Category Archive: THE ARTS

Rare Anne Frank poem fetches €140,000 at Dutch auction

Eight-line ode to friend penned in March 1942 bought by unnamed online bidder for more than four times reserve price

000_ic1u4-e1479907810149-635x357HAARLEM, Netherlands — A very rare handwritten poem by Jewish diarist Anne Frank was sold for €140,000 (NIS 575,000; $150,000) to an unnamed online bidder Wednesday, fetching more than four times its reserve price.

Auctioneers closed the sale after just two minutes of tense bidding at the Bubb Kuyper auction house in the western Dutch city of Haarlem.

Around 20 collectors took their seats in a sales room decorated with antique books, maps and illustrations while others bid by telephone and online.

The reserve price was set at €30,000 (NIS 123,000; $32,000).

“These things are so rare that I’ve never seen anything like it,” Bubb Kuyper co-director Thys Blankevoort said. “Over the last 40 years, only four or five documents signed by the teenager have gone under the hammer.”

“Any document that’s written by Anne Frank is rare,” he told AFP Monday, “there are some chance finds, some books from the libraries. But these are not manuscripts, they are owner entries,” he added, referring to books which have been found with Frank’s name written inside.

Dedicated to “Dear Cri-cri,” the poem, written in Dutch in black ink on a notebook-size piece of white paper which has slightly discolored with age, is signed “in memory, from Anne Frank.”

Frank wrote the eight-line poem, dated March 28, 1942, in a friendship book belonging to the older sister of her best friend only three months before she and her family went into hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam.

The poem was sold by Jacqueline van Maarsen, Frank’s primary school friend, who over the years has worked to keep her pal’s story alive. Frank also wrote a poem in Jacqueline’s book, but she is too attached to it to sell it, Blankevoort said.

While the first four lines of the text are well-known among such poems “written by girls, for girls,” the auction house has so far not traced the origins of the final four lines.

“The second half might possibly even be composed by” Anne Frank, Blankevoort acknowledged. It follows the vein of such poems which often contained a moral about love and friendship, calling on girls to work hard and be diligent.

A series of letters between Anne and her sister Margot with American penpals sold for $165,000 in 1988. And a 1925 edition of Grimm’s fairy tales, with both girls’ names written on the title page, went for $62,500 in May in a New York auction — fetching twice the estimated price.

The text, written in Dutch and translated by the Daily Mail, reads in full:

If you did not finish your work properly,
And lost precious time,
Then once again take up your task
And try harder than before.
If others have reproached you
For what you have done wrong,
Then be sure to amend your mistake.
That is the best memory one can make.

“The Diary of a Young Girl,” which Frank penned while in hiding from June 1942 to August 1944, has sold more than 30 million copies in 67 languages.

She and her sister Margot died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany in early 1945 less than a year after the Nazis captured her and just before the end of World War II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you hope to achieve with this documentary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What were the survivors like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you educate your kids about this topic?

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

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

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Russian ice skating contest features Holocaust-themed performance

Saturday evening’s chilling performance did not represent the first time Russian TV featured performers dressed in Holocaust-themed decor to perform in a reality show competition.

The social media sphere reacted with a largely cold reception after two “celebrity” ice skaters, donning Holocaust-era Jewish prison uniforms fitted with yellow stars of David, performed Saturday night on the Russian reality television show “Ice Age.”

Olympic ice dance champion Tatiana Navka, along with her skating partner Andrew Burkovsjy, slid and glided across the ice, in their chilling performance accompanied by “Beautiful that Way,” Jewish Israeli singer Acinoam “Noa” Nini’s vocal version of the theme song from the heart-wrenching Italian Holocaust film “Life is Beautiful.”

Eyebrows were further raised as Navka is the wife of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson.

However, Saturday evening’s number did not represent the first time Russian television featured performers dressed in Holocaust-themed decor to perform in a reality show competition.

In April, Russia’s version of “Dancing with the Stars” featured a dance number starring a Nazi officer searching for a young Jewish girl hiding behind a piano.

The piece began with the officer playing the instrument, stopping suddenly and demanding the girl reveal herself before “shooting” his weapon at her feet.

Taken aback at her beauty, he lowers his weapon and the two begin to dance to “Fly me to the Moon” by Frank Sinatra.

The piece arrived at a heartbreaking conclusion when an “enemy” assault leaves the Jewish girl dead on the ground while he screams and shoots randomly in no particular direction.

Russia’s ostensibly insensitive posture toads the Jewish community also extended itself earlier this month, when a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson caused controversy after suggesting that the recent US presidential election was influenced by a “Jewish conspiracy,” according to the BBC.

During an interview with a Russian television chat show, Maria Zakharova quipped that the best template to gauge America’s political landscape was the New York Jewish community.

“If you want to know what will happen in America, who do you need to talk to? You have to talk to the Jews, of course. It goes without saying.”

At this, the live studio audience applauded loudly, according to the BBC.

Zakharova added that she had formulated the claim while visiting New York during an official visit with a Russian delegation in September.

