Category Archive: JTA

Is Auschwitz ready for a peace center? A Vermont woman thinks so

By Jon Kalish

The main gate of the former Auschwitz extermination camp in Oswiecim, Poland, with the famous sign reading “Works sets you free.” (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

A Vermont educator whose grandparents perished in Auschwitz is working to create a humanitarian institute next to the infamous concentration camp, and some Jewish observers aren’t happy.

Nina Meyerhof, 75, sees what she is calling the “City of Hope” as a counterbalance to the grim experience of visiting the Nazi concentration camp, which includes one of the most visited museums in Europe.

“You can imagine that walking through that horror show, where you’re going through gas chambers, etc., and then coming to a place that’s really calm and beautiful and a little cafe and being able to sit and think about your experience,” Meyerhof said. “After you’ve had that experience, you don’t know what to do with it. Well, what we’re saying is you can transform that experience and carry it forward and make a difference in life.”

Meyerhof hopes to establish the City of Hope in 11 former Nazi barracks that were used by the Polish military after World War II. A newly formed nonprofit, the One Humanity Institute, would provide space there for education, research, conferences, NGO offices, a museum, a villa, a garden and a restaurant.

According to the institute’s website, the Auschwitz center will “aim to translate, in formal and non-formal environments, the values of understanding, freedom, equal dignity, justice, equity, harmony, compassion and forgiveness into knowledge, skills, actions, and projects for communities across the world.”

Asked if she thought Holocaust scholars and Jewish organizations might object to her plans, Meyerhof replied, “In no way do we want to take away from the experience of what people learn and viscerally experience when they go there.”

But Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office and the organization’s point man on Eastern Europe affairs, called the proposed City of Hope “a terrible idea, absolutely terrible.”

“I can appreciate her intentions, but this is really misconceived,” Zuroff told JTA. “You don’t want to soften the blow [of the experience of visiting the concentration camp]. People should leave Auschwitz very disturbed. Auschwitz stands alone, and that’s exactly as it should be.”

Also questioning the project is Michael Berenbaum, who served as the project director during the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and played a key role in the establishment of Steven Spielberg’s oral history project on the Shoah. Now a consultant on the creation of museums and memorials around the world, Berenbaum said the City of Hope is not the best use of the former SS barracks.

“Auschwitz is a paradox. Auschwitz is the single most sacred anti-sacred site in the world. It is so anti-sacred that it has become sacred,” Berenbaum said.  I have a problem using it for anything other than telling the story of the crime [committed at the concentration camp].

“One always has to ask in such a situation, ‘Is this the most worthy use of so an important a site?’ The staff who were part of this scheme of massive murder — where they were housed probably should be used as part of the site to tell the story of the men and the women who lived in these barracks.’”

Jewish scholars and activists have fought in the past against what they saw as misuses of Auschwitz and its environs, especially attempts to universalize or “de-Judaize” a site where, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 960,000 Jews were killed, along with approximately 125,000 non-Jewish Poles, Roma and members of other nationalities.

In 1984, a Carmelite convent was established on the grounds of Auschwitz; it was closed by Pope John Paul in 1993 after years of protests. Activists have also asked for the removal of a Catholic church built in the 1980s at the Auschwitz II Birkenau extermination camp.

Zuroff said locating the One Humanity Institute within the Nazi barracks amounted to “replacing reality with fantasy” and dismissed Meyerhof’s plans to establish a research center dedicated to world peace.

“That research is already being done all over the world,” he said.

The 11 buildings planned for the humanitarian institute are two- and three-story structures adjacent to the entrance of the concentration camp. Meyerhof said the Polish military still has a claim to the buildings.

Meyerhof said she’s been to war zones around the globe, but did not visit Auschwitz until 2014. Her grandparents and nearly 20 other relatives were killed there.

“I had no intention of getting involved there. None whatsoever,” said Meyerhof, who ran school programs and a summer camp in Vermont, and founded Children of the Earth, an organization that encourages spirituality and activism.

Since then she said she’s made 10 trips to Oswiecim, the town in Poland on whose outskirts the Nazi death camp is located.

Meyerhof, a descendant of German Jews, said members of her family were deported from Berlin to Auschwitz. Her mother, who told Meyerhof that her grandmother was gassed on the day Nina was born, once remarked that “every person who ever gave her a piece of candy was taken away.”

Meyerhof lived in Israel for a year and said she identifies with Jewish ethnicity more than the Jewish religion.

