Category Archive: Together

GRANDPA’S SECRET SHOAH

When my grandfather Leszek was alive, he’d tell stories of his life in Krakow before the war. About how he’d sneak out of his ultra-Orthodox yeshiva to attend the Zionist gymnasium down the road. Or the times he played soccer with his grandmother’s neighbor, a boy named Karol who would eventually become Pope John Paul II. Or how he courted the beautiful older daughter of the famous Karmel family, a girl who was Jewish royalty in Krakow but somehow was convinced to love him back.

I’d listen, hanging on every Polish-accented word, trying to picture this ancient-seeming man as a teenager in love. I’d weigh my life against his, an imbalanced equation that had me—a lazy suburban fuck-up, struggling with school and a failure with girls—on one side and my grandfather, an intimidatingly brilliant Holocaust survivor, on the other. But there was always a point where his stories stopped.

He had other stories about what happened after the war: Reuniting with my grandmother Henia in a hospital room in Leipzig; returning to her the poems she wrote in the camps that she sent to him for “when the world became the world again.” Moving to America and finding work cleaning diamonds for the friend of a rich uncle in the morning, and teaching at a Lower East Side yeshiva in the afternoon. But there was a gap in his stories between “before” and “after,” a hole that I knew included a stop at the infamous Plaszów concentration camp, which was later immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. (When the film came out, his only words on the matter were: “No one should have made that film while any of us are still alive.”) When I asked him directly about his time in the camps, his reply was simply to change the subject: “History took over. How’s school?”

In fact, the only time I remember him mentioning his experience during the war was when I grew my hair long and he demanded I cut it short. Thinking I’d please him, I bought a hair trimmer and gave myself a buzz cut. That weekend, we drove to Scarsdale, to his second wife’s house, for dinner. He took one look at me and said, “You look the way we looked in the camps.” Then he turned away, the look on his face the same one I’d see when I dropped out of college the first, second, and third time, and the same one I’d see whenever I’d visit him in the nursing home. The look that said, “I’m disappointed in you.”

That was all I’d ever heard about his time in the camps, between “before” and “after.” Until last week, when I finally heard my grandfather tell his stories—five years after his death.

In 1995, a pretty, middle-aged woman with a European accent named Dora Sorell visited my grandfather’s house, along with a small camera crew, and interviewed him for Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, as part of the Visual History Archives. For more than 12 years, the tapes sat in my father’s house, unwatched. A few months after my grandfather passed away, my father mailed them to me with a note asking me to convert them to DVD so that the family could watch the interview together. Those tapes sat on the shelf under my television for five more years, untouched, unconverted, and unwatched.

I don’t know why I avoided watching the tapes for so long. One creates images of one’s fathers and grandfathers, and mine are golems capable of superhuman feats that are at once inexplicable and inconceivable. Perhaps I needed to know only that he survived. Perhaps I was afraid to learn how he managed it, preferring to believe that his intellect alone was his superpower. Or maybe it’s simply that this golem terrified and protected me, and I wasn’t ready to let it go by learning the truth.

I also don’t know why I suddenly decided to learn my grandfather’s story, at last. It would be nice to say that something happened during our Passover Seder this month that pushed me to watch it (it didn’t), or that Yom Ha’Shoah means so much to me that I was gripped by a need to know more (it doesn’t, and I wasn’t). The truth is that I always wanted to know and had been too afraid of what I would find. The truth is that two weeks ago, I rearranged our living room and in doing so, I found myself staring at my grandfather’s tapes. There was no more avoiding it. History had taken over, and ready or not, I was going to watch. The truth is: I just wanted him to be proud of me.

***

I turn on our Paleolithic VCR, pop in tape one, and settle in to finally learn about the “during.” I watch my grandfather’s familiar pauses and laughs, hear his voice again for the first time in five years, and see things I have long forgotten, like the way he closes his eyes gently when he speaks and how his chest rises and falls as though every breath is his last … or his first.

Several times I rewind sections of tape that I miss because my mind has drifted, just as it would during Passover when he’d drone on and on about some tiny detail from the Haggadah that he thought was particularly mistaken or incomplete. Back then, I’d sit next to him, ready to perform tasks like washing his hands or passing him items from the Seder plate, worried that I’d do something wrong and have to deal with his disappointment—never anger, always just that look. Now I sit on my couch in my living room in Brooklyn, listening to him as he slips into lecture mode discussing the specifics of “what I call the ‘interbellum period of Krakow’ ” and worry that I may not have the stamina for this.

His eidetic memory delivers dates and names at such a pace that it seems, at times, rehearsed, and at other times simply overwhelming. At first, it’s a general history lesson, and I wonder if I will feel anything at all about these tapes, if I should press pause and take a walk and see what’s playing at the Cobble Hill Cinema. And then it shifts. Suddenly he’s talking about himself, and I can’t turn away.

There’s the exact date that he signs up for the Polish Army to escape deportation. The town where he hides when it becomes clear the German invasion will succeed. The name of the rabbi who marries him and my grandmother.

He talks about ditches: The schaffensfreude—the pride one feels from the act of creation—that is denied him in the ghetto when he’s sent to dig ditches and then simply fill them up again. The fear that every ditch could be a grave. And the ditch outside of Lublin that is to be his grave, until the local Gestapo head issues a last-minute reprieve.

Then there is the final selektion in the Krakow Ghetto before his deportation to Plaszów, when he forgets his jacket at home and has no number sewn onto his shirt. He describes a terrifying man with a gun and whip who screams at him and raises the whip to beat him. Here my heart pounds, here my mouth goes dry, here my lips curl as I watch him speak, effortlessly, about how my grandmother grabs the arm of Amon Gàth—the mad killer of Plaszów—and tells him, “Don’t you dare hurt my husband.”

There is so much in these two hours that cannot be captured in my words; they are barely captured in his. You have to hear his throat get dry when he talks about how cold it was and how lucky he was to work inside with the books. You have to see the moment he laughs when he recalls the endless series of coincidences that begin to add up to the improbability of his survival. You have to see his heart rate elevate as he describes the man caught whistling Russian melodies who was hanged over and over again because the rope kept breaking.

I cannot comprehend what it is to have survived. My mind balks at trying to hold in place the idea that he was truly there and that these events truly happened. And it is not until close to the end of the two hours that I finally find a glimmer of me in my grandfather and, as a result, can suddenly picture a fraction of the pain and horror that he must have felt.

“The rule in the camps was just like in the Army—never volunteer,” he says. But a man comes to the barrack one night and says that he needs men to perform a mitzvah: to dig a mass grave to bury Jewish women who were recently killed for living among the Poles. My grandfather agrees to go. He describes lifting a young woman’s naked body and holding her in his arms before burial. He says she was beautiful—a sculpture. He says he fell in love with her, then put her in the ground and covered her with a thin layer of dirt.

It is the falling in love that does it. It is the spark of humanity and truth that glowed within him that now burns in my chest as I watch this man retell these stories. All the confusion is gone. All the struggling, the pain, all the golems now melt back to Earth and all that is left is a man who once fell in love with the image of a woman and a boy who will forever be in love with his grandfather.

“To digress for a moment,” he says, his breath suddenly shallow. “As I am fully cognizant of the fact that this will be for posterity … I personally don’t like the term ‘survivor.’ It is my judgment that every morning each and every one of us waking up is a survivor. Conversely speaking, thousands of Vietnam veterans, hundreds of hostages who survived don’t identify themselves as former hostages as POWs. So, the whole notion of ‘survivor’ rubs me the wrong way, the whole notion of second generation and third generation …”

Here the interviewer interrupts: “Well, will you find a label for these people?”

“There’s no label,” my grandfather replies. “Former prisoners of Nazi concentration camps? I don’t mind following my name a B.A., M.A., or PhD … but I don’t want to brand myself as survivor … as being some accomplishment.”

These last words he speaks directly into the camera, as if to tell me that our equation will never be balanced, because the emotional calculus is false. The tape ends with photos. There is a sister I didn’t know existed, an afternoon by the docks, his father, his mother, a brother with a beard, then a photo of his grandchildren. This is the world. This is what mattered to him. The rest was just history.

AN UNEXPECTED FAMILY REUNION, SEVEN DECADES AFTER THE HOLOCAUST

I hardly thought it was a life-changing question.

We were driving home from a family gathering one evening this past May with my husband’s 95-year-old grandmother, Frieda, a Holocaust survivor from a small town outside Warsaw. I told her I’d been spending a lot of time on genealogy websites, immersed in tracing the trajectories of my immigrant relatives, most of whom—lured by the promise of America—had left Eastern Europe long before World War II. I had always thought Frieda’s family’s story was not as flush with immigrant tales; most of her relatives had stayed in Poland, which is precisely why Frieda had so few relatives. She and her late husband Chaim had survived the war by fleeing to Russia in November of 1939. They spent the next six years doing forced labor under increasingly dismal and treacherous conditions. They were the only members of their immediate families to have lived.

And so I asked Frieda what she had heard about America as a child. Did people talk about wanting to go there?

“I didn’t know very much. We didn’t talk about it,” she said. She shrugged dismissively.

And then, almost as an afterthought, she added: “My mother’s two older sisters went there. She was supposed to go, too, but the First World War broke out.”