“I have a lot of friends and acquaintances there, of course I was interested to find out: how are the elections going, what are the American people’s expectations?”

The Russian state employee than attempted to mimic a Jewish accent and said Russian Jews had told her: “Marochka, understand this – we’ll donate to Clinton, of course. But we’ll give the Republicans twice that amount.’ Enough said! That settled it for me – the picture was clear,” adding that “if you want to know the future, don’t read the mainstream newspapers – our people in Brighton [Beach] will tell you everything.”

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Austria’s Oscar contender explores exile’s tragic effects on Jewish writer Stefan Zweig

Innovative historical feature film takes on new meaning for audiences watching through lens of contemporary political events

sz-photo-11-965x543When German director Maria Schrader began her work some years ago on her new historical feature film, “Stefan Zweig: Farewell To Europe,” she had no idea just how relevant it would soon become.

Set before and during World War II, the film is about the final years of the prolific Jewish Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. As the Nazis rose to power, Zweig fled his native Austria, went into exile, and eventually committed suicide in 1942. But with the global refugee crisis, the UK’s recent pro-Brexit vote, and the US election of Donald Trump, the film highlights resonant parallels between the political forces that destroyed Zweig’s world and those taking root globally today.

“Stefan Zweig,” an Austrian-German-French production, is Austria’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the upcoming 89th Academy Awards.

Schrader, who is also a successful actress (Aimee & Jaguar), became fascinated by the exile-induced psychological turmoil that plagued the Vienna-born Zweig, one of the most popular and translated writers of the first half of the 20th century.

As the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott put it, Zweig “left behind an almost absurdly various and voluminous body of work.” A contemporary of Joseph Roth, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Herzl, his short stories and novellas were his strength. While some criticized his prose for being too lightweight, others praised it for its humanism and simplicity.

Lately, a new generation became aware of Zweig when Wes Anderson revealed that his 2014 critically acclaimed comedic film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was inspired by some of Zweig’s short stories.

Despite escaping and finding safety first in England, and then on the other side of the Atlantic, Zweig was haunted by the brutal disintegration of the liberal, cosmopolitan Europe he loved, and by the horrors that had befallen those he had left behind.

Stefan Zweig, Farewell to Europe – Trailer from Films Distribution on Vimeo.

In six beautifully shot episodes, Schrader’s film tells the story of Zweig’s life in exile between 1936 and his suicide (together with his second, and much younger, wife Lotte) in February 1942 at the age of 60 in Petropolis, Brazil.

The film’s pacing is unconventional, but effective as things unfold in what seems like real time. It was a deliberate choice made by Schrader.

“I dreamed of making an historical documentary with the tools used to make a fictional feature,” the director said.

In the film’s first episode, the famous author is welcomed and honored like a statesman to Rio de Janeiro in August 1936. The Brazilian foreign minister introduces Zweig to a large group of dignitaries. Zweig, who is banned from publication in Nazi Germany, is impressed by Brazilian society, especially for its peaceful coexistence of people of different races.

The second episode jumps ahead only one month to September 1936, where we see Zweig at a P.E.N. literary congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Eighty writers from 50 countries have gathered to discuss the position of the writer in society, in particular against the backdrop of rising fascism in Europe. In an interview with journalists pressing him to go on the record with a condemnation of Hitler, Zweig refuses, maintaining that as a pacifist and an artist, he will not use words as a weapon to respond to the ruthlessness of his opponents.

“I won’t speak against Germany. I would never speak against a country. And I won’t make an exception,” he asserts.

Zweig, played with intelligent restraint by Josef Hader, is also visibly uncomfortable when the gathering stands in reverence as the names of famous intellectuals forced into exile are announced. It is almost too much for him to bear as the crowd erupts into applause as his own name is read out and he is expected to stand.

Next, the film flashes ahead to Bahia, Brazil in January 1941 where, after lecture tours through South America for months after leaving their home in England following the war’s outbreak, Zweig and his wife traipse through a sugarcane field under a burning sun. Zweig also pens telegrams to ambassadors in South America, using his connections to get visas for friends trapped in Europe, symbolized by a burning field he glimpses through a car window.

The film’s fourth, and strongest episode, takes place immediately afterwards in New York City. There, Zweig is reunited with his first wife, Friderike (played by the captivating Babara Sukowa, who had the title role in “Hannah Arendt,” a 2013 film about another famous Jewish exile). Friderike has made it to the US with her two grown daughters from her first marriage and their husbands. Their escape was thanks to Varian Fry, an American journalist who ran a rescue network in Vichy France that helped several thousand high profile Jewish and anti-Nazi intellectuals leave Europe through the port of Marseilles.

An anguished Zweig speaks with Friderike about the desperate letters friends and acquaintances trapped in Europe send him, begging him to get them out. He has spent much of his money already on guarantees, and he feels hopeless and powerless as he is unable to help everyone, and also suspects that many are already dead.

