Category Archive: Survivors Speak

Elderly survivors return to Auschwitz, 72 years after liberation

German FM says death camp’s name stands for entire Nazi ‘murder machinery’ that remains part of his country’s history

Poland-Auschwitz-Anni_HoroWARSAW, Poland (AP) — Dozens of Auschwitz survivors placed wreaths and flowers Friday at the infamous execution wall of the former German death camp, paying homage to the victims of Adolf Hitler’s regime exactly 72 years after the camp’s liberation.

Jan. 27, the anniversary of the day that the Soviet army liberated the camp in German-occupied Poland in 1945, is recognized as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and commemorative events were also being held across Europe and Israel.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the term “Auschwitz” stands for all the death camps and the entire Nazi “persecution and murder machinery” that remained part of Germany’s history.

He said that while Germany cannot change or undo what happened, the country has a continued obligation to commemorate the genocide, honor the memory of the victims and take responsibility for the crimes.

Noting the political instability in the world today, Steinmeier, said that “history should be a lesson, warning and incentive all at the same time. There can and should be no end to remembrance,” he said.

Steinmeier’s statement came hours before he was due to hand over the post of foreign minister to the current economy minister, Sigmar Gabriel.

Elderly survivors at Auschwitz, which today is a memorial site and museum, paid homage to those killed by wearing striped scarves reminiscent of the garb prisoners once wore there.

They walked slowly beneath the notorious gate with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Set You Free) and made their way as a group to the execution wall, where they lit candles and prayed.

Janina Malec, a Polish survivor whose parents were killed at the execution wall, told the PAP news agency that “as long as I live I will come here,” describing her yearly visit as a “pilgrimage.”

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For Holocaust’s loneliest survivors, young Israelis are a lifeline

Thousands of volunteers help ensure some ‘good feelings’ for the 160,000-strong community of survivors in Israel, the world’s largest

Israel-Lonely-Survivo_Horo-1AP — Surrounded by more than 100 fellow Holocaust survivors and young volunteers, a blind Ernest Weiner sat in his wheelchair with a puffy crown on his head as the crowd sang happy birthday and showered him with hugs and greetings.

Widowed and childless, 92-year-old Weiner lives alone and the cheerful gathering offered him one of life’s most valuable commodities — company.

As home to the world’s largest survivor community, Israel is grappling to serve the needs of thousands of people like Weiner who are living out their final days alone. Various government bodies and private organizations chip in to offer material, psychological and medical support to the survivors, still scarred by the horrors they experienced 70 years ago. But all agree that the greatest burden late in their lives is loneliness.

“It’s not pleasant to be alone,” Weiner said in his apartment south of Tel Aviv. “It gives a good feeling” to have people visit.

Some 160,000 elderly survivors remain in Israel, with a similar number worldwide. In Israel, about half receive special government stipends, but a third still live under the poverty line, well above the national 20 percent poverty rate.

That’s where the nonprofit sector gets involved. The Association for Immediate Help for Holocaust Survivors was established nine years ago for the purpose of aiding survivors anywhere in Israel, at a moment’s notice. Run solely on donations, it currently has some 8,000 volunteers around the country.

They help survivors with everything from legal assistance to paying their bills, buying their groceries to driving them to doctor appointments. Several times a year, they throw parties that become a highlight on survivors’ calendars.

The care continues even after death. The association’s modest office currently houses a number of orphaned dogs and cats left behind by their owners.

“Morally, not just as Jews but as people of the world, we must help them finish their life in dignity without them having to beg for warm food,” said Tamara More, the association’s voluntary CEO. “These are people whose lives were robbed from them because of the world’s silence, and we all have an obligation to give them something back in the little time they have left.”

Six million Jews were killed by German Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust, wiping out a third of world Jewry. Israel’s main Holocaust memorial day is in the spring — marking the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising — while the United Nations designated Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the date of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp in 1945.

As the senior adviser to former finance minister Yair Lapid, Naama Schultz spearheaded the ministry’s efforts to boost previously paltry funding to those who survived camps and ghettos. Besides a monthly stipend, the state also provides expanded health care, free medication and discounts on various living expenses.

But Schultz said money couldn’t address their emotional needs. Many survivors kept their pasts to themselves for decades, often alienating even the people closest to them due to their trauma. Only in their final years are many finally ready to open up, and often then there is no one around.

“There is always more you can give them, but what they really want most is someone to just be with them,” she said.

