Category Archive: Events

ZOA, Jewish Republicans join criticism of Trump’s Holocaust remembrance statement

(JTA) — The Zionist Organization of America expressed its “chagrin and deep pain” that a statement by the Trump administration marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day did not mention the Jewish victims of the Nazis.

Also Sunday, the Republican Jewish Coalition offered similar criticism the same day.

In a news release Sunday evening, Morton Klein, national president of the ZOA, praised President Donald Trump as a “great friend and supporter” of Israel and the Jewish people. Nevertheless, he wrote, “especially as a child of Holocaust survivors, I and ZOA are compelled to express our chagrin and deep pain at President Trump, in his Holocaust Remembrance Day Message, omitting any mention of anti-Semitism and the six million Jews who were targeted and murdered by the German Nazi regime and others.”

In his first statement about the Holocaust as president, Trump on Friday spoke of “the victims, survivors, [and] heroes of the Holocaust,” but did not mention the Jews or anti-Semitism, which had been customary in statements by his predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

The Anti-Defamation League’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, criticized the statement on Friday, saying the omission was “puzzling and troubling.”

Last year, the ZOA was one of the groups critical of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day similarly failed to mention Jews.

The Republican Jewish Coalition said Sunday in its statement: “As supporters of President Trump, we know that he holds in his heart the memory of the six million victims of the Holocaust, and is committed not just to their memory, but ensuring it never happens again,” RJC spokesman Fred Brown said in its statement.

“The lack of a direct statement about the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust was an unfortunate omission,” he continued. “History unambiguously shows the purpose of the Nazi’s final solution was the extermination of the Jews of Europe. We hope, going forward, he conveys those feelings when speaking about the Holocaust.”

Responding to criticism from the ADL and others, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said Sunday morning on NBC that “there was no harm or ill will or offense intended” by leaving Jews and anti-Semitism out of the statement, adding that the White House “certainly will never forget the Jewish people that suffered in World War II.”

The ZOA has been perhaps the most vocal supporter among Jewish advocacy groups of the Trump administration in its early days, issuing statements praising Trump’s choice for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman; his stated intention to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, and Friday’s executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for 90 days and suspending the admission of all refugees for 120 days.

Recounting his own history as the son of Holocaust survivors, Klein quoted a blistering criticism of the White House by John Podhoretz, a former Reagan White House aide, who wrote in Commentary on Saturday that to universalize the Holocaust “is to scrub the Holocaust of its meaning.”

Klein added: “ZOA hopes that President Trump will direct his staff and COS Reince Priebus to immediately rectify this painful omission.”


The Trump Administration’s Holocaust without Jews

To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day last Friday, the White House issued a statement that made no mention of Jews. Initially willing to give the new administration the benefit of the doubt, John Podhoretz chalked up the omission to “ignorance and sloppiness”—until one of President Trump’s representatives defended it:

The decision not to mention the Jews was deliberate, [the White House spokeswoman Hope] Hicks said, a way of demonstrating the inclusive approach of the Trump administration: “Despite what the media report, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered; . . . it was our honor to issue a statement in remembrance of this important day.”

The Nazis killed an astonishing number of people in monstrous ways and targeted certain groups—Gypsies, the mentally challenged, and open homosexuals, among others. But the Final Solution was aimed solely at the Jews. The Holocaust was about the Jews. There is no “proud” way to offer a remembrance of the Holocaust that does not reflect that simple, awful, world-historical fact. To universalize it to “all those who suffered” is to scrub the Holocaust of its meaning.

Given Hicks’s abominable statement, one cannot simply write this off. For there is a body of opinion in this country, and in certain precincts of the Trump coalition, [whose proponents] have long made it clear they are tired of what they consider a self-centered Jewish claim to being the great victims of the Nazis. . . . [T]he Hope Hicks statement does not arrive without precedent. It is, rather, the culmination of something: the culmination of decades of ill feeling that seems to center on the idea that the Jews have somehow made unfair “use” of the Holocaust and that it should not “belong” to them. Someone in that nascent White House thought it was time to reflect that view through the omission of the specifically Jewish quality of the Holocaust.


