Category Archive: SURVIVOR STORIES

Meet the Holocaust survivor who organized the generals’ endorsement of Trump

2012 Green Beret Foundation Gala DinnerMaj. Gen. (ret.) Sidney Shachnow, who helped initiate the letter released this week by the Trump campaign from 88 military leaders endorsing the Republican nominee, says Trump “has the temperament to be commander-in-chief.”

Shachnow knows from temperament, although not perhaps of the Trumpian variety: As a child, he and his family survived the Holocaust in Lithuania, where he was imprisoned for three years in the Kovno concentration camp, by keeping their heads low and showing restraint. According to his autobiography, “Hope and Honor,” the same level-headedness guided him through the pains of assimilation as a young refugee living in Salem, Massachusetts, and then through a career in the military.

His stint, including a turn in the Green Berets in Viet Nam and as an officer in an undercover unit infiltrating East Germany (he still speaks English with a Baltic lilt, as heard in this 2012 appearance at the Kansas City Public Library), ended with his command of U.S. forces in Berlin when the Wall came down in 1989. Among the medals he has earned is the Bronze Star, the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.

Shachnow is also on the board of advisers of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, and has appeared at a Jewish War Veterans event.

His description of his childhood in Lithuania is heartbreaking, and includes the shattering experience of witnessing a Lithuanian partisan rape his mother while his father hid under the bed. His mother had ordered his father into hiding, knowing that the discovery of adult males could mean a death sentence, but it appears as if Shachnow could never shake off the experience.

“I thought my father would go out and help,” he writes. “He didn’t. I thought he was a coward. Maybe I was a coward, too.”

His mother emerges as the hero of the book’s first part, her intuitions and bravery guiding the family to safety.

For 40 years, Shachnow did not speak of the experiences related in the first part of the book, until his youngest daughter nudged him into it – a story typical of Holocaust survivors.

He dedicated his 2006 book to his mother, Rose, his wife, Arlene, and his daughters — which is poignant, because the greatest forbearance he describes in the book is his own, in his dealings with his mother after marrying Arlene. His parents never came around to accepting that he had fallen in love with a non-Jew, and his mother, especially, knew how to cut to the bone.

“I hope the baby looks like you,” his mother tells him after his first daughter is born. “I would hate to have a granddaughter that looks like your wife.”

More often than not, Shachnow kept his counsel at such jibes. Later, telling his mother that he had purchased a home, she asks, “Did you put the house in your name?” and then she explains, “Always keep something of your own. When the divorce comes –“

“I interrupted her,” he writes. “’No divorce, Ma.’ I walked out of the room.”

Shachnow, who knew what fights to pick and when, was right: He’s still married, living on a farm in North Carolina. He has four daughters, 14 grandchildren and at last count, seven great-grandchildren.

The Trump endorsement, more broadly, is about opposition to defense cutbacks under President Barack Obama, and their fears that they will continue under Hillary Clinton.

But against a battery of claims to the contrary, including from an array of national security Republicans, Shachnow’s endorsement of Trump’s temperament, in a release from the campaign, is an extraordinary nod for the Republican nominee.

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American Holocaust survivors struggle ‘to finish in a decent way

While new funding will help provide essential services to aging survivors, the community’s expanding needs go increasingly unmet by existing resources

holocaust-survivorsBOSTON — Despite recent funding infusions to provide care for aging Holocaust survivors, the dwindling community’s basic needs will outpace earmarked resources in the years ahead, according to experts.

Out of the just under 100,000 Jewish survivors of the Nazi genocide who reside in the US, more than 30,000 live below poverty threshold standards, according to the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS). And as the survivor community ages, a larger segment will need increased assistance with healthcare and other basic needs.

Responding to the dire situation, the Claims Conference announced this month it will commit an additional $500 million toward Holocaust survivors’ home healthcare needs, and lift the cap on funded hours of care per survivor.

For Boston-area survivors, new funding will also come from sales of the English translation of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” manifesto. After decades of controversies tied to its stewardship of the book, Boston-based publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt recently decided to direct royalty proceeds from “Mein Kampf” to programs run by Jewish Family & Children Service (JF&CS) for local survivors.

Holocaust survivor Stephan Ross, founder of the New England Holocaust Memorial, participating in the 2016 Yom HaShoah commemoration in Boston, Massachusetts, organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (courtesy)

Holocaust survivor Stephan Ross, founder of the New England Holocaust Memorial, participating in the 2016 Yom HaShoah commemoration in Boston, Massachusetts, organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (courtesy)

Totaling about $60,000 a year, “Mein Kampf” royalties will only cover a modest portion of the survivor community’s needs. Locally, the gap between these needs and available funds has hit up to $150,000 annually, according to Rick Mann, a JF&CS volunteer and chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council’s (JCRC) Holocaust outreach committee.

“I had very little idea of the severity of the problem being faced by local survivors until very recently,” Mann told The Times of Israel. “There are hundreds in greater Boston who are in need of essential services,” said Mann, adding that many survivors live under the communal radar.

Nearly 300 survivors are served by JF&CS, according to Marsha Frankel, director of elder care services for the Boston agency. About five survivors are added each month, said Frankel, who estimates there are 2,500 in the area. Because some are “fearful of seeking help,” connecting survivors to appropriate services can be challenging — even when there is funding, said Frankel.