Plenty of organizations try to answer that need by matching soldiers and students with survivors. One highly publicized initiative offered university students rent-free accommodations in return for living with lonely survivors and keeping them company.

Noga Rotman, a 32-year-old computer science student, said she decided to get involved several years ago when her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, became ill.

“I couldn’t help but think about those who didn’t have that,” she said, amid the balloons and flowers at Weiner’s party, which was attended by dozens who were inspired to come by a Facebook post. “Anytime we have something like this, you just see how much it means to them.”

Weiner said he especially appreciated the company of youngsters. As for fellow survivors, he had mixed feelings.

“On the one hand, it feels good to have all these people. On the other hand it reminds you of such tough times,” he said. “Happy it can’t be, because it was not happy times, but it is nice to have someone listen.”

When the Nazis invaded his native Austria, Weiner and his sister fled to Holland while their parents stayed behind and died of illness. The rest of the family perished.

After the Nazis occupied Holland, they were placed in the Westerbork transit camp, from where his sister was sent to her death in Auschwitz.

Thanks to his work as an electrician, Weiner got to know the camp well and estimates he escaped deportation about 15 times, once after he was placed on a train for Auschwitz. But the harsh conditions took their toll. In the course of his work, he got so many electric shocks that it caused heart damage, and an accident blinded his right eye. Diabetes later deprived him of sight in his left eye and confined him to a wheelchair.

Now that his wife is gone, Weiner has a caregiver who stays with him and another who visits daily. But the volunteers who arrive several times a week provide most of the conversation.

At the party, children handed him drawings. Soldiers and scouts gave gifts, and there was even a surprise visit from Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli — who heard Weiner was a fan and stopped by to snap some pictures with him.

But the most moving moment was when a Dutch-speaking volunteer whom he has grown close to leaned in to let him know she was there. He teared up, and then she did too.

“The fact that he is glad, that brings me joy,” said Liel Van Aalderink, 22. “I don’t do really much extraordinary. I just give him attention and talk to him because he is alone in the world.”

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Global initiatives virtually commemorate the Holocaust — in a very real way

Meaningful social media campaigns by Israel’s Yad Vashem and the World Jewish Congress make history and remembrance accessible to all ages

World-ort-CROPIt is remarkable to feel a connection with someone you’ve only met online. Even more so when he has been dead for the past 75 years. And yet, a random matching program on Yad Vashem’s IRemember Wall connects between a Facebook user and victim of the Holocaust in a deeply personal way.

For this writer, the name Chaim Gindel was drawn from the museum’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. He was born to David and Leja in Ołyka, Poland, in 1928. He was a 14-year-old student when he was murdered in the Shoah. His cause of death is unknown.

The too-short story is recounted on a Page of Testimony that was submitted in 1997 by a surviving cousin in Woodmere, New York. If interested, that handwritten page can be viewed, as well as the names of his siblings who also perished in the Holocaust.

Somehow, after pairing with this once anonymous stranger, the concept of the “6 million” is less about a quantifiable number and more a short hand for a collective of individual humans.

“Many, if not most people, don’t have a particular person or name that they know and commemorate,” said Dana Porath, Yad Vashem’s Internet Department Director.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, is one of several museums and institutions tapping into the potential of online presence and social media campaigns to raise awareness among an audience that increasingly has little first-person contact with the horrors of the Holocaust.

“We realized in the last couple of years, particularly in social media, that people want to do something more participatory. It’s fine to read, learn and explore, but with the opportunity to engage with a particular topic or issue, people really want to do something,” said Porath.

Porath, who was a Jewish educator for 15 years in North America before moving to Israel, began working at Yad Vashem in 1994 and joined the fledgling internet department in 1999. Today, the museum’s online presence is robust and growing.

“In 1999 I don’t know that we really had any expectations, we couldn’t envision what could happen and what the possibilities were,” said Porath. In addition to the myriad of educational materials, the museum has presented some 150 curated online exhibitions — currently “Last Letters From the Holocaust: 1941” — and dozens of social media projects.

Five years ago, Yad Vashem began the IRemember Wall project in which participants are linked with specific names of victims. The algorithm is purposefully random, because, said Porath, “Every victim deserves to be remembered.”

The project is held only once a year for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Said Porath, it becomes “a collective experience” that combines the wall and the comments it garners. She said she expects to reach at least 3,000 participants this year.

