Category Archive: Times of Israel

You’ve probably never heard of the world’s oldest Holocaust museum

Founded in 1933, London’s Wiener Library actively collected material in real time throughout WWII, later playing a key role in the Nuremberg, Eichmann and Irving trials

Established in 1933 by Alfred Wiener, a German Jew decorated with the Iron Cross in World War I, the Wiener Library in London is the world’s oldest Holocaust museum. (Courtesy)

LONDON — It is a collection as extensive as its contents are horrifying. Step behind the imposing Georgian façade which houses the Wiener Library in central London’s picturesque, tree-lined Russell Square, and one enters the world’s oldest Holocaust museum.

Eighty-five years ago this year, Alfred Wiener, a German Jew decorated with the Iron Cross in World War I, fled his homeland and established the Jewish Central Information Office in Amsterdam. Its purpose was to alert the world of the dangers posed by Germany’s new rulers.

Wiener’s decision may have been prompted by the Nazis’ recent accession to power. But he had been aware, and trying to warn his fellow countrymen of, the growing menace posed by the German far right for almost the entire period of the Weimar republic.

Indeed, soon after completing his military service in 1918, Wiener published a pamphlet, “Before Pogroms?”, which presciently argued that, if left unchecked, right-wing anti-Semitism would lead to “bestial murders and violence” and the “blood of citizens running on the pavements.”

For more than a decade, Wiener, who worked for a Jewish civil rights group, regularly repeated his warning that anti-Semitism would destroy not just the Jews in Germany, but Germany itself. To inform and document his work, Wiener collected pamphlets, books, leaflets, newspapers and posters, charting the Nazis’ rise and their hatred of Jews.

It is the fact that the library is so deeply rooted in its history and subject matter which makes it so unique.

“Alfred Wiener was able to collect the kind of things that, if you were starting a museum today, you probably wouldn’t be able to find,” believes the library’s director, Ben Barkow.

In the late summer of 1939 Wiener departed Amsterdam for Britain, where on the ill-fated date of September 1, 1939, he reopened the Jewish Central Information Office in London’s Marylebone, as Germany invaded Poland.

Scrambling to better inform themselves about the leaders, military commanders and institutions of the country with which Britain was now at war, the BBC and government departments such as the Ministry of Information paid Wiener to access the resources of what they began to informally call “the library.”

A fortnightly publication — The Nazis At War — was produced. It constituted what Barkow describes in “Alfred Wiener and the Making of the Holocaust Library” as “a fascinating commentary on the political developments of the war … [providing] the British government and the Wiener Library’s other clients with source materials for anti-Nazi propaganda.”

Today, the library has grown to house some 80,000 volumes, numerous periodicals, photographs and AV materials, and a 2,000-strong archival collection; each of those 2,000 items, moreover, may range from a slim folder to 100 boxes of material.

Among them are oral and written histories by survivors — many of them recorded by the library’s staff and volunteers in the early post-war years — together with their papers and photographs.

While the library’s focus remains primarily on the Holocaust, its causes and consequences, over the last decade it has also began to expand its work to collect materials on the wider question of genocide and to examine the relationship between it and the Jewish Shoah.

Examples of the library’s grim exhibits abound. In a brightly colored board game, players compete to arrest Jews and make a town judenrein (free of Jews). Manufactured commercially in the mid-1930s and targeted at families, the SS objected to the game on the basis that it trivialized the serious business of freeing Germany of the Jews’ pernicious grip. No such objections are, however, recorded to a book which allows children to cut out and color uniforms worn by members of the Hitler Youth.

Some of the items leave tantalizingly unanswered questions. An English-language copy of “Mein Kampf” published in 1939 has a picture pasted into it of a relaxed-looking Hitler. The Fuhrer’s signature lies below the snapshot, together with an all-too-brief note of explanation by the book’s owner, a woman identified only as Karen, who is also visible in the picture: “Our visit to Berchtesgarden when AH came into the village, shook hands with tourists, signed standing up in pencil just before our evacuation.”

Others — such as the library’s copies of “The Volunteer,” an SS-veterans monthly magazine which began publication in 1956 and only recently ceased to appear — leave a peculiar chill. Its pages may be glossy and appear contemporary, but they reek of a putrid nostalgia, containing advertisements placed by subscribers looking to reunite with, or honor the passing, of old comrades.

A new chapter

A move from a cramped space on Devonshire Street — its second home in London — to its present premises in 2011 has given the library a new lease of life. Between 8,000 to 10,000 people now visit each year, including students, academics and people in the arts — film makers, authors, playwrights and people staging productions who are looking for visual references. Visitors, who need no appointment to use the library’s facilities, can work in the light-filled reading room.

A large ground-level space is used to host talks and exhibitions, many of which then travel around the country, often visiting schools and campuses.

No topic is too big, small or controversial to tackle. Earlier this year, the uncomfortable (and for many Britons unknown) story of the German occupation of the Channel Islands, and the consequent persecution and murder of Jews on British soil, was examined.

It followed previous exhibitions on Britain’s approach to the Jewish refugee crisis in the 1930s and 1940s and the country’s responses to the Holocaust, which touched on difficult questions such as the extent of anti-Semitism within British society, information about the Holocaust in the press, and the stance of the British government to the unfolding violence against Jews in Europe.

The library is also popular with family historians and those wishing to explore their own relationship to the Holocaust. Since 2014, the library has housed Britain’s copy of the Red Cross’ International Tracing Service. Every year, several hundred people — the occasional survivor, survivors’ families and relatives of refugees — now use the huge resource.

