Category Archive: THINK PIECES & OPINION

Under Trump, a new job for Holocaust scholars

For those of us who teach and research the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, the Trump administration’s refusal to mention Jews in a statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day has been both horrifying and confusing. It has been horrifying because the failure to acknowledge that Jews were the overwhelming victims of Germany’s genocidal campaign is unquestionably a form of Holocaust denial. It has been confusing because we haven’t been able to understand why the administration would choose to engage in Holocaust denial nor begin to grasp the implications for the American Jewish community.

There had been warning signs throughout the 2016 campaign. In three years of teaching a course on America and the Holocaust at Northeastern University in Boston, I have always treated American anti-Semitism as mostly a remnant of a darker time in American history that only manifested itself now on the extreme left or the extreme right of American politics. As I taught the course this fall, however, I had to confront Facebook memes depicting Trump critics in concentration camp uniforms behind Auschwitz’ gates and Stars of David superimposed on Hillary Clinton’s face in front of piles of money. I had to read the stories of Jewish journalists, who received a steady stream of vicious anti-Semitic messages delivered to their email inboxes, Twitter accounts, and even front steps.

Still, I assumed that the problem was that Trump and his minions weren’t doing enough to rein in their more vociferous supporters. Even after Trump chose Steve Bannon, the executive chair of the far right and white supremacist affiliated site, Breitbart News, to run his campaign, I still assumed that Holocaust denial and the anti-Semitism inevitably associated with it, weren’t important to Trump.

After all, he has a Jewish son-in-law, daughter and grandchildren.

Then came the Holocaust statement that didn’t mention Jews.

As Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust and several other important books on the Holocaust, recounted in an article in The Atlantic, she initially assumed the failure to mention Jews was a rookie mistake, an oversight during the chaotic first days of a new administration. It quickly became apparent that this was no mistake. Trump’s key spokespeople defended the omission, explaining that Trump officials deliberated overlooked Jews because “We are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered.” Of course no one denies that other groups suffered horribly at the hands of Nazi Germany but as Elie Wiesel famously stated, ‘Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”

The White House press secretary attacked those who criticized the statement as “ridiculous,” “pathetic,” and “nitpicking,” and explained how much “the president went out of his way to recognize the Holocaust.” Politico recently reported that the State Department had drafted a statement mentioning Jewish victims, similar to ones issued by Presidents Bush and Obama, but that the Trump White House refused to use it. The administration also seemed to defend that statement by releasing the nugget that it had been written by a Jewish advisor.

In the days following the offensive statement, those who study the Holocaust responded quickly and fiercely. Led by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, they asserted the undeniable historical record of Jewish targeting and Jewish suffering, and condemned those who tried to obfuscate it. Indeed, Holocaust scholars have done a good job tackling what was horrifying in what Trump said.

But we haven’t faced what was confusing. Why would the President of the United States in a public statement on a most solemn of days choose to identify with Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism? What was he, and frankly Bannon, trying to say and to whom? Were they speaking to the white supremacists and anti-Semites among Trump’s followers who clearly got the message? Was it just another example of this administration’s intent to defy all societal norms, even seemingly the most sensitive and nearly universal ones surrounding Holocaust remembrance? Did they relish the fact that they could get away with it? Was it a sinister threat aimed at liberal Jews who retain powerful positions, particularly in the media and entertainment industry? Did it reflect the administration’s adoption of the Russian perspective on this as on so many things, leading it to parrot the old Soviet-line that many people were “innocent victims” of the Nazis? Was it a signal to everyone in society that nothing, not even the murder of six million people, is sacred?

I don’t know the answer or answers. But those of us who research and teach this most important and most profound of topics should not just condemn the deeply demoralizing statement but also begin to probe its meaning and ramifications. That means we need to do what makes us profoundly uncomfortable — establish clearly and publicly the connections between the history we understand and the reality we are experiencing. Of course, we must do it with the scholar’s mindset, pointing out the differences as well as the similarities, rejecting overstatement and emotionalism. We also need to encourage the journalism that seeks to reveal the administration’s motivation and operation and then be willing to analyze the disclosures through our unique lens. We need to jump into the public arena in a way we never have before. Right now that may be the most important work as scholars, as Jews, as citizens, that we can possibly do.

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The Memory of the Holocaust is No Excuse for Inaction

If there is anything that can infuse some meaning into the murder of our loved ones, it is that we will create such unity that will prevent such a fate from reoccurring.

ShowImageToday, on January 27, 2017, the world is commemorating the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Today, the world is once again increasingly antisemitic. Today, we can stop a Second Holocaust from happening, because it will, unless we take assertive action.

Shortly before the expulsion from Spain, the Jews eagerly assimilated among their Spanish hosts, wrote the acclaimed historian Jane S. Gerber in The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience. Spanish Jewry considered Spain the new Jerusalem, and thought that “the presence of so many Jews and Christians of Jewish ancestry in the inner circles of the court, municipalities, and even the Catholic church could provide protection and avert the decree” of expulsion. They were wrong.

Like their brethren in Spain, German Jews believed that if they assimilated among the Germans, they would be safe from the eternal finger pointing that is the lot of the Jew. Professors Steven J. Zipperstein of Stanford University and Jonathan Frankel of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, write in Assimilation and Community: The Jews in Nineteenth-Century Europe, that a few years after the start of the Jewish emancipation, David Friedlander, one of the Jewish community’s most prominent leaders, suggested that Berlin Jews would convert to Christianity en masse. We are remembering today how this assimilation ended.

