Category Archive: Preventing Genocide

Risking Everything to Defy the Nazis

The tale of Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp, who lied and deceived their way to saving more than 100 Czech Jews during the Holocaust.

ShowImage (2)They bullied and bluffed, bamboozled and bedeviled bureaucrats, politicians and soldiers.

They climbed mountains and traversed other treacherous terrain. They fed the hungry and clothed the nearly naked. They smuggled refugees out of countries in which they were in mortal danger, into other lands, some of whose borders were supposed to be closed and most that were unenthusiastic about accepting the fugitives. They regularly risked their lives.

Leaving their two young children with friends, Rev. Waitstill Sharp and his wife Martha did all that and more in their efforts in 1939 and 1940 to rescue Jews and others fleeing or hiding from the Nazis.

Their remarkable story is told by their grandson Artemis Joukowsky in Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, which complements the documentary of the same name, co-directed by him and the wellknown American filmmaker Ken Burns.

Both works are based on a thorough study of the Sharps’ papers and interviews with those whose lives intersected with the couple.

It is difficult to quantify the Sharps’ efforts, their grandson writes. However, in the few months they were in Czechoslovakia and later for a short time in Vichy France, they apparently helped about 125 people flee to freedom from an almost- certain death at the hands of the Nazis. The two also provided money for transportation and clothes for other people to get to ports where their visas would allow them to escape.

In addition, the Sharps set up a feeding program in Prague that kept 264 people alive long enough to get out and provided milk for 800 starving French children for a month.

Even more amazing than the “what” is the “how.” Neither had much experience or training in deception, covering their trails or money laundering. But because the Nazis were stealing money sent by legal means, Waitstill Sharp set up bank accounts in neighboring countries by which he would receive money from donors and disburse funds to refugees from those bank accounts.

He also illegally exchanged dollars for Czech currency, because people allowed to leave were forbidden to take out any hard currency. Operating as an illegal money changer left Sharp with suitcases of local currency. With that money, he donated funds to the Salvation Army in Prague, which was feeding thousands of Social Democrats who were living on the streets or underground to avoid being captured by the Germans. He also gave large sums to the YMCA to expand its summer-camp program and for the reconstruction of a refugee orphans’ home.

Helping those that the Nazis wished to kill or capture was extremely dangerous.

A day or two before leaving Prague, an informant told Martha she was on a list of people the Nazis intended to imprison.

What motivated these two to undertake such a dangerous assignment – so risky that 17 other Unitarian ministers had turned down the offer of going to Europe before the Sharps finally accepted? On a ship back to America, German- Jewish writer and anti-fascist activist Lion Feuchtwanger, who had been rescued from his hiding place in southern France by Waitstill Sharp, asked his rescuer what motivated him to do what he was doing.

He received no money for saving people, the Unitarian minister assured the writer, and he was a sinner and no saint.

“But I believe the will of God is to be interpreted by the liberty of the human spirit,” Sharp continued. “So I do what I do without any piety at all but ad magna gloria libertatis humani spiriti [to the greater glory, freedom of the human spirit].

“As my friend Dick Ball said, ‘I don’t like to see guys pushed around.’” Upon her return to America, Martha Sharp, among other activities, helped in fund-raising with Youth Aliya, the Hadassah program that rescued European children and brought them to Palestine. In 1947, Hadassah sent her to pre-state Israel to see firsthand and learn about programs she had been supporting.

Later, she wrote of what she had seen during her six-week stay: “A great powerful stream of sacrifice and idealism is bringing about the birth of a nation. We are witnessing an epic like that of America. The pioneers are giving their lives and are challenging us to help in time.”

In 2006, Martha and Waitstill Sharp were named “Righteous Among the Nations.”

It was an honor duly earned.

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‘British Schindler’ Honored by Royal Mail Commemorative Stamp

Sir Nicholas Winton rescued 669 Jewish children from Europe in 1939 shortly before the outbreak of the Holocaust.

ShowImage (2)The British Royal Mail postal service has issued a stamp honoring Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 Jewish children from Europe in 1939 shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Winton arranged for eight trains carrying the children to travel from Prague to the UK, utilizing Britain’s Kindertransport program allowing for refugees under 17 from the continent to gain asylum if they had a hosting family.

