Category Archive: In Memoriam

Chaim Ferster, survivor of 8 Nazi concentration camps, dies at 94

Screen-Shot-2017-02-07-at-3.10.24-PM(JTA) — Chaim Ferster, a Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor who spent time in eight concentration camps, has died.

Ferster died Monday in Manchester, England, from pneumonia and a kidney infection, surrounded by his three sons and other family members, the BBC reported. He was 94.

He was born in Sosnowiec, Poland, in an Orthodox Jewish family. In 1943, the Nazis forced him to leave his home, and he spent time in concentration camps in Germany and Poland, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Ferster, his sister Manya and a cousin were the only members of their family to survive the Holocaust. Manya is now 92.

After World War II, Ferster moved to England, where he found work repairing sewing machines. He later set up “a series of successful businesses,” according to the BBC.

Ferster lectured about the Holocaust in schools and colleges.

“His greatest fear was that people would forget the horrors of the Holocaust,” his son Stuart told the BBC.

On Monday, the Greater Manchester Police shared a video of Ferster playing the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” on the violin during a Jan. 27 visit to its headquarters on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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Under Trump, a new job for Holocaust scholars

For those of us who teach and research the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, the Trump administration’s refusal to mention Jews in a statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day has been both horrifying and confusing. It has been horrifying because the failure to acknowledge that Jews were the overwhelming victims of Germany’s genocidal campaign is unquestionably a form of Holocaust denial. It has been confusing because we haven’t been able to understand why the administration would choose to engage in Holocaust denial nor begin to grasp the implications for the American Jewish community.

There had been warning signs throughout the 2016 campaign. In three years of teaching a course on America and the Holocaust at Northeastern University in Boston, I have always treated American anti-Semitism as mostly a remnant of a darker time in American history that only manifested itself now on the extreme left or the extreme right of American politics. As I taught the course this fall, however, I had to confront Facebook memes depicting Trump critics in concentration camp uniforms behind Auschwitz’ gates and Stars of David superimposed on Hillary Clinton’s face in front of piles of money. I had to read the stories of Jewish journalists, who received a steady stream of vicious anti-Semitic messages delivered to their email inboxes, Twitter accounts, and even front steps.

Still, I assumed that the problem was that Trump and his minions weren’t doing enough to rein in their more vociferous supporters. Even after Trump chose Steve Bannon, the executive chair of the far right and white supremacist affiliated site, Breitbart News, to run his campaign, I still assumed that Holocaust denial and the anti-Semitism inevitably associated with it, weren’t important to Trump.

After all, he has a Jewish son-in-law, daughter and grandchildren.

Then came the Holocaust statement that didn’t mention Jews.

As Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust and several other important books on the Holocaust, recounted in an article in The Atlantic, she initially assumed the failure to mention Jews was a rookie mistake, an oversight during the chaotic first days of a new administration. It quickly became apparent that this was no mistake. Trump’s key spokespeople defended the omission, explaining that Trump officials deliberated overlooked Jews because “We are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered.” Of course no one denies that other groups suffered horribly at the hands of Nazi Germany but as Elie Wiesel famously stated, ‘Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”

The White House press secretary attacked those who criticized the statement as “ridiculous,” “pathetic,” and “nitpicking,” and explained how much “the president went out of his way to recognize the Holocaust.” Politico recently reported that the State Department had drafted a statement mentioning Jewish victims, similar to ones issued by Presidents Bush and Obama, but that the Trump White House refused to use it. The administration also seemed to defend that statement by releasing the nugget that it had been written by a Jewish advisor.

In the days following the offensive statement, those who study the Holocaust responded quickly and fiercely. Led by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, they asserted the undeniable historical record of Jewish targeting and Jewish suffering, and condemned those who tried to obfuscate it. Indeed, Holocaust scholars have done a good job tackling what was horrifying in what Trump said.

But we haven’t faced what was confusing. Why would the President of the United States in a public statement on a most solemn of days choose to identify with Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism? What was he, and frankly Bannon, trying to say and to whom? Were they speaking to the white supremacists and anti-Semites among Trump’s followers who clearly got the message? Was it just another example of this administration’s intent to defy all societal norms, even seemingly the most sensitive and nearly universal ones surrounding Holocaust remembrance? Did they relish the fact that they could get away with it? Was it a sinister threat aimed at liberal Jews who retain powerful positions, particularly in the media and entertainment industry? Did it reflect the administration’s adoption of the Russian perspective on this as on so many things, leading it to parrot the old Soviet-line that many people were “innocent victims” of the Nazis? Was it a signal to everyone in society that nothing, not even the murder of six million people, is sacred?