For many centuries, whenever Jews tried to abandon the tribe, their host nation would punish them heavily. For centuries, Jew-lovers and Jew-haters alike were baffled by the survival of the Jews despite their constant persecution and extermination. Author Mark Twain pondered Jewish survival in his essay, “Concerning the Jews”: “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

Strangely enough, even Adolf Hitler wondered how it is that the Jews have survived thus far. In Mein Kampf he wrote, “When over long periods of human history I scrutinized the activity of the Jewish people, suddenly there arose up in me the fearful question whether inscrutable Destiny, perhaps for reasons unknown to us poor mortals, did not, with eternal and immutable resolve, desire the final victory of this little nation.”

The nations cannot solve the riddle of our survival; only we can do this.

Why Are We Afflicted and Why We Have Survived

We Jews are unlike any other nation. We may want to be, but the fact that the entire world criticizes us every day, that the UN Security Council debates almost exclusively about Israel, and that Jews are the main target of hate crimes not only in Europe, but even in the US, proves that we are by far the most hated nation on the planet.

Donald Trump’s inauguration as President may give us a hiatus from overt Jew-hatred, but if we do not respond correctly to the opportunity, the backlash will explode in our faces, quite literally. Even if President Trump vetoes all the anti-Israel UN resolutions, this will not abate the hatred that the nations feel toward us. Sooner or later, he, too, will have to reconsider his position. So, to avoid another Holocaust, we must understand our unique position in the world and act accordingly.

“The Jews Are Responsible for All the Wars in the World”

Mel Gibson’s infamous 2006 rant, “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” like General William Boykin’s statement, “The Jews are the problem; the Jews are the cause of all the problems in the world,” reflect a gut feeling that to some extent, the entire world shares. Worse yet, the more unsolvable the world’s conflicts become, the more the world blames the Jews for them. Consciously or not, humanity remembers that immediately after we committed to unite “as one man with one heart,” we thereby became a nation that was tasked with being “a light unto nations.” Even if people cannot verbalize it, they feel that the light we are to bring to the world is the light of unity and peace, that unique union we had achieved at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Therefore, as long as there are hatred and war in the world, there will be antisemitism.

But to bring peace, we must understand its meaning. When our sages spoke of peace, they did not refer to absence of war. To avoid war, we can simply avoid contact. The word shalom (peace) comes from the Hebrew word shlemut (wholeness). To make peace means to make whole. It is to take two conflicting opposites and unite them in such a way that they make a new whole. It is an entity that is neither, yet is the offspring of both, a creation that could not have been made without both and which they both love dearly. Just as a man and woman together create a child who is neither the mother nor the father, but who is the beloved creation of both, peace is the resulting wholeness that two opposite, conflicting views create.

The book Likutey Halachot (Assorted Rules) writes, “The essence of vitality, existence, and correction in creation is achieved by people of differing opinions mingling together in love, unity, and peace.” Abraham taught this special unity to his disciples and descendants, and Moses taught this to the entire nation until they united in their hearts and thus became a nation with a mission to complete Moses’ work and convey this wisdom to the rest of the world. Ramchal wrote in his book, The Commentary of Ramchal on the Torah: “Moses wished to complete the correction of the world at that time, but he did not succeed because of the corruptions that occurred along the way.” We are still suffering from the corruption—it is the baseless hatred that is tearing us apart and presenting us as “a darkness unto nations” rather than their light

To understand in what way we should unite in order to become that light, think of our bodies. The diversity of organ functionality in our body ensures our health. The liver, heart, and kidneys work very differently, and all require blood. If we did not know that these organs complement each other to maintain our health, we might think that they are vying for the same resource. Yet, without each of them we would die.

Just like our bodies, “humanity” is not a generic name for “many people”; it is an entity of which we are all parts. When we view ourselves as separate beings, we have to fight for survival. But if we rose above our petty selves just for a moment, we would discover a very different reality—where we are connected and mutually supportive.

In his essay, “The Freedom,” Baal HaSulam writes that “when humankind achieves its goal of complete love of others, all the bodies in the world will unite into a single body and a single heart. However, against that, we must be watchful not to bring the views of people so close that disagreement and criticism might be terminated, for love naturally brings with it proximity of views. And should criticism and disagreement vanish, all progress in concepts and ideas will cease, and the source of knowledge in the world will dry out.”

“This,” continues Baal HaSulam, “is the proof of the obligation to caution with the freedom of the individual regarding concepts and ideas, for the whole development of the wisdom and knowledge is based on that freedom of the individual. Thus, we are cautioned to preserve it very carefully.” Peace, therefore, is possible only when we are different, yet mutually supportive, when we unite above our differences. If we do not convey this principle to the nations, they will not find it on their own and they will blame us for their wars.

Philosopher and historian, Nicholai Berdysev, wrote in The Meaning of History: “The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions and the fateful role played by them in history; all these point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny.” But what Berdysev cannot know is the specific nature of our fate, the meaning of being “a light unto nations.” If we want to avoid another round of genocide, we must begin to do what we were meant to do.

I lost almost my entire family in the Holocaust. But I understand that merely remembering them does not excuse us from action. Remembrance will not bring them back or prevent a repetition of the horror. Only our unity above our differences, precisely as described above, will establish peace among us and make us a role model for the rest of the world, “a light unto nations.” If there is anything that can infuse some meaning into the murder of our loved ones, it is that we will create such unity that will prevent such a fate from reoccurring.

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How Auschwitz Can Be Both a Memorial and a Center for Education

20-1485285708How should we define the authentic remains of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, which today are protected and preserved by the Auschwitz Memorial?

