Category Archive: Together

UK author exposes the oft-forgotten horrors of a Nazi death camp for women

In ‘If This Is a Woman,’ Sarah Helm goes inside Germany’s Ravensbrück, where up to 90,000 women perished during the Holocaust

Concentration Camp

LONDON — Lying 50 miles north of Berlin, Ravensbrück was the only concentration camp the Nazis built with the sole intention to house female political prisoners. Opening up its gates in May 1939, just four months before the outbreak of World War II, it was liberated by the Russians six years later.

Over 130,00 women passed through its gates. During its busiest period, towards the end of the war, the camp had a population of 45,000. Estimates of the final death toll are debatable, ranging from 30,000 to 90,000.

Why, therefore, is so little known about a camp that eliminated tens of thousands of women on German soil?

The wholesale destruction of evidence partially explains for this historical vacuum. In Ravensbrück’s final days, before the liberation by the Soviet Red Army, most prisoner’s files were burned by the Nazis and then thrown in the lake beside the camp.

If Auschwitz was the capital of crimes against Jews, under the Third Reich, Ravensbrück, it seems, was the capital of crimes against women.

At least that’s the argument British freelance journalist and author Sarah Helm makes with compelling conviction in her latest book, “If This Is a Woman — Inside Ravensbrück: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women.”

Backed up by a vast undertaking of research and interviews — including historical sources that were once locked behind the Iron Curtain — Helm’s book shows how one dedicated writer really can rescue history from the dustbin.
Sarah Helm, author of ‘If This Is a Woman — Inside Ravensbrück: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women’ (Courtesy)

Paradoxically, though, says Helm, when we begin chatting, the emergence of the Holocaust as a proper cultural global discussion, during the 1960s, was a contributing factor that ensured Ravensbrück became sidelined as a subject in the dominant historical discourse around Nazi Germany and its heinous crimes.

“Obviously people had known about the Holocaust before [the 1960s],” says Helm. “But the consciousness had not taken a proper hold until after the Eichmann trial in 1961.”

Understandably, then, says Helm, the sheer scale and horror of the Jewish Holocaust totally took over the narrative.

“And so the story of the non-Jewish groups [that were exterminated] were treated as secondary.”

Moreover, because these prisoners in Ravensbrück were all women, this important epoch of Nazi history was neatly dusted aside for decades hence, Helm explains. “Most mainstream historians at the time were men, so inevitably this subject was neglected.”

‘Most mainstream historians at the time were men, so inevitably this subject was neglected’

It really wasn’t until the mid-1990s that female historians began to explore the stories of Ravensbrück with proper analysis. Before that, most women who passed through the camp were lucky if they got even a paragraph in the main history of the Holocaust, says Helm.

Especially the German “asocials”: the homeless, the prostitutes, and the down and outs.

“These women were sent off to gas chambers and were of no real interest to historians,” says Helm.

Perhaps what’s most fascinating about the history of Ravensbrück is the way it transformed, over time, from an institution that housed political prisoners only, to eventually become the cruelest of Nazi death camps.

“In the beginning Ravensbrück was very small,” says Helm. “It consisted largely of German women, who were either asocials or political prisoners. Basically anyone who openly opposed Hitler.”

CommemorationMany women in that particular group were Jewish says Helm. Although it appears they hadn’t at this early stage been placed there because of their racial status, but simply because of their political activity.

By autumn 1944, Ravensbrück had become overcrowded. The vast numbers coming into the camp were the result of the enormous evacuation process in the East, where the Russians had begun liberating numerous camps, such as Auschwitz.

Consequently, Hitler took the rather bizarre decision to take all the survivors out of these camps, and march them back to Germany.

“Essentially, hundreds of thousands of destitute prisoners were being marched westwards,” Helm explains.

The Hungarian exodus impacted massively on Ravensbrück too, especially the Jews of Hungary, many of whom were sent to Auschwitz. By October 1944 the Horthy government in Budapest had fallen, and Allied bombs had destroyed train lines.

Thus transportation of people across Eastern Europe had become a major problem. Still, Hitler insisted that every last Jew be removed from Hungary before the Red Army arrived.

Auschwitz was no longer operating after November 1944, so many [prisoners] began to be marched towards Germany,” Helm explains.

“In this climate, [the Nazis] began taking the view that the only way to solve this problem was to kill more people.”

Crucially, though, Helm makes clear, the killing that began at Ravensbrück during this time meant gassing ceased to be an ideological process of extermination. Instead, in the view of warped Nazi ideology at any rate, it became a practical way of controlling population numbers in horrifically overcrowded work camps.

“The killing had to go up by 2,000 a month at Ravensbrück during this time,” says Helm. A way had to be found to speed up the killing process too. So a gas chamber was set up.

creamatorium“Parts of that gas chamber were said to have been brought directly from Auschwitz, which at that time had been dismantled,” says Helm.