“The possibilities created by technology have allowed us to reach out and engage in ways we couldn’t imagine,” said Porath.

Prompting the next generation’s memory

Leading up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day, some 250,000 posted on social media using the hashtag, “#WeRemember” — from New York Senator Chuck Schumer to Dr. Ruth Westheimer to French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy. Some 120 million were reached in the World Jewish Congress campaign, according to a spokesperson. The international organization represents Jewish communities in 100 countries.

“The goal is to reach those who don’t know much about the Holocaust, or who might be susceptible to those who deny it, and to remind the world that such horrors could happen again,” said World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer.

Singer said that through the tools of social media, WJC hopes to engage the youth, “because, soon, it will be their responsibility to tell the story and ensure that humanity never forget.”

The project was adopted by Jewish schools around the world, with many pupils creating short films that were posted and shared widely.

Stefan Bialoguski, the public relations officer for World ORT, said that well over 1,000, “perhaps in the thousands,” of students in schools and colleges across the former Soviet Union, Israel and Europe took part. World ORT claims to be the largest global Jewish education and vocational training NGO.

“The energy which World ORT students have devoted to the #WeRemember project should reassure us that not only has the history of the Holocaust been passed on intact to a new generation, despite the worst attempts of deniers, but also that our children are unbowed by the weight of what happened to our people within living memory,” Bialoguski told The Times of Israel.

A 3D virtual ‘eyewitness to history’

It is this same impulse to preserve historical continuity in an era of fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors that has propelled another unusual project, the New Dimensions in Testimony by the USC Shoah Foundation. Using some 50 cameras at once, a dozen Holocaust survivors have individually been filmed giving 10-25 hours of testimony in an effort to create a 3D virtual “eyewitness to history.”

Set to launch in two museums this year, New Dimensions was in beta stage for some five years and had a 2015 trial run at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, with the first completed interactive testimony of Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter of Toronto.

In addition to recounting the horrors of the Holocaust, the interactive hologram survivor can be asked questions, prompted to sing songs and tell of life before the tragedy. For many who wouldn’t dare ask personal questions for fear of insulting, interacting with this artificial intelligence can be freeing.

According to project literature, a survey of the Illinois pilot found over 95 percent of visitors felt the technology “enhanced their ability to connect” with Gutter’s story. Additionally, 68% of students reported “above average critical thinking ability after the interaction.”

“Everything is now in post-production to meet expected deployment in 2017,” state project materials and the project should open at the first two confirmed museums: the Illinois Holocaust Museum and in Terre Haute, Indiana, the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

In an era of technological leaps and bounds, the ability to engage a new audience is vastly magnified and the impulse to ride social media buzz is strong.

To capture the world’s attention, said Yad Vashem’s Porath, her team strives to make the commemoration of the Jewish victims and their life before the Holocaust accessible through contemporary issues such as the Olympics or International Women’s Day.

“We are always trying to have meaningful, relevant and respectful content,” said Porath. “But to make the Holocaust respectful in 140 characters — that’s a challenge.”

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Nazi death camp heroine known as the ‘mother of Belsen’ gave orphans hope after her own family were murdered

After her own relatives died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Hadassah Bimko could have easily given up hope, yet she found the strength to love and care again

PROD-Hadassah-Bimko-Captain-Winterbottom-and-Dr-Ruth-GutmanShe had been a daughter, a wife and an adoring mum – but by the time Hadassah Bimko arrived at the death camp of Bergen Belsen, every one of those roles had been ripped away.

The 33-year-old lost her parents, husband and five-year-old son, Benjamin, in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Most people would have lost all hope too.

But Hadassah clung on to the love she could no longer give her own son and decided to become a mother again – to all the children who had lost their parents.

She risked her life to create a children’s home for Belsen’s orphans. One of them was the then 14-year-old Mala Tribich and speaking ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day today, she says Hadassah saved her.

“She was the mother of Belsen,” says Mala. “But I never knew she lost a child of her own. I owe my life to her, we’d not have survived without her care. Me and my cousin Ann, who was seven, arrived at Belsen alone. We had lost our parents and I had been caring for Ann for two years.

“I knew at Belsen there was no way we would survive, then I heard about this lady.

“It was terribly overcrowded but I remember her saying, ‘I am sure we can manage these two little Jewish girls’.”

Hadassah passed away in 1997 but with tears in her eyes Mala, now 85, is telling her story as she meets Menachem Rosensaft – a man she views as a brother in many ways, because he is Hadassah’s son.

