Category Archive: Together

Yad Vashem stages ambitious show of rare photos taken by Nazis and their victims

Ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israel’s national Shoah museum focuses on the impact of thousands of now iconic images from ghettos, camps, and liberation


View of section of ‘Flashes of Memory’ exhibition at Yad Vashem showing image of photographer Zvi Hirsch Kadushin (later George Kaddosh) in the Kovno ghetto, his camera, and some of the photos he smuggled out after going into hiding before the ghetto’s liquidation. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Near the end of Jerusalem-based exhibition “Flashes of Memory: Photography During the Holocaust,” is a glass case containing a loose pile of postcard-size photographs of scenes from the Dachau concentration camp. Some show inmates shoving dead bodies into crematoria. Others show torture scenes, with prisoners’ bodies hanging from nooses.

These images in Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center’s new show are horrific, but they are not here merely to shock. Rather, they — like the other more than 1,500 others — are meant to provoke questions about who took them, where, when, how, and why.
The Dachau photos are authentic, but not in the usual sense of the word. They were taken by US Signal Corps troops who liberated the camp in April 1945, and the scenes depicted in them are reenactments staged with the help of former inmates. The images were captured, printed and disseminated widely throughout Allied-occupied Germany for the purpose of reeducating the German population.
They also ended up in the hands of historical commissions set up by Jews in displaced persons camps throughout Europe, and in those of US soldiers who took them home with them. More than 70 years later, people are still discovering them in old shoeboxes and albums and regularly offering them to Holocaust museums. Most of the donors are ignorant of, or mistaken about, the true context of the photos’ creation.

Virtually none of the still and moving images made by the Nazis, Jews and liberating Allied forces displayed in “Flashes of Memory” are revealed here for the first time. They were previously published or shown elsewhere, with some, like “The Warsaw Ghetto Boy” photo having achieved iconic status. Most are from Yad Vashem’s collection of over half a million Holocaust-related photographs (originals and copies).

However, these images are exhibited here in a different light, and in a way that casts a more critical lens on Holocaust-era photography. The exhibition goes beyond the usual emotional response and takes a more cerebral and analytical approach.

“This exhibition is for the brain, not the heart,” said Dr. Daniel Uziel, director of Yad Vashem’s photo archives as he gave this reporter a tour.

The thoughtfulness of the exhibition is highlighted by its creative and intelligent design by Yossi Karni of Design Mill Studio, who said he aimed to make viewers feel as though they are entering a giant camera obscura.

The experience begins before even entering through the doors, with a huge round window resembling a camera lens cut into the wall outside the exhibition. The view from this “lens” leads straight through to a very large round projection at the far end of the exhibition hall, on which are shown clips from Holocaust-era films and quotations about photography.

Along the room’s central axis between these two points are several long light tables covered in hundreds of scattered copies of photographs beginning with Jewish life in Germany and ending with the liquidation of the ghettos.

The visual language of photography and cameras carries over to the exhibition’s black walls inspired by the look and texture of an old Leica camera, as well as by unwound film spools.

Curated by Vivian Uria, “Flashes of Memory,” is organized into three main sections following along a timeline starting from the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany in the 1930s to the trials of Nazi war criminals in the immediate post-war period.

The first section, “Political Photography and Filming in Nazi Germany,” deals with Nazification efforts through visual means. Photographs and film posters related to the making of director Helena “Leni” Riefenstahl‘s propagandistic “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia” films figure prominently.

Photography is also presented as a mirror of growing anti-Semitism. Here we see private and amateur photography reflecting growing anti-Semitism among average Germans, as well as examples of how editors of Der Stürmer, the propagandistic newspaper published independently by Julius Streicher, redacted photographs and accompanying captions to transmit anti-Semitic messages.

The exhibition’s second area deals with photography in the ghettos from two view points — that of the Germans and that of the Jews. Of the tens of thousands of photos from the ghettos, most were taken by German soldiers, either for official Nazi propaganda purposes, or personal objectives.

In some cases, the personal turned propaganda, as can be seen with small snapshots taken by German soldiers on display. The soldiers wrote anti-Semitic commentary about the ghettos and their forced inhabitants on the backs and sent them to Der Stürmer for publication.

