Category Archive: JTA

Elie Wiesel’s childhood home vandalized by antisemitic graffiti

The Elie Wiesel Memorial House in Romania is covered in antisemitic graffiti. (photo credit: WORLD JEWISH CONGRESS)

WRITER, NOBEL LAUREATE and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel speaks to the media outside the West Wing of the White House in 2010 (photo credit: REUTERS)

The florescent pink graffiti that was painted on the Memorial House Elie Wiesel in Sighet in eastern Romania read “public toilet” and “Nazi Jew lying in hell with Hitler” as well as “Anti-Semite pedo

Unidentified individuals spray painted offensive graffiti on the external walls of a museum for Elie Wiesel in Romania, where he was also born, in what police said was an antisemitic incident.

The florescent pink graffiti that was painted on the Memorial House Elie Wiesel in Sighet in eastern Romania read “public toilet” and “Nazi Jew lying in hell with Hitler” as well as “Anti-Semite pedophile.”

Wiesel was one of the world’s most famous Holocaust survivors before he passed away in 2016 at the age of 87. A Nobel prize laureate for literature, he was honored last year by locals in his hometown. They marched from the museum, which was built where Wiesel was born and grew up, to the train station where in 1944 he boarded with his family a train to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland.

Police are investigating the incident, which they consider an anti-Semitic hate crime, but have no suspects in custody, the news site Sighet247 reported Saturday.

“What was done is unforgivable,” said Chaim Chesler, co-founder of Limmud FSU. Chesler’s group, which sets up cultural events for Jews across the former Soviet Union and other places where many Russian-speaking Jews live, was responsible for the 2016 memorial march for Wiesel in Sighet. “Elie is a symbol for all Holocaust survivors and that makes this incident especially painful. Everything must be done so that such cases not repeat themselves.”

In June, Maximillian Marco Katz, founding director of MCA Romania-The Center for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism, told JTA that Romania has adequate laws for fighting antisemitism, but enforcement in lacking. He cited several recent cases, including the failure by authorities to prosecute Gheorghe Funar, a former mayor of the city of Cluj who last year said in a filmed speech that the “Romanians are victims of Jews within” who perpetrated “the greatest Holocaust in human history.”

A police officer told Katz he “did not see who was damaged” by the former mayor’s speech and that he therefore is dropping the investigation, Katz said.

Eviction of Dutch Jews from Nazi-ravaged synagogue brings back bitter memories

By Cnaan Liphshiz

Tom Furstenberg, right, and a fellow congregant carrying the Torah ark out of the Great Synagogue of Deventer, July 30, 2018. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

DEVENTER, Netherlands (JTA) — Four years ago, Tom Furstenberg proudly carried into his synagogue its first Torah scroll since the Holocaust, when local Nazis destroyed the building’s interior.

The scroll’s introduction in 2014 was an important moment for the Beth Shoshana Masorti community that Furstenberg helped establish in 2010 in this city of nearly 100,000 residents located 60 miles east of the capital Amsterdam.

After all, it was proof that Jewish life had finally returned to a place where it had been uprooted and destroyed.

“I felt that this was it, nothing could reverse our presence as part of this city,” Furstenberg, a 49-year-old teacher and chairman of Deventer’s Jewish community, told JTA on Monday.

Furstenberg had been overly optimistic.

On Monday, he and a dozen other members of their congregation of 35 had to take away the scroll and all the other ritual possessions and load them into a white van.

The building housing the Great Synagogue of Deventer was sold in January by the church that had owned it for decades. The developers, a Dutch-Turkish restaurant owner and his associate, then evicted the congregants amid a legal fight over the owners’ plan to turn the place into an eatery.

For Deventer, the eviction meant “the end of a Jewish presence in this city,” Sanne Terlouw, a founding member of Beth Shoshana and a renowned author, told JTA with tears in her eyes on the day of the move.

But for many other Dutch Jews, the demise of the Great Synagogue of Deventer signals a broader demographic shift: Jewish life and heritage are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain outside Amsterdam, where most Dutch Jews live, because of secularization and the echoing losses of the Holocaust.