“We see the will to live and the resilience,” said Frankel of survivors she has worked with for almost two decades. “Many of them face acute chronic medical conditions and poverty,” she said.

Labelling the survivors’ needs as “very intense,” Frankel said her agency’s goal is to help them remain at home for as long as possible. This requires access to services ranging from food delivery to transportation, with home healthcare being “a very expensive service to provide,” she said.

“If we can help people stay at home, they are feeling safe, with a sense of dignity and respect from the community at large,” Frankel said.

Chilly beginning, uncertain ending


Some people called them “greenhorns,” and not many made efforts to learn about the wartime experience of survivors transplanted to the US, recalled Israel “Izzy” Arbeiter, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and long-time leader of New England’s survivor community.

Born in central Poland’s Plock, Arbeiter’s parents and brother were murdered in the Nazi death camp Treblinka. In 1939 the town’s Jews numbered some 10,000 and made up 26% of the local population; by war’s end only 300 survived.

In 1946, Arbeiter married his wife Anna, with whom he had survived a forced labor camp and imprisonment at Auschwitz. Within two years, Anna gave birth to a daughter and the family made their home outside Boston.

“We were not very welcomed by the Jewish community after the war,” said Arbeiter in an interview with The Times of Israel.

As put by historian Barbara Burstin, “Americans, both men and women, did not understand or appreciate what these ‘greeners’ had been through, and the survivors soon learned, if they had been so inclined, not to talk about their experiences except among themselves,” wrote Burstin about resettlement efforts.

Seven decades after what many of them experienced as a frosty reception, thousands of Holocaust survivors again find themselves in need of assistance with their basic needs.

“We have a lot more people that are in need now, especially from the [Former Soviet Union],” said Arbeiter. “Home-care is the greatest need, along with food and medicine,” he said.

For more than half a century, Arbeiter has advocated on behalf of survivors in the US and countries including Germany, where he received the Merit of Order in 2008 for his work on Jewish-German relations. A volunteer adviser for survivor services at JF&CS, Arbeiter has seen the community’s needs increase as more members reach advanced ages.

“There are a lot of survivors who need a little help to be able to finish in a decent way,” said Arbeiter. “We have got to have the tools to help these people,” he added.

As put by Mann, “JF&CS has to make a ‘Sophie’s Choice’ on a daily basis as to who gets services,” he said. “The problem is going to increase, not decrease, over the next decade,” he said.

In New York City, for instance, up to 30,000 survivors — about half of the community — live in “deprivation, isolation, and poverty,” according to Stuart Eizenstat, special adviser on Holocaust issues to US Secretary of State John Kerry. In an interview with AFP last year, Eizenstat said about one-third of survivors in Israel cope with poverty, and these rates approach 90% in some FSU countries.

In the US, the government has started to fund social service grants specifically for aging Holocaust survivors. Some European countries have made reparations available to victims of the Nazis living outside Europe, but these funds are usually one-time infusions, as opposed to sustainable, ongoing support.

“There isn’t going to be an opportunity to make this right if we do not act soon,” said Mann. “We will be left feeling the pain of not having helped when our help was needed,” he said.

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In Israel, Belgian nobles meet Jews saved by their relatives in Holocaust

The 11th Prince of Ligne and his wife hid hundreds of Jewish children in their family castle in Belgium during WWII

prince-ligneThey are directly or indirectly related to most of the royal houses of Europe and can trace the lineage for more than a millennium. Led by Prince Michel de Ligne, 35 of them, representing four generations from several countries, are currently in Israel to close a noble circle. They are descendants of Eugène, the 11th prince of Ligne, and his wife, Philippine, who during the Second World War hid hundreds of Jewish children in Beloeil, the de Ligne family castle, which is widely known as the Versailles of Belgium.

Eugène and his wife were recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous among the Nations in June 1975, long after their deaths.

Their descendants have come to plant a tree at Yad Vashem in their memories and to meet some of the children they saved, who now, as senior citizens, are living in Israel.

Six of those Jewish children accompanied the de Ligne family on its tour of the country and also accompanied it to the President’s Residence to meet with President Reuven Rivlin.

Only three people knew about the Jewish children separated from their parents and sheltered at Beloeil, and they remained silent, Prince Michel stated.

One of the survivors, Avraham Kapotka, speaking on behalf of the children who had been saved, said: “We were alone. We didn’t know if or when we would see out parents again, but we were in a safe and quiet place, and we thank Prince Michel for preserving the memory of our salvation. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to all those who worked toward saving our lives and providing us with a safe haven.”

Both Rivlin and Prince Michel referred to Elie Wiesel, who died recently, as the voice of Holocaust memory.

Rivlin said that Wiesel was “perhaps the greatest example of the strength of the human spirit – a man who gave the Holocaust a face and the victims a voice.”

Albert Pacimora, who came on aliya with his wife two years ago and now lives in Ramat Poleg, was with four other children when the Nazis began rounding up Jews in Brussels.

A member of the Jewish resistance called the mothers of all five and warned them that their children were in danger of being either killed or deported to Germany. Four of the mothers felt there was nothing they could do to change the situation.

The only mother who thought differently was Pacimora’s mother, Frida, who was also in the resistance and delivered food to Jews in hiding. She was the only mother who came to protect her child. At first he was sent to Waterloo for five months and then to Beloeil, where no one mentioned the word “Jew.”

