Bestselling ‘Tattooist of Auschwitz’ love story blurs facts, experts allege

Magazine published by memorial center at site of Nazi death camp points to several inaccuracies in novel; author defends book as recollection, not history

Holocaust survivor Bracha Ghilai, 75, shows her tattooed arm at her house in Holon near Tel Aviv, Israel, Jan. 23, 2005. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Holocaust survivor Bracha Ghilai, 75, shows her tattooed arm at her house in Holon near Tel Aviv, Israel, Jan. 23, 2005. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

The author of a bestselling book about an unlikely love story in the Auschwitz death camp has come under fire for what a historian at the memorial museum for the former Nazi site says are inaccuracies in the story.

Heather Morris, author of “The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” has defended the book by saying it is not meant to be an exhaustive history but rather the recollections of one man who survived the camp.

It has risen in the best-seller lists in the US, UK and Australia and has been optioned to be made into a television series.

In an article fact checking the story, though, Wanda Witeck-Malicka of Poland’s Auschwitz Memorial Research Center, which administers the site of the former death camp, wrote that the book “contains numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts; as well as overinterpretations, misinterpretations and understatements on which the overall inauthentic picture of the camp reality is built.”

“The Tattooist of Auschwitz”

Among the issues Witeck-Malicka raises about the historical accuracy of the book are routes which the train carrying Sokolov to Auschwitz took, the fact that the number that Gita had tattooed on her arm received does not correspond to when she says she arrived at the camp, the use of a bus as a gas chamber, and Sokolov and other prisoners being told to return to Birkenau without an escort after being taken out of the camp for work duty.

She also casts doubt over the possibility of a long-term sexual relationship between an SS commander at the camp and a Jewish prisoner.

Paweł Sawicki, editor of the center’s Memoria magazine, which published the critique, said they wanted to check into the story after a number of visitors asked about it.

“The further we got into the details, the more surprised we were to discover how [many] historical mistakes – small and big – about the reality of Auschwitz were there,” he told The Guardian.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau in May of 1944, Hungarian Jews arrived in cattle cars and prepared for the SS-conducted ‘selection’ (Auschwitz Album)

Questions have also been raised about a passage in which Sokolov takes Penicillin to Furman, which would not have been available at the time. The Sokolovs’ son Gary told the New York Times it bothered him that Morris spelled his father’s name Lale and not Lali, as he went by, though he praised the book for bringing the story to life.

“The fact that my dad, so many decades later, can have such a positive impact on humanity is just phenomenal,” he said.

The book is officially cataloged as fiction, though it has been marketed as a true story and Morris has said it is based on interviews with Sokolov, who died at age 90 in 2006, toward the end of his life. She met Sokolov after Gita died in 2003.

Heather Morris (Courtesy)

In an email to the New York Times,which wrote last month about the discrepancy of the tattooed number assigned to Furman, Morris wrote that the book “does not claim to be an academic historical piece of nonfiction.”

“It is Lali’s story. I make mention of history and memory waltzing together and straining to part, it must be accepted after 60 years this can happen but I am confident of Lali’s telling of his story, only he could tell it and others may have a different understanding of that time but that is their understanding, I have written Lali’s,” she wrote.

A spokesperson for Morris’s publisher told the Guardian that the novel is “based on the personal recollections and experiences of one man. It is not, and has never claimed to be, an official history. If it inspires people to engage with the terrible events of the Holocaust more deeply, then it will have achieved everything that Lale himself wished for.”

How tiny Ecuador had a huge impact on Jews escaping the Holocaust

A new book by author Daniel Kersffeld tells how when many countries shut their doors to Jewish refugees, one welcomed them in, allowing them to thrive in the arts and sciences

While many countries did less than their all when Jews sought refuge from the Holocaust, the tiny South American nation of Ecuador made an outsized impact.

Named for the equator, the former Spanish colony became an unlikely haven for an estimated 3,200-4,000 Jews from 1933 to 1945.

This summer, Ecuador-based academic and author Daniel Kersffeld published a book in Spanish about this little-known story, “La migracion judia en Ecuador: Ciencia, cultura y exilio 1933-1945.” (It translates to “Jewish Immigration in Ecuador: Science, Culture and Exile 1933-1945.”) Kersffeld calls it the first academic study of Jewish immigration to Ecuador in over two decades.

The author surveyed 100 biographical accounts in writing the book. In an email interview, Kersffeld said that around 20 of the individuals he profiled hold significant importance for Ecuador’s economic, scientific, artistic and cultural development.

They include Austrian refugee Paul Engel, who became a pioneer of endocrinology in his new homeland, while maintaining a separate literary career under a pseudonym; concentration camp survivor Trude Sojka, who endured the loss of nearly all of her family and became a successful artist in Ecuador; and three Italian Jews — Alberto di Capua, Carlos Alberto Ottolenghi and Aldo Muggia — who founded a precedent-setting pharmaceutical company, Laboratorios Industriales Farmaceuticos Ecuatorianos, or LIFE.

Kersffeld’s book began as a smaller project in which Ecuador’s Academia Nacional de Historia (National Academy of History) asked him to research the origins of the LIFE laboratories.

Daniel Kersffeld speaks at an Ecuadorian government ceremony honoring the late consul Manuel Antonio Munoz Borrero on November 9, 2018. During the Holocaust, Borrero rescued Jews through his position of consul in Sweden, but the Ecuadorian government stripped him of his position. The November 9 ceremony reinstated him as a member of the Ecuadorian foreign service. (Courtesy Daniel Kersffeld)

Kersffeld learned that LIFE’s co-founders had been expelled from Italy in 1938 after the passage of dictator Benito Mussolini’s anti-Semitic Racial Laws. He found they represented a wider story in Ecuador from 1933 to 1945 — “a larger amount of Jewish immigrants who were scientists, artists, intellectuals or who were in distinct ways linked to the high culture of Europe.”