Barkow, who has worked at the library for 30 years, believes that “interest and curiosity” is stronger among the grandchildren of survivors and refugees than their children. He has also detected what he believes to be a less welcome trend in the manner in which this history is working its way through the generations.

“In my early days, when there were plenty of survivors and refugees about, they always spoke in terms of a willingness to forgive these events but never forget them,” he says. “Now that they’ve just about all gone, the younger people — their grandchildren — are often much more uncompromising and angry about these events and you hear a language of wanting revenge that was almost inconceivable in their grandparents.”

First-hand accounts of horrors

Wiener himself might not have appreciated this shift. He knew first hand the horrors that had befallen European Jews. While he spent much of the war in the United States collecting materials for the JCIO, his family were trapped in Amsterdam.

His daughters survived Bergen-Belsen but his wife, Margarethe, died of exhaustion and malnutrition hours after being liberated. Nonetheless, during the 1950s he traveled frequently to Germany, reaching out in particular to Christians and young people. The latter, he told the library’s bulletin in 1958, “seem willing to learn the lesson of the past, and they have decided, once and for all, to wash their hands of the terror of totalitarian reaction.”

During this period, and for much of the next three decades, the library’s very survival seemed at stake. After Germany’s defeat, funding began to dry up and the library led a hand-to-mouth existence. Complex, protracted proposals to incorporate it into the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Yad Vashem were explored and abandoned.

Yad Vashem, ‘a hand and a name,’ was established in 1953 to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and recognize non-Jews who helped Jews survive the war. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Long after Wiener’s death in 1964, a deal was struck with Tel Aviv University. In 1980, a swath of the collection was shipped there, but, at the 11th hour, money was raised in Germany and the US to microfilm what was being sent to Israel.

The existence, survival and struggles of the library were a testament to, and reflection of, Wiener’s personality. As Barkow describes in his book, its founder was both a charismatic “natural diplomat” — good at persuading people and winning them over to his project — and a secretive man with an authoritarian streak.

But what is undeniable is the critical role played by the library in adding to, and helping to shape, early post-war thinking about, and studies of, Nazi ideology, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

Gerald Reitlinger’s classic 1953 study of the Holocaust, “The Final Solution,” was, for instance, mainly researched at the library. It also supported Lionel Kochan’s 1957 book, “Pogrom: November 10 1938,” the first detailed analysis of Kristallnacht.

In later years, the library’s reputation was such that it was able to attract scholars of the caliber of Robert Wistrich, and directors Walter Laqueur and David Cesarani, to work there.

Crucially, the library also began to assemble and publish eyewitness accounts of the Nazis’ war on the Jews almost as soon as Hitler was dead.

From the mid-1950s, this work became more systematic and was regarded by the library as “a safeguard against any future attempts to falsify the events of those years.” It was, argues Barkow, “a remarkable instance of the foresight of the library. In the 1950s the phenomenon of so-called revisionism or Holocaust denial was little known, yet from the 1960s on it became an important issue.”

Making the history it records

But the library has not just related and recorded history, it has also helped to make it.

It provided documentation to the prosecutors at Nuremberg that was available nowhere else.

“The help [the library] has given has been invaluable in the preparation of charges against the leaders of Nazi Germany,” suggested the Belgian commissioner of the UN War Crimes Commission after the conclusion of the trials. A large proportion of the materials generated at Nuremberg were then deposited at the library.

Nearly 15 years later, it performed the same function at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. As well as providing background materials to the prosecutors in Jerusalem, the head of Israeli police, Chief Superintendent Abraham Selinger, visited the library shortly after Eichmann’s capture. The library’s assistant director, Caesar Aronsfeld, became its point man for the trial, helping Selinger gather the evidence to link the Nazi war criminal to specific crimes.

At the turn of the century, the library figured in another courtroom case, this time one played out in London, when the Holocaust-denying historian David Irving sued American author Deborah Lipstadt for claiming that Irving had deliberately distorted evidence. The library was the main source used by the researchers who authored Lipstadt’s expert report — an 800-page analysis of Irving’s writing and speeches which helped demolish his case.

Irving’s defeat – the judge’s excoriating verdict branded him an “active Holocaust denier … anti-Semitic and racist” – appeared to strike a deadly blow to those who seek to question the truth of the Shoah. Sadly, this provided a false dawn.

In its own modest way, the Wiener Library helps to continue the fight.

“Above all,” argues Barkow, “we hold this material. Anybody can come in and look at this and make their own mind up. The evidence is here. If other people are saying: ‘This didn’t happen’ or ‘It wasn’t nearly that bad,’ you can come here and you can check it out for yourself and you can learn the truth.

“We have a simple belief in the power of the truth,” he says.


Who killed a Polish Holocaust hero? His family may be close to finding out

Long-forgotten testimony by the victim’s sister — the family’s sole survivor — may help solve the decades-old mystery behind the murder of Sobibor escapee Josef Kopf

Amit Hirsch, right, recites the mourner’s prayer at what used to be the Jewish cemetery in Turobin, Poland, June 2017. (Courtesy of Lea Hirsch)

JTA — Josef Kopf survived Sobibor by killing a guard and staging the first successful escape from that death camp in Poland, where the Nazis murdered 250,000 Jews.

But Kopf, whose unlikely escape in 1943 preceded by several months a full-scale uprising at Sobibor, did not live to see Nazi Germany’s defeat.

After the liberation in 1944, he returned to his hometown of Turobin to reclaim some possessions — and was never seen or heard from again.