My pulse quickened. In the 14 years I had known her, I had heard numerous stories about Frieda’s past recounted in vivid detail. But I couldn’t recall her ever once mentioning two aunts in America. And Frieda wasn’t someone who could afford to have two aunts unaccounted for.

“Mumma!” I said excitedly. “They must have had children and grandchildren here. We can find them! We have to!”

Frieda seemed skeptical. Her mother, Chaya Rojza, had somehow lost touch with her sisters before Frieda was even born; Frieda remembers her crying over the one photograph they’d sent back from America, a formal studio shot in which they wore long black skirts. Find them? It seemed preposterous. She didn’t even know their last names. All Frieda knew was that her aunts once lived in Chicago and that one had a husband named Avram. One aunt, she said, had died of cholera. When Frieda arrived in Baltimore in 1958, she’d tried to track them down using the meager methods at her disposal, to no avail.

It became immediately clear to me that we needed find out absolutely everything we could about what had become of Frieda’s aunts. And we needed to find out as fast as humanly possible.

It took two weeks of intense sleuthing—two frantic, fevered weeks during which I all but ignored everything and everyone else—to get the whole story. I pieced most of it together online, poring over ships’ manifests, census records, old city directories, and Social Security documents. The incredibly generous people of the listserv run by the website Jewishgen.org helped me use what I had found to get a solid bead on the first aunt. And, in a bit of amazing serendipity, I connected with a professional genealogist who had been hired a few years ago to trace a branch of Frieda’s American family; she found an old newspaper clipping that connected all the dots and led me to the second aunt.

Neither woman, it turned out, had ever lived in Chicago or died of cholera, though one did have a husband named Avram. The actual story was both entirely mundane and, for Frieda, far richer. Her Aunts Beile and Henia Ruchel had renamed themselves “Bessie” and “Rachel” in America. They’d lived long, full lives in New England, with six children between them and scores of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

And one Monday evening in June, more than 70 years after the Holocaust claimed both of her parents, her grandfather, all six of her siblings, her in-laws, and an almost inconceivable number of all the aunts, uncles, and cousins she had ever known, we learned the astonishing news: Frieda had three first cousins alive and well, the octogenarian American daughters of her mother’s older sister Bessie.

I set about connecting Frieda with these women, a process both wondrous and strange; unlike some long-lost relatives, they didn’t actually know a single person in common. Bessie and Rachel had shared next to nothing about their lives in Poland—names, details, family stories—that could elicit a satisfying, Lifetime-movie moment of recognition. But the scant details we had all fit. And when a cousin emailed a photograph showing an eerie resemblance between Frieda and her Aunt Bessie, we took solace in what we thought was our only bulls-eye.

Until the night of Frieda’s first call to her 89-year-old cousin, Irene. I sat in Frieda’s apartment with her son Allan, and her daughter Rita—my mother-in-law—all of us craning our necks to listen as the two women talked on speakerphone. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Frieda asked Irene the question weighing most heavily on her: “Did your mother ever talk about her sister, Chaya Rojza?”

My heart sank. The previous two conversations had made clear that this wouldn’t bear fruit. I braced myself for Frieda’s inevitable disappointment that her mother Chaya Rojza Szarfsztejn, murdered so unceremoniously at the Majdanek death camp, would once again be overlooked, lost to history.

We were completely unprepared for what happened next.

“Chaya Rojza? Well, my name is Chaya Rojza,” Irene announced, to the surprise of even her own granddaughter, who was also listening on speakerphone from Irene’s apartment in Massachusetts. “That’s what I was called until I was 10. Then I said, ‘No more of that. My name is Irene Rose.’ ”

Chaya Rojza. Frieda’s eyes fluttered closed. She reached out for me to hold her hands. And we sat silently like that for a moment or two, the past and the present suddenly seamlessly connected.

I thought of a favorite Sharon Olds poem. Upon hearing the news of the death of her first love, Olds writes that she wanted to “close myself like a door/ as you had been shut, closed off, but I could not/ do it, the pain kept coursing through me like/ life, like the gift of life.”

It was the gift of life that coursed through us that day in a senior-living facility in Baltimore, more than a hundred years after two Polish sisters left their entire family behind to start anew in America. It can be almost unbearably brutal, that gift of life. But it is an awe-inspiring gift indeed.

***

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How Did Itzik Wittenberg, Hero of the Vilna Ghetto, Die?

On July 8, 1943, Bruno Kittel, an Oberscharfuhrer in the German Security Police, drove into the Vilna ghetto and summoned Jacob Gens, the chief of the Jewish Police and the de facto head of the ghetto. Kittel—who two months hence would supervise the liquidation of the ghetto—demanded the immediate surrender of Itzik Wittenberg, the Communist commander of the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (FPO), the United Partisans Organization, the ghetto’s underground resistance movement. What exactly Kittel knew about Wittenberg was not made clear: Either affiliation, Communist or FPO, was a capital crime; either affiliation would, of course, mark Wittenberg as someone the Gestapo would be very interested in questioning.

But Wittenberg had been warned, likely via underground Communist channels, and had gone into hiding. Zenia Berkon, a member of the FPO, has said that Wittenberg hid in her small apartment, with her and her mother, and that he disguised himself with a mustache, dark glasses, and a rubber coat. Some accounts claim that Kittel was told that Wittenberg was dead.

Kittel, frustrated, arrested a ghetto policeman named Aurbach. Aurbach was also a member of the FPO—a fact Kittel was almost certainly not aware of—but was returned to the ghetto the next day, showing no signs of being tortured, and claiming he had not given up any incriminating information. Why Kittel arrested and subsequently released Aurbach has never been wholly explained: It may have been a ruse to lure Wittenberg, to demonstrate to him as well as the ghetto brass that Wittenberg was wanted only for questioning, and would be released unharmed.

In the wake of Kittel’s visit, the FPO leadership went on high alert. The Nazis’ reaction to real or even suspected underground movements—especially since the Warsaw ghetto uprising earlier that year—was scorched earth: They would raze villages, murder entire populations. The FPO had thus far successfully maintained a low profile; they had eschewed open and armed resistance for covert operations of sabotage, smuggling, and communication; even inside the ghetto, relatively few Jews were aware of its existence. But if the Germans had somehow learned of the FPO and its activities, the destruction of the ghetto could very well be at hand; and if that was, in fact, the case, the FPO—which from its inception in January 1942 had committed to revolt when, and only when, the liquidation of the ghetto was imminent—would launch the uprising. They would not, in the language of their manifesto, be led “like sheep to the slaughter.”

But in the following week, there were no further demands or arrests, no signs of German mobilization, no further inquiries about Wittenberg, either from the Jewish authorities or the German; the matter seemed to be forgotten. There was also encouraging intel: It emerged that Wittenberg had been identified by a Lithuanian Communist named Kozlowski, who had been arrested and tortured by the Gestapo. This meant that Kittel had wanted Wittenberg because he was a Communist, not because he was the leader of the FPO—which, for now, remained underground. Life in the ghetto resumed.

***

ne week later, on July 15, 1943, ghetto chief Jacob Gens summoned the leaders of the FPO—Wittenberg, Abba Kovner, Abrasha Chwojnik, and Chenia Borowska—to a meeting at his office in the Judenrat building, Gens’s headquarters. Such a meeting was not particularly unusual or suspicious: Gens and the FPO maintained close, if covert and often tense, contact—if Gens did not support the FPO outright, he did so tacitly, turning a blind eye to their “illegal” activities—and Gens would often host unofficial nighttime meetings at his office or apartment.

Abba Kovner (center) with FPO members. (Wikipedia)
Kovner has said that he and the other FPO leaders were of the impression that the meeting had no particular agenda, that whatever Gens wanted to meet about had nothing to do with Wittenberg. Had they suspected otherwise, Kovner said, they would not have gone, or, at the very least, Wittenberg certainly would not have. But another member of the FPO, Abrasha Krizowski, friend of Wittenberg and a fellow Communist, has claimed that it was Wittenberg who had scheduled the meeting—Krizowski said that Wittenberg wanted to touch base with Gens, to clear the air. Given the fractured and overlapping allegiances and lines of communication—Wittenberg and Krizowski were affiliated with both the Jewish underground and the Communist underground, two organizations without established and trusted means of sharing information—it is possible that Kovner simply did not know that Wittenberg had initiated the meeting.

For unknown reasons, Gens postponed the meeting, then postponed it again. By the time the five gathered in Gens’s office, it was close to midnight.

The meeting seems to have begun congenially; the atmosphere, according to those present, was that of a friendly get-together. Kovner has said that Gens poured drinks, that there were toasts and l’chaims. But at some point, likely not more than 20 minutes after the FPO leaders had arrived, German (or, in some accounts, Lithuanian) soldiers entered the room. (According to some accounts the soldiers were escorted by Salek Dessler, Gens’ deputy, and easily the most reviled and least trusted man in the Vilna ghetto.) Kovner testified in the Eichmann trial about Wittenberg’s arrest:

A side door in the office of Gens opened and SS men appeared in the doorway with submachine guns pointing at us. They ordered us to stand up and asked: “Who here is Wittenberg?” Nobody answered. Then Gens pointed to Wittenberg and said: “That is Wittenberg.” They bound him in chains and removed him with their submachine guns.

