Berlin grassroots project cleans Holocaust memorials where Jews scrubbed streets

For International Holocaust Remembrance Day, residents of a culturally mixed neighborhood come together to pay respects to WWII victims even while building a united future

BERLIN — As a light rain fell on a frigid winter morning, a few dozen people gathered at Oranienplatz near the Berlin city center, cleaning supplies in hand. At this grassroots meet-up on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a mix of English, Hebrew and German could be heard as newcomers gradually joined the group, making introductions and hugging old friends.

After briefly studying some maps of the area, organizers Ben Fisher and Anne Aulinger broke up the collective into several smaller crews, each assigned a patch of territory in the surrounding neighborhood. Their mission: to clean stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” commemorative brass cobblestones dedicated to Holocaust victims embedded in the city’s sidewalks.

As volunteers got down on their hands and knees to carefully clean and polish the faded brass plaques, the image of Jews forced by the Nazis to scrub the streets – a common humiliation meted out during the Holocaust – came to this reporter’s mind.

The neighborhood commemoration bore distinct differences from more traditional ceremonies held around Germany – something Fisher and Aulinger, both grassroots activists, said was by design.

“We had the idea of why not do a cleaning in the area where we live, to commemorate, and not to make it a big event with politicians speaking, and all that – just a community thing,” said Aulinger, a German-born political educator who has worked to combat racism and anti-Semitism over the last years, including in her work as a fellow at the human rights nonprofit Humanity in Action.

Organizers Ben Fisher, left, and Anne Aulinger map out where in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood different groups will clean stolpersteine on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2019. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

“It’s a really low-key thing to do. The stolpersteine are something I grew up with,” said Aulinger. “When they began to lay them in Germany I was still a child, and I think it’s something I basically took for granted because I’d never realized until some years ago that it’s really the initiative of individual people. The project depends on people themselves to bring it to their town.”

Launched in 1992 by German artist Gunter Demnig, the stolpersteine project currently has over 70,000 stumbling stones in more than 1,200 towns and cities throughout Europe. The small memorials are located on the street outside the last known address the victim voluntarily frequented before being relocated or killed by the Nazis.

Volunteers clean stolpersteine in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood on international Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2019. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

Most of the commemorated are Jews, but stolpersteine are dedicated to all victims of the Nazis, including Roma, homosexuals, and Jehova’s Witnesses. The memorials rely on individual citizens to investigate the history of the victims and apply for a plaque in their honor. The wait to have a new stolperstein (singular for stolpersteine) installed is currently up to five years.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the stolpersteine,” said Fisher, an Israeli-born trade union researcher and local tour guide who has lived in Berlin for the past four years. “When Holocaust Remembrance Day came last year, I said, ‘Let’s do something.’ We didn’t really know what to do, and Anne and I are grassroots kind of people. You can be a member of a party, a union, something, but at the end we like to do stuff. So we invited people though Facebook. It got attention and got bigger and bigger.”

Turkish filmmaker Ibrahim Karaman, left, and Ayelet Ahavim, an Israeli now living in Berlin, at a gathering in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood to clean stolpersteine on international Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2019. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

Fisher said that while the group was diverse, it appealed to some more than others – particularly to Israelis and non-Jewish Germans.

“Young Israelis want to have a way to interact with this part of their identity, but would never affiliate themselves with the institutional way of doing that,” Fisher said, noting that it was also a good way to meet new people. “German Jews already have their own institutional way of participating. Israelis are lacking that because they don’t really ‘belong’ here.”

“It’s also an interesting project for non-Jewish Germans. It gets people engaged, it’s a way for young Germans to reach out. If the core, the essence, is positive, good things will happen. You just need to create a platform for people to meet,” Fisher said.

Ibrahim Karaman is a Turkish filmmaker who spent his childhood and much of his adulthood in Berlin. He recently returned here to promote his new series, entitled “Stateless,” about a German citizen raised in Istanbul who discovers his grandfather’s secret Nazi past. The six-part series will premiere at the Berlin Film Festival early next month.

“Today there are stumbling stones on the very streets I grew up on as a child in Kreuzberg,” Karaman said. “When I was a kid, I had no idea about the horrible thing that happened, but now I’m back in Berlin and can commemorate it with new understanding and maturity.”

Part of Karaman’s series was filmed in the neighborhood. “Since this area was also to be cleaned and remembered today, it was especially important to me to come here,” he said.

Israeli anthropologist and former Hebrew University professor Tamar Rapoport, who now lives in Berlin, has researched the stolpersteine for years. The stones are especially notable, she said, because of their biographical information on each individual.

