Category Archive: Essays

Portrait of Papa as a Young Man

In my grandfather’s village, I found the man he’d been before memories of the Holocaust destroyed him

goldstein_121112_620pxOn Aug. 9, 1982, the day before my fifth birthday, my grandfather killed himself. After taking a fatal dose of sleeping pills, he went into the living room and lay down on the couch, where my grandmother found him the following morning.

I have few memories of my grandfather, whom we called Papa. Occasionally, there was a hushed comment or two about “the war,” but when I was young, I had little sense of what that meant. According to my mother, Papa had terrible nightmares, his screams occasionally waking her and my uncle when they were young. Like most Holocaust survivors, my grandparents rarely discussed the war with their kids, and so my mother assumed that the night terrors were perfectly normal, that all fathers occasionally woke their children with their shrieking. It was all she knew.

After the war Papa owned a supermarket in the Bronx, which he sold around the time I was born. Without the store to occupy his time, he was perpetually restless. There was an unmistakable sadness to him, his cheeks lean and hollowed, his icy blue eyes a shade too big for his face. Whenever he visited, he’d take me onto his lap, kiss the top of my head, and tell me that I was his lawyer. It was a joke I didn’t understand then, and it makes little sense to me now. He was gentle and sweet, and I was his lawyer. Then he disappeared. I’ve been searching for him for 30 years now.


Over time, I’ve gathered additional bits and pieces of his life story, most of which came from my mother and centered on Papa’s experiences during the Holocaust. He married my grandmother, whom I called Baba, a few months after the Soviets and Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. His brothers were killed in 1941 after the Nazis broke their pact with the Soviets and occupied all of Poland. In 1942, he and Baba were herded into a ghetto in Ternopil and spent time in work camps. The following year, fearing that the ghetto would be liquidated, they fled back to Janow, the small Polish village where they’d grown up. From then until the Russian army liberated the village, they hid in a bunker in the cellar of a house owned by the Kryvorukas, gentile neighbors who risked their lives to save village Jews.

According to one story my mother heard from my grandfather, a Ukrainian policia once held a gun to the head of the youngest Kryvoruka child, Yulka, and demanded to know where the Jews were. Yulka remained silent even after the policia fired a warning shot behind his head and so saved the Jews hiding in the cellar. On another occasion, whoever was supposed to be keeping watch in the attic had taken the night off. My grandfather ran to the lookout in time to see a group of soldiers trudging through a heavy snowdrift. The reason that he had time to gather everyone and scramble to the cellar to hide was that one of the soldiers dropped his pistol, and the others got on their hands and knees and groped and yelled at each other until they found it. Meanwhile, Baba, Papa, and about a dozen other Jews hustled into the bunker to safety. It is The Pianist meets The Three Stooges, and it is only because of absurdities like this that I exist.

In 2003, more than 20 years after Papa committed suicide, Baba died of complications from Alzheimer’s. While sitting shiva, my family gathered to share stories of Baba and Papa, and we realized once again how little we knew. It was then that one of my brothers or cousins first proposed a trip to Janow. Somehow, though, there never seemed to be a good time, and we procrastinated for years.

Finally, in late 2010, we got around to planning our trip. Through Yad Vashem, we were able to find the contact information for the offspring of Yulka Kryvoruka, the brave neighbor who’d saved our grandparents 70 years before. Yulka had died in 1991, and his children wished to have him recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, an honor for gentiles who’d saved Jews during the war. After a few weeks of exchanging letters, Yulka’s children agreed to meet us in Janow. I wasn’t sure what I hoped to learn, but some part of me thought that if I could see the setting of Papa’s nightmares, I could feel closer to him. I thought I might finally find him there.

When we arrived at Janow, we pulled over on a road by the village’s entrance in front of the welcome sign. After taking a picture or two, my brother Jon and my wife Zoe and I ran up to the top of a hill so we could take in a better view of the village. I’d been expecting the village to feel dark and haunted. When I’d dreamed of it, the images were always in black and white, the landscape ghostly and stark, the buildings crude, burnt-out husks.

But Janow, it turned out, was beautiful. And it wasn’t just beautiful, but exquisitely, heartbreakingly, every neuron-in-your-brain-taking-a-giddy-gulp-of-pastoral-ambrosia beautiful. The rolling green hills were covered in purple and yellow wildflowers. There were thick, healthy bees, swollen as grapes. There were low, winding brooks and fruit trees. In the distance we could see the sun glinting off the cross atop a cupola on a moss-green monastery. Below us, the Seret River ran through the village, a turbid bubbling artery, its banks covered in mud and damp grass.

After asking a few villagers where the Kryvorukas lived, we drove up to a small blue house, the path to the front door flanked by gnarled grapevines. A man and a woman walked toward the car. The woman introduced herself as Ludmyla Kryvoruka. The man was her twin brother, Yuri. Yulka’s children.

Inside, we sat and offered each other apologetic smiles. After a few minutes of exchanging pictures, we began to communicate through Alex, our tour guide. I cleared my throat and said what I’d rehearsed in my head a dozen times—something about how unusually brave and heroic their father was and how he was responsible for all of us being here. Ludmyla’s eyes grew damp. Though their father had occasionally talked about the war, he apparently said little about my grandparents. Our encounter with the Kryvorukas was gentle, suffused with a kind of stilted warmth, but clumsy. And I discovered nothing new from them about Papa.