In what is arguably the most engrossing part of the exhibition, the work of Jewish photographers in the ghettos is presented. There were few such photographers, as Jews were prohibited from owning and using cameras. Those who did do photography did it in an official capacity, creating images that the Judenrats (Jewish councils set up by the Nazis) could use to prove efficient self-rule and productivity. Indeed, photographers were key players in Jewish survival efforts in the ghettos.

These photographers often took the risk of taking additional photographs for non-official purposes in order to create a more realistic documentation of life in the ghettos.

A stunning example is a shot of photographer Mendel Grossman surreptitiously photographing the deportation of Jews from the Łódź ghetto as a Jewish policeman looks the other way — whether purposely or inadvertently. The photo was taken by Grossman’s assistant Aryeh Ben-Menachem.

Uziel pointed out a page from an underground album prepared by Ben-Menachem in 1943 presenting harsher aspects of ghetto life than those appearing in the official Judenrat statistic reports. Ben-Menachem survived Auschwitz, although his original album did not. The existing copy was believed to have been made in 1944 by members of the Polish Underground after the album made it into their hands.

Zvi Hirsch Kadushin (later, George Kaddosh or Kadish) was the only photographer in the Kovno ghetto, working underground for the Judenrat. He developed techniques for taking pictures through a buttonhole in his coat, and went into hiding with his photos before the liquidation of the ghetto. His photos were exhibited in various locations after the war.

Although the Warsaw ghetto was the largest, the images from the Jewish perspective produced there amount to a fraction of the 14,000 that survived from Łódź.

According to Uziel, Jewish photographers were rarely permitted to work in the Warsaw ghetto. No trace remains of the names of the photographers whose pictures survived the war in the underground “Oneg Shabbat” archives directed by historian Emanuel Ringelblum.

“Early on, the Warsaw ghetto Judenrat called on Polish photographers to do the visual documentation required, like in the case of this 1940 album prepared jointly by the Judenrat and the Joint (JDC) to raise support for the ghetto’s residents,” said Uziel as he pointed to a photo of a truck delivering matzah for Passover, and another of Jews in line to receive aid packages.

The final section of “Flashes of Memory” contains images made by Allied forces as they liberated the Nazi death and labor camps. More than any others, these graphic images have had the greatest hand in shaping the collective memory of the Holocaust over the last seven decades. Among their immediate uses were showing the folks back home what they were fighting for, reeducating the German populace, and creating documentation for the prosecution of war criminals.

Although many of the photographs and films were made in real time as the troops entered the camps and discovered who and what was within, some — like the Dachau ones — were staged at a later date.

The Russians, for instance, arrived at Auschwitz on January 27, 1945 unprepared to create visual documentation, so they brought in official government photographers and international press a week later for a “liberation” photo op.

“They simply put the inmates in their uniforms back inside and closed the gate,” Uziel said.

“Flashes of Memory” is designed by all its creators to provoke questions, including ones about the morality of exhibiting and publishing Holocaust-era images, the majority of them produced by the Nazis.

“It’s the right thing to do, because in many cases it’s all we have to show what happened and the people who were killed,” Uziel said.

Then he walked over to some pages from a diary kept by Rachel Auerbach in the Warsaw ghetto. Auerbach expressed the same sentiment, writing (in Yiddish) in 1942 upon observing filming taking place:

“They should leave a sneak view of the Jewish passersby on the crowded streets in the movie. The faces, the eyes that in future years will shout out in silence. They should all be commemorated; the droves of beggars, the people of yesterday slowing dying from the hardships and starvation in the closed ghetto. And another thing, the main one — they should add the German participants in this drama. They were the lead actors in this play,” she wrote.


Hungarian lawmaker reportedly to honor Hitler ally on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Miklos Horthy, left, with Adolf Hitler in 1944. (Keystone/Getty Images)

(JTA) — A senior Hungarian lawmaker reportedly will attend a church’s ceremony honoring the Nazi collaborator Miklos Horthy that is being held on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Sandor Lezsak, the deputy speaker of the parliament and a member of the ruling Fidesz ruling party, will be on hand for the Jan. 27 event at the Main Parish Church of the Assumption in Budapest, according to the invitation sent out by the KESZ group, a Christian organization.