“It might not seem like a lot of information,” she said. “But the date and place of birth and death are the most important moments of a person’s life, and these are listed individually on each separate stone. In fact, the artist was inspired by the quotation from the Talmud that says that a person is only forgotten when their name is forgotten.”

Anthropologist Tamar Rapoport addresses the crowd at a ceremony concluding the day’s work of polishing the stolpersteine in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood to clean stolpersteine on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2019. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

Rapoport, who addressed the group as they regathered at the conclusion of the afternoon’s work, also stressed the importance of community for the foundation and continuation of the stolpersteine memorials.

“This is the biggest commemoration project in the world,” Rapoport said. “And it’s almost entirely driven by volunteers.”

As the concluding ceremony wound down, the organizers asked if anyone had a story to share. Thirty-three-year-old Stefan, who grew up in southern Germany, stepped forward to address the crowd.

“Ten years ago, when my grandfather was on his deathbed, he surprised us by telling us that his father was actually Jewish,” Stefan said, pausing to collect himself. “And that’s how I found out that my great-grandfather was actually murdered by the Nazis. I never knew before.”

Stefan said that despite the huge amount of painful information the family was forced to suddenly process, there was a silver lining: His great-grandfather had two surviving brothers who fled to Haifa in 1939. This past October, Stefan and his family visited their newfound Israeli relatives, who, he noted with pride, number more than 30.

“It was harder than I thought to talk about it,” Stefan later told The Times of Israel. “The personal connection to the incredibly sad and brutal fate of each of those individuals who share your own name is quite overwhelming.”

Cleaned and polished stolpersteine in Berlin. (Yotam Cohen)

But, he said, “it was at times a relief to share these experiences. Each Israeli family has such a story about loss to tell.”

For Stefan, polishing the stolpersteine “somehow makes these individuals’ fate visible in the public space again.”

“By cleaning them, you’re caring for them, you’re remembering the person, even if that will be never enough to make up for the loss of that person’s entire life story,” said Stefan.

A pastor who helped plot to kill Hitler is now the hero of a graphic novel

Artist John Hendrix, himself a man of faith, immortalizes theologian and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer in ‘The Faithful Spy,’ a serious comic for teens and tweens

Artist John Hendrix. (YouTube screenshot)

Artist John Hendrix. (YouTube screenshot)

He was a pastor, theologian, and anti-Hitler plotter — and he’s now a graphic-novel hero for teens and tweens.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s role in multiple assassination attempts against Hitler ultimately cost him his life. He is the subject of a recently released work aimed at young readers, “The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler,” by St. Louis-based author and illustrator John Hendrix.

“The Faithful Spy” chronicles his subsequent path toward that goal, joining a conspiracy deep within the Nazi ranks that culminated with the failed Valkyrie attempt in 1944 and Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment and death at the Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945.

Although this may seem like somber material for the intended age range of 10 to 14-year-olds, Hendrix believes they will be up to the task.

“Young people love stories about when moral stakes collide,” he said. “To feel true to someone, have them work together — kids are starting to do that, come out of the black-and-white period and see that there are grays in the world.”

He added, “I think children are very resilient thinkers at that age. They don’t have clear answers. I think we should give them stuff to encourage them to continue thinking.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer with some of his students in 1932. (Bundesarchiv Bild)

Hendrix has been thinking about Bonhoeffer for some time now, first reading his theology in college.

“I’ve always loved his writing,” said Hendrix, a practicing Christian. “His story stayed in the back of my mind. When I got into publishing, I thought, ‘Man, it would be a good story to tell from a faith angle,’ how Germany descended into hate, the rise of the Third Reich and the church’s response.”

Hendrix never considered following a traditional picture-book format, which was his usual method at the time, but was sure that a graphic novel was the perfect format for the subject matter.

He worked on the book over a five-year period — including traveling to Germany in 2016, where he sketched sites vital to Bonhoeffer’s life, such as Zionskirche in Berlin, a church where he ministered and pastored; and the Flossenburg concentration camp, where he was killed shortly after his 39th birthday, just a few weeks before the camp’s liberation. Today, a chapel at Flossenburg honors Bonhoeffer and other Holocaust victims.

“It was a very somber visit, pretty incredible,” Hendrix said.

To tell the story of Bonhoeffer’s life for young readers, Hendrix called upon his multitude of skills as both an artist and writer, which served him well in previous works with subjects from Jesus to 19th-century American abolitionist John Brown.