“We Jewish children became very good Christians,” he recalled, “the girls more so than the boys.” The youngsters had to recite their catechism every day, “and if we didn’t do it properly, the nuns would give us a wallop on the ear. I can still feel it after all these years.

At the time we thought they were cruel – but they saved our lives, while other Jewish children died.”

Pacimora’s father, Moiszek, was one of the heroes of the resistance and after the war was decorated by the king. Pacimora brought his medals and ribbons as proof. He also brought an inscribed medal that was given to his mother by Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, during a visit to Belgium in 1948. Pacimora paid his personal debt to Belgium by serving in the Belgian army.

For Prince Michel this is his second visit to Israel. The first was in the mid-1970s when Israel still had control over Sinai. He spent two-and-a-half months in Israel on that occasion, traveling from the extreme north to the extreme south.

Two of his aunts, Yolande de Ligne and Ginette vam der Straeten Ponthoz, who personally took care of the children during the war, would have loved to come to Israel, he said, but both are in their 90s and the journey would have been too strenuous for them.

His sister Princess Anne de Ligne spent a month as a volunteer at Kibbutz Nir David in the Beit She’an valley in northern Israel. She was 20 years old at the time and had studied agriculture in Germany and Belgium and thought it would be a good idea to get some hands-on experience in Israel.

What impressed her most during that time was an elderly woman who endlessly peeled potatoes in the kitchen, and when asked if she wasn’t bored replied: “I’m doing this for my country.”

On this particular visit Prince Michel became enamored with Jerusalem, and told The Jerusalem Post, “I wish could come back and work here.”

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Locals absent at ceremony marking Polish atrocity

JMichael-Schudrich-Polands-chief-rabbiEDWABNE, Poland (JTA) — Some 150 people attended a commemoration on the 75th anniversary of a massacre of hundreds of Polish Jews by their neighbors in the country’s northeast.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, also attended Sunday’s ceremony in the town of Jedwabne, whose history is controversial in Poland because it involves complicity in the Holocaust by members of a nation that many perceive primarily as a victim of the German Nazi occupation.

Commemorating the victims in Jedwabne “grounds our work, which is to fight anti-Semitism, bigotry and racism,” Greenblatt said.

At Jedwabne, a few dozen perpetrators burned alive at least 340 Jews.

The mayor of Jedwabne did not attend the event, citing previous engagements. Nor did any of the townspeople, according to Henryk Zandek, 90, a non-Jewish man who lived in Jedwabne for years after World War II.

Ichak Lewin, an 85-year-old survivor who lives in Israel, sobbed when he recalled how the entire Jewish population of his village near Jedwabne was “taken to the barn and burned alive,” he said. Warned by locals, his family escaped the roundup in nearby woods, where a Polish family hid them. Lewin said he later worked in a German army kitchen.

Under Poland’s Communist governments, which blurred sectarian divides and at times displayed anti-Semitic tendencies, Jedwabne’s Holocaust-era record was little known until 15 years ago, Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, told JTA at the event.

In 2001, the publication of a book on Jedwabne by Princeton historian Jan Gross triggered a public debate on the issue.

In a nation where the Nazis killed 3 million non-Jewish Poles in addition to 3 million Jewish ones, “some found it, and some find it, difficult to accept the very bitter truth” about Jedwabne, Schudrich said. But since then, polls suggest that today approximately half of Poles have come to accept their compatriots’ role at Jedwabne, Schudrich said.

Polish Undersecretary of State Wojciech Kolarski represented Polish President Andrzej Duda at the event, where he laid a wreath at the monument for the victims.

“To be clear about what happened here: Polish citizens killed their own Polish compatriots of Jewish origin in a way that damaged a long tradition of living side-by-side,” Kolarski told JTA. “There can be no justification for that.”

At least 1,500 Jews died at the hands of Poles during the Holocaust or immediately after it, Schudrich said.

Some Polish politicians in the past denied that Poles killed Jews in Jedwabne, including former senator Jadwiga Stolarska, who in 2001 stated in Parliament that Germans were behind the killings and that “there was no way a Pole could kill a Jew.”

In 2011, Poland’s then-president, Bronislaw Komorowski, said of the centrist Civic Platform: “I beg forgiveness” for what happened at Jedwabne. In a nation of victims, he said, “there were perpetrators.”

Duda, the current president of the center-right Law and Justice party, last year attacked Komorowski’s statement in what some observers considered a step backward from acceptance of the role of Poles in the massacre at Jedwabne.

“I believe it is extremely important for us that we did not, as we are falsely accused by others, participate in the Holocaust,” Duda said at a televised debate last year. “The Lord knows that the Polish people did not take part in the Holocaust.”

Jonny Daniels, founder of the From the Depths commemoration group, said the event “shows us how seriously Polish society takes this matter,” citing Kolarski’s presence and that of the national media. Unlike some of its neighbors, he said, Poland is “standing up to its sometimes difficult past and not shirking from often painful truths.”
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How Jewish prisoners escaped Nazis in Lithuania via secret tunnel

Captives painstakingly dug their way out of Ponar forest death pits by hand, 15 managed to flee though hidden passage

ponar1-mass-graveOn the night of April 15, 1944, a group of 40 Jewish prisoners — who were being held in captivity in Lithuania, forced by Nazis to cover up the massacre of some 100,000 Jews in a forest near Vilnius — escaped through a 100-foot underground tunnel they had dug at night, using only spoons and their hands. Many of the escapees were shot dead by guards, but 15 got away.

