Category Archive: Together

Warsaw Ghetto museum planned for hospital whose patients were sent to death camp

WARSAW, Poland (JTA) — The Polish government wants to create a Warsaw Ghetto museum in a hospital that had its patients and workers sent to the Treblinka death camp.

“The creation of the Warsaw Ghetto museum is in the initial phase of preparation, both substantively and organizationally,” the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage told JTA in a statement.

The museum planned for the former Bersohn and Bauman Hospital building in Warsaw will be developed in cooperation with the Jewish Historical Institute. In its statement, the ministry did not set a timetable for the opening.

“This is a very good initiative both for commemorating the Warsaw residents who were separated by the wall and the first Warsaw uprising,” said Polish-Jewish activist Piotr Kadlcik, whose immediate family died in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Piotr Pazinski, the editor in chief of Midrasz magazine, said he was pleased the ghetto would be commemorated in Warsaw but wanted further details.

“And I hope for a place devoted to the life and death of the Warsaw Ghetto from the inside, the voices of the people who lived and died in it,” he said.

Bersohn and Bauman Hospital began operating in 1878. Janusz Korczak, the Polish-Jewish humanitarian who accompanied more than 190 orphaned children when they were transported to the Nazi camp Treblinka, worked there during the years 1905 to 1912.

In the interwar years, the hospital was taken over by the Society of Friends of Children, and its expansion was financed by the Jewish community and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. During World War II, the hospital was located within the ghetto before its location was changed twice.

In 1942, its patients and workers were taken to Treblinka, the Nazi death camp in occupied Poland where 700,000 to 900,000 people were killed. After the war, the Central Committee of Polish Jews took over the hospital building.


Brazilian students simulate Nazi human experiments for science fair

A banner reading “Nazi laboratory” hanging at the Milecimo da Silva high school in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. (Screenshot from Facebook)

RIO DE JANEIRO (JTA) — Brazilian high school students simulated medical experiments that the Nazis conducted on concentration camp prisoners during the Holocaust.

The students at Milecimo da Silva high school in Rio De Janeiro were recently assigned to re-create a Nazi laboratory for a science fair. According to the Brazilian Israelite Confederations, the country’s umbrella Jewish group, the purpose of the exhibition was to highlight the supposed scientific progress made by Nazi doctors working in concentration camps.

Photos posted on Facebook show a red banner hung in the school with swastikas and white letters saying “Nazi laboratory.” In the darkened fake blood-stained “lab,” students playing doctors wear medical uniforms and swastika armbands. Others pretend to be suffering patients.

The Rio State Department of Education reportedly has opened an investigation to determine whether the school promoted Nazism, which is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine.

Students at Milecimo da Silva high school simulating Nazi human experiments in Rio De Janeiro. (Screenshot from Facebook)

During World War II, a number of German physicians — notably Josef Mengele — conducted painful and often deadly experiments on thousands of concentration camp prisoners without their consent. The experiments sought to improve the performance of Nazi soldiers and advance the Nazis’ racial ideology, including the notion of the Jews’ inferiority. The Nazis killed some 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.

In April, a third-grade classroom in a private school in Recife, in northeastern Brazil, was decorated with Nazi flags during a lesson on totalitarian regimes. The teacher wore a Nazi armband. The school later praised him on social media for the lesson.

After facing criticism, the school’s officials conceded that the tone of their post was inappropriate and took it down, but they refused to apologize for the lesson, according to the local Jewish federation.


US museum debuts first 3-D holograms of Holocaust survivors


Chicago exhibit uses voice-recognition technology and machine learning to let visitors ask questions about hardships under Nazi regime

Students raise their hand as they direct questions to Holocaust survivor Adina Sella as she is displayed on a three-dimensional hologram at the Take A Stand Center in the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center on October 26, 2017, in Skokie, Illinois. (Joshua Lott/AFP)

CHICAGO, United States (AFP) — Seated onstage at a museum near Chicago, Adina Sella talks about her life as a Holocaust survivor.

A group of young school kids is entranced — all the more so because Sella is not actually there.

Her likeness is being beamed in the form of an interactive and moving hologram, part of a first-of-its-kind exhibition debuting this weekend at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, which aims to preserve accounts of a fast-disappearing generation.