The title of Helm’s book may give the impression that the concentration camps in Nazi Germany were entirely Hitler’s brainchild, but almost every aspect of the camps were managed and planned with extraordinary detail by Heinrich Himmler.

In her book Helm writes: “Adolf Hitler showed little interest in the concentration camps, but they lay at the center of Himmler’s empire; whatever went on behind their walls was signed off by his pen.”

“Himmler was also behind the original idea of setting up the women’s camps too,” Helm insists.
Heinrich Himmler at Dachau in 1936. (Friedrich Franz Bauer/Wikimedia Commons/German Federal Archive)

Heinrich Himmler at Dachau in 1936. (Friedrich Franz Bauer/Wikimedia Commons/German Federal Archive)

Although Himmler wasn’t the only person involved in the plans for the Final Solution, Helm claims that he did help oversee much of the process of setting up the camps in the East, which would eventually lead to the death of millions of Jews.

Himmler was also a regular visitor to the camp in Ravensbrück too, says Helm. “He visited the camps because he wanted them to be as self-sufficient as far as possible.”

Nor was Himmler’s decision to put the camps next to areas of natural beauty, such as lakes and trees, merely coincidental. Indeed, German forests played a central role in the mythology of the Heimat, or German soil. Take Buchhenwald, for example, one of the more famous Nazi concentration camps: its literal translation means Beech Forest.

“Many of the camps were [purposely] located in places of great natural beauty,” says Helm.

“Ravensbrück, for example, was located beside a lake. Other camps were similarly located in beautiful wooded areas. Himmler had read the literature on these historic sites. His idea was that nature would purify the German gene, and that the SS, and the Germans, would grow up pure and strong, like the trees in the woods.”

“Himmler believed that the blood would be pure if the seed was planted near these very pure sites of nature,” adds Helm.

‘Himmler believed that the blood would be pure if the seed was planted near these very pure sites of nature’

In the epilogue of this meticulously detailed book — which runs to over 700 pages in length — Helm spends considerable time and ink dissecting at length why those in positions of authority involved in these horrendous atrocities at Ravensbrück were never brought to justice.

The reasons are complicated. But one thing is certain: by 1948 the Allies had lost their appetite for punishing Nazis. Primarily because the Cold War had become the dominant theme on the intentional-political agenda.

And, from 1949 onwards, the main responsibility for investigating Nazi crimes was handed back to German courts, many of whom, presumably, had been Nazis just a few years previously.

Most notable among these perpetrators let off the hook were German industrialists. Especially, Helm argues, since their profits were needed to fight the Cold War.

Siemens, the German electrical manufacturer, which had a factory located just at the edge of Ravensbrück, from 1942 onwards, is one company that notoriously got off scott free for its complicity in knowledge of war crimes. It has never publicly admitted it knew of the exterminations happening at the camp.

“The gassing in Ravensbrück at this time was being kept secret,” says Helm. “But even still, Siemens continued to operate its factory.”

The idea that the killing was being hidden from the Siemens management and guards is laughable, Helm believes. Moreover, the evidence clearly displays that prisoners knew perfectly well that Ravensbrück had become a death camp.

“Siemens knew their own workers were prisoners, who at any given moment could be sent to their deaths,” says Helm.

“And yet, not a single management figure, or director, from Siemens has ever been brought to account for what happened in Ravensbrück.”

‘Siemens knew their own workers were prisoners, who at any given moment could be sent to their deaths’

Years later, though, as the extent of the Holocaust, and atrocities became clearer, there were strong moves — particularly with Jewish survivors based in Israel and international Jewish movements — for compensation to be paid out.

However, the figures are paltry, Helm believes, “especially given the extent to which Siemens was complicit in these crimes, and the way it sided and collaborated with the Nazis.”

The fact that the compensation only applied to Jewish victims too means the compensation paid out is not a true reflection of the crimes themselves either, Helm believes, especially since many of the victims were not Jews.

“It’s unbelievable that Siemens is unable to come out in the open and confront the crimes it was deeply complicit in,” says Helm.

Helm’s narrative concludes on a rather open-ended note. The story of Ravensbrück may have finally come out into the public domain after many years lying dormant, but this particular chapter of Nazi history, it appears, is not entirely complete.

Of the estimated 3,500 women guards who passed through Ravensbrück, only a fraction have ever come under investigation in the German courts, mainly because Germany still doesn’t keep a proper record of the numbers they have charged, says Helm.

“The system did not want to confront this subject. So very few of the guards from Ravensbrück were ever confronted or held to account for their actions,” says Helm.