Trump’s Holocaust day statement fails to mention Jews or anti-Semitism

President vows to ensure ‘the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good’; ADL chief calls absence of specific Jewish reference ‘puzzling and troubling’

AP_17026679667080-e1485542961947WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump issued a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day Friday in which he vowed to combat the forces of evil, and called to “make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world,” but failed to mention Jews or anti-Semitism.

The absence of any specific mention of Jews or anti-Semitism was highlighted and criticized by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

“It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust,” the president said. “It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.”

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt promptly took to Twitter to exclaim it was “puzzling and troubling” that the 117-word statement did not specifically cite the persecution of the Jewish people that was central, though not exclusive, to the Nazi genocide.

Trump’s statement, Greenblatt said, “misses that it was six million Jews who perished, not just ‘innocent people.’”

In his statement, Trump vowed to use the power of the presidency to safeguard the world from allowing an atrocity such as the Holocaust to repeat itself.

“In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good,” Trump said. “Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.”

It is not the first time an international leader has failed to mention Jews while honoring the memory of those murdered by Adolf Hitler’s regime.

Last year, Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau caused a similar reaction when he issued a statement that lacked any reference to Jews or anti-Semitism.

This year, Trudeau avoided making that a tradition. “Today, on the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we remember the more than six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust and the countless other victims of Nazi brutality,” he said.

Trudeau further pledged to use the day of remembrance to “reaffirm our commitment to stand against anti-Semitism, xenophobia and prejudice in all its forms.”

Trump was among several world leaders who devoted statements in memory of Holocaust victims on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which in 2005 the United Nations set for Jan. 27 — the day in 1945 that the Red Army liberated the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. More than 1 million Jews out of the 6 million murdered in the Holocaust were killed there.

“Tragically, and contrary to our resolve, anti-Semitism continues to thrive,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement made Thursday in New York that was read out the following day at UN headquarters in Geneva. “We are also seeing a deeply troubling rise in extremism, xenophobia, racism and anti-Muslim hatred. Irrationality and intolerance are back.”

In Germany, outgoing Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is to become president this year, noted during a speech the political instability in the world today.

“History should be a lesson, warning and incentive all at the same time,” he said. “There can and should be no end to remembrance.”


A star-studded ‘Night’ to honor Elie Wiesel in New York

Five-hour January 29 event at Museum of Jewish Heritage will feature diverse community reading of the slim 116-page volume that changed the world

wiesel-FEATUREMillions have read Elie Wiesel’s landmark Holocaust memoir “Night.” When Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club in 2006, she turned it into an instant bestseller and countless students continue to read it as part of their high school curriculums.

But seldom is the slim volume about the author’s experiences in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald Nazi concentration camps read aloud.

A special event in New York on Sunday marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day (which takes place two days earlier on January 27) with a wide array of artists, actors, writers, community leaders, government officials, students, Holocaust survivors and survivors of other genocides. They will honor the memory of the late Wiesel in a unique community reading of “Night” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

Co-presented by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, the reading will take place over five hours in the museum’s Edmond J. Safra Hall. It will be simulcast throughout the museum’s galleries and streamed via the internet to online viewers around the world. On-stage participants will take turns reading at least one page from the 116-page work. Most of the readers will read in English, and some will read parts of the text in Yiddish and French, in a nod to the languages in which “Night” was published before its translation to English and some 30 other languages.

Abraham H. Foxman, director of the Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and former Anti-Defamation League national director, was instrumental in organizing the event honoring Wiesel, who died last July 2 aged 87.

Foxman told The Times of Israel he was overwhelmed by the uniformly positive response from the invited readers, as well as public demand to attend. The 1,000 allotted spaces are filled, and there is a waiting list of those still hoping to have a chance to personally hear a portion of the reading.