The growing menace of Hitler and Mussolini spurred Jewish immigration to Ecuador, supported by the small local Jewish community. President Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra promoted the country as a destination for German Jewish scientists and technicians suddenly unemployed due to Nazi anti-Semitism.

Refugees from Germany farming in the Amazon Rainforest in the 1940s. (Courtesy Eva Zelig)

But, Kersffeld writes, “the fact is that until the mid-1930s, few emigrants had chosen Ecuador as their destination country,” with most coming after 1938. Ecuador views 1938 as the beginning of its Jewish community, and celebrated its 80th anniversary earlier this year.

Marked by the Amazon and the Andes, Ecuador could not have seemed a less likely destination. That changed after the Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany and Austria in 1938, the Racial Laws in Italy the same year, the occupation of much of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and the Fall of France in 1940.

Ecuador became “one of the last American countries to keep open the possibility of immigration in its various consulates in Europe,” Kersffeld writes. “One of the last alternatives when all the other ports of entry to American nations were already closed.”

Ecuador’s Jewish-exile community in the 1940s at the Equatorial monument in Quito, Ecuador. (Courtesy Eva Zelig)

The consul in Stockholm, Manuel Antonio Munoz Borrero, issued 200 passports to Jews and was posthumously inducted in 2011 as his country’s first Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.

Another consul, Jose I. Burbano Rosales in Bremen, saved 40 Jewish families from 1937 to 1940.

But Munoz Borrero and Burbano were both relieved from their duties after the Ecuadorian government learned they were helping Jews. Burbano was transferred to the US, while Munoz Borrero stayed in Sweden and unofficially continued his efforts.

Recently, the Ecuadorian government honored Munoz Borrero when it restored the late diplomat as a member of its foreign service.

Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Jose Valencia speaks at en event in the capital of Quito on November 9, 2018, to restore Manuel Antonio Munoz Borrero as a member of the country’s diplomatic service. (Screen capture: YouTube)

According to Kersffeld, in the period covered by the book there was anti-Semitism in Ecuadorian embassies and consulates in Europe, and in its Ministry of Foreign Relations. Jews had to pay fees to enter the country — although these decreased with time — and conform to an occupational profile. And another president, Alberto Enriquez Gallo, issued a decree of expulsion for Jews who did not comply with immigration requirements, although it never took effect.

Kersffeld writes that Ecuador’s government maintained relations, “sometimes hidden,” with Nazi Germany. (Burbano’s granddaughter, Ecuadorian anthropologist Maria Amelia Viteri, provided a biographical statement about her grandfather, according to which Nazi Germany offered military aid to Ecuador during a war with neighboring Peru in 1941.) Kersffeld also writes that cells and other groups linked to the German far right operated in Ecuador.

But overall, Kersffeld called Ecuador’s immigration policy “less restrictive than that which developed in other countries of the region in the same era.”

Given a new chance, Jewish immigrants would write South American success stories.

Jewish immigrants on the boat to Ecuador. (Eva Zelig)

Kersffeld called the LIFE laboratories “truly unique,” noting that di Capua, Ottolenghi and Muggia made LIFE into “one of the most outstanding businesses in Ecuador,” able to export medications to much of Latin America while performing advanced scientific research that discovered new bacteria and viruses.

Other immigrants also made an impact in medicine. Austrian native Engel led the first endocrinological studies in Ecuador while pursuing literary fame under the pseudonym Diego Viga, while German-born Julius Zanders — who had been imprisoned at Dachau after Kristallnacht — did pioneering work as a veterinarian and involved himself in Jewish community life.

Kersffeld credited Jewish immigrant doctors with introducing developments to Ecuador such as radiology and Freudian psychoanalysis.

Journalist Benno Weiser used his investigative skills to denounce his new country’s relations with Nazi Germany and inform fellow citizens about World War II. Later in life, he became a citizen of Israel, where he reported on the trial of infamous Nazi Adolf Eichmann and served as an ambassador to the Dominican Republic and Paraguay. His brother, Max Weiser, became the first honorary consul of Israel in Ecuador.

In arts and culture, Kersffeld said, Jewish immigrants brought educational training from Europe and connections to luminaries such as Thomas Mann and Marc Chagall.

Jewish immigrant Al Horvath brought radio transmitter technology to the Amazon jungle in Ecuador while helping Shell Oil look for petroleum there in the 1940s. (Courtesy / Daniel Kersffeld)

Hungarian refugee Olga Fisch became a celebrated collector of Ecuadorian indigenous handicrafts; her own acclaimed works are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian and the UN. Fellow artist Sojka “brought a personal testimony of the horror of the Nazi genocide to her artistic works,” Kersffeld writes, noting that virtually all of her family, including two daughters born six years apart, died in the Holocaust.

Kersffeld said that all of the biographical accounts he researched “represent distinct variations about how the tragedy of the Holocaust had an impact on the history of Ecuador. In each case, I was interested to see how the Holocaust was reflected in these biographies, as well as the tragedy marked by European anti-Semitism, persecution, exile.”

In each case, he said, he was also interested in examining “the imprint left by European totalitarianisms on an important group of scientists, artists and intellectuals who had to leave behind their families and communities of origin to begin a new life in a country as different as Ecuador.”

The subject of Holocaust-era Jewish immigration to Ecuador has been experiencing increased attention in recent years.

Czech artist Trude Sojka in Ecuador, 1946. (Courtesy Eva Zelig)

In 2015, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Eva Zelig released a documentary about the subject, “An Unknown Country.” An Ecuadorian-born daughter of Holocaust refugees, Zelig interviewed survivors and their descendants for the film, including Engel’s daughter and Muggia’s son (who is now an oncologist at NYU). She traveled back to the country of her birth while working on the film.

Zelig has not read Kersffeld’s book. However, she said that Holocaust-era Jewish immigrants to Ecuador “created a modern climate that moved the country forward.”

“Those who succeeded did spectacularly well,” Zelig said. But she noted that while some succeeded, others failed because “they did not understand the country, the economy of the country, what they should do and not do to move forward.”