Although she was grieving for the child she had lost, she found the strength to love again in Belsen. In the Displaced Persons Camp created after its liberation by the British Army, she met Josef Rosensaft, a survivor who had lost his wife.

They married and she had Menachem in the camp, where she kept on working, in 1948. “For my parents, me being born was a new beginning,” he says, sitting close to Mala. “It was a spark of life.”

Reaching out to her, he adds: “Meeting Mala means so much. These children my mother helped are my brothers and sisters. She never spoke very much of that time.

“But I’m certain, because she’d been unable to protect her own child, she felt the needed to do that for others and always considered them as her own children.”

Hadassah, also known as Ada, and her family were from Sosnowiec, Poland, where she was a dentist. The Nazis deported them to Auschwitz-Birkenau in August 1943.

Menachem says: “Upon her arrival, she was separated from her parents, her husband and her son, who were all sent directly into one of the gas chambers.”

Hadassah spoke of that terrible final moment with her son in her memoirs – Yesterday, My Story. She wrote: “One SS man started the selection. With a movement of his finger, he was sending some to the right and some to the left. Our son went with his father. He asked, ‘Mummy, are we going to live or die?’. I didn’t answer.”

Menachem recalls his mother’s devastation, saying: “As the Germans intended, she felt disoriented, humiliated and deprived of her sense of self.”

She could have given up then – but she was given a purpose. Due to her medical training the notorious Josef Mengele, Birkenau’s chief medical officer, chose her to work as a doctor. The camp’s infirmary simply patched up weak and injured inmates for more labour. But Hadassah used the opportunity for good.

“She would camouflage inmates’ wounds and send them out when she knew gas chamber selections were expected, so they’d avoid them,” says Menachem.

In November 1944, Mengele sent Hadassah to work at Belsen. There, she found the Nazis cared much less – but she realised she could use the desperate conditions to her advantage.

“In December, she and some other women found 49 Dutch children outside their barracks,” Menachem explains. “The parents had been taken away. So she took them in. One SS doctor said, ‘What is this?’ but my mum said, ‘We are taking care of them’. He just walked away.

“By February, they had 150 – and 149 survived until the liberation. This children’s house became a project.”

Among the children were Mala and her young cousin, Ann Helfgott. Mala and her family, who were Jews from Piotrkow Trybunalski, Poland, had been herded into a Nazi ghetto.

Her mother and sister were murdered in an SS round-up while her father was at work. Mala survived because her mother pleaded with the guard that she was ill. But her reprieve did not last long.

The guards returned and rounded up Mala, her father and brother, and Ann. They were deported to a labour camp and then to Ravensbruck concentration camp.

She never saw her father again – he was shot on a death march. Thankfully, her brother survived but she did not find out until after the war. For now, the young, scared girls were alone.

When they were sent to Bergen-Belsen in February 1945, they were close to death. On hearing of “Dr Bimko’s” children’s home, Mala took Ann there in desperation.

“At 14, I knew I was probably too old,” she admits. “The barracks were overcrowded but she made it happen. I’ll never forget her. She gave us a feeling of security, as much as you could have in that place.”

When the British liberated the camp, Hadassah stayed on and testified in the first Nazi war crimes trial. Mala married and had two children, settling in Sweden then the UK. Ann emigrated to Australia.

Hadassah and her new family eventually moved to New York, where she rarely spoke of those times or the family she had lost.

But Menachem says she did talk about her “other children” in Belsen. “She spoke about singing to them and getting food and medicine for them,” he recalls.

In 1981, at a Holocaust memorial, Mala was finally able to see her again briefly. But she says only now, through Menachem, can she express the real weight of her thanks.

After all, they share an unbreakable bond. “Because in that camp she was my mother, too,” she smiles.

For more information about the Holocaust Educational Trust visit www.het.org.uk

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Struggling for justice — name by name

Under a new Polish law that took effect in September, Holocaust survivors and their heirs who unsuccessfully tried to reclaim their property in Warsaw decades ago under the Communist-era 1945 Warsaw Decree must come forward within six months after their property is listed in a Polish newspaper. If claimants do not come forward within that period, the City of Warsaw will permanently assume ownership of the property.

In response, the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) has created a unique database to reach those claimants.

Lists of street names in the database conjure up images of a once thriving Jewish world, images tempered for the reader by the devastation that was soon to follow. Name after name of people who lived and worked in a busy city. A world that exists today in old photos and faded memories. And in this database.

