Category Archive: Times of Israel

Bestselling ‘Tattooist of Auschwitz’ love story blurs facts, experts allege

Magazine published by memorial center at site of Nazi death camp points to several inaccuracies in novel; author defends book as recollection, not history

Holocaust survivor Bracha Ghilai, 75, shows her tattooed arm at her house in Holon near Tel Aviv, Israel, Jan. 23, 2005. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Holocaust survivor Bracha Ghilai, 75, shows her tattooed arm at her house in Holon near Tel Aviv, Israel, Jan. 23, 2005. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

The author of a bestselling book about an unlikely love story in the Auschwitz death camp has come under fire for what a historian at the memorial museum for the former Nazi site says are inaccuracies in the story.

Heather Morris, author of “The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” has defended the book by saying it is not meant to be an exhaustive history but rather the recollections of one man who survived the camp.

It has risen in the best-seller lists in the US, UK and Australia and has been optioned to be made into a television series.

In an article fact checking the story, though, Wanda Witeck-Malicka of Poland’s Auschwitz Memorial Research Center, which administers the site of the former death camp, wrote that the book “contains numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts; as well as overinterpretations, misinterpretations and understatements on which the overall inauthentic picture of the camp reality is built.”

“The Tattooist of Auschwitz”

Among the issues Witeck-Malicka raises about the historical accuracy of the book are routes which the train carrying Sokolov to Auschwitz took, the fact that the number that Gita had tattooed on her arm received does not correspond to when she says she arrived at the camp, the use of a bus as a gas chamber, and Sokolov and other prisoners being told to return to Birkenau without an escort after being taken out of the camp for work duty.

She also casts doubt over the possibility of a long-term sexual relationship between an SS commander at the camp and a Jewish prisoner.

Paweł Sawicki, editor of the center’s Memoria magazine, which published the critique, said they wanted to check into the story after a number of visitors asked about it.

“The further we got into the details, the more surprised we were to discover how [many] historical mistakes – small and big – about the reality of Auschwitz were there,” he told The Guardian.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau in May of 1944, Hungarian Jews arrived in cattle cars and prepared for the SS-conducted ‘selection’ (Auschwitz Album)

Questions have also been raised about a passage in which Sokolov takes Penicillin to Furman, which would not have been available at the time. The Sokolovs’ son Gary told the New York Times it bothered him that Morris spelled his father’s name Lale and not Lali, as he went by, though he praised the book for bringing the story to life.

“The fact that my dad, so many decades later, can have such a positive impact on humanity is just phenomenal,” he said.

The book is officially cataloged as fiction, though it has been marketed as a true story and Morris has said it is based on interviews with Sokolov, who died at age 90 in 2006, toward the end of his life. She met Sokolov after Gita died in 2003.

Heather Morris (Courtesy)

In an email to the New York Times,which wrote last month about the discrepancy of the tattooed number assigned to Furman, Morris wrote that the book “does not claim to be an academic historical piece of nonfiction.”

“It is Lali’s story. I make mention of history and memory waltzing together and straining to part, it must be accepted after 60 years this can happen but I am confident of Lali’s telling of his story, only he could tell it and others may have a different understanding of that time but that is their understanding, I have written Lali’s,” she wrote.

A spokesperson for Morris’s publisher told the Guardian that the novel is “based on the personal recollections and experiences of one man. It is not, and has never claimed to be, an official history. If it inspires people to engage with the terrible events of the Holocaust more deeply, then it will have achieved everything that Lale himself wished for.”

How tiny Ecuador had a huge impact on Jews escaping the Holocaust

A new book by author Daniel Kersffeld tells how when many countries shut their doors to Jewish refugees, one welcomed them in, allowing them to thrive in the arts and sciences

While many countries did less than their all when Jews sought refuge from the Holocaust, the tiny South American nation of Ecuador made an outsized impact.

Named for the equator, the former Spanish colony became an unlikely haven for an estimated 3,200-4,000 Jews from 1933 to 1945.

This summer, Ecuador-based academic and author Daniel Kersffeld published a book in Spanish about this little-known story, “La migracion judia en Ecuador: Ciencia, cultura y exilio 1933-1945.” (It translates to “Jewish Immigration in Ecuador: Science, Culture and Exile 1933-1945.”) Kersffeld calls it the first academic study of Jewish immigration to Ecuador in over two decades.

The author surveyed 100 biographical accounts in writing the book. In an email interview, Kersffeld said that around 20 of the individuals he profiled hold significant importance for Ecuador’s economic, scientific, artistic and cultural development.

They include Austrian refugee Paul Engel, who became a pioneer of endocrinology in his new homeland, while maintaining a separate literary career under a pseudonym; concentration camp survivor Trude Sojka, who endured the loss of nearly all of her family and became a successful artist in Ecuador; and three Italian Jews — Alberto di Capua, Carlos Alberto Ottolenghi and Aldo Muggia — who founded a precedent-setting pharmaceutical company, Laboratorios Industriales Farmaceuticos Ecuatorianos, or LIFE.

Kersffeld’s book began as a smaller project in which Ecuador’s Academia Nacional de Historia (National Academy of History) asked him to research the origins of the LIFE laboratories.

Daniel Kersffeld speaks at an Ecuadorian government ceremony honoring the late consul Manuel Antonio Munoz Borrero on November 9, 2018. During the Holocaust, Borrero rescued Jews through his position of consul in Sweden, but the Ecuadorian government stripped him of his position. The November 9 ceremony reinstated him as a member of the Ecuadorian foreign service. (Courtesy Daniel Kersffeld)

Kersffeld learned that LIFE’s co-founders had been expelled from Italy in 1938 after the passage of dictator Benito Mussolini’s anti-Semitic Racial Laws. He found they represented a wider story in Ecuador from 1933 to 1945 — “a larger amount of Jewish immigrants who were scientists, artists, intellectuals or who were in distinct ways linked to the high culture of Europe.”

The growing menace of Hitler and Mussolini spurred Jewish immigration to Ecuador, supported by the small local Jewish community. President Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra promoted the country as a destination for German Jewish scientists and technicians suddenly unemployed due to Nazi anti-Semitism.

Refugees from Germany farming in the Amazon Rainforest in the 1940s. (Courtesy Eva Zelig)

But, Kersffeld writes, “the fact is that until the mid-1930s, few emigrants had chosen Ecuador as their destination country,” with most coming after 1938. Ecuador views 1938 as the beginning of its Jewish community, and celebrated its 80th anniversary earlier this year.

Marked by the Amazon and the Andes, Ecuador could not have seemed a less likely destination. That changed after the Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany and Austria in 1938, the Racial Laws in Italy the same year, the occupation of much of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and the Fall of France in 1940.

Ecuador became “one of the last American countries to keep open the possibility of immigration in its various consulates in Europe,” Kersffeld writes. “One of the last alternatives when all the other ports of entry to American nations were already closed.”

Ecuador’s Jewish-exile community in the 1940s at the Equatorial monument in Quito, Ecuador. (Courtesy Eva Zelig)

The consul in Stockholm, Manuel Antonio Munoz Borrero, issued 200 passports to Jews and was posthumously inducted in 2011 as his country’s first Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.

Another consul, Jose I. Burbano Rosales in Bremen, saved 40 Jewish families from 1937 to 1940.

