Category Archive: Times of Israel

At Westerbork, virtual reality simulations ‘recreate’ the Nazi transit camp

Holland-based museum pilots a new GPS-based model to let visitors envision the Holocaust site — down to bricks, strands of barbed wire, and imperfections on wooden shingles

At the Westerbork museum in the Netherlands, Bas Kortholt demonstrates a new virtual reality simulation based on the former Nazi transit camp’s appearance during the Holocaust (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

WESTERBORK, Netherlands — With almost nothing remaining of the former Nazi transit camp Westerbork, visitors are turning to a simulation that “recreates” the site of Holocaust-era incarceration using virtual reality.

During World War II, Westerbork was used by the Nazis to imprison Dutch Jews on their way to “resettlement” in the east — the regime’s euphemism for genocide. Nearly every Tuesday for two years, a train with hundreds of Jews left Westerbork. Of the more than 100,000 Jews deported from the remote facility, only 5,000 survived the Holocaust.

Beginning in the 1960s, the Dutch government dismantled Westerbork, including the inmate barracks and almost every structure from the war era. Massive, highly sensitive radio telescopes were built on-site in 1970, and their operation still prevents cars from approaching the grounds. With little more to see than the former camp commander’s house preserved in a glass enclosure, visitors typically rely on tour guides and Westerbork’s up-to-date museum, located 2 miles away.

The national Westerbork memorial at the former Nazi transit camp in the Netherlands, January 2018 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Last month, museum staff began piloting a virtual reality (VR) simulation with tour groups, in part to help visitors envision what took place at Westerbork. Inside a dimmed room with wrap-around screens, volunteers have begun using a console to explore the camp as it appeared between 1942 and the end of deportations in 1944, when Anne Frank and her family were held at Westerbork on the way to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

By zooming in and out of the GPS-based model, users can focus on dozens of barracks, several guard towers, and all kinds of camp facilities. Unlike the Nazi-built death camps in occupied Poland, many photographs were taken at Westerbork during its operation. The images helped build a simulation with details including individual bricks, strands of barbed wire, and imperfections on wooden shingles.

According to Westerbork historian and guide Bas Kortholt, the VR model appeals to museum visitors who enjoy shaping their own experience, as opposed to people who prefer being presented with personal stories or artifacts.

“I believe in virtual reality for some part of the visit,” said Kortholt, whose research has included tracking down Westerbork barracks sold to Dutch farmers in the 1960s, and the role of soccer matches played among the camp inmates.

According to Kortholt, the main reaction of visitors to the VR simulation has been “surprise” with regard to the camp’s size. The forest long ago encroached onto the grounds, so it’s not readily apparent that Westerbork was a vast complex where 20,000 people were imprisoned by the end of 1942. Designed to lull inmates into confusion and passivity about their ultimate fate, the camp included a well-functioning hospital and building for cabaret performances.

The VR simulation was designed by Paul Verschure, a professor of cognitive science at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University. Two years ago, Verschure and his team launched a VR app for the former Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, in Germany, where liberating soldiers encountered mounds of corpses in the spring of 1945. Based on electronic tablets, the app uses photos taken of those atrocities to show visitors what occurred in each part of the camp, beneath their own feet.

‘The feeling of being gripped was lost’

In 2015, Germany’s Public Prosecution Service ordered the creation of a “virtual reality Auschwitz-Birkenau” to assist in prosecuting Nazi war criminals. The model was needed to “prove” — for instance — that an accused guard would have been able to see the killing operations from where he was posted inside the camp.

Using laser scans, archival photos, and testimony, the simulation’s makers dubbed VR Auschwitz “much, much more precise than Google Earth” in its level of detail. Not long after its creation, the model was used by German prosecutors to convict former Auschwitz camp guard Reinhold Hanning. By connecting his known role at the camp to vantage points in the model, prosecutors argued that he was fully aware of what happened to victims escorted from the trains. Hanning was found guilty of accessory to the murder of “at least” 170,000 people.

Although the Auschwitz simulation was created for legal purposes, the educational potential of VR to teach about Nazi atrocities became apparent. Since last fall, VR fans have been able to “experience” the Holocaust with a simulation called, “Witness: Auschwitz.” There are no atrocities portrayed in the immersive experience, as designers chose to focus on “everyday life” at the death camp where one million Jews were murdered.

As the creator of both the Bergen-Belsen Memorial App and the new VR installation at Westerbork, Paul Verschure has called his team’s projects, “completely grounded in being active.” Although VR technology requires an upgrade every few years to remain cutting-edge, the improvements will ultimately yield “a completely immersive topographical overview” of the site.

According to Westerbork researcher Bas Kortholt, VR simulations have their limits. Specifically, “the feeling of bring gripped was lost,” said Kortholt of his experience using the Bergen-Belsen Memorial App on-site. “I thought to myself, I could have done this at home,” he said.

Still, admitted Kortholt, the 180,000 visitors to Westerbork each year are increasingly detached from the history of the war, and VR is one tool to help educate them. In terms of the Holocaust, most visitors have heard of Anne Frank and Auschwitz, but little else, said Kortholt. The question most commonly asked, he said, is “where were the gas chambers?” (There were none at Westerbork, as it was a transit camp.)

“You have to give different types of ways to tell the story of the Holocaust. This is not the only way,” said Kortholt, whose tours are based on the accounts of Westerbork victims.

Along with the emerging role of simulation technology, efforts are being made to restore some physical aspects of Holocaust sites. At Westerbork, for instance, symbolic sleepers will soon be added to where deportation train tracks once crossed the camp, according to Kortholt. In Poland, at the former Nazi death camp Sobibor, the foundations of the gas chambers were excavated and preserved in recent years, and visitors will be able to view them by next year.

The track record of “recreations” at Westerbork has been checkered, included a short-lived reconstruction of part of the barracks where Anne Frank slept, met by protest from survivors. Some additions to the grounds were generally accepted, however, including a symbolic deportation train and 20 sloping mounds where barracks once stood.

Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/at-westerbork-virtual-reality-simulations-recreate-the-nazi-transit-camp/

In rural Japan, a pilgrimage site is now a Holocaust museum, with complications

Said to have saved 10,000 Jews, Chiune Sugihara was honored by Israel, and his birthplace is now a focal point for educators and tourists. But that’s not the whole story

By AMANDA BORSCHEL-DAN

In Yaotsu, Japan, in November 2017, Japanese visitors at the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall museum (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

GIFU PREFECTURE, Japan — It is not easy to visit Yaotsu. There is no real public transportation, nor is there English-language signage pointing to the mountainous town of 11,000 in the land-locked Gifu Prefecture. Bordered by the Hida River to the north and the Kiso River to the south, the town is sleepy and best known for its small sake industry — and Chiune Sugihara.

Hailed as a native son in Yaotsu, Sugihara, Japan’s World War II ambassador to Lithuania, is credited with saving the lives of some 10,000 Jewish refugees in 1940.

Sugihara helped the Jews flee war-torn Europe prior to the Final Solution through a complex arrangement of mocked-up visas to Holland’s Caribbean Curacao Island, which did not actually require them, but whose bearers could be issued transit visas to Japan. That meant Soviet Russia would allow them passage via the Trans-Siberian Railroad to the Vladivostok port.

For his deeds in securing a ticket out for these thousands of Jews, Israel bestowed upon Sugihara the honor of Righteous Among the Nations in 1984. Here in backwater, rural Japan, things moved more slowly and he was largely unheralded during his life.

Today, however, Sugihara is the main event in Yaotsu.

The day before our trip to isolated Yaotsu, we paid a formal, televised visit to Gifu Governor Hajime Furuta, who explained that the town hosts an annual day in memorial of Sugihara’s death. His life is dramatized in school plays — and even an opera.

In many ways, Yaotsu has become a one-stop shop for the now-honored diplomat. It even has its own Sugihara-branded sake.

Four years after Sugihara’s death in 1986, Yaotsu town “announced its ‘City Commitment to Peace’ declaration on February 2, 1990, and set up the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Fund in light of Chiune Sugihara’s humanitarian achievements,” according to the memorial museum’s website. (Along with background information, the website also provides the foundation’s bank details for ease in donations.)

In 1994, 40,000 square meters (430,556 square feet) of beautifully cultivated grounds were demarcated as The Hill of Humanity Park. In 2000, the striking two-floor cedar wood Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall was constructed. Built without nails using an ancient Japanese technique, its design is intentionally reminiscent of the ships that transported the Jews to safety.

Not following orders

After arriving as part of a delegation of six Jewish journalists, we make our way to the hall, soaking up some rare autumn sunshine and the park’s luscious seasonal colors.

At the entrance to Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall, we are effusively greeted by  director Daisaku Kunieda. He’s a political appointee, but his unkempt hair and beige jacket give him the air of an absent-minded professor.

This Holocaust education center in the middle of nowhere, director Kunieda says, sees 40,000 visitors annually — some 2,000 of them Israeli. That explains why the museum’s informative display panels are written in Japanese, English and Hebrew. As the Holocaust is but a footnote in World War II history classes in Japan, the panels give the less-knowledgeable Japanese visitor some quick pre-World War II context and a primer to the mass genocide of the Jews.

“We provide an opportunity for visitors to understand what happened in the past, think about reality, and what can be done in the future,” says Kunieda.

But that’s only part of its point, according to the museum director.

Learning about Sugihara’s deeds provides an opportunity for people to see what they would do for themselves,” says Kuneieda.

“Twenty years ago, the young people said, ‘Sugihara didn’t follow the Japanese government’s orders.’ That gives a bad impression. Now, nobody says such a thing. The generation is changing, and along with it the idea of how humanity and human rights shape a society is growing,” he says.

We are ushered into a chilly outbuilding to watch, through our steaming breath, a semi-propaganda, black-and-white dramatization of Sugihara’s deeds. Following the predominant popular Sugihara script, the film promotes a Christlike narrative in which Sugihara’s issuance of visas for the Jews is “denied three times” by the Foreign Ministry. (This is historically inaccurate, according to researchers.)

The film opens with a reenacted, factually questionable, scene from August 31, 1940: At a war-torn railway station in Kovno, Lithuania, smoke billows around the train as we see a frantic Sugihara throwing visas from the window and apologizing to a crowd of grateful Jews for not being able to do more. The Jews wave as the train pulls away as the narrator says, “With bursting hearts, the Jews thanked Sugihara.”

After the Yaotsu visit, The Times of Israel spoke with Nobuki Sugihara, the diplomat’s only living son, to verify the accuracy of the narrative. From his home in Belgium, he says he is angered by this over-the-top fictionalization of his father’s actions. According to Nobuki, even his mother’s 1995 memoir, “Visas For Life” — written with the help of a ghostwriter — sadly includes several stories that were “made up,” but are now taken at face value.

“They are very dramatic, but not true,” says Nobuki.

Was Sugihara really born in Yaotsu?

Outside, on the grounds of the Sugihara park, a single bell atop a wooden pyramid peals over the mountainous lookout’s stunning fall foliage backdrop. Then follows another bell from a neighboring pyramid, then another. They echo across the valley, changing tone slightly with each reverberation.

So too, the historical narrative of Sugihara.

Among other arguably inaccurate facts of Sugihara’s life presented at the museum, its claim of Yaotsu as Sugihara’s birthplace — the town’s claim to fame — is highly controversial.

Youngest son Nobuki Sugihara claims he has found documentation that proves his father was born in Kozuchi. Now Mino City, it is approximately 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Yaotsu. To this day, however, the museum’s website states in large font, “Chiune was born in Yaotsu-cho.”

When asked about the controversy, a smiling Yaotsu town official emphatically explained to inquiring journalists that although Chiune Sugihara’s father was registered in Mino City, his mother’s parents were from Yaotsu and it was a custom for women to return to their parents’ houses to give birth and raise their children. Problem “solved.”

(Another inconsistency arose when, during our tour of the two-floor hall, a chatty member of museum staff stated that the content written on its recently renovated display panels was checked by experts at Yad Vashem. Asked about this in a followup conversation in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem has no record of such an interaction.)