Although Zweig’s American publisher shows up with good news about Zweig’s books and offers Zweig and Lotte a place to stay and work in New Haven, Connecticut, the couple is not long for the US Northeast.

Indeed, the film’s fifth episode brings them back to Brazil, this time to Petropolis in November 1941. It is the writer’s 60th birthday. His depression is evident even as he bumps into an old friend, a Jewish German newspaper editor who has also ended up in this city two hours from Rio.

The film’s epilogue presents Zweig and Lotte’s friends, neighbors and servants gathered in their home after the couple has been found dead in their bed, after killing themselves by ingesting poison.

Zweig left a suicide note, in which he wrote: “I send greetings to all of my friends: May they live to see the dawn after this long night. I, who am most impatient, go before them.” (The suicide note is now held by Israel’s national library.)

Criticism has been leveled at Zweig not only for refusing to speak out against fascist nationalism, but also for killing himself.

“Other German-speaking writers and artists — Thomas Mann, Hannah Arendt and Bertolt Brecht are three well-known, contrasting examples — turned survival into a form of resistance. They were determined, in the face of moral and political catastrophe, to press ahead into the world of tomorrow. Zweig…saw himself, at 60, as someone who belonged irrevocably to the past,” A.O. Scott wrote.

Schrader, however, told The Times of Israel she was sympathetic to her subject. She understood the loneliness he felt among other writers and intellectuals.

“This was a case of a man of words holding back his words because there was no way for him to articulate what he wanted to say in a differentiated, nuanced way. Zweig was a radical pacifist and therefore wouldn’t use language as a means of combat,” Schrader said.

She recognized that some perceived Zweig’s suicide as an act of cowardice, but she preferred to see it as a pacifist’s ultimate act of resistance.

“He was torn between two worlds. He was physically in a new place, but he couldn’t distance his mind from thoughts of what was happening in Europe and the pain of others. His talent for fantasy became a curse the minute he became an exile,” Schrader explained.

The director suggested the world today should take a page from Zweig’s book.

“Today, you just need to click and say, ‘I am for this’ or ‘I am against this,’ but it doesn’t mean anything,” Schrader said.

“LIke Zweig, we need more words. We need to see the whole picture, to see developments on a larger scale — not just from today to tomorrow. If we simplify things too much, we are in danger of answering radicalism with radicalism.”

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Guess who’s coming to dinner, in Germany

Most of the guests did not know each other; some of the non-Jewish Germans had never met German Jews before

Made by two longtime friends from very different backgrounds, documentary ‘Germans & Jews’ explores — over dinner — how the Holocaust still shapes German life

dinner-resized

In 2009, Tal Recanati visited Germany for the first time. She’s been many times since.

The daughter of an Israeli mother and American Jewish father who spent much of her childhood in Israel, she had always considered the country to be scorched earth — a no-go zone for Jews after World War II. Besides, any Jew who did end up Germany lived sitting “on packed suitcases,” ready to flee.

Recanati was, therefore, surprised to discover that some 200,000 Jews live in Germany today, and that it is estimated that 15,000 or more of them are Israelis.

Recanati returned home to New York and told her close friend of three decades, Janina Quint, about her discovery. Quint, too was shocked.

Born and raised in Hamburg, Germany, Quint had learned all about the Holocaust while growing up. But she had never met a Jew and never imagined there were any living among Germans in the post-war period.

This exchange was the genesis of “Germans & Jews,” a self-funded documentary film Recanati and Quint made together over the course of four years. It raised incisive questions and received positive reviews from The New York Times and others as it premiered this past summer in New York and went on to be screened in Los Angeles and other American cities. The film will be screened in December at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival.

Quint had experience making short documentaries in the 1990s, but Recanati was completely new to filmmaking. Serving as executive producer for the project, she was determined to tell this story and learned as she went along.

The women, both in their early 50s, wanted to understand how it could be that so many Jews choose to live in Germany today. The filmmakers’ initial interest was spurred by the numbers, but they knew there was a larger narrative to uncover and convey.

“I knew we would not just be telling the story of Germans and Jews. It was the bigger story of a culture or memory, reconciliation, and of how a country delves into its past, accepts it, and uses this to improve its society. Germany has such a strong civil society, and the Holocaust is always brought to mind when the country weighs possibilities and makes choices about what it will do,” Recanati told The Times of Israel.

“I don’t think people really know how much the Holocaust is so much a part of German politics, that it plays an implicit role in Germany’s wanting to always do the moral thing,” Quint added.

Although by necessity it could not be devoid of history, “Germans & Jews” is very much focused on the present and future. The film, shot mainly in Berlin, has barely any archival footage from the Nazi period.

“We wanted to bring the discussion forward to the second and third generations post-war, and not be stuck in the past. Holocaust images are always a conversation stopper, so we didn’t want to use them,” explained Quint, who directed the film.

The film is anchored by a dinner party in Berlin organized by the filmmakers and attended by a group of non-Jewish and Jewish locals in their 30s through 50s. Most of the guests did not know each other previously, and some of the non-Jewish Germans had never even met German Jews before. (This is not all too surprising, since Jews make up only .2 % of the country’s total population of 80.6 million.)