After WWII, Zelig said, many Jews left Ecuador, “especially after quotas became available from the US.” Today, she said, the Ecuadorian Jewish community numbers only about 800.

“I think most [Jews] who went to Ecuador saw it as a stepping-stone,” she said. “Nobody knew where it was on maps.”

But, she said, “I feel tremendous gratitude. A lot of exiles felt very grateful to Ecuador having opened its doors.”

Her documentary continues to be screened — including in the capital of Quito earlier this year, where it was shown at the Museo de la Ciudad during a photography exhibition reflecting immigration to Ecuador from 1930 to 1970. Yet, she said, “strangely enough, not one Jewish film festival has taken it.”

“People [who watch the film] are saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know, amazing, I didn’t know about this,’ whether they’re Jewish or non-Jewish,’” Zelig said.

Kersffeld himself said that there has not been much scholarship on Jewish immigration to Ecuador, contrasting this with what he calls successful studies in other Latin American countries. He said that his investigation has sparked interest in the subject across the globe — from Latin America to the US to Israel.

A family of Jewish immigrants at a meal in their new Ecuadorian home in the 1940s. (Courtesy Eva Zelig)

Alberto Dorfzaun, a former president of the Quito Jewish community and a descendant of Holocaust refugees, called the book “well documented and well written,” adding that it “gives the reader a very good perspective on how the Jewish immigrants despite… the relative small number had a considerable impact.”

Raanan Rein, the Elias Sourasky Professor of Latin American and Spanish Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former president of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association, wrote, “His book offers a fascinating story on the formation of a Jewish community in Ecuador, their social integration and their contribution to the development of science and cultural institutions in Ecuador.”

Kersffeld himself hopes that the descendants of the Jewish immigrants will find a sense of connection through his book.

“It has generated a very positive impact in Ecuador’s own Jewish community,” Kersffeld said. “My book is generating much interest and curiosity around certain individuals who hold importance not only for the Jewish community but also for the modern history of Ecuador.”

What If You Trivialize Hitler?

The question has plagued artists ever since the Holocaust. At least one contemporary artist manages to pass the test.

Bruce Gendelman’s Aerial View of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, 2017. Bruce Gendelman.

Bruce Gendelman’s Aerial View of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, 2017. Bruce Gendelman.


About the author
Menachem Wecker, a freelance journalist based in Washington DC, covers art, culture, religion, and education for a variety of publications.

“How do you shoot the devil in the back?” asks the character played by Kevin Spacey in the 1995 movie The Usual Suspects. A similar question has plagued artists for centuries. If evil stops to pose for a portrait, what if you miss your shot, trivializing Hitler or turning Torquemada into a cartoon character?

For many, the 2002 exhibit Mirroring Evil at the Jewish Museum in New York missed the mark egregiously. Among its works commemorating the Holocaust were Chanel-, Hermès-, and Tiffany-branded poison-gas containers and a concentration-camp photograph into which the artist had inserted himself holding a Coke. Even for artists exploring the subject of the Holocaust thoughtfully, gorgeous brushwork or careful cross-hatching can so prettify the surface as to tie up evil in a neat bow.

All the more edifying, then, at the other end of the artistic spectrum, are Leonardo da Vinci’s portraits of ugly people—exquisitely drawn, but there’s no mistaking their individual hideousness.

Such thoughts came to mind on a recent visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Even articulating what it’s actually like to stand at the notorious train tracks leading to the entrance gates and all that lay beyond them is like trying to explain color to someone who has never seen. How could art possibly supply the want?

Fortunately, I came upon one possible answer to this conundrum later the same day in Krakow, at an exhibit of the Holocaust works of the American artist Bruce Gendelman. The recipe with which Gendelman approaches the portrayal of evil combines ominous or horrific imagery with a graceful handling of materials while somehow also finding room for a sliver of hope, even of God, peeking through the enveloping darkness.

Gendelman’s artistic journeybegan in September 2015 in the abandoned towns and fields of Eastern Europe, where this Palm Beach lawyer and insurance mogul was tracking the graves of murdered ancestors. His father Max, an American sniper in World War II who was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, miraculously escaped a Nazi camp with a German pilot he’d befriended. (Their unlikely friendship became the subject of Max’s memoir, A Tale of Two Soldiers.) Other family members weren’t so lucky. It was their stories that Gendelman, a gifted photographer, was seeking on a two-week trip to Poland and parts of the former Ukraine.

Another quotation: “He who fights with monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster.” Thus Nietzsche’s warning in Beyond Good and Evil, which continues: “When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” The warning, taken to heart by Gendelman, applies equally to viewers of his works, which chart new aesthetic territory.

Gendelman’s massive Aerial View of Auschwitz II-Birkenau(2017) measures twelve by eight feet; by the time of the exhibit, the 550 pounds of oil paint on the canvas still hadn’t dried fully. Gendelman intentionally skews the grid upon which the barracks at Birkenau, the extermination camp adjacent to Auschwitz, were arranged, making the composition feel off-center and forcing viewers to struggle, vainly, to piece together the perspective. (There are parallels here to Cubism.) So thick is the surface, whose ingredients include construction-grade string, as to bridge the separate realms of painting and sculpture. In this sense, the work recalls both the “combines” of Robert Rauschenberg and the giant (if often grandiose) Holocaust canvases of the German artist Anselm Kiefer, born mere weeks before the end of World War II.

Four other expressive paintings in the exhibit portray the chimneys of Birkenau, which obviously impressed Gendelman powerfully enough to inspire an entire group of “portraits.” Those chimneys had stood out for me, too, on my visit to Birkenau that morning, forming an artificial forest as far as the eye could see while the barracks holding the doomed prisoners were mainly gone, leaving behind only their foundations, the occasional fragment of brick wall—and those symbol-laden smokestacks. Gendelman had hung the group of paintings higher than normal so that viewers had to look up at the chimneys and then above them to the imagined skyward route traced by the combusted material of the camp’s crematoria.

