Category Archive: PROFILES

The banker who used Nazis to help save Jews

Friedrich Carl von Oppenheim used bureaucratic and legal channels to make a difference in WWII.

oppenheimA year prior to the start of the Second World War, prominent banker Baron Friedrich Carl von Oppenheim convinced two of his friends, the Jewish owners of a metal factory, to move their families and their metal operation to Amsterdam from Cologne.

Even though their firm was taken over by von Oppenheim’s bank during the war, the Lissauer and Griessman families lived and worked in Amsterdam in relative peace during the first few months of the war. But as the long arm of the Nazis began to reach all of Western Europe, they were in grave danger of being deported and sent to concentration camps.

On September 7, 1940, an official Nazi bus escorted by two German military vehicles commanded by Nazi officers arrived at the Lissauers’ house, and the two families – 11 people in total – boarded the bus. They drove them through occupied Belgium and France, and finally the Nazis reached their final destination at the Spanish border, dropping off the two families and returning home. Once in Spain, the Lissauers and Griessmans took a train to Portugal and traveled to Brazil via ship.

“Basically, they were escorted to freedom by Nazis. How was this possible?” von Oppenheim’s grandson, Florian von Oppenheim, asked at a memorial in the Israeli Consulate in Shanghai in 2015.

He explained that through his grandfather’s high-level connections with the German Central Bank von Oppenheim was able to get them exit visas, convincing them that the only way the metal company would be able to pay back their massive loans was through frozen funds they had in the United States.

“This was all an elaborate ploy and the funds were never sent to Germany,” he said.

After saving the lives of the two families, von Oppenheim continued to work to save the lives of more people, demonstrating to the Nazi authorities that the metal company was crucial for the German war effort, and its workers – almost exclusively Jewish refugees, most of whom had no experience at all in the metal business – needed to remain in the vicinity of the metal operation.

The ploy worked for a few years, but only a dozen were able to survive. And as von Oppenheim continued in his efforts, the Gestapo caught up with him, framing him and throwing him in jail on charges of treason with a death sentence over his head. He managed to survive in prison, being freed by the Americans before the Nazis could execute him. After the war he returned to the banking business, and he died in 1978.

“My grandfather had done his best to help persecuted Jews,” Florian von Oppenheim said. “Using bureaucratic and legal channels on an international level he helped many Jews.”

But not only did von Oppenheim perform acts of kindness during the war, his legacy lives on in a Holocaust education fund. Today, the Baron Friedrich Carl von Oppenheim Chair for the Study of Racism, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust, founded and funded by the von Oppenheim family of Cologne, annually awards two or three postdoctoral fellowship grants.

“Whenever I reflect on my grandfather’s actions, he helped save 11 lives from two families,” said Florian von Oppenheim. “This is a drop in the ocean compared to the six million who were murdered. But for those 11 individuals and their descendants – it’s everything.”

On October 10, 1996, Yad Vashem recognized Baron Friedrich von Oppenheim as Righteous Among the Nations.


‘Second Generation’ leader tells of need to keep Shoah memory

menachem-rosensaftOne of the most prominent leaders of the children of Holocaust survivors has attacked people who attempt to “pervert the memory of the Holocaust”.

Menachem Rosensaft described as “obscene” those who “wish to twist and distort” the Shoah for political purposes.

Mr Rosensaft, a lawyer, who was the guest of the Holocaust Educational Trust at its fund-raising dinner on Wednesday, was born in the Displaced Persons (DP) Camp at Bergen-Belsen in 1948, and his birth there was against all odds.

Both of his parents, who came from Chasidic families, had been married and widowed previously – in his mother’s case losing her husband and her daughter in Auschwitz. Menachem’s father, Josef Rosensaft, became the head of the central committee of liberated Jews, first in Bergen-Belsen and then in the DP camps in the whole of the British zone in post-war Germany.

Menachem’s mother, Hadassah Bimko, who studied medicine in France before the war, was appointed by the British to work with the skeleton medical team working in the DP camps after liberation.

Before Belsen was liberated by the British army in April 1945, Hadassah was in charge of the children’s barracks at the camp and took in, against the regulations, the then-14-year-old Mala Helfgott and her little cousin from whom she refused to be parted.

Mala Tribich, as she is today, was reunited with Menachem Rosensaft at Wednesday evening’s event.

“My parents decided that they would not leave the DP camp until all the survivors had been taken care of,” he said.

“Many Jews were repatriated very quickly but the British were only allowing a trickle of people into Palestine and the US had quite draconian immigration laws.”

In the event, the DP camp stayed open until 1950, and Menachem was one of 2,000 babies born in that period to survivors of the camps.

In July 1948, Josef was a delegate to the second plenary of the World Jewish Congress, which took place in the quiet Swiss town of Montreux on the shores of Lake Geneva. Josef fell in love with the peaceful atmosphere and moved his family to Switzerland, where they stayed until Menachem was 10, subsequently moving to the United States.