The other three FPO leaders remained in the room with Gens, who had, it was now clear, orchestrated Wittenberg’s arrest. Kovner reported the following exchange: “We said to Gens, ‘You disgraceful traitor—we shall meet again.’ Gens replied, ‘I am not responsible. One of your men was caught by the Gestapo, passed on the name of Wittenberg, and I was obliged to deliver him; otherwise, others would have paid for him with their lives.’ ” According to Krizowski—who was not inside the room—Chiena Borowska spat in Gens’ face. (However, in Borowska’s own, fairly detailed account, she makes no record of this.)

The German/Lithuanian soldiers escorted Wittenberg from Gens’ office to the Judenrat courtyard, then started toward the ghetto gate, which was a couple hundred meters away. But they were spotted almost immediately by the FPO, who had set up vantage points near the Judenrat building. (Accounts disagree on whether this was standard FPO protocol—i.e., if every meeting with Gens mandated “backup,” or if such measures were taken only because of lingering tension between Gens and the FPO. And some FPO members have claimed that the organization’s partial mobilization was in response to reports that Salek Dessler had been spotted leaving the ghetto and returning with German/Lithuanian soldiers.)

The FPO set upon the soldiers, and freed Wittenberg. Joseph Harmatz has said that he and two other partisans “fell on the police and cut off his handcuffs,” and that the rescue “was very quick.” According to Harmatz, there was very little commotion. Rachel Korzak, another member of the FPO, offers in her memoir a much more dramatic version:

In the courtyard the tumult increased. The police were running with lanterns in their hands. At this moment I didn’t care. I ran to the gate, pushed the gatekeeper, and broke into the street. Behind me were the sounds of footsteps and shouting. I ran to Rudnicku 7 and shouted loudly: “Comrades! They captured the commander! Everyone to the gate! Free him!” In the courtyard windows opened. People who had been woken up stuck their heads out [of the window] and asked what’s going on. But there was no one to answer them. All ran and charged to the other side of the street, crying: We will not give up our commander!

Itzik heard the cry. He understood to move his legs quickly. He spurted from his captors and ran towards the voices. The Gestapo chased after him. But immediately [FPO members] stopped them, fell on them, hit them. We could hardly discern in the dark the figures of our fighters who struggled with the guard. And afterwards nothing was seen except tremendous rushing; at the head ran Itzik, free.

Others accounts are more or less dramatic, more or less exciting. Regardless, in the breaking hours of July 16, 1943, Itzik Wittenberg, commander of the FPO, member of the Communist underground, became a fugitive from the Gestapo, and, by proxy, from Gens and the Jewish ghetto government.

***

ess than an hour after Wittenberg had been freed, Gens called a ghetto-wide meeting in the Judenrat courtyard, the ghetto’s de facto public square. Such a meeting was unprecedented, and ghetto residents began to panic. Rumors of an aktion (purge), even of liquidation, began to spread. It was by now around 1 o’clock in the morning.

Gens addressed the assembled from the balcony of the Judenrat building. He announced that the Gestapo had identified Itzik Wittenberg as an underground Communist and had demanded his immediate surrender. If—so Gens relayed the Gestapo’s warning—Wittenberg was not delivered, alive, within the hour, the ghetto would be destroyed. Mark Dworzeski, a prominent survivor-historian, paraphrased Gens’ speech:

In the city a Polish communist, Kozlowski, was captured. While being interrogated he revealed that he maintained contact with a certain Wittenberg, who runs a secret printing press in the ghetto that prints leaflets for the Communist party in the city. The Gestapo demands Wittenberg. They have given an ultimatum to the ghetto police to deliver Wittenberg within one hour and if not—the German tanks will enter the ghetto; they will raze the ghetto streets with bombs. … What should now be done? Should the entire ghetto population be sacrificed for the sake of one, or should the one be given over in order to save all?

Was Gens telling the truth? Did the Gestapo, in fact, issue such a threat? Did Gens exaggerate or invent? Was the ghetto actually in danger of being destroyed? It is impossible to know. There are no records of German orders to this effect. At no point over the course of the night was there any indication that the Germans were mobilizing forces; at no point over the course of the night did any Germans even re-enter the ghetto.

But this question—whether Gens was accurately relaying German demands or partially or wholly inventing them—is moot, because Gens delivered his speech not in order to inform the ghetto population but in order to influence and manipulate them. Regardless of whether the ghetto’s imminent destruction was actually in the balance, what Gens did was primarily tactical: He persuaded the ghetto inhabitants that their lives depended on the capitulation of one man.

The gathering, unsurprisingly, turned violent. To some extent this was encouraged by Gens, who had summoned the shtarkers—quasi-criminal characters the Judenrat relied on in emergency situations; in other words, muscle for hire. The mob—riled up by Gens, fueled by the shtarkers, and condoned or even joined by the Jewish police—armed themselves with stones and clubs. There are reports that the Jewish police distributed revolvers.

The mob, carrying the slogan “one or 20,000,” began to tear the ghetto apart searching for Wittenberg. Dworzeski writes that he helped hide Wittenberg’s wife and child, who were afraid they’d be arrested, in a melina (hidden compartment). They could hear the Jewish police outside:

Jews inside the house, inside the melinas, listen! Help catch Wittenberg. Save the ghetto! Wittenberg is disguised in women’s clothing. In a black dress, and a light kerchief. Look in the house, in the melinas: Perhaps he is among you? Jews, save yourselves!

But Wittenberg had barricaded himself inside an FPO safe-house (the precise location of which is disputed), and the mob, frustrated and panicked, swarmed outside the FPO’s headquarters, a narrow, wooden house. They demanded Wittenberg’s immediate surrender and threatened to rush the building. Armed FPO members were ordered to prevent anyone from entering.

The FPO leadership attempted, unsuccessfully, to placate the crowd. Kovner had printed an appeal that called on the Jews in the ghetto to rise up in the face of imminent destruction—“as Wittenberg’s arrest was nothing but a pretext for the subsequent liquidation of the ghetto.” (The appeal was not distributed, and, after the war, Kovner admitted that what he had written was baseless, that he had had no reason to suspect an impending aktion.) The overwhelming majority of the ghetto population, the FPO realized, was against them.

The crowd seethed: The reported deadline—the deadline many in the ghetto believed their lives depended on—had passed, and Wittenberg had not yet been found, had not yet been persuaded or forced to surrender.

The standoff turned violent. A man named Shapira, widely considered by surviving FPO members to have been a provocateur, fired shots; some accounts claim the FPO returned fire. One member of the FPO was struck in the head with an ax. (During an interview on the documentary Partisans of Vilna, he bows his head to display his scar, a jagged slant that traverses crown to brow.)

At least eight FPO members were arrested and jailed. A policeman was shot and wounded. Vitka Kempner recounts her comrades’ mothers shouting at their children: “How can you sacrifice us for this nonsense? There is a chance that we will stay alive.” Abba Kovner’s poem Today is the Sixteenth of July contains the verse: “On the dawnless night / of the sixteenth of July / a wretched horde is ready / to eat you alive.” The ghetto was on the brink of a civil war. Gens sent to the FPO a series of delegations—uniformed policemen at first, then more-trusted ghetto leaders—in order to negotiate Wittenberg’s surrender.

According to Abba Kovner, who claimed to have led the negotiations on behalf of the FPO, Gens’ delegates successfully persuaded the FPO of two critical facts. First, that the Germans knew only about Wittenberg—i.e., they had identified Wittenberg as a Communist, and only as a Communist, not as a leader of the FPO—and remained unaware of the FPO’s existence. And second, that there was no impending aktion—that is, if Wittenberg were to surrender, the ghetto, for the foreseeable future, would not be in danger. Kovner further said that Gens relayed a promise that everything possible would be done to secure Wittenberg’s release, provided he could withstand the torture. According to other accounts, Gens (or, according to some, Dessler) explicitly guaranteed Wittenberg’s release.

Negotiations between Gens and the FPO continued; the Gestapo’s deadline was repeatedly extended, from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. (Again, the Gestapo’s role in all this is unverified—their commands were conveyed, perhaps faithfully, perhaps not, by Gens/Dessler. One survivor relates that Dessler was constantly and with increasing urgency suggesting to the FPO that the Germans were mobilizing tanks, which was almost certainly not true.)

The decision the FPO now faced—surrender their leader or put the entire ghetto at potential risk—in many respects mirrored Gens’ central moral quandary as ghetto chief—namely, should a few be sacrificed in order to save many? Gens was always explicit that his goal, as leader of the ghetto, was survival, was staving off extinction as long as possible, even if that meant the concession of lives. Judgment of Gens has hinged on this question: Is it morally acceptable, or perhaps even morally incumbent, to let a few die in order to save many?

This sort of moral equation—the decision the FPO was forced into was the same decision Gens and the Judenrat had been continually forced into since the ghetto’s inception—is a theme invoked often in the literature of the Vilna ghetto. In Leslie Epstein’s King of the Jews, a semi-satirical novel about an imaginary ghetto, the Edmund Trilling Brigade (a stand-in for the FPO) must decide whether to sacrifice Lipsky (a stand-in for Wittenberg). They vote to surrender him, and Lipsky bursts into tears:

I’m not crying for myself. I don’t care about having to die. Poof! One more Jew! I’m crying for Trilling and Szypper and Professor Zygmunt because they gave up their lives. For what? So that we could behave exactly like their great foe, the Judenrat! Hand one over, we’ll save many! … There is something in history that makes all men act the same!