“I don’t have a deep identification as a suffering Jew,” she added.

Meyerhof and her partner, the Slovenian theologist Domen Kocevar, have met with both the mayor of Oswiecim and the governor of its province. According to Meyerhof and Kocevar, the governor has discussed the City of Hope project with Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, an Oswiecim native.

In an email sent Sunday, Meyerhof wrote that she was hoping to meet directly with Poland’s president or prime minister this week before returning to Vermont.

“We’re doing a lot of relationship building,” Meyerhof said of the several trips she and Kocevar have made to Oswiecim. “Part of our design is that financially the town would benefit from our work, that there would be a percentage [of proceeds] that would go to them, there’d be jobs, there’d be taxes.”

The project’s website, which does not contain a single reference to Jews, features videos of diplomats and celebrities expressing their support for the City of Hope, including the violinist Scarlet Rivera and the primatologist Jane Goodall.

“There is no more fitting place for creating a center … where people can be inspired with a vision of a world where we live together with respect for each other,” Goodall said in a video urging support for the One Humanity Institute.

Meyerhof is partnering with Robert Smith, a former Wall Street trader who now runs a network of wealthy families and institutional investors committed to social change. Smith and Meyerhof met in February at the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Bogota, Colombia.

“She is one of the most tenacious individuals I’ve ever met,” Smith said. “I could see that there was a chance that she could pull this off.”

Smith said he intends to raise $3 million as seed money for the City of Hope from philanthropists affiliated with Investment Community Visibility, his company. The total cost of building the City of Hope is pegged at $250 million.

“My goal with this is that there be light that comes into this place of darkness, and then that light is carried out to other people,” said Smith, who raises funds for the Permanent Secretariat of the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, a nongovernmental organization based in Rome.

Meyerhof said the proposal to build her City of Hope at Auschwitz could be approved next year and that programs could begin in 2019.

After visiting the One Humanity Institute’s newly launched website, Zuroff said the money needed to build the proposed City of Hope would be better spent on the physical preservation of the existing portion of the former concentration camp, now maintained as a historic site, so that it doesn’t physically disintegrate.


Commander of Auschwitz Concentration Camp Arrested in Germany

Richard Baer, last commander of the Auschwitz concentration camp, was arrested here Tuesday. He was a leader of Hitler’s SS, the Nazi “elite guard.”

Josef Schoenen, the 25-year-old youth who desecrated the Cologne synagogue last Christmas Eve, thereby touching off a spate of anti-Semitic incidents throughout the world, was released by the Cologne police today, for lack of evidence in connection with charges that he again daubed swastikas last weekend on buildings in that city.

Schoenen, who last month finished serving a Jail sentence for the Christmas Eve incident, was re-arrested yesterday with another youth, Willi Nickel, for allegedly smearing swastikas and anti-Jewish inscriptions on buildings in a Cologne suburb. Nickel was also released by police today.


Holocaust memorial in Athens with Elie Wiesel inscription is vandalized

This is not the first time the Holocaust Memorial in Athens has been vandalized. (Wikimedia Commons)

(JTA) — Vandals stripped away inscriptions on the Holocaust memorial in Athens written by Elie Wiesel.

The attack on the memorial, commemorating the more than 60,000 Greek Jews killed during World War II, took place on Saturday, according to the English-language Greek Reporter.

Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor who would go on to become a renowned author and Nobel Prize winner, wrote the inscription especially for the engraved plaque. It was written in Greek, French and English, but only the English inscription remains.

“Elie Wiesel’s appeal to the passer-by to stand, to remember, to honor the victims of the Holocaust was turned into an act of vandalism, disrespect, insult,” said Minor Moisis, president of the Jewish community of Athens, according to the European Jewish Press. He said the memorial will remain open and accessible to the public

The memorial, which was designed by Greek American artist DeAnna Maganias, was erected in 2010. Located in a small park overlooking the Keramikos archaeological site, the memorial features pieces of a broken marble Magen David, each representing a lost Greek Jewish community. The names of the communities are engraved in the marble piece pointing in the direction where they once existed.

About 5,000 Jews now live in Greece.

Saturday’s vandalism is not the first time that the memorial has been desecrated. In 2014, threats against the Jewish community were spray-painted on the monument and several months later the logo of the ultranationalist group known as the Unaligned Meander Nationalists was spray-painted in blue on the memorial.