Perhaps riskiest of all was the exhibit’s life-sized diorama of a barracks interior. The installation, roughly 20 feet square and nine feet tall, consists of wood, metal, fabric, and foam. Dozens of mannequins in prisoners’ uniforms lie upon or lean against the bunks, and a bucket—whose stench visitors can easily imagine—lies on the floor.

At first, it seems, Gendelman had thought of giving the figures the faces of real survivors, as in the famous April 16, 1945 photo of inmates (including an emaciated Elie Wiesel) at the then just-liberated Buchenwald. But he decided against that. Instead, each of the dozens of figures in his diorama bears the artist’s own face: a unique angle on the inevitable what-if-that-had-happened-to-me sort of question that the living inevitably ask when they contemplate the butchered and lost.

If the barracks in Gendelman’s paintings terrify in their accusing silence, his diorama of Birkenau, in a manner wholly different from a photo or movie, makes viewers keenly aware of their own bodies in space, figuratively incorporating themselves in the dreadful scene. The installation resurfaced in my mind’s eye after I’d left the building and remained lodged there days later when I was trying to go to sleep.

And then there was the mobile. In thinking about artful mobiles, most people are likely to conjure up the playful works of Alexander Calder that hang in major collections from Washington’s National Gallery to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Gendelman’s Arbeit Macht Frei: The Selection (2018) is a gruesome take on the genre. Installed in its own room directly across from the diorama, the largely metallic mobile is dominated at the top by the cynical phrase, “Work Sets Free,” set in exactly the same curved configuration as at the entrance to Auschwitz. Dangling from the top are rows of miniature barracks, empty paint jars recycled as Zyklon-B canisters, trains and train tracks, showerheads, hair, corpses, Nazi guards, barbed wire, more barracks, and judgment scales.

In the decadesafter the Holocaust, many artists attacked their canvases as if they were voodoo dolls, burning, tearing, cutting, and otherwise assaulting the picture plane. Such works, represented in the provocative 2013 exhibit, Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962, at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, illustrate one possible approach to exploring evil without glorifying it. Gendelman has opted for a different approach, at once more direct, more nuanced, and more purposive.

The idea of a Holocaust-themed mobile, for example, turns the playful, childish form on its head, and the enormous scale of the thing is surely enough to command attention. But like the mobile itself, the message hangs in the balance—as does memory of the Holocaust at a time when survivors and witnesses are dwindling and some countries complain they’re being blamed too much for not having protected innocent Jews.

On an hour-long walk-through of the Krakow exhibit, Gendelman expounded on his technique and its rationale. Thick paint evokes both the physical muck and the existential human quicksand that were the Nazi camps. Palette knives symbolize the tools used by inmates to apply mortar to the brickwork of chimneys like those through which the gaseous residue of their own incinerated bodies would ascend. The disused containers of artists’ paint, recycled into Zyklon-B canisters, comment bitterly on the artistic enterprise itself.

But, Gendelman pointed out, he also deploys symbolism pointing in another direction entirely. In several works, bits of blue sky gleam through, evoking the uncrushable hope that sustained the few who survived. In the high horizon lines of his landscapes, one spies transcendence and the presence of God.

In the exhibition catalog, Gendelman writes: “As memories of the Holocaust are replaced by history, post-witness contemporary art can serve as a powerful tool to awaken critical conversations.” He thus expects his creations to do double-duty, as art and as witness. Should they be called upon, indeed, they are prepared also to act as sentinels, exemplars of the awakened vigilance he urges upon all, and especially upon his fellow Jews. One gets the sense that his witness-paintings are up to the task.


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez compared the migrant caravan to Jews fleeing Nazi Europe. Is it a fair take?

Migrant children play as Mexican riot police look on outside the El Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, Nov. 22, 2018. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is just one of 435 members of the incoming U.S. House of Representatives, but her youth, surprise primary win in her Bronx-area district, socialism and, above all, outspokenness have attracted outsize attention.

So when Ocasio-Cortez, 29, likened the crisis at the U.S. border with Mexico to Jewish refugees that the United States turned away before World War II, the reactions came thick and fast.

“Asking to be considered a refugee & applying for status isn’t a crime,” Ocasio Cortez said Sunday on Twitter after U.S. border agents repelled Central American migrants with tear gas. “It wasn’t for Jewish families fleeing Germany. It wasn’t for targeted families fleeing Rwanda. It wasn’t for communities fleeing war-torn Syria. And it isn’t for those fleeing violence in Central America.”

Attached to her tweet was a now viral Reuters photo of a mother fleeing the tear gas clutching two toddlers, one in diapers.

A number of conservatives seized upon the tweet to suggest that Ocasio-Cortez was likening the migrants that President Donald Trump has labeled as “invaders” to the 6 million Jews who perished in the Nazi Holocaust.

“New York Democratic Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Sunday compared members of the migrant caravan attempting to enter the United States to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany during the Holocaust” was how the conservative online news site the Daily Caller framed its report on Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet.

“I recommend she take a tour of the Holocaust Museum in DC,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is close to Trump, said Monday in his own tweet. “Might help her better understand the differences between the Holocaust and the caravan in Tijuana.”

Here’s the thing: The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum wasn’t exactly distancing itself from Ocasio-Cortez’s comment.

Asked for comment on whether it is appropriate to liken the Central American refugees to Jews fleeing Germany, a museum spokesman pointed to its statement in 2017 when Trump announced plans to shrink refugee access to the United States. The statement suggested it is not out of place to liken the flight of Jews in the 1930s to subsequent refugee crises, even if the conditions in the home countries of the asylum seekers differ in scale or torment.

“The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is acutely aware of the consequences to the millions of Jews who were unable to flee Nazism, as noted in our November 2015 statement on the Syrian refugee crisis,” the 2017 statement said. “The Museum continues to have grave concern about the global refugee crisis and our response to it. During the 1930s and 1940s, the United States, along with the rest of the world, generally refused to admit Jewish refugees from Nazism due to antisemitic and xenophobic attitudes, harsh economic conditions, and national security fears.”

