Danish Jews recall desperate escape from Nazis, 75 years on

Daring rescue mission by resistance fighters and local fishermen enabled 7,000 Jews to flee to neighboring Sweden in 1943

Danish Jews celebrating the rescue of their community from the Holocaust 75 years ago by sailing to Sweden in a reenactment ceremony on September 26, 2018. (JTA/Courtesy of Rochel and Yitzi Loewenthal)

Danish Jews celebrating the rescue of their community from the Holocaust 75 years ago by sailing to Sweden in a reenactment ceremony on September 26, 2018. (JTA/Courtesy of Rochel and Yitzi Loewenthal)

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AFP) — Freddy Vainer was only four years old when he and his family were forced to flee Copenhagen to escape being deported to Nazi concentration camps, but he remembers it like it was yesterday.

“My grandfather was at the synagogue on October 1, 1943, when he found out that he had to flee,” he said. That month nearly 7,000 Danish Jews made the desperate journey by boat to neighboring Sweden.

At first the Jewish population seemed relatively safe, and were not forced to wear a yellow star.

But “in September orders from Berlin were being sent to deal with the so-called Jewish question,” Cecilie Banke, a researcher at the Danish Institute of International Studies, told AFP.

She said that plans were leaked from within the German authorities so Denmark’s Jewish population could be warned.

Danish Jews arrive in Sweden after having been helped out of the country by the Danish resistance, October 6, 1943 (Wikimedia Commons – public domain)

“This is the essence of the rescue operation, the Jewish population knew so they could actually flee and since information was leaked, the Danish population could also help Jews to flee,” Banke added.

“This is the exception in the story of the Jews in World War II,” said Silja Vainer, Freddy’s wife.

More than 6,500 Jews who mainly lived in Copenhagen left their homes and hid mostly near the coast north of the capital before fleeing by sea, largely to the towns of Gilleleje and Snekkersten.

While Freddy and his family hid in a house in the northwestern coastal town of Hellebaeck before finding someone to take them across the water, 197 others were arrested trying to escape.

The great escape

A fisherman agreed to take only five of Freddy’s eight-member family.

Freddy said he stayed at the docks with his mother and grandmother before finally crossing over.

This picture, made before Germany’s occupation of Denmark, shows the Nazi party headquarters, April 11, 1940 in Copenhagen, Denmark. (AP Photo) The passage cost on average 1,000 Danish kroner per person (the equivalent today of 2,700 euros, $3,100).


“My grandfather also paid for others who didn’t have any money so that everyone could flee,” Freddy, a former doctor in his eighties, recalled.

His future wife Silja was three-and-a-half years old during the exodus.

However the people smuggler her family’s friends found refused to sail with adults and children together.

She had to hide in an orphanage for a few days with her brother and a cousin while her parents made the crossing.

“Then one day, some people came and made us take a bath in a big wooden bathtub and then we left,” she added.

“When we were at the beach, I remember the stones and the sound (of the waves). And then someone took me and placed me in a rowing boat and hid me under the fisherman’s net,” Silja said in her bright apartment, surrounded by family photos.

They were later placed in a trawler en route to Sweden. Silja was reunited with her family upon arrival — except for her paternal grandparents, who refused to leave Denmark.

They were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, like about 500 other Danish Jews, 50 of whom died there.

However Silja’s grandparents returned to Denmark after the end of the war.

‘Nightmares all my life’

By the end of September 1943, neutral Sweden had formally offered asylum to Danish Jews and prepared to welcome them.

“We fled with almost nothing and were given clothes when we arrived in Sweden,” Freddy said.

His family members who worked as tailors moved to the Swedish textile town of Boras near the west coast.

Meanwhile, Silja and her family moved to the central town of Vingaker. She kept some photos of herself showing a smiling long-haired girl playing with her brother and neighbors at the time.

They returned to Denmark after the nation was liberated on May 5, 1945.

Neither Silja nor Freddie could return to their old apartments which were rented to other families. But they quickly found new housing.

Nazi soldiers on the march over an unnamed road in Denmark, April 9, 1940, seized by Germany in a sudden thrust toward Scandinavian points. (AP Photo)

“The municipality of Copenhagen made sure that all the belongings of the Jews, who were forced to flee, were kept in good condition and we recovered everything,” added the former teacher.

On their way to their first classes at the Jewish School in Copenhagen when they were children, they did not talk about their experience.

“One of my classmates had lost his father, a brother and a sister during the crossing, and he never talked about it,” Freddy said.

In his family, not a word was uttered about their escape and Sweden while for Silja, “we could not avoid talking about it.”

“I’ve had nightmares all my life and worked a lot to try to not cry,” she said with a sob.

“We’ll always be refugees.”

