Category Archive: THE PRESS

Compromise Proposed To Resolve Insurance Claims

A proposal to have an independent monitor oversee European insurance companies’ efforts to pay all outstanding Holocaust-era policies appears to be gaining traction among major Jewish organizations. Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, said he suggested the proposal after hearing survivors plead with Congress for the right to sue insurance companies they believe have withheld death benefits on the policies of those killed in the Holocaust. Rosensaft said his organization supports the proposal because it wants to see survivors collect their benefits now. He said he fears that even if Congress passed legislation giving survivors the right to sue the insurance companies, “at most it would be a pyrrhic victory” because they might not live long enough to see their court cases decided.

Taking another look at Pope Pius XII’s actions during the Holocaust

Pope Pius XII reigned between 1939 and 1958, a period of catastrophic events. But history seems mainly concerned about his behaviour around the Holocaust. Pius has been accused of being a German sympathizer or at best failing to do his moral duty to help save the Jews of Europe by keeping silent. For others he was a saint who used his skill as a diplomat to save thousands of Jews from Nazi terror. But this week in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, the world’s foremost Holocaust museum, softened its criticism of the wartime pope, allowing that despite faults he did help save Jewish lives.

Wiesel rejects Hungarian award over Nazi concerns

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel says he’s repudiating a Hungarian award he received in 2004 because top officials from Budapest recently attended a ceremony for a Nazi sympathizer.
The memorial rite weeks ago offended the 83-year-old Holocaust survivor, whose parents and sister were sent to their deaths by wartime Hungarian officials.  “It’s too close to home,” Wiesel told The Associated Press in an interview last week.  Wiesel said in a letter to Hungarian Parliamentary Speaker Laszlo Kover that he doesn’t want to be associated with activities such as the May 27 ceremony for Jozsef Nyiro, a World War II member of Hungary’s parliament whom Wiesel calls a “fascist ideologue” and “an anti-Semite.”

NY advocate for Holocaust survivors dies at 59

NEW YORK — A longtime advocate for Holocaust survivors has died at age 59.
Elan Steinberg died Friday after a brief illness. His death was confirmed by Menachem Rosensaft, who is vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.
At the time of his death, Steinberg was a vice president for the group.
He previously served as executive director of the World Jewish Congress.
Steinberg was a leader in the campaign to obtain billions of dollars in restitution for Holocaust survivors.
Rosensaft says Steinberg fought to obtain justice from Swiss banks, European governments and others who profiteered from the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust.
He said his colleague had a brilliant mind and great heart, both of which are irreplaceable.