“We always assumed Josef was killed by a local, but we never knew for sure. We never even knew where he was buried,” said Lea Hirsch, Kopf’s niece from Israel.

Her mother, Genia, and Josef Kopf were the only ones from their family of eight children who survived the Nazi death machine.

Last year, though, the 75-year-old mystery was partially solved. A long-forgotten testimony led Hirsch and other relatives to Kopf’s presumed burial place, launching them into a murder investigation whose specifics lie at the heart of the debate in Poland about local complicity and resistance during the Holocaust.

The testimony that triggered the investigation was on an old recording of Genia Kopf, who passed away in 2011. She hardly ever spoke about the Holocaust to her children, Lea Hirsch said. But in the recording, which the family only recently discovered, Genia recounted in detail the last time she saw her brother alive and the story of her own rescue by her non-Jewish neighbor.

According to Genia’s testimony, Josef Kopf found her at the home of her rescuer, Antek Teklak, just days after the Red Army liberated Turobin and eastern Poland. But the siblings’ reunion was short lived, she said. Josef Kopf told Genia and Teklak that he would return to Turobin to “work out” some business that he had had before the war with a friend, whom he did not name.

Teklak warned Josef Kopf not to go, saying he would not make it out of his hometown alive. Trusting Teklak, Genia Kopf begged her brother to stay. But Josef Kopf “just laughed and said he’d be back the next day,” his sister said in the recording of their last meeting.

This information last year led Lea Hirsch and her son, Amit, to Poland with a dual mission: Locate the Teklak family to honor his bravery and find Josef Kopf’s grave and killer.

“Something in me just woke up, an unstoppable drive to find out what happened,” said Lea Hirsch, a 65-year-old marketing and sales professional and mother of three children from the Haifa area.

In Poland, she and other relatives hired an interpreter and a cameraman. Within a couple of days, witnesses told Hirsch that a former partner of Kopf had killed him, and that a friend of Kopf buried his body in a wheat field in the town of Żolkiewka, six miles north of Turobin.

The witnesses provided partial information, claiming not to know who killed Kopf. But they led the family to the field where they say Kopf was buried. The family is raising funds for an exhumation with the intention of bringing Josef Kopf’s remains to Israel for burial. They will be returning for further interviews in July with the hope of finding out who killed him.

“We don’t have a lot of time because the witnesses are old, but it’s a gradual process,” Lea Hirsch said of her talks with Polish villagers in the area. “People have to open up; if we rush it they’ll clam up. A bottle of vodka here, a conversation there — you have to pave their path to the truth.”

For Hirsch, uncovering the identity of her uncle’s killer is secondary in significance to finding the place where he is said to have been buried

Reconnecting with the descendants of her mother’s rescuers also was important to Lea Hirsch and her family, she said. Risking a summary execution of his entire family, Teklak hid Genia for two years in what she described in the recording as “a hole in the ground.” Teklak took her in after she escaped the ghetto where the rest of her family was kept before they were murdered.

Teklak’s son, Totko, and his family met Hirsch, her son and other relatives in Turobin in an encounter last year that Hirsch said was “extremely emotional.”

Her mother’s rescue and uncle’s murder left Hirsch with “mixed feelings” about the polarizing debate gripping Polish society in recent months about the behavior of the Polish people during the Holocaust. Thousands of Jews died at the hands of non-Jewish Poles; thousands more were rescued by them.

In January, Poland’s parliament passed a law that criminalizes blaming the Polish nation for Nazi crimes. The measure triggered a diplomatic crisiswith Israel amid criticism by the Jewish state and many Jewish organizations that it risked silencing public debate and research about the Holocaust. And the debate also unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic rhetoric.

“I have an undying appreciation for the people who saved my mother,” Hirsch said. “I was shocked to stand on the ground under which a non-Jewish hero kept her alive for years.”

But Hirsch also has “tremendous anger” over the murder of her uncle, who “survived the hell of Sobibor only to be killed and dumped at an unmarked grave because he was just a Jew.” Like many descendants of Holocaust survivors, Hirsch said she grew up in a very small family.

“I could have had an uncle,” she said.

Amit Hirsch, Lea’s son, said his family history reflects “the complexity of the historical record on the Holocaust in Poland.” Poland has 6,706 Righteous Among the Nations – non-Jews who were recognized by Israel as having risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust. And while this is the highest number of righteous in any nation, “there was also betrayal and deadly pogroms and anti-Semites,” Amit Hirsch said.

He said the law on rhetoric about the Holocaust in Poland is designed to “manipulate history so that only the rescue stories are heard.”

Rescue stories “indeed need to be heard,” Amit Hirsch said, “but alongside the terrible things that happened.”


British blogger who sang about Holocaust denial convicted

Alison Chabloz, 54, is found guilty of writing, performing and disseminating three songs, including one about Anne Frank and another claiming the genocide was ‘a bunch of lies’

Blogger Alison Chabloz, accused of posting anti-Semitic songs on her site, arrives at Westminster Magistrate’s Court in London on January 10, 2018. (AFP/Tolga Akmen)

A British blogger who posted songs on YouTube denying the Holocaust was convicted in London of sending “offensive, indecent or menacing messages.”

On Friday, a Westminster Magistrates’ Court judge found Alison Chabloz, 54, guilty of writing, performing and disseminating three songs about Nazi persecution. One was about the young diarist Anne Frank.

Chabloz, who claimed in one of her songs that the Holocaust was “just a bunch of lies,” will be sentenced next month.