Nobuki, the youngest of Sugihara’s four boys, decries Yaotsu’s cynical use of his father’s legacy. He says the town is not the “natural” location for the museum and alleges “dirty business” and “mafia work” on behalf of some of the town’s former leaders. He claims that two decades ago in the poverty-stricken town, the leaders were motivated by the opportunity to skim from the million-dollar government subsidiaries that were given first for the park and later for the museum.

“If it was not my father’s ‘birthplace,’ the town wouldn’t get money,” he says. Neither would it see much tourism.

His allegations that Yaotsu is not Sugihara’s birthplace are confirmed by Boston University Prof. Hillel Levine, the author of the 1996 “In Search of Sugihara: The Elusive Japanese Diplomat Who Risked his Life to Rescue 10,000 Jews From the Holocaust.” In conversation with The Times of Israel, Levine says that after the death of one of Nobuki Sugihara’s brothers, he “realized that his older brother had run an auction for validating the claims of towns that wanted to get money for tourism” based on the Sugihara legacy. Yaotsu, apparently, was the highest bidder according to this theory.

 

The familial mudslinging, which now includes the next generation, has led to the rise of splinter Sugihara not-for-profit groups, each one attempting to issue the “authorized” Sugihara history.

Somewhere in between

The truth, as my Great-Aunt Mimi used to say, is not what she said, nor what he said, but somewhere in between. Looking at the thought-provoking sculpture and memorials in the park, it’s not at all clear the money went into crooked pockets. What is clear is the domestic educational significance of this place for Japan.

A group of Israeli women — many whose extended family were murdered in the Holocaust — arrives in a loud bustle to the small museum. Their presence is instantly felt as they give their vocal approval to the museum and its message.

During their lightning-fast visit, they shared with this reporter the highlights of the packed itinerary on their short Japanese tour. It was an organized trip to explore Japanese women — they had met with a geisha the day before — and the country’s grafted Judaism.

Many of the women avow that this visit to the Sugihara memorial is very meaningful. Their charismatic Israeli tour director, Dorit Gabay, for her part, says she brings her groups to the Yaotsu museum “to comment on the man, not just the place.”

While it may be impossible to verify how many Jews Chiune Sugihara saved from the Nazi, and how much courage it required for him to intervene on their behalf, nobody is questioning the righteousness and the significance of his actions.

It is time for a scrupulously accurate history to be written to clear up the controversies swirling around the Japanese narrative of his heroism.

But watching the Israeli women walk through the museum, constantly remarking on its moving exhibits, one can also ask: Should whether or not the town was Sugihara’s birthplace back in 1900 outweigh contemporary efforts to disseminate a good man’s legacy?

The writer was a guest of Gifu Prefecture.

Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/in-rural-japan-a-pilgrimage-site-is-now-a-holocaust-museum-with-complications/

How his novel led an author into the intriguing world of WWII art restitution

Richard Aronowitz fell into his role at Sotheby’s auction house after following his own journey of discovery into his Jewish-born mother’s turbulent past

LONDON — Decades after an Impressionist masterpiece by Camille Pissarro was looted from the troves of a Jewish art collector by the Vichy government, a Paris court ruled that an American couple must return the painting to the man’s descendants.

Sotheby’s, who initially sold the painting “La Cueillette des Pois,” or “Picking Peas,” said that “At the time the painting was sold through Sotheby’s in London in 1966, the art world was not as sensitized to the issues of art displaced in World War II as it is today and there were few, if any, resources available to researchers in the field.

LONDON — Decades after an Impressionist masterpiece by Camille Pissarro was looted from the troves of a Jewish art collector by the Vichy government, a Paris court ruled that an American couple must return the painting to the man’s descendants.

Sotheby’s, who initially sold the painting “La Cueillette des Pois,” or “Picking Peas,” said that “At the time the painting was sold through Sotheby’s in London in 1966, the art world was not as sensitized to the issues of art displaced in World War II as it is today and there were few, if any, resources available to researchers in the field.”

It took another 30 years until the world was “sensitized” to effectively reuniting Jewish collections with its owners.

A year before the 1998 Washington Principles — which called upon governments and museums to ensure a just and fair solution to looted art — Sotheby’s became the first international auction house to establish a restitution department dedicated to researching the provenance of works that may have been confiscated or had gone missing between 1933 and 1945.

Despite the many decades that have elapsed since the Holocaust, thanks to the advent of the internet and huge search engines and databases, returning art to its rightful owners has become more achievable now than ever before.

Today the European division of restitution at Sotheby’s is run by Richard Aronowitz, from its London office.

Calling himself a “vetter,” the provenance and identity of every work of art created before 1945 is checked by him and his small team before it is offered for sale at the auction house. This “fine-toothed comb approach” is intended to weed out any work among the many thousands consigned each year that might have an unresolved Nazi-era looting or forced sale history.

“The stakes are very high and the buck stops with me and the team. If we let an unrecovered item of Nazi loot into one of our sales, it can do unbound reputational damage to the auction house and raise questions of good title and moral and legal ownership with the owner and potential buyer,” Aronowitz told The Times of Israel.

When he does spot a work that was looted or lost and not recovered after WWII, he initiates a dialogue between the current owner and the heirs of the pre-war owner to try to bring about a settlement between the claimant and current owners. It is usually then sold in auction and proceeds are split. It’s often 50:50, or slightly less, for the claimant.

“The whole idea,” says Aronowitz, “is trying to find a just and fair solution to both parties.”

One painting that Aronowitz remembers particularly fondly is a fine Abraham van Beijeren still life that was offered to Sotheby’s London for sale in 2008. Aronowitz very quickly realized, however, that the painting had been looted in 1941 by the Nazis in occupied Holland from the collection of the Berlin Jewish couple Alfons and Hedwig Jaffé while it was on deposit for safekeeping at a museum in Leiden.

Aronowitz put the consignor in touch with the two elderly Jaffé heirs, living in England, who sent him a black-and-white photograph of the work from their family’s prewar photograph album that had been saved from their home in Berlin.

The Abraham van Beijeren still life that Richard Aronowitz discovered was looted from German Jewish couple Alfons and Hedwig Jaffé. (Courtesy)

A dialogue was begun between the Jaffé heirs and the young owner, who had inherited the painting from his late parents with no knowledge at all of its prewar history, and against a finder’s fee the work was returned to the heirs in the spirit of the just and fair solution proposed by the “Washington Principles.”