The 1939/1940 Homeowners Directory for Warsaw, as its name suggests, was perhaps the final chapter of the documentation of an orderly structured society on the eve of destruction. Other directories from that period captured snapshots of the life of pre-War Warsaw — lists of properties, lawyers, dentists, phone directories, mortgage records, etc. Because of the outbreak of war, the 1939/1940 Homeowners Directory was never published. Years later it was found and painstakingly digitized by committed genealogists.

It represents the seeming solidity of a city and a vibrant community. Thirty percent of Warsaw was Jewish. It was the city with the second largest Jewish community in the world, after New York City.

Many survivors returning to Poland after the Holocaust filed claims under the 1945 Warsaw Decree. However most of those claims were either rejected or not resolved, and many survivors and their families, 70 years later, do not know that they can pursue their claims.

In June 2016, a list of 2,613 street addresses with open claims under the 1945 decree was made available by the City of Warsaw. They did not, however, publish the names of the claimants or owners of the properties — just the street addresses.

WJRO matched that list against the Homeowners Directory and other historical material leading to the possible identification of two-thirds of the owners of properties that may have open claims.

The database is a creation of diligent research, manual data entry and modern technology combined with a stubborn refusal to let history disappear.

The database will not reconstruct a devastated Jewish community. But it does offer a view into a forgotten world and it creates a dramatic new opportunity for the families of those who perished to reconnect with that lost past. And towards reclaiming that which was taken.

Scrolling down the names of streets listed in the database leads one to imagine wandering through Jewish Warsaw amidst the bustling streets. Not much remains of the pre-War buildings of Warsaw today — most were destroyed in the War. But the streets are largely the same and the plots are those on which previous generations built their lives.

Nalweki Street was at the heart of the Jewish district of Warsaw. Who was Zelko Goldberg, who according to the database, was the owner of 40 Nalweki Street — right by the synagogue at Number 41? What was his profession, who was in his family and did he or any of his family survive the Holocaust?

For some, this may be an opportunity to recover what is today valuable property and for others it will serve to renew the public effort to secure from Poland a full and complete return of property confiscated by the Nazis and the Communists — both in Warsaw and throughout Poland.

And it is a powerful reminder that the Jews who lived in Nalweki Street had real lives and families, homes and businesses. And that the struggle for historical justice is not finished.

The new WJRO Warsaw database can be found here or through www.wjro.org.il.

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70 years after the Holocaust, a Surinamese memorial for Caribbean victims

‘Not one’ expert she interviewed knew of Caribbean Jewish victims, says Jamaican author, but that didn’t stop community from raising international funds for monument

surinamejews3-965x543More than 70 years after the end of World War II, a small South American country erected its first Holocaust memorial. Over 100 Jewish names were engraved on stone in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, in March of this year — establishing the first monument to local Holocaust victims in the Caribbean region.

“Even though they were in the northern part of South America, the impact was profound — 105 Jews got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Jacob Steinberg, a gold mine professional who was instrumental in raising the funds for the monument.

Suriname lost almost a fifth of its Jewish population during the Holocaust, according to Steinberg.

Suriname was then a Dutch colony known as Dutch Guiana, and because there were no universities there, young people often went to Holland to pursue their education or advance their careers, Steinberg explained. Unknowingly, some of them found themselves stuck in the Nazi death machine.

“Aunts, uncles, cousins — they were picked up by the Nazis, and after the war they didn’t come back,” said Evelyn Stroobach, whose grandmother, Rebecca Fernandes, was a Surinamese Jew who survived the war in hiding. “There were several Fernandeses killed at Auschwitz, they may have been relatives.”

One of the victims was Stroobach’s great uncle, Abraham Samuel Fernandes, who was born in Suriname but went to work in Holland before the war. He joined the Dutch resistance, but he was caught and sent to prison, where he was tortured and killed at age 34.

“When they found out he was Jewish, he got the worst treatment,” Stroobach said.

She said her mother and grandmother survived the war by living in a non-Jewish neighborhood of Amsterdam and almost never leaving the house.

“My mother’s family refused to wear the star, they did not register, and I think that’s what saved them in the end,” Stroobach said.

For her part, Stroobach said “it’s absolutely wonderful” that a monument to Holocaust victims was finally erected in Suriname.

