Category Archive: Tablet

On May 8, 1945, the Soviet military interpreter Elena Kagan was entrusted with a burgundy-colored box. Her superior in the SMERSH counterintelligence group had told her that it contained Adolf Hitler’s dentures and teeth and that she was answerable with her life for its safekeeping. On V-Day, Elena, a Jew who would have turned 100 this week, was holding a box with what remained of Hitler. “The situation in which I found myself was odd, unreal,” she later wrote in her book, Memoirs of a Wartime Interpreter. “God Almighty, is this happening to me? Is this me standing here at the moment Germany surrenders, with a box in my hands containing the indisputable remnants of Adolf Hitler?!” It would take her a lifetime to fully grasp this moment, and its consequences.

The charred remains of Hitler and Eva Braun were unearthed in Berlin on May 4: A soldier found them in a bomb crater in the Reich Chancellery garden. The remains were unrecognizable and were reburied. On May 5, after a series of interrogations, which yielded testimony about Hitler’s suicide, the bodies were uncovered and an official document was drawn up. Elena was there to witness: “On a grey blanket, contorted by fire, lay black, hideous human remains, caked with lumps of mud.” The moment left her emotionally unaffected, unlike the recent sight of Goebbels’ dead children, which haunted her: The youngest girl, Heidrun, seemed to be the same age as her own daughter.

Kagan’s counterintelligence unit attached to the 3rd Shock Army was assigned to hunt for Hitler, a search conducted in deep secrecy. In late April, as the battle for Berlin was nearing the end, Elena interpreted prisoner interrogations in the basement of a house near the Potsdamer Platz. “We were interested in just one thing: where was Hitler?” Unknown to them at the time, on April 30, in the Führerbunker underneath the Chancellery, Hitler and Eva Braun had committed suicide. Elena would recall the center of Berlin ablaze, “the collapsing walls of burnt-out buildings,” and unbreathable air, “acrid and opaque from the fumes and stone dust.” It was her fourth year at the front where she volunteered at 21, leaving behind her baby daughter.

In 1941, after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, the Red Army desperately needed interpreters. Elena had enrolled in a military translation course where her excellent command of German was noticed (Karl Liebknecht’s widow, Sophie, was among her teachers). Offered a posting in Moscow with the general staff, Elena refused, choosing the front lines. In January 1942 she was deployed to the environs of Rzhev, the ancient city 132 miles northwest of Moscow, and the site of ferocious battles. The Germans called Rzhev, standing at a junction of major railways and highways, “the springboard” for a leap to Moscow. In turn, Stalin demanded that the city be liberated “at any cost.”

Lasting 17 months, the battles for Rzhev and surrounding regions were some of the bloodiest in the war: The Red Army suffered incalculable losses. Yet, these battles did not even enter Soviet history books. After the war Elena campaigned for official recognition of Rzhev’s heroic and tragic role in defending Moscow and took the pen name Rzhevskaya.

In Poland Elena’s superior in the counterintelligence unit, Major Boris Bystrov, had proclaimed: “When we enter Germany I am going to capture Goebbels.” On May 2, 1945, she was astounded to see Major Bystrov and two other officers in Berlin discovering Goebbels’ remains. Goebbels’ charred body was put on display in front of the Reich Chancellery. Recognizable for its metal prosthesis and orthopedic boot, Goebbels’ body “symbolized the collapse of the Third Reich,” Elena writes. His yellow tie, which somehow survived the fire, seemed emblematic of the yellow star Goebbels invented to identify Jews.

Stalin was displeased that the discovery of Goebbels’ remains was publicized. The search for Hitler, he decreed, would proceed in strict secrecy. Elena’s counterintelligence unit was downsized to three: Colonel Vasily Gorbushin (in charge of the search), Major Bystrov, and the translator. They were prohibited all contact with the press and photographers.

Elena (second from left) at the front, May 30, 1943 (Photo courtesy Lyuba Summ)

On May 2 the Russian assault detachments of the 5th Shock Army broke into the Reich Chancellery. Elena’s group was ordered to inspect the Chancellery and the Führerbunker. During heavy bombardment artillery shells had been hitting the Chancellery, some landing on the bunker’s roof and cutting its electricity; the place was dark and stuffy. Elena recalls: “There were overturned tables, broken typewriters, glass and paper underfoot.” Working by the light of oil lamps, she sorted through documents, hoping to find clues about Hitler. There was Bormann’s correspondence, Hitler’s personal papers, and Goebbels’ diary—the notebooks dated from 1932 to July 8, 1941. She read the papers in the halls of the Chancellery. Focused on her immediate task, Elena could only skim through Goebbels’ diary before dispatching it to the front headquarters with her notes. In 1964, while researching her memoir, she would read this diary at the Council of Ministers Archive.

After the liberation of the Reich Chancellery Soviet war correspondents streamed into the Führerbunker, emerging with souvenirs. By May 5 Colonel General Nikolay Berzarin, the commander of the 5th Shock Army that liberated the Chancellery, put the place under guard. Elena’s counterintelligence group of the rival 3rd Shock Army had to smuggle out the presumed remains of Hitler and Eva Braun. On May 6, at the crack of dawn, the bodies were carried over the fence of the Chancellery garden and loaded onto a waiting truck. In Buch, on Berlin’s outskirts, a commission of medical experts and pathologists, headed by the principal forensic medical specialist of the 1st Belorussian Front, Lieutenant Colonel Faust Shkaravsky, conducted a series of autopsies. In 1936, in Buch, the first racial evaluations had been performed on Hitler’s orders. On May 8, 1945, Soviet forensic experts examined Hitler’s remains.

A Jewish female doctor, Anna Marants, a medical service major, performed the dissection. (A native of Kyiv, Marants was acting principal pathologist of the 1st Belorussian Front; after the war she worked in Kyiv’s hospitals.) The Soviet forensic pathologists were forbidden to take photographs, but on May 9, during the autopsy on Goebbels’ body, Doctor Shkaravsky photographed the medical experts in the examining room.

Because Hitler’s remains were badly burned, the teeth, with abundant bridgework, crowns, and fillings, presented the most important anatomic means of identification. Hitler’s gold bridge and lower jaw were placed in a box and handed over to Colonel Gorbushin who gave it to Elena, deemed the most reliable in their group of three. (Earlier, in Poznań, “a bulky, reinforced coffer” with gold items was brought from a bank to Elena’s bedroom. The gold was to be dispatched in sealed bags to Moscow; in the meantime it was emptied into a compartment underneath her sofa. “I was trusted. So in Poznań I slept on a hoard of gold,” she remarks.)

On May 8, driving through a devastated Berlin, they located Hitler’s laryngologist, Dr. Carl von Eicken, the head of the Charité university clinic. The professor had last treated Hitler in 1944; he said Lev Trotsky also had been his patient. A dentistry student in this clinic helped in the search for Hitler’s dentist, Dr. Hugo Blaschke, who by then had fled Berlin; working in his clinic was Dr. Bruck, a Jewish dentist recently emerged from hiding. His former student, Käthe Heusermann, had been Dr. Blaschke’s dental assistant. She had attended Hitler—and helped hide her Jewish teacher from the Nazis. Heusermann received her rations at the Reich Chancellery, sharing them with Dr. Bruck.

Heusermann was a tall, blond, attractive woman of 35. As part of Hitler’s entourage she had much to fear; however, she had refused Dr. Blaschke’s offer to evacuate. As she explained to Elena, her fiancé was in Norway and she was afraid to lose touch with him if she left Berlin. She had been working for Dr. Blaschke since 1937 and had assisted in extracting Hitler’s teeth.

Heusermann was interrogated several times and at great length. She was the only person on hand who knew the distinctive features of Hitler’s teeth. Elena writes, “I asked her not to give the teeth their specialist names—incisor, canine, and so on, for fear I might not correlate the German and Russian terms correctly. Instead she simply gave them numbers.” Heusermann’s account coincided with the autopsy report. She also helped locate Hitler’s dental records and X-rays, having guessed correctly that they were kept at the Führerbunker. Hitler’s dental records were found in the box room, surprisingly intact, given the general chaos of the bunker where Russian soldiers were partying.

On May 11 Dr. Shkaravsky, who had been in charge of the autopsies, interviewed Heusermann in Buch. This time she drew a diagram of Hitler’s teeth, commenting on every detail. She said Dr. Blaschke’s dental technician, Fritz Echtmann, could confirm her report. Echtmann examined Hitler’s and Eva Braun’s dentures. He recognized his work and said that Braun’s bridge was his invention: “I did not make such a bridge for anyone else …”

The investigation was nearing the end when a member of Hitler’s bodyguard, Harry Mengershausen, was captured. He had observed Hitler’s and Braun’s cremation and burial. Mengershausen and his interrogators sat on logs in the Chancellery garden while Elena translated. When Mengershausen pointed out the burial site, irrefutable evidence of Hitler’s death was obtained.

“I was confident,” Elena writes in her memoir, “that within another day or two the whole world would know we had found Hitler’s body.” But Pravda, the major Soviet publication, printed accounts of Hitler’s escape, and the Red Army was urged to hunt for Hitler. “It was a deceitful charade, a weird attempt to disguise the fact that his body had been found,” Elena remarks.

Stalin, informed of the investigation results, sent his representative to Berlin to personally verify the reports. Around May 23 Lieutenant General Alexander Vadis, head of counterintelligence SMERSH of the 1st Belorussian Front, launched a new round of interrogations. Käthe Heusermann and Fritz Echtmann, free until then, were detained. Elena, as a translator, was warned of her potential liability: Everything concerning the investigation of Hitler’s death was a Soviet state secret and the punishment for disclosing it was up to 15 years in the gulag. Lieutenant General Vadis compiled a dossier for Stalin, which was sent to Moscow along with material evidence: Hitler’s dentures and teeth. From Berlin, Vadis’ reports went to Lavrenty Beria, head of the NKVD.

Elena’s superior, Colonel Gorbushin, was summoned to Moscow where Victor Abakumov, the head of SMERSH of the USSR Commissariat of Defense, told him: “Comrade Stalin has familiarized himself with the entire course of events and the documents relating to the discovery of Hitler. …  He considers the matter closed. At the same time, Comrade Stalin said, ‘But we shall not make this public.’”