But Munoz Borrero and Burbano were both relieved from their duties after the Ecuadorian government learned they were helping Jews. Burbano was transferred to the US, while Munoz Borrero stayed in Sweden and unofficially continued his efforts.

Recently, the Ecuadorian government honored Munoz Borrero when it restored the late diplomat as a member of its foreign service.

Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Jose Valencia speaks at en event in the capital of Quito on November 9, 2018, to restore Manuel Antonio Munoz Borrero as a member of the country’s diplomatic service. (Screen capture: YouTube)

According to Kersffeld, in the period covered by the book there was anti-Semitism in Ecuadorian embassies and consulates in Europe, and in its Ministry of Foreign Relations. Jews had to pay fees to enter the country — although these decreased with time — and conform to an occupational profile. And another president, Alberto Enriquez Gallo, issued a decree of expulsion for Jews who did not comply with immigration requirements, although it never took effect.

Kersffeld writes that Ecuador’s government maintained relations, “sometimes hidden,” with Nazi Germany. (Burbano’s granddaughter, Ecuadorian anthropologist Maria Amelia Viteri, provided a biographical statement about her grandfather, according to which Nazi Germany offered military aid to Ecuador during a war with neighboring Peru in 1941.) Kersffeld also writes that cells and other groups linked to the German far right operated in Ecuador.

But overall, Kersffeld called Ecuador’s immigration policy “less restrictive than that which developed in other countries of the region in the same era.”

Given a new chance, Jewish immigrants would write South American success stories.

Jewish immigrants on the boat to Ecuador. (Eva Zelig)

Kersffeld called the LIFE laboratories “truly unique,” noting that di Capua, Ottolenghi and Muggia made LIFE into “one of the most outstanding businesses in Ecuador,” able to export medications to much of Latin America while performing advanced scientific research that discovered new bacteria and viruses.

Other immigrants also made an impact in medicine. Austrian native Engel led the first endocrinological studies in Ecuador while pursuing literary fame under the pseudonym Diego Viga, while German-born Julius Zanders — who had been imprisoned at Dachau after Kristallnacht — did pioneering work as a veterinarian and involved himself in Jewish community life.

Kersffeld credited Jewish immigrant doctors with introducing developments to Ecuador such as radiology and Freudian psychoanalysis.

Journalist Benno Weiser used his investigative skills to denounce his new country’s relations with Nazi Germany and inform fellow citizens about World War II. Later in life, he became a citizen of Israel, where he reported on the trial of infamous Nazi Adolf Eichmann and served as an ambassador to the Dominican Republic and Paraguay. His brother, Max Weiser, became the first honorary consul of Israel in Ecuador.

In arts and culture, Kersffeld said, Jewish immigrants brought educational training from Europe and connections to luminaries such as Thomas Mann and Marc Chagall.

Jewish immigrant Al Horvath brought radio transmitter technology to the Amazon jungle in Ecuador while helping Shell Oil look for petroleum there in the 1940s. (Courtesy / Daniel Kersffeld)

Hungarian refugee Olga Fisch became a celebrated collector of Ecuadorian indigenous handicrafts; her own acclaimed works are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian and the UN. Fellow artist Sojka “brought a personal testimony of the horror of the Nazi genocide to her artistic works,” Kersffeld writes, noting that virtually all of her family, including two daughters born six years apart, died in the Holocaust.

Kersffeld said that all of the biographical accounts he researched “represent distinct variations about how the tragedy of the Holocaust had an impact on the history of Ecuador. In each case, I was interested to see how the Holocaust was reflected in these biographies, as well as the tragedy marked by European anti-Semitism, persecution, exile.”

In each case, he said, he was also interested in examining “the imprint left by European totalitarianisms on an important group of scientists, artists and intellectuals who had to leave behind their families and communities of origin to begin a new life in a country as different as Ecuador.”

The subject of Holocaust-era Jewish immigration to Ecuador has been experiencing increased attention in recent years.

Czech artist Trude Sojka in Ecuador, 1946. (Courtesy Eva Zelig)

In 2015, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Eva Zelig released a documentary about the subject, “An Unknown Country.” An Ecuadorian-born daughter of Holocaust refugees, Zelig interviewed survivors and their descendants for the film, including Engel’s daughter and Muggia’s son (who is now an oncologist at NYU). She traveled back to the country of her birth while working on the film.

Zelig has not read Kersffeld’s book. However, she said that Holocaust-era Jewish immigrants to Ecuador “created a modern climate that moved the country forward.”

“Those who succeeded did spectacularly well,” Zelig said. But she noted that while some succeeded, others failed because “they did not understand the country, the economy of the country, what they should do and not do to move forward.”

After WWII, Zelig said, many Jews left Ecuador, “especially after quotas became available from the US.” Today, she said, the Ecuadorian Jewish community numbers only about 800.

“I think most [Jews] who went to Ecuador saw it as a stepping-stone,” she said. “Nobody knew where it was on maps.”

But, she said, “I feel tremendous gratitude. A lot of exiles felt very grateful to Ecuador having opened its doors.”

Her documentary continues to be screened — including in the capital of Quito earlier this year, where it was shown at the Museo de la Ciudad during a photography exhibition reflecting immigration to Ecuador from 1930 to 1970. Yet, she said, “strangely enough, not one Jewish film festival has taken it.”

“People [who watch the film] are saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know, amazing, I didn’t know about this,’ whether they’re Jewish or non-Jewish,’” Zelig said.

Kersffeld himself said that there has not been much scholarship on Jewish immigration to Ecuador, contrasting this with what he calls successful studies in other Latin American countries. He said that his investigation has sparked interest in the subject across the globe — from Latin America to the US to Israel.

A family of Jewish immigrants at a meal in their new Ecuadorian home in the 1940s. (Courtesy Eva Zelig)

Alberto Dorfzaun, a former president of the Quito Jewish community and a descendant of Holocaust refugees, called the book “well documented and well written,” adding that it “gives the reader a very good perspective on how the Jewish immigrants despite… the relative small number had a considerable impact.”

Raanan Rein, the Elias Sourasky Professor of Latin American and Spanish Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former president of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association, wrote, “His book offers a fascinating story on the formation of a Jewish community in Ecuador, their social integration and their contribution to the development of science and cultural institutions in Ecuador.”

Kersffeld himself hopes that the descendants of the Jewish immigrants will find a sense of connection through his book.

“It has generated a very positive impact in Ecuador’s own Jewish community,” Kersffeld said. “My book is generating much interest and curiosity around certain individuals who hold importance not only for the Jewish community but also for the modern history of Ecuador.”

Does Britain’s focus on the Kindertransport hide a guilty conscience?

On December 2, the UK marks 80 years since the rescue of Jewish children from the Nazis, but the fate which befell some of those who made it to Britain is no cause for celebration

LONDON — At 5:30 a.m. on the morning of Friday, December 2, 1938, a boat carrying 206 children reached the British port of Harwich after a short journey across the North Sea from the Hook of Holland.

The Jewish children onboard, who were allowed to carry one suitcase and 10 reichsmarks (about $400 today), had left their homes and parents in Germany with just a 24-hour notice.

Six days after the first boat arrived, the former prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, launched a public appeal on behalf of Jewish refugees, declaring in a radio broadcast: “Thousands of men, women and children, despoiled of their goods, driven from their homes, are seeking asylum and sanctuary on our doorsteps, a hiding place from the wind and a covert from the tempest.”

