Category Archive: SURVIVOR STORIES

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.

“No.”

“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.

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The Story My Bubbe Told Us

BubbeI can’t remember the exact moment when I realized there was a lot more to my Bubbe’s story than a grandmother who baked amazing chocolate chip cookies and spent her winters in Florida. Her past wasn’t really discussed openly, and it wasn’t until after my bat mitzvah that I started to really understand what she had been through. A young girl at the time Hitler rose to power, Esther Sal spent her teen years in a ghetto before escaping and hiding with her family in the forest, among other places. They narrowly missed death numerous times.

Now, as a mother to an 8-year-old, I struggle with how to share my Bubbe’s story before it’s too late. With my grandfather — a concentration camp survivor — having passed a few years ago, my son deserved to hear my Bubbe’s story straight from her. But could he handle it? While he’s learned a little bit about the Holocaust in school, he has been shielded from many of the more intense details. I wasn’t sure how he would react to hearing about some of them, especially from his great-grandmother.

We traveled down to Florida a few months ago so I could record her story for posterity. We talked about what Bubbe might share, and he said he wanted to be there to listen. And so, together, two days after we arrived in Boynton Beach, we gathered in the lanai and listened to her story.

Esther was born in Złoty Potok, Poland in 1929. The second oldest of five children, she lived with her family in a nice neighborhood, and due to her father’s successful store, they were comfortably middle-class. Like all of their Jewish neighbors, they were religious. There was nothing else but being Jewish, so there was no identifying by sect, really. And in the end, being Jewish was all that mattered.

“My life before the war was wonderful. I went to public school, and to a good Hebrew school. I could read and write in Hebrew. It was a private school, which was expensive and something not everyone could afford. When the war started I was 12 years old. They announced that no Jewish children could go to school. It was upsetting. Why could everyone else go to school but not us?”

When the Germans took over my Bubbe’s village, they also took away her father’s store and everything that was in it. The Germans created a group of Jews called the Judenrat, and forced them to go and collect valuables from their neighbors. They took everything from furs to jewelry, even wedding rings.

“We still lived in our house though. We had a very nice house that my father built two years before the war. It was brick, a beautiful home. I shared a bedroom with my sister upstairs. Then, it started getting really bad, and we were scared. The Germans chased us out of our home to the city of Buchach. All the Jews had to leave. They let us take a suitcase and that was it. You couldn’t take your furniture. When they chased us out of our house, our grandfather came with us. He was 72 years old.

“They used to surprise us during the night with trucks — the SS. You didn’t know they were coming. My father was always looking for hiding spaces for us. So on the third floor, where the attic was, he divided a wall and the door was hidden so you couldn’t tell. When we heard the shooting outside, we went up and hid. We were 13 people between my family, some friends, and the couple that took us in. The Germans would go from house to house. Whoever they found, they took them out and threw them in trucks and took them to a forest. They made the Jews dig their own graves and then they shot them. Hundreds and hundreds of people were killed there.”

My Bubbe shares this as if talking about the plot of a book, but there is a weariness to her as well. Pulling up these memories can’t be easy. I look to my son, who has been quiet this whole time. I wonder if it’s too much for him, but he seems okay, absorbing it all.

“Once, the Germans came to the attic. They were looking for us, yelling “Jude! Jude!” We were very scared, but they finally left. While we hid in the attic, we heard all the shots that came from the forest, Feder Hill, all day and all night. They killed a lot of Jews that time. After two days of shooting, things quieted down. We started coming out of our hiding place. Downstairs there were some other people that lived there. The SS took the parents; the grandmother and a little boy, only 2 years old, were shot. The little boy wore a white coat and the blood ran all over the coat and the boy. I will never forget that. And when we came out, on the street, there were a lot of dead people, their brains splashed all over. I was only 12 years old.”

Twelve. Four years older than my son. I can’t imagine. I don’t want to imagine. But the picture she’s painting is so vivid and so painful. My Bubbe explains how her family was then forced into a ghetto, surrounded by wire. They weren’t allowed to leave and the conditions were horrible. Once again, her father went into the attic of the house they were in and made a hiding space. The Germans continued to “surprise” them, and they managed to survive every shooting that happened. Her father realized that staying in the ghetto didn’t necessarily mean survival. He felt that if they “were going to die anyway” they should at least try to escape. In the middle of the night he packed up the whole family and they walked 18 miles back to their village of Złoty Potok where they were able to stay in the barn of a woman they knew. It was then that most of the family fell ill with typhoid fever.