“Hitler said no one will remember. We have to prove Hitler wrong because we’ll always remember,” she said.

In addition to the names of the 105 Holocaust victims, the monument includes their dates of birth and death, and the names of the Nazi camps where their lives ended. Most were murdered in Auschwitz, Steinberg said.

In the course of his research, Steinberg passed on the names of 15 forgotten Surinamese Holocaust victims to the Yad Vashem museum in Israel.

The Jewish community of Suriname

Suriname’s Sephardic Jewish community dates back to the 17th century.

Portuguese and Spanish Jews moved to the area because they were allowed to own land and were given the freedom to form their own militia. They started out as planters, but later acquired sugarcane plantations and owned slaves, Steinberg said. They established communities with names like Torarica, the Jewish Savannah, and Jerusalem on the River.

“The first autonomous Jewish state, you can say, was in Suriname in the 17th century,” said Steinberg who has done extensive research on the history of the community. He said visitors to the country can still see 17th century Jewish gravestones and synagogues in the jungle.

“The Jews were the first settlers,” he said. “The Dutch farmers came to make money and go back to Holland. The Jews stayed. They came to live in a free society.”

Jews were so influential in Suriname that the country’s dialect, known as Sranan Tongo, includes words borrowed from Yiddish and Hebrew. For example, “treif” in Sranan Tongo means “bad food,” Steinberg said.

While their population numbered about 2,000 in the 18th century, Jews began to leave Suriname after the collapse of the plantation economy. Even more left after Suriname became independent from Holland in 1975, Steinberg said.

Only about 100 Jews and one synagogue remain in the country today, said Steinberg. Many are mixed and assimilated with non-Jews, he added. So much so, that a representative from the local mosque, which is right next to the synagogue, attended the dedication of the Holocaust monument.

“We have very good communication with each other,” Steinberg said. “Jews are not threatened by anyone.”

Jews from other New World countries also murdered by Nazis

Suriname was not the only Caribbean nation where the Jewish community was affected by the Holocaust.

At least 52 more Jews from the Caribbean and its extended basin were murdered in the Nazi concentration camps, including 23 people from Mexico, 19 from Cuba, 15 from Curacao, two from the Dominican Republic, and one person each from Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Thomas, The Virgin Islands, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guadeloupe, according to a new book by Diana Cooper-Clark.

The Jamaican author, who is also a professor at York University in Canada, published a book this year about the Jewish community in Jamaica, entitled “Dreams of Re-Creation in Jamaica.” In it, she argues that we must not forget that Jews from the Caribbean were also affected by WWII.

“People don’t know that Caribbean Jews were murdered in the Holocaust,” Cooper-Clark said. She noted that in fact “not one” of the Holocaust experts she interviewed for her book knew that Jews from that part of the world were also killed in the concentration camps.

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Wiped out ‘in the blink of an eye’: Only 35 Jews survived from a 2,000-year-old Greek community

A new film from co-producer and director duo Lawrence Russo and Larry Confino documents the WWII decimation of the Jews of Kastoria

allegraconfinocaleveliaou-2-e1480017017376-965x543LOS ANGELES — For the descendants of the Sephardic Jewish community of the idyllic town of Kastoria, Greece, the northern region of West Macedonia inspires memories of picturesque limestone mountains, Byzantine churches, Ottoman architecture, and thriving fur and fishing economies.

It’s a land that has traded hands many times — Norman, Greek, Bulgarian, Byzantine Turkish. In fact, so diverse was this town that it attracted many different ethnic groups, including Jews.

However, during World War II, the previously quiet community, a home for the distinctive Romaniote Jews who settled there 2,000 years before, was extensively damaged and the Jewish population nearly wiped out. Just 35 of the original population survived; it had originally numbered at 900.

A new documentary, “Trezoros: The Lost Jews of Kastoria,” chronicles the history of that Sephardic community and documents the destruction of a minority population — one of many communities that had existed in Greece prior to WWII.

In October 1940, Greece was invaded by Axis forces. Initially, under Italian occupation, the Jewish community remained safe. But after Mussolini fell from power, the Nazis seized control of the town, and 763 Kastorian Jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Through never-before-seen archival footage, executive producer and director Lawrence Russo and co-director and producer Larry Confino tell the story of a vibrant community that has slowly faded from the consciousness of so many around the world — Jews and non-Jews alike. For the filmmakers, the story is personal, as their families have direct ties to Greece.