Later we learned that the house where my grandparents had hidden was still standing. It sat at the edge of the village, about two kilometers away. My mother, Ludmyla, and her son drove with Alex. Zoe, Jon, and I walked with Yuri and his dog.

After a kilometer we ambled down a steep grassy embankment to the muddy banks of the Seret. In the distance, at the edge of an untilled field, was the house. A broad, thickly forested hill rose behind it, marking the edge of the village. This was the forest where my Baba’s youngest brother, David, for whom I’m named, was shot and killed. The scattered bones of dozens of victims must still be lodged in the earth.

The house itself, like most homes in the village, was simple and crude, a dirty white-and-blue façade with a weathered brown roof. From 100 yards away, I could see the tiny attic window through which Papa kept watch.

By the time we crossed the field, Mom, Ludmyla, her son, and Alex were on the porch with the middle-aged woman who now owned the house. Inside, the floor was coated in dust and covered in bent metallic wires. Next to a low pile of splintered wood planks was a naked doll missing its legs, its head twisted all the way around.

To our left was the room where the policia took Yulka and fired a shot over his head. To our right, through the room covered in bent wire, was the entrance to the cellar.

The cellar was only about six stairs deep. By stair three, my throat started to close as I felt a rising sense of panic, a combination of claustrophobia and fear of insects and rats and whatever else might have been skittering around in that dank, pitch-black hole.

How 13 or 14 people could have fit down here was beyond me. I tried to engage in the imaginative exercise that I’d thought was the point of the trip, tried to picture what it would have been like to hide here, all those cramped and trembling bodies, the damp and mold in their lungs, the yeasty tang of animal fear, the knowledge that a cough or sneeze would mean instant death.

But it’s impossible to really imagine it. I saw it the way I’d see a suspenseful scene in a movie, staged and artificial. The idea of being down there, choked with dust, possibly moments away from oblivion, simply wasn’t something I could grasp. It certainly brought me no closer to my grandfather, and I’d begun to appreciate how insane it had been to assume that it would.

When we returned to Yuri’s home, Alex, Mom, and Ludmyla were talking to an old man who lived down the road. He had bright blue eyes and bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows. Alex asked the old man if he knew my grandfather’s family—Pohoryles was their name. He thought for a moment and then nodded, tentatively at first, then emphatically. “Yes,” said Alex. “He knows the name.”

“Nahmush,” Mom said, her voice earnest and hopeful. “My father’s name was Nahmush.”

The man thought again and this time his eyes lit up as he slapped the back of one hand into an upturned palm.

“Yes, yes,” Alex translated. “Nahmush Pohoryles. His family sold grain. Lived right over there.” He gestured to a house up the road. “Yes. I’m sure of it.”

As if on cue, we spotted an elderly woman hobbling toward us with a crude walking stick. She wore a black headscarf, even though it was probably 90 degrees in the midday sun. When Alex addressed her, her face brightened and she began speaking with great animation. The moment she heard the name Pohoryles, she nodded and pointed to the same house the old man had. She then went on a long monologue, and we listened with astonishment as Alex translated and revealed an impressive array of biographical detail. Her mother used to deliver milk to the Pohoryles. Baba’s mother used to give her a roll on Shabbat. Papa was the youngest of three brothers; he was handsome and charming, but very serious, a good businessman. Everyone knew and liked him.

Suddenly I could see Papa as a young man, his hair thick and black, his lean and handsome face radiating a friendly professional intensity. In the 1930s, Janow was a village of over 2,000 people, and everyone knew him. I’d devoted so much mental energy to picturing Papa in hiding that I hadn’t once attempted to picture him in his day-to-day prewar life. In 1938, he was 25 years old, a decade younger than I am now. That’s the only Nahmush these villagers knew. The tormented old man with the large bloodshot eyes, the man I knew when I was a child, would be totally alien to them.

Surely my grandfather wasn’t simply sitting around Janow waiting for the Nazis to invade, for his life to become a hopeless tragedy that would end in suicide. Standing there on a flower-dotted hill, drinking in the gorgeous sun-struck landscape, listening to these charming villagers talk about my Papa, I got a small taste of what it might have felt like to be in Janow before the war. I’d thought that the point of the trip was to see the blasted, war-torn landscape where he’d almost died, but instead I found the gorgeous pastoral village where he’d lived, where he’d been more than just a victim, where he’d been an actual three-dimensional person who played and loved and thrived, and perhaps this was a far richer, more valuable thing to discover.

For a moment, I found him. I can imagine my prewar grandparents as young and in love, splashing in the Seret, surrounded by wildflowers and turkeys, giggling and happy. Such simple joys don’t begin to make up for what happened to them. Nothing can. But there’s value in remembering that their lives were more than the war and its attendant trauma. It’s something that, in a moment of terrible loneliness and pain, my gentle Papa forgot.