On Nov. 1, 1965, Kagan, now Elena Rzhevskaya, received a phone call from Marshal Georgy Zhukov. During World War II the distance between Zhukov, the commander in chief of the Soviet army and Stalin’s deputy, and Elena, then a rank-and-file translator, was immense. Now aged 69, demoted after the war by Stalin and later by Nikita Khrushchev, Marshal Zhukov lived in obscurity, receiving no one.

His meeting with Elena was an exception. Despite his proximity to Stalin Zhukov had not been informed about Hitler’s death, obtaining the first definite confirmation from Elena’s book. Unfathomable to her, even the glorious marshal who had accepted Germany’s surrender in Berlin was kept unaware that Hitler’s body had been found and identified. After the war Stalin had pressed Marshal Zhukov, “Where is Hitler?”

By then, Stalin had received ample factual evidence of Hitler’s death, yet  he denied this knowledge to the world. So, it fell to Elena to disclose the secret of the century. First published in Moscow in 1965, her memoir became widely translated (although not into English) and sold 1.5 million copies. The English translation of an expanded version of her book appeared in 2018.

Käthe Heusermann and Fritz Echtmann (sitting on the ground) with Soviet officers  (Photo courtesy Lyuba Summ)

Elena struggled for answers as to why Stalin suppressed information about Hitler’s death. Stalin’s “inscrutable personality” and his “ambiguous attitude towards Hitler” were some of her best clues. In 1965, Marshal Zhukov would tell her the obvious: “Stalin had no sense of responsibility to the historical record …”

Before returning to her army unit stationed in the German town of Stendal, Elena had visited Käthe Heusermann and Fritz Echtmann at the front headquarters and was allowed to take Heusermann for a walk. They chatted about things they would do together upon her release. “I liked everything about her. … Käthe was just somebody people liked.” She would not see Heusermann again. Two decades later, from an archival document, Elena would learn her fate and that of Echtmann.

When in October 1945 Elena was leaving Germany, Major Bystrov told her: “There were three of us at every stage of this Hitler saga. Of those three, you are the only one who can write about it.” Elena was a future writer, having studied literature before the war; two others were intelligence officers. She left Germany on board Zhukov’s Douglas cargo plane, which was returning to Moscow.

During the postwar decade, when Stalin launched his campaign against the Jews, Elena witnessed arrests in the Jewish community. In January 1948, Solomon Mikhoels was killed on Stalin’s orders. Elena was in the stream of mourners going past the great actor’s coffin in the Jewish State Theater. Mikhoels’ theater, which she had frequented, was shut down the following year. Like other Soviet Jews at the time Elena was denied employment. She also faced an additional fear—she was one of the three witnesses of Adolf Hitler’s postmortem. Nonetheless, she recorded information about the search for Hitler.

In 1954, one year after Stalin’s death, she took her memoir to Znamya literary magazine, which published war journalism and prose. The editor, afraid to be the first to publish an account about the discovery and identification of Hitler’s remains, printed her memoir, but without this vital part. In 1961 Elena outwitted her editors and included the story establishing Hitler’s death in her book Spring in a Greatcoat, a collection of her previously published novellas. Her editors failed to spot the new material.

In September 1964, after years of trying, she received access to the documents she had been translating in Berlin two decades earlier. Some bore her signature as a military translator; others were new to her. Thus, she came upon a folder containing the 1945 “delivery notes for items the staff at front headquarters were sending to the SMERSH directory in Moscow.” Two of Hitler’s tunics and a cap were being forwarded to Moscow along with two other “items”—K. Heusermann and F. Echtmann. This brief inhumane reference spelled out their fate. “I just sat there dejected, switched off,” Elena writes. “I just had to live with it, another secret.”

Much later, Elena read Heusermann’s unpublished memoir about her imprisonment in Russia, which she received from Lev Bezymensky, a fellow wartime interpreter and writer who had interviewed Heusermann in Düsseldorf. Before being charged she spent six months in the Lubyanka Prison, then six years in solitary confinement in Lefortovo. In November 1951 Heusermann and Echtmann (among others) were condemned by resolution of the Special Council of the Ministry of Internal Affairs “as witnesses of Hitler’s death.”

In December Heusermann was dispatched in a cattle car to a labor camp in Taishet, southeastern Siberia, where, unable to fulfil her labor quota and put on a penal ration, she became emaciated. She was saved by a woman, a Carpathian Jew, who shared her food parcels with her.

The end of Heusermann’s term, in 1955, coincided with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s visit to the USSR; he agreed with Khrushchev about the return of German prisoners. Flown to Moscow, placed in a well-furnished cottage in the countryside, Heusermann was taken on a sightseeing tour of Moscow—before being dispatched to Berlin in a first-class sleeping compartment. She was 45 when she returned. Her fiancé was long married and raising a family. Heusermann settled in Düsseldorf and worked for a while in dental practice. In the mid-1960s she and Echtmann testified in Germany that they had identified Hitler’s body from his teeth. Elena learned this from articles in Shtern and Die Welt.

After publication of her book Berlin, May 1945 Elena repeatedly traveled to Germany. When offered to meet Heusermann, she refused. “What could I say to her?” she writes. “I had been spared, but had evidently myself come within a whisker of her fate.” Heusermann had paid a terrible price for helping the Soviet investigation. In Memoirs of a Wartime Interpreter where she first included Heusermann’s story, Elena writes: “That burden of guilt will never leave me.”

A brief afterword: In 1986 my father, the writer Grigory Baklanov (Friedman), published Elena Rzhevskaya’s account of her meeting with Marshal Zhukov in the literary magazine Znamya, which he edited. He was able to prevail over censors who wanted to suppress Zhukov’s negative remarks about Stalin.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s death. Recent years have seen a renewed scholarly interest in Eisenhower, particularly as the increasingly bitter partisanship of modern politics helps foster nostalgia for his more collegial style of leadership.

For many Jews, however, Eisenhower’s presidential legacy is marred by his appointment of the anti-Semitic John Foster Dulles as secretary of State, and his administration’s subsequent skepticism toward Zionism and sometimes tenuous relationship with the young state of Israel. Indeed, as Michael Doran argues in his excellent history of Eisenhower’s foreign policy in the Middle East, Ike’s Gamble, the president saw Israel as a liability and decisively sided with Egyptian strongman Gamel Abdel Nasser against Israel, Britain, and France during the 1956 Suez Crisis. Today, Eisenhower’s failed attempt to be a neutral broker in the Middle East is portrayed by some as a role model for a U.S. foreign policy toward the region not “beholden” to “Israeli interests.”

Yet it would be a mistake to define Eisenhower’s relationship with the Jews strictly by his Administration’s failed realpolitik. As commander in chief of the Allied Forces in Europe, Eisenhower was the primary driver behind the memorialization of the Holocaust; he ordered extraordinary measures to ensure the well-being of Jewish displaced persons during the occupation of Germany; and, following David Ben-Gurion’s recommendation, he established a “temporary haven” in the American Zone of Occupation for persecuted Jews from Eastern and Central Europe—a policy that both the Soviets and the British strongly opposed.

There was little about Eisenhower’s upbringing or his professional milieu that suggested he would develop any special empathy for the Jewish people. Although he was born in Denison, Texas, in 1890, two years later Eisenhower’s family returned to Abilene, Kansas, where he and his five brothers (a sixth died in infancy) were raised. The closest Jewish congregation to Abilene appears to have been in Topeka, 90 miles away. Consequently, Eisenhower had virtually no firsthand knowledge of Jews or Judaism. He once told Abba Eban that as a boy he did not think there were any Jews on earth, that they were “all in heaven as angels.”

Although the Eisenhowers steeped their sons in Bible studies, they did so in a somewhat esoteric fashion. Disconsolate after the death of Ike’s infant brother Paul in 1895, David and Ida Eisenhower left the Mennonite River Brethren Church and became devoted Jehovah’s Witnesses, then known as the Bible Students or the Watchtower Society. Local adherents of this faith met at the Eisenhowers’ home every Sunday and taught that all other churches were not pleasing to God. The second president of the Watchtower Society taught that all priests and ministers are of Satan and were leading their flocks to eternal damnation.

Yet in his memoirs, Eisenhower noted that despite her own staunch convictions, his mother “refused to try to push her beliefs on us just as she refused to modify her own.” Despite their upbringing, the Eisenhower brothers eventually abandoned most of their parents’ beliefs. Milton became a college administrator despite the religion’s condemnation of higher education; Earl served as a state legislator contrary to the group’s prohibition against working in civil government. Dwight Eisenhower strayed the furthest, becoming a military officer despite the sect’s strict pacifism. Younger brother Milton, then president of Penn State, wrote to Ike in 1942:

I was at a cocktail party … in Washington given by one of those real old dowagers. She said very nicely to me, “You must come from a very nice family, young man. You have an important job here, and your brother is leading our troops abroad and I understand another brother is a banker. What a pity it is that you are Jewish.” I looked at her, sighed unhappily, and said, “Ah, Madame, what a pity it is that we are not.”

Conversely, their older brother Edgar, a successful banker, suspected Franklin Delano Roosevelt might be a Jew but was definitely a communist.

Eisenhower’s later empathy for European Jews was also surprising given the Army’s culture in the two decades prior to WWII, which was rife with institutional anti-Semitism. As historian Joseph Bendersky notes in The ‘Jewish Threat,’ the Army’s foreign intelligence liaison department was dominated by officers who eagerly spread the calumny of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Books by prominent white supremacists such as Lothrop Stoddard were mandatory reading at West Point and the Army War College. “You have to face the fact that some of our most important American newspapers are Jewish-controlled,” Harvard historian William L. Langer declared in a 1939 War College lecture. The New York Times, in particular, gave “a great deal of prominence” to “every little upset that occurs in Germany. … So that in a rather subtle way, the picture you get is that there is no good in the Germans whatever.”

Although Eisenhower never uttered such sentiments, he was certainly exposed to these prejudices, and worse. In November 1929, Eisenhower was assigned to the assistant secretary of war’s office as executive assistant to Maj. Gen. George Van Horn Moseley, the assistant secretary’s principal military adviser, under whom he served directly from 1929-1931. Moseley, one of the country’s most decorated soldiers, called Eisenhower “my brainy assistant” and recorded his appreciation in his subordinate’s efficiency reports. He later wrote to Eisenhower: “You possess one of those exceptional minds which enables you to assemble and to analyze a set of facts, always drawing sound conclusions and, equally important, you have the ability to express those conclusions in clear and convincing form. Many officers can take the first two steps of a problem, but few have your ability of expression.”