Should we define it as:

  • 150 buildings, about 300 ruins, including those of five gas chambers and four crematoria in Birkenau that are especially important to the history of the camp.
  • Over 13 kilometres of fences, and more than three thousand concrete fence posts.
  • About 110,000 shoes and 3,800 suitcases of victims, 2,100 of which bear the names of their owners.
  • About 39,000 negatives of registration photographs of prisoners, 48 volumes with about 70,000 of their death certificates, 248 volumes of Zentralbauleitung documents, and 13,000 letters and cards mailed from the camp by prisoners.

This is just the beginning of the list which summarizes the extent and the challenge of our Museum.

There is also another priceless part of our authentic collection: the archives, with over 30,000 pages of testimonies of survivors and eyewitnesses as well as over 45,000 pages of their memoirs. These are individual stories of people who survived, stories which can help us today to comprehend the existing architecture of the former camp through personal experiences, emotions and dilemmas.

I agree with the words of Menachem Rosensaft quoted by Tom Tillett that “as much as any other event, if not more so, the Holocaust requires the chronicler to be scrupulously accurate.” Yet Tillet is not accurate in saying that “the large building where most prisoners first entered Auschwitz I and went through processing is lost due to its contemporary usage,” since, in fact, this building was never actually completed during the war.

Historical Decisions

This year the Auschwitz Memorial will be 70 years old. It was created thanks to the efforts of survivors in July 1947 and in many ways, the way we operate today is based on their decisions. One such decision was to organize and house exhibitions, archives, collections and the whole management of the institution of memory in the much better constructed buildings of Auschwitz I, and to leave Birkenau in as authentic a condition as possible.

Another key decision made by survivors was to create replicas of a few structures in Auschwitz I that Germans had destroyed: They reconstructed the execution wall and one of the gallows, and used original parts to reconstruct two crematoria ovens inside the building that had housed both the original crematorium and the original gas chamber. They wanted to allow people to enter the only standing building of a former gas chamber, as all the other gas chambers and crematories in Birkenau were ruins, and those ruins were kept as such.

Almost all visitors see both parts of the Memorial. They see exhibitions and learn many historical facts about the creation and functioning of the Auschwitz complex — including Birkenau. After this educational introduction, they have the unique opportunity to better understand what they learned by looking at the remains of Birkenau itself.

We are aware that the main exhibition was created by survivors in 1955. This is why one of the most important current projects of the Memorial is creating a new exhibition, which will not only tell the story of extermination and concentration camps from the perspective of victims but will also show the world of perpetrators and the place of Auschwitz among Nazi German state institutions. The three parts of the new exhibition should be open in 2021, 2023 and 2025, respectively.

Current Challenges

We also are aware that the Memorial’s infrastructure, which was originally set up decades ago to serve up to 500,000 people annually, is not equipped for the volume of visitors we receive today (in 2016, for instance, we received over two million visitors.) We understand that people who visit and spend long hours at the Memorial need some basic accommodations, such as a bookstore, restrooms, and even a small vending area. This is why we have already started the project of creating a completely new visitors center — importantly, outside the core historical area.

We are aware that tourists visit the Memorial, but from our perspective the Auschwitz Memorial is not a tourist attraction. First and foremost, it is a place where we commemorate the fate and life stories of the 1.3 million people deported there: 1.1 million Jews, 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Sinti and Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and others. The visitors are told at the beginning of every guided tour that they are about to enter a cemetery-like site, and they should behave appropriately. Most people respect that.

The Memorial is also an important center of preservation. Our modern laboratories and conservation experts fight against time to save every single authentic remaining object— a toothbrush, a house key, a fragment of eyeglasses, a family photograph, an SS document, or the ruins of a gas chamber or a wooden barracks for prisoners (Tillett is again mistaken about the wooden barracks in Birkenau — they were not rebuilt, they are original.)

It’s also important to note that no other former German Nazi concentration camp or extermination center sites in Europe is in such authentic condition today, nor have any been so successfully preserved. The management at the Memorial can be so effective in our preservation efforts because of international consensus granted to us by the International Auschwitz Council, a consultative-advisory organ of the Polish Prime Minister’s office dedicated to preserving, maintaining and developing the site of Auschwitz and other Memorials located in today’s Poland. Its members include world-renowned authorities on the history of concentration camps and the Holocaust.

Education

The Auschwitz Memorial is also a place of education, with learning activities developed at the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, which was created in 2005. Last year, we finally secured funding that will allow us to create a modern headquarters for the center, with lecture rooms and all necessary infrastructure to conduct more extensive education programs for people from around the world.

362 days a year, our 286 educators explain the difficult and sensitive history of Auschwitz and its victims in 17 languages. They help visitors coming from all around the world to understand this complicated topic using all the authentic objects and locations at hand. They walk through the historical sites, they use exhibitions, and, as a result, they keep the authentic stories of survivors alive by telling them to people.

Many visitors come to the Memorial prepared. Teachers and educational leaders understand the role of bringing their students to the historic site not only as a lesson of history but also one of civic education — as Auschwitz has been and will continue be a warning to humanity. But we also truly believe that many people who begin their visit as tourists later became messengers of remembrance, and that this happens thanks to experiencing the authenticity of the site as guided by educators. Visiting the former camp itself is a valuable personal experience which can teach and change people. The fact that visitors might initially attend the site as tourists does not change that.

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Can Auschwitz Be a Graveyard and a Tourist Destination?

krematorium-1-has-been-rebuilt-1484847651Menachem Rosensaft once wrote that “as much as any other event, if not more so, the Holocaust requires the chronicler to be scrupulously accurate.” He further notes that “the greater the popularity of this subject, the greater the need for vigilance regarding the treatment it is accorded.” As we approach International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we need to be vigilant.