“In the Holy Mass, we remember with affection and respect for the late governor of Miklos Horthy (1868-1957), who was born 150 years ago,” read the invitation, according to a report Tuesday in Szombat, the Jewish Hungarian weekly noted in an editorial. The event was “provocative,” the paper said, though it is not yet clear whether it was planned to take place on Jan. 27 for the date’s symbolic significance.

Also scheduled to attend is Sandor Szakaly, the head the Veritas Historical Research Institute, who said in a 2014 interview that the 1941 deportation and subsequent murder of tens of thousands of Jews was an “action of the immigration authorities against illegal aliens.”

In June, Hungarian Jews protested Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s inclusion of Horthy, who oversaw the murder of more than 500,000 Holocaust victims together with Nazi Germany, in a speech among those he called “exceptional statesmen” in Hungary for leading the country following the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. Orban had appointed Szakaly to lead the historical institute.

Horthy signed anti-Jewish laws in 1938 and 1939, as well as in 1920.


Finland to probe troops’ alleged role in the Holocaust

By Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — Finland will investigate evidence suggesting that soldiers from its army were involved in killing Jews during the Holocaust.

The announcement by the office of President Sauli Niinisto about the initiation of the probe, the first of its kind in Finland, came Wednesday in a letter to Efraim Zuroff, a hunter of Nazis for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Earlier this month, Zuroff urged Niinisto to set up an inquiry following the discovery of written testimony by a Finnish Waffen SS officer who said he actively participated in the mass murder of Jews in Ukraine.

“The Finnish government will, in response to the recent concerns, fund a further independent survey of the operations of the Finnish Volunteers Battalion of the Waffen-SS and particularly examine its operations in Ukraine,” Hiski Haukkala, the secretary general chief of the Cabinet, wrote to Zuroff. “Should any criminal activities be uncovered they will be followed by due process,” he added.

Zuroff told JTA the probe will be “an important development” that is part of a broader process in Scandinavia, where in Denmark and Norway historians recently uncovered evidence on the roles of troops from their countries  in actively killing Jews.

The testimony suggesting active complicity in the Holocaust by at least six Finnish soldiers was discovered and flagged by Andre Swanström, the chairman of the Finnish Society of Church History.

Swanström quoted a letter by Finnish SS soldier Olavi Kustaa Aadolf Karpo to officer and military pastor Ensio Pihkala in which Karpo laments how he and his comrades were utilized for shooting Jews, when “for the execution of Jews less skilled personnel would have sufficed.”

In their letters, Karpo and fellow SS-men also protested being sent on a factory detail, while their brothers in arms got the chance to “shoot some pickle-headed Ivanovichs” – a reference to Russians. Following World War II, Karpo immigrated to Venezuela, where he died in 1988. At least five other Finns participated in the war crimes against Jews, Swanström wrote.

Finland, which for centuries has been engaged in land disputes with Russia featuring occupation, joined Germany in its attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. In the winter of 1944-45, the Finns began fighting against the Germans.

Finland had 2,300 Jews in its territory in 1939 whom it openly refused to surrender to its German ally despite repeated requests, according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial  in Jerusalem. A police chief’s plan to deport in secret 300 non-Finnish Jews from the country was foiled and only eight were given over. Of those, only one survived the Holocaust.


Rosensaft: Remembering the Holocaust and today’s ‘stateless’

Menachem Z. Rosensaft

When British troops entered the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany on April 15, 1945, they found some 58,000 surviving inmates, the overwhelming majority of them Jews. Most were suffering from a combination of typhus, tuberculosis, dysentery, extreme malnutrition, and a host of other virulent diseases.

One of the survivors at Bergen-Belsen was my mother, Hadassah (Ada) Bimko, a dentist from Sosnowiec, Poland, who had by then spent 15 months at Auschwitz-Birkenau after her parents, first husband, and 5 1/2-year-old son were gassed upon arrival at the death camp. Assigned to Birkenau’s infirmary because of her medical training, she saved countless women by performing rudimentary surgery, camouflaging their wounds, and sending them on work details ahead of selections for the gas chambers.

In November 1944, she was sent to Bergen-Belsen where she and a small group of Jewish women kept 149 Jewish children alive through the harsh winter of 1944-1945.