“Of course it’s sad, we’re losing a piece of our history,” said Esther Voet, editor in chief of the NIW Jewish weekly in Amsterdam. “But the reality is that this small Jewish community cannot afford to stay in that huge synagogue. That’s just the way it is.”

With no synagogue of its own, Beth Shoshana will move to the nearby municipality of Raalte, where it will share space with an existing congregation. Voet says she finds this “a reasonable solution” born out of a “regrettable reality.”

But in Deventer and beyond, the evicted congregants appeared less resigned to the change than Voet.

On Monday, the congregation gathered one last time for a snack in the building they had just emptied of its possessions. Sipping black coffee and eating prune cake, they sang in passionate Hebrew “Am Yisrael Chai” and “Kol Ha’Olam Kulo” — “The People of Israel Live” and “The World is a Narrow Bridge.” Some of the congregants cried; others tried to console them.

‘This was our home for a long period,” Ehud Posthumos, 79, a retired Royal Netherlands Air Force officer, told JTA. “On winter nights, we’d gather here in the cold – we never heated the place properly to save on utilities – and although outside it turned very dark early in the afternoon, here inside we had a great source of light. And now it feels like losing a home.”

A congregant helps pack up the synagogue’s belongings, July 30, 2018. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Maurice Swirc, the former editor in chief of NIW, called the synagogue’s sale “a scandal” and found it “very painful.” Dutch authorities, he said, “were partially responsible for the fact that Deventer does not have enough Jews to maintain she synagogue. The least they could do is help preserve it.”

The affair prompted intense interest internationally. JTA’s video report of the community leaving the shul has been viewed more than 200,000 times on Facebook.

Ronny Naftaniel, a founder of The Hague Jewish Heritage group, said the synagogue’s sale is unusual “for a city such as Deventer, where authorities have a high awareness for heritage.” Deventer, where wealthy Jewish cattle dealers left an indelible mark and where a part of Naftaniel’s family lived before the Holocaust, “could have set aside this space,” he said.

Until recently, Furstenberg’s community was able to hold on to its synagogue thanks to the Christian Reformed Churches group. It bought the building in 1951 from the severely depleted Jewish community of Deventer and turned the structure into a church, complete with a massive pipe organ that the group installed.

In 2010, Furstenberg and other Jews from the area began convening at a nearby Jewish club and asked the church’s permission to re-establish a synagogue in the hall, which they began renting from the church at a subsidized rate. But the church had to sell the building this year. The highest bidder was Ayhan Sahin, the Dutch-Turkish developer, and his associate, Carlus Lenferink.

This summer, the entrepreneurs announced their plan to turn the synagogue into a restaurant. Furstenberg objected and the city declined to approve the plan.

Amid negotiations with the Jewish community, Sahin was quoted as saying: “If need be, I’ll turn it into a mosque,” according to De Stentor regional daily. He later said he would allow the Jewish community to stay, “but only if they pay full rent” – an unlikely prospect for the small congregation, which has no sources of income and could barely afford maintenance fees when it rented the shul at a subsidized price from the church.

Maarten-Jan Stuurman, a spokesman for the Deventer municipality, told De Stentor that the city tried to help the Jewish community stay, but ultimately “it is not the city’s task to buy religious properties it does not use.” The issue of rent, eh said, “is at the discretion of the owner.”

Losing the synagogue is “a failure and a major step back for the city,” Furstenberg said, his voice echoing in the tall and now empty space where his congregation would gather once every three weeks and on Jewish holidays. “Once again, the city is looking on as its synagogue is being destroyed.”

Furstenberg’s j’accuse, spoken in Dutch in the presence of local reporters, was a reference to the unusual and painful wartime history of the building. Unlike most Dutch synagogues, the one in Deventer was not confiscated in the orderly and methodical Nazi manner. Instead it was ransacked by a rabble belonging to the Dutch Nazi party, NSB, on July 25, 1941.

Under the gaze of local police officers, they smashed the furniture, hacked open the Torah ark, tore up the scroll, pulled down the chandeliers and dislodged the bimah of the building, which was built in 1892.