“It was one of the most memorable evenings. There was an incredibly lively discussion,” Recanati recalled.

The film comes back several times to the dinner party and the conversation around the long table. The talk centers on what is was like for those present to grow up in Germany in the shadow of the Holocaust, with the Germans and Jews sharing their divergent experiences with one another.

The non-Jews speak about the guilt and burden of being the descendents of perpetrators, their resultant eschewing of patriotism, and their guilt-driven imperative to build a strong civil society. Many of that generation, including the filmmaker Quint, don’t even know the German national anthem, or ever raised or waved the German flag.

The Jews born in Germany tell of never feeling truly German, and of a sense of mystery about the past and uncertainty about the future. They were never comfortable enough to wear their Judaism on their sleeves. Now parents of teenagers, they are astounded that their own children feel totally German and proudly don uniforms emblazoned with “Deutschland” to sporting events, including the Maccabiah Games.

By contrast, those Jews who immigrated to Germany from the Former Soviet Union with the fall of the Eastern Bloc in the early 1990s (these immigrants accounted for much of the huge boost to Germany’s Jewish population, which had grown to only 27,000 in the first five decades following WWII), did not carry the same historical and emotional baggage. For these Jews who had lived under Communism, Germany presented an opportunity to live openly as Jews for the first time.

The Israelis at the dinner party speak of how safe they feel as Jews in contemporary Germany — ironically safer than in the Jewish state. There are many reasons for Israelis, many of them young artists, musicians, writers and entrepreneurs, to flock to Germany. High on the list is the significantly lower cost of living highlighted by the “Milky Protest” several years ago which called on Israelis to “make aliya to Berlin.”

Between the dinner party segments, the film provides an engaging chronological history of the relationship between Germans and Jews in Germany from immediately after the war through to the present day. From the commentary of various historians, social psychologists, museum professionals, educators, and memorial foundation leaders, viewers first learn about the major milestones in the German people’s journey toward taking responsibility for the evil that was unleashed on the world by their country.

Close-up of Gleis 17 Memorial at Grunewald Station, Berlin. These are the tracks on which the trains deporting Berlin’s Jews ran. (First Run Features)

Close-up of Gleis 17 Memorial at Grunewald Station, Berlin. These are the tracks on which the trains deporting Berlin’s Jews ran. (First Run Features)

In the immediate post-war years, Germans, traumatized by heavy losses, were focused more on self-pity than assuming responsibility. Then in 1952 West Germany signed a reparations deal with Israel. Later the 1961 the trial of senior Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem proved a turning point. By the end of the 1960s, the counterculture student movement led to the second generation accusing their parents and grandparents of having been Nazis and fascists, pressing them to end the silence on what had happened during the war.

Jewish journalists and leaders of the Jewish community speak of the ambivalence they felt as they grew up in West Germany, and of their parents’ decision to stay despite not really being accepted by Germans. Now in their 40s and 50s, they grew up “sitting on packed suitcases” as they lived among perpetrators and survivors. Yet, the never felt threatened.

“We were looked at like a dying species that needs to be protected,” says one commentator.

The broadcast in West Germany in 1979 of the American TV “Holocaust” miniseries was a turning point. Twenty million West Germans watched, and many participated in call-in discussion programs about what they had seen. (Quint watched the series, but remembered her mother refusing to join her, citing her abhorrence for the idea of “Hollywood-izing” the Holocaust.)

By the 1980s, West Germany was fully engaged in a struggle with what it meant to be a modern, pluralistic democracy that confronts its past. By the latter part of that decade, public debates about redefining German identity in relation to the Nazi past were commonplace. These were followed by the erection throughout the country of monuments reminding Germans of the crimes of National Socialism.

The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 forced West Germany and East Germany to integrate their opposing approaches to the past. The challenge was great given that the former was critical of the Nazis, while the latter had never felt responsible for the Nazi past and was instead critical of the Communists.

The question has arisen today as to whether Germans now over-identify with the Holocaust, causing them to see Jews only as spectral victims, instead of fellow Germans living among them. It’s been suggested that there has been an over-saturation of Holocaust education, and that it might be time to stop the ever-present discussion.

Then again, it may not at all be time to stop.

“Germans & Jews” was completed before the current influx of more than a million Middle Eastern refugees into Germany. One cannot wonder what a future sequel to this film might be like, taking into account that a significant percentage of Germany’s foreign-born population now comes from anti-Israel countries and anti-Semitic cultures.

Quint echoes the sentiments of many in the German Jewish community who worry that the power of the memory of the Holocaust might be dangerously leading Germany toward political naïveté.

“There needs to be a balance between good will and practicality,” she said.

It seems there would be good reason to reconvene the Berlin dinner party, as there would be much more to discuss in light of recent events.