After a Miraculous Escape from the Nazis, a Life Dedicated to Defending America

By Richard Sandomir

Born in 1934 as Schaja Shachnowski in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas (known to Jews as Kovno), Sidney Shachnow died in North Carolina on September 27. In 1941, the Nazis had herded Shachnow and his family, along with the other local Jews, into a ghetto, where most either died of starvation and disease or were murdered. Against all odds, nine-year-old Schaja managed to escape, as Richard Sandomir relates:

Leaving behind his weeping parents one morning before dawn, . . . Schaja hid under his Uncle Willie’s long coat as the uncle, with Schaja moving in rhythm with him, walked through the gates, passing guards and a work detail that was often sent outside the ghetto. Shortly afterward, children at the camp were liquidated. When he and his uncle reached the streets beyond the gates of the ghetto, . . . his uncle gave him a prearranged signal to emerge from under the coat and find his contact, a woman wearing a red kerchief. . . .

[Later on] he was taken in by a Roman Catholic family and lived with them for several months. He was then reunited with his mother, who had escaped from the ghetto, and his younger brother, Mula, who had been smuggled to safety disguised as a girl.

After the Red Army retook Lithuania, Schaja and his family, wishing to avoid Soviet tyranny, fled to the Allied zone in Germany, where they reunited with Schaja’s father and then left for the U.S. Shachnow went on to join the Green Berets, was decorated twice in Vietnam, commanded an elite clandestine unit in Berlin, and eventually attained the rank of major general. He was serving as the Army’s commanding officer in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell:

As a German-speaking combat veteran, General Shachnow was well suited to serve in Berlin. But as a Holocaust survivor, he was confronted with what he felt was a delicious irony: his headquarters had been those of the powerful Nazi official Hermann Göring, and his residence had once belonged to Fritz Reinhardt, a finance minister under Hitler. . . .

After leaving Berlin, he was appointed commander of the Special Forces and commanding general of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, NC. . . . He retired from the Army in 1994.

Source: https://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/2018/10/after-a-miraculous-escape-from-the-nazis-a-life-dedicated-to-defending-america/

In NY, virtual reality puts a human face on the horrors of a Nazi death camp

A new multimedia display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage uses virtual reality and personal artifacts to flesh out the murdered Jews the Nazis tried to view as mere numbers

Pinchas Gutter tours the concentration camp where his parents and twin sister were murdered during World War II in this screenshot from 'The Last Goodbye.' (Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

Pinchas Gutter tours the concentration camp where his parents and twin sister were murdered during World War II in this screenshot from ‘The Last Goodbye.’ (Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

NEW YORK — Pinchas Gutter stands on the platform. Behind him, the trees appear to sway ever so slightly in the breeze. He recalls the moment he and his twin were cleaved apart — how all he remembers of Sabina, then 11, is her long, golden braid.

Next the octogenarian stands inside the gas chamber where his sister and parents perished. His pain is as palpable as his determination to sear his story into the consciousness of his audience — a pain made all the more poignant by the fact that each viewer is actually “with” Gutter in the Nazi death machine.

It is part of the virtual reality film “The Last Goodbye,” in which Gutter invites visitors to walk alongside him as he returns one last time to Majdanek, the place where his parents and his twin sister were murdered.

The 20 minute film experience, co-produced with the US Shoah Foundation, is part of “In Confidence: Holocaust History Told By Those Who Lived It,” a new multimedia installation at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. Through correspondence, journals, photographs, artwork, and testimonies the exhibit makes the past personal.

“Having little children myself, and seeing some of what was produced by young people in the camps, it’s an overwhelming feeling,” said Michel Glickman, the museum’s president and CEO.

“And then to experience Majdanek with Pinchas, it leaves you with as many questions as answers. You do lose yourself in the moment. It’s incredibly intimate — you’re being pulled into his life,” he said.

After the conclusion of the film “The Last Goodbye,” a museum staff member escorts the viewer to the interactive exhibit, “Dimensions in Testimony.” There, they stand before a projection of Gutter and can ask him questions about his experience, from what he remembers about life before the war to his first impression upon arriving in Majdanek. Gutter recorded answers to 1,500 questions over five days. The technology works similar to Siri or Alexa, where key words prompt answers, said Miriam Haier, the installation’s curator and the museum’s director of strategy and engagement.

In the future, Gutter, and a number of other survivors who participated in similar interviews, will bear their testimony as holograms.

“If part of the Nazi project was to degrade and divest people of humanity, we want to reinvest them with humanity,” said Haier.

“Each time someone wrote something, or painted something, it resisted the attempt to reduce them to numbers,” Haier said.

‘I hope that my brother’s name will be remembered’

Displaying rare and never before seen artifacts, “In Confidence” seeks to pull visitors into the lives of others. That’s why the installation is organized by medium, rather than a strict chronology, Haier said.

Among the personal artifacts featured are autograph books, a photo album filled with pictures of smiling friends, and a 10-year-old girl’s letters to her mother that capture the day-to-day life of prisoners in Terezin. On the walls are large panel displays of letters and photographs.

In July 1942, Gita Hojtasova (10 years old), Zuzana (7 years old), and their mother Gertrude were deported from their native Prague to the Terezin concentration camp/ghetto. They were liberated in 1945. Drawings in colored pencil, often on rag paper, show Zuzana’s expression of the complicated childhood that she endured in Terezin. (Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

Survivors, or their families, donated most of the items featured in this installation — sometimes so that the remaining traces of their loved ones’ lives would be preserved.

