Category Archive: JTA

A Holocaust exposé angered Lithuanian nationalists. Now lawmakers want to ban critical scholarship.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite at the European Council leaders’ summit in Brussels, March 23, 2018. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

(JTA) — The Lithuanian parliament is preparing to vote on a government-sponsored bill that would ban selling material that “distorts historical facts” about the nation.

The bill, which Economy Minister Virginijus Sinkevičius submitted Monday, is widely seen as a response to the controversy in Lithuania around the publication of a 2016 book about the Holocaust titled “Our People.” Viewed by some nationalists as an insult to the Lithuanian nation, it is also credited with breaking some taboos in Lithuanian society about collaboration during World War II.

The bill, which according to the Delfi news agency is an amendment to the Law on Consumer Protection, provoked passionate condemnations in Lithuania and beyond by critics who said it curtails freedom of speech and debate about the genocide, in which 90 percent of Lithuanian Jews were killed, mostly by other Lithuanians.

Whereas several Eastern European countries have laws that limit free speech about the Holocaust, including Poland, Ukraine and Latvia, the bill targeting the sale of critical books “would be, if passed into law, one of the most blatant and harshest of them all,” said Holocaust historian Efraim Zuroff, who co-authored “Our People” with Rūta Vanagaite, a best-selling novelist.

Last year, the Alma Littera publishing house in Lithuania recalled another book by Vanagaite after she spoke in an interview about Adolfas Ramanauskas, an anti-Soviet combatant during the war, who admitted to commanding troops that witnesses said butchered Jews in the ghetto of Druskininkai, 75 miles southwest of Vilnius.

Vanagaite’s controversial statement was not about the Holocaust. She said her research into Ramanauskas’ death in 1957 suggested he committed suicide after betraying the names of fellow nationalists to the KGB, which captured Ramanauskas the previous year.

“Rūta Vanagaitė’s statements are unacceptable to us and incompatible with the values of the Alma Littera publishing house,” its CEO, Danguolė Viliūnienė, said in a statement. Vanagaite has since left Lithuania.

Last week, The New York Times published an  article about the Holocaust at the Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, a state-run institution tht until 2011 did not mention the more than 200,000 Lithuanian Jews who died in the Nazi Holocaust.

In Lithuania, “genocide” is used refer to the events that followed its domination by the former Soviet Union. While Soviet rule was harsh, few outside of Lithuania agree that the USSR aimed to wipe out the Lithuanian people.

A Holocaust exposé angered Lithuanian nationalists. Now lawmakers want to ban critical scholarship.

10,000 march in Paris to memorialize slain Holocaust survivor

By Cnaan Liphshiz

Jews at a march in Paris in memory of Mireille Knoll, March 28, 2018. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

PARIS (JTA) — At least 10,000 people participated in a memorial march in Paris for an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who was burned and found dead with 11 stab wounds.

Many of the marchers Wednesday were Jews, and some wore Israeli flags at the march for Mireille Knoll, who was found in her apartment last Friday. The march began at the Paris Nation square and culminated at the apartment.

The march, which was covered heavily by French media, was encouraging for French Jews, who in the past have felt ignored by their government. Authorities believe Knoll was murdered by her Muslim neighbor in an anti-Semitic hate crime.

One participant, Holocaust survivor Nicole Friedman, told JTA that she came to the march “because I’m Jewish, and because I lived through the war.” Flanked by her daughter, Friedman marched slowly with the aid of a cane.

Another marcher, Alain Ndigal, wore an Israeli flag. Ndigal is of African descent and not Jewish.

“I came because this barbarity concerns us all,” the 48-year-old mechanic said.

Meanwhile, the appearance of Marine Le Pen, head of France’s far-right National Front party, caused a small scuffle to break out. Dozens of her supporters shouted “Marine is with us” while others shouted “N for Nazi,” referencing the first letter of her party’s name in French.

The head of the CRIF umbrella of French Jewish communities, Francis Kalifat, had said that neither leaders from the National Front nor the Insubmissible France far-left movement were welcome due to their history of perceived anti-Semitism. Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of Insubmissible France, also attended the march, ignoring Kalifat’s call.

Earlier Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron attended Knoll’s funeral in the Paris suburb of Bagneux. He wore a kippah and was seen talking with Knoll’s friends and relatives.

Knoll’s attacker “murdered an innocent and vulnerable woman because she was Jewish, and in doing so profaned our sacred values and our history,” he said at the funeral.