The FPO leaders decided that Wittenberg must surrender himself to the Germans. How exactly this decision was reached, who pushed it through, and how reluctantly the decision was accepted by FPO brass, is disputed. Some accounts claim that the decision was first reached by representatives of the Communist underground, and, subsequently, the FPO fell in line. Others claim the decision was reached independently by both the Communist underground and the FPO. It is also unclear whether Wittenberg was present when the decision was made, or if he was informed afterward. Regardless, it was ultimately the opinion of the FPO and the Communist underground, not to mention Gens, the Judenrat, and the majority of the ghetto population, that Wittenberg should surrender himself.

But Wittenberg refused. He left the meeting place and, disguised as a woman, wearing a dress and a kerchief and holding a basket, went into hiding. He was briefly caught by ghetto residents but escaped—some accounts claim he fired warning shots from his revolver—and went to an FPO stronghold, where he met with FPO leaders to discuss his fate.

Wittenberg was initially adamant: He argued that there was no known case of a resistance movement surrendering their commander, that surrendering would be detrimental to the FPO’s cause. Kovner recounts that Wittenberg was struck by a “fear that [the FPO] should not be stamped into history as frivolous.” Wittenberg proposed that he commit suicide: This was rejected, as the Gestapo had demanded (or Gens claimed that the Gestapo had demanded) Wittenberg alive. Escaping to the forest was rejected for similar reasons. One of the FPO leaders suggested that the entire head staff commit suicide, an idea which, according to some accounts, Wittenberg himself rejected, as it would damage the organization.

Wittenberg then proposed that the FPO begin the revolt, that they launch the uprising they’ve been readying and training for since the early months of the ghetto. But the FPO brass demurred: They had resolved to fight only when liquidation was imminent, and, more important, they did not have the ghetto’s support—in order to fight the Germans they’d first have to fight Jews.

Still, Wittenberg was their commander; Kovner relates that the decision whether to launch the uprising or not was, ultimately, Wittenberg’s. Kovner has claimed that he told Wittenberg, “Give the order, everyone is ready, everyone is at his post. Give the order and we’ll fight.” Wittenberg, Kovner said, did not give the order.

Eventually, Wittenberg capitulated: He would surrender to the Gestapo. (Zenia Berkan, an FPO member, claimed that Wittenberg was forcibly turned in, but later admitted to not have been present at the meetings.) Many accounts relate that Wittenberg stood and handed Kovner his revolver before exiting.

On the morning of July 16, 1943, Itzik Wittenberg, whether on his own accord, or compelled, or something in between, met with Gens near the Judenrat building, where a car was waiting. He was taken to the Gestapo headquarters, a couple kilometers outside the ghetto, and the next day he was dead. Nissan Reznik, an FPO member, ends his account thus: “[Itzik said] ‘If that’s what you want, I’ll go.’ And out he went.”

***

he story of Itzik Wittenberg—the betrayed and perhaps twice-betrayed leader of the ghetto underground—has been preserved and even enshrined; it has been told and retold, in myriad forms and with various emphases. At least a dozen different plays, most prominently Joshua Sobol’s Adam, and scores of songs and poems have been written about Wittenberg. Virtually every relevant book—about the ghetto, about the partisans, about Jewish resistance, as well as many of the more-general Holocaust histories—dedicates at least a few lines to Wittenberg and the events of the night of July 16, 1943. Most memoirs written by survivors of the Vilna ghetto, even those who did not interact with Wittenberg, who had nothing to do with the FPO or Gens, speak more about Wittenberg than any other character in the ghetto (with the exception of Gens). Wittenberg has been valorized, pitied, memorialized, mythologized; he’s been a hero, a victim, a symbol; his story has been used to demonstrate the nefariousness of Gens, the impossibility of the FPO’s plight, the shortsightedness/delusion/misplaced hope of the ghetto population. It isn’t difficult to understand the appeal of Wittenberg’s story, for the poet as well as the historian. It is exciting, complex, involved: It’s got elements of resistance, authority, betrayal, partisans, politics, machinations, negotiations, mobs, manipulations and implied and actual violence.

But the narrative has a gaping hole: We don’t know perhaps the most significant part of the story—how it ends. We don’t know with certainty how—at whose hands, by what means—Wittenberg died. Based on the couple dozen or so testimonies, memoirs, diaries, histories, and interviews—the various records of those who claim to know how Wittenberg died—there are three possible scenarios.

The first scenario—which we might consider a sort of default—is that Wittenberg died in the manner one would expect a Jewish Communist prisoner in Gestapo custody to die, i.e., he was interrogated, tortured, mutilated, and, eventually, killed. In the KGB archives in Lithuania there are records of a postwar interrogation of a man named Ginzburg, a stoker in the Gestapo building, who claims that he informed the FPO that Wittenberg was murdered and cut into pieces with a saw; the same document details a similar report of M. Kamermacher, another Jewish worker employed at the Gestapo facilities. Abraham Sutzkever wrote in his memoir that “Wittenberg’s body lay in the corridor of the Gestapo building. His hair was burned, his eyes pierced and his arms, bound behind, broken.” In the restored version of The Black Book, Sutzkever even names the Gestapo agent who tortured Wittenberg: Max Gross.

The second scenario is that Wittenberg was murdered by Gens and/or Dessler, who were worried that Wittenberg might reveal damaging information to the Germans. The method of murder? In this scenario, Gens and/or Dessler slip delayed-reaction cyanide into Wittenberg’s drink before delivering him to the Gestapo; Wittenberg thus died while in custody but before he could be tortured. From the memoir of Rokhl Korczak, an FPO member:

In the afternoon some strange news reached us: Wittenberg’s soul had departed before the interrogation. He died in the morning. His corpse that was taken out from the jail was blue. The matter of his death was a serious mystery. We did not manage to smuggle the cyanide to him! After many days, our suspicion was confirmed—that Wittenberg, before he left the ghetto, was poisoned by Gens and Dessler, who were worried that he might endanger their standing.

The third and most widely espoused scenario is that Wittenberg killed himself by willingly ingesting cyanide that Gens and/or Dessler had provided for him. This scenario has, in fact, two versions: (1) Wittenberg took a delayed-reaction cyanide pill while still in the ghetto and died some hours later, after he’d been apprehended; and (2), Wittenberg hid on his body a “regular” (not delayed-reaction) cyanide pill—one account has him hiding the pill in his ear—which he ingested in the Gestapo building and which killed him more or less instantly. In either case, Wittenberg’s death occurs outside the ghetto and before he could be tortured; the main difference between these versions is whether the cyanide pill was delayed-reaction or not. Most accounts seem to agree that it was. Perhaps noteworthy is the testimony of Brayna As, a survivor who claims that though Wittenberg was in possession of poison, he chose, for unspecified reasons, not to take it. According to As, Wittenberg’s body was discovered in the Gestapo building showing “signs of terrible torture.”

This third scenario is the one put forth unhesitatingly by Yitzchak Arad in Ghetto in Flames, the most respected and frequently cited history of the Vilna ghetto. “[Wittenberg] had poisoned himself with cyanide of potassium,” writes Arad, “which he had brought from the ghetto. It had been given to him by Gens at their last meeting, before he was surrendered.” Arad continues:

Wittenberg decided to take his life when he realized that he would not leave German hands alive, and out of fear that he would not be able to endure the interrogations and torture, would break and give the names of his underground comrades. He gave no information to the Security Police before he committed suicide, and none of his friends in the ghetto underground or outside was arrested in the wake of his detention.

(The sources, though at odds with one other, are for the most part remarkably assured; in fact, I’ve seen only one account, that of Nusia Dlugi, a survivor and FPO member, that allows for any uncertainty: “The next day in the morning the news came that Wittenberg is dead. Exactly what happened at the Gestapo isn’t known—whether he was badly tortured, whether he died immediately. Others say that Dessler or Gens poisoned him while he was still in the ghetto or that he had the poison with him. But as far as I know he did not have any poison on him.”)

It’s sometimes the case that, with the passing of however many years, a historical disagreement may be decided; evidence may emerge that will show this or that version of to be correct (or, more likely, incorrect), and we are able to arbitrate, to discard accounts, to undo the transmutation of hearsay into history. The disagreement over Wittenberg’s death is not a case like that: None of these three versions has been discredited or validated.

There is no conclusive evidence in any direction; what evidence there is, is almost always speculative.

There is no known German record of Wittenberg’s death. There are no reliable eyewitnesses who saw Wittenberg’s corpse, tortured or not, in spite of the KGB records, which are notoriously unreliable. We have no testimony—not second-hand, not third-hand—that Gens and/or Dessler admitted to poisoning Wittenberg or admitted to providing Wittenberg with the poison. (Neither Gens nor Dessler survived the war.) And no FPO member—many of whom, like Abba Kovner, had relatively intimate knowledge of the events in question—has ever claimed to have provided Wittenberg with poison. (Many FPO members claim, in memoirs and interviews, that they had wanted to get Wittenberg the poison, and some say that they had tried to. These attempts have never been clarified.)