Grandma’s Lost Challah, Found

How I discovered a recipe for the sourdough bread my grandmother made, before she died in the Holocaust

challah_051412_620pxRich Sourdough Barches (Challah)

My mother had always insisted that her mother was an amazing baker, and her challah was second to none. So, when I first started baking challah, I wanted my grandmother’s recipe. But my grandmother wasn’t available for asking. She was dead, murdered by the Nazis.

Back in the late 1980s, when I was a new bride, I phoned my mother long distance, from my home in Jerusalem to her home in New York. “I don’t have a recipe,” she told me. “Why potchke? Buy! The bakery makes such good challahs.”

But I wanted to bake. I wanted to stretch my muscles, dirty my fingers, and knead my prayers into my dough as I imagined my grandmother had done.

“Are you sure you don’t remember?” I prodded.

My mother remembered one detail about my grandmother’s technique: “She used to save a piece from the dough and put it into the next week’s dough.”

From Torah classes, I knew about the Showbread of the Holy Temple, the Lehem HaPanim, and about the Matriarch Sarah’s challah—both of which remained fresh throughout the week. Since my grandmother was a rabbi’s daughter, I imagined that by saving this piece, my grandmother was copying Sarah and the ancient Temple priests. But who could be sure? I never imagined that I’d solve the mystery of this esoteric ritual—and that it would lead me to a deeper connection with my grandmother.


Born at the turn of the 20th century in Czenger, in northeastern Hungary, Cecilia Tzirel Blau was the fourth of six children. An intelligent child, she attended school until she was 16, a long time in those days. In her early twenties, she married Chaim Bleier, a handsome former yeshiva student and World War I veteran who was 10 years her senior. Less than a year later, she gave birth to a son and named him after Theodor Herzl; he died in infancy.

During childbirth, my grandmother contracted puerperal, or childbed, fever, which almost killed her. Her doctor ordered her to stop having children, but the following year she became pregnant again. Like the biblical matriarchs, her desire to give life outweighed her desire to live. Again, she became ill, but this time both she and the baby survived. That baby was my mother, my grandmother’s only child.

In 1930, my grandfather immigrated to America illegally. He planned to bring over the rest of the family, but by the time he could afford boat tickets, war had broken out. In the spring of 1944, my mother and grandmother were deported. Upon their arrival at Auschwitz, a man approached them. “Nisht a tochter und a mama—shverstern,” he said: You aren’t mother and daughter—tell the Nazis that you are sisters. The Nazis were only interested in keeping young people alive, so they could work; if they’d known my grandmother’s actual age, she would have been sent to the gas chambers.

The scam nearly worked. My grandmother survived for six months. Then in October 1944, as she and my mother were being moved to another camp, my grandmother vanished. “I turned around and she was gone,” my mother recalled. No one knows whether she was shot or gassed or beaten to death. Every year on the day after Simchat Torah, my mother lights a yahrzeit candle.

I am my mother’s first child and only daughter. From my grandmother, I inherited my name—Carol is an Anglicization of Tzirel—my high cheekbones, my curly hair, my love of books and, according to my mother, a passion for baking challah.

Over time, I’ve learned about other challah recipes, shapes, and braiding techniques. I’ve heard of 12-braid challah, challah baked with chocolate chips, challah shaped like a hangman’s noose (for Purim), but I could never find a recipe that mentioned my grandmother’s practice of saving dough.

Until now. Reading Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories From the Golden Age of Jewish Baking, which came out several months ago, I found a sentence in the challah chapter that seemed to bop me over the head: “In the west of the Yiddishe heym—Germany, Austria, Hungary …. Barches were … leavened with wild yeast, giving it a pronounced sourdough flavor.”

From my own research into Jewish culinary history, I knew that barches was a European name for challah, an acronym of the phrase birkat Hashem hi teasher—the Lord’s blessing brings riches. But I’d never heard of sourdough challah. I knew enough about baking, however, to know that sourdough involves a starter, essentially a bit of fermented dough that’s saved from week to week. Could it be, I wondered, that my grandmother’s saved piece of dough was actually sourdough starter?

I phoned my mother. Like a detective ferreting out evidence, I was careful in my questioning.

“That dough your mother saved,” I asked, “what kind of container did she store it in?”

That would be a telltale sign. Sourdough starter required an earthenware or glass home to survive.

“It was a crock,” she told me.

That was it. My story about my grandmother emulating Sarah the Matriarch, carrying on the ancient tradition of the Showbread from Temple days, was as phony as Bernie Madoff’s stock fund. But I didn’t care. I was thrilled! There was no grave to visit, and only some photographs and tablecloths as mementos of a woman I never met, so this recipe would take me as close as I could ever get to her.

I got to work making my first ever batch of sourdough starter. Following the instructions in Joy of Cooking, I combined flour, water, and yeast into a substance that looked suspiciously similar to beige house paint. For a week, my starter sat on my windowsill shrouded with a white dishtowel. Like an anxious mother of a newborn, I checked it constantly, stirring it every so often with a wooden spoon to bring on the desired chemical reaction.

As Irma Rombauer writes in Joy of Cooking, sourdough is for the “adventurous, persistent and leisurely cook.” After a full week, my starter bubbled and let out a strong smell, which I hoped indicated that the desired fermentation had occurred.