Yet even in an organization notorious for its social conservatism, Moseley was exceptional in his racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism. After serving as the Army’s deputy chief of staff and a corps area commander, Moseley retired in 1938 and became a bitter critic of FDR and the New Deal. He saw the possibility of war with Germany as a conspiracy launched by the great investment banks, which in his view were controlled by Jews. In an unpublished memoir, he wrote: “If we are to re-establish our Christian Republic as it was founded, we must defeat the Jewish plan in their effort to kill off their Gentile competitors.” Moseley ultimately came to believe that the Jews of Europe “were receiving their just punishment for the crucifixion of Christ.”

Eisenhower was aware of Moseley’s bigotry, noting in a September 1940 letter to Mark Clark that “in spite of his retired activities [Moseley] was a shrewd judge of officers.” Although Ike disapproved of Moseley’s extremism, he nevertheless maintained a correspondence, writing Moseley in August 1941: “You cannot know how much I appreciate the good wishes you send me—and I constantly recall my association with you as a very wonderful personal opportunity, and your good opinion means a lot to me.”

Yet despite these potentially pernicious influences, from 1938-1945 Eisenhower showed a remarkable personal empathy toward the plight of European Jewry. While serving in the Philippines with Gen. Douglas MacArthur in a failed attempt to build a Philippine army from scratch, Eisenhower played in a regular poker game that included Philippine President Manuel Quezon, and Alex and Phillip Frieder, two American Jewish brothers who owned a cigar factory in Manila. Manila was home to a large Jewish community, as the Philippine government permitted 1,300 European Jews with the required skills as teachers, professors, doctors, and lawyers fleeing Hitler’s oppression and unable to emigrate to the United States to enter on a selective basis. Having heard Eisenhower’s vehement arguments with Spanish supporters of Hitler in Manila, the Frieders offered the young colonel a job on behalf of the Jewish Relief Committee of Manila resettling German Jews in Asia. They offered him $60,000 a year—six times his current Army salary, and roughly $2 million in today’s dollars—for a minimum of five years. Although Eisenhower sympathized with the refugees’ plight, another war clearly loomed on the horizon. As he noted in his memoirs, “I had become so committed to my profession that I declined.” Upon leaving the Philippines in December 1939—mostly to get out from under MacArthur’s increasingly toxic leadership—Eisenhower began the rapid rise that culminated with being appointed commander of the European Theater of Operations in 1942.

Jewish critics of Eisenhower often cite two controversial decisions he made as a general during WWII: the deal he made with Vichy French commander Jean Darlan during Operation Torch that left various anti-Semitic ordinances in place during the Allied occupation of North Africa; and the Allied decision not to bomb the train lines to Auschwitz in July 1944. Although in the case of whether or not to bomb the concentration camps the actual decision was made echelons above him, Eisenhower made the deal with the despicable French general in order to avoid having to fight French forces along with the Wehrmacht in northern Africa or alienating the Arab population in such a way that would negatively affect an already difficult military campaign. In both cases, it was military exigencies—whether right or wrong in the bigger picture—that were determinative to Eisenhower at a time when the conflict’s outcome was far from certain.

On April 12, 1945, however, with the Wehrmacht in full retreat and Allied forces pouring into Germany, Eisenhower visited the recently liberated Ohrdruf-Nord concentration camp near Gotha with generals Omar Bradley and George Patton. In an effort to eliminate witnesses to their crimes, the SS guards had murdered 4,000 prisoners before fleeing. The surviving prisoners were emaciated skeletons, and bodies were piled everywhere, some having been set ablaze in makeshift funeral pyres. The stench was indescribable, and even Patton, no shrinking violent when it came to the carnage of battle, excused himself and vomited against the side of a building. Eisenhower called the atrocities “beyond the American mind to comprehend,” and ordered every American unit not on the frontlines to see Ohrdruf. The next day he visited Buchenwald and sent a cable to George Marshall urging the Army chief of staff to come to Germany to see for himself. “I made the visit deliberately,” he told his boss, “in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’”

Eisenhower wrote to the governments in Washington and London urging that newspaper editors and representatives of all political parties be sent to Germany immediately so that evidence of Nazi atrocities could be placed before the British and American publics in a way that would leave no room for doubt. This began the process of documenting the Shoah that proved instrumental to both the prosecution of Nazi war crimes and gaining international sympathy critical to the eventual support for the creation of the State of Israel.

After Germany’s surrender in May 1945, more than 8 million displaced persons (DPs) wandered through Europe. By the end of the summer all but roughly 600,000 had been repatriated, including about 100,000 German and East European Jews who had survived the extermination camps. The U.S. Army, together with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, assumed responsibility for the remaining DPs and had to establish camps, register and process individuals, and provide food, shelter, clothing and medical care. Because of a lack of facilities, the military detained many of the European Jews in or near the concentration camps where they had been imprisoned. Moreover, the Army made the mistake of classifying Jewish DPs by their nationality rather than as a separate group, so that German and Italian Jews were labeled former “enemy nationals” and often housed with former concentration camp guards.

When Earl Harrison led a State Department investigation into the conditions in European refugee camps, he found the Jews lived “amid crowded, frequently unsanitary and generally grim conditions in complete idleness.” Moreover, the report concluded: “As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them. They are in concentration camps in large numbers under our military guard instead of S.S. troops.”

As supreme commander, Eisenhower undoubtedly bears some responsibility for this debacle. Yet whereas Bendersky implies the Army’s neglect was due to latent anti-Semitism, it must also be remembered that there was simply no precedent for a humanitarian mission of this scale in 1945. Moreover, because the Roosevelt administration had repeatedly vacillated as to what Allied policy toward postwar Germany would be, the military operated under the only approved operational document, JCS 1067, which provided little to no guidance as to how to handle so many DPs, particularly those as persecuted and traumatized as the Holocaust’s survivors.

Once Eisenhower was made aware of Harrison’s findings, he acted quickly. He toured the DP camps, which Rabbi Judah Nadich, who worked at one such camp, said “proved to be the single greatest factor to date in boosting the morale of the displaced persons. They knew now that they were not forgotten people.” Eisenhower issued a series of directives aimed at improving their conditions. Subordinates were told to segregate Jewish refugees, requisition housing for them even if it meant displacing Germans, and to increase their daily rations to 2,500 calories, twice that of German civilians. One American observer, Harvey D. Gibson, president of Manufacturers Trust Co., toured the revamped areas in October 1945 and reported that conditions were “much-improved.”

Eisenhower also reversed his initial position and requested that somebody be appointed to serve as a special adviser on affairs dealing with displaced Jews, and in October Judge Simon Rifkind was given the position. (Indeed, Eisenhower cabled Secretary of War Henry Stimson with this request on Aug. 10, 1945, a month before President Harry Truman’s letter ordering the general to address the Harrison Report’s findings.) Eisenhower subsequently promised Rifkind “Anything you need in the way of personnel or transport, or in any other type of assistance.” Rabbi Nadich, who later served as an adviser to Eisenhower, recalled that Eisenhower’s treatment of the Jews was consistently “marked by understanding and sympathy.”

Eisenhower was also sympathetic to Harrison Report findings that contradicted Allied policy. One challenge in maintaining the DP camps was that the number of people they had to accommodate kept rising as Jews who had returned to their former homes in Poland, Romania, and other areas of Eastern Europe were forced to flee again in the face of postwar pogroms. Whereas the British and Soviets denied these refugees entry into their zones of occupation, the U.S. Army let them into the American zone. Consequently, Nadich stated that Eisenhower saved the “lives not only of the Jews in the DP camps,” but also of the “approximately 80,000 Jews … who came in across the borders from Eastern Europe.”

Once in the American zone, Harrison found that most of the Jews wanted to go to Palestine, and recommended that 100,000 Jews be quickly allowed to emigrate there. The British still held the mandate, however, and strenuously opposed the policy. Although Eisenhower was unable to alter this fact, he allowed David Ben-Gurion and other representatives of the Jewish Agency to visit the camps and establish contact with the Jewish DPs that enabled a mass exodus from the camps once Israel gained its independence.

Whereas Rabbi Nadich greatly overstates Eisenhower’s contribution by declaring that “in the annals of Jewish history the name of General Eisenhower will always be venerated as one of the great saviors in the history of the Jewish people” one need only compare Eisenhower’s empathy for the Jews to other generals to see that his reaction was extraordinary. Although arguably America’s greatest operational commander during the war, Patton’s oversight of the DP camps in Bavaria was marred by his indisputable anti-Semitism. He wrote that “Harrison and his ilk believe that the displaced person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to the Jews, who are lower than animals.” When Eisenhower visited one of the worst DP camps in Bavaria, Patton blamed the squalid conditions on the inmates themselves, who were “pissing and crapping all over the place,” and said he was thinking of building his own concentration camp “for some of these goddamn Jews.” Eisenhower told him, “Shut up, George,” and later relieved his old friend from command for Patton’s comments to the press comparing membership in the Nazi party to that of the Democratic and Republican parties. When Eisenhower met with Patton’s replacement, Gen. Lucian Truscott, he told him that the “most acute and important problems” facing the Third Army “were those involving denazification and the handling of those unfortunate persons who had been the victims of Nazi persecution.” Eisenhower told Truscott to be “stern” toward the Nazis and to give preferential treatment to Jewish DPs.

Thus, although the Eisenhower administrations paid little attention to American Jewry’s concerns in regard to Israel as it set out to enact a policy of “friendly impartiality” toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, it would be mistake to view this as the grand sum of Eisenhower’s relationship with the Jews. Indeed, as Doran points out, by 1958 President Eisenhower realized that distancing itself from Israel gained the United States precious little diplomatic traction in Arab capitals. According to his vice president, Richard Nixon, Eisenhower said that Suez was “his major foreign policy mistake,” and the former President reportedly told another acquaintance, “I never should have pressured Israel to evacuate the Sinai.”

What is indisputable is that, against both the circumstances of his upbringing and his professional/social milieu, Eisenhower developed a deep empathy for the plight of European Jewry and he repeatedly expressed that empathy through strong, consistent action. Although he might not merit inclusion in Yad Vashem’s Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, he enacted policies that saved Jewish lives and helped make Israel’s creation possible—and which few other American generals would have ordered.