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Holocaust Denial on Trial

Film

The infamous Lipstadt-Irving libel battle gets a trim new David Hare film adaptation starring Rachel Weisz—just in time for the rise of Trump

By James Kirchick

Denial starring Rachel Weisz as acclaimed writer and historian Deborah E. Lipstadt (Photo by Laurie Sparham on Bleecker Street Media )

Denial starring Rachel Weisz as acclaimed writer and historian Deborah E. Lipstadt (Photo by Laurie Sparham on Bleecker Street Media )

Near the end of Denial, the boyfriend of a young defense lawyer awakens in the middle of the night to find his beloved laboring hard on her case. She is serving on the defense team of Deborah Lipstadt, the Emory University historian whom the British author David Irving sued for libel after she called him a Holocaust denier. Beseeching her to come to bed, the man states that he cannot understand her “obsession” with an event that took place so many decades prior. “At some point, isn’t everyone going to have to let go?” he asks.

Anyone remotely interested in the Holocaust has likely been confronted, in some form or another, with this charge of “obsession.” Occasionally, as in the aforementioned scene, the accusation is the product of nothing more objectionable than historical ignorance and naiveté. For how is it possible not to be “obsessed” with an event so enormous as the unprecedently systematic industrial-scale extermination of 6 million people due solely to their ethnic origin? (Indeed, even using such a word—“event”—to describe the Shoah seems cruelly inadequate.) If anything, we are not transfixed enough by the Holocaust.

More often, however, the allegation of “obsession” is a sinister one, meant to slander its targets as opportunists. In this construal, Jews “exploit” the Holocaust to earn sympathy points, or, more perversely, as a means of bilking restitution money or diplomatic cover for the state of Israel, itself perpetrator of the very sorts of crimes Jews accuse the Germans of having committed.

It was the latter, wholly cynical meaning of “obsession” that Irving imputed to world Jewry. Noxious as this assertion may be, it still accepts the Shoah’s authenticity. What rightfully earned Irving the label of “denier” was his contention that the Holocaust as we’ve come to understand it—the deliberate, methodical attempt on the part of the Nazi leadership to annihilate every last Jewish man, woman, and child from the face of the Earth—is itself a massive lie, from the claimed number of Jewish victims (“of the order of 100,000 or more”) to the causes of their death (not, in the main, premeditated murder but diseases such as typhus). It wasn’t until 1988, however, relatively late in his long career as an amateur historian, that Irving would become a full-blown denier with his embrace of the notion that the Nazi gas chambers did not exist. “More women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz,” he once declared in his trademark caustic style.

What distinguished Irving from most other run-of-the-mill cranks and fascists who deny the Holocaust is that he had once been a mildly respectable military historian, if one curiously charitable to Adolf Hitler. In the book that spurred Irving’s libel suit, Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt chronicles how Irving went from being an author with unconventional views about World War II to an outright falsifier of history. The key event in his transformation, she wrote, was his embrace of the pseudoscientific “report” by a self-proclaimed American execution expert named Fred A. Leuchter claiming that the gassing facilities at Auschwitz had been used not to kill human beings but lice. (Leuchter was the subject of an eerily fascinating 1999 Errol Morris documentary, Mr. Death.) Though refuting the actual purpose of the gas chambers definitively established him as a Holocaust denier, Irving’s prior “revisionism” was hardly more historically sound.

Simply for calling him what he was, Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin, were hit with a libel lawsuit by Irving in 1996. In one of Denial’s early scenes, Lipstadt, portrayed by Rachel Weisz, reacts with disbelief as her solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), explains the intricacies of British libel law. Because it puts the burden proof on the defendant, Lipstadt, if she opted to contest the case, would have to, in effect, prove the truth of the Holocaust in order to validate her contention that Irving was denying established fact. Considering how Lipstadt, on principle, refuses to debate Holocaust deniers, Irving’s decision to bring suit against her was a cruel yet clever way of forcing her to engage with him. Stuck with the choice of letting Irving claim victory or exposing his calumnies, Lipstadt—who proudly tells Julius that her parents named her after the biblical female warrior—chooses to fight.

What follows, as Lipstadt journeys to London, is a fish-out-of-water legal drama wherein a brash, Jewish American history professor from New York must navigate her way through staid and forbidding British institutions. While Julius (a prominent British Jew who successfully won Princess Diana her generous divorce settlement and has since gone on to publish an acclaimed history of anti-Semitism in England) prepares the case behind the scenes, arguing before the judge is barrister Richard Rampton (the outstanding Tom Wilkinson), a classic British eccentric who keeps sandwiches in his cupboard and masters German within a year so that he can read the original Nazi documents Irving distorts. Throughout the film, Lipstadt’s forthright personal style rushes up against the wall of her lawyers’ conservative, risk-averse legal strategy. She is a passionate, outspoken woman who wants to scream obvious truths to the world (the Holocaust happened, David Irving is a lying bigot) but must defer to the prerogatives of British understatement. When Lipstadt’s lawyers inform her that she will not take the stand (as doing so would distract from the heart of the case—her written words), she is dejected. Lipstadt is similarly crestfallen when told that no survivors will testify, though that initial sense of outrage dissipates once the stomach-churning image of Irving’s potential cross-examination takes root.