“We want people to have a deep engagement with something, to find some connection with a huan being,” Haier said.

That was Gerda Loewenstein’s hope when she donated 53 of her brother Peter’s artworks to the museum with the following appeal: “I hope that my brother’s name will be remembered and his work appreciated.”

“She was very clear when she donated to the museum that this was about remembrance,” Haier said.

Peter Loewenstein was deported to the Terezin concentration camp in the autumn of 1941, when he was 22 years old. While in Terezin, he created about 70 drawings in ink and watercolor. With each brushstroke, each dab of paint, he tried to hold onto his humanity.

Peter Loewenstein, ‘South Barracks,’ 1944, watercolor on paper, signed and dated on the bottom right: ‘PL 44.’ (Gift of Gerda and Herman Korngold/ Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

He tried to depict what the Jewish people imprisoned there experienced on a daily basis. In 1944, when he learned he would be deported to Auschwitz, Loewenstein gave his portfolio to his mother. Then, just before she and his sister Gerda were deported, his mother passed it to a family friend. Loewenstein perished in Auschwitz; only Gerda survived. After the war she reclaimed his artwork.

Another highlight of the section devoted to artwork includes over 100 drawings by Helga Weissova during the nearly three years she spent in Terezin between the ages of 12 and 14.

Weissova drew everyday scenes such as people scrambling for food and preparations for a visit by the Red Cross. In 1944 Weissova and her mother Irena were deported from Terezin and sent to Auschwitz. They went on to Freiburg, and finally Mauthausen, where the US Army liberated them on May 5, 1945.

After the war she reclaimed her drawings, which her uncle Josef Polak had hidden in a barracks wall at Terezin.

Helga Weissova, ‘Odchazejici Transport/ Transport leaving Terezin,’ 1943. Watercolor and ink on paper. People walk past the Hamburg barracks to the train that will deliver them to Auschwitz. Others witness their deportation — and say goodbye. (Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

A late postwar reawakening

The exhibit, which runs through January 31, 2019, includes a range of formats from a range of time periods, including postwar. For example, “The Art of Mikhail Turovsky” wasn’t begun until 1980.

“In the post-World War II Soviet Union, there was no open acknowledgment of the Holocaust. Jews that managed to escape Kiev and return after the war learned of the deaths of their loved ones only because they had disappeared from the face of the earth,” Mikhail Turovsky, 85, said in a press release.

“There was no official information or record of where or how they died. I wanted to express this tragedy, to convey the horror that these people — my grandmother and cousins among them — experienced in the face of annihilation, to express my own pain and compassion,” he said.

In the years since, Turovsky’s Holocaust paintings have been exhibited at Yad Vashem, the headquarters of the United Nations Organization, and at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City.

Photo of Gita and Zuzana Hojtasova in their family business in 1945. (Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

Some of the work on display comes from people who always intended on preserving and sharing their stories. Other creators, like Rywka Lipszyc, likely never envisioned that their work would become public. In the section “The Girl in the Diary,” which is presented in cooperation with the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, Poland, visitors can read excerpts from Lipszyc’s journal.

Lipszyc, then 14, wrote her diary while living in the Lodz Ghetto from 1943 to 1944. She writes of being treated like a child because of her age. She writes an entry on the day her brother was deported; about people dying of starvation; and how she fears her mind will go to waste living in the ghetto. And she writes that the only person who has permission to read her diary is her friend Surica.

Replica of the found diary of Rywka Lipszyc. ‘The Girl in the Diary’ is presented in cooperation with the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, Poland. (Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center of San Francisco/ Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

A Soviet doctor discovered the diary after the war near the ruins of Crematorium 3 at Auschwitz. Although she couldn’t read it, she knew it was important and saved it.

While the fate of the diary is known, Lipszyc’s fate is not. It is not known whether her young life was cut short like the final sentence on the last surviving page of her diary.

“A few years ago, in my dreams, when I was imagining my future, I could see sometimes: an evening, a studio, a desk, there is a woman sitting at the desk (an older woman), she’s writing… and writing, and writing… all the time… she forgets about her surroundings, she’s writing. I can see myself as this woman,” Lipszyc wrote on February 28, 1944.

For Haier, who spent months putting together the installation, it is perhaps the letters and journals that are the most affecting.

“I feel some responsibility reading something that was never meant for the public,” Haier said. “I think about what responsibility do we have to read it and I wonder what does that mean that we are the carriers of these stories?”

Reservations are recommended for the “The Last Goodbye.”

Exhibition held at Polish parliament on destruction of Jewish cemeteries

Non-Jewish activist group displays photos of Jewish graveyards in Poland that have been repurposed as shooting ranges, playgrounds

Illustrative: Gravestones at the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street in Warsaw, Poland, on December 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Illustrative: Gravestones at the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street in Warsaw, Poland, on December 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

An exhibition highlighting the destruction of Jewish cemeteries in Poland opened at the country’s parliament.