Source: https://www.jta.org/2018/03/28/news-opinion/10000-march-in-paris-to-memorialize-killed-holocaust-survivor

30 years later, the author of ‘The Devil’s Arithmetic’ has a new young adult Holocaust novel

By Penny Schwartz

“Mapping the Bones” is the third Holocaust-themed book by Jane Yolen. (Penguin Random House/Jason Stemple)

BOSTON (JTA) — More than 30 years ago, Jane Yolen had already made her mark in the world of children’s literature. Among the nearly 100 books she had written were fantasies and folk tales, picture books and the popular “Captain Toad” chapter book series. Her gift for spinning original fairy tales earned her the reputation as the American Hans Christian Anderson.

But when her editor, Deborah Brodie, suggested she write a Jewish children’s book, Yolen dismissed the idea.

Sure, she was Jewish, she recalled telling Brodie, who was Jewish, too. But, growing up, Yolen’s family wasn’t particularly observant. And although she had minored in religious studies at Smith College, Yolen told Brodie she would have to do as much research as someone who wasn’t Jewish.

Brodie persisted.

“She was a classic nudzh,” Yolen recalled fondly all these years later of the late editor, a giant in the world of children’s publishing.

But Yolen, best known as a fantasy writer, had a spark of an idea for a Holocaust story that would lead with a girl bored and indifferent at her grandparents’ Passover seder. When Hannah opens the door to symbolically welcome the prophet Elijah, she finds herself transported back in time to a Polish shtetl where the Jewish villagers are on the verge of being shipped to a German Nazi concentration camp. Only Hannah knows the horrifying tragedy that the future will bring.

Yolen relented and wrote a first chapter. She assumed it would end at that. Instead, Brodie sent back a contract.

“I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to try this,’” she said in a phone conversation with JTA from her home in western Massachusetts.

The result was “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” a Holocaust novel that when it appeared in 1988 was nothing like anything that had come before. The book garnered critical acclaim, earned multiple book awards and was made into an Emmy-winning Showtime film starring Kirsten Dunst.

The popular fantasy novel has sold more than 1.8 million copies, is used widely in middle schools across the country and has been in continuous print since publication.

Now, three decades later, Yolen, 79, has written “Mapping the Bones” (Philomel), a Holocaust novel for a new generation of teens. The year is 1942, in the Lodz ghetto in Poland, where 14-year-old twins Chaim and Gittel Abromowitz make a daring escape with their family. Separated from their parents in the forest, the twins hide with Polish partisans, and are later captured by German soldiers and forced into a slave labor camp.

Through brutal treatment, suffering and loss, the sister and brother bond with other camp prisoners, sustain each other, and find light through the young boy’s moving poetry that serves as a testament to loss and memory.

“Mapping the Bones” is Yolen’s third Holocaust novel; the second was “Briar Rose” (1992).

“I look at all three and I realize it’s not just the Holocaust that binds them together. It’s remembering,” she said.

“Whenever we think of the Holocaust, we think of remembering. We think of never forgetting. Soon all we will have are the stories. Soon we will have no one left who was there.”

Yolen’s “The Devil’s Arithmetic” was a hit after being published in 1988. (Penguin Random House)

“The Devil’s Arithmetic” was a trailblazer, according to Norman H. Finkelstein, an author of nonfiction for older kids and two-time winner of the National Jewish Book award. Three decades ago, at a time closer to the war, the idea of writing about the Holocaust was still difficult, said Finkelstein, a retired public school librarian in the Boston suburb of Brookline.

“It was a different Holocaust book. It was not strictly factual, it was not a memoir,” Finkelstein told JTA in a recent conversation. “Jane did a superb job in taking the story of the Holocaust down to a level that ordinary American kids could understand and digest, and present it in a sympathetic manner. The characters were realistic, not paper cutouts.”

Educators immediately seized on the book to teach about the tragedies of the Holocaust, he recalled.

There’s an inherent tension in presenting the Holocaust in young adult fiction, according to Daniel Magilow, a Holocaust scholar and professor of German studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

On one hand, writers need to create young characters with whom readers can identify, said Magilow, a former fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum who writes on the subject of Holocaust representation. Books for younger readers tend to be redemptive, and if not upbeat they at least suggest that adversity can be endured and overcome.

The problem? This does not square with the historical reality with how children were treated during the Holocaust.

“We are reminded that the very young and the very old were immediately slated for the gas chambers,” Magilow said.

