Category Archive: Times of Israel

German Jews accuse Der Spiegel of spreading anti-Semitic stereotypes

Prominent news magazine criticized for cover photo of Hasidim, weeks after coming under fire for article on ‘aggressive lobbying’ by pro-Israel group

The Central Council of Jews in Germany accused news magazine Der Spiegel of spreading anti-Semitic stereotypes with this recent cover illustration. (Twitter screenshot)

The Central Council of Jews in Germany accused news magazine Der Spiegel of spreading anti-Semitic stereotypes with this recent cover illustration. (Twitter screenshot)

The preeminent Jewish communal representative body in Germany has accused popular news magazine Der Spiegel of propagating anti-Semitic stereotypes after it ran a cover illustration portraying local Jews as Eastern European Hasidim.

The group, the Central Council of Jews in Germany, tweeted on Friday that the image “unfortunately uses stereotypes of Jews,” raising the question “what Der Spiegel intends with this photo selection and titling.”

The story in question dealt with the history of German Jewry and painted a portrait of contemporary Jewish life in the European country, which is largely secular.

US Ambassador Richard Grenell also criticized the cover, which featured an image of two ultra-Orthodox men with long beards accompanied by the title “Jewish life in Germany,” tweeting that “anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism grows.”

“What is this title photo? So this is what we Jews look like in Germany?” tweeted prominent German-Jewish journalist Richard C. Schneider.

“Jews with kippas and sidelocks — the classic ‘genre photo’ in editorial offices when it comes to an article about Jews. If one were to show us ‘completely normal’ then the majority society would probably have a problem,” he said. “For anyone who thinks the photo on Spiegel History is fine: Jews in [Germany] did not look that way for the past 200 years, only [Jews] in the ’20s after the [First World War], who came from the East. So even ‘historically’ this is not representative.”

 
Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, the American Jewish Committee’s European director, also criticized the image, tweeting, “Everything is wrong with this cover” along with an emoji of a woman covering her face in embarrassment.
In response, Spiegel tweeted a statement explaining that the publication had tried to “show an aspect of the rich diversity of German-Jewish history” and that the story had examined “many other facets” of the Jewish experience in Germany.

“We did not want to use an anti-Semitic cliché [and] if this impression was created, we are sorry,” the magazine said. “That was not our intention.”

That Spiegel story suggested that two Jewish groups, Werte Initiative and Naffo, used “aggressive lobbying methods” to get lawmakers to vote for the resolution in May.

The non-binding resolution compared the BDS campaign’s economic boycott of Israel and Israeli products to campaigns in Germany against Jewish-owned businesses before the Holocaust. Schuster told Germany’s Bild newspaper at the time that he thought the Spiegel article “clearly uses anti-Semitic clichés” and was “irresponsible and dangerous.”

In an editor’s note defending the story, Der Spiegel asserted that its “article does not paint the image of a ‘Jewish lobby’ or a ‘Jewish world conspiracy,’ as critics suggest. The religious or other affiliation of the persons involved does not play a role in our reporting. It’s about lobbying and its methods. We strongly reject the suggestion that such reporting would support incitement or acts of violence against Jews in Germany.”

What one US sailor did when a German ocean liner flew the Nazi flag in 1935 NYC

In a new book, journalist Peter Duffy tells how 84 years ago merchant marine Bill Bailey risked jail to tear a swastika from a ship carrying Rockefellers, movie stars, and nobility

A symbol of hate over the Hudson River, the swastika flag fluttered from the bowsprit of the German luxury liner S.S. Bremen in the summer of 1935. At the time, the Bremen made regular visits to New York, and many Americans ventured on board to marvel at this floating symbol of the Reich’s technology.

Others, however, looked beyond the gleaming decks and Oompah bands, and focused on what was happening across the Atlantic, as the Nazis assaulted Jews in bloody riots.

The incident made worldwide headlines. The United States government repeatedly apologized to the outraged Nazi regime. Bailey and five co-participants, collectively nicknamed the Bremen Six, were put on trial and eventually acquitted by Judge Louis B. Brodsky.

But despite the celebrated nature of the event, Bailey was soon forgotten by history.

His audacious act is revived in a new book, “The Agitator: William Bailey and the First American Uprising Against Nazism,” by New York-based author and journalist Peter Duffy. In an interview with The Times of Israel, Duffy called Bailey “so far-seeing, generous, openhearted — a great example of a sympathetic individual who saw what others couldn’t see.”

Author and journalist Peter Duffy. (Courtesy Peter Duffy)

Born in 1915, Bailey lived to be nearly 80 and struggled for many causes during his colorful life. In addition to his heroism aboard the Bremen, he fought Spanish dictator Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War, served his own country at sea in World War II, and continued his activism into the closing decades of the 20th century. When he died at his San Francisco home in 1995, his “lifelong commitment to social and economic justice” was noted in the House of Representatives by congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.