A group of non-Jewish activists called Currently Absent launched the exhibition bearing the same title on Tuesday at the Sejm, the Polish parliament, where it was hosted by Speaker Marek Kuchcinski of the ruling Law and Justice party.

“This is an important project, we are honored to host in the Sejm,” Kuchciński said at the opening.

The exhibition by Currently Absent opened amid a debate in Poland over protests by Jewish groups on cemetery desecration. The group photographed translucent plastic slabs shaped like headstones, complete with Hebrew-language epitaphs, at sites that used to be Jewish cemeteries, resulting in eerie, ghost-like visuals that recall the locale’s history.

Last month, the World Zionist Organization strongly protested what it said was the destruction of a Jewish cemetery in the town of Klimontow, near Krakow, during the construction of a sports complex being funded by the state. The complex, comprising a basketball and soccer court, was inaugurated on September 6 at a ribbon-cutting ceremony, according to the municipality’s website. It said the project has received more than $90,000 in government funding.

Separately, ultra-Orthodox followers of the Modzitz Hasidic dynasty, which is based in Israel, are fighting for access to the recently renovated courtyard of a school in Kazimierz Dolny, in eastern Poland, where they say their movement’s founder is buried.

The construction on what they say is the final resting place of Rabbi Yehezkel of Kuzhmir and others desecrated many Jewish graves, the movement’s followers have said.

Some 20,000 Jews are now living in Poland, which had 3.3 million Jews before the Holocaust.

Several groups are working to preserve Jewish cemeteries in Poland, including the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative and From the Depths.

Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/exhibition-held-at-polish-parliament-on-destruction-of-jewish-cemeteries/

After US teacher exposes her grandfather as Nazi collaborator, Lithuania listens

Long hailed as a national hero, Jonas Noreika has also been accused of murdering Jews during WWII. Now, his granddaughter has written a biography — and it’s far from exonerating

Silvia Foti visiting a friend in Vilnius, Lithuania, July 2013. (Ina Budryte/via JTA)

Silvia Foti visiting a friend in Vilnius, Lithuania, July 2013. (Ina Budryte/via JTA)

JTA — Barring unexpected delays, Silvia Foti is months away from fulfilling an old promise that’s become her life’s work: to write a biography of her late grandfather, who is a national hero in his native Lithuania.

Foti, a 60-year-old high school teacher from Chicago, made the pledge to her dying mother 18 years ago. She has spent a long time studying the life of her grandfather, Jonas Noreika, as well as acquiring the writing skills necessary for chronicling it and finding a publisher.

The national hero, she and they insist, was a Nazi collaborator who helped murder thousands of Jews and steal their property.

The unpublished biography, which Foti summarized in a bombshell Salon article in July, split her own family. She said her father and his second wife asked Foti not to publish the book because it would “make Lithuania look bad.” And it would have distressed her mother if she were still alive — the author said this causes her “great pain.”

But the main significance of the book is the unprecedented attention it is bringing to Noreika’s alleged crimes in Lithuania, where a school has been named for him. Noreika died in 1947 while in the hands of the KGB. In 2000, former president Vytautas Landsbergis, the first head of state of independent Lithuania, attended the funeral of Noreika’s wife in Vilnius.

Last week, Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius urged authorities to remove a memorial plaque to Noreika from the wall of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences in central Vilnius – the first such call by a senior Lithuanian official on any of the country’s numerous monuments celebrating killers of Jews.

Jonas Noreika (Wikipedia)

Following the Salon article and coverage of it in The New York Times, Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius, who for years has ignored calls by Jewish groups to remove the plaque, asked the state-funded and -operated Genocide and Resistance Research Center to review Noreika’s status as a national hero.

In her book, Foti explores how her grandfather issued orders to round up and kill the Jews after his appointment in 1941 as head of Siauliai County under the German Nazi occupation. And she presents evidence that he personally moved into the home of a Jewish family after its members had been killed, presumably at his order.

Foti recalled being shocked when she first learned of these allegations in 2013 while visiting the school in Sukionių named for her grandfather. The principal told her that “he got a lot of grief from the Jews” over the name, but assured her it “was all Soviet lies.”

That remark put her on a path to unravel the history of Lithuanian Jewry’s murder and her grandfather’s complicity in it. At first she had “hoped to exonerate him,” Foti said. Yet a wealth of evidence convinced her that her grandfather was complicit and actually “taught his Lithuanian soldiers how to exterminate Jews efficiently: how to sequester them, march them into the woods, force them to dig their own graves and shove them into pits after shooting them,” as she wrote in the Salon article.

It was a devastating discovery for a woman who said she grew up “adoring” her late grandfather. At Christmas dinners, her tight-knit family would leave an empty chair and glass of wine for him to acknowledge the absence of the handsome man in framed portraits who probably was tortured to death by the KGB at the age of 37.

Foti said she hopes the book helps “Lithuania finally take a good look at its own role in the Holocaust and stop blaming the Germans for everything.”

She has had to pray and seek guidance from God throughout her work on the book, she said.