A week later, the Cabinet of Baldwin’s successor, Neville Chamberlain, agreed to cut through the red tape of the visa system for children under 16 and lift all limits on the number allowed into the country.

Within a year, nearly 10,000 children would arrive in the UK on Kindertransport from Germany, Austria and the Czechoslovakia. As one of the most eminent historians of the Holocaust, the late Martin Gilbert, argued: “No other country made such an effort to take in Jewish children as Britain.” Indeed, legislation to allow the United States to undertake a similar initiative never made it out of congressional committees.

As the country marks the 80th anniversary of their arrival, Britain is rightly proud of the Kindertransport. Elderly survivors have been interviewed by newspapers; Prince Charles hosted a special reception; and exhibitions  are underway. The Kindertransport is etched into the national consciousness, a heartening prelude to the heroic stand the country would take alone against Nazism 18 months later.

Jewish children boarding ship as part of a kindertransport out of Nazi occupied Europe. (Courtesy of Pamela Sturhoofd)

The example of the Kindertransport is, moreover, not simply a matter of history. Its participants and their heirs have acquired a moral authority to speak out — and be heard — on contemporary issues surrounding refugees and migration.

There is no doubting the lasting gratitude Jewish child refugees feel towards the UK or the generosity of those who opened their homes to them. “I have the greatest admiration for England and the English people. They were the only country that took us in,” recalled one. “To my dying day, I will be grateful to this country,” suggested another.

Nor can anything detract from the heroism of individuals such as Sir Nicholas Winton —  “Britain’s Schindler” — who put themselves in great personal danger to oversee the rescue mission.

However, the focus on the Kindertransport also hides a somewhat guilty national conscience, both about those who were not able to escape to Britain, and the fates — including internment and deportation — which befell some of those “lucky ones” who did.

It was this bewildering change in attitude that caused one Jewish composer to write after his unexpected May 1940 internment: “Are these our friends, the same British people who received us in friendly fashion, recognized our work, offered our children their hospitality, gave us the feeling of a new homeland? … [And] now the friend comes with a changed, coldly unapproachable face, says ‘sorry’ and treats you, the trusting, grateful guest, like the worst enemy and criminal!”

Unseen images of those left behind

Louise London, author of “Whitehall And The Jews, 1933-1948 British Immigration Policy, Jewish Refugees and the Holocaust” has suggested: “The myth was born that Britain did all it could for the Jews between 1933 and 1945. This comfortable view has proved remarkably durable… We remember the touching photographs and newsreel footage of unaccompanied Jewish children arriving on the Kindertransports.

“There are no such photographs of the Jewish parents left behind in Nazi Europe… The Jews excluded from entry to the United Kingdom are not part of the British experience, because Britain never saw them.”

Moreover, while those Jewish refugees who made it to Britain were undeniably the lucky ones compared to those left trapped on the European continent, some of those the UK took in were later designated “enemy aliens” and faced internment and deportation to Canada and Australia.

Britain adopted a highly restrictive policy towards migrants throughout the 1930s. No exceptions were made for refugees, meaning that by early 1938 there were only about 10,000 Jewish refugees in the country.

Illustrative: The identity card of Herbert Levy, who was brought to England by Kindertransport from Berlin in Germany in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution, at his home in London, Thursday, November 21, 2013. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Moreover, they had been allowed into the UK only on the strictest conditions. Due to high unemployment, there were tight controls on refugees working; the British Jewish community had to give a guarantee that it would provide for their maintenance; and it was expected that most would be in the UK only on a temporary basis (although this eventually turned out not to be the case for many).

In the wake of the Anschluss, the screw was tightened further, with visas — which had been abolished — reintroduced for holders of German and Austrian passports. Immigrants, as one official put it, could now be selected “at leisure and in advance.”

The introduction of the notorious White Paper of 1939, which capped Jewish migration to Mandatory Palestine at 20,000 per year, closed off another potential route of escape. “The world is divided into places where [Jews] cannot live and places where they may not enter,” lamented future Israeli president Chaim Weizmann.

Only after Kristallnacht — in the face of strong public support and with even newspapers which had previously been sympathetic towards the Nazis and hostile towards Jewish refugees rapidly changing their tune – did the numbers of refugees admitted to the UK begin to climb. Even then, however, it is important to remember that the Kindertransport was not a government initiative, but, as Prof. Tony Kushner of Southampton University has argued, “a voluntary scheme funded and implemented by the British public.”

Visa issued to a Jewish woman accompanying the Kindertransport. (Wikimedia Commons)

By September 1939, the door was, once again, slammed shut as the government declared that it wouldn’t admit anyone to the UK from countries with which it was at war or were occupied by its enemy. At the time there were around 65,000 Jewish refugees from the Nazis in the UK, about 10,000 of them children. Behind these statistics, of course, lay heart-wrenching tales of children separated from parents who they would never see again.

The nature of the British government’s attitude towards Jewish refugees has been much debated. Some have argued that it was, as the historian Bernard Wasserstein concluded, “less a matter of deliberate anti-Jewish prejudice than of the limited horizons of bureaucratic thinking.” Others have defended its leniency or highlighted the government’s belief that allowing a large influx of refugees might kindle latent anti-Semitism.

“The last thing we wanted here was the creation of a ‘Jewish problem,’” the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, told a delegation from the Board of Deputies in 1938. This was a view that also found favor with some communal groups.

Moreover, the government also feared that any loosening of its restrictions might potentially provoke further large-scale expulsions of Jews by the Nazis.

Immigrants and other ‘suspects’ en route to an internment camp from London, June 13, 1940. (AP Photo)

There is, however, little doubt that, within the ranks of the governing Conservative party and its allies in the press (especially the pro-Nazi Daily Mail) there was an at-times ill-disguised noxious mix of snobbery and anti-Semitism.

Chamberlain himself wrote privately after Kristallnacht: “I believe the persecution arose out of two motives; A desire to rob the Jews of their money and a jealousy of their superior cleverness.” So as to leave his correspondent as in no doubt as to his own attitude, the prime minister added: “No doubt the Jews aren’t a lovable people; I don’t care about them myself — but that is not sufficient to explain the Pogrom.”

Thankfully, Chamberlain’s attitude was not shared by a number of his successors in Downing Street and their families. Clement Attlee, who served as Winston Churchill’s deputy during the war and then went on to lead the post-war Labour government, was recently revealed to have sponsored a Jewish family to come to Britain in 1939, and taken in one of the sons for a number of months.

Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. (Wikimedia/Public Domain)

Margaret Thatcher’s family helpedher sister’s Austrian Jewish pen pal to escape Vienna after the Anschluss. Edith Mühlbauer lived with the family for a time, an experience which appears to have shaped the late prime minister’s life-long detestation of anti-Semitism. Thatcher’s predecessor in Downing Street, James Callaghan, also provided a home to a non-Jewish Austrian journalist who had fled the Nazis.

Many other Britons showed similar compassion and generosity. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig christened the country which had become his home “this good island.”

But some refugees were to find Britain comically insular: “I hear you come from Germany. Did you know the Goerings?” one London society hostess asked the Jewish publisher George Weidenfeld.