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Poland’s envoy to world Jewry fights to keep Polish-Jewish history alive

At opening of new museum to Polish rescuers of Jews in WWII, Sebastian Rejak says his country is working to show nuance of Nazi-occupied Poland to the next generation

Sebastiaan RejakAlthough he didn’t meet a Jew until the late 1990s, in his role as the Polish Foreign Ministry’s envoy to the Jewish Diaspora, Sebastian Rejak has spent the past two and a half years assiduously cultivating relations with Jewish communities throughout Europe and North America to improve his country’s ties with world Jewry.

Prior to taking on his diplomatic role, Rejak, who comes from a traditional Catholic family in Lublin, studied Judaism and Jewish history and gained a working knowledge of Hebrew. A member of the Polish Society for Jewish Studies, Rejak is also the author of two books — “Jewish Identities in Poland and America: The Impact of the Shoah on Religion and Ethnicity” and “Inferno of Choices: Poles and the Holocaust.”

Today, after having spent decades delving into the rich intertwined tapestry that is Polish Jewish history, Rejak said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel that he cannot conceive of a situation in which Poland would be bereft of Jews. As he put it: “It’s impossible for me to imagine Poland without Jews. It would be a tremendous loss for Poland.”

Ulma Family MonumentMost recently, he worked tirelessly behind the scenes to raise awareness of the new Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II, which was officially opened in the remote southeastern Polish village of Markowa on March 17 in the presence of Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, and the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich.

As Rejak acknowledged in an interview in Warsaw the day before the opening, it was a big deal for Poland, a chance to improve its image in the eyes of Jews and the international community. In his view, the new museum, financed by Markowa and the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, will serve as a positive role model for Polish youth.

The younger generation, he noted, appreciates the richness of Jewish culture and regards it as an integral component of Polish history. “It’s inextricably a part of what we are as Poles,” he said. “But to my regret, there is still a degree of anti-Semitism in Poland.”

The museum, eight years in the making, honors Polish rescuers of Jews, but focuses on Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma, a middle-aged couple from Markowa. In 1942, as the Nazi hunt for Jews intensified, eight Jews asked the Ulmas for help, and they agreed to shelter them. In exchange, the Jews worked on their farm.
Righteous Among the Nations Polish couple Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma. (Public domain)

Righteous Among the Nations Polish couple Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma. (Public domain)

On March 24, 1944, German police, acting on a tip from a Polish informer, fatally shot the Ulmas, along with their six children and the Jews in their care: In 1941, the German governor of occupied Poland, Hans Frank, had issued an order forbidding Poles to assist Jews on pain of death.

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust research and educational center in Jerusalem, recognized the Ulmas as righteous gentiles in 1995. About a decade later, the Vatican launched a beatification process to confer sainthood on the Ulma family.

Rejak suggested that contemporary Poland tapped into the Ulmas’ heroism to offset a public relations disaster caused by the publication of Jan Tomasz Gross’s 2001 book, “Neighbors.” A Polish American historian who had left Poland in 1969, Gross examined the 1941 pogrom in the northeastern town of Jedwabne, during which a mob of anti-Semitic Poles, encouraged by the Germans, burned down a barn with at least several hundred Jews crammed inside.

The book sparked an impassioned debate in Poland because it tarnished the cherished notion that Poles had been victims of Nazi aggression. Now, in “Neighbors,” they emerged in a far different light, as hateful oppressors of Jews.

To Jews in the Diaspora, Jedwabne seemed to confirm their worst suspicions about Poles, for anti-Semitism had been a malevolent phenomenon in pre-war Poland. During the Holocaust, a cadre of Polish collaborators and blackmailers tormented Jews. Post-WWII, a pogrom erupted in Kielce in 1946. And in the wake of the 1968 anti-Semitic campaign — dressed up as an anti-Zionist response to so-called Israeli warmongering in the 1967 Six Day War — more than 10,000 Jews were driven out of Poland.

The Ulma story, however, presented the Polish government with an opportunity to adjust negative Jewish perceptions of Poland, where 3.3 million Jews lived on the eve of the war. Rejak agreed that the events in Markowa may work in Poland’s favor.

Poland is obliged to ‘own up’ to its past

“There is a general feeling among Poles that Poland has been perceived through the prism of pre-war anti-Semitism and wartime blackmailers who betrayed Jews, and this image has, in general, dominated discourse about Poland,” he said. “We want to balance the picture more, but I hope the museum won’t be used to claim there were only good Poles.”

Poland is obliged to “own up” to its past, he added. “It’s a complex history. We have to take into account the extremes.”

Warsaw Deportation Death CampsRejak admitted that the Roman Catholic church has not always played a positive role in fostering good Polish-Jewish relations, but he pointed out that John Paul II, the late Polish-born pope, succeeded in diminishing anti-Semitism in Poland. Nonetheless, there are priests who have not accepted his ecumenical teachings. “In the church, change comes slowly,” he said.