A few days after liberation, the senior British medical officer at Bergen-Belsen appointed my mother to organize and head a group of sufficiently healthy survivors to help care for the camp’s thousands of critically ill inmates. For weeks on end, my mother and her team of 28 doctors and 620 other volunteers, only a few of them trained nurses, worked round the clock with the military personnel to try to save as many lives as possible. Despite their desperate efforts, the Holocaust claimed 13,944 additional victims during the two months following liberation.

“For the greater part of the liberated Jews of Bergen-Belsen,” my mother recalled many years later, “there was no ecstasy, no joy at our liberation. We had lost our families, our homes. We had no place to go, nobody to hug, nobody who was waiting for us, anywhere. We had been liberated from death and from the fear of death, but we were not free from the fear of life.”

By May 21, 1945, the survivors of Bergen-Belsen were moved from what the British called the “horror camp” to a nearby German military base that became the largest of many Displaced Persons camps. An Aug. 17, 1946, New York Times editorial estimated that there were “about 157,000 homeless Jews in British, French and American zones of Germany, in Austria and in Italy. Another 100,000 are expected to leave Poland.”

These Jewish DPs included not just physicians like my mother, but also lawyers, rabbis, engineers, scholars, merchants, writers, actors, artists, musicians, and athletes who had been successful, productive members of their communities before the war, but were now subjected to disparagement and discrimination.

As early as July 1945, the World Jewish Congress charged that the Jewish DPs “not only are detained as virtual prisoners in Germany in conditions of abject misery but are treated with a callous and shameful neglect by Allied Military Control authorities.”

Gen. George S. Patton, the American military governor of Bavaria, wrote in his journal that he considered the Jewish DPs to be “lower than animals.” U.S. Sen. William Chapman Revercomb (R.-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Immigration Subcommittee, reportedly told his colleagues that, “We could solve this DP problem all right if we could work out some bill that would keep out the Jews.”

I am one of approximately 2,000 Jewish children born in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp. In due course, our families established new homes for ourselves in the United States, Israel, Canada, and elsewhere. But just as Jews are commanded at the Passover Seder to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, I can never forget that my parents and I were once stateless refugees.

Today as we mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I would ask you to engage on a personal level to make sure that the murder of six million Jews remains an integral part of our collective consciousness. The process is simple — take a photo of yourself holding a “We Remember” sign, and post it to social media using the hashtag #WeRemember. By doing so, you will forge a link in a sacred chain of memory.

 Menachem Z. Rosensaft is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities. Talk back at


What Today’s Refugees Can Learn from Holocaust Survivors About the Human Spirit


Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated on January 27, 1945, the date that is now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Following World War II, Europe was flooded with millions of displaced persons (DPs), including 250,000 Jewish survivors who were unable and unwilling to return to their nations of origin. Many Jews were confined to DP camps in Allied-occupied Germany, Austria, and Italy for as long as a decade.

Among them were my parents and parents-in-law, who were leaders of the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp in the British Zone of Germany. “For the greatest part of liberated Jews, there was no ecstasy, no joy at our liberation,” recalled my mother-in-law, Dr. Hadassah Rosensaft, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. “We had lost our families, our homes. We had been liberated from death and the fear of death, but not from the fear of life.”

The ways in which the stateless Jewish DPs transitioned from persecuted refugees to productive citizens in their new countries may be instructive today, as we witness what Human Rights Watch has called “the largest global displacement crisis since World War II.”

The European Union’s objective – “to strengthen the resilience and self-reliance of both the displaced and their host communities…by helping them to access education, housing, land, livelihoods, and services” – is framed, in part, on the historical achievements of Jewish survivors, who managed to turn DP camps into vibrant centers for rehabilitation. With the material assistance of international organizations, Jewish DPs organized their own physical, emotional, and spiritual rehabilitation.

As part of the healing process, survivors made it one of their first priorities to establish symbolic memorials for parents, spouses, children, and siblings who were murdered in the ghettos, forests, camps, and other places across Europe. The survivors also served as principal witnesses for the prosecution at war crimes trials, including the Belsen Trial, at which my mother-in-law testified about the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Survivor rabbis and American and British military chaplains tended to their religious needs. In addition to conducting services, establishing religious schools, and mikvaot (ritual baths), these rabbis addressed such complex issues as the plight of agunoth and agunim (survivors who had married before or during the war, whose spouses had disappeared and who required a designation of widowhood in order to remarry), and the determination of Jewish identity of those in the camps who had been deemed “half” and “quarter” Jews under the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws.