Mr Rosensaft became an eminent lawyer and law lecturer, as well as general counsel to the World Jewish Congress. Today, aged 68, he is one of the leading figures of the so-called Second Generation, although he dislikes the term.

“We, as children or grandchildren of survivors, have to remember that we are not survivors.

“We never suffered; we did not see people killed. We don’t have any of the privileges of survivors.

What we do have is obligation. We are able to absorb their memories and are responsible for passing them on for a purpose – the legacy that it brings to the entire Jewish people.”

He is particularly keen on highlighting the bond between survivors and their grandchildren, saying that often survivors would tell their grandchildren things they could not share with their children.

He took his own daughter, Jodi, to Auschwitz-Birkenau six months after his mother died in 1997, and was amazed when she told him that she recognised parts of Birkenau “just as my mother had described it to her.”

This “transfer of memory”, he says, is the most important way to keep alive the legacy of the Holocaust, even when every survivor has died. “We have to ensure that the lessons of the Shoah become a wake-up call for the world.”

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s dinner, Karen Pollock, the chief executive of the HET, said she was delighted and proud that the organisation had been able to bring Ms Tribich and Mr Rosensaft together, describing them as “two inspirational individuals”.

She said: “Because of Menachem’s mother’s kindness, Mala lived to see the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops in April 1945”.

Writing in the appeal dinner’s programme, Prime Minister Theresa May praised the HET for “ensuring that the memory of the Holocaust lives on.”


Jewish woman in iconic WWII Times Square kiss photo dies at 92

Image of Austrian Holocaust refugee Greta Zimmer Friedman in spontaneous V-J Day celebrations became enduring symbol of war’s end

In this photo provided by the US Navy, sailor George Mendonsa and nurse Greta Zimmer Friedman kiss passionately in Manhattan's Times Square, as New York City celebrates the end of World War II, on August 14, 1945. (US Navy/Victor Jorgensen)

In this photo provided by the US Navy, sailor George Mendonsa and nurse Greta Zimmer Friedman kiss passionately in Manhattan’s Times Square, as New York City celebrates the end of World War II, on August 14, 1945. (US Navy/Victor Jorgensen)

NEW YORK — The woman who was kissed by an ecstatic sailor in Times Square celebrating the end of World War II has died at the age of 92.

Greta Zimmer Friedman’s son says his mother died Thursday at a hospital in Richmond, Virginia. She died from complications of old age, he said.

Friedman, was a 21-year-old dental assistant in a nurse’s uniform on Aug. 14, 1945, known as V-J Day, the day the Japanese surrendered. People spilled out into the streets from restaurants, bars and movie theaters in New York City when they heard the news. That’s when George Mendonsa spotted Friedman, spun her around and planted a kiss on her. The two had never met.

In fact, Mendonsa was on a date with an actual nurse, Rita Petry, who would later become his wife.

The photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt is called “V-J Day in Times Square” but is known to most the world over as simply, “The Kiss.” Mendonsa says that in some photos of the scene, Petry could be seen smiling in the background.

It was also captured from a slightly different angle by Navy photographer Victor Jorgensen.

Friedman was born in a small town outside Vienna and moved to the US with two sisters in 1939 as conditions worsened for Jews under Nazi rule. A third sister fled to Mandate Palestine and her parents were killed in the Holocaust, according to Lawrence Verria, co-author of “The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II.”

Eisenstaedt’s photo was first published in Life, buried deep within the magazine’s pages. Over the years, the photo gained recognition, and several people claimed to be the kissing couple. In an August 1980 issue of Life, 11 men and three women said they were the subjects. It was years until Mendonsa and Friedman were confirmed to be the couple.

Joshua Friedman says his mother recalled it all happening in an instant.

“It wasn’t that much of a kiss,” Friedman said in an interview with the Veterans History Project in 2005. “It was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event.”

The photograph has become one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century.

Friedman will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, next to her late husband, Dr. Misha Friedman.


After seven decades fighting genocide, this 96-year-old prosecutor is still hard at work

A chief US prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, Benjamin Ferencz has campaigned for justice since — now in the form of a $1m. gift to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

ferencz-w_papers-e‘If we’re going to be accurate, I’m in my 97th year. I turned 96 last March, so really 96 is over and finished with,” Benjamin Ferencz said, speaking with The Times of Israel via telephone from his home in Del Ray Beach, Florida.

That attention to detail and insistence on precision is what helped Ferencz, a chief prosecutor for the United States during the Nuremberg Trials, successfully secure one of the world’s first convictions for crimes against humanity nearly 70 years ago. It’s also what propels Ferencz to keep fighting for justice.

This time the fight comes in the form of a million-dollar donation to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, which will establish the Ferencz International Justice Initiative. The Ferencz Initiative will work to strengthen the rule of law for atrocity prevention and response, promote justice and accountability in countries where genocide has occurred.

“I have witnessed holocausts and I cannot stop trying to deter future genocides. After Nuremberg I laid out my life plan on how you go about saving the world. People concluded ‘that man is crazy!’ But I wanted to change the way people think. You cannot kill an entrenched ideology with a gun,” said Ferencz.