Using the starter, I tried the Rich Sourdough Barches recipe from Inside the Jewish Bakery, which the authors say is adapted from the Trumat HaDeshen, the writings of 15th-century sage Rabbi Israel ben Petachiah Isserlein. Excited as I was to be taking this journey into culinary history, the cookbook’s description of a “pronounced sourdough flavor” made me fear that my challah would taste acidic, and the dough’s firmness and long rising time made me worry that my barches would be tough. So, I hedged my bet and made sourdough barches rolls instead. Since rolls weren’t quite as majestic as full-sized challahs, I reckoned that I wouldn’t feel quite as devastated if they ended up in the trash.

Throughout the baking, I kept opening the oven door to check that my rolls were rising. When they finally puffed up, I could hardly wait to taste them. I hoped they’d be good; I didn’t want to think that my grandmother, in whose memory I was doing this, baked lousy bread.

I wasn’t disappointed. Savory and strongly flavored, the rolls were wonderfully hearty, like good country bread. The following Thursday, I used the recipe to bake two wonderful loaves of challah. Since then, I’ve become a little addicted to sourdough, replenishing the starter and baking every week.

They say that the dead know the affairs of the living. Could it be that my grandmother watches me as I try to copy her? If she is, I hope she’s smiling.



Six Cups

A wedding present, a family history, and Ukraine’s dark 20th century, 75 years after Babi Yar

By Natalia A. Feduschak

The miniature porcelain cups sitting in the china cabinet of our dining room have long been my favorites. From childhood, I admired their delicate form and the images of Napoleon and his second wife, Marie-Louise, Duchess of Parma, framed by decorative patterns. The blue-and-yellow cups accented with golden hues were accompanied by three similarly decorated saucers. As a child I often gazed at them, imagining a more fanciful era.

After trips home from overseas travels, I dusted the cups, placing them back carefully in their traditional place against the cabinet wall. One day, on a phone call with my aunt during travels to a land Marie-Louise had ruled, I mentioned the cups and wondered where my late father had purchased them. He loved to collect antiques and had amassed over the years many pieces of silver, crystal, and china, all displayed in the cabinet.

“They were never your father’s,” my aunt said, much to my shock. And then she shared their story.

One evening in what must have been the spring of 1941, a knock came on the door of the apartment my grandfather and his family inhabited in German-occupied Krakow, Poland. Upon opening it, my aunt found a husky well-dressed Jewish man she had never seen before.

“I am looking for Oleksa Yaworsky,” the gentleman said. My lawyer grandfather often received clients at home so my aunt led the man to his cabinet.

Inside, the man pulled a wooden box from his underneath his coat and placed it on Grandfather’s desk. Opening it, he revealed six small cups, three bearing the image of Napoleon and three of his wife Marie-Louise.

“They are taking us tomorrow,” the man said. “If we survive, I will contact you and take them back. If not, I entrust you with their safekeeping.”

They were, he said, his wedding present.

The man never returned for the contents of his box.


My grandfather was born in 1896 in the village of Kotuziv at a time when relations between Ukrainians and Jews were affable on the territory of what was then known as Eastern Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled by the Habsburgs in Vienna. Although Kotuziv “birthed few intellectuals,” as he put it, my grandfather attended the gymnasium in the nearby towns of Berezhany and Buchach, being the only of his five siblings to get an education.

Like many of his compatriots, my grandfather fought for an independent Ukrainian state during World War I. When dreams of freedom ended for the Ukrainian people, he studied law at the clandestine Ukrainian university in Lviv, established after the Poles abolished Ukrainian-language faculties from the Habsburg era. He married my grandmother, a medical student, in 1922. After the university failed to receive official recognition from the ruling authorities of the Second Polish Republic, he entered Krakow’s famed Jagiellonian University. He again studied law, keeping awake at night by sticking his feet in buckets of cold water. He graduated in 1929, and soon after opened a notary office in Pidhaitsi, a town a mere 12 miles northwest of where he was born. He was active in Eastern Galicia’s political life, traveling through villages educating its Ukrainian inhabitants about politics and their rights.

He ran for a seat in Poland’s parliament from the Ukrainian National Democratic Alliance, the largest Ukrainian political party in the Republic, and won twice, in 1928 and 1930. UNDO was democratic, supported agrarian reform, the expansion of the Ukrainian cooperative movement, and worked closely with women’s organizations.

UNDO supported Jewish civil rights, and protested acts of anti-Semitism and attempts to limit Jewish cultural practices. UNDO concurrently favored Ukrainian economic development, the expansion of cooperatives, and the boycott of non-Ukrainian businesses, which created inherent economic tensions with Jewish- and Polish-owned firms. The party denounced the acts of terrorism practiced by the radical Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.

In 1935, tired of surrendering part of his salary to the party as required, my grandfather opened a law office in Pidhaitsi. It did not come without a struggle. Short on funds, his fellow Ukrainians found reasons not to lend him money. One day walking through downtown, dejected, he ran into a Jewish friend, who asked why the sad face. Grandfather explained the situation. Immediately, the man offered to lend him the money. My grandfather insisted he sign a promissory note. The man refused.