“I think what I bring to a book like this is an unusual kind of visual experience,” he said. “It’s neither one nor the other, word nor picture, a hundred pages of both, a visual novel.

“The opposites of words and images work well together when paired. A third thing results, neither word nor image — a gestalt, really. The sum is greater than its parts,” he said.

Text and illustrations from ‘The Faithful Spy,’ copyright 2018 by John Hendrix. (Used with permission from Amulet Books / ABRAMS)

A cartoon version of Bonhoeffer — unassuming, bespectacled, balding, quietly heroic — is counterpoised against Hitler, who is shown as an arrogant, menacing, destructive villain. Much of Bonhoeffer’s dialogue consists of his actual quotes; Hendrix viewed all of his original letters while in Berlin.

Hendrix found many other means through which to tell the story, from the allegorical to the technical.

Animal metaphors abound: the Nazis are depicted as rats and Hitler as a wolf. “Adolf” means “noble wolf” in German, Hendrix points out, but his lupine Hitler is “not heroic or brave but savage, cunning.” (Animal metaphors were also used in perhaps the most famous graphic novel about the Holocaust: Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” where Jewish mice were at the mercy of Nazi cats in the concentration camps.)

“The Faithful Spy” also features biblical imagery, representing Bonhoeffer as David with a slingshot, confronting a Nazi Goliath with a swastika on its shield. The accompanying text reveals Bonhoeffer’s “holy anger” at Hitler:

“He believed an attack on the Jewish people was an attack on all of God’s children.”

Hendrix called the David and Goliath illustration “probably” his favorite in the book, and it aptly depicts the struggle that developed between Bonhoeffer and the Nazis.

John Hendrix. (Courtesy Amulet Books / ABRAMS)

Born in 1906, Bonhoeffer grew up in a large, accomplished family that nevertheless knew tragedy; one of his brothers, Walter, died fighting for the Kaiser in World War I. Bonhoeffer came of age in a backdrop of German defeat and Nazi vengefulness.

In the 1930s, the young theologian wrote two acclaimed works, “The Cost of Discipleship” and “Life Together.” Both, according to the graphic novel, “further explored his long-debated question: ‘What, exactly, is the church?’ and ‘How does the church love ‘the other?’”

With the rise of Hitler that decade, Bonhoeffer came to feel that many in the German church were betraying God through acquiescence with Nazi doctrine against “the other,” including anti-Semitism.

“Christians in his church who were of Jewish background could not come to church,” Hendrix said. “It seemed crazy [to Bonhoeffer].” And “it was clear to him,” Hendrix said, that such policies “did not have biblical mandates.”

Bonhoeffer voiced his concerns in a 1933 essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” but “everything started to escalate,” Hendrix said. “The stakes got higher.”

This included the 1938 pogrom of Kristallnacht. Hendrix depicts the English equivalent of the term — “The Night of Broken Glass” — in letters consisting of broken glass. After the outbreak of World War II, Hitler stunningly conquered France through the blitzkrieg campaign, shown in a map by Hendrix. Bonhoeffer found himself facing a rapidly more powerful enemy that controlled both church and state.

The “major theme” of the book, Hendrix said, is Bonhoeffer’s reaction to “the church’s capitulation to Hitler” and what was happening to the Jews. He embarked on “a counter-narrative,” Hendrix said, one that showed “there were good people in Germany who saw what was going on, tried to change things and ultimately failed.”

As the book demonstrates, Bonhoeffer used family connections to join an anti-Nazi network in the Abwehr, or German intelligence agency.

Pretending to be working for the Nazis, he actually participated in counter-efforts, helping 14 Jews escape to Switzerland in 1941 and documenting Nazi atrocities.

Text and illustrations from The Faithful Spy copyright 2018 by John Hendrix. Used with permission from Amulet Books / ABRAMS.

And, Hendrix said, “There were many assassination attempts [against Hitler]. They did not go well. It’s new to a lot of people. I picked three [to illustrate] by the inner circle around Dietrich that were closest to actually happening.”

The second such attempt, a bomb placed on a plane, resulted in Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment at Tegel Prison in Berlin in 1943. Hendrix depicts his life in cell block 92: a poignant romance developing with Maria von Wedemeyer, the granddaughter of one of his supporters, who made visits and smuggled in information; Allied air raids on a nearby machine-works factory in which he comforted fellow prisoners; moments when he doubted the existence of God.

The conspiracy continued, culminating with Operation Valkyrie on July 20, 1944.