But that violence paled in comparison to the deportations of the congregants the next summer. Of the 590 people registered as Jews in Deventer in 1942, the Nazis murdered 401. It was a typical statistic in a country where the Nazis and local collaborators were responsible for killing at least 75 percent of Jews – the highest death rate in Nazi-occupied Western Europe.

Dutch Jewry, which numbered 140,000 before the Holocaust, never came close to replenishing its numbers. Today, Holland has about 45,000 Jews, according to the European Jewish Congress.

The Deventer synagogue played a role in the survival of at least two Jews.

Simon van Spiegel, his brother, Bubi, and Meier de Leeuw hid in the building’s attic for a while. Bubi was caught by the Germans after they received an anonymous tip. His brother and  de Leeuw escaped. Simon’s daughter, Liesje Tesler-Van Spiegel, who lives in Israel, visited her father’s hiding place for the first time last month.

“I remember all of them,” Roelof de Vries, 86, a carpenter whose family worked as caretakers at the synagogue before the Holocaust.

“Even if this place becomes a restaurant, I’ll never forget my friend Bubi, whom they gassed along with so many others,” he said, weeping.

Referring to the genocide, Furstenberg said “This is the reason there are not enough Jews to afford this place.”

In the cool interior of the Great Synagogue – a tall building in the neo-Moorish style – he added: “This is not just a story about a dwindling faith community, like all those churches that get turned into a discotheques. This is an aftereffect of the Holocaust.”


Jewish cemetery desecrated in Lithuania, leaving bones scattered

(JTA) — A Jewish cemetery in Lithuania was desecrated and human remains were brought to the surface during digging connected to the laying of pipes.

Pictures showing freshly dug soil, garbage and bone fragments on the grounds of the cemetery of Siauliai, in northern Lithuania, began circulating Wednesday on social media amid reports of a cover-up of the evidence documented, the Skrastas news site reported Friday.

According to the article, the soil containing bone fragments was removed after being photographed by Sania Kerbel, the chairperson of the local Jewish community, possibly to conceal the evidence of the desecration. But Marijus Velička, a senior municipal representative, told Skrastas that he believes “this is not true.”

“The cemetery is a cultural heritage site and all digging is prohibited there,” Kerbel told the news site. “This is not just desecration of burial grounds, there is vandalism here.”

Police are investigating the incident.

Rabbinical authorities in Lithuania have been approached to deal with the fallout of the digging at Siauliai and bring the remains to a proper burial, the report said.

Grant Gochin of California in a Facebook post reacted passionately to the incident; his family had lived in Siauliai.

“Those bones could belong to my cousins,” he wrote Thursday. “The disrespect … This feels like a knife into the core of my being, how could someone hate this much? How could people be so callous? That is my family you see in those mounds.”


Munich rejects ‘stumbling stone’ Holocaust memorials at Jewish leader’s request

A view of some “stolpersteine” in Berlin, Aug. 2012. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

BERLIN (JTA) — Heeding the objections of a local Jewish leader, Munich is introducing a new form of Holocaust remembrance as an answer to the ubiquitous “stumbling stones” memorials that dot sidewalks in front of sites across Europe from which Jews were deported.

The first two small plaques and markers with photos and biographical details went up on Friday at apartment buildings in the capital of Bavaria, recalling the lives and fates of Jews who once lived there.

“With this new form of commemoration, Munich is taking its own path towards an honorable and lasting remembrance,” Charlotte Knobloch, head of the Jewish community of Munich and Bavaria, said, according to news reports.

Knobloch has for years opposed the installation of “stumbling stone” memorials, small brass plaques generally installed on sidewalks in front of places from where Jews were deported. She considers their placement on the ground, where people tread on them or they get dirty, an insult to the memory of Holocaust victims. Knobloch herself survived World War II in hiding with a Christian family in Germany.

Initiated by the Cologne-based artist Gunter Demnig, the “Stolpersteine” plaques include basic information about the individuals. His non-profit asks for about $140 to cover the cost of creating and setting the stones. According to his website, more than 50,000 “stumbling stones” have now been installed across Europe, often with descendants of Holocaust victims present. Other cities and communities in Germany welcomed the memorial stones.