Foxman said it was evident from the start that “Night” would be the central element for the program marking the first International Holocaust Remembrance Day since Wiesel’s passing.

“Elie’s greatest impact on the universe was the testimony of ‘Night.’ It was obvious that we would use this as a vehicle. What Elie did was take a Jewish tragedy and place it on the world stage. He transposed Jewish pain to a universal scale. ‘Night’ is the most- read Holocaust-related book, or perhaps second only to ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’” Foxman said.

Folksbiene associate artistic director Motl Didner said there was a strong connection between Wiesel and Yiddish culture. Wiesel attended numerous Folksbiene productions, and the theater staged a special tribute to him in 2010. On a more intimate level, Wiesel was a familiar presence in Folksbiene artistic director Zalmen Mlotek’s life as he grew up, as the Nobel Laureate was friendly with Mlotek’s parents, Yiddish Forverts editor Yosl Mlotek and Yiddish song expert Chana Mlotek.

“The Folksbiene has been a home for the survivor community for the 70 years since the end of the Holocaust and now serves the second, third and fourth generations,” said Didner.

“Elie Wiesel was a great inspiration to our community. Yiddish was his native language. It was the language in which he began his writing career. He even sang in Yiddish. It was only fitting that with his passing, especially given our new partnership with the Museum of Jewish Heritage, that we honor his memory by reading his most influential work,” Didner said.

Some of the readers participating in Sunday’s event knew Wiesel personally, while others never had the chance.

“I never had the pleasure and honor of meeting Mr. Wiesel, but I wish I had. So participating feels like a way of finally coming together,” said Tony, Oscar and Golden Globe-winning actor Joel Grey.

“Like most people, I too was devastated, and devastated by recollections of the Holocaust to this day,” said Grey, best known for his role as the Master of Ceremonies in both the stage and film versions of “Cabaret.”

Broadway actress Tovah Feldshuh, whom younger audiences will recognize as the overbearing mother in the current hit TV series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” knew and loved Wiesel. Her recollections of Wiesel as a man of moral and social courage, and also someone who always put concern for others first, inspired her to participate.

Feldshuh recalls how immediately after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesel “held my face in his hands and said, ‘Tovah, how are you?’… that was his moment. The world was focused on him and he was so cellularly empathic that his first thoughts were naturally, effortlessly about ‘the other’ — in this case, it was lucky, lucky ‘I.’”

Sex therapist and media personality Dr. Ruth Westheimer also has fond memories of Wiesel, whom she called “a very important person in my life.” Westheimer praised Wiesel for everything he did for Jews and non-Jews alike, especially those who lived through the Nazi era.

As Westheimer reads her portion of “Night,” she will think of her friend Wiesel and miss him. She’ll especially miss the way he would greet her.

“I have met him many, many times, and I always got a kiss. What I miss most about him is his wonderful smile and the kiss on my cheek,” she shared.

The list of readers is crammed with famous New Yorkers from many different professional fields, from violinist Itzhak Perlman to New York Police Department commissioner James O’Neill to Ms. Magazine co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Israel will be represented by Ambassador Dani Dayan, Consul General of Israel in New York.

At the end of the five hours, members of the Wiesel family concluded the reading.

Wiesel’s son Elisha Wiesel told The Times of Israel that he is pleased with how the Museum of Jewish Heritage and Folksbiene conceived of the event.

”I think my father would have appreciated the respect with which the Museum of Jewish Heritage is approaching the event. No musical interludes, no speeches, no performances – just the reading. Some messages are too important to dilute,” he said.

Although the community reading was planned to coincide with a day memorializing past tragedy, its resonance with current events is at the forefront of the younger Wiesel’s mind.

“Listeners to this particular reading of ‘Night’ need only walk a few blocks to the site of the 9/11 Memorial to be reminded that hatred and murderous intent are unfortunately alive and well today,” said Wiesel.

“There are still political and religious leaders who irresponsibly defame the ‘other’ and seek to divide us along our fault lines: religion, skin color, nationality, class, gender, sexual preference, and political affiliation,” he said.