‘It’s impossible for me to imagine Poland without Jews’

Asked how many Jews live in Poland today, Rejak said that 7,353 Polish citizens declared themselves Jewish in the 2011 national census.

“The actual number may be several times greater,” he added. “There is a core Jewish population and a non-practicing segment of Poles of Jewish descent.”

Rejak expressed the hope that the Jewish community, a pale imitation of its former self, will continue to grow and thrive, and that Polish society at large will be receptive to a Jewish presence in Poland.

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Exhibit shows new works by iconic photographer who immortalized pre-WWII Jewry

Roman Vishniac retrospective at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum includes never-before-seen footage of 1939 Poland

Roman Vishniac
When Roman Vishniac began documenting impoverished Jewish communities with his camera in 1935, he unwittingly sealed his photographic legacy by capturing a rare glimpse into a world that was soon to disappear.

On the eve of World War II, while on assignment for the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Vishniac created what would become the most widely recognized and reproduced photographic record of European Jewry. In the many decades since they were first distributed, his iconic black-and-white images continue to capture the public’s interest with their portrayal of a vanished world.

And yet, little of Vishniac’s other work was published — or even printed — during his own lifetime.

A new retrospective at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, “Roman Vishniac Rediscovered,” not only reveals how Vishniac influenced contemporary impressions of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, but also uncovers the full depth of his work, which includes European modernism, photographs of New York City in the 1940s and pioneering color photomicroscopy — scientific photography through the lens of a microscope.Roman Vishniac Pine-needle

In addition to images from his celebrated book, “A Vanished World,” the show offers nearly 400 items of film footage, family portraits, personal correspondence and images of the photographer himself. Prints from recently digitized negatives document Vishniac’s creative output in black-and-white, with the exception of three recently discovered color transparencies.

“The exhibition presents, for the first time, five decades of work by a legendary photographer who was previously known for photographs spanning only four years,” says Maya Benton, exhibition curator for the International Center of Photography in New York, which premiered the exhibit. “The vast holdings of the Roman Vishniac Archive, which includes 10,000 negatives and more than 50,000 objects, have allowed us to reposition Vishniac as one of the great photographers of the twentieth century.”

The exhibit reveals what organizers describe as a “compositional acuity, inventiveness and surprising stylistic range.” This watershed moment solidifies Vishniac’s place among the 20th century’s most accomplished photographers, they say. It also repositions his iconic images of Eastern European Jewry within a broader tradition of social documentary.

‘His powerful photographs are iconic images of our shared history’

“Vishniac’s 1983 monograph ‘A Vanished World’ is on the bookshelf of every Jewish family I know, including my own,’” says Lori Starr, executive director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. “His powerful photographs are iconic images of our shared history. With this exhibition, we now have the opportunity to see these widely familiar works in the context of Vishniac’s entire oeuvre and to understand him as a major modernist photographer and profoundly important artist.”

Many elements of Vishniac’s work have never been available for public viewing until now, such as 90 vintage images from 1938 of impoverished Jewish children at Joint Distribution Committee summer camps in Poland. As the exhibit explains, “The maquette sat in the JDC archives for more than 70 years. It was digitized this year, and is being displayed here for the first time.”

Other pieces are uniquely personal. Prints of Vishniac’s parents depict his daughter Mara and son Wolf, as well as relatives from Russia. Memorabilia includes a postcard from Vishniac to Mara describing the interior an old synagogue and disturbing scenes in Europe.

“I am in a very small town and it is quiet here,” Vishniac wrote. “I arrived very early and already went to the synagogue at 7:30 a.m. Strangely enough it is beautifully painted inside with views of holy places. I took pictures of a 300-year-old lamp and a 200-year-old chair.”

‘I just came back from an area where a lot of Jews had it really bad’

With the perspective of time, Vishniac’s impassioned notes to his daughter appear critical toward preserving his legacy. In 1938, Vishniac wrote to Mara, then living in Riga, of the tragedies unfolding near Warsaw: “I just came back from an area where a lot of Jews had it really bad… There are many unhappy Jews, and among them even girls your age,” he wrote.

Mara Vishniac Kohn, wife of physicist and Nobel Laureate Walter Kohn, is still acting on her father’s imperative. In 2007, her generosity founded the Vishniac Archive at the International Center of Photography. Her support continues with the “Roman Vishniac Rediscovered” exhibition.

On display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum is Mara’s 1937 membership card to the Werkleute Bund Judischer Jungend (Working League of Jewish Youth) while a print contact sheet from original negatives reveals scenes from Bratislava, Warsaw, Mukacevo and the Carpathian Mountains.

Another print that shows Vishniac with his Leica camera in Mukacevo was snapped by Henryk Schwartz, a cantor and traveling salesman who befriended Vishniac and helped him gain access to nearby villages by introducing him to the town’s religious leaders.