On the night of April 15, 1944, a group of 40 Jewish prisoners — who were being held in captivity in Lithuania, forced by Nazis to cover up the massacre of some 100,000 Jews in a forest near Vilnius — escaped through a 100-foot underground tunnel they had dug at night, using only spoons and their hands. Many of the escapees were shot dead by guards, but 15 got away.

Israeli researcher Dr. Jon Seligman, whose family originated from Lithuania, said the discovery of the Ponar tunnel “reduced him to tears.”

“This is a heartwarming testimony to the victory of hope over despair,” he said according to the IAA statement. “The discovery of the tunnel allows us to not only expose the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the hope for life.”

Seligman led the team of researchers together with US Jewish History Professor Richard Freund of the University of Hartford in Connecticut.
Thanks to advances in archaeological technology — namely ground penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography — Freund said his team was able to examine the site without disturbing the remains of the some 100,000 people buried there.

“All these technologies allow people to gain information about an era — the Holocaust era — without having to desecrate a burial site,” Freund told the PBS television channel, which will air a documentary on the find in 2017.

From 1941 to 1944, tens of thousands of Jews, Poles and Russian prisoners of war were murdered by German and Lithuanian SS officers.

As the Red Army advanced on Nazi-occupied Europe in 1943, German forces attempted to cover up evidence of their crimes, and brought 80 Jewish inmates from the nearby Stutthof concentration camp to burn bodies dumped in the forest.

On the night of April 15, 1944, a group of 40 Jewish prisoners — who were being held in captivity in Lithuania, forced by Nazis to cover up the massacre of some 100,000 Jews in a forest near Vilnius — escaped through a 100-foot underground tunnel they had dug at night, using only spoons and their hands. Many of the escapees were shot dead by guards, but 15 got away.

Thanks to advances in archaeological technology, the tunnel from that miraculous, tragic story has been discovered, as announced by the Israel Antiquities Authority on Wednesday.

The popular PBS science show “Nova” will air a documentary on the discovery next year.

A team of archaeologists and mapmakers from Israel, the US, Canada and Lithuania used mineral and oil exploration scanning technology to pinpoint the tunnel, the authority said in a statement Wednesday.

The 35-meter (115-foot) tunnel is located in the Ponar forest, known today as Paneriai, where the Nazis killed 100,000 people – mostly Jews – during the Holocaust.

Israeli researcher Dr. Jon Seligman, whose family originated from Lithuania, said the discovery of the Ponar tunnel “reduced him to tears.”

“This is a heartwarming testimony to the victory of hope over despair,” he said according to the IAA statement. “The discovery of the tunnel allows us to not only expose the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the hope for life.”

Seligman led the team of researchers together with US Jewish History Professor Richard Freund of the University of Hartford in Connecticut.

Thanks to advances in archaeological technology — namely ground penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography — Freund said his team was able to examine the site without disturbing the remains of the some 100,000 people buried there.

“All these technologies allow people to gain information about an era — the Holocaust era — without having to desecrate a burial site,” Freund told the PBS television channel, which will air a documentary on the find in 2017.

From 1941 to 1944, tens of thousands of Jews, Poles and Russian prisoners of war were murdered by German and Lithuanian SS officers.

As the Red Army advanced on Nazi-occupied Europe in 1943, German forces attempted to cover up evidence of their crimes, and brought 80 Jewish inmates from the nearby Stutthof concentration camp to burn bodies dumped in the forest.

During the months-long work, the prisoners, chained to one another, secretly dug the underground tunnel out of a pit they were kept in.

On the last night of Passover — April 14, 1944 — 40 prisoners escaped through the tunnel. Many were shot, but 11 reached partisan forces and survived.

The testimony of the surviving prisoners helped exposing the scope of the crimes committed by Nazi forces in the area.

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Holocaust-Era Escape Tunnel, Dug by Prisoners Using Their Hands and Spoons, Uncovered in Lithuania

The Scroll

Researchers are excavating a 100-foot-long tunnel at the site of Ponar Forest massacre near Vilnius

By Jesse Bernstein

The Israel Antiquities Authority, an Israeli governmental research team dedicated to the excavation and conservation of worldwide Jewry, recently uncovered an incredible if excruciating piece of Holocaust history near Vilnius, Lithuania: an escape tunnel.

According to JTA, the Antiquities Authority, along with the help of the University of Hartford, geophysicists from global advisory firm Advisian, the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, and PBS, discovered a tunnel used by Lithuanian Jews to escape the Ponar forest massacre, when 100,000 people—70,000 of whom were Jews—were shot and thrown into pits over a period of four years.

As the Red Army approached in 1943, remaining Nazi units forced prisoners from the Stutthoff concentration camp to begin digging up the corpses and burn them, in order to erase evidence of the atrocities. Knowing that they would be killed after completing their gruesome task, the prisoners began to devise a plan to escape.

At night the prisoners, whose legs were shackled, were held in a deep pit previously used for the execution of Vilnius Jews. During the day they worked to hide the mass graves and burn the corpses.

Some of the workers decided to escape by digging a tunnel from the pit that was their prison. For three months they dug using only spoons and their hands.

On the night of April, 15, 1944, the prisoners cut their leg shackles with a nail file, and 40 of them crawled through the narrow tunnel. They were quickly discovered by the guards and many were shot. Some 15 managed to cut the fence of the camp and escape into the forest. Eleven reached the partisan forces and survived the war.