Unlike the headline-making prices raked in for restitution of museum paintings sold at auction (like Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer which sold at auction in November 2006 for $135 million), the works that Aronowitz handles, not coming from museums, are often sold for relatively modest amounts.

Aronowitz, an expert in modern German art and Expressionism, and fluent in German, fell into his role at Sotheby’s by coincidence following his own journey into discovering his mother’s turbulent past.

Raised in a non-Jewish home, he describes his very English childhood as the youngest of four brothers in the 1970s as one of “Cotswold-stone cottages, hills, woods and streams.”

He knew little of his mother Doris’s history until he was 10 years old and discovered she had come to England on her own from Wuppertal, Germany as an 8 year old on the Kindertransport before the war. Strange, he thought, how she kept a broken necklace of deep-red amber beads hidden away in her jewellery box. Later, he found out that the beads were among the few mementos of her mother, Miriam, that his mother had been able to bring with her to England.

And then there was the arrival of his German-sounding great-uncle Isy from Melbourne in 1979, with the numbers tattooed in blue ink on his left wrist. Aronowitz remembers Isy grabbing the porridge bowl from him, scraping it down to the glaze so that not a drop would be wasted.

“What on earth was his story and why was he here in my apparently idyllic English childhood?” Aronowitz wondered at the time.

Richard Aronowitz, born Mercer, took his mother’s maiden name Aronowitz as his nom de plume when his mother died in 1992, a day before her 62nd birthday. And then the self-appointed family archivist and researcher started trying to piece the history together.

“I asked endless questions about it all and have never really stopped asking them since,” he says.

The Kindertransport card authorizing Richard Aronowitz’s mother Doris to escape from Germany. (Courtesy)

After relentless pushing, Aronowitz found out that thanks to Isy’s contacts, his mother Doris had been able to come over on one of the Kindertransport trains in July 1939, from Wuppertal, and then by boat from Holland to Harwich. She lost her mother and aunt Hedwig in the Holocaust, while her uncle Isy survived the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, Buchenwald and the Death March.

Now a father himself, the 47 year old’s fascination with his family’s past prompted him to write his debut novel, “Five Amber Beads,” in 2006. Although it is a fictional story of provenance researcher Charley Bernstein looking into the ownership history of works of art between 1933 -1945, woven very heavily into it are strong autobiographical elements.

Most noticeable is that of the character Isy, incorporating much of his great-uncle’s history — in particular the wartime entries translated from German into English from his tan-colored diary.

As a complete coincidence — or perhaps because of the book — he was invited to become head of the restitution department at Sotheby’s in London, looking into exactly these matters of cultural loss and plunder during Nazism, that same year.

Aronowitz, who was formerly the senior curator at the London Jewish Museum of Art, is also an accomplished poet. And earlier this year, he published his second book, “An American Decade,” about mid-20th century history, inspired by his mother’s story of arriving on the Kindertransport and of not knowing who her father was.

The main character, a Broadway singer named Christoph, is based on Aronowitz’s maternal grandfather who is believed to have moved from Wuppertal, via Hamburg, to New York in October 1930 — four months before Doris was born.

As the decade unfolds, Christoph witnesses the rapid rise of American organizations sympathetic to Hitler. As the human horrors of Nazism close in he is forced to act and sets sail across the Atlantic in search of a hidden piece of his history.

It is the hidden history of plunderers, fences, traders and owners, that consumes the life of a restitution specialist. But it’s now a race against time as the window of opportunity is getting smaller.

Says Aronowitz: “Every restitution case becomes more pressing to resolve as each month and year passes, both because verbal testimony is slowly lost and because the claimants themselves are dying out.”

As family members die out the challenge will be gaining access to first and secondhand information. He says that eventually, at some unknown point in the future, restitution of art and cultural objects lost between 1933 and 1945 will likely come to an end because of this evanescence of information and the passing of claimants.

For now, he is still busy at work ensuring he is up to date with developments in the restitution field around the world. He has just returned from Amsterdam where he met with a provenance researcher from the Rijksmuseum and a Dutch lawyer specializing in art restitution cases.

It is history — be it in a painting or in a person — that consumes Aronowitz. In his work and in his personal life, the two have become inextricably intertwined over the years, and his thoughts are often reflected in his works of fiction.

As narrator Charley Bernstein sets off from New York to Tel Aviv in “Five Amber Beads,” he philosophically considers how people mistake the sea for a watery wasteland, “a desert devoid of life.”

Aronowitz writes, “Surfaces beguile us — we see a sheer granite wall and cannot get beyond it. We look at a painting’s surface and cannot see behind it. There are lives that go on beneath all of these things.”

Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/how-his-novel-led-an-author-into-the-intriguing-world-of-wwii-art-restitution/

‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’, 96, loses appeal against jail

Court rejects claim imprisonment would violate ‘right to life’ for ex-Nazi SS guard Oskar Groening, an accessory to 300,000 murders

By HUI MIN NEO

This photo taken on July 1, 2015 shows defendant and German former SS officer Oskar Groening, dubbed the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, at court in Lueneburg, northern Germany, ahead of his trial. (2017. / AFP PHOTO / RONNY HARTMANN)

BERLIN, Germany (AFP) — A former Nazi SS guard known as the Bookkeeper of Auschwitz, 96, lost his final legal challenge against being jailed when Germany’s highest court Friday rejected his appeal.

In one of the last cases against a surviving Nazi, Oskar Groening was found guilty in July 2015 of being an accessory to the murders of 300,000 people at the death camp.

Groening has been living at home despite the conviction as his defense team mounted an appeal against his four-year jail sentence, arguing that imprisonment at such a high age would violate his “right to life.”

But Germany’s Constitutional Court on Friday said Groening’s “complaint against the refusal to postpone the execution of the prison sentence was unsuccessful.”

Former SS guard Oskar Groening sits behind a fence during a break in the trial against him in Lueneburg, northern Germany, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. (Photo credit: Markus Schreiber/AP)

It found that appropriate health care could be provided in prison and that “if there are any adverse changes in health during imprisonment, the jail term can be interrupted.”