‘I cannot stop trying to deter future genocides’

“You have to teach compassion and tolerance at a young age. The rule of law must be applied universally to protect humankind universally. It’s a long-range problem, and ‘Law, not war’ is my slogan,” he said.

It has been Ferencz’s mandate ever since at the age of 27 he secured the convictions of 22 defendants, all high-ranking SS officers, in the Einsatzgruppen Case. At the time, the Associated Press called it “the biggest murder trial in history.” Thirteen of the defendants were sentenced to death for their role in murdering more than one million people.

“I think about it every day, but not for the reasons you think. I think about them everyday, but not in terms of anger and vengeance,” Ferencz said. “No, I chose the defendants for their rank and education; they were PhDs and generals. They were individuals who had to be held to account civilly and criminally in national and international court.”

When Ferencz was just 10 months old, his family, Hungarian Jews, moved to the US from the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania. He lived in a small basement apartment in Manhattan’s “Hell’s Kitchen.” His father worked as a janitor in an uptown apartment building. He and his sister moved in with an aunt in Brooklyn after his parents divorced. He was six at the time.

“We were poor, we didn’t have anything. Education became everything,” he said.

Ferencz graduated from the City College of New York. Upon graduating from Harvard Law School in 1943, he joined an anti-aircraft artillery battalion. As a combat soldier Ferencz fought in every major campaign in the European theater, from the invasion of Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge.

‘We were poor, we didn’t have anything. Education became everything’

Then in the winter of 1945 as the Allied forces pushed toward Berlin — the US and UK from the west, the former Soviet Union from the east — Ferencz was tasked with gathering evidence of Nazi brutality. He was to be part of the United States’ first-ever war crimes branch.

He visited concentration and extermination camps, he took photos, and he interviewed witnesses and survivors.

“I once wrote that I had peered into hell, and I had, but I don’t wake up every day screaming ‘Kill all the Germans,”’ Ferencz said.

A remarkable sentiment considering several of his family members perished in Nazi concentration camps. Yet, the search for justice, not vengeance, is a defining characteristic of this nonagenarian.

“He’s an inspirational guy,” said Cameron Hudson, Director of the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

Of course Ferencz’s gift is more than inspirational, it will help boost research in the still nascent field of genocide prevention, Hudson said. Literature exists on military response, on whether sanctions are effective tools, but there is less on how to leverage international law.

“While there’s a widely held assumption that holding people accountable for war crimes is a deterrent, there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge of how that works. There is also very little practical understanding of how to pursue justice for crimes that are currently being committed,” Hudson said. “The field of international law and international justice is about as old as Ben Ferencz. It’s still a very young field. The idea is pretty simple — holding people accountable — but it’s still pretty revolutionary at the same time.”

After the trials, Ferencz dedicated his legal expertise to securing restitution for Holocaust survivors, who “had survived with only their tattoos and scarred memories,” he said. As director of the United Restitution Organization he also worked to recover stolen Jewish properties, businesses, art and religious objects and return them to rightful owners.

The field of international law and international justice is about as old as Ben Ferencz’

After an honorable discharge from the US Army, Ferencz built a private practice. However, as the Vietnam War escalated, he found himself once again thinking of the role courts could play to combat genocide.

“I found normal life was rather boring and started studying and writing about world peace and the role of international law,” he said.

Numerous articles and books followed. His writings helped lay the groundwork for the International Criminal Court, established in 1998 to prosecute cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression.

This isn’t Ferencz’s first gift to the museum. Over the decades he donated one of the largest collections of documents to the Museum’s archives, including diaries, documents from his war crimes work and the Einsatzgruppen Trial, and family history. In 2015 the Museum honored Ferencz with the Elie Wiesel Award, its highest honor.

“He [Ferencz] shares our conviction that genocide can be prevented but when it does occur, its perpetrators must be held accountable. His pioneering work and passion for international justice will continuously inform and inspire our efforts in genocide prevention,” Hudson said.

Indeed Ferencz, who cares for Gertrude, his wife of 68 years, has no intention of slowing down.

“I was 27 when I made the closing argument at Nuremberg for the Einsatzgruppen Case. I was 92 when I made remarks in the closing arguments against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo [former leader of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo, charged with recruiting child soldiers],” Ferencz said.

“It’s still a prototype, we are trying to reverse thousands of years of war-making mentality. That doesn’t happen overnight. It’s just beginning,” said 96-year-old Ferencz.


Elie Wiesel, the survivor who endured, educated, was never silent, never gave up

The helpless teenager who lost his parents and a sister in the Holocaust became a one-man reminder of the imperative to confront evil, defending everyone from Soviet Jews, to Cambodian refugees, to victims of African famine

Obit-Elie-Wiesel_Horo-1-965x543EW YORK (AP) — The frail, dapper man who sometimes greeted reporters in his Madison Avenue office spoke in an almost hushed voice, but with urgency, his hands gesturing gently for emphasis. Elie Wiesel’s smile was wry, diffident, a thin facade over the sadness imprinted in the weary eyes and deep creases of a face that mirrored his brutal past.

The Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who died Saturday at age 87, was an ongoing reminder of one man’s endurance of the Nazi Holocaust. His words, destined to last far into the future, are a testament to some of the most unfathomable atrocities in recorded history.

“Whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation, take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” he said in 1986, upon accepting the Nobel.

One of the world’s foremost witnesses and humanitarians, Wiesel for more than a half-century voiced his passionate beliefs to world leaders, celebrities and general audiences in the name of victims of violence and oppression. He wrote more than 40 books, but his most influential by far was “Night,” a classic ranked with Anne Frank’s diary as standard reading about the Holocaust.

“Night” was his first book, and its journey to publication crossed both time and language. It began in the mid-1950s as an 800-page story in Yiddish, was trimmed to under 300 pages for an edition released in Argentina, cut again to under 200 pages for the French market and finally published in the United States, in 1960, at just over 100 pages.

“‘Night’ is the most devastating account of the Holocaust that I have ever read,” wrote Ruth Franklin, a literary critic and author of “A Thousand Darknesses,” a study of Holocaust literature that was published in 2010.

“There are no epiphanies in ‘Night. There is no extraneous detail, no analysis, no speculation. There is only a story: Eliezer’s account of what happened, spoken in his voice.”

Wiesel began working on “Night” just a decade after the end of World War II, when memories were too raw for many survivors to even try telling their stories. Frank’s diary had been an accidental success, a book discovered after her death, and its entries end before Frank and her family was captured and deported. Wiesel’s book was among the first popular accounts written by a witness to the very worst, and it documented what Frank could hardly have imagined.

“Night” was so bleak that publishers doubted it would appeal to readers. In a 2002 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Wiesel recalled that the book attracted little notice at first. “The English translation came out in 1960, and the first printing was 3,000 copies. And it took three years to sell them. Now, I get 100 letters a month from children about the book. And there are many, many million copies in print.”

In one especially haunting passage, Wiesel sums up his feelings upon arrival in Auschwitz:

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. … Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

wiesel“Night” was based directly on his experiences, but structured like a novel, leading to an ongoing debate over how to categorize it. Alfred Kazin was among the critics who expressed early doubts about the book’s accuracy, doubts that Wiesel denounced as “a mortal sin in the historical sense.” Wiesel’s publisher called the book a memoir even as some reviewers called it fiction. An Amazon editorial review labeled the book “technically a novel,” albeit so close to Wiesel’s life that “it’s generally — and not inaccurately — read as an autobiography.”

In 2006, a new translation returned “Night” to the best-seller lists after it was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s book club. But the choice also revived questions about how to categorize the book. and Barnes &, both of which had listed “Night” as fiction, switched it to nonfiction. Wiesel, meanwhile, acknowledged in a new introduction that he had changed the narrator’s age from “not quite 15” to Wiesel’s real age at the time, 15.

“Unfortunately, ‘Night’ is an imperfect ambassador for the infallibility of the memoir,” Franklin wrote, “owing to the fact that it has been treated very often as a novel.”

Mother, father and one sister all died in Nazi camps

Wiesel’s prolific stream of speeches, essays and books, including two sequels to “Night” and more than 40 books overall of fiction and nonfiction, emerged from the helplessness of a teenager deported from Hungary, which had annexed his native Romanian town of Sighet, to Auschwitz. Tattooed with the number A-7713, he was freed in 1945 — but only after his mother, father and one sister had all died in Nazi camps. Two other sisters survived.

After the liberation of Buchenwald, in April 1945, Wiesel spent a few years in a French orphanage, then landed in Paris. He studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne, and then became a journalist, writing for the French newspaper L’Arche and Israel’s Yediot Ahronot.

French author Francois Mauriac, winner of the 1952 Nobel in literature, encouraged Wiesel to break his vowed silence about the concentration camps and start sharing his experiences.

In 1956, Wiesel traveled on a journalistic assignment to New York to cover the United Nations. While there, he was struck by a car and confined to a wheelchair for a year. He became a lifetime New Yorker, continuing in journalism writing for the Yiddish-language newspaper, the Forward. His contact with the city’s many Holocaust survivors shored up Wiesel’s resolve to keep telling their stories.

Wiesel became a U.S. citizen in 1963. Six years later, he married Marion Rose, a fellow Holocaust survivor who translated some of his books into English. They had a son, Shlomo. Based in New York, Wiesel commuted to Boston University for almost three decades, teaching philosophy, literature and Judaic studies and giving a popular lecture series in the fall.

Wiesel also taught at Yale University and the City University of New York.

In 1978, he was chosen by President Carter to head the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, and plan an American memorial museum to Holocaust victims. Wiesel wrote in a report to the president that the museum must include denying the Nazis a posthumous victory, honoring the victims’ last wishes to tell their stories. He said that although all the victims of the Holocaust were not Jewish, all Jews were victims. Wiesel advocated that the museum emphasize the annihilation of the Jews, while still remembering the others; today the exhibits and archives reflects that.