Magilow cautioned that Holocaust fiction should not be presented uncritically, but should be taught “in the context of the uncomfortable truths.” It’s important to educate kids about tragedies that occur in the world, but it’s a complex balancing act.

“It’s devastating material,” he said, “and there’s no way around it.”

Yolen acknowledged the balancing act in an author’s note for “Briar Rose,” which is set at the Chelmno extermination camp in Poland.

“[T]his is a book of fiction. All the characters are made up,” she wrote. “Happy-ever-after is a fairy tale notion, not history. I know of no woman who escaped from Chelmno alive.”

“The Devil’s Arithmetic” struck a chord for Deborah Berlin, who read the book more than 15 years ago, when she was about 10 years old, she recalled in a recent phone conversation. As a child growing up outside of Boston, she knew that half her family had perished in the Holocaust. Reading Yolen’s historical fantasy stirred an emotional connection to the incomprehensible loss, she recalled.

“It was my gateway” to read more books in a quest for a deeper understanding of the Holocaust, said Berlin, now a middle-school math and science teacher at the Rashi School, a Reform Jewish K-8 day school in suburban Boston. Yolen’s fantasy and other works of fiction are especially important to today’s teens, who may feel disconnected from the Holocaust, she has observed.

“Mapping the Bones” is Yolen’s 366th book. As Yolen sets out on a whirlwind series of book talks and conferences, the author said she had not planned to write a third Holocaust novel.

The idea for the Hansel and Gretel-like narrative emerged in a conversation with an editor, who like Brodie three decades earlier, urged Yolen to take on the project.

In four years of being immersed in Holocaust research and writing, there were also lighter and happier books, Yolen said. Among them was “Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook,” written with her daughter, Heidi E.Y. Stemple.

“But the things that feed the soul are [books] like ‘Mapping the Bones,’” Yolen reflected. “As hard as it was, I know I was meant to write this book.”

Source: https://www.jta.org/2018/03/14/arts-entertainment/30-years-later-author-devils-arithmetic-new-young-adult-holocaust-novel

Panel Finds ‘No Proof’ Waldheim Committed War Crimes, but Says He Lied About His War Record

An international commission of historians has found “no proof” that Kurt Waldheim committed war crimes, according to the 200-page report it submitted to Chancellor Franz Vranitzky here Monday night.

But the Austrian president was far from an innocent bystander when he served as a lieutenant in the German army occupying the Balkans in World War II, according to several members of the panel who commented on the text of the report before it was made public.

The historians’ report originally was scheduled to be released Monday, but some news reports late in the day said the Austrian Foreign Ministry suppressed the report at the last minute. The ministry obtained an advance summary of the document on Sunday.

The report was later released, but only after the historians reportedly complied with a demand from the Foreign Ministry to excise references to the Austrian president’s “moral guilt.”

WALDHEIM REPORTEDLY BRIEFED

According to the news reports, Waldheim himself was briefed about the contents of both the original and the revised reports prior to the final version’s release.

The commission was set up by the Austrian government last year to examine Waldheim’s wartime record in light of charges that he was implicated in the deportation of Greek Jews and others and in atrocities committed against Yugoslav civilians and resistance fighters.

The head of the panel, Swiss military historian Rudolf Kurz, announced Monday that the commission found no proof that Waldheim personally took part in war crimes, but charged that the Austrian president concealed and “even lied” about his wartime activities.

The leaders of Austria’s Socialist-Conservative coalition government each had different reactions to the report. Vranitzky, leader of the Socialist Party, said he was deeply concerned by the findings.

He said that while the panel found no personal guilt, its report contained some very critical passages about the Austrian president’s military service.

Foreign Minister Alois Mock, who is vice chancellor and chairman of the conservative Peoples Party, stressed the fact that Waldheim was absolved of personal guilt. He said that while there were some remarks critical of the president, the commission’s mandate had been solely to determine guilt or innocence of war crimes.

‘AN ACCOMPLICE’

A West German member of the commission, Manfred Messerschmidt, told the West German newspaper Die Welt on Monday that Waldheim “knew his unit committed war crimes.” He said that on that basis, the commission concluded unanimously that Waldheim could be considered “an accomplice.”

Another member, Jan van Welkhuizen of Belgium, said in a French television interview that he believed Waldheim played a significant role in the Wehrmacht’s action, which resulted in the deportation of about 63,000 Yugoslav civilians, including 23,000 children.