And then, there are numerous iconic images of a ravaged European Jewry: a Warsaw scene reveals a Jewish market; in another, a villager in the Carpathians, and many others. There are also missives Vishniac penned from an internment camp in France dated in 1939, as well as excerpts of a scrapbook containing an announcement in Yiddish and English for the YIVO exhibition of his photographs of Jewish pre-war life in Poland at the Yiddish Scientific Institute in 1944.

Vishniac’s personal trajectory emerges throughout the exhibit. Born in Moscow to an affluent Russian Jewish family in 1897, Vishniac studied biology and zoology, experimenting with camera lenses and magnification. In 1920, he relocated to Berlin with his Latvian Jewish wife, Luta Bagg, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. As an amateur photographer, he witnessed the sweeping artistic innovation of the Weimar era. His own experimentation with framing and composition reflects the influence of European modernism.

n Berlin, Vishniac joined several camera clubs and while living in a neighborhood amidst many Russian Jewish emigres, he installed a photo-processing lab in his apartment. The ominous signs of the Nazi Party’s rise to power in Germany became a focal point of his photography. He captured images of campaign posters, swastika banners and marching soldiers — even his then-seven-year-old daughter, Mara, posing in front of a poster depicting how to measure the cranial features to prove one’s race.

Roman Vishniac ImageAs Nazi restrictions on Jews ensued, the JDC hired Vishniac to document the hardships facing European Jewry to support its fundraising efforts. In 1939, he was commissioned to make a promotional film at a Society for Trades and Agricultural Labor (ORT) vocational training facility near Marseille. It was never completed and only outtakes survived. The museum exhibition is screening this recently discovered material for the first time.

Other surprising disclosures reveal Vishniac’s own escape and his personal appeals on behalf of the doomed. In late 1939, while his wife and children were safe in Stockholm, Vishniac was held for a month at the Camp du Ruchard internment camp in France. After his family paid for his release, Vishniac reunited with them in Lisbon, and they all sailed to New York, where he set up a portrait studio on the Upper West Side. The exhibit includes a letter from Vishniac’s sister-in-law, who, among other relatives, had written the US State Department to obtain visas for their arrival. The family reached New York City on December 31, 1940.

The exhibit displays a 1942 letter Vishniac sent to FDR with five photographs of Eastern European Jews that illustrate the ‘infinite disaster and injustice’ wrought by Nazism

The exhibit also displays a 1942 letter Vishniac sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the occasion of FDR’s 60th birthday. Vishniac included a gift: five photographs of Eastern European Jews designed to illustrate the “infinite disaster and injustice” wrought by Nazism. Even though he had not yet mastered the language of his adopted country, Vishniac hoped to sway Roosevelt to intervene and help prevent the annihilation of European Jewry.

As World War II raged in Europe, Vishniac staged two large exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, presenting his commissioned work from Eastern Europe to an American audience. He also began documenting immigrant life in America during and after the war, photographing the arrival of Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors, as well as Jewish notables, including Albert Einstein, Yiddish stage and screen actress, Molly Picon, artist Marc Chagall and comedian Imogene Coca. In 1947, Vishniac returned to Europe to document relief efforts in Jewish Displaced Persons camps and the ruins of his adopted home of Berlin.

Many of these images from this period are on display at the exhibition.

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An Israeli moshav fills in the blanks on a WWII rescue

New exhibit memoralizes the Glass House operation, which saved tens of thousands of Hungarian JewsGlass House

NIR GALIM, Israel (JTA) – On a recent afternoon in a museum in this moshav community near the port city of Ashdod, Hodaya Gadba held up a black-and-white photograph of a three-story building and pronounced, “This was the site of a thrilling episode of the rescue of Jews.”

Gadba then led visitors on a tour of an exhibition dealing with the subject of the picture: the Glass House, a Budapest factory that housed a remarkable operation credited with saving more than 40,000 of the city’s Jews in 1944 and 1945.

The plan was conceived by Miklos “Moshe” Krausz, who had run the Jewish Agency’s Budapest office to facilitate the immigration of Hungarian Jews to pre-state Israel, and soon after Germany’s invasion of the country on March 19, 1944, shifted to rescue mode.

His partner in the effort was Carl Lutz, Switzerland’s vice consul. Lutz secured 76 buildings as Swiss extraterritorial holdings that functioned as safe houses, and with Krausz produced and issued a Swiss letter of protection known as the “schutzpass.” Those possessing a schutzpass stayed in the safe houses without fear of capture.

By then, more than 440,000 Jews from Hungary’s towns and provinces had been deported to their deaths in Auschwitz from May to July in 1944. But Budapest remained one of the last bastions of normal Jewish life in a German-occupied country.