The debate about Noreika and other collaborators who sided with the Nazis when they were fighting Russia during World War II goes to the heart of Lithuania’s national narrative that it was and is a victim of Russia. Seen through that prism, collaborators like Noreika or Juozas Ambrazevicius, the leader of a local pro-Nazi government, sided with Germany only to achieve independence for Lithuania.

But that narrative ignores the level of complicity by ordinary Lithuanians — many of whom viewed Jews as agents of communism — in the near total annihilation of the approximately 220,000 Jews who lived in Lithuania before the Holocaust, according to Efraim Zuroff, the Eastern Europe director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Chief Nazi-hunter of the US-based Jewish rights group Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Efraim Zuroff, during an interview with The Times of Israel on Wednesday, August 17, 2017 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Zuroff believes that the veneration of people like Noreika in some ways is rooted in a collective desire to whitewash Lithuanian complicity.

“You see this tendency across Eastern Europe,” he said, “but it’s strongest specifically in the countries with the highest amounts of genocide complicity.”

Lithuania is the only Nazi-occupied country noted by Israel’s Yad Vashem museum for its people’s “enthusiasm” for collaboration with Germany. And even when this enthusiasm “subsided … hostility towards Jews and denunciation persisted,” the museum says.

One example of this genocidal zeal occurred in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city. At the Lietukis Garage, pro-German Lithuanian nationalists killed more than 50 Jewish men in 1941 by beating, hosing and then murdering them with iron bars, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Some of the perpetrators then posed for pictures with the victims’ tortured bodies, providing some of the most memorable images of Nazi collaboration anywhere.

Aftermath of the Kovno, Lithuania (or Kaunas) ‘garage’ massacre in June of 1941, perpetrated by pro-German Lithuanians (public domain)

Foti’s research turned the plaque for Noreika into a symbol for the fight for recognition of that complicity. But the plaque is just one of numerous expressions of veneration for perpetrators.

Juozas Krikstaponis, a member of a death squad who killed thousands of Jews in Lithuania and Belarus, has a monument for him in the city of Ukmergė, 30 miles north of Vilnius.

The Nazi collaborator Kazys Skirpa, who represented his nation in Berlin during WWII, has a main street named after him in Kaunas, and his image features regularly in nationalist marches. An outspoken anti-Semite, Skirpa “proposed to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ not by genocide but by the method of expulsion from Lithuania,” the Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania asserted in 2015.

Against this background, the developments around Foti’s article have surprised veteran campaigners for Holocaust recognition in Lithuania.

Zuroff acknowledged that Jewish Holocaust scholars like himself are “easy to dismiss” in Lithuania as Russian agents or disgruntled enemies of the Lithuanian nation. Even ethnic Lithuanians who try to confront complicity quickly get labeled as traitors.

In 2015, Zuroff co-authored a landmark book with Ruta Vanagaite, a successful writer who is not Jewish, that chronicles their joint travels across many of the killing sites of Jews that dot Lithuania and their history. “Our People” also features Vanagaite’s discovery that two of her close relatives, her grandfather and uncle, were active in the persecution of Jews.

But Vanagaite’s publishing house last year dropped her as the mainstream media attempted to discredit her. Landsbergis, who was Lithuania’s first leader after communism, published an op-ed on the Delfi news site calling Vanagaite a “moral scumbag” and “Mrs. Dushanski” — a reference to the Jewish KGB officer Nachman Dushanski.

Main entrance to the Ghetto of Vilnius in Lithuania, during WWII (Wikimedia Commons – public domain)

Vanagaite’s publishing house also recalled all of her books, only one of which was about the Holocaust. And the governing coalition in April introduced a bill banning the sale of books that “distort historical facts” in what was seen as direct reaction to some of her claims about WWII.

Whereas Vanagaite’s ties to Zuroff and liberal credentials made her vulnerable to smear campaigns, Foti “totally blindsided the Lithuanian government,” according to Grant Gochin, a Los Angeles-based financial adviser of Lithuanian-Jewish descent. Gochin is behind multiple lawsuits over his ancestral homeland’s veneration of war criminals, including Noreika.

“They can’t call Noreika’s daughter a Soviet agent, they can’t defend against her,” he said.

In this respect Foti, who also favors the removal of the plaque honoring her grandfather and other honors, landed a rare victory for Zuroff, Vanagaite and Gochin’s side. She also highlighted their fight to the outside world.

But the officials who said they favored steps to remove Noreika as a national hero were “clearly paying lip service,” Gochin said, “or it would’ve happened long ago.”

As long as Lithuanians are taught to revere people like Noreika, Gochin said, “the fight for historical accuracy is being lost.”

“Genocide,” he said, “needs to be acknowledged where it happened.”

Outsourced mass murder: How Topf & Sons engineered genocide from its boardroom

Among dozens of German companies that enabled the Holocaust, the opportunistic crematorium maker was indispensable, according to new book

Crematoria at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz I. Their construction was a prelude to much larger crematoria complexes later constructed at Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, in Poland, October 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Crematoria at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz I. Their construction was a prelude to much larger crematoria complexes later constructed at Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, in Poland, October 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

If the owners of Topf & Sons had been allowed to implement the firm’s vision, Auschwitz-Birkenau would have received the most high-tech crematorium system ever designed: a four-story tall “incineration chamber” to be fueled by heated corpses placed along conveyor belts. Instead of having to rely on the Third Reich’s existing small prisoner-operated “ovens,” the disposal process could finally become self-contained.