A naked game of tag was filmed at a Nazi gas chamber. Survivors’ groups demand to know who gave the OK.

A view of a gas chamber at the former Stutthof camp. (Christian Holmér/Flickr Commons)

(JTA) — Groups representing Holocaust survivors have asked Poland’s president to explain why artists were allowed to film a naked game of tag inside a gas chamber in the former Nazi death camp of Stutthof.

On Wednesday, the Organization of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and several other groups sent the request for clarification to President Andrzej Duda in connection with a video that the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow displayed in 2015 without divulging any details on where it was filmed. The letter was sent after research revealed the location was Stutthof, near Gdansk, Poland.

The organizations that co-signed the letter demanded to know whether the artists did “obtain permission from the Stutthof administrators to make this video, what rules exist for proper conduct at the site, how these are enforced” and whether an investigation of the circumstances of the making of the video had been carried out, the Simon Wiesenthal Center wrote in a statement about the letter.

Following protests by Jewish groups and community leaders, the Krakow museum pulled the exhibition but then reinstated it, defending it as falling under freedom of artistic expression.

The installation, called “Game of Tag,” also was displayed at an art museum in Estonia before being pulled following protests.

“It is the most disgusting thing I’ve seen in a long time,” Efraim Zuroff, the Wiesenthal Center’s chief Nazi hunter, said in 2015 about the exhibition. “They lied about it. It is just revolting and a total insult to the victims and anyone with any sense of morality or integrity.”


‘Nazi Grandma’ in Germany will serve jail time

Holocaust denier Ursula Haverbeck-Wetzel, then 88, waiting for her trial at a Berlin courthouse, Oct. 16, 2017. (Steffi Loos/Getty Images)

(JTA) — The octogenarian known as the “Nazi Grandma” will serve 14 months in a German prison for Holocaust denial after losing an appeal on one of several convictions.

Ursula Haverbeck, 89, was sentenced Tuesday by a district appeals court in Detmold for repeatedly denying the Holocaust, which is a crime in Germany.

In September 2016, a court in Detmold sentenced Haverbeck to eight months in jail on charges of sedition after she said Jews were never exterminated in Auschwitz. She also reportedly made offensive comments in the courtroom.

At the end of the trial she handed out leaflets to journalists, the judge and prosecutor titled “Only the truth will set you free,” which also included denial of Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust. In response, the court increased her sentence by several months, according to Deutsche Welle.

A year ago, Haverbeck was sentenced by a Hamburg court to 10 months in prison for Holocaust denial after saying on television that the Holocaust was “the biggest and most sustainable lie in history.” She made the statement to reporters outside the trial of former SS guard Oskar Groening, who was found guilty for his role in the murder of 300,000 at Auschwitz.

Haverbeck, who was dubbed “Nazi Grandma” by the German media, has been convicted and sentenced to prison on several other occasions for writing articles denying the Holocaust and incitement to hate. She has appealed all the decisions, however, and has yet to spend any time in jail.


Landowner asks Polish town to remove monument to Jews killed by Nazis

WARSAW, Poland (JTA) — A landowner has asked officials of a small town in southern Poland to remove a monument commemorating seven Jews murdered at the site during World War II.

The mayor of Chrzanow informed the Jewish community in nearby Katowice about the request. It is believed the owner wants to sell or lease the land.

Members of the Chrzanow Town Council are discussing how to commemorate the murders should the monument be removed, including asking whoever builds on the land to include a memorial plaque on any new structure.

“Poles also have their memorial places abroad and are fighting for them like lions,” Councilman Kamil Bogusz said in an interview with the weekly Przełom weekly. “Therefore, we should respect such places in our area. People who died there were also Polish people.”

Bogusz, 29, has researched Chrzanow’s former Jewish community.

In 1942, the Germans killed the Jews at the memorial site as punishment for illegal bread baking.


Europe’s only Jewish hospice gives Holocaust survivors a dignified farewell

By Cnaan Liphshiz

Henny Goudeketing, left, and Anne van de Geest at the main hall of the Immanuel Jewish hospice in Amsterdam, Nov. 1, 2017. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

AMSTERDAM (JTA) — Henny Goudeketting, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor, is ailing and preparing to leave the world.

Goudeketting, who was sterilized in Nazi medical experiments at Auschwitz, has neither children nor other relatives to care for her. Now, after multiple infections and recurrent falls, she’s readying to say goodbye.