“My brother, he was two years older than me, didn’t get sick. So my father put him in another place, with a non-Jewish family, very good people. They took my brother in and kept him, not long. Maybe a week or two. And my grandfather, he was in a barn somewhere else. Somebody saw, and squealed on my brother, telling the Germans and they came in and took him out. My brother was 17 years old. They also found my grandfather. They took them to the Jewish cemetery, made them undress, and then they shot them both. My father knew about this, but didn’t tell us. He told us they took them to a camp.”

She explains that they all eventually survived the typhoid. Her father realized that they couldn’t stay in the woman’s barn for too much longer. My Bubbe emphasizes how brave this woman was, because if the Germans had caught them there, she would have been killed as well. A glimpse of all the kind hearted people within all of this madness.

“When we finally felt better we went into the forest, and again, my father protected us. He built a bunker very deep in the forest. We cooked outside. We stayed there for a while until it was too dangerous. So we went elsewhere in the forest and started again. My father built another bunker, under the ground. Then another one, and a third one underneath that one.

“I remember, there was a woman there with her husband and she was pregnant. And that wasn’t a good thing. She had the baby and… he didn’t survive. The baby was screaming, and there were other people in the bunker and they didn’t want that. Don’t ask, it was a whole different kind of thing.”

At this, my son’s eyes grow wide with understanding but he remains silent, wanting my Bubbe to go on. He has fallen into her story and, like me, needs to hear it through until the end.

“Well, the soldiers came and we ran into the bunker. My father made a cover from a tree stump, with moss around it. You couldn’t tell it was a cover and that there was anything underneath. Somehow, they found the bunker. They opened the cover and started shooting. They were afraid to go in. They threw in a hand grenade. But we went into the third one, down below and we were safe.”

I start to imagine what the two years in the woods must have been like for her. She explains how they foraged for food like mushrooms in the summer, and in the winter they got whatever food they could from a Polish doctor who was a friend of theirs. She describes the one dress she wore the entire time in the forest. More than 60 years later she can still describe it with such clarity: dark orange, almost red, with pinstripes. I wonder what happened to that dress.

“There were always surprises. Once, we didn’t have time to hide in the bunker. We ran and ran and ran, down to the stream where we washed up. We could see the German’s boots and rifles. Until today, I still have nightmares that I’m running and running, but they didn’t get me. My heart, racing. We had so many close calls, but they never got us.

“Winter was really bad. We were starving and had no food. My mother decided that we had to get out of the forest. She had a brother and a sister, and they were staying with a Baptist couple, who had kept 12 Jews underneath their barn in a bunker. My mother said, ‘We’re going to die either way, so we might as well try. Maybe they’ll take us in.’”

She tells me that they did take them in, despite the fact that there were already too many people hiding in their bunker. They were allowed to stay there for four weeks.

“We had to stay in the dark bunker with no windows. You couldn’t see anything and I did not like that. Until today, I still hate the dark.

“We walked through the night back to our hometown Złoty Potok and we went into a neighbor’s barn. We were frozen and hungry. She had two cows in there, we sat around them and it was nice and warm. There was food left for the cows, so we ate it. Then we figured our neighbor would come in during the morning, see us, and then run to the police and that would be the end.

“When she did come in, she knew us. She used to come to our house on Shabbat. She felt sorry for us. She started crying. She kept us there. She used to bring food for the cows and for us. She had a very sick husband — he was very mean. If he had known we were there, forget it, we would have been gone. But he was paralyzed, so he had no idea we were in the barn. Everyone thought she was a crazy woman. Well, she wasn’t so crazy.

“My father made a room from the straw and manure in the barn, so if anyone came in to look for us, we would hide. And we stayed there for three, maybe 4 more months until we were liberated by the Russians.”

It’s been almost an hour. My son — who is the definition of “ shpilkes in the tukhis ” — has sat, engrossed this entire time. I know we’ll have many follow up conversations about much of what he has heard, but I am so grateful for this moment. For him to hear my Bubbe’s story from her lips. Perhaps he will one day share this story, when all we have left are recordings and written words. He’ll be able to say, my great-grandmother was a part of this awful and historic event. This is her story.

Avital Norman Nathman is a former teacher turned freelance writer.