The plans drawn up by Topf & Sons for this nightmarish creation were never implemented, but  — by the time the family business filed a patent application for it — the company had already helped the Nazis dispose of more than one million corpses at several forced labor and death camps.

Founded in 1878, Topf & Sons’ initial expertise was in brewing and milling. The unprecedented carnage of World War I, however, opened new possibilities, pushing Topf to become the global leader in designing and constructing crematoria.

During World War II, Topf & Sons made itself indispensable to the Nazis’ “Final Solution,” the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. The company’s products and know-how were deployed most lethally at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where piles of evidence — corpses — were disposed of in Topf “ovens.” The gas chambers were also ventilated by Topf technology for much of the camp’s existence.

‘Architects of Death,’ published in 2018 (courtesy)

“Auschwitz evolved from a backwater camp for Polish prisoners to a site for Soviet prisoners of war and finally into a vast forced labor complex and the heart of the planned extermination of the Jewish race in Europe,” wrote Bartlett. “And far from being mere ‘camp suppliers,’ it was the innovation and flexibility of Topf & Sons that enabled this transformation,” wrote the London-based journalist.

Bartlett’s book is framed around the elderly Hartmut Topf, great-grandson of the company’s founder. For many years, Topf sought to “separate himself” from his family’s infamous name, including by helping to create a memorial at the former headquarters of Topf & Sons.

As the book’s figure of redemption, Topf recalls a Jewish friend from his childhood named Hans Laessing. The boy and his family “disappeared” during the war, and Topf remained forever haunted. In addition to the atonement-seeking German, the book examines the motivations of Topf & Sons’ leaders during the Nazi era, as well as some of the firm’s SS liaisons.

“The challenge for me was to explore the human motives of the men involved,” Bartlett told The Times of Israel in an interview. “A book that was about the technology of building ovens would be a very grim and strange book — I wanted to make sure we in some way understood what these men were like, and why they behaved as they did.”

‘Prepared to put aside any human morality’

The Nazis’ genocidal program was an irresistible opportunity for brothers Ludwig and Ernst Topf, leaders of their namesake company throughout the 1930s and World War II.

Although fewer than two percent of the firm’s products were used in the killing facilities of Nazi camps, the owners and engineers of Topf & Sons went beyond the call of duty in servicing the SS. Assisting the process were more than 600 forced laborers brought in from the conquered east.

Crematoria room entrance at the former Nazi concentration camp Mauthausen, in Austria, 2013 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

During the first phase of the Auschwitz-Birkenau’s existence, the “stop-gap” in mass murder was the ability of the SS to destroy thousands of corpses on a weekly basis. Initially, fields of mass graves heaved open in the summer heat, pointing to the need for a more technological — and permanent — method for eradicating human remains.

To solve the problem, Topf & Sons installed its “eight-muffle ovens” inside several of the gassing-crematoria complexes. With the new ovens, thousands of corpses could be incinerated daily. In addition to building and maintaining the crematoria, Topf & Sons later created a ventilation system for the gas chambers, allowing the corpses to be cleared out in about one hour, as opposed to several hours.

“In the case of Topf & Sons, it was a handful of individuals — out for what they could get — be that money, safety from serving in the army, or career advancement,” Bartlett told The Times of Israel. “They were opportunists, prepared to put aside any human morality to advance themselves in the smallest of ways,” said Bartlett.

Like the Nazi regime they served, the masters of Topf & Sons became adept at deploying euphemisms, for example replacing the word crematoria with “incineration chambers.” Toward the end of the war, the firm applied for a patent to build a “continuous operation corpse incineration” system. Never constructed, the concept was based on using conveyor belts with heated corpses to maintain the flames.

Journalist and author Karen Bartlett (courtesy)

For abetting the Nazis’ genocide machine, neither Ludwig nor Ernst Topf were prosecuted after the war. Under Soviet rule, the company was confiscated and nationalized. Historians largely blame Soviet authorities for hindering prosecutions of the company and its leaders, including by withholding key evidence.

By 1955, the firm was no longer making “incineration chambers,” but focused on granary construction for farms. The privatization of Topf & Sons in 1993 was followed by bankruptcy and closure in 1996, some half a century after the firm’s heyday as Germany’s leading designer and manufacturer of crematoria.

‘This is happening all the time’

“Architects of Death” closes with the 2011 creation of a Holocaust memorial at the building that served as Topf & Sons’ headquarters, not far from Buchenwald.

Located in central Germany’s Erfurt, the memorial’s façade is marked with the words used by the firm in its correspondence with the SS: “Always happy to be at your service.” Inside the ordinary-looking office building, visitors can learn about Topf & Sons’ dubious accomplishments during the Third Reich.

Ruins of gas chamber-crematoria complex at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former Nazi death camp in Poland, October 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

“We can show here how easy it is for a human being to ignore his responsibility towards his fellow human beings in his daily work,” said memorial director Annegret Schule.