Running for the past, athletes trek to Holocaust race in Rome

With 80-year-old Holocaust survivor and Munich Olympian Shaul Ladany, the Run for Mem took participants past historical Nazi persecution sights throughout the city

29On October 16, 1943, 45-year-old Settimio Calò left his wife Clelia and their nine children comfortably asleep in their apartment when he snuck out at dawn, hoping he would be able to buy some cigarettes — a rare treat in Nazi-occupied Rome.

When he got home a few hours later, he found the place in Via del Portico D’Ottavia, the heart of the former Jewish Ghetto, completely empty. The Nazis had raided the neighborhood and rounded up over 1,000 Jews. Of them, only 15 men and one woman survived Auschwitz. All Calò’s children, including little Samuele, just a few months old, were murdered.

“Today many people have forgotten about the Holocaust. The number of survivors was already small immediately after it, and 72 years later very few can still tell their stories firsthand. This is why doing it when I have the opportunity is an imperative for me,” Holocaust survivor and Israeli racewalker Shaul Ladany says in a phone conversation with The Times of Israel.

Ahead of International Holocaust Memorial Day, Ladany — who was at the 1972 Munich Olympics and survived the horrifying terror attack on the Israeli delegation — was the guest of honor at an event in Rome aimed at promoting Holocaust remembrance and the awareness of its importance.

“Run for Mem,” a non-competitive road race past sites related to the history of the Holocaust in the Italian capital, took place on Sunday, January 22.

Via del Portico D’Ottavia, where the Calò family was arrested along with so many others, and which today remains at the heart of the Jewish life in the city, was the epicenter of the race. The little square behind the Great Synagogue named after the date of the Nazi raid, Largo 16 Ottobre 1943, served as the start and end point.

About 1,500 people took part in the initiative, which was organized by the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, with support of Maccabi Italia (a branch of the renowned international Jewish sports organization) and the Rome Marathon.

“This year we chose a new, maybe even brave way to mark Holocaust Memorial Day — a sporting event,” President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities Noemi Di Segni said, opening the race.

“People happen to run every day, but today we have to take with us the milestones of our history and remember that the path ahead of us starts from the one influenced by past events. Sometimes people fall and are hurt. They have made us fall, they have hurt us, but we have gotten back to our feet and we have started again, as individuals, as a people, as a community, as Italians, as Europeans,” she concluded.

“Run for Mem” also received the support of over two dozen Jewish, civil, government and sports organizations, including the World Jewish Congress, the European Jewish Congress as well as Prime Minister of Italy Paolo Gentiloni.

Among those who attended were members of the Italian government, undersecretary for European Affairs Sandro Gozi, Italian runner Franca Fiacconi, Imam Yahya Pallavicini and Israeli ambassador to Rome Ofer Sachs.

The high interest for the event especially moved Ladany.

“I must say that I was really pleased to be invited to this event and impressed by the work done by the organizers, including the fact that there were so many journalists and so much interest around it. A lecture could have never drawn as much attention,” Ladany points out.

The 80-year-old racewalker opted for the longest route of 10 kilometers (6 miles), finding some similarities with the Jerusalem Marathon.

“The Jerusalem Marathon, with so many ups and downs, is hard, but the landscapes are wonderful. Same here in Rome. Amazing views, the Colosseum, the Forum, but a tough one, especially because the stone-paved streets were far from being smooth,” he said.

Ladany, who is a professor emeritus of industrial engineering at Ben-Gurion University, also recalled a time in Israel when there were no marathons at all.

“Today there are several, with thousands of participants. When they held the very first one from Hadera to Zichron Yaakov as an Olympic trial in 1956, there were maybe 10 or 12 participants, myself included. Shortly after, they started to organize racewalks. I have been racewalking ever since,” he said.

The two routes offered by “Run for Mem” (the shorter of which was 3.5 kilometers) took the runners around the city, passing by streets and buildings which witnessed the Nazi cruelty, as well as sites that speak about the courage of those who risked their lives to help people in need.