Supporting Knobloch, the City Council voted three years ago to reject the project, and their stand was backed by the Bavarian Administrative Court in December 2017.

Now, the city reportedly has earmarked $175,000 for the new project.

The installation of the new memorials this week was attended by Munich Mayor Dieter Reiter.

The first is dedicated to the philologist Friedrich Crusius, who was put to death because of mental illness; the art gallery owners  Paula and Siegfried Jordan, who were shot in 1941; and to Franz and Tilly Landauer – Franz was the brother of Kurt Landauer, pre-war president of the FC-Bayern soccer club, who fled to Switzerland in 1939 and saved his life. All of his siblings were murdered by the Nazis.

Another two plaques and markers are to be installed by August 5, according to news reports.

Meanwhile, the opposition association, “Stolpersteine for Munich,” has installed a few stumbling stone memorials on private property.

An app called Munich stumbling blocks provides a virtual memorial to Holocaust victims from the city.


90-year-old Holocaust survivor is unexpected superhero of Comic-Con

The 2018 Comic-Con International festival took place at the San Diego Convention Center. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

(JTA) — A Holocaust survivor turned out to be the real superhero at the Comic-Con convention in Southern California.

Ruth Goldschmiedova Sax, 90, who survived three Nazi concentration camps, was the main draw of a panel on “Art During the Holocaust” at the popular convention last week in San Diego.

Sax, of Chula Vista, California, told an overflow crowd about how she was forced to stand naked in front of Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele six times in order to help him decide whether she should be sent to the gas chambers, the San Diego Times reported. She also survived internment in Theresienstadt and Oederan.

Her daughter, Sandra Scheller, displayed slides showing how comics were used as propaganda against Jews. Scheller is the author of her mother’s memoir, “Try to Remember, Never Forget.”

Sax told the audience how she saw drawings and cartoons depicting Jews in an anti-Semitic manner in the German newspaper Der Sturmer.

“We were shocked and surprised by the propaganda and the way Jewish persons were portrayed,” she said. “I remember being scared, wondering how could this be? It was something we could not run away from.”

Meanwhile, according to another panelist, many Jews were among those creating cartoons and comics in the United States showing the defeat of the Nazis.

Esther Finder, the president and founder of Generations of the Shoah, told the audience that Nazi racial propaganda likely fueled the creation of Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster of Cleveland, Ohio. She also noted Superman’s Jewish roots from his original name, Kal-El, which includes a Hebrew name of God, and the similarity of his arrival on earth to that of Moses – both placed in a vessel and sent adrift in the hopes that someone would save him and take him in.

Jewish television star Mayim Bialik also made a surprise appearance at Comic-Con after first spending a day on the floor of the convention hall incognito so she could enjoy it with her sons. She wore a Spiderman mask and a baseball cap. Bialik and “Big Bang Theory” co-star Kunal Nayyar joined a panel with the show’s writers.


Herman Shine, one of the last survivors to have escaped Auschwitz, dies at 95

Herman Shine in September 2017 while preparing a message for the 70th Anniversary Observance of the liberation of Sachsenhausen camp. (Courtesy of David Richardson)

(JTA) — Herman Shine, who is believed to be one of the last survivors to have escaped Auschwitz, has died.

Shine, who worked as a roofer at the Nazi death camp before making a daring escape with his good friend Max Drimmer, died on June 23. He was 95.

Fewer than 200 prisoners escaped from Auschwitz.

Shine, born Mendel Scheingesicht in Berlin, was arrested in that German city in 1939 and then deported with 1,700 other Polish Jews to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Shine’s father was Polish.

He claimed to be a roofer in order to survive the camp and actually learned how to build roofs. In 1942, Shine was transferred to Auschwitz, where he continued to work as a roofer.

While working at an Auschwitz satellite forced labor camp in the town of Gleiwitz, he met a Jewish girl who worked in the camp and was able to return to her home at night. The girl, Marianne, would later become his wife.

Drimmer came to Shine with an Auschwitz escape plan and, with the help of a Polish partisan, they managed to break out of Auschwitz and hide on his farm for three months. Marianne’s family would hide the two men during the final weeks of the war.