“She has their undivided attention,” teacher Samantha O’Neill of Chicago’s Northside Catholic Academy said.

“It really does look like she is sitting on the stage in front of you.”

The exhibit uses voice-recognition technology and machine learning to let visitors ask questions about survivors’ World War II ordeals and hear answers that grow more relevant with time, as the technology learns.

Thirteen Holocaust survivors, most living in the United States, but also from Canada, Israel and Britain, were recorded for the exhibit.

They answered thousands of questions, each sitting for about a week of high-definition video recording.

“It prepares us for the day when our survivors will not be here,” the museum’s chief executive Susan Abrams said.

The Nazis murdered some six million Jews, and millions of other people, in the Holocaust. As survivors age, organizations are grappling with the dilemma of how to preserve their stories.

Movie director Steven Spielberg in 1994 established a foundation that video recorded 55,000 testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses.

His organization eventually became the Shoah Foundation, a part of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. And it is that group that teamed up with the Illinois museum to create the holograms.

Holocaust survivor Aaron Elster speaks to reporters as he is displayed on a three-dimensional hologram at the Take A Stand Center at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center on Thursday, October 26, 2017 in Skokie, Illinois. (Joshua Lott/AFP)

Realistic interaction

The project took nearly three years. Survivors were seated in the middle of a half dome studio filled with high-definition cameras and lights to capture them from multiple angles.

The finished product makes its world premiere Sunday, and offers a real-time conversation with the likeness of a survivor. Early tests of the $5 million exhibit have been encouraging, Abrams said.

“Audiences feel even more comfortable asking their questions to the hologram, because they’re not worried that they’re going to hurt somebody’s feelings or make them upset. And so, this has really been a powerful tool,” she said.

In the museum’s auditorium before Sunday’s debut, dozens of elementary school children listened as Sella sat onstage in a red chair. The occasional sputter of her projected image was a reminder that she was not really there.

“How old are you now?” one child asked.

A museum facilitator repeated the question into a microphone, and the technology powering the hologram offered a corresponding answer, recorded in such a way that it would remain relevant forever.

“I was born December 1st, 1935, and so please figure out,” Sella answered with a heavy accent.

The children quickly did the math and realized she was 81.

‘Experienced globally’

The museum, as with other institutions dedicated to the Holocaust, still holds regular in-person talks with survivors — a group known as its “Speakers’ Bureau.”

One of the leaders of that group is Aaron Elster, who also was one of the first to sit through the hologram recording process.

“Most of us are concerned that within a short period of time when we’re gone, what happens,” Elster said.

Would survivors become a historical footnote, “or are we still alive, in essence, to tell people what happened?”

“We feel it’s really important. We want our families to be remembered,” he added.

The museum plans to eventually license the hologram project to other institutions, so they can also create exhibitions.

“We want this to be experienced globally,” Abrams said.

The institution emphasized that the holograms are merely a part of its exhibition entitled “Take a Stand Center.”

Geared toward school children, there are also touchscreen panels featuring historical and contemporary inspirational figures, among them Nelson Mandela of South Africa and teen activist Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan.


Poland just honored a historian who said the Nazi invasion wasn’t so bad for the Jews

Tomasz Panfil, standing at rear, left, was among the educators receiving honorary medals from the Polish Minister of National Education at a ceremony in Warsaw, Oct. 16, 2017. (Institute of National Remembrance)

WARSAW, Poland (JTA) — A Polish historian who said the country’s Nazi invasion was initially not so bad for Jews received a medal from the Polish education minister “for special merits for education.”

The minister, Anna Zalewska, presented Tomasz Panfil with the honor at a ceremony Oct. 16 in Warsaw.

Panfil, who is responsible for education at the Institute of National Remembrance in Lublin, wrote an article earlier this month in which he stated that “after the aggression of Germany into Poland, the situation of the Jews did not look very bad.”

“Although the [Nazi] occupation authorities took over, they ordered the wearing of armbands with the star of David, charged them heavy taxes, began to designate Jews-only zones only for the Jews,” he wrote, “but at the same time permitted the creation of Judenrat, that is, organs of self-government.”

The Institute of National Remembrance criticized Panfil for his statement. Holocaust historians note that the Judenrats were specifically set up to carry out German policy in the newly formed ghettos, where Jews were forbidden to leave under penalty of death.

The Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper this week revealed that in 2014, Panfil issued an expert opinion to a Polish court in which he wrote that the swastika is an ambiguous symbol — not only related to Nazism, but also one that symbolizes happiness in some cultures. He also claimed then that the NSDAP, or the Nazi Party, was a leftist party.


Polish restitution bill discriminates against Holocaust survivors, Israel says

(JTA) — In an unusual move, Israel accused Poland of “discriminating against Holocaust survivors” in considering legislation on restitution whose language excludes many Jewish would-be recipients.

Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari, on Friday lodged an official complaint with the Polish foreign ministry over a bill unveiled last week, which would require those seeking restitution for nationalized property to be citizens living in Poland and exclude all heirs except “first-line heirs,” meaning spouses, children or grandchildren.

Some  3 million Polish Jews, or 90 percent of their pre-war population, were murdered in the Holocaust.

“Israel believes the envisaged legislation discriminates against Holocaust survivors,” read a draft of Azari’s letter of protest, whose content an official in Jerusalem shared with JTA Friday.

The letter constitutes a departure from the Israeli foreign ministry’s usual approach to restitution issues in recent decades, in which the ministry plays a facilitating role while refraining from directly commenting on legislation or unresolved restitution issues.

The letter objects to the exclusion of non-citizens and second-degree relatives from restitution under the new bill. It notes that Nazi persecution meant no other groups “shared the fate of the Jews” in occupied Poland.

“First the Nazis seized private property and then the communist authorities of Poland seized it, when most Polish Jews were already dead,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity and was not authorized to speak to media about the issue.

Because the Holocaust “wiped out a whole generation” of Polish Jews, the official added, “it means the bulk of Jewish claimants are not direct descendants. That’s the discriminatory element in the bill.”

The World Jewish Restitution Organization in a statement acknowledged Israel’s open involvement in the issue and thanked the Israel government’s position.

“We greatly welcome the strong engagement of the government of Israel asking Poland to address this issue,” said Gideon Taylor, the organization’s chair of operations. “This is about justice and we have been urging the government of Poland to amend the proposed legislation to ensure that it is fair for all claimants including Holocaust survivors and their families in Israel and around the world.”

Poland is the only major country in Europe that has not passed national legislation for the restitution of property seized by the Nazis nor for property nationalized by a communist regime, according to the WJRO.

In 1997, Poland passed a law for restitution on communal-owned properties, but more than 15 years after the claim filing deadline, a majority of more than 5,000 claims has still not been resolved and most of the resolved claims have not led to restitution or compensation, the WJRO said.

Restitution experts estimate that following the Holocaust, Jewish individuals and institutions in Poland lost property with a combined value exceeding $1 billion.


UK funding last-ditch effort to interview Polish witnesses to Holocaust-era rescue efforts

(JTA) — Holocaust-commemoration activists in Poland launched with British government funding a last-ditch effort to interview witnesses to attempts to rescue Jews during from the genocide.

The campaign, titled “Silent Heroes,” was announced Thursday at a news conference in Warsaw that was organized by the From the Depths organization and attended by the United Kingdom’s Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, Eric Pickles, and the head of Poland’s largest Jewish organization, TSKZ President Artur Hoffman.

One witness who was interviewed last month, Natalia Jakoniuk, suffered a debilitating stroke the following week, demonstrating how “time is of the essence and not on our side,” From the Depths founder, Jonny Daniels, said.

Under the new campaign, in which journalists and researchers conduct filmed interviews with witnesses, posters  asking witnesses to step forward will be placed in government offices with nationwide distribution.

In her testimony, Jakoniuk, who was a child younger than 10 during World War II, said she recalls people living in the attic of her home in the village of Przeradz Maly outside Warsaw. “They didn’t tell us, the children,” she said of her parents. But they did instruct her to be “on the lookout, to see if the German gendarmerie who invaded Poland were coming.”

One time, when she was six years old, she was told to run to neighboring village to warn the residents that the Germans were coming, she said. “That was my job,” she recalled in the interview. That year, a German soldier inspected their house and complimented her mother on how tidy it was, not knowing there were Jews hiding in the attic.

“If he had taken a ladder and climbed up to the attic, we would have all been killed,” she said.

From the Depths attempts to substantiate the testimonies it is collecting with Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance and other archives, Daniels said.

Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem-based Holocaust museum, is the authority entrusted by Israel’s government to confer the title of Righteous Among the Nations on non-Jewish people who risked their lives to save Jews. The rigorous vetting process requires testimonies by several people who witnessed the attempt. The cases documented by From the Depths may not pass this vetting “simply because not all rescue cases had witnesses,” Daniels said, adding: “This is about documentation, not titles.”

Hoffman said his motivation for making TSKZ a partner in the project is that: “The world needs to see what good people can do in bad times, what being a true hero is.”

Poland under President Andrzej Duda of the right-wing Law and Justice Party has highlighted the actions of Poles who saved Jews, including by opening a museum for them.

Critics of Poland’s government, including the country’s main federation of Jewish organizations, allege that its nationalist agenda is emboldening anti-Semites and that its emphasis on rescuers must not come at the expense of efforts to research and expose collaboration by Poles and atrocities by locals against Jews.


Yad Vashem to Honor First Arab as Righteous Gentile

Dr. Mohamed Helmy, an Egyptian urologist living in Berlin, risked his life to hide four of his Jewish friends. The honor was initially offered in 2013, but Dr. Helmy’s relatives refused to accept it from an institution based in Israel.

Later this week, Yad Vashem will for the first time recognize an Arab, Dr. Mohamed Helmy, as a Righteous Among the Nations for saving the lives of four of his Jewish friends in the Holocaust.

An Egyptian urologist who moved to Berlin in 1922, Dr. Helmy was working for the Robert Koch Institute, but was fired in 1937 for being non-Aryan. He was arrested by the Nazis, but was released shortly thereafter and allowed to return to his home. When the Nazis began deporting Berlin’s Jews, Dr. Helmy hid Anna Boros, a 21-year-old family friend, in his cabin in the city’s Buch neighborhood, where she assumed a false identity, pretended to be married to a Muslim man, and wore a hijab. Dr. Helmy also helped hide Boros’s mother Julie, her stepfather Gerog Wehr, and her grandmother, Cecilie Rudnik, and was himself nearly caught after the family was discovered and tortured in 1944.

Having all survived, the family emigrated to the United States after the war, but continued to return to Berlin and visit Dr. Helmy. They also wrote letters to the local German government extolling the virtues of their rescuer, who died in 1982.

“A good friend of our family, Dr. Helmy hid me in his cabin in Berlin-Buch from 10 March until the end of the war,” read one such letter. “As of 1942, I no longer had any contact with the outside world. The Gestapo knew that Dr. Helmy was our family physician, and they knew that he owned a cabin in Berlin-Buch. He managed to evade all their interrogations. In such cases he would bring me to friends where I would stay for several days, introducing me as his cousin from Dresden. When the danger would pass, I would return to his cabin… Dr. Helmy did everything for me out of the generosity of his heart and I will be grateful to him for eternity.”

In 2013, Yad Vashem recognized Dr. Helmy as a Righteous Gentile, but his family refused to accept the honor because the institute is based in Israel.

“If any other country offered to honor Helmy, we would have been happy with it,” the wife of Dr. Helmy’s grandnephew, representing the family, said at the time. Now, four years later, another relative of Dr. Helmy’s, an 81-year-old professor of medicine named Nasser Kutbi and the son of Dr. Helmy’s nephew, has agreed to accept the award on his relative’s behalf. It will be presented to him in Berlin this Thursday.


World Jewish Congress Urges Croatia to Debate Holocaust

The World Jewish Congress wants to trigger a debate about Holocaust revisionism in Croatia, to encourage acknowledgement of the crimes committed at the WWII Jasenovac concentration camp, activist Menachem Rosensaft told BIRN.

By Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb

Menachem Rosensaft. Photo courtesy of Menachem Rosensaft.

US law professor Menachem Z. Rosensaft told BIRN in an interview that the World Jewish Congress – an international organisation representing Jewish communities – wants to trigger a discussion in Croatia about the crimes that were committed at the Croatian WWII fascist camp at Jasenovac during WWII.

Rosensaft, who recently sparked media interest with an article entitled ‘Croatia Is Brazenly Attempting to Rewrite its Holocaust Crimes out of History’ in the Jewish magazine Tablet, said that the country has to face up to the facts and not revise its past.