Currently, the memorial is the only of its kind at the site of a German company involved in the Holocaust. Through windows in the former headquarters, Buchenwald can be seen in the distance — a world of horrors where thousands of prisoners’ corpses were destroyed in crematoria provided by Topf & Sons.

“If I go to the memorial in Buchenwald I cannot identify myself with the SS, because I would never have become a member,” Schule says in Bartlett’s book. “But I can relate to other people who harm other people by doing their normal jobs. This is happening all the time. Visitors are motivated to think about this. Processes that are completely normal within any companies have led to atrocities,” said the memorial director.

Following the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald, photographers captured some of the regime’s atrocities there, including mounds of corpses placed outside the Topf & Sons-built crematoria (public domain)

In her interview with The Times of Israel, Bartlett noted that Topf & Sons was one of many German companies involved in making Nazi atrocities possible.

“There are many companies who [could be researched in the manner of Topf & Sons],” said Bartlett, adding that she relied on German translators in piecing together the book from vast archival holdings.

“For example, Siemens built the electrical infrastructure for the camps, and Bosch installed the plumbing and water,” said Bartlett. “Kori was the other company which built crematoriums for the camps; it still exists but has never made any of its archive available to researchers. I believe that you can see the building where the company existed which made the Zyklon B gas in Hamburg, but there is no memorial there,” said Bartlett.

Asked why she thinks no other Holocaust-complicit German companies have erected memorials, Bartlett pointed out the difference between remotely located former Nazi camps, and major companies still in existence.

“[The camps] can be mentally put aside and forgotten about in some senses,” said Bartlett. “Companies are still in existence, in the hearts of towns and cities, and are therefore much more a part of normal life.”

Ruins of a gas chamber-crematoria complex at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, with stairs leading down to the undressing room, Poland, October 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/outsourced-mass-murder-how-topf-sons-engineered-genocide-from-its-boardroom/

73 years on, Italy awards Jewish Brigade medal of valor for fighting Nazis

For an Israeli-Italian captain in the IDF, the honor links family history to army service; Jewish Brigade vet says it’s ‘better late than never’

The Italian Ambassador to Israel, Gianluigi Benedetti, presents the Gold Medal for Military Valor to the IDF's 7th Armored Brigade on October 3, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Italian Ambassador to Israel, Gianluigi Benedetti, presents the Gold Medal for Military Valor to the IDF’s 7th Armored Brigade on October 3, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

More than 70 years after soldiers from the British Army’s Jewish Brigade fought against Nazi forces in Italy, the Israel Defense Forces’ 7th Armored Brigade was awarded a medal of valor from the Italian government on their behalf.

The Jewish Brigade was formed in 1944 at the height of World War II, with the view that Jews had a right to fight the Nazis in light of the horrors being inflicted upon their coreligionists. The unit was made up mostly of Jews from British Mandate-era Palestine, along with a few Jewish and non-Jewish senior officers from the United Kingdom.

The ceremony was held Wednesday in Moshav Avihail, near Netanya, in a museum dedicated to the antecedent of the Jewish Brigade, the Jewish Legion, which fought against the Ottomans in World War I.

The Gold Medal for Military Valor, which was presented to the IDF’s 7th Armored Brigade by the Italian government on October 3, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The 7th Armored Brigade was chosen to receive the award on behalf of the IDF as it has historical ties to the Jewish Brigade, many of whose members joined the armored brigade after World War II. Indeed, the first commander of the 7th Brigade, Shlomo Shamir, was a veteran of the Jewish Brigade.

The Jewish Brigade saw combat in Italy in the spring of 1945, toward the end of the war, fighting as part of Operation Grapeshot against German and Fascist Italian forces.

The soldiers of the Jewish Brigade were “young people who did not have their own state but found the generosity to fight and die for the freedom of others,” said Gianluigi Benedetti, the Italian ambassador to Israel, after presenting the medal.

A Jewish Brigade soldier carries an artillery shell. The Hebrew inscription on the shell reads, ‘A gift to Hitler.’

One of those young people was Piero Cividalli, who was born in Italy in 1926. His family left the country for then-Palestine in 1939 after the Fascists enacted anti-Semitic laws, barring Jews from schools, stripping them of their assets and restricting their travel, among other things.

He joined the Jewish Brigade at 18, but it was too late to fight in the war — he was still in basic training in Egypt during Operation Grapeshot. He traveled to his native Italy with the unit shortly after the war ended, in the summer of 1945. Over the next year, he was stationed throughout Europe, in Italy, Austria, Belgium and Holland.

“I was a soldier, I did soldier things — patrols, guarding. We helped with the refugees,” he said, in slightly accented Hebrew.

The Italian Ambassador to Israel, Gianluigi Benedetti, poses with veterans of the Jewish Brigade, which fought the Nazis in Italy during World War II, following an award ceremony on October 3, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Soon after Cividalli returned to Israel, he joined the burgeoning IDF and served in the Givati Infantry Brigade’s 53rd Battalion during the 1948 Independence War, as well as the 1956 Sinai War and the 1967 Six Day War.