“It’s kind of strange,” Goudeketting told JTA. “I know I have no future and I’m ready to die, but I’m still afraid of actually dying.”

The Amsterdam native returned to the city at 23 after surviving Auschwitz.

“My biggest sorrow is not being able to have children,” said Goudeketting, who had worked for decades as a seamstress.

Last month she was admitted to Immanuel, a small but upscale eight-room facility for the terminally ill. It is Europe’s only Jewish hospice, according to Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry.

While such facilities are common in the U.S. — the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, which was established in 1985 in New York, lists no fewer than 225 accredited Jewish hospice programs — they remain rare on the continent, where the Jewish community was decimated by the Holocaust.

Funded through private donations, as well as patient fees and some subsidies, the hospice was built by the Dutch Jewish community for survivors like Goudeketting to receive top end-of-life care.

“I’m not sure whether this is real, the luxurious treatment I’m getting here,” she said. “I’ve never experienced anything like this in my whole life.”

Take the on-demand room service.

“If I want a fried egg, or anything else, all I have to do is buzz,” said Goudeketting, whose stay at Immanuel is covered by her insurance. “They come round in seconds to terribly spoil me.”

The Netherlands, which last year was No. 1 on Europe’s index of public health systems, has 146 hospices nationwide with an average guest satisfaction rating of 9.1 out of 10. And whereas Immanuel’s on-demand room service is a standout amenity, patients at other hospices receive similar conditions — all for a daily rate of less than $70 covered by the government or basic insurance policies.

But Immanuel is the only hospice in Europe for guests like Goudeketting who keep kosher, although there are other hospitals with palliative programs that offer kosher food. They include the North London Hospice Group, which defines itself as Britain’s first “multifaith hospice.”

It’s also the only hospice where the staff and volunteers “already know the special issues connected to caring for the generation of Holocaust survivors,” said Sasja Martel, the institution’s founding director. That’s crucial, she said, “because at the last stage of life, it’s often too late to start explaining” what those special issues are.

A case in point: At Immanuel, the staff encourages guests to resist the urge “to finish their plates,” Martel said, and only eat when they are hungry.

“Traumatized by the Holocaust, survivors and their children tend to associate eating with staying alive,” she explained. “And that’s true, but at the terminal stage eating can hasten death.”

Rabbinical or other spiritual counseling is available to guests, as is counseling on accepting death, mostly by volunteers. That’s an issue for many survivors who are conditioned to “fight death at all costs,” Martel said.

The hospice, which has an annual budget of approximately $500,000, is subtly adorned with Jewish symbols ranging from mezuzahs, menorahs and, atop one piece of furniture in the main hall, a small pile of stones of the kind that Jews place on cemetery headstones. But even though they are understated, the symbols can have a profound effect on some guests.

“The significance of little things is amplified near the end,” Martel said. “Many guests feel a need to touch their identity, reconnect with it, even if only through the symbols. Or the typical Ashkenazi Jewish chicken soup we serve, that they remember from their grandmother, or the white tablecloth on Shabbat and the candle lighting. Or just a Jewish joke.”

The importance of a Jewish setting increases for many people facing end-of-life questions, according to Jewish health care professionals. Jewish “teachings and values can provide comfort to them,” according to a 2013 study by four American researchers, including a rabbi and a physician.

Jewish liturgy, traditions and even a common language also ease some difficulties, according to a 2009 interview that Rabbi Sara Gilbert, a chaplain at Shalom Cares Hospice in Aurora, Colorado, gave the Intermountain Jewish News. ”

At Immanuel, staff are trained to accommodate the special needs of survivors like Goudeketting, who have no family, added Martel.

“We need to be conscious that for many of our guests we are all that they have, which is not necessarily the case in other hospices,” she said.

There are other sensitivity issues. For example, the hospice decided not to hire a nurse who had a German accent, Martel said last week at a symposium on hospice care in Judaism in honor of Immanuel’s 10th anniversary.

“If it was discrimination, it was a positive one for our guests,” she said.

One former patient, Bram Koopmans, said in a filmed interview before his death in 2010 that the hospice was his first contact with a Jewish community institution since staying at an orphanage for child Holocaust survivors in the 1940s.

On his deathbed, Koopmans said that after decades of avoiding his Jewish identity, staying at Immanuel made him remember the Jewish blessing over bread, or hamotzi, which he was taught at the orphanage. Holding back tears, Koopmans recited the blessing during the interview while holding one hand over his head.