Since my most recent visit to Auschwitz, in 2015, I have been particularly concerned that while its museum often uses the term “authentic experience,” visitors are exposed to a variety of nonauthentic experiences. To provide just a few examples, the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the main gate is a reproduction; the Auschwitz I footprint actually extended into the current main parking lot and beyond; the gas chamber/crematorium (Krema I) usually shown at the end of the tour is a reproduction, and in Auschwitz II–Birkenau, the line of barracks (Section BIIA) upon entering to your right have been entirely rebuilt. To be fair, the guides will acknowledge this if asked, but the pressure of mass tourism means that they are rarely asked.

I have the utmost respect for the staff at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. They have an extraordinarily difficult job where literally every decision or official comment can quickly become controversial, yet they accept the challenge with grace, commitment and passion. The staff must navigate Polish politics, a huge increase in visitors severely straining the infrastructure and financial issues, and they must reconcile various stake-holder groups, each of whom have legitimate, though often conflicting, agendas.

But these convenient educational props can undermine their central aim if Holocaust deniers can accurately point to inconsistencies. And while the unprecedented growth in visitors to Auschwitz is in many ways a welcome development, that very surge is hastening the day when the museum’s senior staff, as well as foundation and council members, must decide if Auschwitz is simply an attraction to be checked off a tourist’s list or a sacred site as the location of the largest graveyard in the world created by the greatest crime in human history.

In his book “Dark Tourism and Crime,” Derek Dalton describes his fascination in Auschwitz from his teenage years, and the “lure” he felt to it. I am not Jewish, and have no family connections to the Shoah, but since I read a book on the prisoner uprising at Treblinka when I was 13, I’ve felt that same “lure.” My passionate interest in the Holocaust — and, in particular, Auschwitz — has led me to visit the camps on a number of occasions and study the history with more than touristic interest.

Auschwitz has come to represent the Holocaust for countless people like me worldwide, and that places a singular burden, responsibility and moral obligation on the museum. The victims and survivors unconditionally deserve historical accuracy in documenting the crimes, proper contextualization, absolute authenticity, respectful memorialization and the most up-to-date interpretations. But despite its best efforts, the museum is not succeeding in providing all this.

Historical accuracy is at times compromised by how various items are shown. The disturbing and powerful exhibition in Block Four with the hair of about 90,000 victims shown behind a long glass wall — along with similar displays of luggage and artificial limbs — do not make clear that the hair, limbs, and luggage were taken not there but at Birkenau. Also, the Gypsy-Roma experience predominantly unfolded in Birkenau Section BII, yet the excellent exhibit telling their story is in Auschwitz I. The critical historic importance of the large building where most prisoners first entered Auschwitz I and went through processing is lost due to its contemporary usage as a security checkpoint, bookstore, theater, cafeteria and group tour staging area.

If the Auschwitz complex of camps is indeed a sacred place deserving solemnity, reverence and reflection, then the immediate area just outside the actual camp (Auschwitz I) falls far short in signaling to visitors they are about to step on consecrated ground. The dilapidated parking lot with a small white trailer as the main (and only) ticket office also houses an ice cream vendor and a souvenir shop before visitors reach a main entrance in a sad state of disrepair. Neither solemn memorial nor authentic representation, arrival at Auschwitz is now just a shabby trap for the masses of dark tourists. Frankly, the victims and survivors deserve better.

The last example is the least comprehensible, most disheartening and, frankly, shocking. The Auschwitz II – Birkenau gatehouse — the Gate of Death — is arguably the most widely recognized building in the world, an iconic manifestation of pure evil. But today, the gatehouse contains a bookstore, restrooms, a small vending area, a rundown guard tower and storage rooms. Does using the gatehouse this way properly memorialize the thousands upon thousands of starving, freezing, emaciated and terrorized prisoners in their paper-thin uniforms and ill-fitting wooden clogs who went through this gate in the morning knowing that there was a good chance they would not return? How can this be the best use of a horrifying historical building that welcomed some 1.1 million victims to this camp of death?

Can Auschwitz be both a tourist attraction and a mass graveyard without making compromises that betray the memory of the victims? The decision needs to be made soon.

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Portrait of Papa as a Young Man

In my grandfather’s village, I found the man he’d been before memories of the Holocaust destroyed him

goldstein_121112_620pxOn Aug. 9, 1982, the day before my fifth birthday, my grandfather killed himself. After taking a fatal dose of sleeping pills, he went into the living room and lay down on the couch, where my grandmother found him the following morning.

I have few memories of my grandfather, whom we called Papa. Occasionally, there was a hushed comment or two about “the war,” but when I was young, I had little sense of what that meant. According to my mother, Papa had terrible nightmares, his screams occasionally waking her and my uncle when they were young. Like most Holocaust survivors, my grandparents rarely discussed the war with their kids, and so my mother assumed that the night terrors were perfectly normal, that all fathers occasionally woke their children with their shrieking. It was all she knew.

After the war Papa owned a supermarket in the Bronx, which he sold around the time I was born. Without the store to occupy his time, he was perpetually restless. There was an unmistakable sadness to him, his cheeks lean and hollowed, his icy blue eyes a shade too big for his face. Whenever he visited, he’d take me onto his lap, kiss the top of my head, and tell me that I was his lawyer. It was a joke I didn’t understand then, and it makes little sense to me now. He was gentle and sweet, and I was his lawyer. Then he disappeared. I’ve been searching for him for 30 years now.

***

Over time, I’ve gathered additional bits and pieces of his life story, most of which came from my mother and centered on Papa’s experiences during the Holocaust. He married my grandmother, whom I called Baba, a few months after the Soviets and Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. His brothers were killed in 1941 after the Nazis broke their pact with the Soviets and occupied all of Poland. In 1942, he and Baba were herded into a ghetto in Ternopil and spent time in work camps. The following year, fearing that the ghetto would be liquidated, they fled back to Janow, the small Polish village where they’d grown up. From then until the Russian army liberated the village, they hid in a bunker in the cellar of a house owned by the Kryvorukas, gentile neighbors who risked their lives to save village Jews.