A French newspaper’s fanciful illustration of Bill Bailey’s strike against the swastika. (Pèlerin)

“The Agitator” interweaves Bailey’s story with the ever-worsening situation in Hitler’s Germany, and continues a theme of anti-Nazi resistance explored in Duffy’s nonfiction work. His first book, “The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews, and Built a Village in the Forest,” chronicled a heroic fraternal trio and their rescue work in Eastern European ghettos during WWII.

The Bielski Brothers “did impel me to think about compiling who rose up to say something [about the Nazis] way before the troops were landing on D-Day,” Duffy said, “at a time when the US government did everything it could to ignore, apologize for what was going on in Germany.”

Duffy learned about the flag incident through an interview Bailey gave for the documentary “The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War,” about international volunteers who took up arms against Franco. Intrigued, Duffy read the entire interview transcript at the Tamiment Library at New York University.

Bill Bailey in fascist Italy, 1935. (Michael Bailey)

He discovered that Bailey’s act had been an “international incident, something top levels of our government were very keen to know every little detail about,” he said.

There were State Department files, court proceedings and an extensive New York Police Department report incorporating the actions of policemen aboard the Bremen that night — including Jewish detective Matthew Solomon. Duffy also interviewed Bailey’s son, Michael — whose mother, Bailey’s second wife, Ruth (Kujawsky) Kaye, was the daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants to the US. Duffy said the key point in his research was locating the trial transcript in the National Archives.

“To find a transcript of a magistrate court decision and proceedings from 1935 New York was a pretty slim possibility,” Duffy said.

But it was there, all 1,000 or so pages of it, because of the interest around the nation and world, with New York City, New York State and the State Department all getting involved.

At the epicenter stood Bill Bailey, an impoverished Irish-Catholic son of Manhattan and Hoboken, New Jersey, who toiled in the engine rooms of merchant vessels and led efforts for their crews to unionize. (He also joined the Communist Party, although he would sever his ties several decades later.)

Bailey was distressed by racial segregation he witnessed aboard a ship docked in the American South, and by the mistreatment of an Indian stowaway that resulted in suicide. And in 1935, Bailey became increasingly concerned about outrages committed by the Nazi regime.

That year, Hitler’s government arrested a US sailor, Lawrence Simpson, aboard an American ship, imprisoning him in the Fuhlsbuettel concentration camp for planning to disseminate anti-Nazi messages. The Berlin Riots in July resulted in the death of Polish Jew Moritz Kleinfeld, with dozens injured and Jewish property destroyed. Nazi roundups of Catholic clergy were protested by the Vatican, which led Luftwaffe head Hermann Goering to criticize the Catholic Church. All of this caused Bailey to participate in an epic mission of defiance against the vessel whose Nazi flag was at that moment flying over Pier 86 in Manhattan.

Bailey and his fellow conspirators, 50 in all, planned to infiltrate the Bremen on its midnight sail, a type of farewell party held on ships the evening before their departure. An estimated 7,000 people filled the ship that night. Guests included two-year-old William Donner Roosevelt, whose grandfather was president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as members of the Morgan and Rockefeller financial dynasties, Hollywood star Elissa Landi and a Honduran nobleman, Humberto Fombona-Blanco.

As the crew began clearing the decks for departure, Bailey and his mates had to improvise a new plan. While some staged a diversion, Bailey led a group to take down the flag. Risking a tumble into the depths, he climbed a rickety ladder, but could not tear down the emblem completely, having lost his razor blade. Luckily, fellow seaman Adrian Duffy cut the flag loose with a switchblade and Bailey flung it into the Hudson.

The German luxury liner S.S. Bremen at Pier 86 in New York. (Acme Newspictures)

The author writes that the flag incident was Bailey’s favorite story, “a parable about the ragged effort in the early days of the Nazi regime to convince the world that Adolf Hitler had to be confronted.” Yet the immediate aftermath looked bleak for the participants. The flag was quickly retrieved and reattached, and the US apologized to an incensed Nazi Germany.

The resulting trial of the Bremen Six was “hugely covered at the time,” Duffy said, resulting in high drama in the court of Judge Brodsky, a Jewish justice whom the author calls a moderate Democrat. To acquit the defendants, Brodsky found a precedent from almost 200 years earlier — the Boston Tea Party of 1773, which helped spark the American Revolution.

‘The Agitator,’ by Peter Duffy. (Courtesy PublicAffairs)

Duffy noted that both protests took place on board ships, and both were followed by court proceedings. And, he said, just as the tea that American colonists dumped into Boston Harbor was a symbol of the despised taxes levied by the British, so was the flag that Bailey tossed into New York Harbor a representative of a larger threat — “a symbolic emblem of a hated regime.”