‘Collar the lot’

The summer of 1940 marked a moment of acute anxiety for the British people as a German invasion of their country appeared imminent. That anxiety was shared by new arrivals who faced the prospect of falling into the hands of those they had escaped. But rather than providing a unifying sentiment, the common anxiety between newcomers and native Britons proved for a time to be decidedly divisive.

Days before Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, emergency legislation was rushed through parliament giving the Home Secretary the power to intern “enemy aliens” — non-naturalized Germans and Austrians living within the UK — in the event of war.

In a mammoth and chaotic bureaucratic exercise, which drew on assessments provided by the grossly overstretched and undermanned security services, some 120 tribunals were then established to examine the cases of 70,000 people.

Enemy aliens, who were arrested in a big police round-up, leave London, England, May 17, 1940, under a heavy military escort for internment camps. (AP Photo)

A small minority — mainly Nazi sympathizers — were deemed to fall into “Category A” and were immediately locked up. Those whose cases were harder to assess — “Category B” — were not interned but subject to certain restrictions. The vast majority of those assessed — some 66,000 people, including most refugees and Jews — were granted a “Category C” status and were exempt from internment or restrictions.

However, as Hitler’s armies swept across western Europe in the spring of 1940, panic set in. Fears that “Quislings” could stab the country in the back and assist a German invasion as they had done in Norway were widespread.

Sir Nevile Bland, Britain’s ambassador to the recently conquered Netherlands, called for all Germans and Austrians to be immediately interned, warning against “satellites of the monster all over the country who will at once embark on widespread sabotage and attacks on civilians and the military indiscriminately.”

Domestic servants — one of the few jobs that refugees had been allowed to take — were, he added, “a real and grave menace.”

Soon the press was in full cry. The Daily Mail which, ironically, had been the Nazis’ best friend in Fleet Street, demanded all aliens — men and women — be locked up in “a remote part of the country.”

‘Class B’ women arriving at Fulham Road Police Station in London, May 27, 1940, before being interned in camps on the Isle of Man. (AP Photo)

The government, which had trod carefully at first, caved in. All those in “Category B”; all male enemy aliens living near the coasts where the Germans were expected to land; and, finally, all men in “Category C” became subject to internment as the order to “collar the lot” went out from Winston Churchill’s Cabinet.

A variety of holding and permanent camps on the Isle of Man and around Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Bury, Huyton, Sutton Coldfield, London, Kempton Park, Lingfield, Seaton and Paignton, began to fill up. It is calculated that some 27,000 enemy aliens, including 4,000 women and many Jews, were eventually interned.

A ‘bespattered page’ of British history

Today, the mass internment is considered not only morally wrong and pointless, but also potentially perilous. It focused the security services’ attention on those who posed no threat to the country while allowing “Fifth Columnists,” who most certainly did, the chance to escape proper scrutiny.

As Anthony Grenville argues in his new book “Encounters With Albion: Britain and the British in Texts by Jewish Refugees from Nazism,” this event marked the “darkest chapter” — a “bespattered page” as one MP put it in a parliamentary debate in August 1940 — in the story of the relationship between Jewish refugees and Britain.

‘Encounters With Albion’ by Anthony Grenville. (Courtesy)

By examining the writings of Jews who had escaped to the UK, Grenville has pieced together an invaluable account of the feelings of shock, anger and confusion which those who were interned experienced.

The police who rounded up detainees, and the soldiers who later guarded them, were frequently friendly and humane, and many refugees recorded acts of kindness on the part of British civilians.

However, conditions, especially in the holding camps, were often bleak and disorganized. “How unspeakably repulsive is everything that impinges on one’s five senses,” recorded the Austrian composer Hans Gál.

But, as Grenville notes, it was the psychological and emotional impact, rather than the physical discomfort, which many Jewish refugees found most difficult to take.

It was, argued composer Gál two days after his arrest in May 1940, the feeling of “this most senseless of all senselessness.”

Grenville believes that for Jewish refugees the government’s policy undermined “the stable core of their identity by placing their loyalty in question and treating them as potential traitors.”

Deprived of their status as “loyal adherents to the Allied cause, [they] were suddenly treated like the Nazis, their persecutors,” Grenville writes.

Moreover, even attempts by soldiers at tactfulness — one officer welcomed his charges to the Isle of Man with a speech but carefully avoided any references to victory — sometimes added insult to injury, by suggesting that the refugees were not also willing the Nazis’ defeat.

The Austrian Jewish composer Hans Gal was arrested and interned in 1940. (Wikimedia Commons)

Detention on the Isle of Man — a rugged island in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland — provoked a particular fear for those held there. Although safe from the air raids their families were enduring on the mainland, the island offered no way of escape if the Germans invaded.

As the camps began to overflow, the government accepted offers from its allies in Canada and Australia and began the process of deporting some of those it had detained. Logic dictated that the minority to be sent overseas should be those Nazi sympathizers who posed a clear and present danger to the UK. Initially, that appears to have been the plan, but in the ensuing chaos such considerations broke down.

On the Isle of Man, for instance, an attempt to draw up lists of those whose loyalty was suspect was abandoned, and it was instead decided to transport young and unmarried men. From June 24 to July 10, 1940, five boats carrying more than 7,500 internees set sail for Canada and Austria. Aboard at least some of them were a mix of Nazis, Italian fascists (internment had applied to Italians living in the UK after Mussolini declared war in June 1940) and Jewish refugees.

On July 2, tragedy struck and one of the vessels, the Arandora Star, was torpedoed in the Atlantic and sunk by a German u-boat as it made its way to Canada. On board were 712 Italians, 438 Germans — including Nazi sympathizers and Jewish refugees — and 374 British seaman and soldiers. Over half lost their lives.

While the government attempted to quiet the ensuing public outcry by falsely claiming that all of those on board were prisoners of war or “Category A” enemy aliens, it soon changed course.

An inglorious u-turn

As public sympathy for refugees rose, the Home Office released details of categories of those interned who would be eligible for release. In August, over 1,600 German, Austrian and Italian internees were freed; by October the number had risen to 5,000 and 8,000 in December. By the following spring, 12,500 internees had been released and as 1942 broke the number of enemy aliens detained, mainly on the Isle of Man, had dropped to 5,000.

The Arandora Star being tied up at Southampton, England, on August 26, 1939, after being called back to port days before WWII. (AP Photo)

The release process was, however, as chaotic as the round up. “Internees were apparently released entirely at random,” writes Grenville. “Many refugees saw the logical inconsistency underlying the British policy of release: they had been interned as security risks, but were being released according to criteria relating to health, hardship, or usefulness to the war effort.”

However, as the government executed an inglorious u-turn, terrible events were unfolding on the high seas. The Dunera, a passenger ship which was used extensively to ferry troops around once the war broke out, left Liverpool on July 10.

While its capacity was 1,600 including crew, the vessel was crammed with over 2,500 detainees. Around 2,000 were refugees — the vast majority Jewish — but also on board were 450 Italian and German prisoners of war, among their ranks fascists and Nazi sympathizers. The ship also carried some survivors from the Arandora Star.

In the Irish Sea, the Dunera itself was also hit by two torpedoes — the first failed to detonate, the second passed underneath the boat as it rose in the notoriously choppy waters.

Unaware of their destination — many thought the boat was headed to Canada or South Africa — the “Dunera Boys,” as they became known, steamed towards Australia.