“The report will not be a whitewash and at the president’s (Waldheim’s) office, they will not be very happy about it,” said van Welkhuizen.

He said the commission’s findings consist of a “series of mosaics,” not a single report. Observers here said, in that case, Waldheim will be able to stress whatever he finds useful to his case.

A summary of the final paragraphs of the report, obtained by the Austrian Press Agency, reflects a degree of ambiguity on the part of its authors or possibly pressure by the Foreign Ministry to soften or generalize the language.

It states at one point that “a certain guilt may arise” from “sheer knowledge about the violation of human rights” if “the person in question, be it because of a lack of strength or courage, violates his human duty to stand up to injustice.”

Later on, however, the report seems almost to absolve Waldheim, saying he had “only modest means at his disposal for resistance against injustice.”

“For a young member of the staff, the practical possibilities of acting against the orders are very limited and with all probability would have had hardly an effect. His means would have had to be restricted to protests or to a practical denial of his cooperation,” the report says.

NO PLANS TO RESIGN

Waldheim’s spokesman, Jerold Christian, said Monday “the president will not resign whatever the results of (the commission’s) findings.”

Sources close to Waldheim told Austrian Radio that his decision not to resign “whatever the findings” was bolstered by a public opinion poll taken last week. The poll found that 72 percent of the respondents believed he should stay in office, regardless of the commission’s conclusions.

The poll showed that among members of Waldheim’s People’s Party, 92 percent favored his remaining in office.

Waldheim, who served two terms as secretary general of the United Nations, was elected president of Austria in June 1986.

The first revelations of his Nazi past surfaced during the election campaign in evidence presented by the World Jewish Congress and other Jewish groups.

Evidence continued to mount from many other sources. Despite Waldheim’s vociferous denials, he was forced to admit that for 40 years he had concealed his wartime service.

His name, in fact, appears on the list of 40,000 suspected Nazi war criminals compiled by the Allied War Crimes Commission during and directly after the war.

The War Crimes Commission turned its list over to the United Nations in 1947. The war crimes files remained accessible only to the governments of U.N. member states until late last year, when, at the urging of Israel, they were opened to the public.

Source: https://www.jta.org/1988/02/09/archive/panel-finds-no-proof-waldheim-committed-war-crimes-but-says-he-lied-about-his-war-record

Poland’s president visits Krakow JCC amid tensions over Holocaust law

Polish President Andrzej Duda at the NATO Multinational Corps Northeast headquarters in Szczecin, Poland, Nov. 28, 2016. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

(JTA) — The president of Poland visited the Jewish community center in Krakow amid tensions with the Jewish community over a controversial new Holocaust law.

Andrzej Duda visited the center on Tuesday and met with Jewish leaders. He said of his government’s relations with the Jewish community, according to the Polish-language newspaper Gazeta Wyborca, “I would not call it a crisis, just a cry which I hope will be quickly resolved.”

The law, which takes effect at the end of the month, criminalizes claims that the Polish nation or state was responsible for Nazi crimes. Violators could face up to three years in prison, though government officials say prosecution under the law is unlikely.

The law, an amendment to the National Institute on Remembrance, “did not raise my doubts as a lawyer,” Duda said at the JCC. “But there have been dramatic interpretations. There were people among Poles who denounced Jews among Poles, but not the entire Polish nation. All simplifications are very painful.”

Duda added that he sent the law to the Constitutional Tribunal and “I hope that it will soon speak on this subject, which will help settle the dispute.”

He met with leaders of the Krakow Jewish community, including Tadeusz Jakubowicz; Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland; and Jonathan Ornstein, the JCC’s director.

Source: https://www.jta.org/2018/02/27/news-opinion/polands-president-visits-krakow-jcc-bid-appease-jewish-community

Owner unveils Albert Einstein letter thanking Chicago man for saving Jews

Albert Einstein, circa 1946. (Central Press/Getty Images)

(JTA) — A letter from Albert Einstein to a Chicago man thanking him for helping Jews to escape Nazi Germany has been made public by his daughter.

Enid Bronstein has kept the letter penned by Einstein in a safe deposit box for the last 50 years, she toldChicago’s WGN TV.

The letter was written to David Finck, a New York financier who helped fund the emigration of Jewish refugees from Europe in 1939 before the outbreak of World War II.