Winton bribed Nazi officials, arranged for forged travel documents and found families to take the children in and pay a £50 deposit for their eventual return travel fees.

The families of most of the children rescued were murdered during the Holocaust Winton, who died last year aged 106, is one of six humanitarians honored in the Royal Mail’s presentation pack issued on Tuesday, including Sue Ryder, John Boyd Orr, Eglantyne Jebb, Joseph Rowntree, and Josephine Butler.

“Sir Nicholas Winton was a true hero of our time and it is fantastic that Royal Mail is recognizing this remarkable man in such a special way,” said Karen Pollock MBE, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust in the UK.

“The Holocaust Educational Trust is thrilled that this commemorative stamp is now available for everyone to purchase and spread the story of Sir Nicholas’s extraordinary selflessness far and wide.”

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IDF Arrests, Releases Former Palestinian Governor and Fatah Leader

Israeli forces reportedly arrest former Tulkarem and Jenin governor, Talal Dweikat, early Wednesday.

ShowImageThe IDF released Talal Dweikat, a former PA governor of Tulkarm and Jenin, on Wednesday afternoon, after arresting him several hours earlier.

He also served as a general in the Palestinian Authority intelligence services.

Dweikat was arrested “for his involvement in weapons trade,” a spokesman for the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) said in an email, without elaborating.

Hours later, however, the spokesman sent another email, saying that Dweikat “was released because his detainment was determined to be unnecessary following his interrogation.”

In addition to Dweikat, the IDF on Wednesday arrested two others in Nablus and raided the home of Dweikat’s brother Sarhan, who also has the rank of general, Wafa, the official PA news site reported.

Dweikat, who was elected to the Fatah Revolutionary Council in December, was a head of the PA intelligence services in Nablus in the early 2000s and was appointed as Tulkarm governor in 2006, where he oversaw the rehabilitation of the PA security forces in the aftermath of the second intifada.

In 2012, Dweikat was appointed governor of Jenin, serving until 2014 when he accepted a position as an adviser in the PA presidency.

Fatah spokesman Munir Jaghoub responded to Wednesday’s arrests, saying that they confirm Israel’s hostile mentality.

“The Israeli arrests and attacks against Fatah’s leadership and cadres are intensifying day after day all over the homeland, sending a clear message to the Palestinian people and its leadership that the current situation is incredibly difficult and complicated… and that the occupation’s mentality is only that of killing, destruction, arrest and denying Palestinian rights, requiring all of us to take a serious stand and confront its arrogance,” Jaghoub told Wafa.

The IDF says that it carries out arrests of suspects who pose a security threat.

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Auschwitz Memorial Sees Record Number of Visitors in 2016

World Youth Day was a large boost to attendance. But how about Pokémon Go?

The memorial and museum and Auschwitz-Birkenau announced on Monday that a record 2,053,000 people visited the former Nazi concentration camp in 2016. Tops among attendees are from Poland, the UK, the U.S., and Italy; 97,000 visitors came from Israel, a 59 percent increase from the year prior. Also boosting yearly attendance were the 155,000 people who visited for World Youth Day, including Pope Francis. Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński, the museum’s director, said eloquently, “In today’s world—torn by conflicts, increased feeling of insecurity and strengthening of populist tones in public discourse—it is necessary to re-listen to the darkest warnings from the past.”

A few weeks before the Pope visited Poland, there was hubbub about the fact that kids had begun playing Pokémon Go—a newly-released, augmented reality GPS-enabled videogame in which players try to catch, say, a Jigglypuff—at Auschwitz. The museum’s spokesman called it “disrespectful.” Tablet senior writer made the case otherwise, arguing that the forced emotion, the requisite sadness, that is struck upon young visitors is oppressive. “When urged to bow before death, life finds a way.”