Elan Steinberg Dies at 59; Led World Jewish Congress

Elan Steinberg, who brought what he called a new, “American style” assertiveness to the World Jewish Congress as its top executive, winning more than $1 billion from Swiss banks for Holocaust victims and challenging Kurt Waldheim, the former United Nations secretary general, over his Nazi past, died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 59.
The cause was complications of lymphatic cancer, his wife, Sharon, said.
As its executive director from 1978 to 2004, Mr. Steinberg was a key strategist for the congress as it grew bolder under a younger generation of Jews. He helped organize the research, hearings, press leaks and lawsuit that led the Swiss banks to agree to pay $1.2 billion to Holocaust victims in the late 1990s.
He also ruffled feathers. Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The New York Times that he applauded the congress’s “persistence,” but worried that the Swiss might begin to see Jews as “their enemy.” He said the congress’s crusade “fed into the stereotype that Jews have money, that it’s the most important thing to them.”
Even Simon Wiesenthal, the relentless hunter of Nazi war criminals, questioned the congress’s new aggressiveness when it threw itself into the Austrian presidential campaign in 1986 to try to defeat Mr. Waldheim, who was ultimately elected. Mr. Waldheim had hidden his membership in a Nazi military unit linked to atrocities.
Mr. Wiesenthal argued that Mr. Waldheim was “an opportunist” but not a war criminal. He worried that the congress, by inserting itself into Austria’s internal politics, was undoing years of patient work toward reconciling young Austrians and Jews.
Mr. Steinberg countered that electing Mr. Waldheim would stain all Austrians. “In the whole world it will be said that a former Nazi and a liar is the representative of Austria,” he said.
The tough stance was a departure for the congress, which was formed in 1936 in response to the rising Nazi threat in Europe and whose headquarters are now in New York. Mr. Steinberg himself used the word “strident” to describe his approach in taking the once-staid organization into quarrels, as it did in 1985 when President Ronald Reagan, alongside Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany, visited a German cemetery in which Nazi SS soldiers were buried.
“For a long time,” Mr. Steinberg said, “the World Jewish Congress was meant to be the greatest secret of Jewish life, because the nature of diplomacy after the war was quiet diplomacy. This is a newer, American-style leadership — less timid, more forceful, unashamedly Jewish.”
Mr. Steinberg steered the congress in opposing the presence of a Carmelite convent at the site of the Auschwitz death camp and championing former slave laborers under the Nazis in their fight for compensation.
When Steven Spielberg was making the 1993 film “Schindler’s List,” he wanted to shoot scenes inside a building that had been part of the Auschwitz camp, Mrs. Steinberg said. As she recounted the episode, Mr. Spielberg went to the congress and conferred with Mr. Steinberg, who told him, “You cannot film on the graves of Jews.” Mr. Spielberg instead built a replica of the building.
“Whenever Jews were in danger, or Jewish honor offended, he vigorously yet elegantly spoke up,” Elie Wiesel, the author and Holocaust survivor, said in a statement read at Mr. Steinberg’s funeral. “Whenever Jewish memory was attacked, he attacked the attacker.”
Elan Steinberg was born in Rishon LeZion, Israel, on June 2, 1952, to Holocaust survivors. He grew up in the Brownsville and Borough Park sections of Brooklyn and was a graduate of Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and Brooklyn College. He received a master’s degree in political science from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, then taught there.
He joined the congress in 1978 as its United Nations representative, and rose to executive director — first of the American section, then of the world body. Menachem Rosensaft, the congress’s general counsel, said Mr. Steinberg was instrumental in persuading the Vatican and Spain to recognize Israel.
Mr. Steinberg resigned in 2004 but remained a consultant to the congress’s president, Ronald S. Lauder. He was vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.
In addition to his wife, the former Sharon Cohen, Mr. Steinberg, who lived in Manhattan, is survived by his children, Max, Harry and Lena Steinberg, and his brother, Alex.
Mr. Rosensaft told another story to illustrate his friend’s mix of grit and wit. Mr. Steinberg was negotiating one day with the French culture minister to recover paintings stolen from Jews during the Holocaust. The minister huffed that Mr. Steinberg knew nothing about art.
“You’re right,” Mr. Steinberg said. “I don’t know anything about art. I’m from Brooklyn. I know about stolen goods.”

Seeing Jerusalem anew

By Menachem Z. Rosensaft
Many of us who travel to Israel frequently risk becoming jaded. Obsessed by Realpolitik, the peace process, internecine and ultimately unproductive Jewish political polemics, philanthropic hype, or just plain business concerns, we lose sight of Israel’s true significance.
Two weeks ago, my friend Robert Fagenson asked me to accompany him on a four-day whirlwind trip to Jerusalem to participate in the Western Wall Bar Mitzvah ceremony of his partner’s grandson. Robert is a prominent Wall Street Executive, a former Vice Chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, and a life-long member of New York City’s Temple Emanu-El. He had been to Israel twice before, the last time in 1968.

As our plane flies over the Israeli coast line on Wednesday afternoon, Robert is amazed at the urban Tel Aviv sprawl the rest of us have come to take for granted. He remembers a far less developed landscape, predominated by sand dunes rather than skyscrapers and industrial complexes.

That evening in Jerusalem, we walk through the pedestrian Mamilla Mall, from the foot of King David Street to the Jaffa Gate. The old and new cities, two separate universes for decades, are now intrinsically linked by a succession of stores, art galleries, and cafés that put the spotlight on the exigencies of daily life.

The Thursday morning service at the Western Wall is simultaneously moving and more than a bit chaotic. The plaza is filled with different family groups each calling a 13-year-old to the Torah for the first time. Ashkenazi and Sephardic melodies vie with one another to create a mostly atonal yet authentic blend. As Avi, the Bar Mitzvah boy, is wrapped in his prayer shawl, his talit, there are tears in his grandfather’s eyes. Marty Vegh’s journey, from a Displaced Persons camp in Germany to Staten Island, New York, and now to Jerusalem, epitomizes the globalization of the Jewish people in the aftermath of World War II. Robert is the first to be called up to read from the Torah. He is now part of not so much a historical chain than an infinite tapestry.