I don’t know the answer or answers. But those of us who research and teach this most important and most profound of topics should not just condemn the deeply demoralizing statement but also begin to probe its meaning and ramifications. That means we need to do what makes us profoundly uncomfortable — establish clearly and publicly the connections between the history we understand and the reality we are experiencing. Of course, we must do it with the scholar’s mindset, pointing out the differences as well as the similarities, rejecting overstatement and emotionalism. We also need to encourage the journalism that seeks to reveal the administration’s motivation and operation and then be willing to analyze the disclosures through our unique lens. We need to jump into the public arena in a way we never have before. Right now that may be the most important work as scholars, as Jews, as citizens, that we can possibly do.

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Minimizing the Holocaust at the “New Yorker”

In a brief review of the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy’s recent The Genius of Judaism, an unnamed author at the New Yorker points to the “real contradiction” between Lévy’s insistence that the Holocaust was a “crime without parallel” and his objection to the recent fad of “competitive victimhood.” James Kirchick assails the shoddy and “sinister” thinking behind this comment:

The New Yorker has it backwards. The competition for victimhood wasn’t started by Jews but in reaction to them. The issue is not minimizing other historical tragedies in relation to the Holocaust but minimizing the Holocaust in relation to other historical tragedies. This is not just the realm of Holocaust deniers, but increasingly of progressives who, whether through conscious malice or sheer naiveté, speak of the Holocaust (when they’re not speaking of “holocausts”) as but one unfortunate episode among many, not a world-historical crime that singled out Jews first and foremost. . . .

If those like the New Yorker’s anonymous book critic believe that Lévy is engaging in unseemly “competitive victimhood” simply by claiming that the Holocaust, in both nature and degree, was worse than any other crime in human history, that’s because [the critic] falsely interprets such claims as entries into a victim competition—when, in fact, it is those challenging the singularity of the Holocaust who are responsible for creating this obscene contest. . . .

The review’s sinister element comes in its accusation that Jews like Lévy are responsible for corrupting the commemoration of history and not, say, the Muslim propagandists who frequently invoke the Holocaust to equate Israelis with Nazis or the British student activists who voted against recognizing Holocaust Remembrance Day because doing so “prioritizes some lives over others.” As the British sociologist David Hirsch observes, “When people get competitive about the Holocaust, they do it by accusing the Jews of being competitive.” Not even in talking about something so grave as the Holocaust can the Jews avoid being pushy, it seems.

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Dutch Jewish wedding film from 1939 shines light on doomed community

The only known pre-Holocaust footage of an obliterated Frisian Jewish community, footage offers hope while memorializing Nazi victims

Boas-Pais-CROPAMSTERDAM (JTA) — The Jews of Friesland, a region in the northern Netherlands, are not known for stories with happy endings.

During the Holocaust, Friesland’s vibrant Jewish community was forever obliterated, including its endemic customs and distinct Yiddish dialect. It is one of the starkest examples of how the Holocaust decimated and irreparably changed Dutch Jewry.

That’s why the recent surfacing of a unique film from 1939 showing the wedding of a Frisian Jewish couple who escaped the genocide is generating remarkable reactions from local media and Dutch state historians here over the past week.

The film is the only known footage of Frisian Jewish life from before the Holocaust. Its discovery comes amid a wave of popular interest in the Holocaust in the Netherlands, including in films and series with record ratings and in the construction of monuments – most recently with the opening last year of the National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam.

The silent, black-and-white film was the subject of a special aired last week in prime time by the region’s public broadcaster, Omrop Fryslân. All the region’s main dailies reported on it, as did some national publications — including the Netherlands’ main television guide. Placed on YouTube by the Frisian Film Archive on January 25, it received thousands of hits, becoming the archive’s second-most-watched video over the past two years.

The couple’s children handed it over this month to the Frisian Film Archive after finding it in their late mother’s suitcase in 2008. They had hung onto it for nearly a decade to “come to terms with it,” Andre Boers, one of the couple’s three children, told JTA on Tuesday.

The seven-minute film posted online last week — excerpted from longer footage — shows the bride, Mimi Dwinger, wearing a form-fitting satin wedding dress and riding a horse-drawn carriage with her fiancé, Barend Boers. It’s a sunny spring day and the couple is headed from Leeuwarden City Hall to the local synagogue.

As elegantly dressed women and men wearing top hats stream into the synagogue, other locals from the Jewish quarter of this poor, provincial city gather around the entrance for a better view of what seems to be an unusually opulent affair.

Inside the synagogue, which seems full to capacity with wedding guests, the region’s chief rabbi, Abraham Salomon Levisson, officiates. He’s wearing the black hexagonal hat favored by Sephardic rabbis — an influence brought to Holland by Portuguese Jews. Smiling, Boers signs the ketubah, the religious marriage contract.

The ring is too small for a comfortable fit. Boers flashes an amused smile at the camera as Dwinger quickly licks her finger to make it easier to slip on the jewelry. Touchingly, Boers holds up her veil while she does this.