According to one story my mother heard from my grandfather, a Ukrainian policia once held a gun to the head of the youngest Kryvoruka child, Yulka, and demanded to know where the Jews were. Yulka remained silent even after the policia fired a warning shot behind his head and so saved the Jews hiding in the cellar. On another occasion, whoever was supposed to be keeping watch in the attic had taken the night off. My grandfather ran to the lookout in time to see a group of soldiers trudging through a heavy snowdrift. The reason that he had time to gather everyone and scramble to the cellar to hide was that one of the soldiers dropped his pistol, and the others got on their hands and knees and groped and yelled at each other until they found it. Meanwhile, Baba, Papa, and about a dozen other Jews hustled into the bunker to safety. It is The Pianist meets The Three Stooges, and it is only because of absurdities like this that I exist.

In 2003, more than 20 years after Papa committed suicide, Baba died of complications from Alzheimer’s. While sitting shiva, my family gathered to share stories of Baba and Papa, and we realized once again how little we knew. It was then that one of my brothers or cousins first proposed a trip to Janow. Somehow, though, there never seemed to be a good time, and we procrastinated for years.

Finally, in late 2010, we got around to planning our trip. Through Yad Vashem, we were able to find the contact information for the offspring of Yulka Kryvoruka, the brave neighbor who’d saved our grandparents 70 years before. Yulka had died in 1991, and his children wished to have him recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, an honor for gentiles who’d saved Jews during the war. After a few weeks of exchanging letters, Yulka’s children agreed to meet us in Janow. I wasn’t sure what I hoped to learn, but some part of me thought that if I could see the setting of Papa’s nightmares, I could feel closer to him. I thought I might finally find him there.

When we arrived at Janow, we pulled over on a road by the village’s entrance in front of the welcome sign. After taking a picture or two, my brother Jon and my wife Zoe and I ran up to the top of a hill so we could take in a better view of the village. I’d been expecting the village to feel dark and haunted. When I’d dreamed of it, the images were always in black and white, the landscape ghostly and stark, the buildings crude, burnt-out husks.

But Janow, it turned out, was beautiful. And it wasn’t just beautiful, but exquisitely, heartbreakingly, every neuron-in-your-brain-taking-a-giddy-gulp-of-pastoral-ambrosia beautiful. The rolling green hills were covered in purple and yellow wildflowers. There were thick, healthy bees, swollen as grapes. There were low, winding brooks and fruit trees. In the distance we could see the sun glinting off the cross atop a cupola on a moss-green monastery. Below us, the Seret River ran through the village, a turbid bubbling artery, its banks covered in mud and damp grass.

After asking a few villagers where the Kryvorukas lived, we drove up to a small blue house, the path to the front door flanked by gnarled grapevines. A man and a woman walked toward the car. The woman introduced herself as Ludmyla Kryvoruka. The man was her twin brother, Yuri. Yulka’s children.

Inside, we sat and offered each other apologetic smiles. After a few minutes of exchanging pictures, we began to communicate through Alex, our tour guide. I cleared my throat and said what I’d rehearsed in my head a dozen times—something about how unusually brave and heroic their father was and how he was responsible for all of us being here. Ludmyla’s eyes grew damp. Though their father had occasionally talked about the war, he apparently said little about my grandparents. Our encounter with the Kryvorukas was gentle, suffused with a kind of stilted warmth, but clumsy. And I discovered nothing new from them about Papa.

Later we learned that the house where my grandparents had hidden was still standing. It sat at the edge of the village, about two kilometers away. My mother, Ludmyla, and her son drove with Alex. Zoe, Jon, and I walked with Yuri and his dog.

After a kilometer we ambled down a steep grassy embankment to the muddy banks of the Seret. In the distance, at the edge of an untilled field, was the house. A broad, thickly forested hill rose behind it, marking the edge of the village. This was the forest where my Baba’s youngest brother, David, for whom I’m named, was shot and killed. The scattered bones of dozens of victims must still be lodged in the earth.

The house itself, like most homes in the village, was simple and crude, a dirty white-and-blue façade with a weathered brown roof. From 100 yards away, I could see the tiny attic window through which Papa kept watch.

By the time we crossed the field, Mom, Ludmyla, her son, and Alex were on the porch with the middle-aged woman who now owned the house. Inside, the floor was coated in dust and covered in bent metallic wires. Next to a low pile of splintered wood planks was a naked doll missing its legs, its head twisted all the way around.

To our left was the room where the policia took Yulka and fired a shot over his head. To our right, through the room covered in bent wire, was the entrance to the cellar.

The cellar was only about six stairs deep. By stair three, my throat started to close as I felt a rising sense of panic, a combination of claustrophobia and fear of insects and rats and whatever else might have been skittering around in that dank, pitch-black hole.

How 13 or 14 people could have fit down here was beyond me. I tried to engage in the imaginative exercise that I’d thought was the point of the trip, tried to picture what it would have been like to hide here, all those cramped and trembling bodies, the damp and mold in their lungs, the yeasty tang of animal fear, the knowledge that a cough or sneeze would mean instant death.

But it’s impossible to really imagine it. I saw it the way I’d see a suspenseful scene in a movie, staged and artificial. The idea of being down there, choked with dust, possibly moments away from oblivion, simply wasn’t something I could grasp. It certainly brought me no closer to my grandfather, and I’d begun to appreciate how insane it had been to assume that it would.