The patriots of the Boston Tea Party were celebrated in life and continue to be venerated in American history. Bailey, by contrast, lost his livelihood as a merchant seaman during the anti-communist Red Scare, and was called upon to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Bailey renounced his communism after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Duffy said he identified with the Hungarian protestors, not with the Soviets in the tanks who repressed them.

Bailey did enjoy a late-in-life renaissance. He became a local hero in San Francisco, with Pelosi, among others, donating funds to publish his autobiography. He even appeared in several Hollywood films, including “On the Edge” with Bruce Dern.

“It almost makes sense that at the end of his life, he’s cast in Hollywood films,” Duffy said. “’On the Edge,’ I thought he steals that film. He has not just a bit part, but a key part. It’s an indication of the larger-than-life aspect to him.”

Newly uncovered testimony casts doubt on Nazi Reichstag fire claims

In affidavit published by German newspaper, Nazi official clears Dutch communist of starting the 1933 blaze that Hitler used to consolidate power

The Reichstag building is shown as it goes up in flames, February 27, 1933, in Berlin. (AP Photo)

The Reichstag building is shown as it goes up in flames, February 27, 1933, in Berlin. (AP Photo)

BERLIN — Newly found German testimony from 60 years ago has cast fresh doubt on Nazi-era claims a Dutch communist was responsible for the 1933 fire that gutted the Reichstag building, German media reported on Friday.

The Reichstag blaze remains a source of controversy in Germany as Adolf Hitler used the fire to claim a Communist plot and consolidate his influence with a crackdown.

Germany’s RND newspaper group on Friday published an affidavit of a former Nazi paramilitary dating from 1955 and found in the archives of a Hanover court, which confirmed its authenticity.

In his testimony, the Nazi official clears Dutch trade union member Marinus van der Lubbe of setting fire to the Reichstag.

Dutch Communist Marinus van der Lubbe, who was convicted for starting the Reichstag fire, is seen on March 3, 1933. (AP Photo)

A Nazi court found Van der Lubbe guilty of arson and treason and he was beheaded in 1934. But his case remained controversial.

Some historians say he admitted to starting the blaze alone in an attempt to stir Germans to rise up against the Nazis. Others believe he was a scapegoat for a fire the Nazis started themselves to justify the crackdown.

In 2008, Germany posthumously pardoned him under a law introduced in 1998 to lift unjust verdicts dating from the Nazi era.

In his testimony, the former paramilitary Hans-Martin Lennings, who died in 1962, said he took Van der Lubbe from an infirmary to the Reichstag where they noticed a strange burning smell on arrival.

According to Germany’s DPA news agency, which also said it has a certified copy of the document, Lennings protested like his comrades against the arrest of the Dutchman.

Adolf Hitler right, and his leading ministers Dr. Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering arrive at the Reichstag on February 27, 1933, after news that the parliament buildings were ablaze. (AP)

“We were convinced that Van der Lubbe could not have been the arsonist since we had noticed that the fire was already lit at the Reischtag when we delivered Van der Lubbe,” it said citing testimony.

He said he and other colleagues were detained because of their protests and forced to sign a paper saying they were unaware of anything about the incident.

The Reichstag, the imposing stone building which housed the Nazi-controlled parliament, was gutted by the fire on February 27, 1933.

It re-opened as the seat of the lower house of the parliament of a reunited Germany in 1999 after it was extensively renovated and capped by a glass dome.

https://www.timesofisrael.com/newly-uncovered-testimony-casts-doubt-on-nazi-reichstag-fire-claims/

In North Macedonia, unearthed headstones shed new light on Nazi-razed community

The Nazis wiped out centuries-old Bitola Jewry within days. Now, a former resident is aiding in excavating its past so the future may learn

Visitors touring the Jewish cemetery of Bitola, Macedonia in 2018. (Yael Unna/Wikimedia Commons/via JTA)

Visitors touring the Jewish cemetery of Bitola, Macedonia in 2018. (Yael Unna/Wikimedia Commons/via JTA)

BITOLA, North Macedonia (JTA) — In a country where Nazis killed 98 percent of its Jewish minority, the survival of five members from the Abravanel family was regarded as something akin to a miracle.

As more than 120 of their relatives were shipped to the Treblinka death camp, the family was spared because of a set of unusual circumstances, including a typhus outbreak. Four of the five family members were physicians. The Nazis and the Bulgarian occupation forces needed all the help they could get to curb the outbreak in North Macedonia, a former part of Yugoslavia that is today a landlocked nation north of Greece.

The surviving couple, Haim and Berta Abravanel, lost their son, daughter and son-in-law in the calamity. Their granddaughter, Rachel Shelley Levi-Drummer, lost both her parents, an uncle and her home during the earthquake. She immigrated to Israel with her grandparents, broken and hollowed by their loss, soon after the earthquake struck. Many view their departure as the end of centuries of Jewish presence in Bitola.