During one session of her trial in January, Chabloz sang along in the courtroom as the judge reviewed the videos of her singing.

The Campaign Against anti-Semitism watchdog initially brought a private prosecution against Chabloz before the Crown Prosecution Service took over.

“This verdict sends a strong message that in Britain, Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories will not be tolerated,” said Gideon Falter, the group’s chairman.


Jewish group questions sainthood for WWII-era cardinal

American Jewish Committee tells Vatican that August Hlond was ‘extremely’ hostile to Jews and failed to condemn 1946 pogrom

In this May 25, 2006 photo, Pope Benedict XVI visits the tomb of Polish Cardinal August Hlond in Warsaw’s St. John Cathedral. (AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito)

A leading Jewish organization has criticized the Vatican’s decision to move World War II-era cardinal August Hlond along the path to possible sainthood, saying the Polish primate was “extremely” hostile to Jews and failed to condemn a 1946 pogrom.

In a letter to top Vatican officials released Wednesday, the American Jewish Committee said it was “profoundly” concerned that Pope Francis approved a decree recognizing Hlond’s “heroic virtues,” the first main step in the sainthood process.

AJC’s director of interreligious affairs, Rabbi David Rosen, cited a 1936 pastoral letter Hlond wrote in which he urged Poles to stay away from the “harmful moral influence of Jews” and to boycott Jewish media.

Hlond refused to condemn the 1946 Kielce pogrom, which left 42 Jews dead and at least 40 wounded.

“It is a fact that the Jews are fighting against the Catholic Church, persisting in free thinking, and are the vanguard of godlessness, Bolshevism and subversion,” Hlond wrote in the letter, which frequently has been cited as evidence of the Catholic Church’s institutional anti-Semitism prior to the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

“Cardinal Hlond held a press conference but he did not condemn the pogrom nor urge Poles to stop murdering Jews,” wrote Rosen. “Rather, he pointed out that the Jews were all communists or supporters of communism and that the pogrom was their own fault.”

Hlond, who was highest ranking church official in Poland during 1926-48, remains highly respected in the overwhelmingly Catholic country for having kept the faith strong and protected the church’s independence during the German Nazi occupation and the first years of post-war communism.

His initiatives safeguarded Poland’s Church from the kind of persecution and subjugation that took place in nearby nations.

While living in exile during World War II, Hlond used his influence and personal contacts to speak to the world about Poland’s plight under Nazi occupation. When the Germans arrested him, he refused an offer to form a collaborative government.

His devotion to Catholic faith laid the foundations for the emergence of such key figures in Poland’s church as Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II, now a saint.

Francis’s decree that Hlond lived a life of heroic virtue came after investigators compiled a full study of his life, writings and works to determine their theological soundness. The Vatican must still confirm a miracle attributed to his intercession for him to be beatified, and a second one for him to be made a saint.


Germany loses Holocaust reminder as survivors dwindle

As far-right parties make gains, educators and historians say the country needs to urgently find new ways of remembering the past

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, Germany (AFP) — Renowned for its relentless confrontation of its Nazi past, Germany’s culture of remembrance faces new 21st-Century challenges as survivors of World War II and the Holocaust disappear and far-right politics reemerges.

“This is my birth certificate, with the Nazi swastika on the bottom,” white-haired Ralph Dannheisser told a class of rapt teenagers, passing the document around the packed library at Frankfurt’s Liebig secondary school.

Born in 1938, less than two years before his parents fled Europe for the United States, Dannheisser grew up speaking German and praying for the survival of relatives left behind as World War II and the Holocaust savaged the Old Continent.

The students pressed 80-year-old Dannheisser with questions for more than an hour, asking how the loss of his grandparents in the camps at Sobibor and Auschwitz-Birkenau affected his childhood, or how American children reacted to German-Jewish refugees.

A memorial at the site of the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland. (Public domain)

“My mother never got over the murder of her parents and her brother… I also felt a real loss because I grew up without an Oma or Opa (granddad or grandma) and grew up knowing no uncles, aunts or cousins,” Dannheisser recounted.

“It was really detailed, we didn’t learn things this way in class,” 15-year-old Ronan Chollet-Richard said afterwards.

“You could see clearly in his eyes how it felt. It’s unimaginable for me as a pupil, as a child.”

Dannheisser, smiling from behind his glasses and neat beard, declares himself “impressed” by the students’ engagement.

“They had intelligent questions and gave me a lot of hope,” he said.

“I think it’s important to tell our stories and to keep the memory alive in newer generations while we’re still around,” he added.

The dwindling number of survivors makes the question of how to pass knowledge of Germany’s totalitarian past on to future generations more acute now than it has been in decades.

“As we draw further and further away from the Holocaust and World War II, it’s all the more urgent to find new ways of communicating this,” said Stephan Peters, who has taught history at the Liebig school since 1992.

‘180-degree turn’

Germany broke free of the post-war decades of silence and repressed memories to probe the depths of its Nazi past in the late 20th Century, a process imitated in places like South Africa.

But last year the far-right nationalist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) surged into parliament with 12.6 percent of the vote, turbocharged by the arrival of more than one million mostly Muslim refugees since 2015.

Workers block the street in front of Bjoern Hoecke, front left, German state of Thuringia’s chairman of the Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) party, April 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

Ahead of the election, regional AfD leader Bjoern Hoecke called for a “180-degree turn” in the country’s “daft policy of coming to terms with the past.”

And party leader Alexander Gauland has said “we have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars.”