Shine and Drimmer and their wives immigrated to the United States, settling in San Francisco. Shine founded the Standard Roofing Company in 1956 and was a successful businessman until his retirement in 1979. Drimmer, who worked as a plumber and a baker, died in 2012.

A documentary about the men, “Escape from Auschwitz: Portrait of a Friendship,” was released in 2001. It was updated and re-released in 2015 with additional material.

Shine and his wife devoted time to Holocaust education and told their stories to groups throughout the Bay Area.


Mark Zuckerberg’s sister responds to his Holocaust comments

Randi Zuckerberg denounced Holocaust deniers, citing “their hateful, disgusting rhetoric” but said banning such people from social media “will not make them go away.”


Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, weighed in on his controversial comments about Holocaust deniers on the social media platform.

In a statement provided to CNN, Randi Zuckerberg, who previously served as director of marketing for Facebook and is the founder and CEO of Zuckerberg Media, denounced Holocaust deniers, citing “their hateful, disgusting rhetoric.”

She appeared to agree with her brother, however, adding that banning such people from social media “will not make them go away.”

Her comments came after her brother told Recode’s Kara Swisher that Facebook would not remove the posts of Holocaust deniers because they could include people who “aren’t intentionally getting it wrong.” He said Facebook would only make sure such posts would not get high visibility.

Critics, including the Anti-Defamation League, said a private company should draw the line at tolerating obvious falsehoods and hateful, unfounded conspiracy theories.

In her remarks to CNN, Randi Zuckerberg noted her longtime involvement in numerous Jewish organizations.

“As a leader in the Jewish community, and someone who has worked at the ground floor of social media, I felt a responsibility to weigh in,” she wrote.

She mentioned her involvement in Birthright Israel, PJ Library, Reboot, the Wexner Foundation, the Shalom Hartman Institute, San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum and “JCCs and Federations across the U.S. and Canada.”

Zuckerberg said her brother “could have chosen his words apparently.” She said, however, the difficulty of “navigating this incredibly difficult new world where the notion of free speech is constantly changing.” Citing the positive effect that Facebook has had on the Jewish community, she lamented that the platform has become a tool for detractors as well.

“Unfortunately, when we give a voice to everyone, we give it to people who use that voice for good and to people who abuse that voice,” she wrote. “Organizations doing impactful work now have more powerful tools than ever before, yet the nasty dark underbelly that exists right beneath the surface has access to those exact same tools.”

She suggested that a national debate was needed on Holocaust deniers’ right to a platform.

“As much as I disagree with Holocaust deniers having a voice at all, the reality is that it is not currently considered a crime in the United States, and if we want our social networks to remove this hateful speech and follow the lead of many countries in Europe who denounce it as criminal, we need to expand the conversation more broadly and legislate at a national level,” she wrote.

“I wish that these platforms didn’t give a voice to those who cry out for divestment from Israel, make anti-Jewish remarks, and many of the other issues affecting our community today. But silencing everyone — or worse, silencing selectively — would be far more nefarious.”


House passes bill named for Elie Wiesel on combating genocide

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill named for Elie Wiesel that would make combating genocide official U.S. policy.

The bill approved Wednesday in a 406-5 vote requires the executive branch to report annually to Congress on identifying early warnings of genocide, training U.S. officials in identifying potential areas where genocide may occur and how any administration is mitigating genocide through U.S. mediation, among other means. It also would commit the United States to support criminal accountability for past genocides.

Reps. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., and Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., authored the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, which was named for the Holocaust memoirist and Nobel peace laureate who died in 2016. Over the decades, Wiesel advised presidents of both parties on Holocaust commemoration and genocide prevention.

Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in floor remarks before the vote that the United States has always been a leader in combating genocide, but “there is more that can be done. U.S. efforts have been largely reactive and disjointed, with little transparency or oversight.”

The overwhelming bipartisan support for the bill comes at a time of concern in the foreign policy community that President Donald Trump is retreating from the lead role taken by the United States in advocacy for human rights.

A similar bill is under consideration in the Senate.