Overcrowding ensured that conditions during the 57-day voyage were dire. Men were forced to sleep on the floors and benches, and were kept below deck for all but 30 minutes a day, with the portholes fastened tight. There were just 10 toilets and fresh water was provided only two or three times a week. Razors and shaving equipment were confiscated.

Some of the troops guarding the detainees — “the worst in the British army,” according to one survivor — stole from those on board. Many of the passengers found their luggage, passports, and even false teeth had been thrown overboard. Religious vestments — some of which had been rescued from burning synagogues in Germany — were ripped from their owners. Guards were also accused of engaging in deliberate acts of cruelty, smashing bottles on the decks which they knew barefoot passengers would have to walk on.

When the ship arrived in Sydney on 6 September, an appalled Australian medical officer came aboard. As news filtered back to London, questions were asked in parliament.

The British troopship Dunera, leaving Southampton, England, in November 1937. (AP Photo)

Churchill apologized and later described the incident as “a deplorable mistake.” A court martial was ordered and some of the guards were punished and imprisoned, with the ship’s senior officer suffering a severe reprimand. A fund to compensate the passengers for their stolen and lost items was established.

Many of the men were scientists, academics and artists, and their arrival was later seen as “the greatest injection of talent to enter Australia on a single vessel.” That was apparent immediately at the camps in Tatura in Victoria and Hay in New South Wales where they were held.

A university was established, cultural and sporting events organized and a constitution drawn up, giving the camps, in the words of one detainee, “the character of a small working republic.” While the process of release was slower than in England, by the middle of 1942 at least 1,300 had been freed.

The story of the “Dunera boys” is largely unknown in Britain, but it is celebrated in Australia where around half of the detainees later settled. Some — such as the philosopher Peter Herbst, political scientist Henry Mayer and physicist Hans Buchdahl — became leading academic figures in the country. Others shone in the worlds of business, culture and sport.

Many of the other refugees who chose to return to Britain took up an offer from the government to enlist in the army and assist in the war effort. They joined the estimated 10,000 refugees who served in the British forces. This was the opportunity — to work alongside those who had provided them with refuge to fight their common enemy — which the Jews who fled Hitler had wanted all along. Belatedly, they were granted it.

Teens remanded for robbery, attack on Holocaust survivor, 76

While relatives say they are ‘good kids,’ victim Reli Shemesh asks, ‘How do you raise children like that?’

The Petah Tikva Magistrate’s Court on Thursday extended the remand of three youths suspected of assaulting an elderly woman and stealing her handbag.

The teenagers will remain in custody for five days, after security footage Wednesday captured their assault on the 76-year-old Holocaust survivor.


According to police, the youths have admitted to the attack and expressed remorse for their actions.

A family member of one of the teens expressed regret for the incident, but maintained that the attack was out of character for the youths.

“They are good children and the incident surprised us, it is not like them and we are shocked by what has happened. We hoped that the woman would be here so that we could ask for her forgiveness,” they told the Ynet Hebrew-language news site.

Shemesh responded to the comments, telling Ynet that she was surprised that the family had defended the youths as being well-behaved.

“They say they are good children? I have children and grandchildren their age and I don’t think for a second that one of them would do something like this,” Shemesh said. “How do you raise children like that?”

Shemesh also expressed a desire to meet with her attackers, to try to make them understand what they did.

“I would very much like to see the youths who assaulted me, to look them in the eyes and ask them how they would react if it happened to their mother or their grandmother.”


What the last survivor of Rome’s Jewish ghetto raid leaves behind

Lello Di Segni, who died at age 91, is mourned by his community and internationally — but he might be missed most inside the classroom

Lello Di Segni. (Courtesy/ Press Office of the Jewish Community of Rome)

Lello Di Segni. (Courtesy/ Press Office of the Jewish Community of Rome)

On a cloudy autumn morning 75 years ago, the inhabitants of Rome’s Jewish ghetto were abruptly awoken by the sound of heavy footsteps, doors slamming, and the barking of orders in a foreign accent.

At 5:30 a.m. on October 16, 1943, 300 German soldiers began their hunt and round-up of Roman Jews while their victims were still blissfully asleep, expecting a usual Shabbat morning. It was not to be.

Just 16 of the victims — 15 men and one woman — returned home two years later. Among them was Lello di Segni, the last remaining survivor of that deportation, who died on October 26 at the age of 91.

Born on November 4, 1926, Di Segni was the eldest of the four children of Cesare De Segni and Enrichetta Zarfatti. He attended an interfaith, mixed school until 1938, when Fascist racial segregation laws were passed. The family lived in a house on Portico d’Ottavia — a street in the historic Jewish ghetto along the Tiber River.

In a 1995 interview with historian Marcello Pezzetti, Di Segni recounted how on the evening of October 15 German soldiers warned the local Jews not to leave the neighborhood. They discouraged any attempt to escape, Di Segni said, by spraying automatic gunfire at the outer walls of neighborhood homes.

A family bakery/delicatessen shop on Portico d’Ottavia, 1921. (Courtesy/ Press Office of the Jewish Community of Rome) Indeed, despite the fact that an armistice between Italy and the Allies had been signed that September, many Jews opted to remain in Rome. They were lulled into a false sense of security, having paid an ostensible “ransom” of 50 kilograms (110 lbs) of gold to the Germans on September 28 in order to avoid handing over 200 people for deportation.


Deceived by the Germans, the Roman Jews were deported regardless; the identification number given to each concentration camp prisoner burned forever into the forearms of the survivors.

During Di Segni’s internment in Auschwitz and then Dachau, he was known only as “158526.” Deported with his entire family, he was the only child to survive, along with his father Cesare, who was sent to work in the coal mines of Upper Silesia.

“Like a horse, the number pinned to my clothes said that I was nothing but a beast,” Di Segni told Pezzetti.

After 30 days in Auschwitz, Di Segni was transferred to the Warsaw Ghetto, where he was responsible for the removal of debris and rubble, as well as the construction of new crematoriums and gas chambers at the Warsaw concentration camp.

As soviet troops began to advance on the Eastern front, however, Di Segni was sent to the sub-camp of Allach, and then Dachau, where he was eventually freed by United States forces.

A community decimated

Di Segni was among the 2,489 Jews arrested by the Nazis in Italy. Though in Rome local residents were often uncooperative with deportation efforts against the Jews and police were deemed unreliable, throughout the country 1,898 more Jews were arrested by Italians.

Lello Di Segni (Screen capture: YouTube)

An additional 312 were arrested in joint actions by both forces. There is no evidence for those responsible for the remaining 2,314 arrests.

In a phone interview, Aldo Pavia, vice president of the National Association of Italian Political Deportees to Nazi Concentration Camps — and himself the son of deported Jews — told The Times of Israel that once back in Rome, Di Segni was silent about his ordeal for years.

Di Segni wanted to return to his normal life, forget what he had seen and endured, and was afraid that people would not have even believed his story, Pavia said.

“Our friendship went beyond his experience in the camps. I was fascinated by the way he described the atmosphere in Rome in the years preceding and following those tragic events,” Pavia said. He added that the roundup on October 16, 1943, had a strong impact not just on the Jewish community but also on the entire city.

Pavia underlined how Di Segni used to downplay his role as a witness, saying that his testimony would, after all, have just added to what was already said by his cousin Settimia Spizzichino.