“May I offer my sincere congratulations to you on the splendid work you have undertaken on behalf of the refugees,” Einstein said in the letter written in June 1939. It is one of three such letters known to be written by Einstein, himself a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.

“The power of resistance which has enabled the Jewish people to survive for thousands of years has been based to a large extent on traditions of mutual helpfulness. We have no other means of self-defense than our solidarity and our knowledge that the cause for which we are suffering is a momentous and sacred cause,” the letter also said.

Bronstein said she guarded the letter carefully after he died 50 years go. “I wanted to keep the letter to show it to my children and grandchildren so that they would get the message that every contribution, no matter how small, is important,” she told WGN.

She said she will donate it to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. She could have sold it for thousands of dollars.

Source: https://www.jta.org/2018/02/22/news-opinion/united-states/owner-unveils-albert-einstein-letter-thanking-chicago-man-for-saving-jews

Polish senator suspended for klezmer-themed video of Nazi violence to Jews

(JTA) — Poland’s ruling party suspended a senator who posted online footage from a Nazi propaganda movie depicting violence against Jews to the sounds of klezmer music.

On Thursday, the Law and Justice party suspended Waldemar Bonkowski for posting the video on Facebook earlier in the week amid an acrimonious argument between many Poles and Jews over the Polish government’s passing this month of a law criminalizing blaming Poland for Nazi crimes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu protested the law and called “outrageous” a remark by his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, who said in defending the law that there were also Jewish perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Morawiecki in an interview Feb. 18 was addressing claims that the law whitewashes complicity by some Poles in the Holocaust.

The debate around the law, which is opposed also by the World Jewish Congress and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Israel, has generated an increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric in Poland, according to Jonny Daniels, a commemoration activist from the From the Depths group with friendly ties to Morawiecki. Bonkowski’s post, which Daniels said was “hateful,” is part of that increase.

Daniels, who had slammed Morawiecki’s remark as a form of “Holocaust denial,” welcomed what he called the “swift action” by Law and Justice.

But provocative and “extremist rhetoric was rising on both sides,” Daniels added, citing the production of a video posted this week by the Ruderman Family Foundation that featured Jews saying the words “Polish Holocaust” in promoting a petition urging the United States to suspend its ties with Poland. The film was taken offline following protests by Polish Jews and non-Jews.

Also last week, 23 Jewish groups signed a statement saying their members felt less safe in Poland following the fallout of the debate.

“I understand how someone could feel afraid,” Daniels said. He added, however, that the hate speech that erupted in the wake of the debate has yet to lead to physical violence.

Source: https://www.jta.org/2018/02/23/news-opinion/world/polish-senator-suspended-for-klezmer-themed-video-of-nazi-violence-to-jews

Jewish Republicans want congressman to admit his State of the Union guest is a Holocaust denier

(JTA) — The Republican Jewish Coalition called on Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida to acknowledge that his guest at the State of the Union speech is a Holocaust denier.

In a BuzzFeed News profile of Gaetz, the Republican congressman said that “Chuck Johnson is not a Holocaust denier and he’s not an anti-Semite. He’s a provoker, I should’ve vetted him better before inviting him to the State of the Union, I regret that I didn’t. That’s my fault. I take responsibility for it. But he is not a Holocaust denier.”

Gaetz invited Johnson to attend the State of the Union after his father fell ill and he had an extra ticket. Johnson had visited Gaetz’s office the morning of the address and angled for the ticket. The congressman said he thought Johnson seemed “polite.”

“This organization is deeply troubled by the comments from Charles C. Johnson, and it is incredibly important for the congressman to acknowledge he is a Holocaust denier and has extensive writings that attest to that and that it was wrong to bring him to the State of the Union,” RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks told BuzzFeed in a statement. “We are deeply troubled by any inference that our organization believes otherwise.”

Johnson denied the Holocaust in an “Ask Reddit” session from January 2017. Asked about the “Jewish Question” and the Holocaust, Johnson replied, “I do not and never have believed the 6 million figure. I think the Red Cross numbers of 250,000 dead in the camps from typhus are more realistic.”

A Jewish friend of Gaetz, Joel Greenberg, the elected tax collector of Seminole County, told BuzzFeed that the congressman is a “champion of Israel and the Jewish people.”

“We may have to retroactively throw him a bar mitzvah,” he added.

Source: https://www.jta.org/2018/02/12/news-opinion/politics/jewish-republicans-want-congressman-to-admit-his-state-of-the-union-guest-is-a-holocaust-denier