Participants, who all wore t-shirts bearing the slogan “Race for Remembrance, Looking Ahead,” ran by the Regina Coeli prison on the Tiber river, where Jews and political prisoners were detained.

They also passed by the building on Via Urbana where Father Pietro Pappagallo lived. The hero had helped victims of the persecution and resistance fighters until he was arrested and killed by the Nazis in the infamous Ardeatine Caves massacre of 1944.

The longer route passed by the building in Via Tasso that served as SS headquarters and which today houses the Museum of the Liberation.

The shorter one cut through the small Tiberina island, where physician Giovanni Borromeo hid hundreds of Jews from the Nazis. Many of them were diagnosed with the fictitious “K. disease,” which kept German soldiers, afraid of contracting contagious diseases, at bay. Borromeo was recognized as a Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 2004.

“The sites featured in this road-race symbolize the history of the persecution, devoting attention also to what happened to Roma people, political opponents and members of the gay community,” commented Maccabi Italia president Vittorio Pavoncello, speaking to Sky News Italy.

The “Run for Mem” itinerary also included the Via degli Zingari, where a plaque commemorates the oppression of the Roma people.

Speaking from his hotel in Rome, Ladany, who was sent to Bergen Belsen with his family as an 8 year old, explains how being a survivor has influenced his life.

“It shaped me to be ambitious, to set high goals. Out of the first eight years of school, I only attended four, in four different languages. Therefore, my first goal was to graduate high school. Then it was to become an officer in the Israeli army, to get a degree, a second degree, a PhD, a position as a lecturer, professor, tenured professor. And simultaneously, to become an Israeli champion, set a world record, take part in my first Olympic Games, and then in my second,” he said passionately.

His second Olympic competition was in Munich, where 11 Israeli athletes were killed by the Palestinian terror group Black September. Ladany managed to get out of the building.

“Munich was just yet another situation where I found myself in mortal danger and I survived,” he explained. “I think that another consequence of my experiences during the Holocaust, when I lost 28 members of my immediate family, is that I am not afraid of anything.

“This does not mean I am not cautious, but I’m not afraid to die. For example, when the Six Day War broke out, I was studying in the United States. I came back at my own expense to volunteer in the army, and not because I like the military life. I felt it was my duty to defend my country.”

Asked what role sports and athletes can or should play in influencing the world, he explained that there are those who like to speak up, and those who don’t.

“When asked, I personally always expressed my opinion, even if it meant going against the mainstream view,” he said, remembering how after the massacre at Munich, he opposed the withdrawal of the team because he felt it would give the terrorists what they wanted.

“I also think it was right that the Olympics went on. When Baron de Coubertin started the modern Olympic Games, he had in mind the ancient ones which marked a moment of truce between the different Greek city-states. Nowadays, many things have changed. There is the doping, the money… However, this should not change,” Ladany says.

At the end of the “Run for Mem” all participants crossed the finish line together. What better could embody the idea so dear to de Coubertin that what counts is not winning, but participating, than a Race for Remembrance?


Rivlin, Netanyahu join thousands in Holocaust remembrance campaign

‘We Remember’ project projects images from around world, including Pakistan and Bolivia, on screen at Auschwitz

berlandThousands of people from around the world shared photos remembering the Holocaust in Facebook campaign ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27.

The “We Remember” campaign, organized by the World Jewish Congress, has reached 100 million people across the globe, with more than 200,000 participants.

As part of the project, people of all faiths and nationalities have shared images of themselves holding up the words “We Remember.” Starting Tuesday, in partnership with the Auschwitz Museum, thousands of these images were projected on a screen on the grounds of Birkenau, next to Crematorium II. The screening will continue until Thursday and is also being streamed via social media.

Participants included President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, and political party leaders Yair Lapid and Isaac Herzog.