“The high age of the applicant is in itself not sufficient to refrain from enforcing the criminal penalty,” said the court.

The court also stressed that Groening has been found guilty of “complicity in murder in 300,000 cases, something that lends particular weight to the enforcement of the punishment.”

Killing machine

More than one million European Jews were killed at Auschwitz before it was liberated by Soviet forces.

Yet of the camp’s 6,500 SS personnel who survived the war, fewer than 50 were ever convicted.

Groening worked as an accountant at Auschwitz, sorting and counting the money taken from those killed or used as slave labour, and shipping it back to his Nazi superiors in Berlin.

He was also on several occasions assigned to “ramp duty,” processing deportees as they arrived by rail in cattle cars.

During his trial, Groening acknowledged “moral guilt” but said it was up to the court to rule on his legal culpability.

He had previously been cleared by German authorities after lengthy criminal probes dating back to the 1970s. But a case was reopened against him after the legal basis for prosecuting former Nazis changed in 2011 with Germany’s landmark conviction of John Demjanjuk.

Demjanjuk, a former death camp guard, was sentenced not for atrocities he was known to have personally committed, but on the basis that he worked at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland and had thus been a cog in the Nazis’ killing machine.

Demjanjuk died in 2012 before his appeal could be heard, but that verdict spurred new investigations against several elderly former Nazis.

Among a handful of convictions since has been that of Reinhold Hanning, found guilty of complicity in the mass murders at Auschwitz. He died aged 95 this year, before he could serve his jail term.

A case against former SS medic Hubert Zafke collapsed in September after the court found that the 96-year-old was unfit to stand trial.

Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/bookkeeper-of-auschwitz-96-loses-appeal-against-jail/

Foul note in Chanel No. 5 let out of the bottle in new film

Documentary shows how fashion designer Coco Chanel attempted to use Nazi laws to undercut Jewish business partners during WWII

Illustrated screenshot of Coco Chanel collaborating with the Nazis from Stéphane Benhamou’s film ‘The No. 5 War.’ (Courtesy)

Designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was stunning, impeccably dressed, full of class and good graces. But beyond those coiffed eyebrows, she was also a Nazi collaborator and spy who shamelessly attempted to use anti-Jewish laws to appropriate a perfume company she never owned.

This story was told on screen for the first time at the premiere of “The No. 5 War,” a revealing new documentary by French filmmaker Stéphane Benhamou. The documentary screened at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival on Monday and Tuesday evenings for a heavily French-expat Jerusalem crowd. It will also be shown on Israel’s Channel 8 next month.

In a post-screening interview with The Times of Israel, Benhamou discussed his inspiration for the film.

“We knew Chanel had a German lover, we knew she lived in the Ritz, which was reserved for the Nazis, but there was never a bridge between these two things and what she did during the war. I wanted to tell the story of Chanel’s war activities through Chanel No. 5,” he said, “…to contrast her elegance as a woman and her behavior in the war.”

The 57-year-old Jewish filmmaker has been making documentaries for 20 years and lives with his family in Normandy. They travel to Israel at least twice a year.

The film follows Chanel’s morally tasteless wartime activities. In 1924 Chanel went into business with Jewish brothers Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, directors of the prominent perfume house, Bourjois, who agreed to fully back the Chanel No. 5 perfume, giving Chanel 10 percent ownership of the line — a stake she was not satisfied with. In 1927 the perfume became the world’s bestseller, increasing her resentment.

The year 1941 finds Coco Chanel living the good life as a permanent resident of the Ritz Hotel in German-occupied Paris. She has fallen in love with senior Nazi intelligence officer Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, who, at an appealing 13 years younger than the 57-year-old fashion mogul, is conveniently staying at the same hotel along with other high-ranking German officers.

When new German laws stripping Jews of their property rights are announced, Chanel hatches a plan to use them to take the company away from the brothers and instill herself as the proper “Aryan heir.” Unbeknownst to her, the Wertheimers had escaped to America in 1940, transferring their ownership of the company to Christian friend Felix Amiot, who also provided the Germans with military aircraft throughout the war.

Ultimately, France is liberated and the good guys emerge triumphant — but the viewer walks away not fully satisfied knowing that justice was never brought against Chanel.

On the contrary, after more than a dabble in Nazi intrigue and subterfuge, she walked away with her reputation intact and millions in revenue sent to her from the same former partners she once attempted to destroy.

But Benhamou is more optimistic. “There is morality to the story. She had everything going for her, and in the end she lost thanks to the bad guys,” he said, referring to the Nazi decision to have Amiot remain the legitimate Aryan head of the company.

Before you go and throw out all of your Chanel, it’s worth noting that the brand remains in full ownership of the Wertheimer family. This movie doesn’t take a position against the brand, Benhamou stressed.

Benhamou said he met resistance while filming from those interested in upholding the company name. “The economic power of the brand tries to keep this story silent,” he said.

A perfume expert refused an interview after reading the film’s synopsis and the filmmaker was denied access to Chanel’s jasmine supplier in Grasse due to the presumed harm the documentary could do to the brand.

The director noted it will be interesting to see how news outlets with advertising ties to Chanel react to the film, particularly since the release of the film coincides with the release of Chanel’s new perfume, “Gabrielle,” called after the founder’s first name.

Benhamou said he is often asked whether Chanel was really an anti-Semite or just business-minded.

“It’s not for me to say whether or not she was an anti-Semite,” he said, but pointed to her history of anti-Semitic lovers, close friends, causes and actions.

Coco Chanel once said, “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.”

While we continue to know Chanel for her style contributions, her Nazi activity is starting to be remembered as more than just an accessory to her legacy.

Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/foul-note-in-chanel-no-5-let-out-of-the-bottle-in-new-film/

Citing his ‘right to life,’ ex-Auschwitz accountant fights jail sentence

Oskar Groening, 96, was found guilty in 2015 of being an accessory to the murders of 300,000 people at the death camp

By AFP

Convicted former SS officer Oskar Groening listens to the verdict of his trial on July 15, 2015 at court in Lueneburg, northern Germany. Oskar Groening, 94, sat impassively as judge Franz Kompisch said “the defendant is found guilty of accessory to murder in 300,000 legally connected cases” of deported Jews who were sent to the gas chambers in 1944. (AFP PHOTO/TOBIAS SCHWARZ)

BERLIN, Germany — A former Nazi SS guard known as the Bookkeeper of Auschwitz, now 96, has filed a challenge against his jail sentence, his lawyer said Tuesday, arguing that imprisonment would violate his “right to life.”

In one of the last cases against a surviving Nazi, Oskar Groening was found guilty in July 2015 of being an accessory to the murders of 300,000 people at the death camp.

He has been living at home despite the conviction as he mounted an appeal against his imprisonment.

After a court ruled last month that he was fit to serve his four-year prison sentence, his defense team has now turned to Germany’s Constitutional Court, claiming that jailing Groening at such an advanced age flouted his basic rights.

“In terms of constitutional law, it should be examined if the health condition of Mr Groening allows for his basic right to life and physical integrity to be guaranteed” if he went to jail, his lawyer Hans Holtermann told the DPA news agency.

But the case before the Constitutional Court does not trigger a suspension of the sentence, meaning that Groening could be served with the notice to go to jail at any time.

Groening worked as an accountant at Auschwitz, sorting and counting the money taken from those killed or used as slave labor, and shipping it back to his Nazi superiors in Berlin.

He also on several occasions assigned to “ramp duty,” processing deportees as they arrived by rail in cattle cars.

During his trial, Groening acknowledged “moral guilt” but said it was up to the court to rule on his legal culpability.

He had previously been cleared by German authorities after lengthy criminal probes dating back to the 1970s.

But a case was reopened against him after the legal basis for prosecuting former Nazis changed in 2011 with Germany’s landmark conviction of John Demjanjuk.

Demjanjuk, a former death camp guard, was sentenced not for atrocities he was known to have committed, but on the basis that he worked at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland and had thus been a cog in the Nazis’ killing machine.

Demjanjuk died in 2012 before his appeal could be heard, but that verdict spurred new investigations against several elderly former Nazis.

Among a handful of convictions since is that of Reinhold Hanning, found guilty of complicity in the mass murders at Auschwitz.

He died aged 95 this year, before he could serve his jail term.

A case against former SS medic Hubert Zafke collapsed in September after the court found that the 96-year-old was unfit to stand trial.

More than one million European Jews were killed at Auschwitz before it was liberated by Soviet forces. Yet of the camp’s 6,500 SS personnel who survived the war, fewer than 50 were ever convicted.

Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/citing-his-right-to-life-ex-auschwitz-guard-fights-jail-sentence/

History behind WWII’s great unsung female codebreaker is finally unravelled

Though her actions helped save countless Allied lives, it takes some digging to find a record of Elizebeth Smith Friedman

The Friedmans in their home library, 1957. (George C. Marshal Foundation)

Even as the United States fought the Axis Powers in Europe, Africa and Asia during World War II, a new threat emerged at home — this time from a Nazi spy ring operating out of South America.

The cell sought to conduct both political and military operations as they worked to sway the politically-neutral continent towards the Germans, while reporting on Allied ship movements, putting vessels at risk of destruction by German U-boats.

J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had no answer for the ring. But Elizebeth Smith Friedman did.

Working for the Coast Guard under the Treasury Department, the veteran codebreaker (whose Jewish-American husband, William Friedman, was himself a legendary name in intelligence history) had honed her skills battling Prohibition-era smugglers — who, it turned out, had used codes similar to those employed by the Nazi spies.

Friedman not only cracked the Nazi codes, she helped bring down the spy ring. In January 1944, Nazi isolation from South America was complete when Argentina broke off relations with the Axis.

Yet for decades, this story — and the woman behind it — were lost to history.

Now, a new book, “The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies” by Jason Fagone, aims to correct this oversight.

It comes on the heels of the 2014 movie “The Imitation Game” — about Friedman’s British codebreaking contemporary, Alan Turing — and this year’s film “Hidden Figures,” about African-American women in the space industry who were also ignored by history.

“You go back and look at public sources, and women are there,” Fagone said. “They’ve been there all along. They were omitted from the story when the story got told by men, sometimes even outright erased. Elizebeth and her WWII heroics were papered over by J. Edgar Hoover. All the while, Hoover claimed credit for what Elizebeth and her team were doing.”

Fagone discovered her story several years ago. He was researching the National Security Agency (NSA) while reporting on Edward Snowden, who leaked information from the agency in 2013.

The author began reading about William Friedman, whom he said “was considered the godfather of the NSA,” and was also renowned for breaking the Japanese WWII Purple code.

“I noticed his wife was also a codebreaker,” Fagone said. “I thought, ‘that’s interesting, husband and wife codebreakers.’ … I got curious and began to dig. It was this kind of incredible untold story, a woman at the heart of the American intelligence community, that began to unfold.”

She was born Elizebeth Smith to Quaker parents in Huntington, Indiana, in 1892. Her mother Sopha provided her unconventional first name.

She had an early interest in codes — including a belief that the works of Shakespeare contained secret messages. George Fabyan, a Gilded Age tycoon from Chicago, recruited her to try to find these messages — one of his many projects.

Smith also met a geneticist on Fabyan’s staff named William Friedman — a Russian immigrant born as Wolf Friedman, the son of a Talmudic scholar.

“William was interested in a homegrown version of Zionism,” Fagone said, although later in life he criticized the movement.

“As a young man growing up in Pittsburgh, he decided at an early age he was going to try to learn being a farmer. His high school friends believed Jewish youths needed to make themselves strong in the face of anti-Semitism and go back to the land. Ultimately, he decided to become a scholar of genetics instead,” said Fagone.

Friedman and Smith married in 1917. “It was not something that was really done in their worlds,” Fagone said. “She was a Quaker girl from the Midwest, Friedman was from a Jewish community in Pittsburgh.”

The Friedmans in their home library, 1957. (George C. Marshal Foundation)

Even as the United States fought the Axis Powers in Europe, Africa and Asia during World War II, a new threat emerged at home — this time from a Nazi spy ring operating out of South America.