The existence of the tunnel has been known to researchers for years, but years of searching had proved fruitless. With its discovery, PBS’s series Nova is creating a documentary that’s slated to air in 2017. A preview can be watched here.

Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who’s leading the archaeological dig with University of Hartford Professor of Jewish History Richard Freund, said: “As an Israeli whose family originated in Lithuania, I was reduced to tears on the discovery of the escape tunnel at Ponar. This discovery is a heartwarming witness to the victory of hope over desperation. The exposure of the tunnel enables us to present, not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the yearning for life.”

Eliaz Cohen can hardly forget his annual school trips to Hebron as a teenager. One excursion, around the age of 13 or 14, was especially memorable. Cohen and his classmates from the bourgeois settlement of Elkana in western Samaria were meeting with Elyakim Haetzni, a secular leader in the settlement movement.

“He posed a question to us,” Cohen remembered recently. “Imagine you had a girlfriend. How would you react if someone else wanted to go out with her? All the more so, imagine she were your wife!”

The girlfriend in Haetzni’s analogy was the Land of Israel; the “someone else” were the Arabs. Haetzni’s romantic parable excited the teenagers, Cohen recalled, not only because none of them dated, but also because it was “manipulatively” predicated on a relationship of jealousy and possessiveness.

Today, still a settler, the 44-year-old poet thinks of his Palestinian neighbors quite differently. “I imagine them like a brother from a previous marriage,” he said. “We share half of our genes. We both belong to the same mother, our shared homeland.”

Cohen is a founding member of Two States One Homeland, a grass-roots initiative geared toward breaking the One State/Two State dichotomy, which he believes has continuously thwarted efforts by Israeli and Palestinian leaders to forge peace. Launched four years ago with journalist Meron Rapoport following a series of meetings between activists on both sides of the conflict, the initiative adopts the two-state paradigm.

“One of our sacred principles is that you don’t right a wrong by creating another wrong,” Cohen said. That means no settlers get displaced as part of the deal, nor do Israelis now living on the ruins of Palestinian villages within the Green Line.

The allowance given to Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral lands inside Israel was the main drawing point for Awni al-Mashni, a 57-year-old native of Bethlehem and member of Fatah’s Advisory Council. Tracing his family lineage to the abandoned village of al-Qabu southwest of Jerusalem, Mashni considers himself a 1948 refugee, an identity he says he inherited from his father and bequeaths to his children.

“It’s a natural dream,” Mashni said. “Why should a Jew who left 2,000 years ago be allowed to return, while a Palestinian who left 60 years ago shouldn’t?” he wondered.

Having spent 12 years in and out of Israeli jails for his political activities in the 1970s and ’80s, Mashni said he had signed on to the two-state vision advanced by his party through the Oslo Process in a bid “to give peace a chance.” But the Oslo experiment failed miserably for both Israelis and Palestinians, he argued.

“Politically, we’re in a worse situation now than we were before Oslo,” he said. Imagining a life side by side with Israelis in a European Union-like territory with invisible borders is not difficult for Mashni. Historically, the Arab position consistently refused partition. “This land is indivisible,” he stressed.

For Cohen, coming to support partition was a longer process. He was raised, he says, on the “scaremongering” that a Palestinian state would be a terrorist entity in the heart of our land. God’s biblical promise of Land of Israel to our forefathers also played an important role.

But that started to change at the beginning of the last decade, when Cohen, known then as the star poet of the settler movement, began doubting the orthodoxy of his surroundings. In 2002, he founded Tzedek, (“justice”) a movement advocating social and political justice in Israel, which failed to enter the Knesset in 2003. In 2011, he helped found Eretz Yoshveyha (“land of its inhabitants”), a grass-roots movement advocating Israeli-Palestinian coexistence in a unitary state, inspired by the teachings of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman.

In June 2007, on the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, Cohen penned a bold opinion article in Maariv titled “In Support of Return.” In it, he drew a comparison between the 1968 return of Israeli orphans to his own kibbutz, Kfar Etzion—overrun by the Jordanian army in 1948—and the yearning of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, abandoned in the same war.

“Through the return of Jewish settlers to their homes after 19 years of Jordanian occupation, we can start training our consciousness—like one trains an atrophied muscle—to recognize the connection of Palestinians to the places where they had lived for tens and hundreds of years prior to our War of Independence, which is their Nakba,” he wrote.

Today, not only does Cohen not object to Awni al-Mashni’s return to al-Qabu, he sees it as “a moral imperative.” Zochrot, a far-left Israeli nongovernmental organization mapping abandoned Arab villages within the Green Line for future Palestinian resettlement, is undertaking invaluable work to advance that end, Cohen added.

Proposed: Settlers will be allowed to remain in their homes in the West Bank as Israeli citizens and permanent residents of the Palestinian state. In return, an equivalent number of Palestinians will be allowed to settle in Israel, reestablishing communities destroyed during the 1948 War of Independence.

“This isn’t ancient history; there’s an entire generation living here that still remembers. We can’t dismiss it as Palestinian propaganda,” he said. “I want Awni to rebuild his village.”

Paradoxically, perhaps, the notion of Palestinian statehood remains more difficult for Cohen to stomach. “For right-wingers, countenancing a Palestinian state is crossing the Rubicon,” he said. “I was much more comfortable in Eretz Yoshveyha, which spoke of a one-state solution.”