Let these kids play their game, then, not even in Auschwitz, but especially there. Let them feel again that mad methectic magic Huizinga spoke about. They can’t make sense of Auschwitz, anyway; they can’t fathom what led to such brutality, can’t make sense of such hate. But they can catch a Jigglypuff and feel a burst of life whistling through the airless chambers of the factory of death. And that’s no small thing, no minor testament to the same resilience the Nazis eagerly and futilely tried to extinguish. Where better than Auschwitz to admit we’ll never have real knowledge, and where better to declare we’ll always have great games?

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Through studying the Holocaust, Cambodians deal with own genocide

In a meeting of minds, a small town Indiana teacher and a Cambodian scholar documenting the Khmer Rogue atrocities create a workshop for comparative genocide education in Battambang

Kelly-with-intepretor-e1481836641970-965x543NOBLESVILLE, Indiana — Neighbor turned against neighbor. Family members disappeared. Faced with ostracism or even death, youth pledged allegiance to a cause they hadn’t necessarily sought — and committed unspeakable crimes against their countrymen.

There are still landmines in Cambodia, where an estimated 1.7 million people died between 1975 to 1979 under the extremist Khmer Rouge government. Today, however, many of these landmines are not physical, rather unspoken tragedy that looms from the past into the nation’s future.

Some 70% of Cambodians were born after the notorious Killing Fields, but mandatory education about the genocides only began in 2009. And while the Khmer Rouge government ostensibly fell in 1979, in a pragmatic attempt to unify and stabilize a nation reeling from murder and betrayal, Cambodian politicians quickly formed alliances with Khmer Rouge members: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the longest-serving leaders in the world, is himself a former member.

Cambodia is now facing a turning point, said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), the world’s largest archive of photography and documents relating to the Khmer Rouge.

“On the one hand, Cambodians run a real risk of losing a firm grip on understanding, memorializing and ultimately accepting a difficult past. On the other hand, a rapidly globalizing Cambodia must take on new challenges of sustainable growth, democratic integrity and human rights,” said Chhang, who was named Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” of 2007.

DC-Cam was founded in 1994 through a grant to Yale University from the United States Congress’ Cambodian Genocide Justice Act. Today an NGO, the organization addresses the country’s genocidal past while working to preserve memory and justice.

Chhang told The Times of Israel that one way to deepen the understanding of the Cambodian tragedy is through the study of other global genocides.

Enter Kelly Watson, an eighth grade English teacher from Noblesville, Indiana, who recently spent a week in Battambang, Cambodia, teaching about the Holocaust.

Sound like the wrong cue for this post-genocide Cambodian stage play? That’s because Watson wasn’t exactly typecast.

The long windy road to Battambang

Meeting with The Times of Israel a day after running a marathon — not her first or last for this year — Watson said she was born and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The small city near the Ohio border has, among its quaint nicknames, the moniker “The City of Churches.”

In a cute coffee shop chosen to show off the historic Noblesville town square, Watson said that in her first gig as an English teacher back in the mid-1990s in Lebanon, Indiana, she wasn’t what one could call an expert in the Holocaust when her department chair handed her a rummage sale copy of Elie Wiesel’s “Night” to teach the class.

Watson laughed and said at that point in her life the sum-total of her Holocaust education was a vague memory of watching Meryl Streep’s “Holocaust” mini-series in 1978 and a supposition she’d probably once read “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

Reading the Wiesel masterpiece memoir set in the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, she quickly understood she just didn’t have the professional background or tools to do the topic justice. But she couldn’t find the appropriate resources in Indiana.

The early 1990s, however, was a tipping point for Holocaust awareness in the United States. With “Schindler’s List” and the much publicized opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in 1993, the topic was becoming more accessible to a growing audience.

And so, although she’d never before left the state of Indiana on her own, Watson applied and was accepted to the Washington, DC, museum’s Belfer National Conference for Educators. That conference led to a subsequent fellowship at USHMM, and eventually Watson became a part of the museum’s Regional Education Corps.

In between her day job as an eighth grade English teacher (now at Fishers Junior High) and parenting, Watson began to lecture, among other places, at Indiana’s Bureau of Jewish Education, which today supports the Holocaust Education Center of Indiana. She had become the resource she herself had sought.