The Nazi Who Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe

The surprising story of how the sixth Chabad rabbi made it out of Warsaw

When war broke out on Sept. 1, 1939, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, was staying in Otwock, a resort town outside of Warsaw where he’d established a Chabad yeshiva. The Rebbe was suffering from multiple sclerosis, he was overweight and a heavy smoker. He walked with difficulty.

The journey from Otwock to Warsaw was only 60 kilometers, but perilous. The Luftwaffe’s Stutka war planes bombed and strafed traffic and destroyed rail lines, leaving mutilated bodies and dead horses littering the road. Roadside ditches were filled with Poles hiding from the planes, which they called “death on wings.”

The Rebbe arrived in Warsaw with his family and a group of students, hoping to catch a train to Riga, Latvia, where Mordecai Dubin, a Chabad follower and member of the Latvian parliament, had arranged Latvian citizenship for the rabbi and his family. But Rabbi Schneersohn found the Warsaw train station destroyed and was forced to seek shelter among Chabad followers in the city.

“They bombed all the Jewish neighborhoods, flattened them,” said Rabbi Joseph Weinberg, then a yeshiva student in Otwock who had followed the Rebbe to Warsaw. Rabbi Schneersohn went into hiding. “He would sit in the room writing memorim(articles) and his hand would shake from the bombing.” The Rebbe was taken from apartment to apartment in the beleaguered ghetto to avoid detection by the Nazis.


At the time, Chabad was a relatively insignificant Hasidic movement with a small following. But one of its followers, Rabbi Israel Jacobson, who was in charge of a small Chabad synagogue in Brooklyn, contacted a few others in his congregation. Mounting a campaign to save the Rebbe, they hired a young Washington lobbyist named Max Rhoade to advocate their cause, billing Rabbi Schneersohn as the world’s leading Torah scholar with a huge following.

Rhoade contacted congressmen, senators, government officials, presidential advisers, and even involved Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis in the hope of finding a way to save the Rebbe. His campaign soon gathered momentum.

Cables began to fly back and forth among Riga and the United States, Poland, and Germany, while in Warsaw bombs fell and the Nazis hunted for Jewish leaders.

On Sept. 22, U.S. Sen. Robert Wagner sent a telegram to U. S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull: “Prominent New York citizens concerned about whereabouts of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, … present location unknown.”

On Sept. 26, Mordecai Dubin wrote to Rabbi Jacobson in Brooklyn: “Save lives. Rabbi and family. Try every way. Every hour more dangerous. Answer daily what accomplished.”

On the same day, Phillip Rosen, head of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s office in Europe, wrote to the U.S. representative in Riga: “Greatly interested world famous rabbi Schneersohn … now Muranowska 32 Warsaw. Urge your doing utmost to effect his protection and removal to Riga …”

On Sept. 29, a Chabad supporter, attorney Arthur Rabinovitz, wrote to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “… am turning to you for any aid you can render possibly through Ben Cohen … feel justified in troubling you by extreme danger to Schneersohn’s life and his great moral worth to world Jewry.”

At the time, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, running for his third term, was reluctant to do anything overt to help alleviate the plight of Europe’s Jews. Isolationism was in full bloom as was a powerful pro-Nazi movement in the U.S. led by Father Charles Coughlin. Coughlin, a Canadian-born Catholic priest, rabid anti-Semite and admirer of Adolf Hitler, had a weekly radio program that at its height reached an audience estimated at tens of million of listeners. Roosevelt had his own doubts about the wisdom of relocating Jews to America.

However, Rhoade would not be deterred. He badgered Justice Brandeis and Roosevelt’s adviser Ben Cohen, who in turn put pressure on men like Henry Morgenthau, then economic adviser to Roosevelt. Saving the Rebbe became a major Jewish struggle, at least on the upper rungs of the communal ladder.

Cohen recalled that U.S. diplomat Robert Pell had attended the Evian conference on refugees in France in 1938 and had made friends with the German diplomat Helmut Wohlthat. On Oct. 2, Cohen wrote to Pell, then attached to the State Department’s European Affairs division: “I am turning to you for advice. I would appreciate any assistance you might be able to render.”

Pell then contacted U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull: “(Mr. Cohen) … appealed to me because of the arrangement which I had with Wohlthat last winter. … Wohlthat had assured me that if there was any specific case in which American Jewry was particularly interested, he would do what he could to facilitate a solution.”

According to Menachem Friedman of Bar Ilan University, “His (Wohlthat’s) interest was to maintain good relations with the Americans. And the price that had to be paid for these good relations was this Rabbi from Poland. And that wasn’t a high price.”

On Oct. 3, Hull sent a telegram to the U.S. consul in Berlin:“Wohlthat … might wish to intervene with the military authorities.”

The Roosevelt administration had decided to toss the Jewish community a bone to keep them quiet, and the bone was Rabbi Schneersohn.

According to Winfried Meyer of the Berlin Technical University, and an expert on the German military, “The only force who would be able to do anything was military intelligence since Warsaw was occupied by the German military and not by a civil administration, so Wohlthat contacted Admiral Wilhelm Canaris,” head of the Abwehr, German military intelligence.

Canaris called one of his officers, Major Ernst Bloch, a highly decorated soldier, into a meeting. According to Bryan Mark Rigg, author of Rescued From the Reich, Canaris told Bloch that he had been approached by the U.S. government to locate and rescue the head of Lubavitch, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. “You’re going to go up to Warsaw and you’re going to find the most ultra-Jewish Rabbi in the world, Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak Schneersohn, and you’re going to rescue him. You can’t miss him, he looks just like Moses.”

The Roosevelt administration had decided to toss the Jewish community a bone to keep them quiet, and the bone was Rabbi Schneersohn.

Major Ernst Bloch was a career spy. He’d joined the German army at 16, been severely wounded in WWI, and stayed in the army after the war. He’d been assigned to the commercial division that spied on visiting businessmen. Bloch was also half-Jewish. His father was a Jewish physician from Berlin who, like many other German Jews in that period, had converted to Christianity. Bloch’s mother was Aryan. “It was only by chance that he was half-Jewish,” said Meyer.

“He was what they call an assimilated half-Jew,” said Bloch’s daughter, Cornelia Schockweiler, a practicing Buddhist living in Mountain View, California. “He was not religious. He did not impart any religious feeling in me at all. He was a professional soldier who spent most of his life in the military. If Canaris told him to do something he would do it, no questions asked.”

Bloch was called a michlinge by the Germans. “The term michlinge was used for mutts, dogs, crossbreeds, a horrible term,” explained Bryan Rigg. Rigg estimates that 60,000 half-Jews and 90,000 quarter-Jews served in the German armed forces during WWII.

Winfried Meyer contends that Field Marshal Hermann Goering also knew about the rescue operation of the Rebbe since Wohlthat was one of Goering‘s closest associates. “Goering’s and Canaris’ common interest was to prevent the war in Poland from escalating into a world war, hoping that Roosevelt would arrange talks between Germany and Britain in order to save peace. They were glad to do the American government a favor by rescuing Rabbi Schneersohn.”

Bloch enlisted two other soldiers from the Abwehr and traveled to German-occupied Warsaw. According to Rigg, “He would go up to ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews, wearing a Nazi uniform with swastikas, and say, ‘I’m looking for the Rebbe.’ And they’d say to him, ‘Yeah, and we want to shave off our beards and join the German army.’ Then they would walk away.”

On Oct. 24, attorney Arthur Rabinovitz again appealed to Justice Louis Brandeis: “Received cable from Latvia … Rabbi Schneersohn at … Bonifraterska 29, Warsaw.” That address was passed on to Bloch.


November was a cruel month in the Warsaw Ghetto. Jews were ordered to wear the yellow Star of David on their clothing. There was little to eat. The Rebbe and his followers were hiding out from the Nazis.

Meanwhile, Ernst Bloch was scouring Warsaw for Rabbi Schneersohn. But when Bloch and his men arrived at Bonifraterska 29 they found the building had been destroyed.

On Nov. 13, Pell communicated information from Wolhthat’s assistant to Chabad lobbyist Max Rhoade: “Building at address given was completely destroyed. Impossible to ascertain whether Rabbi Schneersohn was in the building.”

The rabbi was losing weight and his health was fading. On Nov. 14, Rhoade sent a telegram to the Red Cross in Switzerland: “German military officer detailed to locate Rabbi Joseph Issac Schneersohn … Schneersohn not apprised officer’s mission. Hope you can devise method of communicating information to Schneerson … detailing of German officer done at request of Schneersohn’s friends … urgent … take advantage opportunity.”

“A telegram arrived that the Rebbe should turn himself over to the Gestapo,” said Rabbi Weinberg. The “Gestapo” was Major Ernst Bloch.

Another telegram was sent to Poland, hoping it would reach Rabbi Schneersohn. “German Military officer detailed to locate Joseph Issac Schneersohn Bonifraterska 29, old address Muranowsa 21, and also provide him safe egress from Poland to Riga.”

With great trepidation, the Rebbe told a messenger to contact Bloch.

Rabbi Schneersohn’s grandson, the late Barry Gurary, then a teenager, was in the room when Bloch’s men arrived. “It was so overwhelming. As soon as we got to the door they rushed right in,” remembered Gurary, a retired physicist, sitting in an easy chair in his New York apartment. “There was primarily one guy, and he used every dialect of German that you could think of. During the time the soldiers were there my grandfather was calm and composed on the outside. He was a sick man and it got to him after a while. He was a very strong personality, but not very strong physically. He was exhausted.”

Barking orders, Major Bloch commandeered a truck and loaded the Rebbe and his family aboard. “Bloch had to get the Rebbe out of Warsaw. He decided the best way to do this was to take him to Berlin, to throw the SS off the track,” said Bryan Rigg. Bloch put the Rebbe and his family on a train to Berlin.

The SS, run by Reinhard Heydrich, was highly suspicious of Canaris. Heydrich wanted to absorb the Abwehr into the SS. Should Heydrich’s SS get their hands on the Rebbe before the Abwehr, arrest and death were certain.

Gurary described the harrowing escape. “We had to go through various military checkpoints. with one person who was our escort. We marveled at his way of handling things.” The Rebbe and the other 18 in his entourage were dressed as Hasidic Jews, beards, sidelocks, women in wigs and covered hair. No disguise was possible. Bloch claimed they were prisoners. And he was on a top-secret mission.