AfD’s contempt for the culture of remembrance stems not from hatred of Jews so much as from its rejection of many lessons post-war Germany drew from its history.

The 1949 Basic Law, later adopted as united Germany’s constitution, is anchored around a deep concern for individual rights, with clear limits to state, police and military powers and a commitment to host refugees.

Away from the far-right, Germany’s 200,000-strong Jewish community fears growing numbers of anti-Semitic crimes by Muslim perpetrators, from the burning of Israeli flags at protests to street violence or bullying in schools.

“I would advise individual people against openly wearing a kippah (traditional Jewish skullcap) in big German cities,” Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in April after a spate of such incidents.

No ‘inoculation’ for extremism

As Holocaust survivors gradually vanish, the focus of remembrance culture is turning towards the physical evidence of Nazi crimes at former camps and other scenes of atrocities.

Some politicians have even called for obligatory visits to Holocaust memorials.

The infamous German inscription that reads ‘Work Makes Free’ at the main gate of the Auschwitz I extermination camp in Oswiecim, Poland, on November 15, 2014. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images via JTA)

Teacher Peters cautions that the encounters can be “psychologically very, very difficult to bear for some pupils, to withstand the pressure they feel at this place.”

What’s more, many sites are “at the limits of our capacity,” says Stephanie Billib, a spokeswoman for the Holocaust memorial at Bergen-Belsen.

“We have more school groups than we can manage, we are always having to turn down requests.”

While memorials hope for more state funding, the disappearance of those who lived through the Holocaust as adults means “important advocates for the memorials will soon no longer be there,” Billib laments.

In any case, she says visits are not so effective that “you can give people some kind of inoculation, that all the young people will be good democrats” afterwards.

That hasn’t stopped people trying — most notoriously in the case of German rappers Farid Bang and Kollegah.

After the duo’s top-selling album, which features anti-Semitic — or at least extremely tasteless — lines about Auschwitz inmates, won Germany’s biggest music award, the Echo, the resulting scandal lead to the prize being scrapped earlier this year.

Now the apparently contrite pair are set to visit the former Nazi German camp in Poland.

“They’ll be paying homage to the victims and the survivors,” said Christoph Heubner, vice-president of the International Auschwitz Committee.


Cheering Israel’s 70th, descendants of Nazis march in Jerusalem

Surrounded by pro-Israel Christian supporters from 40 countries, grandchildren of Waffen SS members seek ‘healing’ in Israel’s capital

Thousands of Christians march at March of the Nations 2018 event in center of Jerusalem, May 15, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

They came from over 40 countries — from Australia to Burundi, China to South Africa, the United States to Germany — to celebrate Israel’s 70th birthday, filling the streets of Jerusalem on Tuesday with a sea of billowing flags, ecstatic chants of “Israel, Israel” and heartfelt, if often bungled, Hebrew lyrics.

At the March of Nations’ starting point in Sacher Park, a pair of beaming Poles proudly sported Star of David crowns, blue-and-white balloons strong-armed into the shape. Across the grassy expanse, an effusive Hasid was on a rock, welcoming the 2,000-odd international marchers to the city. And on the steep incline of Bezalel Street, hugging the capital’s trendy Nachlaot neighborhood, a middle-aged German violinist in a flat cap was serenading an Israeli baby in the arms of a woman in loose-fitting clothing on the sidelines.

Minutes later, the exuberant crowds filed past a barbershop in downtown Jerusalem, where an Israeli woman paused mid-haircut — her grey hair plastered to her face — to snake a smartphone through her cape and snap a photo through the glass. Past Hillel Street, a lanky Spaniard carrying a shofar high-fived an Israeli over his country’s soccer prowess, as several American nuns forged ahead behind a gray-bearded man with an eye patch and binoculars.

Nearby, a handful of IDF soldiers were showered with attention by the marchers.

But while visually reminiscent of the annual international pro-Israel march on the Sukkot festival, Tuesday’s March of the Nations had an under-the-radar twist missed by most casual Israeli observers.

“My grandfather went to Auschwitz and helped build the concentration camp. He was responsible for putting 16 kilometers of barbed wire into place and he also helped build the gas chambers,” Bärbel Pfeiffer, flanked by her husband and children, told the crowd in German before the march.

“And we are standing here today as a whole family to say that something like this must never happen again. And Israel, we stand by your side and we love you, Israel, and we will be with you.”

Organized by the March of Life organization of descendants of Nazi Waffen SS members, the event came at the end of a three-day conference centered on Holocaust commemoration, including talks with survivors. The march featured a large German contingent, though the bulk of the participants from around the world had no direct familial connection to the war and came simply as Christian supporters of Israel. It was the organization’s first Jerusalem event, but not the first in Israel, having previously held a walk on the Burma Road, a spokesperson said.

The March of the Nations was embraced by many Israeli leaders, including President Reuven Rivlin, numerous lawmakers, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, and Likud minister Ayoub Kara, who welcomed the Israel support, the strong opposition to anti-Semitism, and the soul-searching by the descendants of the Nazi Wehrmacht.

Still basking in the afterglow of Jerusalem Day celebrations on Sunday and the US embassy relocation on Monday, elated Jerusalemites were cheering on the marchers from the sidewalk and from balconies, while teenagers and children eagerly hoarded flag souvenirs.

Few of the Israeli observers, however, appeared to be informed of the Nazi descendants’ connection to the event, with all of those approached by The Times of Israel offering a nearly identical head jerk and an open-mouthed “what?”

“That’s a crazy shock,” said one discomfited resident who asked to be identified only as Rafael. “That’s a crazy shock.”