In a 1983 letter to Professor David Roskies, Abba Kovner wrote that “Arad’s version is close to the truth … according to all the evidence we were able to collect at that time, the Gestapo agents never got to torture Wittenberg.”

But the evidence Kovner is referring to has never been elaborated on. And Kovner, who testified or was interviewed about the Wittenberg affair at least half a dozen times, was far from consistent. In one interview he stated that Wittenberg was tortured, that Wittenberg’s mutilated corpse—with broken arms and gouged-out eyes—was discovered the morning after his arrest.

Many Holocaust history books like Lucy Dawidowicz’s War Against the Jews and Isaiah Trunk’s Judenrat sidestep neatly the entire issue by being vague and nonspecific: They record that Wittenberg was brought to the Gestapo building “where he perished,” or was “found dead,” or expired in a similarly nonparticular fashion.

Perhaps this seems like a largely academic distinction—Wittenberg died by cyanide, or he was tortured; he was killed by the Gestapo, or he was killed before the Gestapo could kill him; what difference does it make? Either way, a tragic death.

What does Wittenberg’s death—and, in turn, Wittenberg himself—stand for?
But the details of Wittenberg’s death (the final image of his body, how he succumbed, who was responsible) inform the narrative of his death (hero/victim/traitor/betrayed), which, in turn, informs the meaning of his death. The at-odds “versions” of Wittenberg’s final hours are not alternative histories of Wittenberg’s death as much as competing narratives and competing moralities. Death by cyanide is relatively quick and painless; the Wittenberg who died thus avoided torture, mutilation, humiliation, degradation; he frustrated the Gestapo’s ambitions until the very end; he died above suspicion of divulging information. The tortured Wittenberg is a mutilated carcass: a symbol of the Gestapo’s reach and power. The two Wittenbergs stand as opposing answers to the question: What does Wittenberg’s death—and, in turn, Wittenberg himself—stand for?

***

istory in the Soviet Union had little to do with history; accounts of the past either conformed to Soviet ideas and ideals or were effaced. Wittenberg, a fallen Communist partisan, was posthumously recognized as a Soviet hero, an icon—after the war, a street in Vilnius’ Old Town was named for him. Via expurgation, revision, suppression, censorship, and promotion of quasi-propagandistic literature, Itzik Wittenberg was redacted into an outstanding example of Soviet courage.

In 1944, a few months after Vilnius was liberated, newly installed Soviet authorities launched an investigation into the betrayal of Wittenberg. As there were survivors, in particular partisans, who were in danger of being implicated, the poet Abraham Sutzkever hid 17 pages from the diary of the ghetto librarian Herman Kruk (who did not survive the war), because they contained, according to Sutzkever, a “sensitive issue.”

The diary of Kruk—one of the only nonpartisans who maintained close relationships with both Gens and FPO leaders—is one of the few significant Vilna ghetto sources written during, not after, the war, and is by far the best entrée we have into the characters and politics of the ghetto. Those 17 pages, which date from July 15, 1943, to Sept. 27, 1943, almost certainly contain clarifying details of Wittenberg’s death. But those pages have never been found; their contents remain unknown. This amounts to a kind of indirect Soviet censorship.

In the late 1960s, Masha Rolnik, who as an adolescent had survived the Vilna ghetto, published her diary, I Must Tell, in the Soviet Union. The book garnered considerable attention: I Must Tell was one of the few available Holocaust documents available in the U.S.S.R.; Rolnik became known as the Anne Frank of Lithuania.

In I Must Tell, Rolnik writes, matter-of-factly, that Wittenberg was poisoned with cyanide, and Arad, the prominent Vilna ghetto historian, and others have cited her book as a primary source. But there are issues regarding the authoritativeness of I Must Tell. In July 1943 Masha Rolnik was 14 years old and in no position to know what was clearly privileged information—at best, her diary is a reflection of whatever the prevalent rumor in the ghetto may have been. Further, Rolnik’s diary is not really a diary: Rolnik’s original diary, what she recorded while in the ghetto, was left behind and never recovered. What was ultimately published is an attempted reproduction, a sort of memoir in diary form, that she wrote after the war.

Even putting those issues aside, some historians claim that parts of Rolnik’s manuscript were censored and/or forged by Soviet authorities, who sought to portray Wittenberg as a Communist hero who died a noble and befitting death. Lucy Dawidowicz, the pre-eminent Holocaust historian, explicitly rejects Rolnik’s diary as a historically accurate document: that Wittenberg died by cyanide, Dawidowicz says, is 100 percent invention, a “flagrant falsification” of the actual events.

Dawidowicz’s version of what happened that night is far more banal. Wittenberg, disguised as a woman, was apprehended by the Jewish police. He surrendered without incident and was taken immediately to the Judenrat offices, where a Gestapo car was waiting. Dawidowicz continues:

Of course the Gestapo murdered [Wittenberg], probably the same day. The Rolnik diary offers altogether a fanciful version of those events, with whose dramatic course the whole ghetto had become familiar and whose true history Rolnik had been bound to know.

Dawidowicz, despite her assured tone, is overstating her case—as of 2014, Rolnik was alive and living in St. Petersburg, and over the last 40 years has overseen numerous printings and translations of her diary, which means any instances of flagrant censorship or wholesale inserts could have been corrected. More significantly, the rumor—irrespective of its factuality—that Wittenberg swallowed cyanide was not invented by Soviet authorities: even on July 16, 1943, ghetto inhabitants were citing cyanide as the cause. Zelig Kalmanovich, a well-respected philologist and public figure (who, notably, consistently sided with Gens and against the FPO), wrote in his diary, “Not being able to stand the tortures of that day, [Wittenberg] took poison and bequeathed life to all the living.”

Nevertheless, Dawidowicz’s larger point stands: Wittenberg’s death by cyanide was certainly a version of history the Soviets promoted and approved of. Soviet authorities may or may not have gone so far as to alter Rolnik’s diary—such a move would certainly not be unprecedented—but regardless, it’s clear they were sensitive to the historical and political implications of the story of Itzik Wittenberg, and in indirect and direct ways altered, bowdlerized, and exaggerated his legacy. What the Soviets sought and to some unknowable extent succeeded at was to reshape the complex, multivalent narrative of Wittenberg’s death into a straightforward and morally unambiguous story of Communist resistance/triumph. Wittenberg was thus recast as a fallen Communist hero: not a Jew, not a Jewish partisan, not a victim of the Holocaust, but as a member of the Communist underground who sacrificed his life fighting the German Fascists.

The most striking example of this Soviet slant can be found in a story that ran in 1968 in two issues of Sovietish Heimland, the only government-sanctioned Yiddish magazine in the Soviet Union. (Heimland, incidentally, rejected Rolnik’s manuscript in the early ’60s: The editors—or whoever was actually in charge—felt there was a surfeit of war-related material.) The story, which runs about 100 pages and includes illustrations, is nominally about the Vilna ghetto but is in every sense that matters about Wittenberg: The ghetto and its inhabitants are little more than a dramatic backdrop for the tale of the heroic Communist leader of the underground.

Wittenberg depicted in Sovietish Heimland, 1969. (Courtesy H. Kravtzov)
The Wittenberg of Sovietish Heimland—handsome, terse, abandoned, solitary, and of extraordinary moral temperament—is reminiscent of nothing so much as a comic-book hero. (“You know, you really could have been a movie star,” Wittenberg is told in Sobol’s Adam.) Sovietized Wittenberg is pure hero; there is no moral adulterant. Even the central moral dilemma of the Wittenberg affair—one versus 20,000—is inverted: Whereas in reality Wittenberg was urged, and perhaps even forced, by the decision-makers (FPO, Gens) to surrender himself, in Sovietish Heimland Wittenberg chastises his comrade for offering to smuggle him out, explaining that such a move would endanger 20,000 people:

Sonia Madeysker came and told him that she can smuggle him out to the forest. [Wittenberg said] “What would that do for me? There are two numbers: 20,000 and one. You want to save one. And the 20,000? It’s possible the Germans are bluffing, but you can’t be certain. Do you want the annihilation of 20,000 Jews?”

Nowhere is the tendency, even insistence, of portraying Wittenberg as gallant and defiant more apparent than in the rhetoric used to describe Wittenberg’s exit from the ghetto. Sovietish Heimland’s account ends thus:

Itzik Wittenberg took one last look at the ghetto gate and surrendered to the Gestapo. In the morning he had had the premonition that he must leave. … He had wanted to save 20,000 with action, with weapons, with victory. Now the time had come to save them with his life.

Sovietish Heimland is but an extreme example: In other, non-Soviet accounts, the image of the heroic, solitary, dramatic, almost cinematic march to the ghetto gate appears so often that it’s very nearly a trope.