The newlywed couple appears relaxed at the reception held at the local Jewish kosher hotel, The German Eagle. The guests chat and, after a few glasses of advocaat — Dutch eggnog — they giggle at the cameraman. The excerpt — the full footage was given on loan to the archive earlier this month — ends with Boers gently kissing his wife on the forehead.

Nothing about the film suggests that the people featured in it had any idea their world was coming to an end.

Just a year after filming, the people in the movie would come under the Nazi occupation that decimated the Frisian Jewish community, along with 75 percent of Dutch Jews — the highest death rate in occupied Western Europe.

For example, the body of the congregation’s rabbi, Levisson, was found in 1945 inside a German cattle car that was full of dead or dying Jews when the advancing Russian army encountered it in Eastern Europe.

The bride’s father, Moses, was arrested and sent to the death camps in 1943. Fewer than 10 members of his extended family of about 100 survived the war, according to Andre Boers.

Though the Jews in the film appear relaxed, Frisian Jews did have an inkling of the storm heading their way, according to Hans Groeneweg, a historian at the Frisian Resistance Museum, a state-funded institution entrusted with documenting the occupation years.

“The bride you see smiling in that film, she’s a woman running for her life,” he told the Frisian Broadcasting Authority in a 25-minute round table discussion that aired January 25. Levisson was especially aware of the danger, as he had been helping settle in the Netherlands refugees from neighboring Nazi Germany for years.

While few of their relatives and guests survived, the lovebirds plotted the escape that saw them survive against all odds.

They escaped the Netherlands in 1942, through France and Spain to Jamaica. Boers enlisted to fight with the Allies, while his wife volunteered to work for the British War Office. Boers participated in the liberation of the Netherlands in 1944 as part of a Dutch brigade that fought embedded within the Canadian army.

The couple returned to the liberated Netherlands. Boers died in 1979 at 69. His widow, Mimi, passed away nine years ago at 90. Her three children now live in Amsterdam and Israel. The Frisian Film Archive learned of the film’s existence after the family offered to give the 16mm footage to the archive on loan.

“For decades we’ve been looking for footage from the Jewish community before the war, and now here it is,” Syds Wiersma, an archivist for the Frisian Film Archive, told the regional broadcaster last week.

The film’s appeal, according to Groeneweg, the resistance museum historian, isn’t just its rarity.

“It offers hope — hope that not all the people in that film died in the camps, that a few managed to escape, after all,” he said.

But for Andre Boers, Mimi and Barend’s middle child, who is living in Israel, the film has a far more personal significance. Before the family found it, he had not seen moving images of many of the relatives featured.

It’s a “highly emotional opportunity to see my grandparents, great-grandmother, uncles, aunties and many others just a few years before most of them were murdered by the Nazis,” he wrote last week on Facebook.

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Where 500 children ‘disappeared’ from Nazi clutches, a new Dutch Shoah museum emerges

Taking shape in the heart of Amsterdam’s old Jewish district, a former teachers college to be a testament to the 102,000 Dutch Jews murdered in the Holocaust

20170115_110328-e1485948365264AMSTERDAM — A former teachers’ college where more than 500 Jewish children were saved during the Holocaust is being transformed into the Netherlands’ first full-fledged Shoah museum.

Already operating since last May without a website or much publicity, the emerging National Holocaust Museum will fill a three-story brick building in Amsterdam’s former Jewish neighborhood, close to other sites tied to the Shoah. For now, only parts of the ground-level are open, including a small auditorium and reading room. According to plans, the museum will be completed by 2020 at a cost of $24 million.

“We aim to forge connections between people from different backgrounds by presenting our collective history as a pillar of today’s democratic society and our sense of justice,” according to a statement posted inside the entrance.

More than 102,000 Dutch Jews were killed by the Nazis, with 30,000 Jews living in the Netherlands today. The ease with which Dutch Jews were isolated and deported during the war continues to haunt witnesses, and the Dutch lost a larger percentage of their Jewish population than any country apart from Poland.

“In the years ahead, a permanent exhibition will be developed that tells the story of the persecution and genocide of the Jews by the Nazis, the events leading up to it, and the complex consequences,” according to the museum.

Those “complex consequences” could include the treatment of Jews who returned from Nazi camps. Notoriously, government and church authorities were often unwilling to reunite hidden Jewish children with their parents. In those early post-war years, the first edifice that survivors felt compelled to build in Amsterdam was a literal expression of “gratitude” toward Dutch society, as opposed to a memorial for murdered loved ones.

So far, the Holocaust museum steers clear of politics by focusing on personal stories. In one room, photographs of children are paired with objects they once enjoyed, including a violin, diary and table games. The floor and podiums are made of unfinished wood, evoking young lives cut short.