But more than half a century after that tragic end, Levi-Drummer and others are returning to Bitola — the modern name of the city once known as Monastir — through several successful projects that are lifting out of oblivion the nearly extinct Jewish community of North Macedonia.

In March, the permanent display of a multi-million dollar Holocaust museum — the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of North Macedonia — was inaugurated in Skopje. It contains rare items such as a German tank engine like the ones whose fumes were used to kill Jews and prisoners of wars, and wagon carts like the ones used to ship Macedonian Jews to their deaths.

A Jew puts his arms on a freight wagon, during a commemoration for the victims of the Holocaust at the railway station in Bitola, southern Macedonia, on March 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

The museum also has scrolls with the names of 7,144 Macedonian Holocaust victims, of whom only about 150 survived. The Jewish community of Bitola, North Macedonia’s second-largest city, had an even lower survival than the national one: Only 1.5% of Bitola’s 3,400-odd Jews survived.

In 2015, Levi-Drummer, now the academic secretary of Israel’s Bar Ilan University, and Dan Oryan, Israel’s ambassador to North Macedonia, along with others began a project to clean up Bitola’s Jewish cemetery — an 11-acre hillside whose gate boasts an impressive arch, but that essentially had been used as a waste dump before 2015.

Oryan’s involvement in the case is unusual — Israeli ambassadors focus on bilateral ties and very few of them take an active lead in restoring Jewish heritage.

But “there was an amazing, heartrending story that needed to be told here,” said Oryan, whom both Levi-Drummer and Balashnikov credited with a seminal role in restoring Bitola’s Jewish cemetery.

Rachel Shelly Levi-Drummer speaking at a Holocaust commemoration event with Israel’s Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Zeev Elkin in Bitola, North Macedonia, March 10, 2019. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

As for Levi-Drummer, her orphanhood to a large degree made her return to Bitola, where her grandfather ran a large hospital, she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Following the earthquake, “my grandparents and I were the only branch left standing on this enormous fallen tree,” she said. “My memories, roots and what used to be my home brought me back here.”

Levi-Drummer was scheduled to be in Skopje with her parents when the 1963 earthquake struck, on July 26. But her grandmother, Berta, kept her a day later than planned in Bitola because she had not finished making a dress for her granddaughter. Her grandparents did not immediately tell her about the earthquake as her grandfather searched for her parents and his son.

He and other diggers found their bodies under a totally collapsed building. He had them shipped to Israel for burial.

Currently, cleaners at the Bitola Jewish cemetery have unearthed only 40 percent of its estimated 10,000 headstones – weather-resistant slabs of stone, some of them dating back to the 15th century, that were placed flat on the ground in the Sephardic tradition.

A headstone at the Jewish cemetery of Bitola, North Macedonia, Aug. 7, 2015. (Liad Malone/Wikimedia Commons/JTA)

The headstones turned out to be unusual in other ways, too. Instead of the terse epitaphs characteristic of Jewish tombstones today, the ones unearthed in Bitola contained rich descriptions and even poems about the deceased.

This verbosity isn’t unique to Bitola: It can be found in various Sephardic Jewish cemeteries, including ones in Hamburg, Germany and even as far east as present-day Ukraine.

But in Bitola’s case, these epitaphs became the only source of information about victims who perished in obscurity.

Bela Balashnikov, 76, learned in 2015 the only information she has about her great-grandfather, Matityahu Shmaya Zarfati, from an epitaph exposed in the cleanup.

“I was so moved to learn that he was a donor to communal causes, that he cared about the poor, that he was a learned man,” said Balashnikov, whose Zionist parents escaped the Holocaust when they moved to pre-state Israel in 1932. “Before the cleanup, I knew only his name. My parents wouldn’t speak of the people they lost. It was too painful.”

People hold the Israeli and former Macedonian flag as they take part in a commemoration for the victims of the Holocaust, at the railway station in Bitola, southern Macedonia, March 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

His poetic Hebrew epitaph from 1901, featuring Aramaic and written in rhymes, reads: “Inside this lump of earth lies a man of great descent … who studied the Talmud and Torah, the good and honest, his hands were never without a book. Then came the Angel of death before the due date and left his wife and sons bereaved. He died in the prime of his life.”

Another epitaph, of Esther Calderon who died in 1891, noted in remarkable candor that she had visited Jerusalem twice and tried to live there but never acclimated. She then returned to Bitola to live out her life in penury, the text says.

According to Levi-Drummer, this openness is typical of the Jews of Bitola, which is today a quiet and ornate city with a developed café culture but few tourists.

“It was a warm Sephardic community with a lot tolerance that basically functioned like an extended family,” she said of Bitola’s Jews.

According to Balashnikov, matriarchs, rather than men, had the ultimate say in many Jewish families in Bitola.

None of the Bitola community’s buildings — it had several synagogues — survived World War II and the subsequent communist rule when North Macedonia was part of Yugoslavia.