When we returned to Yuri’s home, Alex, Mom, and Ludmyla were talking to an old man who lived down the road. He had bright blue eyes and bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows. Alex asked the old man if he knew my grandfather’s family—Pohoryles was their name. He thought for a moment and then nodded, tentatively at first, then emphatically. “Yes,” said Alex. “He knows the name.”

“Nahmush,” Mom said, her voice earnest and hopeful. “My father’s name was Nahmush.”

The man thought again and this time his eyes lit up as he slapped the back of one hand into an upturned palm.

“Yes, yes,” Alex translated. “Nahmush Pohoryles. His family sold grain. Lived right over there.” He gestured to a house up the road. “Yes. I’m sure of it.”

As if on cue, we spotted an elderly woman hobbling toward us with a crude walking stick. She wore a black headscarf, even though it was probably 90 degrees in the midday sun. When Alex addressed her, her face brightened and she began speaking with great animation. The moment she heard the name Pohoryles, she nodded and pointed to the same house the old man had. She then went on a long monologue, and we listened with astonishment as Alex translated and revealed an impressive array of biographical detail. Her mother used to deliver milk to the Pohoryles. Baba’s mother used to give her a roll on Shabbat. Papa was the youngest of three brothers; he was handsome and charming, but very serious, a good businessman. Everyone knew and liked him.

Suddenly I could see Papa as a young man, his hair thick and black, his lean and handsome face radiating a friendly professional intensity. In the 1930s, Janow was a village of over 2,000 people, and everyone knew him. I’d devoted so much mental energy to picturing Papa in hiding that I hadn’t once attempted to picture him in his day-to-day prewar life. In 1938, he was 25 years old, a decade younger than I am now. That’s the only Nahmush these villagers knew. The tormented old man with the large bloodshot eyes, the man I knew when I was a child, would be totally alien to them.

Surely my grandfather wasn’t simply sitting around Janow waiting for the Nazis to invade, for his life to become a hopeless tragedy that would end in suicide. Standing there on a flower-dotted hill, drinking in the gorgeous sun-struck landscape, listening to these charming villagers talk about my Papa, I got a small taste of what it might have felt like to be in Janow before the war. I’d thought that the point of the trip was to see the blasted, war-torn landscape where he’d almost died, but instead I found the gorgeous pastoral village where he’d lived, where he’d been more than just a victim, where he’d been an actual three-dimensional person who played and loved and thrived, and perhaps this was a far richer, more valuable thing to discover.

For a moment, I found him. I can imagine my prewar grandparents as young and in love, splashing in the Seret, surrounded by wildflowers and turkeys, giggling and happy. Such simple joys don’t begin to make up for what happened to them. Nothing can. But there’s value in remembering that their lives were more than the war and its attendant trauma. It’s something that, in a moment of terrible loneliness and pain, my gentle Papa forgot.

***

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Author P.G. Wodehouse’s apologia of Nazi-Germany broadcasts revealed

Branded a traitor in his native England, humorist began an unpublished memoir of his time being held in Berlin, but manuscript never saw the light of day

p-g-_wodehouse_1930-e1483039390735-635x357Details from an unpublished work by author P.G. Wodehouse — in which he reveals his feelings over controversial radio broadcasts he made while held by the Nazis in Germany that saw him branded a traitor in Britain — came to light this week.

The Times of London was given access to the pages which Wodehouse stopped writing after just a few chapters when friends advised him against revisiting his controversial war years.

Wodehouse, who gained fame on both sides of the Atlantic with his tales of bumbling aristocrat Bertie Wooster and inimitable butler Jeeves, made a series of radio broadcasts from Berlin in the summer of 1941 titled “How to be an Internee Without Previous Training” in which he gave a light-hearted account of his experiences while being held prisoner by the Germans.

The original typed sheets held by the New York Public Library were never published, but a copy has now been placed in the British Library.

The pages — an incomplete memoir and apologia defending himself against accusations of being a Nazi sympathizer — include the comedy writer’s responses to critics of his wartime actions. Wodehouse’s most notable critic was his former friend, A.A. Milne, who authored the Winnie-The-Pooh children’s stories.

Although Wodehouse never expressed any support or sympathy for the Nazi cause, the programs went down badly in Britain that had just suffered the Blitz, the heavy German air raids during 1940 and 1941. He was vilified in parliament, his work banned from the BBC and some libraries removed his books from their shelves.

In prose typical of his style, Wodehouse wrote “the global howl that went up as a result of my indiscretion exceeded in volume and intensity anything I have ever experienced since that time in my boyhood when I broke the ­curate’s umbrella and my aunts started writing letters to one another about it.”

Wodehouse admits in the papers that the broadcasts were a grave mistake but notes that it did not occur to him that there was any harm in them at the time.

“I overlooked completely the dangerous possibility that a wave of pro-German sentiment might be created in the United States by such revelations on my part as that when in camp I read Shakespeare, that when internees ran out of tobacco they smoked tea, that the Kommandant at Huy had short legs and didn’t like walking up hills, and that there was an unpleasant smell in my cell at Loos prison.”

Wodehouse, and his wife Ethel, were living in Le Touquet, France when the Germans invaded in 1940. The couple tried to escape but their car broke down and they were unable to make another attempt before being captured by the Germany army.

The Germans interned all male enemy nationals under the age of 60 and that included Wodehouse who was born in 1881. He was sent first to a former prison in Loos, a suburb of Lille, then moved through Belgium and finally held at Tost in Upper Silesia, German-held at the time, now Polish territory. Wodehouse was later moved to a hotel in Berlin and he made the broadcasts from the city. He remained in Germany with his wife until September 1943 after which he was allowed back to Paris and was in the city when it was liberated in August 1944.