Cohen was swayed, however, by a conversation with a Palestinian colleague who spoke of the emotional need of Palestinians for a state of their own. “He told me: ‘You have had your state for almost 70 years. I know it’s a big headache, but our people need their own celebrating moment after so many defeats.’ ”

***

On June 2, some 300 Israelis and Palestinians gathered at the Tel Aviv Convention Center to listen to details of the unique confederation in a conference titled “from initiative to implementation.” Breakout sessions tackled thorny issues such as security, education and constitutions. Settlers from Ofra and the Etzion Bloc mingled with post-Zionists from north Tel Aviv and Palestinians from Beit Sahour in an excited medley of Hebrew, English and Arabic.

Muhammad Beiruti, a militant Fatah veteran living in Ramallah, said the sole aspiration of his extended family is to return to their ancestral the village of Summil near the Israeli city of Kiryat Gat. “Jews and Arabs can reside together everywhere in Palestine,” Beiruti said, citing binational Israeli cities such as Haifa and Jaffa. “Jews can come live in Bethlehem and Ramallah, but not as settlers like in Hebron.”

Beiruti envisioned Israelis living next door to him just as they would in London or New York, where home ownership doesn’t entail political sovereignty or the protection of an army. If Israel were to allow for the development of an independent Palestinian state alongside it, he asserted, “not one Palestinian would seek the removal of Jews from the land, not even Hamas and Islamic jihad. We will protect you.”

Near his settlement of Alon Shvut, south of Jerusalem, Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger has been implementing the initiative’s vision on the ground in his own push, Roots. Through binational dialogue sessions, summer camps and language courses, he said the infrastructure of peace was being laid from the bottom up.

“This peace plan could provide the greatest amount of dignity and justice to both sides,” said Schlesinger, who immigrated to Israel from Long Island in 1977, of Two States, One Homeland. “My neighbors, the settlers, have no idea who the Palestinians are. We actually think they don’t exist. As long as we don’t know they exist, in the deepest sense, as individual humans and as a collective, we can’t even start the discussion of what our vision should be, because we have no other perspective,” he said. “Once both sides see each other, if they’re good people, they must want for the other what they want for themselves.”

Under the Two States, One Homeland paradigm, Schlesinger will have two options: To live as an Israeli citizen under Palestinian rule or to relocate into Israel proper. He admitted that the notion of living in a Palestinian municipality scares him. “If they were to act toward us the way we act toward them, that would be dangerous and frightening,” he said. The preferable solution would be a gradual Israeli withdrawal over a period of several decades, Schlesinger opined, providing time enough for both societies to undergo a significant educational process.

“We have to train a whole new generation of Israeli kids to have a deep connection to the land, but also understand the Palestinian connection to the land,” he imagined, “a whole generation that would know Arabic and feel comfortable with Arab culture.”

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Three Auschwitz inmates miraculously saved from death reunite

Among a small group spared the gas chambers at the last moment on Simchat Torah, 1944, these men remained virtual strangers until now

mordechai-eldar-965x543JTA — For over six decades, Chaim Schwimmer has thrown a kiddush every Simchat Torah, but the reason for this kiddush is not only to celebrate the joyful holiday.

The food and the schnapps also mark the anniversary of Schwimmer’s miraculous rescue in 1944 from certain death at Auschwitz. In October that year, the 14-year-old was pulled from a crowd just a few steps from being murdered in the concentration camp’s gas chamber.

Schwimmer was one of the approximately 50 young men selected for labor after having been forcibly disrobed and prepared to be marched to their deaths in the faux showers along with hundreds of others.

The “Auschwitz 50” were the subject of a 2011 column about Mordechai Eldar, an Israeli hoping to locate others like himself dramatically saved that day, who may have survived the war and perhaps are even living still.

Unfortunately, that column proved fruitless. But a guest article elsewhere that mentioned Eldar’s rescue and search for others recently resulted in two emails within a week of each other.

Isaac Schwimmer, a 39-year-old resident of the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood of Borough Park, mentioned his paternal grandfather, Chaim, who lives a few blocks away and was one of the 50 saved. And Harry Ullman wrote from London to tell of a friend nearby, Hershel Herskovic, also among the 50.

My telephone conversation with Isaac Schwimmer then uncovered yet another living person who had survived the selection: Volvish Greenwald, the grandfather of the brother-in-law of Schwimmer’s wife.

When the initial column appeared in 2011, Eldar, of Herzliya, had already established contact with fellow Israelis David Leitner and Nachum Hoch, and had met Mordechai Linder shortly before Linder died in 2011. And in his email, Ullman mentioned a Manchester, England, resident he had known, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Weiss, another Auschwitz 50 survivor, who had died in 2013.

That makes eight of the 50 who have been identified: six living and two now deceased.

Each of the three newly found people recently interviewed — Chaim Schwimmer, Herskovic and Greenwald — evinced surprise that Eldar, whom none knew, was searching for them. Each man related personal details of being saved from the Simchat Torah gassing.

Chaim Schwimmer, 85, recalled what happened after reaching the gas chamber’s building on that rainy afternoon.

“They told us to undress. We were expecting right away that they’d take us to the gas chamber. But we stood — and waited and waited and waited,” he said.