In the rest of the world, the project drew contributions from US politicians Sen. Chuck Schumer, and Congressmen Eliot Engel and Jerrold Nadler; a wide range of European MPs and officials such as Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas, Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon, and Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders. Israeli actresses Moran Atias and Odelya Halevy and Jewish public figures such as Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Bernard Henri-Levy also joined the drive.

“Anti-Semitism is more prevalent today than it has been at any time since World War II, and bigotry and discrimination still rear their ugly heads all around the world,” WJC CEO Robert Singer said. “This is why we all must declare, together, that we remember.”

Singer said that this project showed a new way of commemorating the Holocaust.

“This project has taught us that history can be taught in a new way, and shown is the power of social media. We have learned that it is indeed possible to bring people of all ages and from all over the world together remember the past using a shared language,” he said.


Rome road race to commemorate the Holocaust

ROME (JTA) – A road race passing sites of Holocaust and Jewish remembrance in Rome will highlight events in Italy marking International Holocaust Memorial Day.

The “Run for Mem” — short for Run for Remembrance: Looking Ahead — is scheduled for Jan. 22, five days before the observance of International Holocaust Memorial Day marking the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz. In some countries, including Italy, events take place in the days or even weeks surrounding the Jan. 27 date.

Sponsored by Italy’s main Jewish organizations, The Run for Mem will start and end in Rome’s historic Jewish ghetto, in a square now named for the deportation of Roman Jews to Auschwitz on Oct. 16, 1943. Billed as Europe’s first sport race past sites meant “to commemorate the Shoah and determine future direction,” the event has two routes – 10 kilometers for athletes, 3.5K for the general public. Both take participants past sites related to the Holocaust.

Participants will be encouraged to stop, read commemorative plaques and light candles. They will also meet with Shaul Ladany, an Israeli Holocaust survivor and champion race walker who survived the attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

Organized by the umbrella Union of Italian Jewish Communities, or UCEI, under the auspices of the government and in collaboration with the Rome Marathon and the Maccabi Italia Association, the event is supported by or partnered with more than two dozen other Jewish, civic, governmental and sports bodies and will be featured on national television.

“Sport as a means of coming together is a way to affirm life and dialogue,” UCEI President Noemi Di Segni told a news conference Monday.

Other initiatives around the country to mark Holocaust Memorial Day include exhibitions, cultural and educational events, and commemorative ceremonies.


The Holocaust for Communists

The East German-Bulgarian Holocaust movie ‘Sterne,’ screening this weekend at the New York Jewish Film Festival, is one of a group of visceral films made in Communist countries by or with people who survived the war

Sterne [Stars], an East German-Bulgarian co-production that won a major prize at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and thereafter fell into obscurity, is itself the story of a memory on the brink of oblivion—a movie in which, for a few hours, time stands still before swallowing its protagonists.

Showing this Sunday, Jan. 22, at the New York Jewish Film Festival in a new digital restoration that will doubtless be surfacing elsewhere, Sterne concerns a transport of Greek Jews, en route to Auschwitz, detained by some bureaucratic snafu at a remote Bulgarian village. They are corralled in the town for a day or two, just long enough for Walter, a bored, somewhat self-pitying German corporal tasked with overseeing these surprise arrivals, to develop a crush on one of their number, a young and radiantly selfless Jewish schoolteacher named Ruth.

The corporal, whose fellows have given him the mocking sobriquet “Rembrandt,” is a would-be artist. Not especially sensitive but nothing if not alienated, he is contemptuous of his German comrades and, vaguely yearning for some sort of contact, seeks a measure of acceptance from the locals he supervises, ignoring the fact that some are certainly partisans. A similar longing accounts for his fascination with Ruth who, in their first meeting, shames him into grudgingly providing the deportees with a bit of humanitarian assistance.

Walter turns out to be a romantic but Sterne, like Ruth, recognizes the impossibility of this brief-encounter romance. Walter’s several meetings with Ruth—who is, in effect, arrested so that he might enjoy her company—are luminous nocturnes in which the couple walks together through the deserted town. Stars shine down but the conclusion is forgone. Each time, they wind up in the graveyard.