“On the train … if a conductor came over, he (Bloch) would handle the conversation. The difficulty was making sure nobody kicked us out of the compartment we were in. I remember one episode when an angry German officer came up to us and said, ‘Why are these Jews sitting in the compartment when the officers are in the corridor?’ Bloch had to do quite a bit of explaining, and he did.”

“Once in Berlin,” said Rigg, “the Rebbe and his family were taken to the Jüdische Gemeinde, the Jewish community center in the Jewish quarter. There he met the Lithuanian ambassador to Germany who provided the Rebbe and his group with Lithuanian visas. The next day Bloch escorted them to the Latvian border and bid them farewell. The group continued to Riga and waited there for visas to the United States.”

“Crossing the Latvian border sure felt good,” said Barry Gurary. “We didn’t say a word. We were very quiet.” Only after they crossed, said Gurary, did they celebrate.


On Dec. 17, just over three months after the war began, Mordecai Dubin wrote to Rabbi Jacobson in Brooklyn, “Rabbi and family arrived well Riga.”

Next came the struggle to get the Rebbe into the United States.

Again, pressure was put on the Roosevelt administration by Justice Brandeis, Ben Cohen, and others. This was opposed by Breckenridge Long, then head of the Visa Section of the State Department. Long, an anti-Semite, suspected that any immigrant from Europe was a spy.

However, political pressure prevailed. A 1921 exemption to the visa quota of immigrants from Europe was invoked by the Rebbe’s advocates to allow him into the United States. The Rebbe was granted a visa as a religious “minister” with an active congregation awaiting him in Brooklyn and a bank account with $5,000 in it. Long reluctantly granted the visa.

The Rebbe arrived in the United States by ship in 1940 to great fanfare. A similar exemption was later applied to his son-in-law, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who arrived with his wife from Marseilles in 1941.

In 2010, two Israelis applied to Yad Vashem to recognize Wilhelm Canaris as a Righteous Among the Nations for saving Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. One was Rabbi Baruch Kaminsky from Kfar Chabad, and the other was Dan Orbach, then a young scholar at Harvard.

According to Orbach, “The Abwehr, German military intelligence, was the center of anti-Nazi activity and the majority of the espionage unit, especially the head of the unit, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and his assistant Hans Oster, were members of the underground.” One of the Abwehr men, Hans Von Dohnanyi, was recognized as a righteous gentile by Yad Vashem, but not Canaris. Von Dohnanyi, Oster and Canaris were all executed by the Nazi regime before the end of the war.

Major Ernst Bloch was ousted from the Abwehr after a failed attempt on Hitler’s life that Bloch had no part in. He joined the civil guard defending Berlin against the Allies. He was killed during the fighting. When asked if she thought her father should be honored for his role in saving the Rebbe, Bloch’s daughter, who remembers being bounced on Wilhelm Canaris’ knee, said, “Should people like my father and Canaris who served in the army under Hitler, and maybe, on the side, tried to do something good, should they be recognized? I don’t know. Maybe not?”

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson went on to become the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, one of the most influential figures in the history of postwar American Judaism. As professor Menachem Friedman said, “After the war the western world was a different place. And in this world Lubavitch found a very central and important niche, so much so that if Chabad didn’t exist, someone would have had to create it.”

The Long Legacy of the Shoah in Scandinavia

Within the Northern European countries that make up Scandinavia there has been a revival of active scholarship and popular interest into the treatment of Jews during World War II. The subject is very much alive in these countries and much more so than in other parts of Europe. In recent conversations with academic colleagues in Oslo and Stockholm I learned that in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway the most talked about books of the last few years were reassessments of the role each state had played in response to Nazi rule and to the persecution and murder of Jews.

To understand why these questions have once again riveted the Scandinavian reading public we need to look to the current refugee crisis in Europe. These reassessments of Scandinavian wartime actions are inspired by a consideration of current attitudes toward migrants and refugee policies in light of how each country responded to the presence of migrants and refugees in its past: episodes which did much to shape their subsequent national mythos. Between 2015 and 2017 the three nations admitted large numbers of refugees. Sweden had the most the most liberal policy and admitted close to 160,000 people. Norway and Denmark admitted far fewer: 30,000 in Norway and 20,000 in Denmark. The countries have varied how they have responded to the refugee crisis but in all three it has precipitated a shift to the political right and the enactment of migration restrictions. This shift to the right has exacerbated existing tensions between more conservative voters and the long-established Muslim communities in each country. And it is the sum of these tensions and the ongoing political battles they inspire that have led Scandinavian intellectuals—both liberal and conservative—to look back at their country’s attitudes and behaviors during World War II.

In 1940, Norway was conquered and occupied by the Germans and ruled by a collaborationist government led by Vidkun Quisling. From 1942 onward Jews were targeted for deportation, and by war’s end half of them had been murdered.

In Denmark, the Danes surrendered to the Germans in 1940 and were able to maintain a degree of autonomy until the fall of 1943, when the German army and the SS took over the country. Thus, until the fall of 1943 the Jews were more or less protected by the Danish people and their government. As the historian David Lampe noted, “Because of Denmark’s lack of racial prejudice, the Jews considered themselves safe, and practically none tried to get to Sweden until the fatal autumn of 1943.” Remarkably, this protection extended after the 1943 SS takeover and almost all Danish Jews were saved by evacuation to Sweden.

In Sweden, the government declared neutrality—and maintained it. Jews in Sweden were safe, and they endeavored to save their fellow Jews.

Historian Lucy Dawidowicz noted in her landmark 1975 study, The War Against the Jews 1933-1945, that in the German-ruled countries where Jews came directly under the rule of the SS (Austria, Poland, Russia, the Baltic States) their fate was sealed. But: “In other countries of Europe—those allied to Germany, the so-called neutrals, and those which, though invaded and occupied by the Germans, nevertheless retained some autonomy, the fate of the Jews depended on each country’s commitment to civic equality and on its historical treatment of its Jewish population.” Dawidowicz’s observation applies directly to the Scandinavian situation in which a given nation’s “commitment to civil equality” would be determinative. Let us see how this commitment worked or didn’t work in each of our three countries.

In Norway during the first two years of Nazi rule, the roughly 1,700 Jews living in Norway suffered few privations. But soon after the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, in which the Final Solution was articulated and planned, the aktions began. In November 1942, 540 Norwegian Jews were rounded up by local police and placed on the cargo ship Donau bound for the Polish port of Stettin. They were brought to the cargo ship by train. From Stettin they were sent to Auschwitz. Of these 540 people, only nine survived the war. In subsequent months, some 800 Norwegian Jews in total—nearly half of the country’s overall Jewish population—were deported and murdered.

And what of the Norwegian resistance? A recent reevaluation of Norway’s role in the Shoah, What Did the Resistance Know?, by veteran journalist Martha Michelet, asserts that contrary to national myth and popular assumptions, some resistance leaders and fighters were indifferent to the fate of their Jewish fellow citizens. In 2018, Dagbladet, one of Norway’s major newspapers, dubbed it “the most important book of the year.”

According to Michelet, resistance leaders had news of the impending roundups and knew from German sources three months before the November 1942 aktion that Jews were to be deported. Michelet acknowledges that the resistance smuggled many Jews to safety in Sweden, but this leaves the question: What of those who were left behind, or were betrayed to the SS? Why didn’t the resistance work to save them? There is evidence that not all resistance members were committed to smuggling Jews out of the country and that some resistance leaders felt that whatever resources were available should be used to fight the German forces occupying Norway.

In Norway today, the resistance is celebrated in museums, novels, films, and history books. And any questioning of the resistance’s heroic reputation is not taken lightly. Michelet’s book challenges this consensus, and has generated considerable controversy.

According to Paul Levine, a professor of history at Uppsala University in Sweden, Norway acted like the Vichy regime in Nazi-occupied France.

“They implemented their own anti-Jewish laws, used their own manpower, confiscated property and discriminated against Jews before the Germans had demanded it,” Levine told the Reuters news agency. “Norway,” he said, “didn’t have to do what it did.”

It is only in the last few years that Norway has come to terms with its complicity in the deportation of 800 Jews. In 2012, on Europe’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Norwegian prime minister apologized for the country’s role in the Shoah and acknowledged, “Norwegians carried out the arrests, Norwegian’s drove the trucks and it happened in Norway.” In 2015 the Norwegian National Rail Company apologized for its role in the deportations.

Sweden was the only Scandinavian country that declared its neutrality, and to some extent managed to maintain it throughout the war. From 1933 onwards the relatively large community of Jewish Swedes (large relative to the other Scandinavian countries) urged their country’s government to accept refugees from German persecution. With the help of the American-financed Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Swedish Jews were very effective in this advocacy. Pontus Rudberg’s 2017 book, The Swedish Jews and the Holocaust, reveals new information about these efforts. Sweden’s Jewish community organization, which represented the nation’s 8,000-strong Jewish community, declared in 1938 that, “We will be judged in our own time and in the future by measuring the aid, that we, inhabitants of a free and fortunate country, gave to our brethren in this time of great disaster.” In the first years of the war the numbers of refugees Sweden welcomed was small. But after 1942, when the Danish and Norwegian Jews fled their home countries, almost all of them were accepted by the Swedish authorities and provided for by the Swedish government, the Jewish community and the JDC. It was the Swedish public at large, and not only its Jewish members, who welcomed the Danish and Norwegian Jews.

Rudberg addresses the claim made by some critics that the Jews of Sweden did not do enough to enable Jewish refugees to enter Sweden “because they feared that it would increase anti-Semitism in that country.” Previous research, Rudberg notes, tended to see the Swedish Jewish response to Nazi terror as “passive and overly cautious.” He refutes these claims effectively through the use of recently revealed documentary evidence, and concludes that, “in a number of ways Swedish Jews acted to aid their brethren throughout the entire period of 1933-1945.”

In Denmark the Jews were protected by the Danish government and citizenry, and later by the Swedish government and people who sheltered them. On Oct. 3, 1943, when the Gestapo sought to round up all of Denmark’s 7,000 Jews and deport them by boat to Poland, the bishop of Copenhagen issued a protest and ordered it read in every church in the country. It said:

Wherever Jews are persecuted because of their religion or race it is the duty of the Christian Church to protest against such persecution, because it is in conflict with the sense of justice inherent in the Danish people and inseparable from our Danish culture through the centuries … Our different religious views notwithstanding, we shall fight for the cause that our Jewish brothers and sisters may preserve the same freedom which we ourselves evaluate more highly than life itself.