Though in reality the details are disputed—it’s unclear if Wittenberg walked out on his own or was escorted, if there was a crowd or only a few furtive observers—Wittenberg’s exit is described in impassioned rhetoric in nearly every single telling. “As [Wittenberg] walked in the direction of the gate,” Abraham Sutzkever wrote, “so he walked into history.” The historian Dina Porat has culled some of the recorded sentiments of those in the ghetto at the time: “he died as a martyr for the ghetto,” “sacrifice for the population,” “will be called holy,” “walked like a king,” “like our ancestors at their deaths.” The poet-partisan Shmerke Kazerginski wrote a song about Wittenberg:

Itzik Wittenberg’s exit in Sovietish Heimland. (Courtesy H. Kravtzov)
Then Itzik said—
And it penetrated like a
bolt of lightning—
“I don’t want you on my account
To have to surrender your lives
to the enemy…”
Proudly to his death goes the
Commander.

Here is Abba Kovner’s testimony from the Eichmann trial:

[Wittenberg] gave me the revolver, appointed me commander, and went out into the street. We all stood there, with our bandoliers, our wretched guns, the fighters on one side, the crowd surrounding us. He walked along the empty street to the ghetto gate in order to hand himself over to the Gestapo.

***

he other image of Wittenberg, the Wittenberg-as-victim, invokes not admiration but pity. The sources wherein Wittenberg does not die via cyanide, the accounts in which no hidden or slipped poison pill spares Wittenberg the Gestapo’s tortures, are brutally explicit: mutilation, dislocated arms, gouged-out eyes, hacked and scattered carcass. Wittenberg-as-victim is crushed and disposed of. He is pathetic: a leader betrayed, delivered—against his wishes, perhaps—to his gruesome death by Jews, by his comrades-in-arms.

In the Eichmann trial, in 1961, Kovner testified: “We tried to smuggle cyanide to [Wittenberg]. We did not succeed. Something strange happened. He was tortured and died. Historians will judge us as having acted either shamefully or with justification.”

A depiction of a Itzik Wittenberg, arms bound and broken, and eyes gouged out, by Israeli artist Naftali Bezem. (Courtesy Ghetto Fighter’s House Archive)
It’s true that most accounts agree that Wittenberg died by cyanide, not torture; and widespread belief constitutes its own kind of reality, one that historians must not dismiss. Yet it is important to distinguish group beliefs from historical fact. The death-by-cyanide scenario is unproven, and, at this point, unprovable. The accounts and testimonies cite other accounts that in turn cite other accounts; underneath this narrative spiral seems to be a rumor, a belief, even a kind of a hope, in the ghetto and up until today, that Wittenberg avoided an ignoble death, that his body—and, subsequently, his memory—were left undamaged. We want, it seems, to remember our heroes a certain way. As Adam, the Wittenberg stand-in in Sobol’s play, says: “Everyone tells my story to suit themselves.”

A few years ago I delivered a speech about the Vilna ghetto to a large crowd at YIVO, in New York. The speech was an overview, a general introduction to the social, cultural, and political institutions of the ghetto; I briefly mentioned the FPO, Wittenberg, Gens. Afterward, a middle-aged woman, visibly upset, approached me. She waited until there were no more well-wishers, and then, taking me aside, accused me of smearing Jacob Gens, who was, she said, her grandfather. “Everyone repeats these lies,” she said. “All of you should remember: It’s only the partisans who have gotten to tell their side of the story. No one was left to tell the other side.” Then she walked away.

I don’t know if she knew something about the night of July 16, 1943, that I didn’t, or if she was reflexively defending her grandfather’s legacy. (Wittenberg-as-hero versus Wittenberg-as-victim is a referendum on Gens, too. Did Gens smuggle cyanide to Wittenberg—an act of mercy, perhaps of redemption?) Regardless, her larger point is worth considering: History is shaped by its tellers. And the story of Wittenberg, Gens, and the night of July 16, 1943, has largely been shaped by the surviving members of the FPO.

Usually, and ideally, history precedes sentiment; story precedes moral. How we feel about what happened depends, or would seemingly depend, on our knowledge of what happened. But with respect to legend—that is, to events/persons whose narratives stretch history’s bounds—the direction of influence can reverse itself. The story we tell might very well depend on sentiment; history can conform to what we think that history should be. Wittenberg was a hero and therefore died a hero’s death. Wittenberg was a victim and therefore died a martyr’s death.

The story we tell may or may not be what happened, but it is the story nonetheless. The scholar David Roskies, writing about the legacy of Wittenberg, put it best: “It is only the myth that mediates the polarities of real heroism and utter degradation.”

Abba Kovner, in his testimony at the Eichmann trial, said the following:

Wittenberg gave himself up to the Gestapo with his, and our, assent. It is likely that history will blame us for it. It is likely that no one will know exactly what our situation was, for a long time, and that our act stemmed from the great responsibility that we have towards the ghetto, the masses, with whom we could not—dared not—fight. Wittenberg’s image will be tied to the life of our people, and for us he will always serve as a noble symbol of heroism.

***

Read more longform journalism in Tablet magazine here.

The Holocaust Play That Helped the Roman Catholic Church Reject Anti-Semitism

The Deputy, a blistering attack on Pope Pius XII’s response to the Holocaust, was the first major German work to openly address the question of the country’s complicity in the Holocaust. In the play, the heroic character Father Riccardo declares, “A deputy of Christ who sees these things and nonetheless permits reasons of state to seal his lips … that pope is a criminal.” Authored by Rolf Hochhuth, an unknown 31-year-old playwright who had belonged to the Hitler Youth, the play was brought to the stage by its legendary and by then elderly director, Erwin Piscator, and Leo Kerz, a Jewish refugee and The Deputy’s costume and set designer. It premiered in 1963 at West Berlin’s Freie Voklsbühne Theater.

Curious about the play’s genesis and reception, I recently interviewed Louise Hirschfeld, Kerz’s wife. Her husband, a Jew in left-wing German theater, had fled Berlin in 1933, eventually settling in the United States. His family remained behind and perished at Sobibor. I wondered what it had been like for Kerz to be back in Germany only 18 years after the war’s end, staging a major and controversial Holocaust work.

The force behind the staging of The Deputy, Hirschfeld said, was Erwin Piscator. By the early 1960s, the famed director who had delighted and shocked Weimar Germans with his left-wing politics and technological innovations had, in Kerz’s words, come to be regarded as “The Grand Old Man who had outlived himself.” Piscator disagreed. Believing that it was the artist’s responsibility to confront the Holocaust, he decided to produce The Deputy. The moment was favorable: A year earlier, the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, reported around the world, had stirred interest in the Holocaust.

Assembling his team, Piscator wrote to Kerz, his former student, in New York. “I need you here to design a play by an author who has not written for the stage before. … You will see yourself that the subject matter has to be treated delicately.” Without hesitation, Kerz accepted.

In the winter of ’62 Hirschfeld and her husband arrived in West Berlin, a city encircled by parallel concrete and barbed-wire fences, the beginnings of the Berlin Wall. Avoiding the city’s center, they rented a refurbished chalet in the Gruenwald suburb. “There were bullet holes in every other building surrounding us,” Hirschfeld recalled. Queried as to how her husband dealt with these constant reminders of the war, she answered, “He just threw himself into his work.”

Kerz had years of experience to draw on having worked for CBS TV, Broadway, and the Metropolitan Opera. Still, The Deputy had its singular challenges. “Don’t forget the play was eight hours long,” Hirschfeld commented. “He had to read that. And as things were cut, it was reduced to five and then to three hours, he had to redo the sets.”

Using photographs, Kerz designed huge and haunting concentration-camp murals. He had eschewed abstract and modern designs, favored by Piscator, for realism. “He couldn’t do something that used contemporary art or covered something up,” remembered Hirschfeld. After all, he was the one member of the production team directly connected to the Holocaust. “When I saw them,” Hirschfeld recalled, “I knew that his emotions were on full-force.”

One morning, Kerz arrived at the theater and discovered that the stage painters had their own sense of reality. “I’ll never forget it,” Hirschfeld stated, “murals of Jewish prisoners, all with hooked noses, like the kind of terrible anti-Semitic drawings that existed during the Nazi period.” Kerz exploded; why hadn’t they followed his drawings? Confused and exasperated, they retorted “but they are Jews.” He fired back, “Well, I am Jewish and I don’t have that kind of nose.”

Consumed by the myriad production tasks, long intense work days, and occasional disagreements, The Deputy’s team failed to fully appreciate that outside the theater walls, controversy was mounting daily. “I don’t think they were really prepared,” Hirschfeld surmised. “However, when the Krupp family and the Vatican sent lawyers to try and stop it, they started to realize that this was really explosive material.”

“I don’t think it would create such a stir today,” notes Rabbi A. James Rudin, author and former director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee. “But at the time, and I was a congregational rabbi in Illinois, it was an enormous debate. Pius was the pope for 19 years, through WWII and then 13 years after the war. So for many Catholics, he was the only pope they ever knew. He was ascetic, had a prayerful mode, lean, and very formidable. So for anybody to criticize him, in any way, came as a shock. And then to criticize him for perceived inaction or worse during WWII, that came as an even greater shock.”

Just weeks before the premiere, Father Hans Muller spoke before 5,000 West Berlin Catholics, urging them to fight this defamation. But Catholics, a small percentage of Berlin’s population, were hardly the only outraged Germans. For while Pius may have failed to respond with adequate moral force to the Holocaust, it was not the pope but Nazi Germany that had initiated, planned, and executed these monstrous crimes. Germans who preferred that this past remained buried understood that The Deputy, in a loud and public fashion, would raise uncomfortable questions. The play broke “the loud silence” of the 1950s when Holocaust discussion was avoided, explained Dr. Erika Fischer-Lichte, professor of theater at the Freie Universitate Berlin. A student at the time, she attended three performances. “The Deputy,” she notes, “marks the beginning of a process that was long overdue.”