“Pick an assassination plot and most people probably know the Valkyrie one more than others,” Hendrix said of the attempt to detonate a bomb beside Hitler in his stronghold, the Wolf’s Lair.

Comic-strip panels show the 12 agonizing minutes of putting the plan into action — with the explosion dramatically depicted on the following two-page spread.

“I thought it was a very exciting, challenging arrangement,” Hendrix said. “The story worked well when it felt kind of like an action story.”

Hitler escaped death and began a wolf-like hunt of the conspirators, which proved fatal to Bonhoeffer when key evidence was found against him, leading to his transfer from Tegel to three far harsher destinations: an SS prison in Berlin, the Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally Flossenburg, where he was executed on April 9, 1945 after delivering his last sermon.

Hendrix said that it was “very difficult” to decide how to illustrate the ending of the story.

“I didn’t know how to end,” he said. “I had different versions. I did not make any one idea too important.”

Text and illustrations from The Faithful Spy copyright 2018 by John Hendrix. Used with permission from Amulet Books / ABRAMS.

The story might have had quite a different ending had Bonhoeffer survived.

“It was close,” Hendrix reflected. “He was a couple weeks from the camp being liberated. I wonder about that often. Does his legacy change if he survived?”

Had he lived, Hendrix said, “he would have probably written other works. We would still know him as a theologian. I think his sacrifice partially vaulted his status as a hero from the war.”

It’s a story that Hendrix hopes will have lasting lessons for young readers.

“I think there are a lot of angles, even if you’re not interested in faith, or the faith story of Dietrich,” Hendrix said. “It’s a fascinating tale of what it means to resist, hold ideas at personal risk.”

Daughter of high-ranking Nazi honored with Jewish award


(JTA) – The daughter of a Nazi who was given a 20-year sentence in Nuremberg is one of several recipients of the 19th annual Obermayer German Jewish History Awards.

Hilde Schramm, 82, the youngest daughter of Hitler’s war production minister, the architect Albert Speer, received the honor for her humanitarian work, including founding an organization – Stiftung Zurueckgeben (Giving Back) – to help Jewish women artists.

The ceremony, one of many events marking international Holocaust Remembrance Day, was held Monday in the Berlin Senate.

Schramm, a Green Party politician, used money she received from selling art inherited from her father to finance the creation of her nonprofit. In an interview before the ceremony, she said she had searched in vain for the original owners of the paintings before selling them and creating the foundation. She has supported some 150 Jewish artists over the years.

Schramm also has raised awareness about the huge amount of property — from art to furniture to jewelry — that was stolen from Jewish families from 1933 to 1945. Much of it remains in the possession of Germans today, she said.

The Obermayer Award was established by the late U.S. philanthropist Arthur Obermayer and his wife, Judith, to honor non-Jewish Germans who have helped preserve local Jewish history and reconnect Jews with roots in Germany. Most are nominated by Jews with family connections to Germany whose lives they have touched.

Five other honorees also received awards at the ceremony.


Read Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Teenage Essay on the Holocaust

‘Dare we be at ease?’ wrote Bader Ginsburg in Brooklyn in 1946

My Own Words, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s new collection of her legal writings, which appears to double as a professional semi-autobiography, feels like a long time coming. The Supreme Court Justice and liberal lioness has today become an outspoken cult hero, although she was widely rebuked recently for coming out against Donald Trump, a growing chorus of which she cannot be a proud member because of that whole SCOTUS job thing. Anyway, she’s no-no-no-notorious and enjoys wine and is cool in my book.

And there’s an essay in her new book that makes RBG, who grew up in Brooklyn, stand out even more in my eyes because it’s something that reveals her humanity and her ability to express her emotions and grapple with the realities and aftermath of the Holocaust. Written in 1946, when she was just 13 years old, “Ginsburg (then known by her maiden name Bader) went to both Reform and Orthodox synagogues as a child, the book reveals, before her family found a good fit at the Conservative East Midwood Jewish Center,” reported JTA. “She wondered as a young girl why boys got to do a bar mitzvah at age 13, while “there was no comparable ceremony for me,” a struggle that may have shaped her into the gender equality advocate she is today.”

Here is the essay, written by Ginsburg a little over a year after Bergen-Belsen was liberated, and published in her shul’s bulletin:

One People

The war has left a bloody trail and many deep wounds not too easily healed. Many people have been left with scars that take a long time to pass away. We must never forget the horrors which our brethren were subjected to in Bergen-Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps. Then, too, we must try hard to understand that for righteous people hate and prejudice are neither good occupations nor fit companions. Rabbi Alfred Bettleheim once said: “Prejudice saves us a painful trouble, the trouble of thinking.” In our beloved land families were not scattered, communities not erased nor our nation destroyed by the ravages of the World War.