People lay flowers on railway tracks, during a commemoration for the victims of the Holocaust, at the railway station in Bitola, southern Macedonia, on March 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

The sudden and radical annihilation of Macedonian Jewry — within days, the Nazis achieved there their highest death rate anywhere — represents an unusual challenge for activists seeking to preserve the memory of this extinct community, which is believed to have settled in Bitola not later than the 3rd century CE.

“Family lore was lost because whole families were executed together,” Levi-Drummer said.

The pain of the loss was so traumatic that it made the few survivors suppress their communal memories, she added.

Michael Bar-Zohar, an Israeli Bulgaria-born historian, lamented the obscurity of Macedonian Jewry in his 1998 book, ”The Trains Left Empty.”

The area’s Jews “became victims for the second time after their death,” he wrote. “Their sacrifice and suffering were washed in waves of cold indifference. Their memory had been erased as though they had never lived on the golden shores of the Aegean Sea or in the green valleys of turbulent Macedonia. In life and death, they were the orphans of the Balkans.”

Hassan Jasari, whose Muslim uncle assisted Jews awaiting their deportation, greeting participants of the annual Holocaust commemoration event in Bitola, North Macedonia, March 10, 2019. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

Bar-Zohar’s account isn’t entirely accurate, according to Hassan Jasari, a Muslim from Bitola who says his late uncle risked his life to bring water to Jews awaiting their deportation. Hassan Jasari participates each year in the annual March of the Living Holocaust commemoration event in Bitola. Pointing at the Israeli flags of other participants of the event in March, he said, “It’s great to see this flag waving here, of the greatest country on Earth.”

Macedonia’s Jews were detained without food or water for about three days at a disused tobacco factory before being transported for days by train to Nazi-occupied Poland.

“By the time they arrived at Treblinka, they were probably eager to cram into that gas chamber believing it was a shower where they could drink and wash away the filth they had been forced to live in,” said Balashnikov, who lost several uncles there.

Levi-Drummer, Balashnikov and others interviewed for this article believe that the Abravanels were “the last Jewish family who left Bitola.”

Maria and Zoran Behar visit the Jewish cemetery of their native Bitola, North Macedonia, March 10, 2019. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

Yet Bitola is currently home to Maria Behar, 60, and her son, Zoran. She said they are the last Jews living in Bitola – and they are preparing to leave for Israel following the death of her late husband. He is not buried at a Jewish cemetery. Additionally, an Israeli family recently moved to Bitola, where they have businesses.

Notwithstanding, Balashnikov and others agree that “the Jewish community of Bitola no longer exists, and will probably never return,” she said. “At least now the world knows a little more that they even ever existed.”

In first, massive traveling exhibit brings Anne Frank artifacts to North America

Part of the seven-month ‘Auschwitz’ exhibition at New York City’s Jewish Heritage Museum, the items evoke the Holocaust icon’s childhood and two years in hiding

Anne Frank had been in hiding for several weeks in the back-house, or “annex,” of her father’s Amsterdam office building. Everything was going as planned except for one problem: The rooms in which Anne and her family were hiding had not been concealed from the rest of the building, where salespeople, visitors, and the occasional thief were known to poke around.

To rectify the situation, a swinging bookcase was built to hide the entrance to what Anne called “the Secret Annex” in her now-iconic diary. From behind the innocuous-looking cupboard, the eight Jews in hiding could pull on a wooden handle wrapped in cloth to open the façade. For more than two years, the bookcase kept everyone hidden behind its rows of thick binders with old sale orders.

That secret bookcase’s handle is one of 10 artifacts from Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House on display in the international exhibition, “Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away.” Showing in New York City’s Jewish Heritage Museum through the end of 2019, the exhibition marks the artifacts’ first appearance in North America.

The “Secret Annex” Jews were discovered and deported to Auschwitz at the beginning of September, following the camp’s summer-long “operation” in which more than 300,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered. Several survivors who knew Anne at Auschwitz have testified about her time there. For example, when the Frank girls were ill in the sick barracks, mother Edith Frank smuggled food to her daughters by digging under the wall.

In November of 1944, Anne and her older sister Margot were deported from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen in one of several transports bringing prisoners to the Reich’s interior. Conditions on the frozen heath of Bergen-Belsen were deplorable, even by Nazi camp standards, and the Frank sisters died of typhus that spring.

Photograph taken in the Anne Frank House book shop with her image and translated copies of the diary in the background. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

“Auschwitz and Anne Frank are two symbols of the Holocaust,” said Teresien da Silva, head of collections at the Anne Frank House.

“It is important to know their history, to learn from it and to remember it. Anne’s diary ends where the camp disasters begin. This is why it is important that Anne Frank is represented in this exhibition,” da Silva said in a statement about the artifacts.