Directed by Konrad Wolf from a screenplay by Angel Wagenstein, Sterne is a fairy tale, albeit a hardboiled one that never forgets the degraded conditions of the deportees or their fate. The story of Walter and Ruth is an extended parenthesis. Sterne is framed by performances of the Yiddish poet Mordechai Gebirtig’s Jewish-resistance anthem S’brent [It Is Burning], a song that circulated throughout the ghettos of Nazi-occupied Poland. Its first scene, with the Greek Jews lined up in the rain and packed into cattle cars, is repeated at the end.

As a movie, Sterne manages to be both lyrical and monumental. As a statement, it practices a dialectic of unity and isolation. “What was he looking for in our little Bulgarian town?” the film’s narrator asks over introductory footage of Walter wandering through the marketplace. The answer is: his humanity. Sterne is striking for its internationalism, particularly in a linguistic sense. The dialogue is in both German and Bulgarian. In addition to Gebirtig’s Yiddish laments, the movie includes the Hebrew prayer “Eli, Eli.” Ruth addresses her pupils in Greek. Most remarkably, there is an extended scene in which, among themselves, the Jews speak Ladino—making Sterne the only feature I know with dialogue in the language of the Sephardim.

While the film is not devoid of Communist idealism, the rote affirmation in which Walter finds solidarity with the (presumably Communist) partisans is subsumed by the final image of Ruth clutching at a train’s barred windows, speeding toward death as she stares into the camera, leveling a j’accuse at the audience.


Sterne is not only universal but highly specific with a backstory that requires a bit of unpacking. Bulgaria was something of a sideshow during World War II, although, as an ally of the Axis, the Balkan kingdom received chunks of Romania, Yugoslavia, and Greece—including parts of Macedonia and Thrace—then home to some 14,000 Jews.

While old Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews were deprived of their rights, they were never, despite German insistence, deported en masse. On the other hand, Bulgaria provided the German army a land corridor to invade Greece and, starting in 1943, for some 75,000 Greek Jews (most of them from Salonika) to be shipped to Auschwitz. The government also allowed the Thracian and Macedonian Jews to be deported as well.

Dated October 1943, Sterne conflates the deportation of Greek and Thracian Jews while speaking to Angel Wagenstein’s personal experience. A Bulgarian-born Jew who spent his childhood in France, Wagenstein returned to Bulgaria to study and was an anti-fascist partisan during the war; in some sense, the movie is autobiographical.

In Andrea Simon’s documentary-portrait Angel Wagenstein: Art Is a Weapon (having its world premiere at the NYJFF), Wagenstein recalls witnessing the deportation of the Thracian Jews. He also suggests the character of Walter was based on an actual German corporal and identifies Bansko, the town in southwestern Bulgaria where Sterne was shot, as the cradle of the Bulgarian resistance movement.

Konrad Wolf’s experience of the war was less direct. East Germany’s leading director throughout the 1950s and ’60s, he was the son of the German-Jewish dramatist, medical doctor, and left-wing activist Friedrich Wolf (and the younger brother of East German spymaster Markus Wolf, whose autobiography, Man Without a Face, is filled with admiring references to his sibling’s movies).

Friedrich Wolf was briefly jailed for his 1929 play Cyanide, a defense of abortion rights, and went into exile once the Nazis came to power in 1933. His next drama, Professor Mamlock, which was written in France and premiered at the Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater in 1934, was among the first works to dramatize Nazi persecution of German Jews and made his international reputation. Professor Mamlock was filmed in the Soviet Union, Wolf’s adopted country, where it was well-received in 1938. His son Konrad released the film 23 years later in East Germany, to lesser acclaim.