The Twitter account of Auschwitz, the museum and memorial at the site of the former Nazi concentration camp, also appeared to back Ocasio-Cortez in a tweet Tuesday.

“When we look at Auschwitz we see the end of the process,” the tweet read. “It’s important to remember that the Holocaust actually did not start from gas chambers. This hatred gradually developed from words, stereotypes & prejudice through legal exclusion, dehumanisation & escalating violence.”

The most famous case is that of the St. Louis, the German “voyage of the damned” turned away from the United States and Canada in 1939. (Historians estimate that a third of the 900 or so Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis perished in the Holocaust.) Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently apologized for his nation’s decision to turn away the ship; no U.S. president has.

Melanie Nezer, a vice president of HIAS, the lead Jewish refugee organization, said the laws governing how nations accept and process refugees were determined with the Holocaust as an immediate memory.

“The laws we have today in this country were based on the U.N. convention of 1951, which was based on Jewish refugees being turned away during World War II,” she said.

Migrants climb up a bank of the nearly dry Tijuana River as they attempt to make their way past a police blockade to the El Chaparral port, Nov. 25, 2018. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

That’s why, Nezer said, it made sense for Ocasio-Cortez to invoke not only the Jews turned away in the 1930s and ’40s, but subsequent refugee crises.

“The point she was making, and I think it was an appropriate one, was that countries must hear asylum claims,” said Nezer, who added that the Trump administration’s shutdown of the border at Tijuana was unprecedented in recent history and, in the view of HIAS, illegal.

Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America and the son of Jewish refugees, has become the most outspoken defender of Trump’s immigration policies among Jewish organization heads. In a series of tweets Sunday, Klein suggested that the Central American migrants aren’t actually refugees.

“Stop illegal immigration. They’re mostly healthy looking young men,” he said in one tweet, referring to the migrants at Tijuana.

He also asserted, “If these illegals were all conservatives who would likely vote republican, none of these leftwing supporters of these illegals would be supporting the illegals. None!”

Later, however, Klein conceded that seeking asylum in the U.S., with or without legal status, is not illegal. What’s new is a Trump policy saying those who enter the United States from Mexico between ports of entry are ineligible for asylum.

“Any person who is facing serious danger or oppression should be given every opportunity for asylum in the United States, just as my parents, survivors of the Holocaust, from Poland and Czechoslovakia, were given asylum,” Klein tweeted Sunday.

Nezer said the Central American refugees were denied the opportunity to apply for refugee status from a distance the way Jewish refugees could from the relative safety of a displaced persons camp. Others say the current system is not designed to facilitate the processing of large numbers of asylum seekers at the designated crossing points — especially families — although the administration counters that many of the migrants are gaming the system by falsely claiming persecution back home.

“A refugee is someone who has crossed a border because they don’t feel safe in their country,” Nezer said, obviating the prospect of the Central Americans applying for refugee status in their home countries.

She said the refugees have little choice but to turn up at the border and exercise their right to request asylum.

“There are no displaced person camps, Mexico is not safe for asylum seekers, particularly along the border,” where gangs and drug smugglers proliferate, Nezer said. “There’s no safe place for people to be processed, you’re not providing them a safe alternative place for them to apply.”


Does Britain’s focus on the Kindertransport hide a guilty conscience?

On December 2, the UK marks 80 years since the rescue of Jewish children from the Nazis, but the fate which befell some of those who made it to Britain is no cause for celebration

LONDON — At 5:30 a.m. on the morning of Friday, December 2, 1938, a boat carrying 206 children reached the British port of Harwich after a short journey across the North Sea from the Hook of Holland.

The Jewish children onboard, who were allowed to carry one suitcase and 10 reichsmarks (about $400 today), had left their homes and parents in Germany with just a 24-hour notice.

Six days after the first boat arrived, the former prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, launched a public appeal on behalf of Jewish refugees, declaring in a radio broadcast: “Thousands of men, women and children, despoiled of their goods, driven from their homes, are seeking asylum and sanctuary on our doorsteps, a hiding place from the wind and a covert from the tempest.”

A week later, the Cabinet of Baldwin’s successor, Neville Chamberlain, agreed to cut through the red tape of the visa system for children under 16 and lift all limits on the number allowed into the country.

Within a year, nearly 10,000 children would arrive in the UK on Kindertransport from Germany, Austria and the Czechoslovakia. As one of the most eminent historians of the Holocaust, the late Martin Gilbert, argued: “No other country made such an effort to take in Jewish children as Britain.” Indeed, legislation to allow the United States to undertake a similar initiative never made it out of congressional committees.

As the country marks the 80th anniversary of their arrival, Britain is rightly proud of the Kindertransport. Elderly survivors have been interviewed by newspapers; Prince Charles hosted a special reception; and exhibitions  are underway. The Kindertransport is etched into the national consciousness, a heartening prelude to the heroic stand the country would take alone against Nazism 18 months later.

Jewish children boarding ship as part of a kindertransport out of Nazi occupied Europe. (Courtesy of Pamela Sturhoofd)

The example of the Kindertransport is, moreover, not simply a matter of history. Its participants and their heirs have acquired a moral authority to speak out — and be heard — on contemporary issues surrounding refugees and migration.

There is no doubting the lasting gratitude Jewish child refugees feel towards the UK or the generosity of those who opened their homes to them. “I have the greatest admiration for England and the English people. They were the only country that took us in,” recalled one. “To my dying day, I will be grateful to this country,” suggested another.

Nor can anything detract from the heroism of individuals such as Sir Nicholas Winton —  “Britain’s Schindler” — who put themselves in great personal danger to oversee the rescue mission.

However, the focus on the Kindertransport also hides a somewhat guilty national conscience, both about those who were not able to escape to Britain, and the fates — including internment and deportation — which befell some of those “lucky ones” who did.