Shortly after the liberation Wodehouse was questioned on separate occasions by British intelligence officers from MI6 and MI5 who both concluded that while the broadcasts were folly, there was no reason to prosecute him. However, the public animosity in his homeland remained and Wodehouse moved to the US in 1947, never returning to Britain. He was eventually honored with a knighthood in 1975, a month before his death. The MI5 report exonerating Wodehouse was only made public in 1980.

Feuding with Milne

The document also brought to light some details of his feud with fellow author Milne.

Wodehouse and Milne had been friends before the war but their relationship soured as a result of the broadcasts. One undated exchange came after Milne had recalled that Wodehouse, who had no children, once told him he would like a son but only if the boy was born aged 15.

“You see the advantage of that,” Milne wrote, according to the report. “Bringing up a son throws considerable responsibility on a man, but by the time the boy is 15 one has shifted the responsibility on to the housemaster.”

In response, Wodehouse skewered Milne for including his own son, Christopher Robin, in the Winnie-The-Pooh books.

“You misunderstand me, Mr [sic] Milne,” he wrote. “I was simply talking as one businessman to another. When we ­authors have infant sons, our first thought is to cash in on them, and what I meant was that you had nipped in first and cleaned up on your infant son so thoroughly that the racket was busted.

“By the time you had finished exploiting the commercial possibilities of the young Milne, infant sons had reached saturation point and there was no more money in the game. The public will accept one Christopher Robin going hoppity hoppity hop, but not a sort of Russian ballet of the offspring of rival authors going hoppity hoppity hop, too.”

Wodehouse explained his reasons for making the broadcasts, saying he wanted to express gratitude to his US fans who wrote to him while he was held and also that a speech using the same themes he made to some 200 fellow British prisoners when he was held in Tost had been very well received.

“I remember at the time being conscious of a slight smugness at the thought that I had it in me to treat internment lightly, a sort of complacent feeling that by not making heavy weather about it I was keeping my end up and proving myself worthy to associate with these fellow internees of mine,” he wrote. “But if you are going to condemn authors for being smug, you will hardly know where to start.”

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The Scourge Of White Supremacism, And Why It Matters

Who are Richard Spencer and his friends? What precisely is the so-called “alt-right,” and why should we all be very, very concerned?

First, Spencer. He is the admittedly charismatic and deceptively clean-cut head of a white supremacist think tank called the National Policy Institute which describes itself on its website as “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world.”

Spencer is credited with coining the term “alt-right” or “alternative right” to describe, in the words of the Southern Poverty Law Center, “a loose set of far-right ideals centered on ‘white identity’ and the preservation of ‘Western civilization.’”

For “people of European descent” — read whites.” Spencer advocates “the creation of a White Ethno-State on the North American continent,” while railing against what he has referred to as “the Afro-Mestizo-Caribbean Melting Pot.”

Spencer rejects the Jeffersonian concept of human equality and instead bases his ideology on the proposition that “all men are created unequal.”

Embracing the concept of what he characterizes as peaceful “ethnic cleansing,” Spencer has also vilified the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as “a fraud and degenerate” who “has become the symbol and cynosure of White Dispossession and the deconstruction of Occidental civilization.”

World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder has denounced the alt-right ideologue in no uncertain terms, calling Spencer “one of the worst hatemongers in America, and his white supremacist and other bigoted ideas are sickening.”

Spencer’s most recent bout of notoriety came on November 19, when his National Policy Institute organized a day-long conference in Washington, D.C., at which he quoted Nazi propaganda, in the original German, no less, and shouted out “Hail Victory” — the English translation of the Nazi “Sieg Heil” greeting — to followers stretching out their arms in the equally notorious Nazi salute.

“America,” Spencer declared, “was, until this last generation, a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”

In addition to Spencer, the speakers at the National Policy Institute’s event included white supremacists Peter Brimelow, Jared Taylor, and Kevin MacDonald. They, too, warrant close scrutiny.

Brimelow is founder and editor of VDARE.com, named for Virginia Dare, the first child born to English parents in the American colonies in 1587, and designated as “an anti-immigration hate website” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In a 2012 interview, Brimelow said that even legal immigration was creating a “Spanish speaking underclass parallel to the African American underclass,” that “[t]hese are people who are completely dysfunctional,” and that California was “rapidly turning into Hispanic slum.”

In his 1995 book, Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster, Brimelow disparaged the Clinton administration as a “black-Hispanic-Jewish-minority white coalition.”

Taylor and MacDonald, meanwhile, have been a recurring noxious presence on both VDARE and the National Policy Institute website. Their corrosive views are instructive.

“Some of us,” Taylor wrote in 2011, “rather like being white, and would like for our children and grandchildren to be white, too. The self-haters are welcome to go extinct if that is what they want. But what would be wrong in wanting a country — even a small country — where whites are the majority and intend to keep it that way?”

MacDonald, the author of a screed entitled Understanding Jewish Influence, has written that in light of the “record of Jews as a very successful but hostile elite, it is possible that the continued demographic and cultural dominance of Western European peoples will not be retained, either in Europe or the United States, without a decline in Jewish influence.”

President elect Donald Trump has unambiguously repudiated Spencer and his ilk. “Of course I condemn [them],” President elect Trump told editors and reporters of The New York Times. “I disavow and condemn.”

We must not lose sight of the fact that fascism, even in unabashed neo-Nazi form, is enjoying a frightening resurgence in many parts of the world. One need only look at the Jobbik Party in Hungary or Golden Dawn in Greece to understand that the ideologies that gave rise to the genocides of the 20th century have not disappeared by any means.