While acquiring the skills to be an expert Holocaust educator at USHMM, Watson met a number of like-minded teachers who wanted to apply the lessons learned from the genocide against the Jews in other conflict zones. Independently, these friends organized trips to teach in Rwanda and Bosnia, before eventually founding a non-profit in 2011 called the Educators’ Institute for Human Rights.

Watson is currently an educational program director for EIHR. The project, she said, teaches the best practices of Holocaust and comparative genocide education to teachers, who bring them into the classroom.

Two years ago, with the Rwandan and Bosnian programs ongoing since 2011, EIHR was ready to expand to other conflict zones. Watson chose Cambodia and said she “blindly emailed” DC-Cam’s Youk Chhang, whom she calls “a force.” He immediately responded and the past two years were spent in planning.

In October, Watson was the first EIHR emissary to Cambodia, where she presented on the Holocaust to 100 Cambodian history teachers.

Searching for Anne Frank of the Killing Fields

With enough troubles of their own in their recent past, why should Cambodians want to learn about the Holocaust?

“The history that precipitated the Holocaust carries lessons for every human being regardless of culture, religion, or circumstance,” Chhang explained to The Times of Israel.

“Cambodians, even the generations born after the genocide collapsed in 1979, understand the suffering of survivors and the impact of genocide on a people and society,” he said. “No genocide, mass atrocity, or social upheaval can be compared to another, but there are certainly general trends, insights, and lessons that have great value in the classroom. We need to study and teach these lessons not only for our own society but other societies suffering today and in the future.”

In 2002, Chhang initiated and edited a translation of “The Diary of Anne Frank” into Khmer. It was distributed to high school students and also broadcasted on local radio stations “to inspire the local population to learn about their own Anne Frank of the Killing Fields at home,” said Chhang.

“Cambodians studying the Holocaust… can discern lessons that are useful today. The resilience of the survivors of the Holocaust is a reference for how Cambodians can overcome their past,” Chhang said.

In 2007, DC-Cam published its high school history text book, which included Cambodia’s own genocidal past. “In 2009, it became compulsory for all high schools across the country – which is over 1,700 high schools,” said Chhang.

Despite exposure to “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Cambodians know little about Jews or Judaism, or the Holocaust, said Watson. With Watson’s help and that of teachers like her, Chhang is hoping to change that. He said DC-Cam has a variety of proposed national projects to integrate more Holocaust and other cross-cultural mass atrocity education into Cambodian public schools.

“As the principle partner working with the Cambodian Ministry of Education, we intend to incorporate more educational modules addressing the Holocaust as well as other examples of mass atrocity,” said Chhang.

Finding patterns amongst the pain

The US Holocaust Museum is currently hosting two exhibits through October 2017, which highlight the Khmer Rouge period: “Cambodia 1975-1979” features survivor testimony, photographs and videos, and “I Want Justice!” depicts efforts of post-genocide retribution on perpetrators — from the Nazi Nuremberg trials to today’s prosecution of several key Khmer Rouge members.

In late November, a 2014 conviction was upheld of two surviving top Khmer Rouge leaders of crimes against humanity, including extermination, enforced disappearances and political persecution. Currently, they are on trial for, among other crimes, separate allegations of the genocide of Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese and Chams.

In addition to museums, the comparative study of genocide among scholars is now de rigueur. Across the globe, there are undergraduate and graduate university programs for Genocide Studies, most with a concentration on the Holocaust.

The Yale University Genocide Studies Program, however, was founded in 1998 after originally concentrating on Cambodia (the genesis for the NGO DC-Cam). Today, the program covers topics ranging from Ancient Genocides to War Crimes and Truth Commissions.

Prof. Ben Kiernan is the founding director of the Yale program. In an email exchange with The Times of Israel, he said teaching about genocides in countries that have experienced them highlights patterns and “offers citizens access to very important data for predicting and hopefully preventing future outbreaks.”

Exhaustively collecting information and comparing it with other cases, allows scholars to “explore what similarities exist (for instance in the statements, plans, and activities of the perpetrators), and therefore try to identify in advance what might become the signposts to the next case of genocide, and enable humanity to stop it before it occurs,” said Kiernan.