It was this bewildering change in attitude that caused one Jewish composer to write after his unexpected May 1940 internment: “Are these our friends, the same British people who received us in friendly fashion, recognized our work, offered our children their hospitality, gave us the feeling of a new homeland? … [And] now the friend comes with a changed, coldly unapproachable face, says ‘sorry’ and treats you, the trusting, grateful guest, like the worst enemy and criminal!”

Unseen images of those left behind

Louise London, author of “Whitehall And The Jews, 1933-1948 British Immigration Policy, Jewish Refugees and the Holocaust” has suggested: “The myth was born that Britain did all it could for the Jews between 1933 and 1945. This comfortable view has proved remarkably durable… We remember the touching photographs and newsreel footage of unaccompanied Jewish children arriving on the Kindertransports.

“There are no such photographs of the Jewish parents left behind in Nazi Europe… The Jews excluded from entry to the United Kingdom are not part of the British experience, because Britain never saw them.”

Moreover, while those Jewish refugees who made it to Britain were undeniably the lucky ones compared to those left trapped on the European continent, some of those the UK took in were later designated “enemy aliens” and faced internment and deportation to Canada and Australia.

Britain adopted a highly restrictive policy towards migrants throughout the 1930s. No exceptions were made for refugees, meaning that by early 1938 there were only about 10,000 Jewish refugees in the country.

Illustrative: The identity card of Herbert Levy, who was brought to England by Kindertransport from Berlin in Germany in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution, at his home in London, Thursday, November 21, 2013. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Moreover, they had been allowed into the UK only on the strictest conditions. Due to high unemployment, there were tight controls on refugees working; the British Jewish community had to give a guarantee that it would provide for their maintenance; and it was expected that most would be in the UK only on a temporary basis (although this eventually turned out not to be the case for many).

In the wake of the Anschluss, the screw was tightened further, with visas — which had been abolished — reintroduced for holders of German and Austrian passports. Immigrants, as one official put it, could now be selected “at leisure and in advance.”

The introduction of the notorious White Paper of 1939, which capped Jewish migration to Mandatory Palestine at 20,000 per year, closed off another potential route of escape. “The world is divided into places where [Jews] cannot live and places where they may not enter,” lamented future Israeli president Chaim Weizmann.

Only after Kristallnacht — in the face of strong public support and with even newspapers which had previously been sympathetic towards the Nazis and hostile towards Jewish refugees rapidly changing their tune – did the numbers of refugees admitted to the UK begin to climb. Even then, however, it is important to remember that the Kindertransport was not a government initiative, but, as Prof. Tony Kushner of Southampton University has argued, “a voluntary scheme funded and implemented by the British public.”

Visa issued to a Jewish woman accompanying the Kindertransport. (Wikimedia Commons)

By September 1939, the door was, once again, slammed shut as the government declared that it wouldn’t admit anyone to the UK from countries with which it was at war or were occupied by its enemy. At the time there were around 65,000 Jewish refugees from the Nazis in the UK, about 10,000 of them children. Behind these statistics, of course, lay heart-wrenching tales of children separated from parents who they would never see again.

The nature of the British government’s attitude towards Jewish refugees has been much debated. Some have argued that it was, as the historian Bernard Wasserstein concluded, “less a matter of deliberate anti-Jewish prejudice than of the limited horizons of bureaucratic thinking.” Others have defended its leniency or highlighted the government’s belief that allowing a large influx of refugees might kindle latent anti-Semitism.

“The last thing we wanted here was the creation of a ‘Jewish problem,’” the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, told a delegation from the Board of Deputies in 1938. This was a view that also found favor with some communal groups.

Moreover, the government also feared that any loosening of its restrictions might potentially provoke further large-scale expulsions of Jews by the Nazis.

Immigrants and other ‘suspects’ en route to an internment camp from London, June 13, 1940. (AP Photo)

There is, however, little doubt that, within the ranks of the governing Conservative party and its allies in the press (especially the pro-Nazi Daily Mail) there was an at-times ill-disguised noxious mix of snobbery and anti-Semitism.

Chamberlain himself wrote privately after Kristallnacht: “I believe the persecution arose out of two motives; A desire to rob the Jews of their money and a jealousy of their superior cleverness.” So as to leave his correspondent as in no doubt as to his own attitude, the prime minister added: “No doubt the Jews aren’t a lovable people; I don’t care about them myself — but that is not sufficient to explain the Pogrom.”

Thankfully, Chamberlain’s attitude was not shared by a number of his successors in Downing Street and their families. Clement Attlee, who served as Winston Churchill’s deputy during the war and then went on to lead the post-war Labour government, was recently revealed to have sponsored a Jewish family to come to Britain in 1939, and taken in one of the sons for a number of months.

Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. (Wikimedia/Public Domain)

Margaret Thatcher’s family helpedher sister’s Austrian Jewish pen pal to escape Vienna after the Anschluss. Edith Mühlbauer lived with the family for a time, an experience which appears to have shaped the late prime minister’s life-long detestation of anti-Semitism. Thatcher’s predecessor in Downing Street, James Callaghan, also provided a home to a non-Jewish Austrian journalist who had fled the Nazis.

Many other Britons showed similar compassion and generosity. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig christened the country which had become his home “this good island.”

But some refugees were to find Britain comically insular: “I hear you come from Germany. Did you know the Goerings?” one London society hostess asked the Jewish publisher George Weidenfeld.

‘Collar the lot’

The summer of 1940 marked a moment of acute anxiety for the British people as a German invasion of their country appeared imminent. That anxiety was shared by new arrivals who faced the prospect of falling into the hands of those they had escaped. But rather than providing a unifying sentiment, the common anxiety between newcomers and native Britons proved for a time to be decidedly divisive.

Days before Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, emergency legislation was rushed through parliament giving the Home Secretary the power to intern “enemy aliens” — non-naturalized Germans and Austrians living within the UK — in the event of war.