Written by the British playwright David Hare (who also adapted the Holocaust-themed novel The Reader for the screen), Denial occasionally veers into didacticism, perhaps inevitable given the technicality of the subject matter. Though Hare is one of Britain’s most acclaimed contemporary dramatic writers, his greatest skill here is editing. The film’s best scenes are those that take place in the courtroom, where Hare crafted dialogue completely verbatim from the hundreds of hours of trial transcripts and where Irving—an egotist who, like most frauds, suffers from delusions of grandeur—represented himself. If the character of Irving (bravely played by Timothy Spall as an ultimately pathetic, rather than purely evil, villain) and his motives remain obscure, it’s entirely intentional. Hare, according to the film’s publicity materials, was not interested in writing “a portrait of an anti-Semite,” and Irving is therefore seen entirely from the perspective of Lipstadt and her allies.

***

Denial arrives at an important time. While the sort of historical mendacity that consigned the likes of David Irving to permanent ignominy (and a jail sentence in Austria) is not widely believed in the West, it’s alive and well in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where a theocratic regime denies the Holocaust while promising another. Across the Arab world, where any conspiracy theory about Jewish perfidy is guaranteed to earn widespread acceptance, only 8 percent of people believe that the Holocaust has been “accurately described by history” (the same poll that reported this result, conducted by the Anti-Defamation League in 2014, also found that just over half the world’s population had even heard of the Holocaust). Whereas Holocaust denial is a crime in some Western European countries, in Turkey it is conversely the assertion of the 1915-1917 Armenian genocide that risks one a jail sentence. Indeed, it was the widespread ignorance and denial of this crime that inspired Hitler’s own campaigns of mass murder some two-and-a-half decades later. In a 1939 speech delivered on the eve of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, a fateful event that would make possible the extermination of millions of Jews in the old Pale of Settlement, the führer infamously asked his generals, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

But there’s more to this film than just an exploration of Holocaust denial, a depraved pursuit that, in the West at least, remains the exclusive preserve of racists and anti-Semitic crackpots. Denial is ultimately a movie about the power of lies. Why do people believe patent falsehoods and find the men who utter them so seductive? Though Hare, Lipstadt, and the rest of the film’s production team could never have imagined it, their film—depicting a titanic battle between good and evil, truth versus deceit—resonates disturbingly in the age of Donald Trump, a man whose cascade of false assertions and authoritarian braggadocio is unprecedented among the ranks of major American presidential nominees and echo that of a despotic state propagandist. As did Irving, Trump lies about things relatively immaterial (like whether he once impersonated his own publicist) and monstrous (that the first black president of the United States is not a natural-born citizen). While a complacent political class abetted Hitler’s rise in the erroneous belief that the nascent dictator and his brownshirts could be controlled, so too has Trump been normalized by legions of ostensibly responsible people who know better.

“I have a terrible fear that if I’d been asked to draw up those plans, I might have agreed. Out of sheer weakness,” Rampton tells Lipstadt when she asks how a research trip to Auschwitz affected him. “The world is full of cowards, and I’m one of them.” And like Trump—the Queens boy eternally striving for recognition in Manhattan, whose entire presidential campaign appears to be a giant middle finger directed at the political and media establishment provoked by a richly deserved, 5-year-old act of humiliation meted out to him by the president of the United States at a black-tie Washington rubber chicken dinner—Irving constantly sought validation from the British elite he simultaneously despised. After the verdict is read in Lipstadt’s favor, Irving cheerily approaches Rampton with hand outstretched as if the two had just played a friendly match of tennis. (Rampton brusquely, and appropriately, rebuffs him).

Trump’s mendacity, in totality, may not be as morally hideous as Irving’s. His impulsive, indiscriminate lies are expressed not in the service of any discernable ideological agenda but rather his own personal advancement. Irving, meanwhile, carefully and painstakingly strung together a series of small, deceptively innocuous lies to advance a broad, wicked one: a conspiracy theory exonerating the most ruthless and depraved regime in human history. But if Trump’s lies are less heinous than those of Irving, he makes up for it with influence and power. Irving, after all, was widely discredited by the time he decided to sue Lipstadt, unable to find a publisher for his books, and reduced to delivering lectures at the Tampa Bay Best Western. Donald Trump is just a few mediocre debate performances and a financial crisis away from becoming the most powerful man on Earth.

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New Ken Burns film spotlights little-known Holocaust rescuers

How a quiet New England couple traveled to Europe on the eve of WWII and saved hundreds through clandestine operations — including money laundering and smuggling

m-and-w-sharp-880x543TA — In 1940, as he was being transported to safety in the lower deck of a ship, the Jewish author Lion Feuchtwanger asked Waitstill Sharp why the American Unitarian minister had bothered to rescue him from the Nazis.

Sharp and his wife, Martha, had spent much of the previous two years smuggling Jews out of Nazi-controlled territory. Saving people from persecution, the clergyman had told Feuchtwanger, was what any able person should do.