A few hours later, we are welcomed at the Israel Museum by its director, James Snyder. Robert’s uncle and aunt, Joseph and Sylvia Slifka, donated some of the museum’s major works, including a magnificent Miro and exquisite Jean Arp and Max Ernst sculptures. As we see them in the midst of an impressive, world class collection of Impressionist and contemporary art, we could just as easily be in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan or the Centre George Pompidou in Paris. Until, that is, we walk a few steps further and find ourselves in synagogues that have been relocated from different countries in Europe, North Africa, and elsewhere. Somehow, they put the Pissarros, Monets and Chagalls in perspective.

We are then shown a collection of works of art and craft created in Jerusalem at the Bezalel School between 1906 and 1929 that Robert’s cousin Alan Slifka, who died earlier this year, had given to the Israel Museum. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, Boris Schatz, a Lithuanian born Jewish artist, undertook to implement in Palestine a new decorative craftsmanship, along the lines advocated by John Ruskin in England but rooted in Middle Eastern folk styles and infused with an often intangible, elusive Jewish spark. We are suddenly conscious of a time before the Holocaust, before the world went utterly mad, when the forging of a modern Jewish nation required not just Zionist ideology and political philosophy, not just building cities and kibbutzim in a hurry and training idealists to become soldiers, but the creation, indeed the invention, of a new Israeli, as opposed to simply Jewish, culture.

On Friday morning, we go to the museum at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. I watch Robert absorb the testimonies of both the dead and the survivors. Warsaw Ghetto cobblestones. A model of the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Reflections and echoes of murdered Jewish children whose ghosts haunt the galleries and, henceforth, our subconscious. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regularly threatens the State of Israel with genocidal annihilation. Perhaps every world leader, every United Nations diplomat, every journalist who covers Middle East political developments should walk through the Yad Vashem museum so as to grasp why Ahmadinejad, Hamas and Hezbollah are little more than reincarnations of blind, implacable Nazi evil. Emerging into the sun-lit Judean hills, we have a new appreciation of Israel’s critical role as a haven for any Jew threatened by persecution anywhere in the world.

From Yad Vashem, we return to the Western Wall where Rabbi Jay Marcus, a Staten Island rabbi who settled in Israel a few years ago, guides us through the tunnels that have been excavated alongside what had been one of the retaining walls of the Temple Mount in Herodian times. We proceed underground for more than 1,500 feet, all the while feeling stones that stand silent witness to a Jewish presence here centuries before the birth of Muhammad ibn Abdullah.

Of course Jerusalem is sacred to Christians and Muslims as well as to Jews. But the city is central only to Judaism. It is also far too often forgotten that during close to two decades of Jordanian rule, from 1948 until 1967. Jews were forbidden to set foot in the old city of Jerusalem and much of the Jewish Quarter was destroyed and desecrated. Today, Muslims, Christians and Jews worship here freely.
Sometime soon, I hope to see Jerusalem through the eyes of our twin grandchildren, now two- and-three-quarters years old. In the meantime, as our plane lifts into the sky several hours after the end of Shabbat, I am grateful to Robert for enabling me to remember that both Israel and Jerusalem must be experienced, not just visited, to be absorbed and understood.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, Lecturer in Law at Columbia Laws School, Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and Vice President of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants

New book claims Coco Chanel was Nazi spy

PARIS — Coco Chanel: A fashion icon whose name has become shorthand for timeless French chic, a shrewd businesswoman who overcame a childhood of poverty to build a luxury supernova and … a Nazi spy? A new book by a Paris-based American historian suggests Chanel not only had a wartime affair with a German aristocrat and spy, but that she herself was also an agent of Germany’s Abwehr military intelligence organization and a rabid anti-Semite. Doubts about Chanel’s loyalties during World War II have long festered, but “Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War” goes well beyond those previous allegations, citing as evidence documents culled from archives around the world. The book, published in the U.S. on Tuesday by Knopf, has ruffled feathers in France, where the luxury industry is a pillar of the economy and Chanel is widely regarded as the crowning jewel. The House of Chanel was quick to react, saying in a statement that “more than 57 books have been written about Gabrielle Chanel. … We would encourage you to consult some of the more serious ones.
“Hal Vaughan, an 84-year-old World War II veteran and longtime journalist who previously wrote two other history books, insists that he is serious. “Sleeping with the Enemy” is the fruit of more than four years of intense labor born out of an accidental find in France’s national police archive, he said.”I was looking for something else and I come across this document saying ‘Chanel is a Nazi agent … her pseudonym is Westminster,'” Vaughan told The Associated Press. “I look at this again and I say, ‘What the hell is this?’ I couldn’t believe my eyes!” Then I really started hunting through all of the archives, in the United States, in London, in Berlin and in Rome and I come across not one, but 20, 30, 40 absolutely solid archival materials on Chanel and her lover, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, who was a professional Abwehr spy,” Vaughan said. Born in 1883 in a hospice for the poor in France’s western Pays de la Loire region, Gabrielle Chanel had remade herself into the famed couturiere and proudly independent Coco Chanel by the outbreak of World War II. During the conflict, she holed up with von Dincklage — a dashing German officer 12 years her junior who was one in her long string of lovers — in Paris’ Ritz Hotel, which was then under Nazi control.The book alleges that in 1940, Chanel was recruited into the Abwehr — her nom de guerre borrowed from another of her lovers, the Duke of Westminster. The book also suggests that Chanel’s alleged anti-Semitism pushed her to try to capitalize on laws allowing for the expropriation of Jewish property to wrest control of the Chanel perfume lines from the Wertheimer brothers, a Jewish family who’d helped make her Chanel No. 5 a worldwide best-seller.
A US-based organization of Holocaust survivors said it was “shocked” by the book’s allegations and called on Chanel to launch an independent investigation into the book’s claims.

“The documents on Ms. Chanel’s past are too serious and historically important to be cavalierly dismissed by the fashion house without any effort to confirm their veracity through objective research,” said Elan Steinberg, vice-president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.

After the war, Chanel was arrested and released hours later, saved by “the intervention of her old friend Winston Churchill,” the press release for the book said. She fled to Switzerland.
Asked why the book, which is chock-a-block with allegations of Chanel’s shady dealings before, during and after the war, had turned up so much more dirt than the scores of previous biographies about the fashion icon, Vaughan had two explanations. Firstly, many of the documents he cited had only recently been declassified.Secondly, he said, many people have a vested interest in protecting Chanel’s aura of unsullied chic.”A lot of people in this world don’t want the iconic figure of Gabrielle Coco Chanel, one of France’s great cultural idols, destroyed,” said Vaughan. “This is definitely something that a lot of people would have preferred to put aside, to forget, to just go on selling Chanel scarves and jewelry.” Despite the doubts that have long lingered over Chanel’s wartime doings, the multi-billion-dollar fashion brand that bears her name has sought to spotlight its founder. For the set of its last runway show — the fall-winter 2011 haute couture collection in July — the brand recreated a life-sized version of Paris’ tony Place Vendome, swapping the towering Napoleon statue for a sculpture of Coco Chanel in her iconic tweeds.

Jews march to Auschwitz to honor Holocaust victims

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — About 7,000 Jews marched to the former German Nazi death camp of Auschwitz on Monday in memory of the 6 million Holocaust victims.Participants in the 20th annual March of the Living were carrying Israeli flags. They started from the former camp’s gate with the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Sets You Free”) sign.The crowd walked about 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the red brick buildings of Auschwitz I to the wooden barracks and gas chambers of Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, where a memorial ceremony was held at a monument to the camp’s victims.The march, which is traditionally held on Holocaust Memorial Day, also included some Holocaust survivors.Between 1942-1945, Jews from across Europe were brought to Birkenau by rail and killed in its gas chambers. At least 1.1 million people — mostly Jews, Poles and Gypsies — died that way or from starvation, disease and forced labor at the camp that German Nazis built in occupied Poland during World War II.The Auschwitz camp was liberated Jan. 27, 1945 by Soviet troops.Meanwhile, in Lithuania dozens of people paid tribute to the nearly 200,000 Jews who died 70 years ago when the Nazis invaded the country.Waving Israeli and Lithuanian flags, about 100 demonstrators paid tribute to the dead by marching to the Holocaust survivor memorial outside the capital, Vilnius.