Among his most memorable spoken words came in 1985, when he received a Congressional Gold Medal from President Ronald Reagan and asked the president not to make a planned trip to a cemetery in Germany that contained graves of Adolf Hitler’s personal guards.

“We have met four or five times, and each time I came away enriched, for I know of your commitment to humanity,” Wiesel said, as Reagan looked on. “May I, Mr. President, if it’s possible at all, implore you to do something else, to find a way, to find another way, another site. That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims.”

Reagan visited the cemetery, in Bitburg, despite international protests.

We must bear witness

Wiesel also spoke at the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 1993. His words are now carved in stone at its entrance: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”

Wiesel defended Soviet Jews, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, Cambodian refugees, the Kurds, victims of African famine and victims of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Wiesel was a longtime supporter of Israel although he was criticized at times for his closeness to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu. When Netanhayu gave a highly controversial address to Congress in 2015, denouncing President Obama’s efforts to reach a nuclear treaty with Iran, Wiesel was among the guests of honor.

“What were you doing there, Elie Wiesel?” Haaretz columnist Roger Alpher wrote at the time. “Netanyahu is my prime minister. You are not an Israeli citizen. You do not live here. The Iranian threat to destroy Israel does not apply to you. You are a Jew who lives in America. This is not your problem.”
The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, which he established in 1988, explored the problems of hatred and ethnic conflicts around the world. But like a number of other well-known charities in the Jewish community, the foundation fell victim to Bernard Madoff, the financier who was arrested in late 2008 and accused of running a $50 billion Ponzi scheme.

Wiesel said he ended up losing $15.2 million in foundation funds, plus his and his wife’s own personal investments. At a panel discussion in February 2009, Wiesel admitted he bought into the Madoff mystique, “a myth that he created around him that everything was so special, so unique, that it had to be secret.” He called Madoff “a crook, a thief, a scoundrel.”

Despite Wiesel’s mission to remind the world of past mistakes, the greatest disappointment of his life was that “nothing changed,” he said in an interview.

“Human nature remained what it was. Society remained what it was. Too much indifference in the world, to the Other, his pain, and anguish, and hope.”

Never gave up

But personally, he never gave up — as reflected in his novel “The Town Beyond the Wall.”

Wiesel’s Jewish protagonist, Michael, returns to his native town in now-communist Hungary to find out why his neighbors had given him up to the Nazis. Suspected as a Western spy, he lands in prison along with a young man whose insanity has left him catatonic.

The protagonist takes on the challenge of “awakening” the youth by any means, from talking to forcing his mouth open — a task as wrenching as Wiesel’s humanitarian missions.

“The day when the boy suddenly began sketching arabesques in the air was one of the happiest of Michael’s life. … Now he talked more, as if wishing to store ideas and values in the boy for his moments of awakening. Michael compared himself to a farmer: months separated the planting from the harvest. For the moment, he was planting.”


Tom Bird Bears Witness to Two Wars and the Holocaust

A Vietnam veteran wanted to bring to the theater a story about his father, a veteran of World War II. It meant facing the horrors of war with brutal honesty and love.

By Samuel G. Freedman

On the last Monday in April, the traditional month for Holocaust commemoration, actor and playwright Tom Bird seated himself at a bare table in a rehearsal studio a few blocks west of Manhattan’s theater district. He laid a 39-page script in front of him, a first-person narrative of two wars and one genocide with the rather prosaic title Bearing Witness.

Over the next 75 minutes, it became clear there was nothing at all ordinary in this text and performance. Bird had, in fact, created a wholly unique and arresting meditation on World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Shoah, with their valor and tragedy lashed together by a father-and-son story.

Bearing Witness also stands as a kind of summary of Bird’s life and career. At the age of 69, he has been defined by war and theater. He is a veteran and the son of a veteran. Theater rescued him from the embittered and self-destructive aftermath of the military duty in Vietnam, and, in turn, the art that Bird made with the Vietnam Veterans Ensemble Theater Company helped reconcile a divided America to the men who fought a failed and divisive war.

Nothing in Bird’s professional résumé, though, prepared him to produce a work of Holocaust literature. As a Roman Catholic, he was removed from the irreducibly Jewish nature of the Nazi mass murder. Yet a primal, filial motivation wound up leading him there—literally to the Mauthausen concentration camp, where his father had tended to survivors as an Army medic.

“To tell you the truth, I never looked at the story from the outside in,” Bird explained in a recent interview. “I was always telling it from the perspective of my relationship with my father. I loved my father, and I wanted to tell a story about him, and the best way to do that was to tell a story about us. The difference between our two wars was the most dramatic period of our life together. And concurrently, there was always Mauthausen. Even in my most troubled times after Vietnam, I always had a deep admiration for my father and who he was and what he’d done.”