“We want the film to educate people,” said Confino. “We want people to feel something, so they feel the sense of loss. There’s a treasure trove of elderly people in my house. There are people that we take for granted. I would hope this film encourages people to gather their oral histories. They may not make a film, but it’s important to know where you come from and know your history.”

“Trezoros: The Lost Jews of Kastoria” is told by Jewish survivors of Kastoria, with interviews filmed on location in Kastoria, Thessaloniki, Athens, Tzur Moshe, Tel Aviv, Miami, Los Angeles, and New York. (“Trezoros” is a Ladino term of endearment meaning “Treasures.”)

This is no amateur documentary: Director Russo co-founded the independent studio The Shooting Gallery (“Laws of Gravity,” “Sling Blade”) and directed the Emmy nominated PBS short film showcase “ShortCuts.” Confino is the founder of Synapse Productions and executive director of ImageRescue, Inc.

Based in New York for over 25 years, Confino has produced documentaries and commercial projects on a multitude of subjects for production companies around the world.

In advance of the film’s release, Russo and Confino sat down in Los Angeles with The Times of Israel.

What do you hope to achieve with this documentary?

Russo: We want to bring awareness that there were Jews in Greece. Not only were they there, but they had been part of some of the oldest communities in the world. In almost the blink of an eye during WWII, that was taken away.

Why cover this issue now and what makes it deserving of a documentary?

Confino: We felt a sense of honor to tell the story, along with a sense of responsibility. If we don’t capture it now, when will be able to? We prepared to interview any of the 35 who survived. A couple of people didn’t want to talk about what happened to them, but most of them did. We really needed to capture the oral histories.

How did you fill in missing details that the survivors could not help with?

Confino: At a certain point, we realized that there were certain facets of the story that weren’t there. We were lucky enough to meet a gentleman from Kastoria. He introduced us to Greek Orthodox people who were children at the time, but still had some vivid memories.

Your mother, Lena Russo, is an important part of this documentary and tells much of the story. How did your parents’ experience persuade you to work on this film?

Russo: I grew up with most of those stories. As a kid, I always wondered why I didn’t have grandparents. As I got old and learned about the history, it made an impact. I felt a responsibility to tell their stories. In 1996, there was a monument dedication to the Jews who were killed in WWII, as depicted in the film. At that point, I got together with some of the survivors and realized there’s something here to make a documentary.

Can you tell us about the personal connection you have to the town of Kastoria?

Confino: In the documentary, you see the Confino store. That belonged to my great-grand uncle. My great-grandfather’s brother stayed in the town — some of the Confino family came to the United States, but many stayed. Literally everyone in my family who stayed was lost in the Holocaust.

How did you go about locating survivors? How long did that process take?

Russo: Two of the 35 survivors were my parents. Two more are my uncle and aunt. These are a rare group of people who survived experiences during the war in Greece. They knew everyone else who was alive because they kept in touch.

Do you have plans to partner with any Jewish and Holocaust remembrance museums?

Confino: We realize we’re capturing a portion of WWII history that needs to be seen by the general public. It’s a corner of the Holocaust that should be seen. We’re hoping for partnerships. We’re getting requests from the town of Kastoria to incorporate it into the history curriculum in high schools. This outreach is part of our main objectives. We will also be screening it in Tzur Moshe in Israel, which, as the story goes but needs to be verified, is named in honor of a Kastoria resident.

What were the survivors like?

Confino: The takeaway from meeting them, across the board, is their incredible mental strength. These are people who were determined to survive and are very inspirational. The two sisters, Hanna Kamhi Saady and Solika Kahmi Elias, live down in Florida. You can make a film just about them — about any of these people.

What about other people interviewed for background, such as members of the Christian community?

Confino: Interestingly, we found some of them in the United States only after going to Kastoria. We had to go to Greece to find out about this guy who lives in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. He had a very vivid memory of his childhood. One of the things he told us was that he witnessed how the Nazis rounded up people in the Jewish community. He was in his backyard, and he describes it as an eyewitness. Even though he hadn’t lived there in 50 years, he had very vivid memories of that time.

We found another in Jackson Heights in Queens, New York, and wouldn’t have known about him had we not gone to Greece. Ultimately, it took four trips to Greece to arrange for interviews, film shooting, and more.

Do you see any parallels with what has happened to the Jews during WWII and the conflicts of today that have put communities like the Yazidis in Iraq and others at risk?