Since its publication in 1947, “The Diary of Anne Frank” has sold more than 350 million copies worldwide. The Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam — which includes the “Secret Annex” — is one of the Netherlands’ top tourist attractions and an international pilgrimage destination.

The “Auschwitz” exhibition features 700 original artifacts from the Nazi death camp where nearly 1 million Jews were murdered in gas chambers. Camp elements including a prisoner barracks and posts for barbed wire loom large, but not as large as the Holocaust-era boxcar placed outside the Jewish Heritage Museum for the duration of the exhibition.

‘Forbidden for Jews’

Among the Anne Frank artifacts on display in New York through December, three dried beans are probably the least evocative — at first glance. However, like most of the objects, there is a revealing story behind the beans.

Jews in Anne Frank’s ‘River Quarter’ neighborhood of Amsterdam being deported from the city by its Nazi occupiers during World War II (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

One day in the annex, Peter van Pels was lugging several 25-kilogram (55-pound) sacks of smuggled beans up the stairs. Suddenly, one of the bags ripped open, and thousands of beans poured all over the dilapidated annex. Anne and Peter had a tremendous laugh, but the annex inhabitants were picking up beans for a long time.

“Since there were about 50 pounds of beans in that sack, it made enough noise to raise the dead,” wrote Anne in her diary. “We started picking them up right away, but beans are so little and slippery that they roll into every nook and cranny. Now each time we go upstairs, we bend over and hunt around so we can present Mrs. Van Pels with a handful of beans,” wrote Anne on November 9, 1942.

Beans, indeed, are mentioned many times in Anne’s diary, also with the term “food cycles” — periods when annex meals shared a single main ingredient, such as spinach. Whether scrubbing them, sorting them, or lugging them, beans in Anne’s diary are a stand-in for the monotony of life in hiding — including the daily menu.

Handle used to swing the bookcase that concealed Anne Frank and seven other Jews in Otto Frank’s Amsterdam office building (Anne Frank House Collection)

Upon returning from the camps, Otto Frank found a few of the beans wedged between stair cracks. During the following months, he set to work editing Anne’s diary and identifying a Dutch publisher. The beans remained in his safekeeping, a simple but evocative reminder of the hiding period.

Another artifact with an unexpected backstory is a child’s gramophone with fairy tale figures appearing on the sides. The yellow record player was presented by Otto Frank to his downstairs neighbor (and landlord), Otto Konitzer, on the occasion of Anne’s birth on June 12, 1929. At the time of Anne’s birth, the Frank family was still living in Frankfurt, Germany, and conditions were still bearable for the country’s Jews. Downstairs neighbor Konitzer was a supporter of Nazism, but the children from both families played together until the Frank family fled to the Netherlands in 1933. Otto Konitzer donated the gift to the Anne Frank House in 1994.

Anne Frank’s former bedroom in the ‘Secret Annex,’ the heart of the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 2012. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Among the other Anne Frank artifacts on display are a childhood drawing of the diarist’s and one of the “Forbidden for Jews” signs Anne would have seen around Amsterdam before going into hiding. There are also original contact sheets with 48 portrait photos of the family, a phone, and items related to Anne’s posthumous fame.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage expects 50,000 school-age students to tour “Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away” by year’s end. At 1,675-square-meters (18,000-square feet) and filling three floors of the museum, the world-traveling exhibition is larger than most of North America’s two-dozen Holocaust museums.

Yad Vashem changes Holocaust memorial prayers to include North African victims

Prayer for the perished said to be updated on museum’s website following query from 12th grader; it now refers to ‘Diaspora’ rather than ‘European Diaspora’

Israeli soldiers stand below a monument at a ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, as Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 11, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli soldiers stand below a monument at a ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, as Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 11, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yad Vashem has changed two of its key prayers for Holocaust Remembrance Day — the Yizkor prayer and El Maleh Rahamim — to include Jewish victims from North Africa, a report said Tuesday.

The change came after Yael Robinson, a 12th grade student from Zichron Yaakov whose grandfather was a Holocaust survivor from Tripoli, Libya, took issue last year with the fact that the local remembrance ceremony did not mention victims outside of Europe, Haaretz reported.

Robinson wrote to the ceremony organizers, saying: “It was strange for me that the Yizkor read at the ceremony only mentioned Jews who died in Europe, and the El Maleh Rahamim prayer again mentions the Holocaust in Europe but doesn’t mention the Holocaust in North Africa even once,” noting that she meant no disrespect toward the victims in Europe.

People stand still on the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv as a two-minute siren is sounded across Israel to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 12, 2018 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A group called “A Movement for a Clean Memory” took on responsibility for the organization of Robinson’s local ceremony and received a copy of the letter. Upon closer examination of the issue, it was discovered that the prayers used were taken from the website of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

According to Haaretz, the Yad Vashem website already has the updated version of the prayers.