“You will have a very successful business and pay me back soon.”

My grandfather did, and life in Pidhaitsi took on a regular tempo, as regular as it could be in that politically uncertain time.

The family had rented quarters in a building owned by the rabbi’s brother. My aunt remembers the rabbi coming over and bouncing her on his lap. She’d pull on his beard; he’d give her matzah, a food she loves to this day.

My grandfather continued to be involved in Ukrainian community affairs, traveling throughout Eastern Galicia, propagating ethnic and political rights. Then hell pierced the skies of Europe and the rhythmic lives of millions came to an end.

On Sept. 1, 1939, my grandfather was arrested by the Polish authorities and taken to Bereza Kartuska, an internment camp for individuals the Polish state viewed as a threat. Just over two weeks later, the camp shut down, after staff learned the Soviet Union had invaded their homeland.

It took just as many weeks for my grandfather to return to Pidhaitsi. No sooner had he arrived than a Jewish friend, seeing him, warned, “Oleksa, what are you doing here? The communists are looking for you.”

A day later, my grandfather headed for Krakow, a city he had come to know well. The family settled in an apartment near Wawel Castle. Life in Krakow centered on school, Ukrainian community life, and work. My aunt remembers playing at the park across the street from their home, known as the Planty, and seeing and hearing a melody of recognizable people.

“And then one day, the Jewish children were all gone,” she said in another phone call many years after she shared the story of the wedding cups.

I knew that my grandfather had administered a Jewish business in Krakow. But what I didn’t realize was the first apartment where my family lived in the city was owned by a Jewish businessman, a Mr. Holzner. It is not clear to me how Grandfather came to administer Mr. Holzner’s wholesale watch business, which was located on Swietego Sebastiana 4, a stately street near Wawel Castle. In January and February of 1940, all of Krakow’s Jewish properties and enterprises, with the exception of small shops, were confiscated by the governing German authorities. Germans were given the important enterprises to run while Ukrainians and Poles the less significant, like the watch business.

My grandfather, however, arrived in Krakow in early October 1939 and moved into the Swietego Sebastiana 4 apartment before this order was issued. It may be that Mr. Holzner reached an agreement with my grandfather about running the business before he and his family had fled to Switzerland. Or perhaps not.

What is known is that three Jewish workers stayed on and unofficially ran the company. According to my aunt, my grandfather was able to secretly transfer funds to Mr. Holzner in Switzerland. In a 2008 email, my aunt wrote:

How and how much I don’t know, and eventually Holzner immigrated to Brazil, where he opened a bank. After the war Dido [Grandfather in Ukrainian] wrote to him in Brazil, but Holzner did not answer and Dido did not pursue it further. Holzner’s father fled to Lviv from Krakiv [Krakow] and when he found out that Dido administered his son’s firm (Germans called it “Treuhandel” and Ukrainians referred to it as “Treuhandelka”) he was very pleased. Eventually it was taken from Dido on the basis that “eigentlish es regieren drei Juden’—“in truth it is being administered by three Jews.”

The short period the family lived at Swietego Sebastiana 4 was filled with anxiety. My grandmother and mother were so sick from their Pidhaitsi journey upon their arrival in Krakow the doctor visited them daily. Shortly thereafter, the Germans appeared at the apartment to wrap up and categorize all its valuables. A German officer grabbed a silver sugar cup that sat on a table, prepared to add it to the list of Jewish possessions to be confiscated.

My grandmother yanked it back, saying it was her wedding present. The German, after some begging, relented and let her keep it. But several days later, the Jewish belongings were gone.

Not long after, the family moved to Zelena Street, known today as Jozefa Sarego, No. 4.

In that same 2008 email, my aunt wrote:

About Krakiv: find out where the Jewish Ghetto was located. [Grandfather] had Jewish friends there, especially one friend which he studied law in Krakiv with. He passed through the ghetto to the court house and he always took some food to him. As a lawyer he tried to get them some passes (they needed to have a pass to get out for the day) to prolong their stay in Krakiv so they would not be sent to the concentration camp in Auschwitz. Finally the Gestapo called Dido for an interrogation and the man in charge told him that the Gestapo knows all the fonts of all the typewriters in Krakow and Dido better stop writing petitions if he wants to continue to practice law. So soon afterward Dido closed his law office and opened a notary in the town of Sambir to which he commuted and he lived a few days [a week].

I spent one afternoon in the mid-1980s interviewing my grandfather. Memories lingered on early years. He remembered “Blaustein,” a Jewish neighbor in Kotuziv, and his friend Leo Brinks, who joined the fight for Ukrainian independence and with whom he “lived like with a brother.”

He shared a single episode from Krakow.

“Innocent children were murdered. I had a Jewish friend whose wife and her sister were taken away. He was able to hide the [sister’s] child. They later found the child, and they in this way murdered children, by taking them by their feet and smashing their head against the wall. That is how they killed children.”

The murdered child was a newborn.


Two chapters in my family story underscore the difficulty of the Ukrainian experience during WWII. Both deserve their own essay, but it is important they are mentioned.