Krausz’s effort was at odds with that of a fellow Hungarian Jew, Rudolf Kasztner, who negotiated with top Nazi SS official Adolf Eichmann on an unconsummated deal to ransom 1 million Jews for 10,000 trucks laden with supplies needed by Germany.

Regarding the Glass House operation, “It’s unknown precisely how many with a schutzpass got to the safe houses. There was also much counterfeiting of the schutzpass,” explained Ayala Nedivi, author of the 2014 book “Between Krausz and Kasztner: The Struggle for the Rescue of the Hungarian Jews.” “The range is 40,000 to 100,000. It could be 50,000 to 80,000.”

Even many of those saved through their schutzpass didn’t know the document materialized due to the Krausz-Lutz effort, said Galia Levinovich, marketing director for Beit Ha’edut, the museum hosting the Glass House exhibit. Nor does a comprehensive list exist of those who received a schutzpass, she said. Two notebooks containing names of some of those saved – one housed in the Swiss capital of Bern, the other at Israel’s national Holocaust commemoration museum, Yad Vashem – are known to exist, Nedivi explained.

To fill in the blanks, Levinovich hopes to hear from those saved in the operation and from their descendants.

“The Glass House’s role is something that’s getting lost,” she said. “We want the families to know that we’re documenting the story. We also want survivors to add to our knowledge [of the episode]. Lastly, Moshe Krausz’s actions were pushed under the rug, and he was forgotten because he was a political rival of Kasztner. We want to correct this because he was the initiator of this [rescue]. People will get to learn about him.”

The heroism of Raoul Wallenberg in rescuing thousands of Budapest Jews became legendary in Holocaust annals, while Krausz’s courage is far less known. But Wallenberg’s effort – representing Sweden, he issued schutzpass documents and established Swedish “safe houses” in the city – was based directly on Krausz’s plan, the exhibition states.

A film screened in the museum’s theater presents viewers with a dilemma: whether they’d favor issuing an unlimited number of schutzpass or respect the 7,800 figure that Hungary’s ruler, Miklos Horthy, and Lutz had arranged. Exceeding 7,800 may have aroused the suspicion of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross, which succeeded the deposed Horthy, and thereby endangered the rescue.

Krausz and Lutz kept producing the documents. Lutz rescued Jews even during the Nazis’ death marches near war’s end.

Eliezer ShkediAs it was, the pair manipulated the 7,800 figure to apply to households and not individuals.

Among those saved was Ralph Klein, a Berlin native living with his parents in Budapest, who went on to become a legendary coach for the Israeli basketball team Maccabi Tel Aviv. Another was Moshe Shkedi, whose son Eliezer became the Israeli Air Force’s chief of staff.

Arthur Weiss, the glass factory’s owner, was sheltered in the building, as were thousands of others. He later was killed by the Arrow Cross; his wife and son survived and immigrated to the United States.

Kasztner would settle in Israel and work for the Ministry of Trade and Industry. He was assassinated in Tel Aviv in 1957, a few years after a celebrated trial that determined his actions in Hungary amounted to collaboration with the Nazis.

Krausz made his home in Tel Aviv and later Jerusalem, working for a children’s village and then the Ministry of Welfare. He had met his wife, Gusta, a native of Poland, in the Glass House. Last summer, a street in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev was named for Krausz, who died in 1986. Another street in the capital is named for Lutz, who with his wife, Gertrud, was honored as Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations.

“I’m proud that my uncle devised such a daring, original plan,” said Shosh Rot, a Kfar Saba resident and Krausz’s niece. “He was modest, good and connected to the Jewish people. He did what he did not for honor or money, but to save Hungary’s Jews. To be his relative makes me happy in my heart.”

(Please email Hillel Kuttler at seekingkin@jta.org if you know people saved through the Glass House rescue operation.)


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Joseph Sher, Holocaust survivor and tailor to stars, dies at 100

Polish-born New Orleans resident, who lost his parents and sisters to the Nazis, headed local community of survivors

Joseph SherA Holocaust survivor who became a New Orleans tailor with such celebrity clients as Fats Domino and Elvis Presley, has died at 100.

Joseph Sher died Thursday at Lambeth House, a New Orleans retirement community and assisted-living facility, Nola.com reported. He was the oldest Holocaust survivor in New Orleans and the leader of the local survivor community, according to the Crescent City Jewish News.

During the Holocaust, Sher was sent to several Nazi-run slave labor camps, where he was forced to build roads. He was only three of 1,000 men on his detail to survive the experience. Sher, his two brothers and his wife survived the Holocaust, but he lost his parents and three sisters, who died at the Treblinka death camp.

In 1949, Sher, his wife and a child born in a displaced persons camp settled in New Orleans where he found work as a tailor, a trade he had learned from his father in Poland.