For Cpt. Daniel Sztulman, a company commander in the 7th Brigade’s 82nd Battalion who was born to an Italian immigrant mother and grew up speaking Italian, the medal connected his family’s history with his current military service.

Cpt. Daniel Sztulman of the IDF 7th Armored Brigade whose unit received the Gold Medal for Military Valor from the Italian government on October 3, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“I came here today because for me it’s symbolic, it brings things full circle,” he said.

“Honestly, I didn’t know the history before this. I’d heard about the brigade, that it took part in the liberation of Italy, but I didn’t know that most of the people in it later joined the 82nd Battalion, where I serve now,” he said.
















After the war, the Jewish Brigade remained in Europe for more than a year. Officially, the Jewish soldiers were charged with helping find and settle Holocaust survivors and refugees. Unofficially, they also took part in assassination campaigns of Nazi officers and helped smuggle Holocaust survivors and refugees through southern Italy and across the Mediterranean Sea into then-Palestine.

Cividalli, who later became an artist, said the medal and recognition were appreciated, but were too slow to arrive.

Source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/73-years-on-italy-awards-jewish-brigade-medal-of-valor-for-fighting-nazis/

At Yad Vashem, Merkel says Germany has ‘everlasting’ duty to fight anti-Semitism

German chancellor, visiting Israel with her cabinet, says Nazi violence and persecution of European Jews ‘broke with civilization’

German Chancellor Angela Merkel lays a wreath during a ceremony at the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem on October 4, 2018 (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel lays a wreath during a ceremony at the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem on October 4, 2018 (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel continued her 24-hour visit to Israel on Thursday with a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, and said Germany bore an “everlasting responsibility” to remember the tragedy and oppose anti-Semitism.

“Nearly 80 years ago, on the pogrom night of November 9, the Jewish people in Germany faced unprecedented hate and violence,” she said after her visit, reading out the message she wrote in the museum’s guestbook.

“But what followed were the unprecedented crimes of the Shoah and its break with civilization,” Merkel added. “From this comes the everlasting responsibility of Germany to remember this crime and to oppose anti-Semitism, xenophobia, hatred and violence.”

Later on Thursday, Merkel was meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, and will also receive an honorary doctorate from Haifa University.
Merkel, who is accompanied by much of her cabinet, a large business delegation and her new czar for combating anti-Semitism, arrived in Israel on Wednesday night for the latest in a series of joint government consultations highlighting the countries’ close bond seven decades after the Holocaust, even as recent developments have tested the ties.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet with Israeli and German businessmen at the Israel Museum Jerusalem on October 4, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / ABIR SULTAN)

Her two-day visit is expected to focus on bilateral economic issues, with an emphasis on innovation, technology and development projects. But looming in the background will be sharp differences in Israeli and German policies toward Iran and the Palestinians.

Germany is Israel’s largest trading partner in Europe and for the past few decades has been one of its strongest allies. Israel was established three years after the end of World War II, and the German government has paid billions in reparations to Holocaust survivors and positioned itself as a leader in combating anti-Semitism.

But differences have been exacerbated following the election of US President Donald Trump.

Netanyahu has been one of Trump’s staunchest international supporters, lauding him for pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal that Merkel and other world leaders helped negotiate in 2015. Netanyahu says the deal, which curbed Iran’s nuclear program, does not include enough safeguards to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapons capability.

Trump also has largely refrained from criticizing Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank — a subject of frequent European complaint — and has recognized Jerusalem as its capital and moved the US embassy there. He also has cut funding to the Palestinians and fully pinned the blame for stalled Mideast peace talks on them.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on October 3, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Netanyahu’s rapport with Merkel has been cordial though cool at times. Merkel has continued to champion the traditional approach to the Middle East peace process, calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Germany, for instance, has been among the European countries calling on Israel to refrain from carrying out its plans to demolish a West Bank hamlet it says was illegally built.

Israel has offered to resettle the 180 Bedouin Palestinian residents of the Khan al-Ahmar encampment a few kilometers away. But Palestinians and their European backers say the demolition is aimed at displacing Bedouins in favor of settlement expansion and would deal a devastating blow to hopes for Palestinian statehood.

Children from the West Bank Bedouin village of Khan Al Ahmar hold signs with the slogan “Save my school” as they protest outside President Reuven Rivlin’s residence in Jerusalem during his meeting on October 4, 2018 with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who arrived the previous night on an official visit to Israel. (AFP PHOTO / Ahmad GHARABLI)

The Supreme Court recently rejected a final appeal against the plans and residents are bracing for the move any day. Israeli forces are unlikely to carry it out during Merkel’s brief stay though, for fear of sparking a crisis.

Regardless, Israeli officials say they don’t expect that issue — or Merkel’s long-held preference for maintaining the Iran deal — to overshadow the visit, which is expected to bring about new economic agreements, the creation of a formal youth exchange and a renewed commitment to combating anti-Semitism, after Israel raised alarm over several recent cases in Germany.