The first is that in the spring of 1944, my grandfather was drafted into a Ukrainian division of the Waffen SS, commonly referred to as the Galician Division. At first, he thought the letter he received was a joke because he had never heard of anyone being drafted into this mostly volunteer force. It was made clear to him, however, if he did not want to have “unpleasantness” he would join. His job was to help the families of the “Divizinyky,” as they were known.

The other chapter is that by marriage I am associated with Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. My grandfather knew him personally, and did not have a high opinion of him. He did not sanction the organization’s tactics, even as he understood the fight for an independent Ukrainian state. The unfortunate truth is we bear the legacy of our associations, even if we object to them.

I don’t want to idealize my grandfather. He was not heroic, but he also was not passive or indifferent. And so I believe him when he told me, “I lived well with the Jews.”

That is perhaps why an unknown man entrusted his most important possession to my grandfather, Oleksa Yaworsky. The paradox is that my grandfather, who left Krakow for Vienna near the end of the war, packed up the family’s belongings in a large trunk, including the silver sugar cup my grandmother had wrested from the German. The trunk never reached Vienna. It was lost forever in the last days of war.

The wedding cups were packed in a suitcase and carried by hand to Canada, where my family found refuge. Late in life, my grandfather later divided the set of six cups between my aunt and my mother. The three I grew up with were placed in our china cabinet, their story untold, until a phone call revealed their complicated truth.

Next year the wedding cups will go to a Jewish museum in Ukraine, accompanied by their story. I cannot fathom the loss of millions of Jewish lives during the Holocaust, but I can honor one memory and hold to a promise made decades ago in a Krakow apartment, to ensure their safekeeping. The cups were never ours. For me, this is their lesson.


Nazi Apologist’s Essay on Austrian School Exam

Two administrators resign after 1947 text appears on high school German test

Two weeks ago, middle school students in Rialto, California were asked to write an essay about whether or not the Holocaust actually happened. Now it appears that high school students in Austria were also presented with misleading Holocaust material, this time in the form of an essay on a standardized exam.

An unrelated investigation into Austrian high school curricula and grading revealed that a recent German exam presented students with an essay by Manfred Hausmann, a known Nazi apologist, with no background or historical context on its author, Reuters reports: “Students were asked to reflect on how “The Snail” – in which a gardener decides the pest has to die to protect his plants – dealt with questions about nature and life.”

Clearly, the 15-member advisory panel charged with picking texts for exams—a panel purportedly made up of “literature experts”—should have done a more careful reading of Hausmann’s 1947 essay.

Following national outrage, Austria’s education minister announced that the two directors of the independent organization that oversees the country’s education would step down in July.

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Demjanjuk and justice

According to Germany’s Demjanjuk decision, even serving as an accessory to murder is a punishable crime.
In 1986, John “Ivan” Demjanjuk was deported from the US to Israel to stand trial for committing murder and acts of extraordinary violence against humanity during the years 1942 and 1943. Dozens of Israeli Holocaust survivors identified Demjanjuk as “Ivan the Terrible,” a notorious prison guard at the Treblinka extermination camp.
Between November 1986 and April 1988 a special tribunal made up of Supreme Court justice Dov Levin and Jerusalem District Court judges Zvi Tal and Dalia Dorner heard the case, which was open to TV crews and took place in Jerusalem’s International Convention Center.
Clearly, an effort was made to publicize the proceedings, which, like the 1962 Adolf Eichmann trial, was used as a means of confronting the horrors – and the moral lessons – of the Holocaust.
Like Eichmann, Demjanjuk was found guilty under the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law of 1950 and sentenced to death by hanging – the second case of capital punishment in Israel’s history.
But Demjanjuk appealed and in 1993 the Supreme Court, sitting as an expanded five-man panel of judges, overturned the lower court’s decision. Justices Aharon Barak, Menachem Elon, Meir Shamgar, Eliezer Goldberg and Avraham Halima – basing themselves in part on new evidence that became available after the disintegration of the Soviet Union – ruled that a reasonable doubt remained as to whether or not Demjanjuk was in fact Ivan the Terrible.
Holocaust survivors and others brought at least 10 petitions demanding that Demjanjuk be tried for lesser war crimes while serving as a guard in other concentration camps including Sobibor and Majdanek.
But the attorney-general and the Supreme Court decided to let Demjanjuk go based on legal technicalities.

Evoking my father’s defiant Zionist spirit


For one ‘extreme Zionist,’ love of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel was the most important element of Jewish leadership.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly last month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared that he had come “from the Holy Land, the land of Palestine, the land of divine messages, ascension of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the birthplace of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him).”

No mention of Kings David and Solomon, nor of the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah, or of Rabbi Akiva, or of Hillel and Shammai, the most prominent members of Jerusalem’s Sanhedrin at the time of Jesus’s birth. He failed to recall Rabbi Yokhanan ben-Zakkai who established his yeshiva at Yavneh only decades later, or, for that matter, of Yehuda Hanasi, who compiled and edited the Mishna in the second century of the Common Era. All these men lived in Abbas’s “Holy Land, the land of Palestine” long before the birth of Muhammad. Indeed, the very words “Jews” and “Jewish” are conspicuously absent from Abbas’s speech.