Liberated children poured into the DP camps from the concentration camps, ghettos, and hiding places in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union – some with their families, many alone. The reunification of families was facilitated by mimeographed lists of survivors displayed at the DP camps, but most survivors suffered from the heartbreaking knowledge that they were truly alone in the world.

The survivors who were educators came forward to teach and restore the children’s capacity for fun. As the children spoke different languages, Hebrew was designated as the common language for instruction.

Vocational training provided a crucial outlet for the energies of thousands of young adults in the DP camps, preparing them for their future livelihood. Some, like my mother who studied medicine at the University of Bonn, pursued higher degrees. Sports activities became a popular outlet for recreation, socialization, and enhanced physical well-being.

Soon after liberation, the survivors began to marry, seeking to create an atmosphere of living for the future and not in the past. The largest recorded birth rate in post-war Europe took place among the Jewish DPs; my husband was among the 2000 Jewish children born in the Bergen-Belsen DP Camp.

Politically, the DP’s greatest effort was the struggle to re-establish their historic homeland in Eretz Yisrael. David Ben Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency, visited the DP camps during November 1945 and later wrote, “The faith I found among the survivors strengthened the spirit of our fighters in the Homeland.”

With the establishment of the state in 1948, legal immigration became a reality, and many of the survivors were finally able to immigrate to Israel, where they were among the builders, fighters, and defenders of the Jewish state. Liberalized immigration quotas eventually allowed the remaining survivors to settle in the United States, Canada, and other countries.

In the DP camps, healing engendered hope. Many survivors stopped seeing themselves as victims and found the courage and fortitude to rebuild their lives.

Their determination and resilience testify to the indestructible human spirit and will, hopefully, be a source of strength and inspiration for refugees in our own day.

Saturday, January 27, marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the date the United Nations General Assembly has designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.


From Japan With Love

Mysterious photographs lead to some Japanese who rescued Jews from the Holocaust, with a boat, in secret

By Hillel Kuttler

In 1998, a Japanese man named Akira Kitade, who is now 71, visited his old boss, Tatsuo Osako, for whom he had worked for decades at the Japan National Tourist Organization. As the men talked at Osako’s home in Tokyo, Osako showed him seven photographs, arrayed across two rows on a page of gray paper in an album. All the people in the pictures, Osako told him, were passengers upon the Amakusa-maru, the rickety ship on which Osako had worked as an assistant purser in 1940 and 1941. The photographs all had scribbles—a short message, a partial name, an initial, even one full name—on the backs. The images represented heartfelt thank-yous, perhaps the only presents the passengers could extend.

Tatsuo Osako’s album. (Photo courtesy of the Osako family)

“It was surprisingly emotional,” Kitade said of his long-ago meeting in Osako’s living room, when we spoke by video chat in late January. “I was shockingly touched, moved. It was exciting, thinking of how Mr. Osako had kept these photos with care for such time, for 60 years. Those seven photos were so neatly preserved.”

The passengers’ three-day crossing of the Sea of Japan on the Amakusa-maru, from Vladivostok, Russia, to the Japanese port of Tsuruga, hardly qualified as a cruise; it was more like a rescue shuttle. From September 1940 to June 1941, the Amakusa-maru and other vessels ferried refugees from the Nazis to shelter in Japan. According to a nine-page memoir Osako wrote in 1995, he worked more than 20 such voyages. Kitade said Osako estimated that there were 400 passengers aboard each.

Some passengers appeared elegantly dressed and wealthy. Most looked “forlorn and lonely, like fleeing travelers,” Osako wrote, and he “felt keenly how sorrowful it was to be stateless and, in contrast, I also felt how fortunate I was to be born a Japanese.”

For years, Kitade wondered about the man and six women whose visages appeared in these photographs. Then, in about 2009, he began scratching at the mystery itching him. He began searching. Last year, Kitade met a relative of one of them.