“It’s been waiting in me for years and years,” he said. “It’s as though I never left.”

Koopmans asked volunteers at Immanuel to go to his home and fetch a kippah and menorah that he had hidden away, Martel recalled. He also asked a rabbi to give him a bar mitzvah at the hospice. Koopmans had a Jewish burial, which he didn’t plan to do when he first arrived at Immanuel.

Only about half of the hospice’s guests are Jewish, however. Anyone diagnosed as being terminally ill can ask to be referred here. And though capacity is limited because of Immanuel’s small size, the high turnover — the average stay is 11 days — means frequent openings.

“When we set up this home, we decided as a matter of policy that it wouldn’t be a place for Jews only,” Martel said. “We didn’t want to send anyone away.”

Subsequently, Immanuel has a second non-kosher kitchen so as not to limit the nutrition of non-Jews.

But one thing not on offer at Immanuel is assisted suicide, which is readily available in the Netherlands for the terminally ill.

The country’s parliament is now debating a controversial draft bill that would allow even healthy people to receive assisted suicide. But ending one’s life is “diametrically opposed to the Jewish values that sanctify life,” said Martel, who added that Immanuel advises patients not to give up their homes in case they wish to end their life after being admitted to the institution.

Anne van de Geest is a non-Jewish guest in her 90s who is unable to walk because of cancer that has metastasized throughout her body.

“I like the atmosphere here, which is quiet but lively,” she said.

Van de Geest, who used to make jewelry and fashion accessories, said she chose to stay at Immanuel after hearing good things about it from friends.

Word of mouth was also how Chazia Mourali, a well-known television host and writer in the Netherlands, heard of Immanuel, where her mother, Elise van den Brink, stayed before her death in 2015.

“We’re Catholic and people at church told us the Jewish hospice was the best choice,” Mourali, whose father was born in Tunisia, told JTA at the symposium. “We liked the sound of that and she felt right at home.

“People with our Middle Eastern mentality — a Calvinist Dutch hospice is the last thing we needed.”


Holocaust survivor, 102, meets nephew he never knew he had

Eliahu Pietruszka, in checkered shirt, meeting his nephew, Alexandre Pietruszka. (Screenshot from Huffington Post)

(JTA) — A 102-year-old Israeli Holocaust survivor who thought his brother had died in Russian gulag discovered he had also survived and met his brother’s son.

Eliahu Pietruszka met earlier this month in his retirement in Kfar Saba his nephew, Alexandre Pietruszka a 66-year-old who came for the meeting from Russia, the Associated Press reported.

Pietruszka, a retired microbiologist who fled Warsaw in 1939, kissed both cheeks of his visitor and in a frail, squeaky voice began blurting out greetings in Russian, a language he hadn’t spoken in decades.

He had thought his brother, Volf Pietruszka, who was the visitor’s father, had died in a labor camp after losing contact with him following the murder of their brother and parents in the Holocaust.

The emotional meeting was made possible by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial’s comprehensive online database of Holocaust victims, a genealogy tool that has reunited hundreds of long-lost relatives.

“It makes me so happy that at least one remnant remains from my brother, and that is his son,” said Pietruszka, tears welling in his eyes. “After so many years I have been granted the privilege to meet him.”

In 1939 Pietruszka left Warsaw, which was occupied by the Nazis, and fled to the Soviet Union, leaving behind his parents and twin brothers Volf and Zelig, who were both 15. Volf also managed to escape, whereas their parents and Zelig were murdered. The brothers briefly corresponded before Volf was sent by the Russians to a Siberian work camp, where Pietruszka assumed he had died.

But Volf had survived and settled in Magnitogorsk, an industrial city in the Ural Mountains. He died in 2011.

“In my heart, I thought he was no longer alive,” Pietruszka said. He married in Russia and, thinking he had no family left, immigrated to Israel, or made aliyah, in 1949 to start a new one.

Eliahu Pietruszka’s grandson, Shakhar Smorodinsky, received an email from a cousin in Canada who said she had uncovered a Yad Vashem page of testimony filled out in 2005 by Volf Pietruszka for his older brother Eliahu, who he thought had died.

Smorodinsky tracked down an address and reached out to discover that Volf. After Smorodinsky arranged a brief Skype chat, Alexandre decided to come see the uncle he never knew he had.