Spizzichino was the one woman among those 16 survivors who returned to Rome, and became a leading Italian figure in the testimony of the crimes committed during the Shoah.

Aldo Pavia, vice president of the National Association of Italian Political Deportees to Nazi Concentration Camps, in a 2015 YouTube video. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Remembering the long conversations the two used to have at a bar on Catania Street in Rome’s center which Di Segni used to call his “office,” Pavia said that when the two were together, Di Segni overcame his characteristic reluctance to speak. Di Segni shared harrowing stories, Pavia said, such as hiding behind a tree to avoid been seen by a passing SS truck after he left Birkenau.

Although he was reserved and sometimes needed to be prompted to speak, Di Segni would go to schools to share his story with students as long as his health allowed it, the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation’s Sandra Terracina told The Times of Israel.

Di Segni also wrote a book, “Buon Sogno Sia lo Mio,” or “I Hope To Have Good Dreams,” whose title was inspired by a little prayer Di Segni’s parents taught him to say before going to sleep, Pavia said.

A loss of a man — and his memories

Leaders of the Italian and Roman Jewish communities mourned the loss of Di Segni.

A Jewish delicatessen in the area of the Rome Ghetto, at the corner of Santa Maria del Pianto and Costaguti streets, 1938. (Courtesy/ Press Office of the Jewish Community of Rome)

“With his loss, we lose the memories of those who suffered the October 16 raid and survived to tell us about it,” said Ruth Dureghello, president of the Jewish community of Rome.

Community councilman Lello Mieli told The Times of Israel that Di Segni had been like a father to him. Because every member of the Jewish community has lost relatives in the Holocaust, Mieli said, they tried to take care of survivors like Di Segni, whom he called “one of the diamonds of the community.”

“As people disappear, we fear that their testimony will disappear as well,” said fellow Holocaust survivor and Italian senator for life Liliana Segreduring a conference at Gelasio Caetani High School in Rome.

Rome’s Mayor Virginia Raggi also posted her message of condolence on Twitter.

Segre, who like Di Segni has embraced the mission of bearing witness to what Jews endured under the Nazis, commented earlier this month on the climate of hatred that seems to have emerged in Italy in last few months.

In fact, according to the Antisemitism Observatory, anti-Semitic incidents in Italy have increased considerably over the last four years. In 2018 alone, there have so far been 159 episodes, including racist graffiti and social media posts.

Screen capture from video Selene Ticchi, an activist with the Italian neo-fascist Forza Nuova movement, wears a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Asuchwitzland’ on it at a rally in the northeast town of Predappio, October 28, 2018. (YouTube)

During the October 29 neo-Fascist rally at Benito Mussolini’s burial place in Predappio, political activist Selene Ticchi — previously a mayoral candidate in the city of Budrio with the far-right New Force party — wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the word “Auschwitzland,” comparing the death camp to an amusement park.

Asked about what can be done to stem this tide of hatred, Pavia said that the danger today, as it was 75 years ago, is to “neglect these signals and let them fall into indifference,” adding that “anti-Semitism often hides behind anti-Zionist claims.”

“Young people cannot be blamed for this because they don’t and can’t have the memory of those facts,” Pavia said, underlining how just speaking about the horror of the Holocaust “risks turning such memories into a movie.”

According to Pavia, a collective memory must be built through a combination of historical documentation, education and the explanation of not just how, but why certain things happened, with an emphasis on those responsible.

Pavia said that Di Segni’s most vivid memory was probably the moment when, unable to stand on his feet, he was carried out of the wooden barracks in Dachau by his fellow inmates and realized that the camp had been liberated by US troops.

In that moment, said Pavia, Di Segni remembered exclaiming: “Now I’m finally happy.”

Polish nun who helped hide Vilna ghetto rebels during Holocaust dies at 110

Cecylia Roszak was thought to be the oldest nun in the world; poet Abba Kovner was one those she and her sisters saved at a local convent

Cecylia Maria Roszak, right, who was awarded the 'Righteous Among Nations' honor for helping to save Jews during the Holocaust, seen here in Krakow, Poland, May 2018. (Piotr Jantos/Archdiocese of Krakow)

Cecylia Maria Roszak, right, who was awarded the ‘Righteous Among Nations’ honor for helping to save Jews during the Holocaust, seen here in Krakow, Poland, May 2018. (Piotr Jantos/Archdiocese of Krakow)

A Polish Catholic nun who was honored by Israel for helping to hide Jewish would-be resistance fighters in her convent during World War II died last week aged 110.

Among those who hid in the small convent of nine Dominican nuns during the war was poet and activist Abba Kovner, who in 1942 circulated among the Vilna Ghetto residents a manifesto, titled “Let us not go like lambs to the slaughter,” that warned of Nazi Germany’s plans to wipe out the Jews of Europe. It marked the first time a victim of the Holocaust had sounded the alarm over what was happening to the Jewish population and called for rebellion against the Nazis.

Along with photos of Roszak posted to its Twitter feed, the archdiocese wrote: “In Krakow the oldest sister in the world died – sister Cecilia Maria Roszak from the monastery of Dominican sisters.”

Roszak was born on March 25, 1908 in the village of Kiełczewo in west Poland and joined the Dominican monastery of Gródek in Krakow when she was 21, the Independent reported.

In 1938 Roszak traveled with a group of nine nuns to Vilnius in Lithuania to set up a new convent, but war interrupted the plans.

According the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial page dedicated to Anna Borkowska, the mother superior of the convent, the sisters took in 17 members of an illegal Jewish underground movement that formed to fight back against the extermination of the ghetto’s residents.

One of the underground members was Kovner, who, according to Yad Vashem, wrote his landmark manifesto within the walls of the convent. Kovner tried unsuccessfully to organize armed resistance inside the ghetto. Borkowska smuggled the first hand grenades into the community.

Abba Kovner (back row, center) with members of the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (The FPO – Eng: United Partisan Organization) in Vilna, 1940s (Courtesy Israel National Library)

Kovner escaped the ghetto and survived the war after fighting among Polish resistance partisans. He later testified at the trial in Israel of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

Borkowska was arrested in 1943 and the convent closed down. She and Roszak both survived the war and the latter returned to the monastery in Krakow, where she worked as an organist and cantor.

In 1984 Yad Vashem gave the members of the convent, including Borkowska and Roszak, its Righteous Among Nations award, which honors non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Kovner participated in a tree-planting ceremony at Yad Vashem and then traveled to Warsaw, where he personally presented Borkowska with the award and a bottle containing soil from the planting ceremony.

From Elie Wiesel’s classroom, lessons in sainthood and redemption

As the late Holocaust survivor’s teaching assistant, Ariel Burger learned to unpack his own personal life with guidance from Nobel Laureate Wiesel, his mentor of two decades

Elie Wiesel (left) with student Ariel Burger, author of a book based on Wiesel as an educator (courtesy)

Elie Wiesel (left) with student Ariel Burger, author of a book based on Wiesel as an educator (courtesy)

BOSTON, Massachusetts — When Ariel Burger was 17 years old, he told his father he wanted to be a saint.