In a living room in Hartsdale, New York, a Japanese television crew noisily prepared its gear. It was early December 2015, and the TV crew had come to interview Linda Birnbach about her mother’s escape from Norway during WWII and arrival in America. From above the mantel and on the shelves behind Birnbach peered the framed faces of relatives, including her late mother, Vera Harrang. Kitade, his face sitting under large-framed eyeglasses, watched silently from a chair opposite Birnbach.

This incredible story reaches back beyond Birnbach; beyond her mother, who was one of the passengers; beyond Kitade, who learned of the story from his former boss Osako’s photo album; all the way to Chiune Sugihara, Japan’s consul in the Lithuanian city of Kovno. It was thanks to Sugihara that most of these passengers likely reached Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Beginning in the summer of 1940, Sugihara, defying his foreign-ministry superiors in Tokyo, issued what Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust-remembrance institution, later estimated to be 3,500 transit visas, with which refugees could cross the Soviet Union and reside temporarily in Japan.

The Amakusa-maru’s staff likely didn’t know of Sugihara. The Japan Tourist Bureau, for which Osako, then in his mid-20s, worked, contracted with an American company and several Jewish organizations to handle the sea crossings. His tasks included checking names and visas against the manifest and disbursing funds forwarded for each traveler. The work was complicated, he wrote, by the pitching boat that often relegated him to bed with seasickness, particularly during winter storms.

While Sugihara, who died in 1986, became a hero in Japan, Kitade felt obligated to honor his late friend. To Kitade, Osako and his colleagues played important supporting roles by being there for the refugees and extending a human touch. The staff was “very nice to me,” recalled Nina Admoni (resident of Ramat Aviv, Israel), who was 8 years old when she and her parents rode the ship to Tsuruga after receiving Sugihara-issued visas and fleeing Vilna. “They would show me around: how the ship operates, the big wheel, the lifeboats.”

“My main theme is not Mr. Sugihara himself, but those ordinary Japanese people who supported Mr. Sugihara’s deed behind the scenes,” Kitade said in the video chat from his living room. “It’s not Sugihara himself who rescued all those Jewish refugees. There were other people who rendered the hand of help. He couldn’t do the heroism by himself.” He relied on people like Osako.

Kitade speculated that Osako, whom he described as a calm, gentle man, was repaying a debt. Osako’s grandfather, Osako Naoharu, was a general who fought in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5. Japan’s leaders had just received a critical loan from American-Jewish banker Jacob Schiff, who might have acted, in part, because of the anti-Semitism Jews in Russia endured.

“It’s entirely thanks to this banker that Japan could win this war, so 40 years later Mr. Osako helped these Jewish refugees,” Kitade offered. “At that time, Japan could repay Jacob Schiff’s generosity.”


To better grasp his countrymen’s heroism, Kitade yearned to uncover the seven passengers’ names and fates. He started digging. He spoke with an Israeli diplomat posted to Tokyo and interviewed people in Tsuruga and in Kobe, a city to which many refugees continued.

Like Sugihara, Kitade couldn’t succeed alone.

One who helped him was Matsudo resident Kiyotaka Fukushima, who’d been fascinated by Jews since meeting an Israeli woman in nearby Tokyo in 1999. An October 2011 newspaper article on Kitade’s search caught Fukushima’s eye. Three years later, a TV feature brought news of Kitade’s having identified the first of the seven passengers, Zosia Gertler. That occurred after a Japanese-Canadian woman and Sugihara admirer named Aya Takahashi saw the Osako photographs that Yad Vashem had posted. She contacted a Montreal woman, whose cousin in New York identified Gertler as her late mother, a native of Lodz, Poland.

Fukushima arranged to see Kitade in April 2015 in Tokyo, where Kitade presented his just-published book about the search, Visas of Life and the Epic Journey: How the Sugihara Survivors Reached Japan.

Passenger list from Yokohama to San Francisco that shows Vera Harrang and Emil Kronberg and his then-wife. (Photo: Mark Halpern)

Fukushima mined the book for clues. Within a month, he’d compiled whatever could be gleaned of the six other missing people and wrote to the International Tracing Service, in Bad Arolson, Germany, which Fukushima knew about from an article he’d once read. His query yielded success with the ITS: a list of passengers who’d boarded the U.S.S. General Gordon in Japan on March 24, 1949, bound for San Francisco. The first page listed 29 passengers, all residing in Shanghai, all presumably refugees. Near the top was one named Antonina Altszuler. On the back of the photograph she’d given Osako, Altszuler’s name appeared as “Altschu”—the last three letters probably ripping off when Kitade removed the photograph from the album’s page. That was in 2009, six years after Osako died, when his daughter retrieved the fragile album with the blue cover and loaned it to Kitade.