Three German soldiers entered the room. One ordered a young prisoner to sprint to the end of the room — apparently, Schwimmer thought, to test his fitness. Schwimmer boasted of his own ability to work. A soldier berated him, but ordered him to leave the building with the others selected.

Herskovic, now 88, was unusually calm that day, not dreading what likely awaited. He mumbled a passage from the Talmud on keeping the faith even when a sword was pressed against one’s neck.

“I felt that I wouldn’t die, for some reason,” Herskovic said.

After he had undressed, three soldiers appeared. One ordered the boys to line up, three per row.

“When he said that, I knew we’d be saved now. I stood in the second row, and I was immediately picked and sent to the right side, where we were to go back to the camp and remain alive,” Herskovic said.

Greenwald, 87, remembered of his exchange with one officer: “He asked me how old I am and if I was healthy.”

Each man termed what happened a “miracle.”

But Gideon Greif, an Israeli expert on Auschwitz, explained it as a routine labor call.
The Nazis “needed workers, and there was nothing miraculous or extraordinary about this,” said Greif, chief historian at the Shem Olam Institute for Education, Documentation and Research on Faith and the Holocaust. “Life and death were determined by many criteria, including the need for workers. Here were people concentrated in one place. Sometimes it was in the fields, sometimes in the barracks and sometimes in the gas chambers.”

Greif had heard about the episode of the 50 men saved and said he’s come across six similar cases — “but there could have been 70 [cases]; I have no idea.”

Schwimmer went on to establish a paper products company. He has five sons, 53 grandchildren and approximately 200 great-grandchildren, said Isaac Schwimmer, a property manager who studies Torah with his grandfather every morning.

Herskovic was blinded by a combination of a Nazi beating just days before liberation in 1945 and typhus. He became a lawyer and has four children, 22 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Schwimmer is his cousin; the two grew up in Muncacz, Hungary.

Greenwald, a native of Hajdunanas, Hungary, worked for 55 years as an administrator at Yeshiva Chasam Sofer in Borough Park. He has 12 children; he did not provide the number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

While Greenwald lives four blocks from Chaim Schwimmer, he hasn’t attended the Simchat Torah spreads at the Satmar synagogue on 52nd Street. Schwimmer has thrown the annual kiddush there for 38 years, and before that for 29 years in Montreal, where he first settled after the Holocaust.
It’s what’s known as a “seudat hodaya” — a gratitude meal. No announcement is made to proclaim the backstory, but Isaac Schwimmer says that congregants know. They invariably bring children to his grandfather and ask that he relate what happened in 1944.

“I’m thankful to God that I’m alive,” Chaim Schwimmer says.

Some of his progeny attend the kiddush, while his metaphorical kin extend far beyond the room.

“It’s like my family in the widest possible meaning. We walked out alive,” Eldar, 86, said of the fraternity.

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When ‘Never Forget’ Becomes ‘I Don’t Remember’

By Leonard Felson
 

My father always told us about how he survived the Holocaust. Now that dementia has taken his memories away, it’s my turn to tell his stories.

“Where was I during the Holocaust?” my father—a widower, living in an assisted-living apartment—asked during a recent Skype call with my brother.

My brother and I knew very well where he had been during the Holocaust; we’d heard stories since we were children. But now that my father has been diagnosed with progressive dementia, “Never forget” has often turned into “I can’t remember.”

From an early age, I knew my father was a survivor. I knew how he and one of his two brothers made it through the war fighting the Germans as Jewish partisans in the Belorussian forest. Dad always talked about the war years. He’d spend hours around the kitchen table after dinner, drinking tea with my mother and their friends; or a little vodka with his landsmen with names like Yisroel Chanowitz and Judah Yungelson, talking loudly in Yiddish about how they survived and others had not.

In later years, I would feel pride and gratitude over how Dad made it through those years that forever defined who he was. Yet as a kid, I looked on with an array of other emotions. Acceptance—this was my family. Bewilderment—we heard a story here and there, but never a full chronology. Even embarrassment when I was put in between our two worlds—the “old country” and the new world—like at an elementary-school open house, when Dad’s foreign-accented English stuck out. I also felt disappointment when, for example, he never became a fan of my budding Little League baseball career, or other parts of my life as I grew up, perhaps because he never grasped baseball, or the other games of modern American life, like a native.

His survivor-hood hung like a cloud over our household. Though I couldn’t tell you as a youngster what was wrong, he suffered from survivor’s guilt. His mother and youngest brother, both of whom I’m named after, were shot and killed after the secret hiding place he had secured for them was discovered. The Nazis had shot to death his father, an aunt, and cousin as punishment after my father and his only other brother joined the Jewish resistance. I didn’t know that as a kid. All I knew was that when my two younger brothers and I would horse around, my mother would shush us. Somehow we understood. Our father had suffered enough already.

***

In the early 1990s, after the Iron Curtain fell, a group of fellow survivors organized a return to their town of Glebokie—part of Poland before the Soviet and Nazi invasions during the war, and now part of Belarus—ostensibly for a memorial service 50 years after its destruction. Dad was ambivalent about returning, facing his tortuous past, but when he decided to go virtually at the last minute, my brothers and I joined him, for we too wanted to journey into a world we had grown up hearing about, often harassed by the same nightmares our father endured.

Back in Eastern Europe, Dad was a man transformed. Normally reticent to show emotions, he burst into heartfelt sobs as he entered the apartment of our Lithuanian driver’s Jewish grandmother. She embraced him like a mother meeting her lost son. At the Vilna synagogue, by chance, he met a thin, gray-haired man whom he last saw when they were second-grade classmates. They hugged, as my father cried uncontrollably.