He expressed concern that Croatian political leaders could be giving different messages depending on whether they are speaking abroad or at home, to their own people.

“Historical memory, historical accuracy can’t change depending who the audience is,” he said.

“In that aspect, we appreciate how Croatian leaders spoke about Holocaust in Israel, but at the same time, we are concerned that the same words may not always be spoken in Croatia to the Croatian public,” he added.

Rosensaft, who is the general counsel at the World Jewish Congress, is a renowned scholar, lecturing on genocide and war crime trials at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell universities.

The Congress is currently engaged in an international campaign against Holocaust revisionism and the downplaying of the crimes that were committed, especially at Jasenovac.

Implementing racial laws against Serbs, Jews and Roma, the Croatian WWII fascist Ustasa movement killed over 83,000 people at the Jasenovac camp between 1941 and 1945.

Although he always took an interest in crimes that took place at Jasenovac, Rosensaft said that his attention grew when he saw the Jewish community boycotting the annual official commemorations at camp’s memorial site.

In the last two years, both the Jewish and Serbian communities in Croatia have refused to attend the commemorations in a sign of protest against what they claim is the revival of fascist values in Croatian politics.

Rosensaft said that the Congress campaign “isn’t a campaign against Croatia”, but rather an effort to bring public attention both inside and outside Croatia to the issue of the Holocaust as it was implemented in Croatia.

This debate would potentially lead to events such as conferences or even an international commission for establishing the facts on Jasenovac, he added.

Researchers at the Jasenovac memorial site have succeeded in making a name-by-name list of 83,145 victims of the camp.

But some in Croatia and Serbia have put the figure considerably lower or higher, although most historians concur that the overall death toll is around 100,000.

“The figures of the numbers of victims shouldn’t be a subject of political debate between Croats, Serbs and Jews, but should be established by independent internationally known historians and scholars, whether from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington or from Yad Vashem [Holocaust remembrance centre in Jerusalem], and they must also include Croatian and Serbian historians, representatives of the Croatian Jewish Community, and representatives of the Roma who were also murdered at Jasenovac,” Rosensaft argued.

He said that “none of the genocides and atrocities [against Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists] that took place at Jasenovac should ever be politicised”.

The World Jewish Congress is seeking historical accuracy and the depoliticisation of the Holocaust memory, he added.

“In this aspect, there is really no difference between Jews or Serbs or Roma: they were murdered in the same place, they were murdered by the same perpetrators, and they deserve the dignity of being remembered and commemorated with decency and truth,” he emphasised.

Amid growing good relations with Israel, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem in 2015 and expressed regret for the Jews who died at the hands of the Ustasa.

However Grabar Kitarovic has never attended the official commemorations in Jasenovac, and has only made an unannounced personal visit, which has caused concerns among victims’ associations.

The situation in Croatia with revisionist ideas about the Holocaust is a part of a wider trend in Central and Eastern Europe, Rosensaft said.

People need to be educated about the crimes that were committed and about who was responsible, as was done in post-WWII Germany, he added.

The crimes at Jasenovac were committed by the Ustasa alone, and not directed or enforced by the Germans, he stressed.

“It doesn’t do any service to anyone if it is suggested that the crimes at Jasenovac were perpetrated by some unknown individuals. The murders and tortures at Jasenovac were perpetrated by the Ustasa. We know who they were, we know their names, and we know who the commandants were. We know exactly who was responsible, this is not a mystery,” he said.

Rosensaft also referred to a recent documentary ‘Jasenovac – The Truth’, made by controversial director Jakov Sedlar, which according to many, including the Israeli ambassador to Zagreb, downplayed the crimes committed at Jasenovac.

At the premiere in Zagreb in 2016, Croatia’s culture minister at the time, Zlatko Hasanbegovic, said that the documentary was “the best way to finally shed light on a number of controversial places in Croatian history”.

Rosensaft, unsurprisingly, disagreed: “When a film comes out, with the support of the minister, that downplays the horrors perpetrated at Jasenovac, that doesn’t help,” he said.

But he went on to say that he didn’t want to talk about the award that the city of Zagreb presented to Sedlar in April.

“It’s not our place to comment internal affairs,” he said. “All I can say is that it is not to anyone’s credit to recognise a film or a book that distorts the facts.”