Fukushima shared his findings with Mark Halpern, a Pennsylvanian he had met briefly in 2013 in Boston, when Fukushima, then working in the aviation industry, was in the area on business. Their encounter occurred in an unlikely place: the annual conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. Halpern sought out Fukushima after scanning the registration list and wondering about the Japanese man attending.

Fukushima unearthing the General Gordon manifest turned out to be “Ground Zero” in identifying Altszuler, Halpern said. He would learn that she was born in 1919 in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, Poland. Altszuler was aboard the Amakusa-maru on March 22, 1941, the date she inscribed on the picture, then lived in Kobe for about three weeks (receiving aid from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) before moving on to Shanghai.

From San Francisco, Altszuler traveled to Illinois, met and married a U.S. Army officer, Wallace Babb, returned cross-country and worked for 32 years as a University of California, Los Angeles, librarian. She died, childless, in 1994, bequeathing her entire estate of $592,000 to UCLA’s Holocaust-studies department.

“Without him,” Halpern said of Fukushima, identifying Altszuler “wouldn’t have happened.”

Of the five refugees Kitade’s ad-hoc team has identified, the male passenger was determined to be Nissim Segaloff, a Bulgarian Jew who settled in New York and changed his name to Nicholas Sargent, but for whom no death record was found. One Jewish woman, also from Bulgaria, got married in America, bore three children, and died in 2005, but her family requests anonymity. Only Zosia Gertler appears on a list Halpern viewed of Sugihara-issued transit-visa recipients.


Harrang, Birnbach’s mother, wasn’t a “Sugihara Jew,” or Jewish at all. She was a Lutheran, born in 1917 in the Norwegian city of Drammen.

When the Nazis occupied Norway beginning in April 1940, Harrang was in her early 20s and possessed of stunning beauty. Her mother, Emma Johanson, was terrified by the Nazis’ kidnapping of desirable women for their Lebensborn program of breeding a master race of Aryans. She sent Harrang to live with relatives in Johanson’s native Sweden. What Johanson didn’t know was that Harrang already endangered herself by working in the Norwegian underground.

In Sweden, Birnbach told the Japanese television crew, Harrang’s passage to Vladivostok, Tsuruga, and on to America was arranged by Emil Kronberg, a married Jewish businessman from Vienna with whom she’d been having an affair. Harrang “was secretive” and never discussed the journey, Birnbach said.

Birnbach has filled in some blanks since Halpern found her last October. She speculates at her mother’s fondness for Osako and his colleagues. On the picture back, above her signature, Harrang had written in Norwegian, “To the nice Japanese person: Remember me.”

“It was brave of them,” Birnbach said of the ship’s crew. “They … are heroes, particularly for the fact that Japan and Germany were allies. They risked their lives to help other people.”

Escaping eastward “was the only way out for a lot of people. It’s remarkable that she was able to get out, my father was able to get out—even more so because he was a Jew,” she said of Kronberg, whom Harrang married, after he got divorced, in 1942, seven years before Birnbach was born. “I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t get out. That’s the story of so many survivors.”

Birnbach was asked to pose with a white-framed photograph of her mother. The interviewer wondered what she’d tell Harrang now.

“I’d thank her for being brave, for bringing me up the right way and allowing me to respect all kinds of people, whether Jewish or not Jewish. Even though she was not Jewish and it sometimes was difficult for her to be accepted into my father’s family, she made the best of it. I was brought up not in a religious home but in a house that respected tradition.” Birnbach dabbed at her eyes. “I wish she was still here,” she said.

Kitade, Halpern, and Fukushima continue to investigate the identities of the two still-unidentified women among the seven: one who wrote in French, “With all my affection. Marie,” and the other, who wrote in Polish, “Remember me,” but didn’t sign it.

Osako’s family has donated the album page to Tsuruga. It will be displayed in the city’s aptly named museum: Port of Humanity.


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.”