There are objective reasons for Americans to be alarmed as well. According to FBI data, anti-Muslim incidents in the U.S. soared by 67 percent from 2014 to 2015, with anti-Jewish incidents increasing by 9 percent during the same period, and anti-black incidents by 7.7 percent. These are deeply troubling statistics.

In the context of this rising trend in hate crimes, inflammatory anti-minority and anti-immigrant rhetoric can easily morph, if it has not morphed already, into incitement to violence and worse.

Hate speech, whether from the extreme left or the extreme right, whether Jihadist or Hitlerian in orientation, can far too easily result in abhorrent discrimination, persecution, and unspeakable atrocities.

The problem confronting Americans today is not that white supremacist bigots such as Spencer, Brimelow, Taylor and MacDonald are likely to have any formal or informal role or influence in our government. For the time being at least, they, like the erstwhile Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, are outcasts on the malignant fringe of the American body politic.

However, cancers must be eradicated not when they have already metastasized but as soon as they are first diagnosed. Now that the White supremacists of the alt-right are becoming ever more confrontational with their untethered ideology of racial hatred, it is imperative that they be recognized and exposed as a clear and present danger to our democracy and to our very identity as a civil, and civilized, society.

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Holocaust hero or villain who collaborated with Nazis?

Paul Bogdanor digs deep into the contentious legacy of Rudolf Kasztner, and his attempts to save Jews from the Holocaust.

showimage-1Paul Bogdanor has penned a well-researched book on the contentious Kasztner affair – a controversy that commenced in wartime Hungary and has continued until the present day.

In the summer of 1944, a minor Jewish figure, Rudolf Kasztner, negotiated with Adolf Eichmann in the hope of saving hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews as the Third Reich was rapidly shrinking.

While he was doing so, 437,402 Jews from rural provinces were deported to Auschwitz over an eight-week period.

The affair was characterized as the “goods for blood” proposition, an exchange of trucks for Jews, the “freedom” train to Switzerland carrying 1,684 selected Jews, and Kasztner’s refusal to warn Hungarian Jewry of their impending doom.

The incident is one mired in the megaphone war between the Zionist Right and the Zionist Left. Despite a Supreme Court ruling which overturned most of the accusations of collaboration during the Kasztner trial, a 1955 election poster for Menachem Begin’s party read: “Kasztner votes for Mapai, you vote for Herut.”

Moreover, his prime accuser, Malkiel Gruenwald, had a long criminal career back in Hungary and was reputedly a police informer in Israel.

In 1957, Kasztner was murdered by a far-right group, Malchut Yisrael, becoming in death either a martyr who did not deserve his fate, or a villain who got his just deserts.

In Kasztner’s Crime, Bogdanor has assiduously attempted to dispel the fog of these distractions and to analyze Kasztner’s actions in 1944. He develops the arguments put forward by Ben Hecht and Uri Avnery decades ago, presenting not only evidence, but also presumption and interpretation. It is a convincing case and he demands a guilty verdict.

The Nazis wanted to avoid – at all cost – another Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but were ideologically committed to the extermination of all Jews. Bogdanor argues that the tortuous negotiations with the Jews were designed to dangle the hope of rescue and to drag them out for an eternity while the deportations continued apace. It served the Nazi desire for a total absence of resistance.

When Eichmann arrived in Hungary in the spring of 1944, he was accompanied by 150 to 200 staff who were expected to deport 750,000 people. The Hungarian Interior Ministry offered 20,000 gendarmes to support Eichmann in the belief that the Jews were merely being sent to “work” camps.

In this lethal card game, the Nazis held the aces while the Jews looked for any scintilla of salvation. Kasztner promised to pay the Nazis $200,000 per month in the hope of postponing the deportations and prolonging the negotiations as the end of the war approached. Based on examples from Slovakia, the possibility of bribery from funds raised by free Jewry was considered. Everything came to naught, and such proposals were buried in the cemetery of wishful thinking – a cemetery guarded by Eichmann’s SS.

Kasztner appears to have become entrapped in a delusion of self-importance and a belief that eventually his many compromises would pay off. He even wrote that the deported Jews were alive in ‘Waldsee’ – a Nazi euphemism for the reality of Auschwitz.

Kasztner had met Oscar Schindler in November 1943, and was well aware of the extermination of European Jewry in the camps to the East. Yet he did not warn the Jews of Cluj, his home town, and other nearby locations, to escape across the nearby Romanian border. Did he wish to avert widespread panic – which would serve German aims? Did he refuse to call for an armed revolt because so few arms had been secured from Tito’s partisans? Did he believe that the few had to be sacrificed so that the many should live? The mother of Hannah Szenes did not entertain such ideas during the trial, and accused Kasztner of betraying her daughter and sending her to her death. Yet the Hungarian Service of the BBC was broadcasting dire warnings of what was happening.

Did this fall on deaf ears? Did no one spread such information in Hungary? Bogdanor demonstrates that Kasztner’s story after 1945 constantly changed, peppered by omissions and contradictions.

The author argues that Kasztner testified on behalf of Nazis whom he had worked with, in order to construct a common protective alibi during a time when survivors were looking for retribution. Utilizing new evidence, Bogdanor is critical of eminent historians such as Yehuda Bauer for their interpretation of the Kasztner affair.

David Ben-Gurion commented in 1955 that the final verdict in this saga should be left to future generations. Bogdanor believes that time has now arrived, and he has written a highly detailed work. Yet at the back of the reader’s mind, there will still lurk the question of what he or she would have done in Kasztner’s position. A course of action which resides in the grayness of immoral choice – the difference between bad and worse. Bogdanor’s book provides uncomfortable food for thought in this personal arena as well.

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