“I think something frightful, in addition to what has befallen Europe, is going to befall now,” Sharp later recalled saying. “I’m not a saint. I’m just as capable of the sins of human nature as anyone else. But I believe that the will of God is to be interpreted by the liberty of the human spirit.”

It’s an intimate moment in “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” a documentary co-directed by the renowned filmmaker Ken Burns that takes a highly personal look at the American Christian couple who left a quiet life in New England, traveled to Nazi-occupied Europe and smuggled hundreds of Jews to safety.

The movie, which relies on written recollections of the Sharps (Waitstill is voiced by Tom Hanks), archival footage, and interviews with survivors and historians, premieres September 20 on PBS.

“Defying the Nazis” is a change of pace for Burns, a director best known for sweeping documentaries on broad topics — see: “Civil War,” “Jazz” or “Baseball.” But when confronting the Holocaust’s enormity, Burns said the best approach was to focus on narrow, resonant stories like that of the Sharps rather than statistics that can mask the pain of mass atrocity.

“The number six million has become rather opaque,” Burns told JTA by phone from his office in New Hampshire. “We just say it, and it lacks dimension and specificity. Here you have a story of two people who saved a few hundred people on the edges of that Holocaust.”

However, the final frame of “Defying the Nazis” dedicates the film to all the Holocaust victims who were not saved.

“If the finale does anything, it reminds us that those six million are an amputated limb whose lives we still miss, and who ought to itch and bother us as long as we are human beings,” Burns said.

‘The number six million has become rather opaque. We just say it, and it lacks dimension and specificity’

The film traces the story of the Sharps, who were living in Wellesley, Massachusetts, when the American Unitarian Association asked them to travel to Czechoslovakia in 1939 and France in 1940 to help people persecuted by the Nazis. The couple provided relief to embattled groups, raised money for refugee aid and smuggled Nazi targets, including children, out of the country. They are two of the five Americans who have been inducted by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, as Righteous Among the Nations.

Burns became connected to the film through his co-director, Artemis Joukowsky, the Sharps’ grandson and a fellow alumnus of Hampshire College. Joukowsky first showed the film to Burns five years ago, and Burns steadily became more involved, beginning as an informal adviser and ending as a co-director.

Burns compared his evolving role in the film to dialing up the heat slowly on a frog in a saucepan. “But this is a good kind of boil,” he added.

“It’s just firing on all cylinders,” he said of the movie. “You have a comfortable middle-class Unitarian minister and his wife [who] live in Wellesley, Mass. The most dramatic thing that happens is what he says on Sunday. They leave their small children behind, go to Prague on the eve of World War II. She’s dodging various Gestapo agents at night; he’s going to European capitals to launder money.”

In the film, much of the Sharps’ story is told through the memories of the now-adult children the couple rescued. Burns said the childhood memories created the personal recollection necessary to capture the narrative’s emotional atmosphere.

‘Those six million are an amputated limb whose lives we still miss, and who ought to itch and bother us as long as we are human beings’

“Children make unusually accurate witnesses,” he said. “You really remember when your parents are happy, and you really, really remember when your parents are anxious and sad.”

The movie adds another personal touch as it turns away from the Sharps’ rescue work and documents the rising tensions in the couple’s marriage after they return to the States. It’s bookended by an excerpt of a letter from Waitstill to Martha hoping to grow closer to her again.

“There was a fear of the messiness of this story,” Burns said, noting that he was undeterred. “The longing for the other sets in motion that this is about two people in a complicated relationship, as well as about the large topics that are involved here.”

Burns said he isn’t done with Holocaust documentation. He’s in the early stages of planning a movie about the US role in preventing the Holocaust — a topic he says most people don’t fully understand. And though his first allegiance in “Defying the Nazis” was to telling an accurate story, he hopes viewers come away with a drive to do more for today’s refugees.

“We are right now in a refugee crisis in the world that is dwarfed only by the Second World War,” he said. “This is a story, ultimately, about sacrifice and its costs.

“These people endangered their lives to save other human beings. They presumed everyone else would do it. What a wonderful presumption. It’s not true, but I hope it does galvanize others.”

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Warsaw ghetto’s secret archive goes Hollywood

New film based on two recovered document troves — out of three buried during the Holocaust — depicts the ‘Oneg Shabbat’ archive’s creators, few of whom survived the Nazi regime

thumbnail_Serena-and-Sam-on-setBy the time Serena Kassow appeared in a film about the Warsaw ghetto’s secret archive, she had heard about “the most important untold story of the Holocaust” for the better part of her life.

As the daughter of Holocaust historian Samuel Kassow, the 21 year old grew up watching her father collect stories from local survivors in Connecticut, particularly those from Poland. Years of learning culminated in May, when Kassow joined her father on the set of “Who Will Write Our History?” a documentary based on his book about the Warsaw ghetto’s “Oneg Shabbat” archive.