The cell sought to conduct both political and military operations as they worked to sway the politically-neutral continent towards the Germans, while reporting on Allied ship movements, putting vessels at risk of destruction by German U-boats.

J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had no answer for the ring. But Elizebeth Smith Friedman did.

Working for the Coast Guard under the Treasury Department, the veteran codebreaker (whose Jewish-American husband, William Friedman, was himself a legendary name in intelligence history) had honed her skills battling Prohibition-era smugglers — who, it turned out, had used codes similar to those employed by the Nazi spies.

Friedman not only cracked the Nazi codes, she helped bring down the spy ring. In January 1944, Nazi isolation from South America was complete when Argentina broke off relations with the Axis.

Yet for decades, this story — and the woman behind it — were lost to history.

‘The Woman Who Smashed Codes’ by Jason Fagone.

It comes on the heels of the 2014 movie “The Imitation Game” — about Friedman’s British codebreaking contemporary, Alan Turing — and this year’s film “Hidden Figures,” about African-American women in the space industry who were also ignored by history.

“You go back and look at public sources, and women are there,” Fagone said. “They’ve been there all along. They were omitted from the story when the story got told by men, sometimes even outright erased. Elizebeth and her WWII heroics were papered over by J. Edgar Hoover. All the while, Hoover claimed credit for what Elizebeth and her team were doing.”

Fagone discovered her story several years ago. He was researching the National Security Agency (NSA) while reporting on Edward Snowden, who leaked information from the agency in 2013.

The author began reading about William Friedman, whom he said “was considered the godfather of the NSA,” and was also renowned for breaking the Japanese WWII Purple code.

“I noticed his wife was also a codebreaker,” Fagone said. “I thought, ‘that’s interesting, husband and wife codebreakers.’ … I got curious and began to dig. It was this kind of incredible untold story, a woman at the heart of the American intelligence community, that began to unfold.”

Jason Fagone, author of ‘The Woman Who Smashed Codes.’ (Courtesy)

She was born Elizebeth Smith to Quaker parents in Huntington, Indiana, in 1892. Her mother Sopha provided her unconventional first name.

She had an early interest in codes — including a belief that the works of Shakespeare contained secret messages. George Fabyan, a Gilded Age tycoon from Chicago, recruited her to try to find these messages — one of his many projects.

Smith also met a geneticist on Fabyan’s staff named William Friedman — a Russian immigrant born as Wolf Friedman, the son of a Talmudic scholar.

“William was interested in a homegrown version of Zionism,” Fagone said, although later in life he criticized the movement.

“As a young man growing up in Pittsburgh, he decided at an early age he was going to try to learn being a farmer. His high school friends believed Jewish youths needed to make themselves strong in the face of anti-Semitism and go back to the land. Ultimately, he decided to become a scholar of genetics instead,” said Fagone.

Friedman and Smith married in 1917. “It was not something that was really done in their worlds,” Fagone said. “She was a Quaker girl from the Midwest, Friedman was from a Jewish community in Pittsburgh.”

But, he said, “Young people in love, as often happens, their love for each other was stronger than fears of what their families would think.”

They would have a lasting marriage, with two children. Codebreaking kept them close.

“They were two young people who wanted to accomplish very great things,” Fagone said. “They clicked through this very intense activity of codebreaking. They would be across the table from each other, for eight, 10, 12 hours a day, cranking through puzzles. They loved it.”

They became highly successful at it. “William Friedman, like Elizebeth Friedman, was one of the great codebreakers of all time, a genius at seeing patterns in what looked like noise,” said Fagone. “Along with Elizebeth, he was involved in some of the methods at the foundation of modern cryptology.”

When America entered WWI in 1917, “very quickly, because of the necessities of war, [Elizebeth Friedman] was transferred from the Shakespeare project to hunt and solve secret messages to Germany,” he said.

Her husband went to France in 1918 as a codebreaker for the American Expeditionary Force. Throughout his career, however, he faced anti-Semitism.

“He grew up hearing stories of anti-Jewish pogroms that had swept through the family’s ancient home in Russia,” Fagone said. “Those stories never left him. I think, all his career, he was aware of anti-Semitism in the US military. He was afraid it would harm his career and livelihood.

“The US military was thoroughly anti-Semitic, in a casual, everyday way. … People he worked with in the War Department believed in anti-Semitic frauds, gathering intelligence about what they called ‘the Jewish question’ on MID [Military Intelligence Division] index cards. One was called ‘Jews: Race.’ That was the professional environment of William Friedman,” said Fagone.

Meanwhile, Elizebeth Friedman would make history at “the only codebreaking unit in America ever to be run by a woman,” Fagone wrote.

Working for the Coast Guard under the Treasury Department of Henry Morgenthau Jr., “she battled smugglers and professional gangsters, intercepting messages, literally reading the thoughts of the biggest gangsters of the day,” Fagone said. “She testified, sometimes at risk to her personal safety.”

The couple’s interwar achievements helped them accomplish great feats during WWII. William Friedman led the Army team that cracked the Japanese code Purple.

“Ultimately, they were able to intercept, break and read Japanese diplomatic messages all through the war,” Fagone said. “They read into the minds of top Japanese diplomats all over the world — and also the Nazi mind. Japanese diplomats were talking with their Nazi counterparts. William and his team read that, too. In an enormous way, they probably helped shorten the war.”

However, Friedman suffered a nervous breakdown and was honorably discharged.

“Later in life, when his depression became more acute, he talked about the toll that anti-Semitism was taking on him with a psychiatrist,” Fagone said.

And while he helped create what became the NSA in 1952, Cold War-era tensions arose between the Friedmans and the agency, boiling over in 1958, when agents removed many of the Friedmans’ personal papers from their Capitol Hill home.

While William Friedman’s wartime achievements are well-known, his wife’s are not. Of the 22 boxes of personal files Elizebeth Friedman left to the George C. Marshall Foundation library in Virginia, there was no documentation between 1939 and 1945.

It turned out that her records had been declassified in 2000. Locating them in the National Archives “was the part that took me the most time and research,” Fagone said.

It took two years, and “it was more dramatic and surprising than anything I had ever expected.”