A woman who identified herself only as Maayan, whose grandfather survived Auschwitz and grandmother Theresienstadt, had come downstairs from her Bezalel Street apartment with her two toddlers and a baby strapped to her chest to watch the festivities.

“On one hand, I really appreciate it that they’ve come, but on the other, I also feel bad for them. I wouldn’t want to take responsibility for things my grandparents had done,” she said.

While stressing there could be “no atonement” for the Holocaust’s atrocities, she added: “The question is how they educate their children. If they raise their children with tolerance… against racism, and with love of mankind – this is the real thing. To apologize to me that my grandfather has no family is not relevant.  [The recognition] that [the Holocaust] is shocking, and that they don’t deny it and remember – it’s nice.”

A Nazi propagandist and his great-granddaughter

Carmen Shamsianpur, 34, the press coordinator of the March of Nations, was first encouraged to explore her roots by a local pastor in her German hometown in 2007.  Turning to their older relatives for answers, the several hundred members of her church, herself included, had a “moment of relief” when they were told by family members that none had direct ties to SS military activity, she said. And then they realized, “the whole church, maybe 400 people, and no Nazis among the ancestors – it can’t be.”

“So we started research in archives,” she told The Times of Israel at the start of the march, white Star of David earrings dangling from her ears. Ultimately, everyone found at least one family member who was complicit in the mass murder, she said.

By 2012, she discovered one of her great-grandfathers had lived an hour away from Auschwitz, was “a real Nazi” who worked on the railways, and was directly involved in loading up trains of Jews bound for the death camp.

“We went there, where he lived, in Bytom – it’s Poland now, was Germany then,” she said. “We were looking for someone, there were 2,000 Jews in the city, now there are only six or seven left. We got to know the oldest one of them, who is not alive anymore, but he lived exactly in the same flat where our great-grandfather lived and we went there to see him and tell him who we are, and that we are really sorry for what happened, and want to be friends.”

Just a year and a half ago, after 10 years of research, she uncovered information on another great-grandfather — a prominent Nazi “propagandist leader.”

Shamsianpur, who is also a journalist, said she pursued her field before knowing anything about her great-grandfather. “But it’s a heritage, it’s a love for language that I have, and so on,” she said.

“But he used it for bad and I have the grace to use it for good and for the good of Israel and the Jewish people — which I love.”

Also at the march was Oliver Butz, a civil engineer from Germany, who said he came for “healing” and a “release of the pressure I had.”

“I can talk to people here. And I can’t talk to them in Germany,” said Butz, whose paternal grandfather was a Nazi stationed in northern Africa. His other grandfather, who he said was young when the war ended, died six years ago. “He denied the Holocaust until he died. And still my parents never did talk about the Holocaust,” he said.

“My family, still today they don’t want to talk about it. They just refuse and they argue and say it’s all gone, it was all in the past, so why [are you] bothering about the past,” he said. Giving an example of the singing of racist songs, Butz added: “And the Holocaust is still in my family, I can say that.”

The parade ended across from Mount Zion, at the Sultan’s Pool arena, where the march-goers were met with concerts by Jewish and Christian singers, somber dance performances to the Schindler’s List theme song, and Yiddish lullabies accompanied by a slideshow of Jewish Holocaust victims. It was a Rorschach test for the Jews in the crowd: between an uncomfortable spectacle flirting with cultural appropriation, and a moving testament to the past 70 years, the sweeping tides of history and the miraculous transformation of Jewish fate.

Five singers, all descendants of Nazis, took the stage.

Im eshkaheh Yerushalayim (If I forget thee, O Jerusalem),” they crooned in the dark shadow of the Old City’s walls.


Why a gory Holocaust film is a blockbuster in Russia

A movie about the Sobibor uprising led by a Soviet Red Army Jewish officer has made a huge splash thanks to a government-led commemoration campaign that culminated this year

Christopher Lambert, right, portraying a German Nazi officer in ‘Sobibor.’ (Courtesy of Rosiya Segondiya/ via JTA)

JTA — A decade ago, relatively few people in Russia even knew about the existence of Sobibor, the smallest-scale facility of the six killing centers that the Nazis built in occupied Poland.

This relative obscurity persisted for decades in Russia, Israel and beyond despite the fact that the camp is tied to a dramatic story of heroism: In 1943, Russian inmates led a successful escape, one of only two such occurrences during the Holocaust (the other happened that same year in Treblinka).

Following the Sobibor uprising, however, the Nazis razed the camp so that little more than a forest clearing remained in the remote area where SS guards and Ukrainians murdered 250,000 Jews. This is why Sobibor receives a fraction of the visitor traffic observed at the Auschwitz or Majdanek camps, whose gas chambers and other structures remained intact and were turned into museum exhibits.

Ten years on, though, Sobibor has made a huge splash in Russia thanks to a government-led commemoration campaign that culminated this year, the uprising’s 75th anniversary, with last week’s commercial release of Russia’s largest-ever Holocaust movie production.

Featured prominently in national media, the war drama “Sobibor” is a box-office hit with $2 million in ticket sales — an unprecedented success for its genre in Russia, especially for a movie unsuitable for children.

The two-hour Russian-language film — a multi-million dollar production with state funding — features Konstantin Khabenskiy, one of Russia’s best-known actors. It has an international cast and convincing visuals but its main significance is that it goes into finer detail and nuance than any feature film made before about the camp, according to Michael Edelstein, a lecturer at Moscow State University and the film’s scientific consultant.