Such outbursts occurred again and again, unpredictably, culminating when we finally reached Glebokie. Fellow survivors, who had arrived from Israel, Germany, other parts of Belarus, and the United States, swarmed to our car in a bubbling mixture of Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian, hugging and kissing each other through tears and joyous laughter.

I had never seen my dad so alive. That week, when he cried I could feel the pain and sorrow. When he laughed, it was uninhibited joy. From early morning until after midnight, I saw my dad engaged with life, talking mostly in Yiddish to long-ago friends whose lives the Holocaust also had haunted.

When my dad searched for his old family house, I watched his determination as we walked in vain up and down his old street, through neighbors’ cabbage, beet, and potato gardens. Throughout that week, though his town was a shadow of its prewar years, my dad felt like he belonged, and I saw in him a level of contentment often absent as he’d negotiated life in an American society that even after 50 years often made him feel like a foreigner.

At our breakfast table the morning I was to fly home, the two of us sat alone, sipping tea and eating thick brown Russian bread and wild blueberries. Silence filled the little kitchen until my dad announced: “This is probably the best vacation I’ve ever had,” his voice cracking as tears began to swell in his eyes. I nodded my understanding, unable to speak, as both of us silently wept.

***

Earlier this year, going through a photo album of that trip in his apartment, I found a picture of him and his fellow landsmen. We were sitting together on his sofa and I showed him the photo.

He stared at it, then handed it back.

“It’s hard for me to see it,” he said, a reference to his increasingly poor vision due to macular degeneration.

“When were we there?” he asked.

“August 1993,” I said.

“I don’t remember,” he said.

Similar incidents have surfaced since his diagnosis last year. Once while visiting, I pulled a book about the Holocaust from his bookshelf. He didn’t remember that 6 million Jews had perished.

Recalling stories he’d told me since childhood, I wondered if he’d remember other details, like the circumstances over how he was accepted into the partisans. Or how his friend David Eiges hid in a barrel of flour in a bakery, listening to the sound of machine guns as German soldiers rounded up his neighbors during the liquidation of the Glebokie ghetto in 1943—a story I first heard from David himself when I was just 13. Not long ago, my questions would have triggered an hour worth of storytelling. “Did I ever tell you about … ?” Inevitably, the answer, was, “Yeah, Dad.” But he’d go on, telling the story with full detail.

Now when I asked him for some of those same details, he replied simply, “I forget.”

Fortunately, my father has already recorded his personal history. The USC Shoah Foundation interviewed him about his life for several hours back in 1997. I transcribed those interviews, and they served as the basis of a memoir he commissioned another writer to compile. My uncle also published his own memoir before he died. And my father had a yizkor or memorial book on the destruction of Glebokie translated into English.

But as his memory fades, I’m losing a part of my dad, losing the fact that we no longer can rely on him for detailed stories or go to him to clarify questions. That’s more than sad. I’m grateful that he shared as much as he did, but I’m only now coming to terms with the reality that Dad no longer remembers his saga or can tell it—like a TV series you thought would always being there that finally goes off the air. That’s how dementia works, erasing its victims’ past. I credit him and my mom for instilling within my brothers and me the value of our family’s story. So, I also feel a responsibility to carry his story forward.

I’ve heard it said about other Holocaust survivors with dementia that it’s a blessing that they can let go of those painful memories. I don’t buy it. If a few years ago, we suggested Dad could live the rest of his life unburdened by his tragic past, but at the cost of forgetting everything else, too, he’d pass at the offer. Or so I believe. He would have said, “I can handle the pain. It’s part of life. It’s not worth what I’d give up.”

But he didn’t get that choice. And I mourn that my dad, the last link to that generation of my family, struggles to remember his town, the people, and his past.

I’m a believer that anchoring Judaism to the memory of the Holocaust and the survival of Israel will never be enough to sustain or reinvigorate vibrant Jewish life in the Diaspora. But like the biblical commandment to never forget what Amalek did to the Israelites, remembering my father’s Holocaust history is a part of my DNA.

His dementia marks a signal for me to pick up his torch; to remind my millennial kids of their zayde’s life story, a saga they know, but like me, will always have more questions about. One of my first cousins has already taken up that torch, helping lead the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, which develops educational material about the 20,000 to 30,000 Jewish fighters and their life lessons.

It’s also not too late to switch roles and begin re-telling Dad’s stories back to him. When we visit or call him, we sometimes try engaging him by telling his stories.

Recently, while visiting, I showed him an old framed family photo. He’s sitting by his father’s side, all of about 6 years old. My uncle, then about 3, is sitting next to their mother. Their grandmother is in the photo, along with a cousin and an aunt.

LFelsonPhotos_400“Remember, Dad. When you were a little older, you used to work in your father’s shop? He sold grain, right?

“Flour,” my dad corrected me. “Different kinds of flour.”

“How old were you when you worked for your father?”

He paused for a moment. “Twelve. 13. He used to buy grain from farmers, take it to a mill and make flour,” Dad recalled.

Soon he may not remember those details, finally letting go of this piece of his past, too. In the meantime, though, I wonder when he dozes off, as he frequently does these days, if he’s back in his town or the forests, knowing full well where he was during the Holocaust.

***

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