The staged reading in April was intended to stir interest in the work among commercial producers. So is an invitation-only show in Los Angeles on June 20—appropriately enough, the day after Father’s Day. Already Bird is scheduled to perform Bearing Witness in September at the World Peace Initiative Film Festival in Orlando, Florida, and at Mauthausen in May 2017, marking the anniversary of the camp’s liberation.

Bird HellicopterIn some respects, the theater piece had its genesis when Bird was 6 years old, the son of a Long Island doctor named Sam Bird. The elder Bird had enlisted a month after Pearl Harbor and went through the D-Day invasion and the Battle of the Bulge before entering Mauthausen the day after its liberation on May 5, 1945. The Austrian camp, used for slave laborers to mine nearby granite, had nearly 198,000 prisoners during its seven years of operation. Some 95,000 died, 14,000 of them Jews, and the crematoria were running until a week before American forces arrived. (These statistics are from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.) After being discharged, Sam Bird rarely spoke about his service. Early in Bearing Witness, Tom Bird recalls rummaging through his father’s duffel bags of Army memorabilia in the attic:

In the middle drawer, under sheets and mothballs, I found a big pistol, a jewelry box with a Bronze Star with a little “v” on it, a black-and-white patch of a skull’s head, and an envelope. In it was an antique-looking black-and-white picture of a pile of naked, bleached white, skeleton-looking bodies, stacked up against a building. I’d never seen anything like it. It was hard to imagine they were real people. My young soul was shocked and I’ve never forgotten them. I was caught that day and my plea, “Who are they, Dad?” was cut off, “You’re too young!”

Imbued with WWII’s aura of justice and righteousness, eager to claim his place in a family heritage, Tom Bird enlisted in the Army for a two-year stint in late 1964. He was in Vietnam for 10 months of that time, ending when he was evacuated out with malaria in June 1966.

Entering college back on Long Island as a prized football recruit, Bird found himself called a “war criminal” during a student protest one day. He responded by punching the heckler and breaking his jaw. Convicted and sentenced to two years in Nassau County jail, Bird had the punishment shifted to mandatory psychiatric care, which included the drug Thorazine and electroshock treatments.

By the time Bird returned to campus in 1969, he felt alienated from everyone—protesters, veterans, football teammates. His only acceptance came from the theater geeks, and he ended up performing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and then was typecast as a prison guard in Marat/Sade, acting opposite the same student he had assaulted two years earlier. One scene, in fact, called for Bird to strike him onstage. Filled with remorse, Bird told the director he wouldn’t do it. Then the fellow actor said to him, “You have to. It’s for the play. The past is forgiven.” After Bird thanked him, the actor added, “Just don’t hit me too hard. My jaw still hurts.”

That moment infused Bird with the sense that theater could heal him. He moved to Manhattan, tending bar and studying with the renowned Lee Strasberg. Then, in the mid-1970s, a Korean War veteran floated the idea of Bird assembling a theater troupe for his era’s ex-soldiers—largely as a way of getting those men paying work, since the stereotype of the ticking-time-bomb Vietnam vet was pervasive in the performing arts.

Bird took out an ad in a theater trade paper, and 40 veterans showed up for an initial meeting. Out of it grew Vetco, as the Vietnam veterans’ theater group became known. It burst onto the national theater scene, with Bird as its artistic director, in the 1985 show Tracers. Presented at the Public Theater by Joe Papp, himself a WWII veteran, Tracers largely drew upon the actor-veterans’ own experiences in Vietnam. Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times, “When a nation’s horror tale is told by its actual witnesses—and told with an abundance of theatricality, a minimum of self-pity—it can still bring an audience to grief.”

Two years later, under the aegis of HBO, Bird produced the documentary film Dear America, whose script was entirely composed of letters sent home by American men and women serving in Vietnam. “There have been a lot of movies made about Vietnam, some of them good,” wrote Hal Hinson in the Washington Post. “Now a great one has been made.”

Indeed, Bird and Vetco did something much more than make hit shows. Like other works of art created by or about Vietnam veterans—Ron Kovic’s memoir Born on the Fourth of July, Tim O’Brien’s debut novel Going After Cacciato, W.D. Ehrhart’s poetry, Bruce Springsteen’s acerbic anthem Born in the U.S.A.—Tracers and Dear America contributed to a major change in the American understanding of the Vietnam War. Those who lauded it and those who loathed it could now agree on a central, unifying premise: After a decade or more as pariahs, the men who fought it deserved their nation’s embrace.

During the years Bird was developing this body of work, two events occurred that set Bearing Witness into motion. In 1984, on the morning after confiding a secret about his time in Mauthausen to Tom, Sam Bird died. In 1989, when HBO was preparing to release a feature film about Simon Wiesenthal, The Murderers Among Us, Bird was introduced to the legendary Nazi-hunter at a press luncheon.

An HBO executive, who knew that Wiesenthal had been imprisoned at Mauthausen, mentioned that Bird’s father had helped there after liberation. Bird then recounted some of the few stories of Mauthausen he had gleaned from his father—the mass graves, the living people hidden among the corpses. Wiesenthal confirmed: Yes, it was all true. He had weighed less than 100 pounds at liberation. And he always remembered the tenderness of the American Army doctors.