Abbas’s deliberate refusal to acknowledge that before either Christianity or Islam ever appeared on the historical or theological scene, Judaism had been firmly ensconced in what is today the State of Israel speaks volumes.

And when Reuters reports that “the issue of whether and how to suggest that Israel should be a Jewish state ultimately sank” the Quartet’s recent diplomatic efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks,” it is time for all of us, in particular those of us who have long supported a legitimate peace process, to draw our line in the sand.

“My people,” Abbas declared, “desire to exercise their right to enjoy a normal life like the rest of humanity. They believe what the great poet Mahmoud Darwish said: Standing here, staying here, permanent here, eternal here, and we have one goal, one, one: to be.”

Our unambiguous response must be that we insist on precisely the same rights that Darwish demands for the Palestinians. For us, permanent, eternal Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel is not only non-negotiable but must be, especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust, one of the cornerstones of any authentic, and hopefully lasting, peace.

When the remnant of European Jewry emerged from the death camps, forests and hiding places throughout Europe in the winter and spring of 1945, they looked for their families and, overwhelmingly, discovered that their fathers and mothers, their husbands, wives and children, their brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins had all been murdered by the Germans and their accomplices. Yet they did not give in to despair.

On the contrary, almost from the moment of their liberation, Holocaust survivors’ defiant affirmation of their Jewish national identity in the Displaced Persons camps of Germany, Austria, and Italy took the form of a political and spiritually redemptive Zionism. The creation of a Jewish state in what was then called Palestine was far more than a practical goal. It was the one ideal that had not been destroyed, and that allowed them to retain the hope that an affirmative future, beyond gas chambers, mass graves and ashes, was still possible for them.

AT BERGEN-Belsen, the largest of the DP camps, a popularly elected Jewish leadership headed by my father, Josef Rosensaft, made Zionism the order of the day. At the first Congress of Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany, convened in September 1945 in Belsen by my father and his colleagues without permission from the British military authorities, the survivors formally adopted a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. They expressed their “sorrow and indignation that almost six months after liberation, we still find ourselves in guarded camps on British soil soaked with the blood of our people.”

Two months later, my father denounced the British government’s stifling of “Jewish nationalists and Zionist activities” at Belsen in the pages of The New York Times. He further charged “that the British exerted censorship over the inmates’ news sheets in that the Jews are not allowed to proclaim in print their desire to emigrate to Palestine.”

In December 1945, my father told representatives of American Jewry assembled at the first post-war conference of the United Jewish Appeal in Atlantic City, according to a report in The New York Herald Tribune, that the survivors’ sole hope was emigration to Palestine, the only place in the world “willing, able, and ready to open its doors to the broken and shattered Jews of war-ravaged Europe.” The following week, The New York Journal American quoted him as declaring at an emergency conference on Palestine at the Manhattan Center in New York City, that, “We know that the English are prepared to stop us with machine guns. But machine guns cannot stop us.” In early 1946, he told the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine that if the survivors would not be allowed to go to Palestine, “We shall go back to Belsen, Dachau, Buchenwald and Auschwitz, and you will bear the moral responsibility for it.”

Small wonder, then, that according to British Foreign Office documents, my father was considered an “extreme Zionist” and a “dangerous troublemaker.”

My father, who taught me that a love of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel is the most important element of Jewish leadership, understood that the goal of a Jewish state was a spiritual lifeline that gave the survivors of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belsen and all the other centers of horror a sense of purpose and a basis for hope. He died precisely 36 years ago, on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, midway between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I cannot think of a worthier way to observe his yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death, than by evoking his spirit and his uncompromising dedication to the creation of a new Jewish commonwealth to refute each and every refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

The writer is adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, lecturer in law at Columbia Law School, and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.

Israelis performing Wagner in Germany – a national disgrace


Wagner’s history cannot be summarily dismissed. He was a central pillar in the anti-Semitic character of Nazism.

The Israel Chamber Orchestra on Tuesday performed Wagner’s opera Siegfried Idyll at the Bayreuth Opera Festival. It was the first time an Israeli orchestra had played Wagner in Germany.

The conductor, Roberto Paternostro, whose mother and other relatives were Holocaust survivors, agreed that “Wagner’s ideology and anti-Semitism were terrible, but he was a great composer.” He opined that Wagner’s worldview should be treated separately from his music. Paternostro conceded that not enough time had passed for Wagner to be played in Israel, but felt it was appropriate to do so in Germany. “The aim in the year 2011 is to divide the man from his art.”

The orchestra’s chief executive, Erwin Herskovits, went further, telling Reuters that “there is great pride and excitement… This is not just another concert. It is a once-in-a-lifetime concert.” With works from Jewish composers Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn (banned by the Nazis) also being played, he said that “it was like a mission to be here playing Jewish music by Jewish musicians from the Jewish state… It was a victory concert.”

But Wagner’s history cannot be so summarily dismissed. He was a central pillar in the anti-Semitic character of Nazism. In fact, Wagner even coined the terms “Jewish problem” and “final solution,” which subsequently became central to the Nazi vocabulary.