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Avital Norman Nathman

The Lost Poems of Ka-Tzetnik 135633

Auction house offering Auschwitz survivor’s elusive pre-war book for $7,000; copies also available at several libraries

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The most significant moment at the Eichmann Trial occurred when the Polish-born writer Yehiel Feiner collapsed while testifying on the stand in Jerusalem, after he was asked a simple procedural question at the beginning of his testimony—the reason why he concealed his identify behind the pseudonym Ka-Tzetnik 135633 (Ka-Tzetnik is the Yiddish term for a concentration camp inmate).

He responded:

“It was not a pen name. I do not regard myself as a writer and a composer of literary material. This is a chronicle of the planet of Auschwitz. I was there for about two years. Time there was not like it is here on earth. Every fraction of a minute there passed on a different scale of time. And the inhabitants of this planet had no names, they had no parents nor did they have children. There they did not dress in the way we dress here; they were not born there and they did not give birth; they breathed according to different laws of nature; they did not live—nor did they die—according to the laws of this world. Their name was the number Ka-Tzetnik.”

Later in his testimony, Ka-Tzetnik stood and turned around, and he then collapsed on the ground.

Several years ago in Tablet, David Mikics explored the literary legacy of Yehiel Feiner, with a particular focus on his post-Holocaust works of Salamandra (1946) and House of Dolls (1953), written under his name of Ka-Tzetnik 135633, and noted, almost in passing, a small book of Yiddish poetry that he published in 1931. Before the Holocaust, Feiner was a musician, writer, and poet, who contributed articles to local Yiddish newspapers and, in 1931, published a volume of twenty-two Yiddish poems. However, as historian Tom Segev writes in The Seventh Million, “[a]fter Auschwitz, [he] made every effort to consign his early work to oblivion, going so far as to personally remove it from libraries. He also discarded his original name. Auschwitz, having robbed him of his family, also robbed him of his identity, leaving only the prisoner.”

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Holocaust Study Debunks Myth of ‘Ungrateful Jew’

Polish Letters Show Enduring Ties to Rescuers

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(Haaretz) — In Poland, they were known as the ungrateful Jews. These were Jews who survived the Holocaust because of the selfless acts of thousands of Polish rescuers who put their lives on the line for them but were never properly thanked.
As soon as the war was over, these Jews headed out to greener pastures overseas, never again to establish contact with those who served as their guardian angels.
It’s one of the popular narratives that emerged in post-war Communist Poland, but according to Holocaust scholar Joanna Michlic, it’s a big myth.
“Yes, it’s true that many Jews broke off contact with their rescuers,” she says, “but that was done deliberately to protect them because anti-Semitism was so rampant at the time that had suspicions been raised that they had saved Jews, they would have been punished by their neighbors for being traitors. So while many Jews would have like to stay in contact with their rescuers after the war, they decided it was best to stay away.”
Michlic, a visiting Fulbright scholar this semester at the University of Haifa Strochlitz Institute for Holocaust Research, is currently working on a book about relations between Polish rescuers and the Jews they saved in the post-war period.
Her findings are based on a large cache of letters she discovered at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. It includes more than 500 letters written by Jewish survivors to Jewish organizations on behalf of their rescuers, and by Jewish survivors to their rescuers in the first several years after the war.
“We have letters from survivors who were already in Displaced Persons camps in Germany, survivors in kibbutzim in Italy who wanted to make sure that their rescuers would receive parcels of food for Christmas, clothes for the winter and basic necessities,” recounts Michlic, who is both founder and director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Project on Families, Children and the Holocaust and a history professor at the University of Bristol in England. “We know of many rescued who wrote to the Jewish aid committees at the time to ask for loans to repay their rescuers. These letters are absolutely essential for shattering the myth of the ungrateful Jew.”
The letters also reveal, she notes, that contrary to popular belief, many Jews continued to live with their rescuers after the war and did not immediately take off. “In some cases, especially when the survivors were small children, they could be found with their rescuers even in 1947,” she reports.

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Factory where Primo Levi worked becomes Holocaust museum

Primo Levi

ROME (JTA) – The paint factory in Italy where author and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi worked was reopened as a museum and cultural center for Holocaust memory and civic action.

Inauguration events took place this weekend for the Train of Memory House in the Siva factory in Settimo Torinese, where Levi worked for nearly 30 years. The factory in the northern Italy town was closed down and abandoned two decades ago.