The bishop closed his letter with this justly famous exhortation: “We shall therefore in any given event unequivocally adhere to the concept that we must obey God before we obey man.”

A documentary produced by the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Rescue in Scandinavia, includes interviews with both the rescuers and the rescued, and features rare footage from wartime Oslo, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. In that film, a common sentiment among the rescuers is that they felt they had no option but to help the Jews; “common decency” dictated their actions.

But not all Danish Jews were saved from deportation. Over 400 were rounded up in the Oct. 3 aktion and taken to Theresienstadt. But because the Danish government persisted in its claim to the Germans that these Jews be protected, they escaped the fate of other Theresienstadt inmates, most of whom were sent to Auschwitz. From 1943 to 1945 the Danish Welfare Ministry kept track of the Danish Jews imprisoned in Theresienstadt and arranged for private individuals to send food and clothing parcels to those held captive. Thus, Denmark’s concern for its Jewish citizens transcended its borders. The word citizens is central here; the Danes refused to accept the German diktat that Jews be declared a foreign element in Denmark.

A fresh view of this singular rescue can be found in Danish journalist Bo Lidegaard’s book, Countrymen: The untold story of how Denmark’s Jews escaped the Nazis, of the courage of their fellow Danes—and of the extraordinary role of the SS Lidegaard argues that the Danes acted in their own interest as much as they acted in the interest of Denmark’s Jewish citizens. For the sake of their nation’s integrity and autonomy under German rule, Danish authorities refused to concede that Denmark was an undemocratic society in which a group of citizens could be denied the protection of its own government. What enabled them to get away with this to the extent that they did was Nazi race theory, which saw the Danes as “Nordic” and thus as a “superior race.” Denmark, according to Hitler’s wishes, was to be a “model protectorate.” The Danes cooperated with the Germans up to a point, and the Germans valued that cooperation. But at the persecution of its Jews, Danes drew a line they refused to cross.

As a child, I had heard of the rescue of the Danish Jews and was told the story of “the king of Denmark and the Jewish star,” an apocryphal tale about the Danish king, in defiance of the Germans, riding through Copenhagen every morning wearing the yellow star. Behind the myth, however, is an historical truth. The King did advocate for and represent the democratic integrity of the nation and its willingness to protect its Jewish citizens.

The story of the Danish rescue of the Jews has been told many times. What Lidegaard’s book brings to light is the very uncharacteristic behavior of the German authorities in the country. Not only was the German army seemingly ineffective and indifferent to their orders, but so was the SS. In occupied Denmark there was friction between the Wehrmacht and the SS and this friction may account for the almost peremptory attitude by authorities of the German army in response to orders from Berlin to deport the Jews. But documents uncovered by Lidegaard show that in the Danish case the SS itself was somewhat lackadaisical and passive, highly uncharacteristic behavior for that murderous organization. Speculating as to why this was, Lidegaard suggests that: “Even Hitler’s most trusted men, who were deeply engaged in the Final Solution’s murderous logic, were challenged by the occupied country’s clear rejection of this very logic.”

To return to historian Lucy Dawidowicz’s observation, the fate of the Jews in each European country not under direct SS control “depended on each country’s commitment to civic equality and on its historical treatment of its Jewish population.” Denmark’s commitment to civic equality, even under German rule, enabled that nation to save its Jews. As the rescued Jewish Dane Herbert Pundik put it in a 1994 interview, “We were saved due to the fantastic Danish sense of decency. The lesson is that individuals count. You can be a rescuer.” In a world that faces the greatest refugee crisis since World War II these are heartening words.

Read Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Teenage Essay on the Holocaust

‘Dare we be at ease?’ wrote Bader Ginsburg in Brooklyn in 1946

My Own Words, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s new collection of her legal writings, which appears to double as a professional semi-autobiography, feels like a long time coming. The Supreme Court Justice and liberal lioness has today become an outspoken cult hero, although she was widely rebuked recently for coming out against Donald Trump, a growing chorus of which she cannot be a proud member because of that whole SCOTUS job thing. Anyway, she’s no-no-no-notorious and enjoys wine and is cool in my book.

And there’s an essay in her new book that makes RBG, who grew up in Brooklyn, stand out even more in my eyes because it’s something that reveals her humanity and her ability to express her emotions and grapple with the realities and aftermath of the Holocaust. Written in 1946, when she was just 13 years old, “Ginsburg (then known by her maiden name Bader) went to both Reform and Orthodox synagogues as a child, the book reveals, before her family found a good fit at the Conservative East Midwood Jewish Center,” reported JTA. “She wondered as a young girl why boys got to do a bar mitzvah at age 13, while “there was no comparable ceremony for me,” a struggle that may have shaped her into the gender equality advocate she is today.”

Here is the essay, written by Ginsburg a little over a year after Bergen-Belsen was liberated, and published in her shul’s bulletin:

One People

The war has left a bloody trail and many deep wounds not too easily healed. Many people have been left with scars that take a long time to pass away. We must never forget the horrors which our brethren were subjected to in Bergen-Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps. Then, too, we must try hard to understand that for righteous people hate and prejudice are neither good occupations nor fit companions. Rabbi Alfred Bettleheim once said: “Prejudice saves us a painful trouble, the trouble of thinking.” In our beloved land families were not scattered, communities not erased nor our nation destroyed by the ravages of the World War.

Yet, dare we be at ease? We are part of a world whose unity has been almost completely shattered. No one can feel free from danger and destruction until the many torn threads of civilization are bound together again. We cannot feel safer until every nation, regardless of weapons or power, will meet together in good faith, the people worthy of mutual association. 

There can be a happy world and there will be once again, when men create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or a passing circumstance. Then and only then shall we have a world built on the foundation of the Fatherhood of God and whose structure is the Brotherhood of Man.


Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in George Orwell’s satire on the Soviet Union, Animal Farm, is when the packhorse Boxer, who worked hardest for the “animal revolution” is murdered by the Stalin-pig named Napoleon.

The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), formed by Josef Stalin during World War II to raise funds for the Soviet war effort, was the human equivalent of Boxer. Stalin“rewarded” their tireless efforts on behalf of anti-fascism by murdering them on trumped-up charges beginning in 1948, a mere three years after the Holocaust.

The JAC fatally paid for their belief that Stalin was anti-Nazi; indeed they would realize far too late that Stalin was as anti-Semitic as Hitler.

As the Soviets engaged in a life-and-death struggle against their Nazi invaders during World War II, Stalin cynically formed the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee for Soviet security needs.  Composed of prominent Russian Jews (among them Soviet government officials, Solomon Lozosky and Solomon Bregman along with writers Shakne Epstein and Ilya Ehrenberg), the JAC was tasked by the Soviet leader to tour the West in search of funds for the Russian war effort.

Amazingly, much of this heavy lifting was done by two Soviet Jews, Solomon Mikhoels and Itzik Feffer, who served as Stalin’s emissaries to the Western nations.

During a seven-month tour of the West in 1943, including a rally in the United States attended by 50,000 people—the largest pro-Soviet event in the United States—the JAC raised $16 million from the United States, $15 million from England, and $1 million from Mexico.

The successful fundraising efforts earned Mikhoels and Feffer praise for their efforts from the official Soviet media organ, Pravda:

“Mikhoels and Feffer received a message from Chicago that a special conference of the Joint initiated a campaign to finance a thousand ambulances for the needs of the Red Army.”

In addition, they tirelessly did propaganda work for Stalin, assuring foreign audiences that there was no anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.

In the postwar period, after Hitler’s armies had been defeated, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee continued their passionate anti-Nazism. They gathered material about the Final Solution. The result of their documentation efforts was “The Black Book of Soviet Jewry,” a compilation of evidence and testimony of Nazi persecution of Soviet Jews compiled by the Soviet-Jewish writer Ilya Ehrenburg and his compatriot Vasily Grossman, a writer whose work has grown considerably in esteem in the years after his death. Both men were JAC members and in the book, in addition to recording evidence of Nazi crimes, they singled out for praise those Jews who had resisted Hitler.

This would be the first nail in the committee’s coffin. For Stalin was angry that the book focused specifically on Jewish resisters to Hitler. Instead, he wanted the Soviet citizenry as a whole praised. In an omen of what was to come, the full publication of the book was never allowed and in 1948 the manuscript was destroyed.

In 1948, Stalin used the burgeoning Cold War as an excuse to unleash his anti-Semitism and began by liquidating the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. The paper-thin charges were that the JAC had been “turned” by Western anti-Soviets during their wartime tour of the United States. They were accused of trying to establish an anti-Soviet government in the Crimea to invade the Soviet Union.

That same year, Stalin had Mikhoels murdered by the secret police. The cover story was that Mikhoels had died in a car accident. The secret police dumped his body in the snow to be found by Soviet citizens. Following Mikhoels, many other JAC members were rounded up and murdered.

A year later, in a replay of the 1930s Purge Trials, 15 members of JAC were tried, tortured off stage into “confessing” to Zionist spy work for the United States (what assured their murders was the JAC’s support for Israel) and executed.

Aware of these executions, JAC member and Yiddish poet Perets Markish, who had once lauded Stalin as the world’s premiere anti-Nazi in a 20,000 verse poem, came to see the Soviet leader’s goals as the same as Hitler’s:

“Hitler wanted to destroy us physically; Stalin wants to do it spiritually.”

In 1952, Stalin ordered the murder of Markish along with 13 other JAC members and Yiddish poets; an event known as The Night of Murdered Poets.

Thankfully, Stalin died a year later. But even toward the end, he was trying to execute Soviet Jews. Thirty-five years later, as part of perestroika, the Russian government honored the members of the JAC.


The night before my family had its property seized and was kicked out of Egypt, everyone went to the movies. This may seem like callous, even glib behavior on the eve of what was probably one of the most difficult events one can endure, but it is also a Jewish tradition as old as time. As was the case with French Jews who threw lavish parties in the months leading up to their deportation, or the Poles who helped manufacture the very weapons that would be used against them a year later, for my family the impending loss of their property, their homes, and even their lives seemed so surreal as to be almost impossible. They don’t actually mean it. They’ll make a show of it but we’ll be fine. There’s no chance we’ll really be gone tomorrow. The tragedy is that we don’t recognize how intractable these political climates are with a sudden timely realization, but rather as a slow burn—imperceptible until only after the damage is done.