Working at Harry Hyman Tailors, he specialized in performance clothes for entertainers and uniforms for tall hotel doorman. When the shop changed its name to Murphy the Tailor, Sher “managed dozens of employees, each working at a busy sewing machine,” the Crescent City Jewish News wrote. He retired in the 1990s.

“He could take a piece of fabric from anywhere on a garment and make the garment absolutely new-looking,” his son Leopold told Nola.com.

Sher’s account of his experiences during the Holocaust can be found here.

A funeral was held Friday morning at Congregation Anshe Sfard in New Orleans.

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Why one of the Holocaust’s worst massacres is marked only by charred menorah

Since 2001, Jewish groups have tried but failed to win support to upgrade memorial site at Babi Yar, where Nazis and collaborators murdered 50,000 Jews

Babi YarKIEV, Ukraine (JTA) –- On a muddy path in Babi Yar Park, Vladimir Proch negotiates deep puddles as he shadows two rabbis and a group of Ukrainian officials.

An 87-year-old Holocaust survivor, Proch lives near the Kiev ravine where Nazis and local collaborators murdered more than 50,000 Jews starting in September 1941. He has followed every twist of the 15-year saga to commemorate victims in a manner befitting the tragedy’s scale, which even by Nazi standards was extraordinarily barbaric.

Sensing the clergy and officials were part of the latest effort to memorialize the victims, Proch approached one of the rabbis, Yossi Azman, and asked him incredulously: “Do you really think we’ll finally get a proper monument?”

Proch has good reason to be skeptical. Since 2001, numerous Jewish groups and tycoons have attempted but failed to win municipal support to upgrade a notorious site where Jewish victims are memorialized only by an unfenced 6-foot menorah.

Built near a construction-waste dump roamed by homeless people and packs of stray dogs, the menorah is still charred from a recent torching – the sixth assault by vandals on the monument in the past year alone. Swastikas adorn two entrances to a metro station near the memorial park.

Yet with the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre approaching, authorities and community representatives say they are determined to build a new monument and avoid the pitfalls that thwarted previous attempts — including funding problems, concerns about building atop and desecrating human remains and internal feuding within Ukraine’s fractious Jewish community.

The new initiative to commemorate the Holocaust at Babi Yar began officially last month, when Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk convened a standing committee of officials and community representatives who meet every week. They aim to build a new monument by Sept. 29, the anniversary of the day in 1941 when Nazis began marching Kiev’s Jews to the ravine on the city’s outskirts and systematically massacring them with machine-gun fire. By some estimates, 100,000 Jews, Roma, communists and Soviet prisoners of war were murdered at Babi Yar, including over 33,000 Jews on those first two days alone.

The current memorial plan is an unambitious blueprint for two memorial paths that would connect the site of the menorah, situated on the park’s outer edges, to its center. One path will be dedicated to the Jewish victims, another for Ukrainians who risked their lives to save Jews.

The fate of the menorah, which Jewish groups placed here provisionally 25 years ago, is uncertain. One design, which is favored by the local municipality, features a stone wall integrated with replicas of personal artifacts such as spectacles, shoes and bags – echoing the piles of clothing taken from victims before they were shot.

“It’s just dignified enough to pass as decent,” said Moshe Azman, an influential Chabad rabbi from Kiev and a claimant to the title of chief rabbi of Ukraine, about the new design.

Vladimir Proch“It’s not fancy, not huge, not spectacular – and that’s why it has a chance to succeed where previous plans failed,” added Azman, the father of Rabbi Yossi Azman. Moshe Azman has attended meetings of the standing committee.

Rabbi Dov Bleich, another chief rabbi of Ukraine, said: “Any sort of halfway decent monument is better than the current reality at Babi Yar, which is just a disgrace.”

The bare-bones design, estimated to cost a mere $150,000, reflects economic realities in Ukraine. The country has rampant unemployment, and its national currency, the hryvna, is now worth a third of its value against the dollar in 2014. That year, the Ukrainian economy crashed when the government was toppled in a revolution, which triggered a still-ongoing armed conflict with Russian-backed separatists.

Bleich said several plans failed because they were too ambitious.

“In the current reality, but even before in a poor country like Ukraine, a $30 million to $40 million project is often just not viable,” he said. “It’s just not going to happen, or will take a long time to.”

Babi Yar currently has three cornerstones that were placed here with great pomp over the past 15 years for Jewish commemorative projects that never materialized.

In 2001, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, proposed building a Jewish community center near the actual gravesite. Religious Jews thought it improper. Jewish community leaders, meanwhile, complained that locals, not JDC, should be handling the commemoration.