In his notorious essay titled “Judaism in Music,” first published in 1851, Wagner expressed his extreme revulsion for what he described as “cursed Jewish scum” and declared that the “only thing [that] can redeem you [the Jewish people] from the burden of your curse [is] the redemption of Ahasverus – total destruction” – a code term for expelling Jews from society. In this essay, Wagner described Jews as “hostile to European civilization” and “ruling the world through money.” He argued that “Judaism is rotten at the core, and is a religion of hatred,” describing the cultured Jew as “the most heartless of all human beings” and referring to Jewish composers as “comparable to worms feeding on the body of art.”

Wagner’s family continued to promote his vile anti-Semitic ideology. His daughter Eva married Houston Chamberlain, an Englishman who crafted the ideology for Nazi racism in his notorious book, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. After his death, Wagner’s family became a central attraction for radical right-wing Germans.

ALTHOUGH WAGNER died 50 years before the Nazis came to power, Hitler venerated him, proclaiming that “whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner.” He was so enraptured with him that he is quoted as having said, “Richard Wagner is my religion.”

Hitler also became a friend of Wagner’s son Siegfried. After Sigfried’s death in 1930, Hitler remained very close to his English-born widow Winifred, a passionate Nazi and anti-Semite who had befriended him early in his career.

Wagner’s great-grandson Gottfried visited Israel in 1996, giving lectures condemning his great grandfather’s obsessive hatred of Jews, stressing that Wagner’s anti-Semitic views were far more important to him than his music. Gottfried was regarded as the black sheep of the family, which disowned him, and he came under attack from neo-Nazi groups.

For Jews, and in particular for survivors, Wagner is not just another anti-Semite. He is bracketed with Nazism, and can be said to have been a forerunner of those who paved the way for the Shoah. On top of this, Bayreuth, the location of the festival, was renowned as a center for Nazi “cultural” activity.

Under such circumstances, it is surely shameful for an Israeli chamber orchestra, perceived to be representative of the Jewish people, to be linked to such an evil person.

It truly requires a person to act in a schizophrenic manner to say that they can enjoy this man’s music and close their eyes to his evil actions. But even more so, the heartlessness of Israelis ignoring the sensitivities of Holocaust survivors represents a stain on our dignity and national identity.

Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, accused the Israeli orchestra leaders of being “tone deaf.” He condemned the performance as “a disgraceful abandonment of solidarity with those who suffered unspeakable horrors by the purveyors of Wagner’s banner.”

For the Israeli Chamber Orchestra to have actually gone to Germany to perform his works in Bayreuth, where he was glorified by the Nazis, is truly a national disgrace.

Director Trier shocks Cannes with Nazi, Hitler jokes

(Reuters) – Danish director Lars Von Trier jokingly declared himself a Nazi at a press conference at the Cannes film festival on Wednesday, causing consternation among the assembled reporters and offense among Jewish groups.

The maverick film maker is at the cinema showcase with competition entry “Melancholia,” a grand cinematic statement on life, death and the universe which wowed a packed audience at a press screening in the giant Grand Theater Lumiere.

But his provocative comments, which appeared to have been made in jest, threatened to overshadow the triumph some journalists and critics felt his movie to be and may harm his chances of winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes for best picture.

“You can’t award him a Palme d’Or, politically,” said Jason Solomons, chairman of the Film Critics’ Circle in London, who is in Cannes for the May 11-22 festival.

“People might say it should go to the art and not the artist, but these days I don’t think that’s true or right,” he told Reuters after hearing Von Trier’s remarks.

The Hollywood Reporter remarked that the 55-year-old had “pulled a Mel Gibson,” in reference to the latter’s anti-Semitic slurs in 2006 that badly harmed his reputation.

The American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants said in a statement: “Holocaust survivors condemn Von Trier’s repulsive comments as an insensitive exploitation of victims’ suffering for self-serving promotion and publicity.

“We cannot give a review of his film, but as a person Von Trier is a moral failure.”

Flanked at the news conference by his two leading stars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst, Von Trier made several references to making a long porn film featuring the actresses.


As the conference drew to a close, the director, who won the Palme d’Or in 2000 with “Dancer in the Dark,” was asked to expand on comments he made in a recent interview regarding his interest in the Nazi aesthetic.

“I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew,” said Von Trier, who, according to biographies was told by his mother on her death bed that the father he had known all his life was not his real father.

“Then later on came (Jewish and Danish director) Susanne Bier and then suddenly I wasn’t so happy about being a Jew. No, that was a joke, sorry.
“But it turned out I was not a Jew but even if I’d been a Jew I would be kind of a second rate Jew because there is kind of a hierarchy in the Jewish population.
“But anyway, I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out I was really a Nazi, you know, because my family was German … which also gave me some pleasure.”
Dunst looked uncomfortable as he continued his remarks, which clearly took reporters by surprise.
“What can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things, yes absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end.
“I think I understand the man. He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him and I sympathize with him a little bit. But come on, I’m not for the Second World War, and I’m not against Jews.
“I am of course very much for Jews. No, not too much because Israel is a pain in the ass. But still, how can I get out of this sentence?”
He expressed admiration for Nazi architect Albert Speer before ending another rambling sentence with: “OK, I’m a Nazi.”