***

On Feb. 20, 1963, after close to 12 months of tension-filled work, Kerz and his wife arrived at the theater for the premiere. Standing outside were police in riot gear. If the cast and crew had been unsettled by the police and demonstrators, by the end of the evening they had their reward. “Piscator, Hochhuth, and Kerz, all stood on stage holding hands to thunderous ovations,” recalled Hirschfeld. There was good reason to celebrate that evening. But Kerz skipped the cast party, opting for a quiet night with his wife and Robert Lackenbach, an American photographer. “He wanted to be with Americans,” Hirschfeld stated.

During their stay in Germany, they had lived in Berlin, without ever being of the city. Once, while driving, Kerz looked out at the multitude of shiny Mercedes and Volkswagens, turned to his wife and scoffed, “Oh, sometimes I really feel like just ramming right into them.” Outside of work, Kerz had had little contact with “them”—Germans—for their social orbit had been a group of American journalists, what Hirschfeld called “their rock.”

Leo Kerz with his wife Louise Hirschfeld in an undated photo. (Photo courtesy Louise Hirschfeld)
Yet alienation and anger, while clearly present, were never strong enough to erase Kerz’s German identity. Hirschfeld is certain that her husband’s decision to join The Deputy’s crew was based in part on a desire to reconcile with his homeland. As a child and young man in Berlin he had, in her words, “lived in a large world.” A bundle of talent; Kerz had been like a firecracker that could explode in multiple directions. He played the violin at the age of 4, participated in gymnastics and boxing, thought of becoming a conductor, studied watercolor with the famed painter Paul Klee, and later design with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, one of the city’s most respected stage designers. “I think,” his wife noted, “it was difficult to separate from all that.”

Shortly after The Deputy’s premiere, Kerz and his wife returned to New York. Kerz had completed his work but the life of the play had just begun. It opened in cities across Western Europe. In Paris, Archbishop Cardinal Feltin denounced the play as “useless accusations and sterile polemics.” Unwittingly he helped to put it on the front page of the city’s daily papers and ticket sales exploded. On opening night, angry theatergoers hurled protest pamphlets from the balcony. In Basel, the theater received bomb threats, while in Vienna verbal altercations between the play’s supporters and detractors became so raucous that the police were called in to restore order.

The situation was the same in the United States. New York City Mayor Robert Wagner was flooded with letters urging him to revoke the Brooks Atkinson Theater’s license. Producer Herman Shumlin, citing the “deep antagonism” toward the play, offered his cast members an unconditional release from their contracts. They all stayed. Opening night, protesters paraded with signs, “Bigots Enjoy The Deputy” and “Shumlin is a Bigot.”

The protests were not the entire story. Dr. Albert Schweitzer, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, viewed The Deputy as “a solemn warning to our culture admonishing us to forgo our acceptance of inhumanity.” Walter Kerr, prominent New York drama critic and American Catholic, despite finding The Deputy void of artistic merit, wrote, “Without the play, we might not have looked into ourselves, and the looking—in my opinion, for what it is worth—is due, salutary and already profitable.”

A notable cleric who “looked in” was German Bishop Josef Stangl. In 1964, when the Second Vatican Council reached an impasse regarding the rejection of the deicide charge, the belief that the Jews were collectively responsible and thus damned for killing Christ, Stangl realized he could not remain silent. Speaking to his fellow clerics, he recalled the controversy and pain The Deputy had produced in his German homeland. He concluded with a challenge: Addressing the councilmen as “Deputies of the Lord,” he urged them to issue a message of “truth not tactics.”

“Stangl’s moving address broke the ice,” wrote historian Michael Phayer. “The Council Fathers moved ahead with deliberations on Nostra Aetate. A German bishop had made a significant contribution to reversing the church’s anti-Semitism.”

Leo Kerz died in 1976, after decades of notable and award-winning work in both the American and German theater. His wife notes that he had always been careful in selecting his projects, always wanting to do serious productions. In selecting The Deputy, he chose wisely.

The Holocaust Play That Helped the Roman Catholic Church Reject Anti-Semitism

The four-and-a-half-hour Nazi documentary you can’t afford to miss

NEW YORK — Marcel Ophuls demands your time. Moreover, the 89-year-old documentary film director, born in Germany and holding French and American citizenship, deserves it.

The son of German-Jewish director Max Ophuls (a giant of world cinema whose films include “The Earrings of Madame de…” and “Lola Montès”), Marcel began his career as an actor and assistant director to his father in France, where his family fled during World War II. He made some successful films, including the Jean-Paul Belmondo – Jeanne Moreau romp “Banana Peel,” but in time he turned toward documentaries, making some of the most important works about the 20th century’s darkest moments.

His most lasting achievements can be seen as a trilogy. In 1969 he released “The Sorrow and the Pity,” a penetrating exposé into the culture of French collaboration during WWII. If you remember the “Annie Hall” joke about “a four-hour documentary on Nazis,” this is the one they are talking about. And that length is actually selling it a tad short.

In 1988 he won the Academy Award for “Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbi,” a thorough examination into the life of the Nazi war criminal, his capture and trial. It’s four hours and 27 minutes, and absolutely staggering.

In between these two highly-regarded works was a middle child: “The Memory of Justice,” released in 1976. A bold and philosophical project, Ophuls himself recently referred to it as “flopp[ing] pretty badly when it came out [but] the best work I ever did in my life, or at any rate the most personal and the most sincere of my films.”

Thanks to Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation and a handful of other organizations, this four hour and 38-minute movie — the longest of the bunch — was recently retrieved from the vault, cleaned up, given new subtitles and had all the original audio reinstated, ridding it of dubs.

So, what is “The Memory of Justice”?

Much of it focuses on the Nuremberg Trials, but it is far more than a beat-by-beat explanation of that process. It uses Nuremberg as a springboard to ask unanswerable questions. What is justice in the face of an atrocity like the Holocaust? Should the victors in a war be the ones to sit in judgement? And how can those same victors charge people with the death of innocents after blasting Dresden and Hiroshima to bits?

“Whoa, whoa, whoa — that last one’s a little different,” I can hear you saying from here. And most would agree, including Ophuls. But if ever there’s a time to give the conversation a solid working-over in your mind, it’s during this film and with the people that inhabit it.

‘It takes a movie like this, with actual real life Nazis, to splash cold water on that sort of hyperbole’
Its interview subjects range from Nuremberg players such as American assistant counsel Telford Taylor, British prosecutor Hartley Shawcross, a number of tattooed witnesses and some of the surviving defendants. This was, for me anyway, the most shocking aspect. The current political rhetoric, at least online, is to flippantly call someone with bellicose or closed-minded attitudes a Nazi. It takes a movie like this, with, like, actual real-life Nazis, to splash cold water on that sort of hyperbole.

Albert Speer, done with his 20-year prison sentence, is the guilt-ridden, “noble” Nazi who, at least on paper, has all the alibis he needs to kinda-sorta wiggle out of the more heinous moral accusations. At one point he says to Ophuls that, no, he didn’t know the full scale of the Nazi crimes, but he could have known more. The implication is that he intentionally kept himself ignorant and, quite frankly, anyone who can’t recognize the lure of that position is probably lying to themselves a little bit.

More startling is Karl Dönitz, Navy Admiral and final head of the Third Reich after Hitlers’ suicide. Unrepentant in his beliefs and living well in his old age, this sickening individual is among the more repellent screen villains you’ll ever see.

This sickening individual is among the more repellent screen villains you’ll ever see
More depressing is a villager Ophuls meets while on the hunt for the concentration camp where Dr. Herta Oberheuser, who apparently had quite a successful practice later in life, performed her nefarious human experiments.

But this local, nameless chap, fishing rod in hand, is eager to talk about the glorious Nazi years, when there was no crime and everyone knew their place. He crinkles his nose when Ophuls brings up Auschwitz — it was unnecessary, he shrugs in agreement — but soon swats it away as an afterthought.

These smaller moments — the chase toward the truth, the hunt for a revelation just out of grasp — are what makes Ophuls’ films so fascinating. “The Memory of Justice” draws its name from Plato’s concepts of the perfect and forgotten ideals that man strives in vain to recapture. With this acceptance of fallibility, the movie itself becomes an expression of this, and grace notes are found in the in-between fragments: the setting up of an interview, the chatter before the questions, Ophuls’ willingness to interrupt and have a conversation that sends this into a whole other level of journalism.

This manifests itself on a visual level, too. Unlike today’s documentaries in which subjects are always shot in a studio, lit before gray or black backgrounds, Ophuls brings his camera into peoples’ homes. The Nazis put on their best suits. The British noblemen are framed by a fireplace or fine paintings. The American scholars and professors speak from their kitchens, cans of Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee visible on the counter. There’s an immediacy to each scene that is terrifyingly real.