Visually, the film is one of the goriest of its kind. Its opening scene features the death throes of hundreds of naked women in a gas chamber. There’s a rape scene, immolation, savage beatings, floggings, stabbings, a bludgeoning to the head and firearm executions.

“It’s a very difficult film to watch,” Rabbi Alexander Boroda, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, told JTA.

The film also goes further than any previous production — including the 1987 British television film “Escape from Sobibor” staring Alan Arkin — in exploring the internal politics within the camp. In the days before the uprising, its conspirators suffered violence and feared betrayal by other inmates — including kapo, Jews who worked for the Nazis as camp police.

Whereas the 1987 film ignores this issue, it is ever-present in the Russian production, informing at every step the viewer’s interpretation of the actions and dilemmas of the film’s main protagonist, the partisan and Red Army veteran Alexander Pechersky, who led the revolt and whose character is played by Khabenskiy.

The film even features one scene of a kapo practicing the Nazi salute – a reference to Herbert Naftaniel, a German Jew nicknamed Berliner. According to testimonies from Sobibor, Naftaniel was crueler to inmates than the German and Ukrainian guards. It also shows the hostility harbored by some Russian Jewish soldiers toward other Jews, whom they call “kikes” in the film.

Under Pechersky, a dozen-odd men and a few women eliminated the Nazi chain of command by stealthily assassinating several camp officers, who were lured into a trap with promises of exquisite possessions taken from victims. With weapons they stole, the rebels then engaged the watchtower guards as more than 300 people exited through the main gate. Only 57 escapees, including Pechersky, avoided being murdered in the subsequent manhunt.

Eleven German officers were killed in the uprising.

But while these acts of bravery at Sobibor highlight the rebels’ resourcefulness and determination, they and the movie also underscore how Jews’ relative obedience at Sobibor created total complacency among the Nazis — who were famously vigilant, disciplined and effective in countering threats by enemies, partisans and even prisoners of war.

“A body has two hands, and so does this story,” said Edelstein. “On the one hand, there was the dehumanization and mechanized killing. On the other, the heroism. And I think Sobibor is remembered for the heroism thanks to the rebels’ actions.”

The film also addresses perceived passivity, exploring the grinding effect of hard labor, hunger and trauma as well as the elaborate deception employed by the Nazis to trick the condemned into submissively entering the gas chambers, which the killers said were showers. Victims’ suitcases were tagged and they received slips to recover them. Separation between the sexes was “temporary,” they were told.

Pechersky, a Red Army prisoner of war who was transferred to Sobibor because he was Jewish, realized within a few days that no one was meant to survive the camp, he said in testimonies. But others wholeheartedly believed they were about to be resettled.

Illustrative: A metal plate bearing the name of 13-year-old Annie Kapper from Amsterdam was found at the Sobibor death camp in eastern Poland in 2013. (Courtesy of Yoram Haimi/JTA)

Some of the most poignant findings from Sobibor were discovered last year: name plaques that five Dutch-Jewish families had brought with them to Sobibor to install on their new mailboxes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referenced Sobibor’s dual legacy for Jews during a speech in January that he gave in a joint appearance Russian President Vladimir Putin at a commemoration ceremony for the Sobibor Uprising at Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.

“There were those who thought that [Sobibor] was our history’s rock bottom, when in fact it marked the opposite: Our will to never surrender to those who want to destroy us,” Netanyahu said. “That moment more than any other marked the turning point in the history of the Jewish people.”

But this modern view was not universally shared in Israel in the years immediately after the Holocaust. In celebrating Holocaust-era bravery, authorities highlighted the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and other cases that did not carry Sobibor’s complex mixture of heroism, passivity and treachery.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, at a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, May 9, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90/via JTA)

For decades, “the Sobibor Uprising was barely known in Israel,” according to Yoram Haimi, the Israeli archeologist who in recent years unearthed parts of the gas chamber at the camp. The only commemoration it had was when survivors’ families gathered each year on the uprising’s anniversary at the home of Dov Freiberg for a dinner party that featured neither speeches nor ceremonies, he said.

Meanwhile, the Sobibor Uprising did not meet the Soviet Union’s standards for heroism either, according to Edelstein, the film’s scientific consultant.

“Pechersky couldn’t be celebrated as a hero not only because he was a Jew, but also because he let himself be taken prisoner. Celebrating him was out of the question” during communism, Edelstein said.

But that changed in Russia following Haimi’s archeological excavations, which drew intense interest in international media.

The process that led to the film’s creation began with a visit to Israel in 2012, Edelstein said. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who is Michael’s brother, proposed the two countries cooperate on commemorating the 75th anniversary of the uprising.

Russian authorities have since facilitated the establishment in Moscow of a foundation devoted to commemorating and researching the uprising. They also bestowed posthumous honors on uprising leaders and invited descendants of the Sobibor uprising leaders to official events in Moscow – including the annual May 9 military parade celebrating Nazi Germany’s defeat. Schools have been named for Pechersky in Russia and monuments built in his honor for the first time in decades.

Haimi, the archeologist, describes this as a cynical “appropriation” by Russian authorities of the story.

Pechersky, who died in 1990, was “never recognized by the Russians. Only now they reinvent this story, make it their own and recast him as some Red Army hero,” Haimi said. “He did what he did as a Jew trying to survive, not for Mother Russia.”

The film does carry some nationalistic Russian references, including one in which Pechersky is said to have “Stalin in his heart.”