In a mammoth and chaotic bureaucratic exercise, which drew on assessments provided by the grossly overstretched and undermanned security services, some 120 tribunals were then established to examine the cases of 70,000 people.

Enemy aliens, who were arrested in a big police round-up, leave London, England, May 17, 1940, under a heavy military escort for internment camps. (AP Photo)

A small minority — mainly Nazi sympathizers — were deemed to fall into “Category A” and were immediately locked up. Those whose cases were harder to assess — “Category B” — were not interned but subject to certain restrictions. The vast majority of those assessed — some 66,000 people, including most refugees and Jews — were granted a “Category C” status and were exempt from internment or restrictions.

However, as Hitler’s armies swept across western Europe in the spring of 1940, panic set in. Fears that “Quislings” could stab the country in the back and assist a German invasion as they had done in Norway were widespread.

Sir Nevile Bland, Britain’s ambassador to the recently conquered Netherlands, called for all Germans and Austrians to be immediately interned, warning against “satellites of the monster all over the country who will at once embark on widespread sabotage and attacks on civilians and the military indiscriminately.”

Domestic servants — one of the few jobs that refugees had been allowed to take — were, he added, “a real and grave menace.”

Soon the press was in full cry. The Daily Mail which, ironically, had been the Nazis’ best friend in Fleet Street, demanded all aliens — men and women — be locked up in “a remote part of the country.”

‘Class B’ women arriving at Fulham Road Police Station in London, May 27, 1940, before being interned in camps on the Isle of Man. (AP Photo)

The government, which had trod carefully at first, caved in. All those in “Category B”; all male enemy aliens living near the coasts where the Germans were expected to land; and, finally, all men in “Category C” became subject to internment as the order to “collar the lot” went out from Winston Churchill’s Cabinet.

A variety of holding and permanent camps on the Isle of Man and around Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Bury, Huyton, Sutton Coldfield, London, Kempton Park, Lingfield, Seaton and Paignton, began to fill up. It is calculated that some 27,000 enemy aliens, including 4,000 women and many Jews, were eventually interned.

A ‘bespattered page’ of British history

Today, the mass internment is considered not only morally wrong and pointless, but also potentially perilous. It focused the security services’ attention on those who posed no threat to the country while allowing “Fifth Columnists,” who most certainly did, the chance to escape proper scrutiny.

As Anthony Grenville argues in his new book “Encounters With Albion: Britain and the British in Texts by Jewish Refugees from Nazism,” this event marked the “darkest chapter” — a “bespattered page” as one MP put it in a parliamentary debate in August 1940 — in the story of the relationship between Jewish refugees and Britain.

‘Encounters With Albion’ by Anthony Grenville. (Courtesy)

By examining the writings of Jews who had escaped to the UK, Grenville has pieced together an invaluable account of the feelings of shock, anger and confusion which those who were interned experienced.

The police who rounded up detainees, and the soldiers who later guarded them, were frequently friendly and humane, and many refugees recorded acts of kindness on the part of British civilians.

However, conditions, especially in the holding camps, were often bleak and disorganized. “How unspeakably repulsive is everything that impinges on one’s five senses,” recorded the Austrian composer Hans Gál.

But, as Grenville notes, it was the psychological and emotional impact, rather than the physical discomfort, which many Jewish refugees found most difficult to take.

It was, argued composer Gál two days after his arrest in May 1940, the feeling of “this most senseless of all senselessness.”

Grenville believes that for Jewish refugees the government’s policy undermined “the stable core of their identity by placing their loyalty in question and treating them as potential traitors.”

Deprived of their status as “loyal adherents to the Allied cause, [they] were suddenly treated like the Nazis, their persecutors,” Grenville writes.

Moreover, even attempts by soldiers at tactfulness — one officer welcomed his charges to the Isle of Man with a speech but carefully avoided any references to victory — sometimes added insult to injury, by suggesting that the refugees were not also willing the Nazis’ defeat.

The Austrian Jewish composer Hans Gal was arrested and interned in 1940. (Wikimedia Commons)

Detention on the Isle of Man — a rugged island in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland — provoked a particular fear for those held there. Although safe from the air raids their families were enduring on the mainland, the island offered no way of escape if the Germans invaded.

As the camps began to overflow, the government accepted offers from its allies in Canada and Australia and began the process of deporting some of those it had detained. Logic dictated that the minority to be sent overseas should be those Nazi sympathizers who posed a clear and present danger to the UK. Initially, that appears to have been the plan, but in the ensuing chaos such considerations broke down.

On the Isle of Man, for instance, an attempt to draw up lists of those whose loyalty was suspect was abandoned, and it was instead decided to transport young and unmarried men. From June 24 to July 10, 1940, five boats carrying more than 7,500 internees set sail for Canada and Austria. Aboard at least some of them were a mix of Nazis, Italian fascists (internment had applied to Italians living in the UK after Mussolini declared war in June 1940) and Jewish refugees.

On July 2, tragedy struck and one of the vessels, the Arandora Star, was torpedoed in the Atlantic and sunk by a German u-boat as it made its way to Canada. On board were 712 Italians, 438 Germans — including Nazi sympathizers and Jewish refugees — and 374 British seaman and soldiers. Over half lost their lives.

While the government attempted to quiet the ensuing public outcry by falsely claiming that all of those on board were prisoners of war or “Category A” enemy aliens, it soon changed course.

An inglorious u-turn

As public sympathy for refugees rose, the Home Office released details of categories of those interned who would be eligible for release. In August, over 1,600 German, Austrian and Italian internees were freed; by October the number had risen to 5,000 and 8,000 in December. By the following spring, 12,500 internees had been released and as 1942 broke the number of enemy aliens detained, mainly on the Isle of Man, had dropped to 5,000.