In the Yizkor prayer, a sentence that previously recalled those in the “European Diaspora” who perished in the Holocaust now reads just “Diaspora.”

Likewise, the word “European” was removed from the El Maleh Rahamim prayer when referring to the six million victims of the Holocaust.

“There is no one version of the Yizkor prayer and it’s known that at memorial ceremonies for various communities and organizations, they adapt it as is fitting,” Yad Vashem said in a statement to Haaretz.

“In general, at the different ceremonies conducted by Yad Vashem, this prayer is not used. In response to a query regarding one of the versions on the Yad Vashem website, which includes the words, ‘all the communities of Beit Israel in the European Diaspora,’ the text was changed to ‘all the communities of Beit Israel in the Diaspora,’ which is more accurate.”

Before Robinson’s grandfather died, he told her that as a child he saw his father arrested and thrown “like a sack of potatoes” into a truck that took him to the ghetto, from where he escaped and returned home a few weeks later.

“When they wanted to take his father, he tried to grab hold of him so he wouldn’t go, and the German, who had metal tips on the edge of his shoe, kicked him, and until his dying day he had the scars,” she said, according to Haaretz.

‘Green Book’ producer Charles Wessler helping establish new Warsaw Ghetto museum

Hollywood producer posts video asking anyone with artifacts from site to donate them to new museum opening in Polish capital

Charles B. Wessler arrives at the 91st Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019, at The Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Charles B. Wessler arrives at the 91st Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019, at The Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

JTA — Along with a group of contributors, Hollywood producer Charles B. Wessler is working on a new museum on the Warsaw Ghetto — and he’s asking for help.

In a video message posted Thursday, the “Green Book” producer asked anyone with artifacts from the Warsaw Ghetto to donate it to a new museum set to open in the Polish city in 2023.

Wessler got involved in the museum during a private visit to Warsaw last month, when he met the museum’s director, Albert Stankowski, and offered to help with collecting materials for the opening.

Memorial for 400-year-old Jewish community to be built in town next to Auschwitz

Few visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp pass through Poland’s Oswiecim. That might change as sites tied to the city’s Jewish past are preserved, restored, and digitized

OSWIECIM, Poland – Eighty years after the Great Synagogue of Oswiecim was set ablaze by the German occupiers of Poland, a memorial park will be built where the legendary shul once hosted up to 2,000 worshipers.

Located a few miles from the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Great Synagogue of Oswiecim was the centerpiece of a thriving, 400-year-old Jewish community. Some of Poland’s leading Jewish scholars came from Oswiecim — renamed Auschwitz in German — and Jewish families set up some of Poland’s first factories there.

A project of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, the memorial park is one of several sites managed by the organization. Chief among them is the so-called “Auschwitz Synagogue,” built in 1913 and the only Jewish house of worship that survived the Nazi onslaught intact. The modest prayer hall has been restored and connected to an adjacent building with a small Jewish museum. Together, they comprise the Auschwitz Jewish Center’s headquarters.

Site of the coming memorial park where the Great Synagogue of Oswiecim, Poland, once stood, May 2019 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

“The memorial park is another project to commemorate and educate about the destroyed Jewish community which until the war constituted nearly 60 percent of the town next to the site of Auschwitz,” said Tomasz Kuncewicz, the Auschwitz Jewish Center’s director, in an exchange with The Times of Israel.

“It is a project connecting the current non-Jewish residents of the town and the descendants of the Oswiecim Jews living in Israel and other countries around the world,” said Kuncewicz, who pioneered the use of apps to teach visitors to Oswiecim about the city’s Jewish history.

To fund the project, the Auschwitz Jewish Center conducted crowd-funding campaigns in Polish and English, said Kuncewicz. Each of the campaigns yielded about 100 donors, including current residents of Oswiecim.

In Oswiecim, Poland, during the Nazi occupation, workers from Auschwitz dismantled the Great Synagogue that was burned down in November of 1939. (Auschwitz Jewish Center)

Among the legends associated with the Great Synagogue, a Simchat Torah “death dance” once brought out the departed spirits of Oswiecim’s Jews for a night of mystery. One of the most astounding tales about the house of worship, however, took place more recently.

‘A welcoming and reflective space’

The Jews of Oswiecim had some warning time before the Nazis occupiers set the Great Synagogue ablaze in November of 1939, and they put it to good use.

Underneath a floor near stairs leading up to the women’s gallery, a trove of sacred items was hastily buried. The Torah scrolls, candlesticks, and prayer books were placed in the ground without any coverings or container.

More than six decades after the clandestine burial, former Oswiecim resident Yariv Nornberg told archeologists about the secret cache. He’d heard about the burial from another Oswiecim native, completing a circle that helped researchers find the items.