Elizebeth Friedman had matched wits with Johannes Siegfried Becker — “the most prolific and effective Nazi spy in the Western Hemisphere during WWII,” Fagone wrote.

Becker’s spy network in South America collected intelligence that “would allow a U-boat to go after an Allied vessel,” Fagone said. “A Nazi spy in Buenos Aires or another port would note when an Allied ship would depart at a certain time. Berlin would dispatch a U-boat that would attempt to destroy it with a torpedo. … It was a death warrant. There were dozens, hundreds of people aboard an Allied vessel. It was important to be able to intercept, warn the captains.”

Other intelligence “gave Germany a picture of what goods were being transported to whom,” Fagone said.

“A lot of espionage was about commerce, raw materials, ores, food to feed the army. Various South American governments made deals with both sides to secure a line on imported ores, metals, supplies of food. It was useful to know if a ship full of Argentine beef was heading in a certain direction,” he said.

These messages were transmitted via clandestine radio networks.

“For anyone to find out what they were saying, they had to intercept the radio messages and break the codes,” Fagone said. “The FBI was totally unprepared. They had no codebreaking team.”

But the Coast Guard and Elizebeth Friedman were perfectly prepared. “Elizebeth had built an elite team of codebreakers within the Coast Guard,” Fagone said.

“The Nazi spies had very similar radio techniques, very similar codes, to the rum runners and drug smugglers in the 1920s, 1930s. It just shows how Elizebeth was ready, with that sort of skills, for a pivotal moment in the war. … She shifted her focus from fighting smugglers to tracking and hunting spies all through WWII,” he said.

Decades later, the NSA was skeptical of the threat from Nazi spies in South America.

“Did the Axis’ clandestine effort in the Western Hemisphere have any effect on the conduct of the war? Probably not,” David P. Mowry wrote in a since-declassified 1989 publication, “German Clandestine Activities in South America in World War II.”

“It appears that most of the intelligence passed to Germany was of little significance,” said the article. And “[The] answer to the question, ‘Did the US cryptanalytic effort against the Axis spies have any effect on the conduct of the war?’ is also, ‘Probably not.’”

However, Friedman and her team made an impressive 4,000 decryptions from 50 separate Nazi radio circuits.

Fagone said the decriptions managed “to create a detailed map of the Nazi spy network in South America … figure out who was talking to who and why, map connections with various South American governments to track finances down to the peso, learn code names and true identities of all agents” — all of which helped authorities “go in and disrupt, arrest and destroy spy networks, eliminate the Nazi espionage threat.”

She also assisted with high-profile domestic espionage cases. “Her role was omitted or erased when the FBI told the story,” Fagone said.

She and her Coast Guard team decrypted intelligence that aided Hoover’s 1941 investigation of the Duquesne spy ring — in which 33 men went to jail for a collective 300 years.

In 1944, she testified as an expert against Japanese spy Velvalee Dickinson, nicknamed the Doll Woman for writing letters purportedly about sales from her New York doll shop that actually described damage to Allied warships.

“The FBI did a lot of good work in WWII,” Fagone said, “in the Duquesne case, and a lot of good work with the Doll Woman. It’s just that, when [Hoover] told the story, the FBI did everything.”

Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/history-behind-wwiis-great-unsung-female-codebreaker-is-finally-unravelled/

 

‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’, 96, fit to serve jail term, says German court

Oskar Groening was sentenced to four years in prison for his activities at Nazi concentration camp, but appealed against it due to his age

Former Nazi SS officer Oskar Groening listens to the verdict of his trial on July 15, 2015 at court in Lueneburg, northern Germany. (AFP / POOL/ AXEL HEIMKEN)

BERLIN, Germany — A former Nazi SS guard known as the “Bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, now 96, is fit to serve his four-year prison sentence, a German court ruled Wednesday.

Oskar Groening was found guilty in July 2015 of being an accessory to the murders of 300,000 people at the Nazi death camp.

But he filed an appeal for the sentence to be suspended.

“Based on expert opinion, the superior regional court finds that the convicted individual is fit to serve out the term despite his advanced age,” said the court in Celle in northern Germany.

Incarcerating Groening would not violate his fundamental rights, it said, arguing that “appropriate precautionary measures” could be taken to meet any special needs arising from his old age.

Groening has been living at home despite his conviction, and given his age, it had until now been unclear if he would actually be jailed.

But he filed an appeal for the sentence to be suspended.

“Based on expert opinion, the superior regional court finds that the convicted individual is fit to serve out the term despite his advanced age,” said the court in Celle in northern Germany.

Incarcerating Groening would not violate his fundamental rights, it said, arguing that “appropriate precautionary measures” could be taken to meet any special needs arising from his old age.

Groening has been living at home despite his conviction, and given his age, it had until now been unclear if he would actually be jailed.

Hungarian Jews on the Judenrampe (Jewish ramp) after disembarking from the transport trains at Auschwitz-Birkenau, May 1944. To be sent rechts! – to the right – meant the person had been chosen as a laborer; links! – to the left – meant death in the gas chambers. (From the Auschwitz Album)

New legal basis

During his trial, Groening acknowledged “moral guilt” but said it was up to the court to rule on his legal culpability.

He had testified that he was so horrified by the crimes he witnessed at the camp after his arrival in 1942 that he appealed three times for a transfer to the front, which was not granted until autumn 1944.

Groening had previously been cleared by German authorities after lengthy criminal probes dating back to the 1970s.

But a case was reopened against him as the legal basis for prosecuting former Nazis changed in 2011 with Germany’s landmark conviction of former death camp guard John Demjanjuk.

The former guard was sentenced not for atrocities he was known to have committed, but on the basis that he worked at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland and had thus been a cog in the Nazis’ killing machine.

Demjanjuk died in 2012 before his appeal could be heard, but that verdict spurred new investigations against several elderly former Nazis.

More than one million European Jews were killed at Auschwitz before it was liberated by Soviet forces. Yet, of the camp’s 6,500 SS personnel who survived the war, fewer than 50 were ever convicted.

Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/bookkeeper-of-auschwitz-96-fit-to-serve-jail-term-says-german-court/