In 2006, businessman and Jewish activist Vadim Rabinovich began advancing plans for a museum atop land he had bought near, but not on, the gravesites. But that plan, too, was brought to a halt by critics like Meylakh Shoychet, Ukraine director for the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union. Shoychet and Vitaly Nachmanovich, the secretary of the Public Committee for Commemoration of the Victims of Babi Yar, argue that the construction would disturb human remains in violation of halachah, Jewish law.

In an email to JTA, Nachmanovich vowed continued opposition to Rabinovich’s attempts to revive the plan for a museum.

Fears of desecrating human remains are a common issue when dealing with Europe’s countless Jewish mass graves and cemeteries. The halachic complication is especially present at Babi Yar because of the nature of the executions there.

After the initial slaughter – the Nazis shot Jews who were lying down in layers on the bodies of their dead brethren – smaller groups of Jews were executed and buried here from 1941 to 1943. During that period, the Nazis had bodies exhumed and burned, and the ashes were scattered in a bid to hide their crimes, making it impossible to pinpoint all the graves at the sprawling Babi Yar Park.

“The whole place needs to be treated like a cemetery because that’s what it is,” Shoychet said.

Bleich and Azman favor the new design for this reason, too.

“It only entails placing tiles atop the ground, not digging in it,” Bleich said. “That defuses a lot of concerns.”

All the victims at Babi Yar are commemorated in a massive monument that authorities built in 1976 for all “Soviet citizens” killed there. But a monument recognizing Jews as specific victims of the Nazi genocide was only approved after the fall of the Soviet Union.

For Jews, Babi Yar is highly significant because it is the first massacre of its scale perpetrated during the Holocaust and the third or fourth largest overall. In a 2006 speech at the site, Meir Lau, a former chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel, described it as Adolf Hitler’s trial balloon for the final solution.

Had the international reaction to Babi Yar “been a serious one, a dramatic one, in September 1941 here in Ukraine,” Lau said, the fate of Europe’s Jews “would perhaps have come to a different end.”


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Ukraine to allocate $1 million for Babi Yar memorial

Government seeks to complete memorial paths for Jewish victims and Ukrainians who saved Jews by 75th anniversary of massacre in September

Babi YarThe Ukrainian government pledged to allocate approximately $1 million toward the construction of a Holocaust memorial monument at the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced the allocation of funds Wednesday, the news site 112.ua reported.

The funds would pay for the construction of two memorial paths — one for Jewish victims and one for Ukrainian non-Jews who saved Jews — at the site where 50,000 Jews and some 50,000 to 100,000 other victims, including Roma, Russian prisoners of war and Ukrainian nationalists, were murdered by the Nazis and local collaborators between 1941 and 1943.

In 1976, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, a massive monument was erected at Babi Yar without noting the site was the first massacre of its magnitude during the Holocaust.

In 1991, on the 50th anniversary of the first massacre of Jews at Babi Yar, members of Ukraine’s Jewish community placed a 6-foot menorah on the park’s outer edges to commemorate the Jews killed there.

The paths planned in the park, which the government aims to have built in time for the 75th anniversary in September, will connect the center of the park to the monument site, which has been vandalized seven times since 2015. Unfenced, it currently bears signs of the recent torching of a memorial wreath that Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked placed there earlier this month.


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Nazi doctor Mengele’s remains donated to medical research

After his bones sit in a Brazilian forensic center for nearly 30 years, body of Auschwitz ‘Angel of Death’ to be used to ‘train new doctors’

Josef MengeleA Brazilian doctor announced that the remains of notorious Nazi doctor and “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele will be donated to medical research.

Mengele, who drowned in 1979 in Brazil, was buried under a false name in Sao Paulo. The grave was discovered in 1985, and DNA testing and testimony by the Nazi’s son later positively identified him as the concentration camp doctor who carried out cruel and often lethal human experiments and who was famously involved in the selection of inmates to the gas chambers, earning him the nickname “Angel of Death.”

The war criminal’s remains have been stored in a Sao Paulo forensic institute for nearly 30 years. His family members never stepped forward to claim them.

Dr. Daniel Romero Muniz, a professor of medicine at the University of Sao Paulo who was behind the identification of Mengele, earlier this month won a lawsuit permitting him to hand over the remains for scientific research, The Daily Mail reported on Wednesday, citing Brazilian media.Auschwitz Mengele Block 10“(Mengele’s) bones will be a really good example for our students to learn from. They will be used to help train new doctors and will be particularly good for those students who are studying post-mortem examinations,” he said.

Muniz displayed Mengele’s bones on Brazilian TV last weekend, pointing to a pelvic fracture and a hole in his cheek bone, indicating sinusitis, that led to the identification.

“He had a motorbike accident when he was in Auschwitz camp and the pelvis shows a fracture,” he said.

Mengele fled Germany in 1949, residing in Argentina and Paraguay before arriving in Brazil. Up until his death at the age of 68, he managed to elude capture by Nazi hunters and the Mossad.

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