesters were also on hand, and the two sides clashed, with people throwing punches, hurling water bottles and unleashing chemical sprays. Officials have not provided a crowd estimate but it appeared to number well over 1,000.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, police in riot gear ordered people out of the streets, and helicopters circled overhead. Then, as the counter-protesters marched a few blocks from the statue, the Dodge Challenger tore into the crowd, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer as she was crossing the street.

Hours later, the helicopter crashed, killing two state police troopers, Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen, 48, and Berke M.M. Bates, one day shy of his 41st birthday.

Trump criticized the violence in a tweet Saturday, followed by a news conference and a call for “a swift restoration of law and order.”

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” he said.

The “on many sides” ending of his statement drew the ire of his critics, who said he failed to specifically denounce white supremacy and equated those who came to protest racism with the white supremacists.

Trump “needs to come out stronger” against the actions of white supremacists, McAuliffe told reporters at the First Baptist Church in Charlottesville on Sunday. “They are Nazis and they are here to hurt American citizens, and he needs to call them out for what they are, no question.”

Researchers find dozens of Jewish headstones at Babi Yar

Nazi troops dumped dozens of stolen Jewish headstones at the same site near Kiev where they murdered tens of thousands of Jews, researchers in Ukraine discovered.

The Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center last month extracted 50 headstones from the Babi Yar ravine, where Nazis and local collaborators murdered more than 150,00 people, including 50,000 Jews, starting in September 1941.

“The tombstones were removed from a local Jewish cemetery during the Holocaust and thrown into the same ravines where over 150,000 Jews, Roma people and Ukrainians were murdered during the Holocaust,” Marek Siwiec, a former Polish politician and current head of the memorial center, said in a statement earlier this week about the discovery.

With a mandate from the Ukrainian government, Siwiec’s organization, which was set up last year, is heading international efforts to commemorate the Babi Yar tragedy in a manner befitting its scale. Jewish victims are memorialized at the site only by an unfenced six-foot menorah, which is situated near a dumping ground for industrial waste and is vandalized regularly.

“The significance of Babi Yar is of upmost importance, at this horrendously difficult site, the largest single act mass murder of Jews took place during the Holocaust, with 37,771 brutally murdered during a two-day period, it is our duty not just to remember this site but also proactively learn from the darkest days of human history to build a better future,” Siwiec said in the statement about the discovery.

Additional headstones from Jewish graves are scattered in the ravine but they require careful excavations to be extracted intact, according to Jonny Daniels, founder of the From the Depths organization, which promotes the commemoration of the Holocaust in Poland. Daniels visited the site earlier this week to see how From the Depths, which has focused on restoring pillaged headstones in Poland, could assist the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, he said.