Sterne, which would win a special-jury prize at Cannes, was released in March 1959—the same month that saw the opening of Hollywood’s first big Holocaust drama, The Diary of Anne Frank, also shown at Cannes. (While The Diary of Anne Frank was the first American movie to deal directly with the Holocaust, two earlier films—the 1953 Stanley Kramer production The Juggler, shot in Israel, and the 1956 independent feature Singing in the Dark—concerned traumatized Holocaust survivors played, respectively, by Kirk Douglas and Moishe Oysher.)

Not the first European film to depict the Holocaust, Sterne actually postdates a small cycle of movies were made in the 1940s. The earliest was a Soviet film, The Unvanquished (1945), directed by Mark Donskoi and starring Yiddish actor Venyamin Zuskin, that depicted a mass execution of Jews filmed on location at Babi Yar.

Marriage in the Shadows (1947)—directed in Soviet-occupied Germany by Kurt Maetzig, who, having a Jewish mother, had been forbidden by the Nazis to work and later joined an underground resistance group—was a film à clef. The movie dramatized the story of a well-known German actor who, refused permission to accompany his wife to the “model” concentration camp Theresienstadt, joined her in a suicide pact. Made in the American-occupied Germany with assistance from the U.S. Army, and consequently more positive, Israel Becker’s Long Is the Road (1948) was a quasi-autobiographical account of a young Polish Jew who jumps off an Auschwitz-bound transport to take his chances in the Polish countryside. (The movie was unfairly criticized as special pleading for Jewish DPs in the American press; it did later have a second life in a shortened version used as UJA fundraiser.)

One of the first films produced by the new Polish film industry, Natan Gross’s Yiddish-language Undzere Kinder (Our Children), 1948, was a semidocumentary of Jewish war orphans, many of whom enacted their actual situation for the camera. Two related films were produced almost simultaneously in Poland: Wanda Jakubowska’s powerfully disorienting The Last Stage (1948) was based on her own experiences in Auschwitz, and Alexander Ford’s Border Street (1948), a Czech-Polish co-production, had the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as its climax—scored to a near oratorio by composer Henoch Kon.

The masterpiece of this tendency was the Czech filmmaker Alfred Radok’s Distant Journey (1948), in which a Jewish doctor briefly forestalls her deportation to Theresienstadt by marrying a Czech colleague. As The Last Stage was partially shot on location in the women’s section of Auschwitz-Birkenau, so Distant Journey used Theresienstadt, where both Radok’s Jewish father and grandfather died. When the movie was shown in New York in September 1950, the Yiddish press reported the amazed public response of at least one spectator, who said that she recognized her fictional self in the film. The shock of recognition is crucial. Even today, Distant Journey et al. retain the urgency of an immediate response.

These eight films, plus Sterne, have several things in common. All, except Long Is the Road, were produced by Communist film industries that were not eager to focus on a specifically Jewish calamity. They are, in many ways, special cases. The most important thing was that they were made by and/or with people with first-hand experience of the Nazi war against the Jews—and can be considered a form of group psychodrama. More than movies, they were a form of testimony, not all of it welcome.

The state gave and the state took away. That, in most cases, these films were subsequently banned or shelved may explain why it has taken so long for them to enter the canon of Holocaust films. Shown at the first post-war Venice Film Festival, The Unvanquished received an award but disappeared from Soviet screens—and history—around the same time as its lead actor, Venyamin Zuskin, a victim of Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign.

The Last Stage, which won the Crystal Globe at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 1948, was considered acceptable, but Undzere Kinder was not. It was never shown in Poland (and also did poorly when a print made its way to Israel in 1950). Border Street was highly popular in Poland until it was banned, supposedly by order of Stalin, and likely cost Ford his job as the head of Polish film production. Distant Journey, which, like Border Street, acknowledged the role of indigenous anti-Semitism, was banned in Czechoslovakia—even as it was distributed abroad—and served to compromise Radok’s career.

Sterne was the first film to implicate Bulgarian authorities in the deportation of Thracian and Macedonian Jews. Despite its international acclaim, the movie was banned in Bulgaria for its “abstract humanism,” and Wagenstein did not make another film for several years.