The Arandora Star being tied up at Southampton, England, on August 26, 1939, after being called back to port days before WWII. (AP Photo)

The release process was, however, as chaotic as the round up. “Internees were apparently released entirely at random,” writes Grenville. “Many refugees saw the logical inconsistency underlying the British policy of release: they had been interned as security risks, but were being released according to criteria relating to health, hardship, or usefulness to the war effort.”

However, as the government executed an inglorious u-turn, terrible events were unfolding on the high seas. The Dunera, a passenger ship which was used extensively to ferry troops around once the war broke out, left Liverpool on July 10.

While its capacity was 1,600 including crew, the vessel was crammed with over 2,500 detainees. Around 2,000 were refugees — the vast majority Jewish — but also on board were 450 Italian and German prisoners of war, among their ranks fascists and Nazi sympathizers. The ship also carried some survivors from the Arandora Star.

In the Irish Sea, the Dunera itself was also hit by two torpedoes — the first failed to detonate, the second passed underneath the boat as it rose in the notoriously choppy waters.

Unaware of their destination — many thought the boat was headed to Canada or South Africa — the “Dunera Boys,” as they became known, steamed towards Australia.

Overcrowding ensured that conditions during the 57-day voyage were dire. Men were forced to sleep on the floors and benches, and were kept below deck for all but 30 minutes a day, with the portholes fastened tight. There were just 10 toilets and fresh water was provided only two or three times a week. Razors and shaving equipment were confiscated.

Some of the troops guarding the detainees — “the worst in the British army,” according to one survivor — stole from those on board. Many of the passengers found their luggage, passports, and even false teeth had been thrown overboard. Religious vestments — some of which had been rescued from burning synagogues in Germany — were ripped from their owners. Guards were also accused of engaging in deliberate acts of cruelty, smashing bottles on the decks which they knew barefoot passengers would have to walk on.

When the ship arrived in Sydney on 6 September, an appalled Australian medical officer came aboard. As news filtered back to London, questions were asked in parliament.

The British troopship Dunera, leaving Southampton, England, in November 1937. (AP Photo)

Churchill apologized and later described the incident as “a deplorable mistake.” A court martial was ordered and some of the guards were punished and imprisoned, with the ship’s senior officer suffering a severe reprimand. A fund to compensate the passengers for their stolen and lost items was established.

Many of the men were scientists, academics and artists, and their arrival was later seen as “the greatest injection of talent to enter Australia on a single vessel.” That was apparent immediately at the camps in Tatura in Victoria and Hay in New South Wales where they were held.

A university was established, cultural and sporting events organized and a constitution drawn up, giving the camps, in the words of one detainee, “the character of a small working republic.” While the process of release was slower than in England, by the middle of 1942 at least 1,300 had been freed.

The story of the “Dunera boys” is largely unknown in Britain, but it is celebrated in Australia where around half of the detainees later settled. Some — such as the philosopher Peter Herbst, political scientist Henry Mayer and physicist Hans Buchdahl — became leading academic figures in the country. Others shone in the worlds of business, culture and sport.

Many of the other refugees who chose to return to Britain took up an offer from the government to enlist in the army and assist in the war effort. They joined the estimated 10,000 refugees who served in the British forces. This was the opportunity — to work alongside those who had provided them with refuge to fight their common enemy — which the Jews who fled Hitler had wanted all along. Belatedly, they were granted it.


The museum then displays the government document registering the Franks’ deportation on a cattle car train to Auschwitz.

hotos of Anne Frank are seen at Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, November 21, 2018

Photos of Anne Frank are seen at Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, November 21, 2018.. (photo credit: REUTERS/EVA PLEVIER)

The museum, built around the secret apartment, has opened after being revamped to receive a new generation of visitors whose grandparents were born after World War II.

The museum and tiny apartment where Anne Frank wrote her diary — which has become the most widely-read document to emerge from the Holocaust — attract 1.2 million visitors annually.

Anne’s story is told through simple photos, quotes from her diary and video testimony of survivors. Curators have now added an audio tour.

“We sometimes say that the Anne Frank House Museum is one of the only museums in the world that doesn’t have much more to offer than empty spaces,” said museum director Ronald Leopold.

View of the entrance of the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands November 21, 2018. Picture taken November 21, 2018.

View of the entrance of the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands November 21, 2018. Picture taken November 21, 2018. 

“An audio tour gave us the ability to give information without disturbing what I think is one of the most powerful elements of this house: its emptiness,” he said.

A trip through the museum, which was reopened by Dutch King Willem-Alexander on Thursday, begins with the history of the Frank family, their flight to the Netherlands after Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and their decision to go into hiding on July 6, 1942.

Visitors pass through the swinging bookcase that concealed the cramped secret annex above a warehouse where Anne, her sister Margot, her father Otto, mother Edith and four other Jews hid until they were arrested by German police on August 4, 1944.

The museum then displays the government document registering the Franks’ deportation on a cattle car train to Auschwitz.

Anne was later transferred to the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, where she died in early 1945 aged 15, one of the six million Jews who lost their life under the Nazi regime.
Photos are seen inside the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, November 21, 2018.

Photos are seen inside the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, November 21, 2018. 

Of those that hid in the secret apartment, only Otto Frank survived the war. He was given Anne’s diary, which had been preserved by Miep Gies, a member of the tight circle of Dutch friends that helped the Jews in hiding.

In a film clip, Otto Frank describes reading the diary after a period of grieving.

“I must say I was very much surprised about the deep thoughts there she had; her seriousness, especially her self-criticism. It was quite a different Anne I had known as my daughter,” he said.

View of a room inside the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, November 21, 2018. Picture taken November 21, 2018.

View of a room inside the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, November 21, 2018. Picture taken November 21, 2018.

“My conclusion is, as I had been on very, very good terms with her, that most parents don’t know — don’t know really — their own children,” Frank said.

The museum concludes with a simple room where the original red-and-white bound diary — which outgrew its covers — and several additional pages are on display. Photographs are not allowed due to the fragility of the pages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over the years, the guilt has transformed to anger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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