“At the very least, careful comparison of different cases of mass murder often reveals unexpected similarities,” he said.

In many instances, what may seem like politically motivated “purges” could in fact be something even more sinister. Taking the case of Cambodia as an example, he stated, “although the mass murder that took place there in 1975-1979 appeared to many observers to be far from an ethnic genocide, but rather a case of political mass murder, in fact the groups that suffered the highest proportions of killings were ethnic groups, namely the Vietnamese, Muslim Cham and ethnic Chinese minorities, even though in absolute numbers the ethnic Khmer majority suffered the most.”

Using the ‘other’s genocide as safe space

Through learning about the Holocaust and the seven stages of genocide, Watson felt Cambodian history teachers “did see the connections and that’s what I was hoping for.”

According to Watson, teaching a comparative study of genocide has other, more immediate and personal implications as well. In looking at their own genocide through the prism of the Holocaust, after decades of suppression of memories, the Cambodian teachers may feel “safer” in addressing them, she said.

“You don’t compare genocides in terms of the amount of pain they caused. Every genocide is absolutely unique,” said Watson. It’s not easy to address an issue “when you’re surrounded by it,” she said. In Cambodia, “the war is still very much with them.”

Many teachers in conflict countries are survivors of genocide themselves, if not the children of survivors. It is important, said Watson that they feel part of a community that understands what it means to be facing a classroom filled with children or grandchildren of perpetrators.

After this first initial visit by Watson, there are plans for more Educators’ Institute for Human Rights teacher trainings in Cambodia, as well as a swap with teachers in the US. Through the dissemination of their personal experiences, alongside the acquisition of theoretical knowledge of genocide, DC-Cam’s Chhang hopes these teachers can make a positive change in the world.

“The circumstances that precipitated the descent into violence and the dehumanization of people bear witness to ways to improve the human condition and make the statement ‘never again’ really matter,” said Chhang.

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The Auschwitz museum has a Twitter account, and this ex-journalist runs it

Whether he’s engaging the misguided (he prefers not to) or tweeting historical facts, Pawel Sawicki sees his job as shielding the memory of the victims

sawicki-1-965x543OSWIECIM, Poland (JTA) — Long before he moved here to become the spokesman for the Auschwitz museum and lead its social media effort, Pawel Sawicki’s life was intricately connected to this sleepy town near Krakow.

A Warsaw-area radio journalist, Sawicki used to visit Oswiecim as a boy on holidays to stay with his grandparents and play with his cousins, who had moved to the town shortly after World War II.

When he was 10, Sawicki learned that Auschwitz was an epicenter of the Nazi genocide against the Jews — he gleaned the details from a book about the camp that he found in his grandparents’ home.

“Most people visiting Oswiecim, especially from outside of Poland, are shocked to discover there’s a town next to the former German Nazi camp, the memorial which they come to visit. For me it was somehow the other way around,” Sawicki said.

That realization, he said, sparked an interest that led him here a decade ago as a reporter — and it consumes him to this day.

This initial connection to the history of Auschwitz was the beginning of a “constant presence in my life that kept sending me to look for more information,” said Sawicki, 36, who began working at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in 2007. Sawicki has encyclopedic knowledge about Auschwitz, which he has shared in countless articles, guided tours, and several radio and video documentary productions.

But the advent of social media has highlighted another role fulfilled by his office: as “a shield protecting the memory of victims” against rampant abuse online, he said.

A case in point was Sawicki’s intervention last month on Twitter when he called out Kurt Schlichter, a columnist for the conservative news site Townhall, for writing that Jewish supporters of Barack Obama and John Kerry “would have made a fine helper at Auschwitz.”

After some deliberation, Sawicki decided to tweet Schlichter’s message on the Auschwitz memorial account, adding: “The tragedy of prisoners of Auschwitz and their complicated moral dilemmas which today we can hardly comprehend should not be instrumentalized.”

With 40,000 likes and retweets, it became the memorial’s most retweeted message ever, topping the one about Pope Francis’ visit in July and exposing Schlichter to withering criticism.