Few artifacts tell as compelling a story as the ordinary-looking building itself, where Dutch and Jewish resisters operated a bold rescue scheme beneath the gaze of their oppressors.

When 500 children ‘disappeared’

The location of the teacher training college made the rescue operation possible. Now home to the National Holocaust Museum, the college was directly across the street from the Hollandsche Schouwburg, once a popular Yiddish theater. Two years into their occupation of Amsterdam, the Nazis converted the theater into a holding pen for Jews en route to deportation.

Beginning in July of 1942, thousands of Dutch Jews were incarcerated in the gutted theater on their way to the transit camp Westerbork. Because the Nazis could not tolerate the crying of infants and children, the decision was made to house young ones across the street in a creche, or nursery, that — fortuitously — shared a courtyard with the teacher training college.

The covert operation was directed by Walter Süskind, a German Jew appointed by the Jewish Council to run operations at the facility. As the list master, Süskind recorded the name of every Jew brought into the theater, including the deportees’ children taken across the street.

After confirming that a particular child’s parents were willing to send him or her into hiding, Süskind eliminated that child’s name from Nazi records. Next, staff of the nursery took these “disappeared” children through a courtyard and into the Reformed Teacher Training College. Inside the school, heroic director Johan van Hulst and student volunteers smuggled the children into hiding with Dutch families.

According to survivors, the “forgotten hero” Süskind managed to befriend the SS officer in charge of deportations, whom Süskind kept supplied with schnapps and cigars. Also known as “the Dutch Schindler,” Süskind was eventually deported along with his family, and he perished during a death march in Poland. However, the rescue operation he led — through which 500 adults were also sent into hiding — was never uncovered by the Nazis.

In addition to the courtyard route, older escapees made clever use of the street tram as it stopped between the theater and college. With trolley cars blocking their view, German sentries at the theater were unable to see the college entrance, allowing people to exit and follow alongside the tram.

The former Jewish district will also soon witness ground-breaking on a long-anticipated Memorial of Names. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, the edifice will include the names of 102,000 Dutch Jews murdered in the Shoah, as well as 220 Roma and Sinti victims. Names will be laser-etched onto bricks along with dates of birth and death. From above, the structure will spell the Hebrew word Lizkor, “in memory of.”

Both the National Holocaust Museum and planned Memorial of Names are part of the 2013-inaugurated Jewish Cultural Quarter, where visitors can purchase one ticket to tour sites including the Jewish Historical Museum, Portuguese Synagogue, and Hollandsche Schouwburg, now a memorial with a small but impressive exhibit on the fate of Amsterdam’s Jews.

Whereas the Jewish cultural quarter’s restored synagogues shed light on the heyday of Jewish Amsterdam, the beta-version Holocaust museum and adjacent Hollandsche Schouwburg recall the near-elimination of Dutch Jewry, still a polarizing topic in the Netherlands.

“The two locations together represent the story of the Holocaust: the [former theater] is a place of deportation, collaboration and remembrance of the dead, [and] the college is a place where authentic human courage and selflessness were reflected,” according to the museum, which hopes to be “a beacon for the future.”

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Jewish aide wrote White House Holocaust statement — report

Politico says Boris Epshteyn, a former Russian refugee who lost family to the Nazis, penned release that failed to mention Jews

Boris_Epshteyn-e1485850395557A Jewish aide reportedly wrote US President Donald Trump’s statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day which was widely condemned for failing to mention Jews or anti-Semitism.

Boris Epshteyn, a special assistant to the president, wrote the speech, a source told Politico on Monday.

In the speech Trump vowed to combat the forces of evil, and called on listeners to “make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world,” but failed to mention Jews or anti-Semitism. The omission was condemned by Jewish organizations across the spectrum, including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Democratic Virginia Senator Tim Kaine called it Holocaust denial.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer defended the speech on Monday, saying “the statement was written with the help of an individual who is both Jewish and the descendent of Holocaust survivors.” He also called protests over the omissions “pathetic” and “nitpicking.”

Earlier this month, Epshteyn was asked by The Daily Beast about anti-Semites supporting the Trump administration. He answered, “I’ve had family who died in the Holocaust.”

Formerly a New York-based investment banker and finance attorney, Epshteyn worked as a communications aide for Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008, focusing his efforts on the Arizona senator’s running mate, then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

Epshteyn was born in Russia and emigrated to the US in 1993, aged 11, as a refugee along with his family. In a 2013 US News article Epshteyn thanked Senator Frank Lautenberg for easing “the restriction on refugee states and thereby allowed for tens of thousands of Jews like me from the former USSR to come to America.”

Epshteyn has been criticized for his business ties with Russia and for claiming on CNN that Russia did not seize Crimea.

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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.”

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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.

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