But for a state-funded movie, “Sobibor” generally treads lightly through a political minefield.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the film devotes very little attention to how Sobibor had Ukrainian guards or to the fact that many of the escapees were betrayed by Poles — aspects of the story that would mesh comfortably with the Kremlin’s campaign of vilification against those nations, where anti-Russian sentiment is rife.

In recent months, Poland and the Netherlands have worked to exclude Russia from a committee planning a new museum on the Sobibor grounds, prompting protests by Israel.

“Fortunately, the film doesn’t deal with these politicized issues,” Edelstein said. “Nor should it. The story of Sobibor is not only a Jewish story, but also a story about the best and the worst of us as human beings. Its message needs to be universal.”


Remembering the Holocaust: Albany interfaith project to create outdoor memorial

After extensive work restoring Jewish cemeteries around Europe and his father’s hometown in Belarus, Dr. Michael Lozman sets his sights on the US

Dr. Michael Lozman, left, with Bishop Edward Scharfenberger go over plans for the memorial. (Courtesy)

ALBANY, New York (New Jersey Jewish Standard) — Perhaps because he has spent so many years working to restore abandoned Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe, Michael Lozman of Albany, New York, has come to believe that the lessons of the Holocaust must be disseminated as widely as possible.

And perhaps because the many years he has spent doing this work have given him the credibility to be an advocate for a Holocaust memorial, Lozman now is actively engaged in that work.

“It all comes together,” said Lozman. “I spent the past 16 years restoring cemeteries in Eastern Europe” bringing students there to stay with village families and learn more about the Shoah.

“When I came back home, I realized that this was a project I wanted to do. Albany does not have an appropriate Holocaust memorial,” he said.

Lozman, an orthodontist whose father came from a small village in Belarus and later emigrated to the United States, said his interest in restoring cemeteries began when he visited his father’s hometown and saw the deplorable condition of the cemeteries.

With the Jews killed and most synagogues burned, without an effort to fence in and restore the cemeteries, “there would be no physical evidence that the Jews were there,” Lozman said. “This is a way to preserve Jewish history.”

His proposed outdoor memorial here in the United States has the added benefit of being an interfaith project.

A mock up of the proposed memorial. (Courtesy)

“I approached Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, the bishop of our area, last summer and suggested this as an interfaith project that speaks against hatred and teaches what bigotry and prejudice can lead to if left to grow,” said Lozman.

Scharfenberger heads the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.

“I also noted that Albany should have an appropriate Holocaust memorial. He totally agreed and was very excited about it,” Lozman said.

Not only was the bishop receptive, he also offered to provide a newly acquired piece of church property next to the Catholic cemetery.

“Since it had not yet been consecrated, he could deed this to our foundation,” said Lozman, who registered the project several years ago so that contributions could be made tax deductible.

“Essentially, I wanted a memorial that would be educational in design and give the viewers a sense of what cruelty the Jews were subjected to,”  Lozman said.

“It has been estimated that 4 million Jews were transported by rail, stuffed into boxcars, and sent to the gas chambers,” he continued.

“I wanted a railroad boxcar, railroad tracks, a large wall that represented the gas chamber, all enclosed by a wire fence, so that, similar to visiting the Vietnam Memorial, one would be drawn into the memorial, to be changed by the hard truth of what they are seeing. It is not designed to be shocking, but by symbolism, to portray a shocking history,” Lozman said.

The proposed memorial will be in Niskayuna, New York, a suburb that is both close to Albany and on a major highway. The memorial will be buffered by trees and have its own entrance onto the highway. According to Lozman, the Niskayuna planning board has given its unanimous approval. He now is waiting for the town board to approve the project as well.

“Niskayuna is an excellent location,” said Lozman. “The town has a great school system, high employment, and is a model community. In years to come, this memorial will become an important landmark that the community will be proud of because it will be an expression of people caring enough to help educate against hatred and express hope for a better tomorrow. “

Lozman noted that this might be the first time in the United States that a Catholic diocese has joined with the Jewish community to develop a Holocaust memorial.

“It’s an extremely important step forward,” he said. “It shows a great deal of sensitivity to the effects of the Holocaust. The bishop is to be commended for his willingness and enthusiasm.”

Michael Lozman initiated the creation of a memorial in Grozovo, Belarus, to Jews massacred during the Holocaust. (Courtesy of Michael Lozman)

While, inevitably, there has been some pushback against the project, “most people overwhelmingly see the bigger, long-term picture,” Lozman said.

“This is educational, so that when one goes there, they have the sense, the feeling, of what the Jews went through. We are going to have kiosks along the pathway with signage explaining the symbolism of the items used in the memorial. It will also provide a historical perspective of what the Holocaust was all about and information on how many others were killed in the Shoah as well,” he said.

The boxcar will be closed to the public. “It’s enough to see it,” said Lozman. The names of survivors who live in surrounding communities will be behind the wall representing the gas chamber.

Handprints of their children will be next to it. Lozman is not concerned about the difficulty of locating these families — he is confident that they will reach out when they hear of the project. There also will be benches where visitors can sit to meditate and pray.

Lozman said he anticipates that students who visit the memorial will have learned about the Holocaust in their schools, and that teachers will accompany them to the site to offer further instruction. He hopes that school buses will make their first stop at the Jewish Federation building, where they will receive additional information about the Shoah.

Lozman has worked hard to spread his message, but, he said, “If there was no Holocaust, none of this work would be necessary. I’m doing it for the victims of the Holocaust. What else can you do for them? They deserve to have their family cemeteries preserved and their family names preserved.

“It’s for the victims, but it’s also preserving our Jewish heritage,” Lozman said.