Ritual objects from the Great Synagogue of Oswiecim in Poland, on display at the Auschwitz Jewish Center, October 2017. The Great Synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis in 1939, and these artifacts were uncovered during excavations in 2004 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Toward the end of excavations in 2004, archeologists found the shul’s Eternal Light, 10 chandeliers, a bronze menorah, and the remains of holy books. At other locations on the grassy plateau, objects pulled from the earth included the remains of charred pews and marble decorative elements.

According to archeologists, a remarkable aspect of the unearthed Great Synagogue artifacts has to do with the site’s use during World War II. Following clearing away of the synagogue’s rubble, the ground was “crisscrossed” by the construction of shelters. Despite all this human activity, the treasures a few inches below the ground remained untouched — or at least some of them did.

During the next five months, the land on which the Great Synagogue stood will undergo its latest transformation. The shul’s former perimeter will be marked by a curb and greenery, and a small portion of the excavated original floor will be displayed for visitors.

A colorized photo of the Great Synagogue, left, which dominated the ‘Jewish street’ in Oswiecim, Poland, prior to its destruction by the Nazis in 1939 (Auschwitz Jewish Center)

“The focus will be on the biodiversity and on making it into a welcoming and reflective space,” said the Auschwitz Jewish Center’s Kuncewicz, who advocated for a “minimalist” approach to on-site construction.

Viewed from above, the park’s main feature will be large recycled stone slabs arranged as a path to symbolize the destruction, said Kuncewicz. To encourage use of the space, benches will be placed along with a model of the candelabra found in 2004. The replica will hang between trees near the center of the former synagogue.

Former ‘Jewish Street’ in Oswiecim, Poland; the facade of the Great Synagogue was located near the grass, May 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

‘A broken star of David’

After the Holocaust, several dozen Jews returned to Oswiecim, the remnant of a community that numbered at least 6,000 before the war. As in other parts of Poland, many of these survivors were displaced again when they fled the country beginning in 1946, after the Kielce pogrom, or in later years during waves of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism.

The Great Synagogue Memorial Park of Oswiecim will acknowledge this complex past with its symbolic installation. Visitors will peer into a large triangular structure to see historic photographs of the synagogue, with the triangle symbolizing both a broken star of David and – according to Kuncewicz — directions in which Holocaust survivors emigrated from Poland after 1946.

One of several photographs taken during the deportation of Oswiecim’s Jews to ghettos in the region during the Nazi occupation of Poland. (Auschwitz Jewish Center)

The triangle motif occurs throughout properties managed by the Auschwitz Jewish Center, including in part of the square adjacent to the small Auschwitz Synagogue and Jewish museum. In that square, 5,000 of the town’s Jewish residents were gathered prior to being deported to several ghettos, and from there to death camps.

A stone’s throw from where the Great Synagogue stood is the location of the former Haberfeld House, once home to the town’s most famous Jewish family. For generations, the family distilled vodka and produced other beverages for use in Poland and to export around the world. Their mansion and adjacent distillery were demolished in 2003, and a Hampton Inn by Hilton recently opened on the site.

The only remaining Jewish cemetery in Oswiecim, Poland, May 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Oswiecim’s only remaining Jewish cemetery is a 15-minute walk from the city’s historic core. The grounds shrunk significantly since 1939, when the cemetery covered what are now adjacent roads and parking lots. The placement of several dozen tombstones in recent years can only be symbolic, since the original grave markers were removed by the Nazis or used in post-war building efforts.

Covered in ivy and moss, the tree-filled cemetery has two relatively new burial tombs. One is for Shimshon Kleuger, who was known as “the last living Jew in the city of Auschwitz” until his death in 2000.

Door to the former home of Shimshon Kleuger, the so-called ‘last living Jew in the city of Auschwitz,’ Oswiecim, Poland, May 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

For decades after the Holocaust, Kleuger lived as a hermit in his family home adjacent to the Auschwitz Synagogue. Townspeople placed food, water and coffee in a bucket for him, and journalists dared not knock on the feisty Kleuger’s door.

In 2014, the Auschwitz Jewish Center turned Kleuger’s former home into an Oswiecim-themed café, called Cafe Bergson. A deep mezuzah indentation can be seen next to the burgundy door, close to where people anonymously left Kleuger the necessities of life.

Inside the restored building, a collection of books, postcards and memorabilia recall the past of Oswiecim, which was known as “not a bad place to live” among Polish Jews. The cafe also hosts lectures about the history of Oshpitzin — the Yiddish name for Oswiecim, which means “guests.” After four centuries of relative prosperity in Oshpitzin, Jews proved to be temporary guests.

Currently, the Auschwitz Jewish Center receives a few hundred visitors a month, whereas more than 2.1 million people visited Auschwitz-Birkenau last year. With developments like the “Oshpitzin” app, the museum’s Cafe Bergson, and the coming Great Synagogue memorial park, Oswiecim the erased “city of Israel” is again being turned into a welcoming place for Jewish guests.