This reach and intense reaction demonstrate the reasons for Sawicki’s careful consideration on whether to intervene, he said.

“In some cases, such actions risk offering a platform to abuse, thereby amplifying it,” he said. “But exposing and correcting such behavior can have a positive effect that sometimes justifies this risk. But it’s always a fine balance.”

The overwhelming rejection by Twitter users shows that calling Schlichter on his words was the right move, said Sawicki, whose office once was the pharmacy of the SS troops serving in Auschwitz.

But he does not engage Holocaust mockers and deniers as a matter of policy.

Sawicki has also demanded corrections from journalists who apply the word “Polish” to death and concentration camps built by Nazi Germans on Polish soil; doing so is a felony in Poland. And the museum will seek apologies or corrections from those who note that the camps are in Poland without adding that they were built under Nazi occupation.

But much of the online activity of the museum is to highlight positive examples of online engagement with Auschwitz, in Polish, German, English and other languages. There are regular “this day in history” tweets, links to articles and comments from recent visitors (“Where was man?” asks one), and news articles referring to Auschwitz and Holocaust commemoration. Earlier this week there were photos of the camp under a blanket of snow with the message: “New year brought snow which changes the landscape of the historical site.”

On the ground, the museum’s task is to safeguard the buildings and environs and to gather, study and publish evidence on German atrocities. But online, “our main goal is to provide education on the scale of the crime and what made it possible,” Sawicki said.

The Nazis murdered more than 1.1 million Jews at Auschwitz as well as 70,000 non-Jewish Poles, 25,000 Roma, and some 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war.

“Our social media policy is an extension of our guidelines as an institution, but it is developing week by week because we’ve never had such direct interaction with so many people,” Sawicki said. It’s both a chance to “educate people from all corners of the world, many of whom will never be able to visit the memorial.”

But abuse online is also a growing problem.

Amid a renewed wave of interest in the Holocaust in recent years in films, books and other media, as well as in visits to the museum — it registered a record of more than 2 million entries last year — the “instrumentalization,” trivialization and denial of the Holocaust has been growing as well, Sawicki said.

“It’s a daily, fast-changing challenge,” he said.

At the museum, Sawicki navigates the institution’s 470 acres with certainty, demonstrating an intimate knowledge of almost all aspects of life — and death — here. Unlike some visiting guides who resort to pathos or sanctimony, Sawicki, wearing a colorful scarf that his mother-in-law made for him, shares in an informal but precise manner illustrative facts and anecdotes that he has spent a decade collecting.

At the Death Wall, an execution site that is located in the yard adjacent to Block 11 in Auschwitz I, Sawicki dryly explains to a group of journalists that around the wall there was sand mixed with sawdust designed to drain blood.

“Some testimonies mentioned that an adult male bleeds about two liters [67 ounces] when shot, so on days with dozens of executions this place was quite literally soaked in blood,” he said.

Sawicki once interviewed a survivor who recalled laughing at the sight of a fellow prisoner wrestling free from under cadavers that had collapsed on him from a cart. SS guards also laughed. Such testimony illustrated to Sawicki the complexities of surviving at Auschwitz, “but also the amazing human personal strength” doing so required, he said.

While most of the hundreds of thousands of people who visit Oswiecim annually likely associate it with death and horror rather than a town with 900 years of history, for Sawicki it is also the place where he started a family after moving in 2007 with his wife, Agnieszka, whom he married while living here. His son, Wojtech, attends kindergarten near here.

For Sawicki, the town’s dark history is no impediment to loving it.

“It has always been a second home to me, and now it is even more so,” said Sawicki, who grew up in the quiet Warsaw suburb of Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki. “We have to accept these aspects of history in Poland and strive to make a better future.”

Agnieszka, however, has had a tougher time acclimating “because she’s a real city person, a Warsaw girl who needed some time to get used to the different pace,” Sawicki said.

The couple have told their son neither about the Holocaust nor about his father’s workplace except to say that it’s a museum.

“We don’t want to introduce it before he’s ready to take it in,” Sawicki said. “So we’re kind of waiting for him to ask the questions.”