“Have you visited? Wiesenthal asked Bird.


“You must, to truly understand.”

Up until that moment, Bird explained, he had never even thought of it.

“Do it for your father,” Wiesenthal told him.

Seventeen years passed before Bird followed the admonition. In 2006, his godmother died and left Bird a small bequest. He used it to travel to Mauthausen. Although he had been working for years already on a memoir about himself and his father, Bird had not been a student of the Holocaust, beyond having seen Schindler’s List and the Claude Lanzmann documentary Shoah.

In the aftermath of his trip to Mauthausen, however, the Holocaust became the third leg of an evolving script, joined with Sam Bird’s service in WWII and Tom Bird’s service in Vietnam. The text grew to 100 pages, then shrank down to 40. An experienced producer and director—Barbara Ligeti and David Schweizer, respectively—came on board. There was never any question that Bird himself would perform the piece. He had gotten to know the brilliant monologist Spalding Gray when they acted together in the 1984 film The Killing Fields. (Bird gets mentioned in Gray’s one-man show about the movie and the Khmer Rouge genocide, Swimming to Cambodia.) And during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bird had written and performed two first-person theater pieces, Walking Point and Point of Origin.

Tom BirdFor anyone who sees Bird in Bearing Witness, it will be nearly impossible to conceive of any other actor doing it. The meld between real life and stage presentation is inseparable. Starting with that moment of discovering his father’s photograph of the victims at Mauthausen, Bird loops forward and backward in time and memory. The questions that compel his journey are these: Why was my father’s war so good and mine so bad? When I was suffering so much after Vietnam, why did my father just keep telling me to get over it?

Bird spares neither himself not anyone else in recounting his experiences in Viertnam. Several of the most wrenching events in Bearing Witness had been summoned up when Bird was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder in 2008. A therapist then told him, “You have to go back to the one event that most traumatized you, that made you go numb.”

On a patrol near Cambodian border, Bird recalls in the play, his unit is ambushed by North Vietnamese soldiers. After most escape, one remains behind, wounded, but still holding a live grenade. Bird briefly makes eye contact before gutting the man with a bayonet. Then, checking over the body, Bird finds a photograph of the soldier with his wife and child and also a good-luck amulet of Buddha. “I instantly passed through the membrane to the other side of civilization,” Bird says in Bearing Witness, “not sure I’d ever be the same.”

In another incident, Bird leads an American patrol through a village of Vietnamese lepers. They appear friendly at first, but then shots ring out. Bird and his comrades start beating villagers at random and radio in for permission to fully attack. Instead, 30 minutes later, two South Vietnamese helicopter gunships swoop in, pouring thousands of rounds into the hamlet. “Explosions and screams came from the village we’d just terrorized,” Bird recalls in the theater piece. “We changed fast and wanted to shoot the gunships down. The first chopper banked out and the second one came with the same deadly symphony. … More screams, explosions, fires, and screams. We were ordered to stay put! It wasn’t American! We should’ve been helping them! I should’ve disobeyed! Watching this slaughter was unbearable.”

As relentlessly honest as Bird keeps his gaze on Vietnam, he similarly refuses to treat WWII through the rosy tint of “Greatest Generation” nostalgia. For all of Sam Bird’s insistence that his son put the war behind him, for all the father’s seeming equilibrium as a beloved suburban doctor, it turns out that he, too, has been futilely trying to silence the past. His persistent ulcer attests to his unsettled conscience.

In the theater piece, Tom Bird recalls visiting Mauthausen and thinking in free-associated fragments of the memories that his father had sporadically revealed:

Just past dawn … warm already … we came up a back road … the pungent odor of death and decay was everywhere in the air … engineers exhuming a hastily dug mass grave about a 100 meters outside the camp … over a thousand bodies … living people had been buried … rescued four Italian soldiers, only one survived … no water, sewage, food, power … hard to tell who was live … we knew if their eyes moved or they blinked … skin was jaundiced, yellowish, tore when we picked them up … too weak to move … they needed fluids … couldn’t find veins … they were covered in lice … eight in ten had typhus … diarrhea was rampant … frozen feet and gangrene … amputations … a woman begged for a cigarette … peeled off the paper… ate the tobacco, choked, couldn’t swallow, had to be rescued … used medicine droppers to feed them … liberated prisoners beat some hated kapos to death … buried 1500 in first week week … 1500 more the second … dying went on for weeks … we froze emotionally in order to work.

Sam Bird spent a month in Mauthausen after liberation. On a Sunday dinner in 1984, with a table set by his wife with their best linen and china and silver, he faced Tom and said, “I’ve never told this to anyone, son.” Then he spoke about the second week he was in the camp. One group of survivors seemed to be recovering well. Sam Bird figured he’d give them some milk, help their bones rebuild. Instead, 13 of them died. After all the years of forced starvation, their maladapted bodies reacted to so much nutrition by going into metabolic shock and cardiac arrest. On the morning after Sam Bird confessed all this, he died.