Preoccupied with the concept of perfection, Burger was on a quest to find answers to life’s vexing questions. Having received what he called “mixed messages” about Judaism from his divorced parents, the aspiring rabbi decided to move to Israel. For seven years, Burger immersed himself in Jewish texts and sought guidance from rabbis.

Specifically, Burger told Wiesel he was not satisfied with the answers he was receiving during conversations with rabbis. Deep spiritual growth seemed to elude him, he said, even while immersed in Jewish texts and surrounded by well-known thinkers.

Not for the first time, Wiesel knew how to help Burger “re-frame” his thoughts.

In a nutshell, Wiesel suggested that Burger might be looking for something less concrete and final than “answers.” Perhaps, Burger was looking for “responses” to his questions, fears, and aspirations — in other words, responses to his life.

“Answers close things down, responses do not,” said Wiesel, who died at age 87 in 2016. In Jerusalem, the author helped Burger see his challenges not as roadblocks to spiritual growth, but as helpers in achieving that growth.

“I began to see life and experience not as obstacles to spiritual growth but as the language God used to communicate with us,” wrote Burger, who now lives outside Boston with his family.


This conversation between a teacher and his student about “answers,” along with many others, form the crux of Burger’s new book, “Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom.”

There have been quite a few biographies about Wiesel, but this is the first based on the late Holocaust survivor as a teacher. Other authors have focused on — for example — Wiesel’s prolific writing career, or his global activism for human rights.

Although Burger first met Wiesel as a 15-year old, most of the book takes place during the five years in which Burger served as Wiesel’s BU teaching assistant, a period that ended in 2008. Based on five years of journal entries and piles of classroom notes, “Witness” follows Wiesel’s personal interactions with Burger, as well as how Wiesel related to the students chosen for his intensive seminars.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Holocaust was rarely a major focus of Wiesel’s seminars on ethics or historical memory. Sometimes, the only Holocaust-related book on the reading list was “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and the professor’s own works seldom appeared. Wiesel made use of texts from many eras and cultures, all of which he helped students connect to current events and ethical behavior.

In the classroom, students were encouraged to grill Wiesel and each other with questions. There were debates about what “chosen people” means, and about Joan of Arc’s visions. Often, Wiesel’s response to a student’s heated question was, characteristically, “Tell me more.”

Wiesel and Burger’s relationship far exceeded the probing of Jewish texts. The book reveals several turning points in Burger’s life during which Wiesel provided guidance, ranging from marital issues to the difficulties of being a Jewish educator in bureaucratic systems. In all of these encounters, Burger attempts to bring the venerated Wiesel down to Earth for readers.

“He loved chocolate, was afraid of policemen, never learned how to swim, and didn’t like celebrating his birthday,” wrote Burger. He called Wiesel an “anchor” during the trials of his life.

‘To renounce despair’

For both the teacher and the student, an issue of overriding concern was how to keep one’s faith in a world beset by evil.

“If I had not had my faith, my life would have been much easier,” said Wiesel on many occasions.

Ariel Burger speaks at Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Massachusetts, November 13, 2018 (courtesy: Michael Bogdanow)

With his typical wryness, Wiesel was pointing to the difficulty of integrating his experience during the Holocaust with his belief in God. After the war, as soon as Wiesel had access to books again, he opened a Talmud to the same page he had been studying before the Nazis deported his family to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Burger summed up the role of faith in Wiesel’s life: “Faith can coexist with tragedy, can survive it, and that we carry it with us in spite of — or perhaps because of — our wounds.”

From among the Bible’s narratives, Wiesel found the Book of Job to be the most personally relevant. In Job, Wiesel could see himself — a servant of God who had everything taken away from him, but who refused to give up his faith. Job argued with God, but he did not forsake his faith and validate Satan’s belief that he, Job, would cave-in.

“To renounce despair is an act of will. And it is the only way to continue and be able to confront, to resist, darkness,” wrote Wiesel.

Although Wiesel’s Holocaust experiences are not a primary focus of “Witness,” Burger demonstrates ways in which Wiesel, a Nobel Laureate, sometimes brought the voices of victims and survivors into the classroom.

Ariel Burger (left) and Elie Wiesel (courtesy)

“Wiesel frequently pointed to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust who, hiding in bunkers from the Nazis, scratched their names into the walls and wrote invisible messages in urine, who buried manuscripts in tin cans under the ghetto streets so that one day their names, their words, their lives might be remembered,” wrote Burger.

In addition to renouncing despair, it helps if one has a sense of humor. According to Burger, Wiesel would sometimes muse in class, “Come on, Mr. God, really? Why did You do that?”

Of all the questions Wiesel’s students asked him over the decades, the most common had to do with how — and why — Wiesel maintained his religiosity after the destruction of his family in the Holocaust.

“You must turn hate into something creative, something positive,” was one of Wiesel’s responses. He modeled this approach for his students, including when Wiesel publicly forced the hand of president Bill Clinton to intervene in Bosnia during a well-remembered speech outside the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1992.

‘A generation haunted by ghosts’

A modern-day renaissance man, Burger’s professional hats include rabbi, artist, musician, and poet. Only in recent years, though, has he learned to meld these facets into an interconnected whole, he told The Times of Israel in an interview.

“My teaching almost always involves a deep dive into text, whether a religious text or literary work, but increasingly it also centers on questions of ethics and application,” said Burger. These days, Burger said he is responding to what he called “the new American moment of 2016,” which includes tackling issues of bullying and public discourse.

Elie Wiesel (center) inside a Boston University theology classroom, April 1977 (Boston University Photography)

Without his lifelong mentor Wiesel to guide him, Burger has given thought to his teacher’s views on perpetuating Holocaust memory in the absence of survivors.

“As a member of a generation haunted by ghosts, Wiesel was on a quest to make his memories redemptive,” wrote Burger, who related that Wiesel saw the challenge of his generation of survivors to be, “What would we do with our memories?”

For Wiesel, transforming the murder of his family into something resembling “redemption” involved writing about the Holocaust. But even more so, it involved teaching.

“Listening to a witness makes you a witness,” said Wiesel. For Burger, these words translated into his book’s title, and they also helped him find solace after Wiesel’s death.

To The Times of Israel, Burger explained how he and other educators can foster Holocaust memory in the spirit of Wiesel’s teachings.

Art by Ariel Burger, 2010 (courtesy)

“I know that Professor Wiesel wanted to see more education — but not just the transmission of information,” said Burger. “He wanted to see approaches to learning that have a high probability of changing someone’s mind to the point they he or she will respond differently to injustice. In other words, he wanted to see greater investment in effective moral education,” said Burger.

Among the challenges for educators, said Burger, is to teach about the Holocaust “without causing students to despair and turn to apathy as a response,” he said.

One of the remarkable traits about Wiesel, said Burger, was his ability to accept other people’s “natures, gifts, and limitations.” Eventually, even Burger let himself off the hook in his quest for perfection and sainthood, he said.

In the process of realizing that Wiesel had embraced Burger’s “natures, gifts, and limitations,” the student was able to accept these things himself.


Stunning posthumous release from ‘Shoah’ director resonates post-Pittsburgh

Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann died this past July, but a new work, ‘Shoah: Four Sisters,’ compiled from past footage to debut in NY, is chillingly applicable today

Claude Lanzmann poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'The Man Who Killed Don Quixote' and the closing ceremony of the 71st international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Saturday, May 19, 2018. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

Claude Lanzmann poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ and the closing ceremony of the 71st international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Saturday, May 19, 2018. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

NEW YORK — Claude Lanzmann may have died in July of this year but his work lives on. And it still provokes powerful and emotional reactions.