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The Christmas Cookie That Changed Jewish Lives

Lebkuchen have long been a Christmas treat in Germany. But for two Jewish families fleeing the Nazis, these cookies offered hope for the future in a new country.

Like many Americans before her, Sandy Lee stumbled into culinary nirvana while living abroad in Europe. But while most people return home raving about the spectacular cheese or wine or charcuterie, Lee fell in love with a cookie. The particular object of her fascination was lebkuchen—a complexly spiced cousin to gingerbread that is ubiquitous in Christmas markets across Germany.

Lee, a New Yorker who works in the world of advertising and finance but has a penchant for passion projects, first tasted the cookie while living in Berlin. “It was such a magical combination of flavors,” she said, speaking of lebkuchen’s ginger, cardamom, and cloves, its rich nuttiness, and candied citrus peel. “I kept going back and trying different kinds, and I got a little obsessed.” After discovering that lebkuchen are all-but-impossible to find in New York, she started to make them at home. Never mind that she had no German background and had never been much of a baker—she was on a mission.

Her deep dive into lebkuchen resulted in an impressive collection of vintage cookie tins and 19th-century German baking trade manuals, and a year’s worth of trial-and-error attempts to re-create the cookie she loved. “I would travel to Nuremberg to try every type of lebkuchen I could find, remember what I liked best, and reverse-engineer the recipe based on the ingredient lists,” she said. Lee’s research began as a personal quest but soon morphed into a business. In 2011, Lee launched Leckerlee, a boutique business that sells an authentic (and very delicious) take on classic lebkuchen throughout the Christmas season.

Through founding Leckerlee, Lee also tapped into an unexpected, and rather astonishing, side story. It turns out, her beloved Christmas cookie played an instrumental role in the survival of two families of Jewish Holocaust survivors.

Shortly after launching Leckerlee, Lee was contacted by a man named Bill Freund. Freund, now 90, is the former chief economist of the New York Stock Exchange and a retired economics professor. But he is also, as he told Lee over the phone, the author of a 2011 children’s book called The Cookie That Saved My Family. In 1937, his family left Nuremberg and the escalating persecution that Jews were facing there. In the weeks before their departure, his mother, Paula, whom Freund described as “a marvelous baker,” persuaded a local pastry chef to teach her how to make traditional lebkuchen—a recipe that tends to be closely guarded by those lucky enough to know it.

“Nuremberg is the lebkuchen capital of the world,” Freund told me. “And she was thinking of ways to make a living in our new home.” Although he was just a child at the time, Freund has distinct memories of the baker coming to his house to instruct his mother on which spices to use and how to properly form and glaze the cookies.

Upon arriving in Manhattan, Freund’s parents took menial jobs to scrape by. But in 1939, when WWII broke out and German goods could no longer be imported to the United States, they started a bakery called Paula’s Lebkuchen in their Washington Heights neighborhood. Open from Labor Day through January, they sold the Christmas cookies and other turnovers to the neighborhood’s heavily German immigrant population.

Meanwhile, 10 miles away and across the East River, another Jewish lebkuchen story unfolded in Jackson Heights, Queens. In 1939, Ed Klugman said goodbye to his parents and his hometown of Nuremberg and boarded a kindertransport train to England. It would be one of the last before the war began. As he left, his parents gave him a book of recipes with the urgent instruction to keep it safe until the family could be reunited in the United States. The book, which came from a high-end pastry shop, was fat and heavy, filled with detailed illustrations for decorating pastries and cakes—and a recipe for lebkuchen. Klugman’s father was in the liquor business in Nuremberg but, like Freund’s mother, had researched other possible professions to pursue in America.

“I’m not sure how my parents originally got the recipe book, but it was a wise move,” Klugman, 91 and a retired professor of early childhood development, said. “It would become the backbone of my father’s new career in the United States.” Indeed, the Klugman family, who reunited in New York in 1940, would eventually open the Liberty Brand Cookie Company in Jackson Heights, a bakery that specialized in lebkuchen and other high-end cookies.