More than 30 years later, Tom Bird is left with the same ontological question that has haunted so many Jewish survivors of the Shoah. “I’m going to be 70 in September and I’m on a search for God,” he said during an interview. “I want to come to peace with God before I die. Doing this show, having this experience, is part of it. And if people like Wiesenthal, who went through the Holocaust, can come back to God, then so can I.”

Samuel G. Freedman is a journalism professor at Columbia University and a regular contributor to Tablet. He also writes the “On Religion” column for The New York Times.


My Friend Elie

Sam E. Bloch, American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants;
President, World Federation of Bergen-Belsen Associations

I first met Elie when he was a young journalist working in New York in the late 1950s. We developed a close friendship, bound by a deep understanding of each other’s’ experiences as teenagers during the Holocaust. Having survived, our mission was to make the world remember our martyrs and to break the pervasive silence about the Shoah. We were both driven to ensure the remembrance of the destruction of our people under the Nazis and their collaborators and to educate the world about the ultimate consequences of anti-Semitism, intolerance, inhumanity, and injustice.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Jewish community and the larger world were disinterested in our experiences. There was a resounding silence that made us, the survivors, feel isolated and disregarded. As young people in our 20s and 30s, we were all creating new lives, new families, in new countries – but the scars of the Shoah were deeply embedded in our bodies, souls, and hearts. Elie became our “voice” as the representative of our survivor generation.

Elie’s writings recorded our memories and validated our identities as the surviving remnant, the sheirit hapletah, of European Jewry. He was always there to defend our perspective in order to sustain the integrity of Holocaust memory and combat all forms of revisionism and exploitation of the Shoah. For us, he was our shining light who became the conscience and guardian of the memory of the Jewish people.

During the 1960s-1970s, Elie, Josef Rosensaft, and I created the first International Remembrance Award of the World Federation of Bergen Belsen Associations. Its purpose was to encourage the leading authors and poets of the day to write about the Holocaust and to publish their works at a time when the publishing industry dismissed this subject as not of interest to readers and therefore not commercially viable. The first generation of writers who bore witness to the Shoah served on our literary jury or received the Award, including Primo Levi, George Steiner, Piotr Rawicz, Manes Sperber, Andre Schwarz-Bart, Chaim Grade, Abraham Sutzkever, Uri Zvi Greenberg, Arthur Morse, and others.

We, the survivors, took great pride in all of Elie’s achievements and his growing prominence. We were at his side when he raised the consciousness of the world about the plight of Soviet Jewry, when he spoke out on behalf of Israel, when he alerted the world that Jews were in jeopardy in other parts of the world, and when he called for action against the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. We were with him when he opposed the obscene equation of the SS officers buried at Bitburg and the Jewish mass graves of Bergen Belsen. And we were present when he received the Nobel Prize, when this prominent recognition of a survivor of the Shoah brought us all a great sense of fulfillment.

I remember when Elie chaired President Carter’s Commission on the Holocaust and we traveled together in 1979 to the Holocaust killing sites throughout Europe to produce a report that resulted in the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I will never forget how we walked, arm-in-arm, as we entered Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was traumatic to return to the places where our families were annihilated, but we strengthened each other with the shared memories that united us.

When Elie chaired the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, I served on the Content and Development Committees under his leadership for the planning of the museum. At each step, we were inspired by his commitment to the integrity of survivor testimony as a core component of the museum’s permanent exhibition. Each decision was guided by his dedication to historical accuracy and authenticity and the avoidance of all forms of trivialization.
The World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Jerusalem in 1981 was a pivotal moment in the public acknowledgement of the survivors. Elie authored “The Legacy of the Survivors,” which was read in multiple languages in front of the Kotel, and the thousands of us who were there knew that he had captured everything that was in our hearts.

Whenever Elie would meet with survivors, he would always tell us “Write your stories.” He believed passionately in the power of the written word as a permanent form of remembrance. He told us that that our testimonies would endure to educate and inspire future generations to remember those who perished through the words of those who survived to tell the world.

Holocaust survivor stepping down from role organizing Tulsa’s annual Yom Hashoah

For many years, Eva Unterman was silent about the horrors she endured in Nazi concentration camps in World War II, where millions of her fellow Jews were exterminated.

Then, in 1978, a public school teacher asked if she would tell her story to his students. By the 1990s, she was deeply involved in Holocaust education, and since 1998, she has directed Tulsa’s annual interfaith Yom Hashoah Holocaust commemoration, which last year drew more than 1,000 people to B’nai Emunah synagogue.

This year’s Yom Hashoah, to be held May 1 at Temple Israel, will be her last as director.
Now in her 80s, Unterman is turning the project over to Suzie Bogle, the new director of Holocaust education for the Jewish Federation of Tulsa. Unterman will remain chairwoman of the Council for Holocaust Education but will not organize the annual event.

Unterman said her work with Yom Hashoah has been “most gratifying.”

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