Russo: Unfortunately, genocide is an ongoing thing. There is always some part of the world where people are trying to oppress a group of people based on their ethnic background. As far as the film states anything, it’s a reflection of one of the larger examples of genocide.

How do you educate your kids about this topic?

Confino: In the case of this project, I felt like my kids were a little too young to know what I was working on in the beginning. I consciously didn’t involve them. My kids have only seen the film recently. There’s a certain amount of pride in where I come from. That’s something I hope to pass along to my kids. If the Holocaust had not occurred, we’d be traveling back to Greece to visit relatives. Instead, we’re doing what we can to preserve the memories of victims.

The film will run in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall from November 25 to December 1, 2016. Visit www.trezoros.com about upcoming dates in other cities.

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Mournful Ukraine marks 75 years since Babi Yar massacre

President tells ceremony in Kiev that country cannot forget 1941 slaying of 34,000 Jews by Nazis, aided by locals, at edge of ravin

ukrain-presKIEV — Ukraine on Thursday marked the 75th anniversary of the single largest single mass shooting by Nazi forces during the Holocaust in a somber ceremony attended by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and other world leaders.

The massacre of nearly 34,000 Jews on September 29-30, 1941 in Kiev’s Babi Yar ravine was unprecedented in its scope — even for Nazi Germany’s notoriously brutal genocide of European Jewry — and has been a source of controversy over the participation of local Ukrainian collaborators in the mass killing.

At the ceremony, Poroshenko addressed the sensitive issue, saying “there have been those [in Ukraine] for which one felt shame. And this, too, cannot be erased from our collective memory.

“No Ukrainian has the right to forget this tragedy,” he said.

Earlier, Poroshenko tweeted that “we Ukrainians very well understand the grief of the Jews and take it as our own.”

German President Joachim Gauck told the thousands gathered at the site on Thursday evening that the Nazis “even used nationalist Ukrainians as assistant police.”

“But we also admit that not only special fences [of death camps], but ordinary Wehrmacht [soldiers] were involved in these crimes,” Gauck said. “Germans have to approach the Babi Yar massacres with unspeakable guilt.”

In his address, World Jewish Congress chief Robert Singer also urged for “all the countries involved, not just Ukraine, (to) take responsibility for their actions during that dark time.”

Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin was in Ukraine earlier in the week to attend a number of memorial events, but cut short his visit to attend the funeral of his predecessor Shimon Peres. Poroshenko himself will travel to Israel to attend Friday’s funeral of Peres.

Rivlin’s ‘undiplomatic’ comments


Rivlin, before leaving Ukraine, drew criticism for making “undiplomatic” comments about Ukrainians’ role in the massacre.

Rivlin on Tuesday told lawmakers in Kiev that “many of the crimes were committed by Ukrainians” during the Holocaust. “They victimized the Jews, killed them, and in many cases reported them to the Nazis,” he said at the Ukrainian parliament.

In September 1941, as Hitler’s forces advanced toward Moscow on the eastern front, 33,771 Jews were gunned down over the course of just two days. Along with locally recruited Ukrainian policemen, SS troops brought Jewish men, women and children to the Babi Yar ravine where they forced to strip naked and lined up at the edge of the ravine and shot in the back.

Just 29 people managed to escape the execution by either falling into the mass grave before being shot or by wearing crosses to hide their identities.

“We heard the shooting behind us, but (my) granny — she kept holding me — did not look back and kept running until she fell exhausted among the graves in a nearby cemetery,” said Raisa Maistrenko, the last survivor of the tragedy still alive in Kiev.

Rivlin’s statement caused an uproar among nationalist politicians and other key figures in Ukraine.

“What Rivlin did can unambiguously be interpreted as spitting in the face of Ukrainians” at a time when the people he accused of perpetrating crimes are no longer alive to defend themselves, said Bogdan Chervak, the first deputy chairman on the State Committee for Television and Radio of Ukraine.

Rivlin also noted the actions of Ukrainian non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Israel’s Holocaust commemoration authority, Yad Vashem, has awarded 2,544 Ukrainians with the title of Righteous among the Nations for such actions. Ukraine has the fourth largest number of righteous gentiles, as they are called, after Poland, the Netherlands and France.

Poroshenko on Friday called on the international community to financially support the creation of the Holocaust memorial museum in Babi Yar.

“I urge the Ukrainian and world community to join this initiative,” he said during the presentation of the film about the massacre.

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