Levi, whose books include the Holocaust memoir “Survival in Auschwitz” and “The Periodic Table,” worked there as a chemist and manager from 1947 to 1975.

The new complex includes an exhibition prepared by the Holocaust memorial museum at Auschwitz and another exhibition on the plight of refugees. It will host concerts, lectures and other events. There is also an exhibit on Levi’s life located in the office he used when he worked as the plant manager.

The center was initiated by Settimo Torinese, the civic action organization Terra del Fuoco and the Train of Memory organization, which promotes Holocaust education. Over the past decade, the Train of Memory has brought 25,000 Italian high-school students on study trips to Auschwitz.

Legacy of Loss

April 17, 2014
BY SIMONE ELLIN | PHOTOS BY DAVID STUCK

The challenge to remember

Alice Herz-Sommer was 110 years old when she passed away in February. Born in Prague, but living in London at the time of her death, she was believed to have been the oldest living survivor of the Holocaust. Sommer’s passing, as well as the recent deaths of several prominent survivors in Baltimore’s Jewish community, are grim reminders that these individuals won’t be around forever. When they pass on, they take their stories with them.

But it needn’t be that way, say those who work with survivors and the Jewish community at large. Against a backdrop of unprecedented rates of intermarriage and assimilation — and a Pew Research Center finding that 73 percent of Jews define their Jewish identities in terms of the Holocaust — they grapple with how the loss of survivors will ultimately impact the Jewish people’s future.

“Of course it is true that we are in a period of transition,” said Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel for the World Jewish Congress and founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. “Survivors are dwindling.

“We are at a point where the torch and the obligation of transmitting our parents’ and grandparents’ memories is falling on the shoulders of the children and grandchildren of the survivors,” continued Rosensaft, who also serves as the senior vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. “We have to provide reassurance to the survivors that their legacy and the memories they have conveyed to the world over the past 70 years will be preserved, guarded and transmitted into the future.”
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Treasury moves to up aid to Holocaust survivors

Bill to allocate NIS 1b. to cover medicine, raise stipends, eliminate distinctions based on year of immigration

An unidentified Holocaust survivor sits holding his cane in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial complex in Jerusalem (photo credit: Pierre Terdjman/Flash90)

An unidentified Holocaust survivor sits holding his cane in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial complex in Jerusalem (photo credit: Pierre Terdjman/Flash90)

With one in four Holocaust survivors in Israel living below the poverty line, Finance Minister Yair Lapid introduced a proposal Sunday to increase by NIS 1 billion ($289 million) the budget for the 200,000 victims of the Nazi atrocities living in Israel.
The bill, which includes higher monthly stipends and free medication for the survivors, is set to be presented for a Knesset vote on April 27 — the day before the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“The State of Israel has a historic obligation to the Holocaust survivors, and our mission is to make it easier for them during the last years of their lives,” Lapid wrote in a statement.

The new allocation of funds would be added to the current NIS 835 million budget for survivors.

The proposal includes dissolving the distinction between Holocaust survivors who moved to Israel prior to 1953 and the 18,500 former ghetto and concentration camp inmates who moved after that date.

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US in talks with France over Holocaust reparations Read more: US in talks with France over Holocaust reparations

White House warns individual state legislatures against taking action to punish French railway co. that deported Jews to Nazi camps

An original railway carriage stands at the Judenrampe platform at Auschwitz (photo credit: Adam Jones/Wikimedia Commons)

An original railway carriage stands at the Judenrampe platform at Auschwitz (photo credit: Adam Jones/Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration on Wednesday warned several state legislatures against initiatives that would punish the state-owned French railway company SNCF for carrying out Holocaust-era deportations to Nazi death and labor camps.

The State Department said such actions would jeopardize recently-begun talks between the United States and France on compensation for SNCF deportation victims and their families.

Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States and France hoped to conclude their discussions as quickly as possible and that initiatives in Maryland and New York threatened a speedy resolution of the talks that began last month.

“Recent initiatives of certain state legislatures, such as New York and Maryland, have begun to pose a serious obstacle to achieving this goal,” she said in a statement. “We strongly urge all concerned to avoid actions that undermine the ongoing compensation talks. The current American-French dialogue, in our view, represents the best means of reaching an agreement that will meet the concerns expressed by lawmakers in these states.”

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