This year, as the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht approaches, the Leo Baeck Institute developed the 1938Projekt—an online exhibit that demonstrates just how quickly the lives of German and Austrian Jews imploded. 1938Projekt uses diary entries, letters, and news bulletins from Jews in 1938 to stitch together a story about European Jewry and allow us to experience what it was like to be a Jew in the year that changed everything.

Every day since the start of 2018, the 1938Projekt website has posted a new story showing what happened on that specific day in 1938. In entries from January, it’s obvious that Jews sensed only the first rumblings of disaster on the horizon. Although almost 20,000 Jews had immigrated to the United States by 1938, most did not yet feel the need to leave. And while the Projekt shows us that some German Jews were making arrangements to emigrate in the early months of ’38, we also learn of the businessmen who believed, or at least told themselves and others, that the growing animosity toward the Jews wasn’t alarming enough a reason to leave behind the family business. We can watch, day by day, the slow erosion of rights, peeled away one at a time: the seizure of Jewish businesses, orders that restrict the movements of Jews, rules about what kind of artwork can be shown. We watch the pincers close in a way that simply isn’t possible if you’re living it.

In many cases, even for those who did feel a sense of alarm it was still subdued and it was difficult to understand how a series of unfriendly bureaucratic rules could eventually lead to Kristallnacht only 10 months later: On Jan. 31, the Projekt’s website highlights a postcard from a Jew on vacation in the French Riviera. Jews were still going on vacation rather than selling all their belongings and leaving. Butthree weeks later comes one of the earliest of many heartbreaking letters: Writing to a friend, a young lover contemplates being apart from his beloved because his family had decided to emigrate and hers had chosen to stay behind.

In April, the early deportation of small numbers of undesirables to Buchenwald begins. By summer, the bulletins on the Projekt’s website are more desperate. OnJune 16, a young woman writes to an American man she has met only once, asking for his help in arranging transit. Jews begin writing to distant relatives in the US asking for help. By September, those who had managed to secure papers to emigrate were making their final arrangements. By the end of the month, entire German-Jewish congregations would be empty. The Projekt tells the story a bar mitzvah of 15 teenagers in September attended by people who were planning  to emigrate and leave their homes forever only days later—some of them already had their suitcases packed. Still, they decided to congregate and celebrate together one last time for what would perhaps be one of the final services that this synagogue would ever host.

Among the documents that make up the Projekt are a series from the family of the artist Eva Hesse, whose father kept scrapbooks. “We’re emigrating,” says one of the entries in late September. They’d had enough.

The Projekt’s mission isn’t to highlight how German Jews didn’t get the picture. In fact, they may have understood it too well: Anti-Semitism felt like a fact of life and therefore was nothing to be alarmed by. Most of them simply didn’t believe that there was any credible reason why things would suddenly surpass normal levels of anti-Semitism and go from bad to catastrophic. You’d have to have been crazy to have predicted such a thing as the Holocaust. The story of 1938Projekt is more than just a catalogue of the final days of the European Jewry. It is the story of how easy it is to become inured to the progression of a deteriorating situation. Through its lens, we see the time more clearly for what it was: not just another brief chapter in the thousands-of-years-old story called anti-Semitism, but a tinderbox heating up with the passage of each day. It’s easy to look now and see a series of warnings plastered onto the walls of the past, plain and clear for all Jews to see, only for fools to ignore. But if someone were to tell you about a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and swastikas graffitied on the Upper West Side and Nazi marches and Jewish cemeteries being defaced and a president who calls himself a nationalist and ordinances that dissolve the rights of immigrants and of the queer community and a caravan of refugees, and told you to leave behind your family business and your belongings and your home and move across the world to a place where you didn’t know a soul and didn’t know the language, would you? You’d have to be crazy.

Instead, you might just go to the movies.


A Song of the Vilna Ghetto

September 23 will mark 75 years since the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto. This is the story of how one of the era’s most famous Jewish songs was written in the ghetto by an 11-year-old boy

Once upon a time…

Winter is here again and it’s cold. On December 20, an announcement appears in the local paper: The Municipal Department of Culture will award prizes in three separate categories – literature, music and painting. “Only unpublished works are eligible,” reads the advertisement, “on any theme.” The editor, Dr. Feldstein, expresses his delight that this triple competition will enable “many young people … to create a private world of dreams and visions and to live through the art of verse, sound and color.” The submission deadline is January 31, and the prizes are rather tempting: The third-prize winners in each category will receive ten thousand dollars, second-prize winners will receive twice as much, and the first-prize winners will each receive thirty thousand dollars – substantial sums, despite the terrible cost of living.

Noah, a renowned physician, encourages his only son, eleven-year-old Alek, to submit something for the music competition. Noah is a music lover and an amateur pianist, and he and his wife Fanya, a nurse, began the boy’s piano lessons when he was five. He is now enrolled at the Municipal School of Music along with a hundred other students. His piano instructor, Tamara Girszowicz, is one of two founding directors of the Institute. “She was an outstanding teacher,” Alek would say many years later. “She helped me develop as a pianist and also encouraged me to improvise, and even compose,” and it was she who suggested to his father that Alek should compose a piece for the contest.

And so, Alek’s father writes a short one-stanza poem about current affairs and asks Alek to set it to music. Like the rest of the competing works, it is submitted anonymously. The results of the three competitions are posted on February 14; ultimately, it was decided to award a fourth prize – half the sum of the third prize, at the expense of the sum designated for the first prize. The first through third prize entries in the music category were composed by adult professionals; the fourth was the one submitted by “Pena,” the pseudonym used by Alek, who by now is almost twelve years old.

On Saturday, March 6, a literary-musical event is held at the municipal theater. It begins at 8:30 pm with a dramatization of excerpts from classical stories. In the second half of the program the works of the laureates in literature and music are presented. Shmerke, a popular songwriter, has adapted Noah’s original lyrics to Alek’s melody and the song is performed by a sixteen-year-old girl named Mirele. The audience is moved to tears, and the song “Quiet, Quiet” becomes an immediate hit sung by everyone. The fourth prize work – “the composer is a beginner, but shows talent,” the judges wrote – earned eternal fame, while the other winning pieces have been entirely forgotten. Today, seventy-five years after it was written in the Vilna Ghetto, “Shtiler, Shtiler” is today one of the most famous Holocaust songs.

Of course, the “City” in the story was the administration of Jacob Gens, head of the ghetto under the German occupiers; The newspaper was the weekly Geto-yedies(Ghetto News) – how could a ghetto exist without a newspaper, after all? And the amount of the prizes money, given in the occupiers’ currency, was indeed a handsome sum relative to the average “salary” of a forced laborer – but the times were such that the price of a single loaf of bread often exceeded half the weekly wage.

“The list of entries, the composers’ pseudonyms, and the judges’ comments in the musical competition read like a fairy tale,” historian Solon Beinfeld once remarked in surprise, and justifiably so. It is therefore worth pausing a moment to avoid falling into a kind of Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful trap (“Look, they wrote music and songs and held contests and put on shows, how terrible could it have been?”) and to remember that ghetto life was no musical comedy; the Vilna Ghetto was hell on earth, one of countless offshoots of hell established by the Nazis under their vast dominion. The story of “Quiet, Quiet” is tangled up in the predicament of the ghetto in early 1943, and to understand it properly, we must first recount the history of the community up to that time.

Vilna, or Vilne (in Polish: Wilno, and nowadays known by its Lithuanian name, Vilnius) had been one of the most important cultural centers of Eastern European Jewry for hundreds of years, so much so that it was often called “The Jerusalem of Lithuania.” Having been under Russian rule for over a century, it was eventually incorporated into the newly re-established Polish state in the early 1920s. On the eve of World War II, Vilna was the home of some sixty thousand Jews, comprising over a quarter of its population. Jewish cultural life was vibrant and immensely rich. The Vilna Jews enjoyed a variety of educational institutions, including both Yiddish and Hebrew gymnasiums, as well as public libraries. There were Jewish orchestras and a choir and a drama studio, printing houses, newspapers and periodicals and what not. “The Jerusalem of galut, the consolation of the Eastern people in the north,” it was called by poet Zalman Shneur, who had spent a couple of years there in his youth at the turn of the century. So great a Jewish city, that even its drawers of water, as it were, “draw from the source of the Torah giants.”

Following the outbreak of the war in September 1939, Vilnius underwent a series of upheavals and shocks. Captured by the Red Army, it was first handed over to the Lithuanians, only to be later annexed by the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded its eastern neighbor and former ally, and two days after that the Wehrmacht conquered the city. Vilna Jews soon suffered a series of Aktions, beginning in early July, where some thirty-five thousand people were murdered by the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators. But they were not transported by train to extermination camps dozens or hundreds of miles away; rather, the mass murder of Vilna’s Jews took place in the city’s own backyard – Ponar.

Ponar (Ponary in Polish; Lithuanian: Paneriai) was a wooded area less than five miles southwest of the city, on the road to Grodno. On the way out of town you can see the meandering Viliya River. Before the war the residents of Vilnius would enjoy holiday strolls there, gathering berries and mushrooms. Jewish schools would also go there on hikes, and at night sit around the campfire and sing and dance. The Nazis saw a different potential in Ponar. The Soviets had dug large pits in the forest to store fuel tanks, but they left them behind before the project was completed. “Just as the Germans arrived, they discovered it,” wrote the great Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever in his prose account, Fun vilner geto, “a place as though tailor-made for their murderous plans. On the right, a road to transport the victims in cars; on the left, the Vilnius–Warsaw railway line.”

In December 1941, the great Aktions ceased. The Germans needed cheap labor, and since Jewish forced laborers were much cheaper to employ than non-Jews, they decided it would serve their purposes to keep them alive for the moment. The interval before the summer of 1943 is thus referred to as “the period of relative quiet.” Of course, the ghetto Jews had no way of knowing whether the Aktions had really ended, and they continued to feel the threat of them over their heads. Even during this time of relative quiet, the murder of individuals accused of “crimes” like food smuggling continued, as did that of the elderly and the sick deemed unfit for work. Nevertheless, the Jews of the ghetto clung to the belief, fostered by the Germans, that their work was essential and increased their chances of survival.