The day after receiving her theater studies degree from Boston’s Emerson College, Kassow flew to Poland for what she called “an incredibly personal month.” Having heard she was a theater student, the film’s producers cast Kassow as a featured extra. On ghetto sets in Warsaw and Lodz, she portrayed a typist preparing reports for the clandestine archive, from which 25,000 documents have come down to history.

Born in a displaced persons camp in Germany, Samuel Kassow led the creation of two popular galleries at the acclaimed POLIN museum in Warsaw, opened in 2014 to depict 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland. Kassow designed the museum’s pre-war “Jewish street” exhibit, which — like the entire museum — sits atop a storied area of the former ghetto, close to uprising sites and several memorials.

rugs“My father made the ‘Jewish street’ exhibit like he was making it for me and my sister,” said Kassow. “It is made for someone who has not studied pre-war Jewish life in Warsaw, with a lot of artifacts on display about films, sports, magazines, theater, and all the things we are still interested in today.”

‘A nation that produces these monsters’


Oneg Shabbat visionary Emanuel Ringelblum was a communal leader and respected scholar before the war. An expert on Jewish history in Poland, he was well suited to document Warsaw’s imperiled Jews, up to 300,000 of whom were eventually gassed at Treblinka.

Several principles guided Ringelblum and Oneg Shabbat volunteers he worked with. No aspect of ghetto life was too inconsequential for them, whether candy wrappers, ration cards, or jokes and slang of the day. All aspects of ghetto political life were to be represented with underground newspapers, meeting minutes and other documents. Oneg Shabbat was not to be an “edited” version of history, but an exhaustive collection of primary sources.

Of particular interest to historians has been Ringelblum and others’ sharp criticism of ghetto leaders, including the Jewish Council appointed by the Nazis to execute their orders.

“Maybe a nation that produces these monsters deserves what it is getting,” wrote Yiddish writer Shie Perle in an Oneg Shabbat document, as recalled by Samuel Kassow during a lecture at Emerson College in April.

“These monsters,” according to Kassow, were the Jewish policemen under orders to empty the ghetto of its inhabitants. When Perle wrote those words, Oneg Shabbat members already knew the truth about Treblinka, as proven in reports sent to Great Britain about the death camp.

“He put this [criticism] in the archive so that people would trust it,” said Kassow, adding that Ringelblum wanted resistance and “quiet heroism” to shine through the buried collection. Also, Kassow admitted, “Ringelblum had an intuition that after the war, people would ask stupid questions.”

‘We control how we are remembered’


Executive-produced by Nancy Spielberg, the release of “Who Will Write Our History?” next year could revive interest in the missing, third cache of documents buried by Oneg Shabbat staff in 1943.

With the first and second caches unearthed in 1946 and 1950, there has long been speculation about the final trove of documents buried near the ghetto’s brush-making shops before the uprising. Since paved over, the area is now home to the Chinese Embassy.

A team of Israeli archeologists failed to uncover the third cache beneath embassy grounds during a 2003 excavation. However, if the documents were buried in milk canisters or metal boxes, as with the first and second troves, today they could potentially be located with ground-penetrating radar (GPR). Investigations conducted at Treblinka and elsewhere have made fruitful use of GPR and other non-invasive tools refined since 2003.

As of now, there are no plans to dig or scan for Oneg Shabbat’s missing swan song to history. Reportedly, the cache contains documents about several Jewish fighting groups and preparations for the revolt. There has been recent debate about the roles played by various armed groups during the uprising, and sources from the ghetto’s final months could clarify points of contention — assuming the cache is ever found, and that any documents are legible after 73 years (and counting) in the ground.

According to Samuel Kassow, the Oneg Shabbat creators wanted “posterity to remember them from Jewish and not just German sources. As long as we control how we are remembered, you haven’t killed us,” Kassow said of the group’s motivation.

Film director Roberta Grossman called the archive, “the most important untold story of the Holocaust,” setting the bar high for her documentary, currently in editing.

In contrast to films focused on the ghetto’s climactic uprising, this production promises to shed light on the full three years of life, and death, behind ghetto walls. This broader view includes women’s roles in creating the archive, acting as resistance agents, and sustaining life in the ghetto.

As one of just three Oneg Shabbat members to survive the war, historian Rachel Auerbach will feature prominently in the film. Her poignant studies on children and starvation are highlights of the archive, along with her personal dairy. While hiding in the Aryan part of Warsaw following the uprising, Auerbach wrote essays about the ghetto’s destruction and Treblinka that were circulated throughout Poland.

Lamenting the “black soil of Jewish Warsaw,” Auerbach recalled the ghetto’s bagel sellers, knife wielders, and ubiquitous beggars in her essay, “Yizkor, 1943,” written after her escape. She recorded the names of her relatives sent to Treblinka and Belzec, and compared her memory to a cemetery for murdered loved ones. Throughout Nazi-occupied Poland and beyond, the genocide was to rage on for another, third year.

“I feel the need to say Yizkor four times a day,” wrote Auerbach, who later established the witness testimony department of Yad Vashem in Israel.

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