According to Luisa Weiss, a Berlin-based food writer and author of the recently published cookbook Classic German Baking, lebkuchen is a blanket German term for gingerbread, encompassing “multiple dozens” of spiced and honeyed cookies baked during the Christmas season. They date back to the 13th century, where they originated in German monasteries. As Gil Marks wrote in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, the monks often “maintained not only baking ovens, but also apiaries and orchards, which provided honey and walnuts” for baked goods.

The most renowned variety, and the one that Lee re-creates at Leckerlee, is Elisenlebkuchen from Nuremberg—a dense, chewy pastry made primarily from almond paste and ground hazelnuts, studded with candied orange and citron peel, and covered with a thin sugar or velvety chocolate glaze. They are baked on top of small, edible wafers called oblaten, Weiss told me, which helps keep the batter from spreading in the oven. Oblaten are very similar in shape and composition to the communion wafers used in Catholic services. Freund told me that after World War II began, the oblaten his family had imported from Holland became unavailable. “We went to a Catholic Church and asked where they got their wafer from,” he told me. “They pointed us to a manufacturer in Chicago.” Problem solved.

There is no denying that lebkuchen are a Christmas specialty. But they were also enjoyed in Germany’s Jewish communities. According to Marks, Jewish families began baking different varieties lebkuchen as early as the 15th century, preparing them at home so as to avoid the monasteries. “Its pareve nature made it ideal for meat occasions,” he wrote. The cookie was served on Rosh Hashanah because of the honey it contained, and also during Hanukkah since it was Christmas-adjacent. The earliest Jewish American cookbooks, from Aunt Babette’s Cook Book to The Settlement Cook Book (both written by German-Jewish immigrants) contained recipes for lebkuchen.

For decades, when neighborhoods like Washington Heights and Yorkville on Manhattan’s Upper East Side were home to sizable German immigrant populations, lebkuchen were widely available. Today, imported versions (and also Lee’s lebkuchen) are sold at a few specialty shops like Schaller & Weber. But without Lee’s renewed enthusiasm for the cookie, they would have been essentially lost to New York history. Meanwhile, without Lee, Freund and Klugman would never have connected. Despite their geographical proximity and parallel histories, Freund and Klugman had never heard of one another, nor of their competing businesses, until Lee connected them over the phone. “What amazes me is how well we were both able to fare, despite the odds,” Klugman told me. “I’m grateful.”

Two Jewish boys from Nuremberg, two recipes for lebkuchen shuttled across the Atlantic Ocean, two unlikely stories of survival. You might just call it a Christmas miracle.

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Norwegian TV sorry for spoofing Holocaust

In satirical video, college students seen touring concentration camp, asking if ovens were for making pizza

norwegian-holocaust-e1483035375779Norway’s public broadcaster apologized for referencing Nazi death camps and the Jewish genocide in a satirical cartoon about the financial situation of university students.

“This cartoon should not have spoofed the Nazi genocide, and we’re sorry this reference obstructed what the sketch is really about,” a spokesperson for the NRK broadcaster wrote on Facebook last week following complaints about the video, which on Thursday remained accessible on NRK’s online satirical section.

It features three young characters who are taken by an older character on a tour of what appears to be a Nazi concentration camp similar to Auschwitz-Birkenau in southern Poland. When the group reaches an oven full of ashes and the remains of a human rib cage, one of the students enthusiastically inquires whether the oven is for making pizzas.

The video, which opened the annual best-of compilation for 2016 of NRK’s Satiriks online satirical video platform, ends with the same students triumphantly holding up a rental contract while the other two students unload boxes at the concentration camp.

“The animated video is about the student economy, which often has students in desperate situations,” NRK wrote. “To make this point, we used visual references to a concentration camp.”

Norway, where the Nazis installed the collaborator Vidkun Quisling as a puppet ruler, was home to 1,700 Jews before the Holocaust, according to Yad Vashem. Despite some protests by Christian faith leaders and the help of resistance fighters to Jews, a total of 763 Jews were deported from Norway by the Nazis and local police to death camps. Only 24 survived to return to Norway after the war.

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