This is a four-and-a-half hour film, so clearly I’m leaving a lot out — for example, the segments with Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, which are extraordinary. If the names sound familiar that’s because two narrative films have been made about them (one starring Farrah Fawcett). But where “The Memory of Justice” throws us a curve, and what may have been responsible for its initial financial failure, is when it jumps ahead to modern times to discuss, at length, the Vietnam War.

It is unclear precisely what Ophuls wants to say about Nazi crimes versus American atrocities in Vietnam, but he definitely wants you to find a line and dot it yourself. The massacre at My Lai is given special focus, and commentary from Daniel Ellsberg and John Kenneth Galbraith and others are mixed with stories from parents and widows of American soldiers who died during the conflict.

It’s all very upsetting but it’s also all very… thoughtful? Adult? Mature?

Watching this movie in 2017, it’s amazing to see these topics discussed with sincerity and intellect and, most importantly, at a speed that seems human. Television news today, at least in the United States, is about as meaningful as professional wrestling.

‘Television news today, at least in the United States, is about as meaningful as professional wrestling’
Hacks are given 11 seconds to shout sound-bytes at one another before the next commercial break. As disgusting as the sentiment may seem, to watch someone have a polite and calm conversation with a Nazi is a refreshing change of pace in the current infotainment landscape.

And that’s where there’s some good news. This new restoration is airing on HBO2 on April 24 (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and will remain streamable on HBO Go indefinitely. But that doesn’t mean you should let it linger. This movie is over 40 years old. The time has come to make some time.

All roads lead to Lviv: Family history, genocide, and the trials that changed the world

ONDON — Seven years ago British human rights lawyer and law academic Philippe Sands was asked to deliver a lecture in a university in Lviv, western Ukraine.

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Up for discussion were two topics: Sands’ specialized knowledge about the Nuremberg Trials, and his work as a barrister in helping to set up the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague in 1998.

But there was more at stake than just a professional opportunity for Sands — he had family history connecting him to the city, too: Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz, was born in Lviv in 1904. And while Sands had enjoyed a close relationship with Leon — who died in Paris in 1997 — he knew little about his life in central Europe before 1945.

“I’ve come to understand that within every family there are secrets and silences,” Sands explains from his home in Hampstead, north London. “But eventually they come out.”

A hitherto unknown narrative began to unfold itself as the lawyer and author looked back through old correspondence and found subtle hints in faded black and white photographs. He traveled to Israel to interview close relatives who brought him closer to his family tree.

The skeleton that came out of the closet was that Sands’ grandfather Buchholz was most likely gay, and had a male lover called Max for many years.

Sands also learned that his grandmother Rita, while estranged from her husband and Sands’ mother, Ruth, who were back in Paris at the time, almost certainly had an affair with another man in Vienna during these years too.

Philippe Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz with Max in 1936. (Courtesy)
Philippe Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz with Max in 1936. (Courtesy)

“I’m careful not to draw strong conclusions,” Sands says rather cautiously, “because you learn litigating cases that nothing is ever as it seems.”

Family history is not the only topic unearthed in Sands’ intriguing but rather complicated book, “East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity” which he’ll be promoting in Israel on April 23 at an event at Djanogly Hall in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem.

Using Lviv as a mysterious and mythological milieu, Sands attempts to explain an especially dark epoch of European history. He does this by interlinking a number of biographical stories that run parallel to one another — all of which, rather bizarrely, connect to the history of the city, but also to the Holocaust, and the international world legal system that followed it.

Cover of ‘East West Street’ by Philippe Sands. (Courtesy)
Cover of ‘East West Street’ by Philippe Sands. (Courtesy)

Sands’ book introduces us, for instance, to the two Jewish legal masterminds Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin — both born, raised and educated in this central European city — who were key players in developing the international legal system that arose during the Nuremberg Trial of 1945 and 1946.

The former became known as the father of the human rights movement, coming up with the legal term “crimes against humanity” during the Nuremberg trial. The latter was a public prosecutor and lawyer who worked on the trial too, and coined the term “genocide.”

The phrase “crimes against humanity” was used in the final judgment of the Nuremberg Trials in October 1946 by the four Allied powers, as they passed down the death sentence to 12 Nazis by hanging.

While “genocide” was mentioned, it did not feature as an official legal term in the final judgment.

This difference of formal legal opinion that took place over the course of the Nuremberg Trials — regarding war crimes committed in the Holocaust — becomes a central theme debated in Sands’ latest book.

Lauterpacht, with his term “crimes against humanity,” opted for protecting the rights of the individual over a racial or religious group, Sands explains.

Raphael Lemkin. (Public domain)
Raphael Lemkin. (Public domain)

Lemkin, on the other hand, claimed that the stark reality was that mass murder and violence took place because individuals were members of a group, and were consequently targeted because of it.

“What both men had in common was that they were trying to use international law as a way to protect people who were under threat, irrespective of their nationality, race, or religion,” says Sands.

“The essential issue that Lemkin and Lauterpacht were struggling with is how individual human beings who form part of a minority group define themselves. And how the bigger community protects them,” Sands adds.

Since publication last year, Sands’ latest book has been translated into over 14 languages — although interestingly, not yet into Hebrew.

It won the Baillie Gifford Prize, and was recently announced as joint winner of the Jewish Quarterly Wingate literary prize.

‘The issue is how individual human beings who form part of a minority group define themselves and how the bigger community protects them’
The book’s mass popularity may come from the fact that its themes are universal ones — love and betrayal in complicated family narratives; a study on the modern European conscience; a compelling analysis of how the Holocaust was first talked about in legal and moral terms in the international community. An important discussion emerges, too, about how universal human rights first emerged in the West, and indeed the wider world, after World War II.

Sands describes just how integral the Nuremberg Trials of 1945 and 1946 were for creating a binding international legal system that we still feel today.

“This was an absolutely crucial moment in human history,” he says, “because states came together at the Nuremberg Trials and said for first time [that] the power of the sovereign is limited, and it cannot treat its nationals as it wishes.”

Fundamentally, Sands believes the issue debated over the course of the trials regarding how the crimes of the Holocaust should be defined, comes down to three primal questions about human identity: who we are; how we want to be defined; and how we want the law to protect us.

Brazilian Jews to teach about Holocaust at school that flew Nazi flags

IO DE JANEIRO — A Jewish federation in Brazil will provide educational support to a private school in the country that had a third-grade classroom decorated with Nazi flags during a lesson on totalitarian regimes.

Students and history teachers from the Santa Emilia School in Recife will visit the Kahal Zur Israel temple, the first synagogue established in the Americas, in 1637, to learn about Judaism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the school and the Jewish federation announced Monday in a joint statement.

The school removed a Facebook post praising the teacher — who also wore a swastika band around his arm like a Nazi soldier — after it drew major criticism, the Diario de Pernambuco newspaper reported.

“Third grade students have experienced a super theme class, almost a super production,” the April 10 post read. “Have they liked it? Of course.”

According to Jader Tachlitsky, the Pernambuco Jewish federation’s communication coordinator, school representatives agreed that the tone of the post was inappropriate, but did not agree that the teacher’s methodology was unfortunate and there was no apology.

“The main thing is that the school is open to having the topic worked by us, which means that we can interact with the students, learn what was really learned and have the chance to educate them in a more consistent way on the subject,” Tachlitsky said.

According to Brazilian law, promoting Nazi or Nazi-related propaganda is subject to punishment by a prison sentence of two to five years, plus a fine.

Names of SS soldiers found on Dutch Holocaust monument

AMSTERDAM (JTA) — City officials from a Dutch municipality near The Hague said they would remove from its main monument for Jewish Holocaust victims the names of three SS soldiers also honored there.

The inclusion of the German soldiers’ names was discovered through research by the local Historical Association of Leidschendam-Voorburg, the Algemeen Dagblad daily reported Wednesday.

The monument, which also includes the name of a local criminal, was unveiled 10 years ago and contains approximately 400 names of Jewish Holocaust victims and some resistance fighters, the report said. Hubert Berkhout, a researcher for the Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, told the daily that he has never encountered the inclusion of Nazis in recently constructed monuments.

“It occurs in monuments set up shortly after the war when there was not so much information,” he said.

Separately, a 10-foot tall monument for dozens of Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust was unveiled Thursday at a ceremony in the northern municipality of Laren. Consisting of blocks of metal arranged around a gap, the monument, which was unveiled in the presence of Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs, is in memory of 48 children and four of their teachers.

In recent years, Dutch Jewish groups have protested what they described as an emerging trend in which commemorations are extended not only to the Allied forces’ casualties and Holocaust victims, but also to the German soldiers. Organizers of such events have justified them as promoting reconciliation.

In 2012, organizers of the national memorial ceremony in Amsterdam scrapped their plan amid protests to allow the 15-year-old relative of a Dutch SS soldier who died on Germany’s Eastern Front to read a poem in his memory at the event.

That year, a Dutch court issued an injunction forbidding the town of Vorden from commemorating German soldiers with Jewish Holocaust victims. And in the town of Geffen, the municipality also planned to unveil a monument listing the names of members of both groups. The plans were dropped following protests, but the names were read aloud in a church in that town.

The Center for Information and Documentation on Israel, the Jewish community’s watchdog on anti-Semitism, has warned that the practice blurs the line between victim and perpetrator.