The foremost chronicler of the Holocaust on film, Lanzmann gave 220 hours of additional footage from his 1985 master work “Shoah” to Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1996. They are still being indexed.

Four remarkable interviews Lanzmann conducted for “Shoah” didn’t quite fit thematically. They are survivor’s stories, and “Shoah,” by design, is meant to be a relentless examination of destruction and death with no exit. But the interviews are connected in a way, as they are stories (one-on-one conversations with Lanzmann) about women of tremendous ingenuity, stamina and luck.

These interviews range from 52 to 89 minutes, and are grouped to form the two-part theatrical release “Shoah: Four Sisters.” The films screened at last year’s New York Film Festival, but make their theatrical debut on November 14 from Cohen Media Group. (The Cohen-owned repertory theater in Manhattan, Quad Cinema, is using this as a springboard for a complete Lanzmann retrospective from November 9–20. If you live in New York, make an effort to come downtown; some of these films are not currently available on streaming or DVD.)

Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann is fitted with a hidden microphone to record Nazi testimony, circa 1978. (Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Yad Vashem)

Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center on New York’s Upper East Side hosted a special screening this week of the longest, and, in my opinion, most devastating of the four interviews, subtitled “The Hippocratic Oath.”

Before the tale of survivor Ruth Elias unspooled, a few speakers offered a benediction. First, Rabbi Joshua Davidson opened with a remark about the recent shootings in Pittsburgh, referring to anti-Semitism as “the world’s oldest hatred.” Then, the French Ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, began with an “erev tov,” the Hebrew term for good evening, and spoke about the rise of anti-Semitism in France and how French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron is “aware of the situation and taking it and Holocaust denial seriously.”

After Araud, French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy took the podium and, reading a speech from his iPhone, rattled the walls of the Streicker Center with a booming remembrance of Claude Lanzmann, whom he compared to Orpheus, Dante and Homer.

“He was drawn to the abyss, and we may never understand why,” Lévy said, suggesting that his life’s work was a sacrifice for the rest of us.

Lévy called Lanzmann a “man of fury,” a “poet” and a “nourished warrior” whose life was full of “bountiful adventures” and who refused to be a “humbled Jew.” He said that Lanzmann was also pro-Israel his entire life, despite supporting anti-Colonialist causes that led some of his colleagues to take anti-Zionist positions.

Bernard-Henri Lévy speaks at Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center on New York’s Upper East Side for a screening of one part of ‘Shoah: Four Sisters’ by Clause Lanzmann; November 5, 2018. (Courtesy)

I’ve been to a lot of film screenings in my day, and rarely does an introduction go on for 15 minutes, and rarer still does it lead to thunderous applause. I’ve watched Bernard-Henri Lévy on YouTube before, but to be there in person is to witness something truly extraordinary.

The film itself is a masterpiece of storytelling. It seems simple at first; just a camera pointed at a woman as she recalls her youth. Ruth Elias was born in Czechoslovakia and deported to Theresienstadt at the age of 19. She lost her entire family at Auschwitz and suffered some of the most cruel indignities I’ve ever heard. Her story involves numerous near-misses with death, thanks to a mixture of quick thinking and dumb luck. Her tale leads to a showdown of sorts with one of the worst figures of the Holocaust, Dr. Josef Mengele.

I’d seen the film before, but alone at home. Seeing it in a packed theater of mostly Jews was an entirely different story. This voice from the past was a voice we all knew; a mother, a grandmother, a neighbor. I don’t want to give away the ending, as it were, but Ruth lived by being put in an impossible position, one as heart-wrenching as the climax of “Sophie’s Choice.”

The film is not exactly upbeat. When the lights came back on I had a pounding headache. This was the fourth arts event I had attended in a Jewish space in the 10 days since the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and, to be honest, foremost on my mind was that I felt tired. Perhaps there was a little angry energy in the crowd.

To the stage came Prof. Deborah Lipstadt, a brilliant author and quick-witted speaker probably best known for taking the Holocaust denier David Irving to court (as dramatized in the film “Denial.”) She spoke eloquently about Lanzmann’s technique (it may seem hands-off, but it isn’t), his insistence on including narrative tangents and shades of gray in what we want out of heroes and villains. Most striking is Ruth Elias describing her tormentor Dr. Mengele as handsome.

From left to right: Rabbi Joshua Davidson, French Ambassador Gérard Araud, Deborah Lipstadt, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Charles Cohen, and Daphne Merkin, at Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center on New York’s Upper East Side for a screening of one part of ‘Shoah: Four Sisters’ by Clause Lanzmann; November 5, 2018. (Courtesy)

Alongside was author Daphne Merkin, whose demeanor stood in contrast with Lipstadt’s. With crumpled notes in her hand and a proclivity to drop names (plus breathing into the microphone when others were speaking) Merkin’s points rambled considerably, eventually annoying the audience into hisses as she paid Ruth Elias what could easily be interpreted as backhanded compliments.

Like I say, maybe the crowd was just feeling down, but the vibe was undeniably contentious. Questions from the audience were met with combativeness, particularly from Merkin. And since I was sitting close, I could overhear Lipstadt mutter a spare “oy” at one point.

Ruth Elias emigrated to Israel after the war (where she kept, oddly enough, a German Shepherd by her side) and spoke lovingly of the country in her interview with Lanzmann. A woman in the audience raised her hand and began asking a question about how the post-war influx of Jews who “dispossessed a whole society of Pales–”

At which point Lipstadt, sensing where this was going, threw up a yellow card: “I’m going to stop you right there. A) that is not the topic of tonight. B) that is a misrepresented view of history.”

This was met with applause, but was not enough for some in the audience, especially one man who started screaming “How dare you?!?” at the woman who was attempting to ask a question, and then just started shouting in general.

When Lipstadt tried to calm him with “Let’s all be grown-ups here,” this clearly lit his fuse, and he accused the speakers of “passing judgement on Holocaust survivors,” which was certainly an inaccurate statement about Lipstadt and, even though Merkin was speaking inelegantly and perhaps too dispassionately, unfair to her, too.

Lipstadt quoted Primo Levi’s epigraph to “If This Not A Man” (“You who live safe in your warm houses …”) to suggest that none of us could ever know how we would act if confronted with the horrors of the Holocaust. This, to me, is the very opposite of someone who is passing judgement. If I didn’t have such a headache, I would have shouted back at the guy who was shouting.

Like I said, I think everyone was a tad on edge.

As the guests left the stage I walked out into the rain. (Classic.) I wasn’t in a good mood. Then I heard a young woman talking to her sister and her dad.

“Yeah, she’s just like that in class,” she said. Rachel Kramer, 20, studies at Emory University and is a student of Lipstadt.

“She’s amazing, super opinionated and confident,” Kramer told me, and, laughing, added that “You can tell she’s warm, but she’s stern; I would not go up against her.”

More importantly, we discussed Ruth Elias and the film. “I went to a Jewish day school and have heard from lot of Holocaust survivors. But I thought this was one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever heard,” she said.

When the analysis and the arguments simmer down, a new generation of Jews learning these stories is, I think most would agree, the most important thing.