At the end of 1941, half a year into the German occupation, only about one-third of the Jews of Vilna, some twenty thousand people, were still alive and crowded into seven alleys in the ghetto. Despite their inconceivable distress, an extensive educational and cultural activity was carried out there. It was a remarkable aspect of the high level of organization and modes of life that emerged, largely under the influence of the head of the ghetto, Jacob Gens. “The cultural life in the Vilna Ghetto began the very day we entered there,” Sutzkever wrote. And what an impressive life it was! The ghetto dwellers had not only kindergartens and elementary schools, a heder and yeshivas, a vocational school and a gymnasium – towards the end, they even began having compulsory school attendance – but also schools of music, art, eurhythmics and theater, a children’s club and a youth club. There were a theater, a symphony orchestra and choirs (a Yiddish choir and two Hebrew ones, large and small), as well as a cultural center with a lending library and a reading room, an archive, a statistical bureau and a museum. Concerts, literary evenings, lectures, exhibitions and sports competitions were held. The theater, the orchestra and the choirs not only performed pieces from the familiar repertoire but served as an important forum for new works created in the ghetto itself.

Such was the setting of Gens’s decision in December 1942 to hold the competition for which what later became “Quiet, Quiet” was composed by young Alexander (Alek) Wolkowyski (later Tamir). The original poem was written by his father, Dr. Noah (Leon) Wolkowyski, in Polish, the language spoken in their home, and the man who translated it into Yiddish, the mother tongue of most Vilna Jews, and added two stanzas to it was Shmerke Kaczerginski. Kaczerginski, working in the so-called “Paper Brigade,” was involved in saving thousands of Jewish books and tens of thousands of Jewish documents from the Germans. He was a member of the United Partisan Organization (FPO), an organizer of many cultural events of the ghetto, and no less important – a prolific lyricist, who expressed the reality of ghetto life in his songs, many of which became hits.

It was Wolkowyski Sr. who chose the lullaby form – a rather understandable choice coming from a man who wished to help his young son deal with the impossible reality of the ghetto. All that is known about the original Polish verse is that its first words were: “Hush, hush, hearts are crying” (Cicho, cicho, serca płaczą). The Yiddish version begins as follows: “Shtiler, shtiler, lomir shvaygn, / Kvorim vaksn do. / S’hoben zey farflanst di sonim, / Grinen zey tsum blo. / S’firen vegn zu Ponar tsu, / S’firt keyn veg tsurik. / Iz der tate vu farshvundn / Un mit im dos glik.” And in English (the translation is based on a popular rendering that keeps rhyme and rhythm, with minor modifications intended to bring it slightly closer to the original):

“Quiet, quiet, let’s be silent,

Graves are growing here.

They were planted by the enemies,

See their bloom appear.

All the roads lead to Ponar now,

There are no roads back.

Papa too has vanished somewhere

And with him our luck.”


A Hebrew translation of the song, written by the renowned Israeli poet Avraham Shlonsky, was published in Mandatory Palestine in September 1945, only a few months after the end of the war and even before the original, Yiddish version appeared in print. And where, you might ask? Why, in the first issue of the children’s magazine Mishmar LaYeladim. During the war, as news of the genocide taking place in Europe leaked out, the lullabies published in the children’s magazines of the Yishuv served as a means of mediating the events to young readers. For the sake of those who might not have heard of Ponar, a note appeared under the lyrics: “A forest near Vilnius, where tens of thousands of Jews were murdered.” Rather blunt for a children’s magazine, perhaps, but then, even today, more than seven decades later, educators still debate the correct way to educate children about the Holocaust.

Having escaped the ghetto just before its liquidation and fought as a partisan until liberation in the summer of 1944, Kaczerginski set to systematically collect and publish the songs of the ghettos and camps. When the original “Quiet, Quiet” first appeared in print in December 1945, in the New York Morning Freiheit, he spoke about the unique characteristics of ghetto songs. “In ordinary times, songs have a long way to go before they become popular. But in the ghetto … a personal work turned into folklore right before our eyes. Any newly created song that expressed the feelings and experiences of the masses immediately caught on as though it were their own.” Daily life in the ghetto, he said, not only influenced the themes of the songs but was also the reason their form was often “not polished but rather simple, though unmediated and true.”

Unmediated and true, indeed. It’s the spring of 1943, and the ghetto is still largely in a state of denial “There’s no such thing as Ponar, it isn’t real, it’s a Bolshevik fabrication,” the Germans used to say. On a map of Vilnius printed by the Germans when “Ponar” became synonymous with nightmare, the name was omitted altogether and appearing in its stead was a patch of green. True, more than a year earlier, on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Abba Kovner had famously proclaimed before his comrades at an underground meeting that “All the roads of the Gestapo lead to Ponar. And Ponar is death!” But most of the ghetto dwellers are no fighters, and they simply want to survive, clinging to the belief that work will save them. There’s no one who hasn’t lost loved ones in Ponar: parents, children, spouses, friends – two-thirds of the community have been murdered there – but maybe it’s best to talk about something else.

It is at this point in time that “Quiet, Quiet” emerges, and with a somber yet comforting melody, like a familiar lullaby, states simply and clearly:

“All the roads lead to Ponar now,

There are no roads back.

Papa too has vanished somewhere

And with him our luck.”


And the ghetto, beaten and grieving, sings.

The song was performed before a large audience in the ghetto theater. There are no photographs of this performance, let alone audio or video recordings, but we do have an account given by someone who witnessed it. Nehamka Rahav (then Shuster) was a sixteen-year-old girl at the time, the same age as the singer, Mirele. Interviewed by Ofer Gavish in 2000, she described Mirele as a beautiful girl with curly blonde hair. She didn’t remember her last name, but she knew that she had perished in the Stutthof concentration camp in 1945, towards the end of the war.

In 2001, director Racheli Schwartz went to Vilnius to gather material for her documentary Ponar, which followed Gavish’s research and was dedicated to “Quiet, Quiet” and its composer, Alek – Alexander Tamir. The film reaches a climax with a moving tribute in the very same theater hall almost six decades after the song came into being. The performance included three renderings of the song: an artistic reading by Sima Skurkowitz, who was an actress and singer in the ghetto; a Yiddish performance by a student at the local Jewish school, about the age of Wolkowyski-Tamir when he composed the song; and a Hebrew rendition by Meital Trabelsi, accompanied by the composer, who had returned to his hometown for the first time. It was there that Nehamka Rahav spoke about the performance back in 1943. Her words indicate that the experience was utterly cathartic:

“Mirele, a tiny little girl, goes up to the stage. And when she starts singing – her voice sounds like bells – everybody begins to cry. Not hysterically, not wailing – their sobbing was terrible but silent, out of the depths. It was perhaps the first time people there had let themselves express what they had been feeling for a year and a half. I didn’t cry when they took my father away and murdered him in Ponar. I didn’t cry, not once. But that day I cried too, and my tears kept falling, and Mirele stood there, singing – that’s something I’ve never wanted to forget.”

The song concludes with the mother’s words of hope to her child:

“Let the wellspring calmly flow,

You be still and hope:

Papa will return with freedom,

Sleep, my child, oh sleep.

Like the Viliya – liberated,

The trees renewed in green,

Freedom’s light will soon shine

Upon your face,

Upon your face.”


So, it’s true that this hope was not very realistic – those who disappeared in Ponar, as in the first stanza, almost never returned; and besides, who knows if the ghetto dwellers even reached the optimistic end as they were softly singing to themselves. And yes, in public, whenever the Yiddish choir performed the song, they were forced to censor themselves and sing “All the roads lead to Ponar now” without the actual word “Ponar.” But there’s no doubt that the song indeed “expressed the feelings and experiences of the masses,” and that, as Rahav’s account suggests, the very fact the people of the ghetto could sing it was in itself invaluable. Among the thirty-seven songs gathered by Kaczerginski after the war in the anthology Dos gezang fun vilner geto (Songs of the Vilna Ghetto), almost all of which written in the ghetto, there is no other song that contains such reference to Ponar. And the enchanting melody must have done its part, too: in Tzila Dagan’s gentle, serene voice in Hebrew, as in the thunderous, pompous performance of Sidor Belarsky in Yiddish – this melody still enchants today, as the song is one of only a handful written during the war that are performed in Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies.

In the spring of 1946, the song was published in the journal for Jewish ethnography Reshumot. The publication was accompanied by biographical details about the poet, Kaczerginski, including his activities during the war. The editors could even say that “the melody was written by the youngest among the Jewish composers in the ghetto, an eight-year-old boy, Dr. Wolkowyski’s son, and it is rumored that he is now in Eretz Israel.”

The rumor was true. After the liquidation of the ghetto in September 1943, young Alek was sent to a labor camp in Estonia, where his father served as a camp doctor. As the Soviets approached, a Selektion was conducted, in which the two were separated: his father was killed, and Alek was sent to another camp, and from there to yet another, where he managed to survive until he was liberated by the French army in April 1945, at the age of fourteen. A few months later he immigrated to what would soon become Israel and reunited with his relatives. In the early 1950s he studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, where he later became a professor, and in 1955 he joined Bracha Eden in the creation of a classical piano duo, which performed for fifty years. Alek Wolkowyski, the little boy who composed a song for a contest in the midst of all the horror and succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, became Alexander Tamir, a famous concert pianist. In 1968, the duo founded the Targ (now the Eden–Tamir) Music Center in Ein Karem, Jerusalem, where he still lives.

The hope expressed in the song was eventually realized only on a tiny scale: By the time the Viliya was finally liberated, the vast majority of the Jewish community – not only those in the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” but in all of Lithuania – had been decimated; out of over two hundred thousand Jews who had remained in the country under German occupation, only five percent – one in twenty – survived, as did twelve thousand more who had been deported or escaped to the Soviet Union. Lithuania became nearly “free of Jews.” About seventy thousand Jews were killed in Ponar alone; the Nazis didn’t plant any graves there, but rather made every effort to hide their deeds. Tamir’s father, like most fathers – and mothers, and children – never came back.

During his extensive career, Alexander Tamir has toured many cities around the world, but he always avoided his hometown. Only when he approached the age of seventy did the pianist agree, at Schwartz’s invitation, to visit the graveyard of his childhood. In the film, it’s quite clear to the audience that he knows nothing awaits him there but ghosts. He visits his childhood home, which was turned into a clinic, and then proceeds to what was once the “doctors’ block” in the ghetto. The old buildings in Vilnius are still there, but Tamir’s Vilna has long since perished. All he has left are memories. And we have his song.