Yet, dare we be at ease? We are part of a world whose unity has been almost completely shattered. No one can feel free from danger and destruction until the many torn threads of civilization are bound together again. We cannot feel safer until every nation, regardless of weapons or power, will meet together in good faith, the people worthy of mutual association. 

There can be a happy world and there will be once again, when men create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or a passing circumstance. Then and only then shall we have a world built on the foundation of the Fatherhood of God and whose structure is the Brotherhood of Man.


Two new Holocaust films depict tiny, true details to portray life under Nazis

The minutiae often omitted from the record is the focus of ‘Who Will Write Our History?,’ about Warsaw Ghetto’s Oyneg Shabes Archive, and ‘The Invisibles,’ both debuting this month

NEW YORK — I’ve never much cared for the phrase “The Chosen People.” It just strikes me as a little braggy. My preferred nickname has always been “People of the Book.” It sounds serious and studious, and lends itself to the type of interpretation you might find — with lengthy footnotes — in a very important book.

I’d like to think that early 20th century Polish-Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum had this double-meaning in mind when he first implored his colleagues, likewise trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto, to “get everything down on paper.” But as the remarkable film “Who Will Write Our History” shows, levity wasn’t exactly his top priority.

“No one appointed him,” historian Samuel D. Kassow says in this mesmerizing film that is half-documentary/half-reenactment. He just did it.

Ringelblum was working at the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the last remaining infrastructure for the enormous Jewish community in Warsaw prior to and during the time of the ghetto. There he was able to collect grand scale information concerning the movements of people, but also smaller stories of individual indignities that could easily slip through the cracks. Combined they form the true picture of Nazi atrocities and institutionalized anti-Semitism.

“Who Will Write Our History?” is an unusual movie. It is based on Kassow’s 2007 book of the same name, but director Roberta Grossman (and producer Nancy Spielberg, younger sister to Steven) mix talking head interviews, historical footage and “scenes” with actors, sets and high stakes drama. It’s not easy to thread this type of formalist needle, but Grossman maintains a level of urgency that is (and I hate describing movies about the Holocaust this way) quite entertaining. Ringelblum assembling his team is almost like a Shoah “Ocean’s 11.”

The Oyneg Shabes gatherings were somewhere between a a typical newsroom’s edit meetings and an emergency vigil. The Jewish community was shattering into pieces all around them, and they were furiously trying to put it back together again, just long enough to preserve a copy. When assignments were turned in they went to an archive, and while there were over 60 members of the group, very few knew where the materials were actually kept. (They can’t torture out information you don’t know.)

The importance of this material is evident. Without it, almost everything recorded about the Warsaw Ghetto came from the top down. German cameramen took German pictures. Propaganda films (included in this movie) positioned the Nazis as saviors to a Polish populace infested with conniving, thieving, dirty, lice-ridden Jews.

The materials collected for the archive are reports direct from beneath the boot of German abuse, and recorded in real time.

What sticks with me are the details. A snapshot of women forced to remove their underwear to use as rags to clean the street, then told to put them back on in the freezing cold is something that can only come from a witness, and it’s the type of thing that could, over time, dissolve into a more generic description (“they were terrible to us”) by someone who is trying to forget. Also shocking, was listening to the written reactions to the first reports of mass murders happening in camps outside the city.

Julia Lewenfisz-Gorka, Wojciech Zielinski, and Marta Ormaniec portraying Ora, Abraham and Luba Lewin in a Ghetto street scene. (Anna Wloch/ Courtesy)

There is also raw, true emotion of the kind that maybe seems like a hiccup in the overall narrative, such as the Jewish anger against the Jewish police who enforced German rules, even with a gun pointed at their head. The sequences in this film set during the mass deportation come in a fury; it is the 1940s version of “live blogging,” a camera-eye depiction from the middle of a nightmare.

There are also moments of reflection, even poetry. “It’s like a Hollywood movie out there, all you see are stars,” one journalist mused in reference to the Star of David armbands Jews were forced to wear.

One of Ringelblum’s aces was Rachel Auerbach, who would later hold a key position at Yad Vashem. She worked in the ghetto soup kitchen, where dilemmas such as “nourish one starving person enough that they might survive, or stretch the meager rations among 10 to string dying people along for another half-day?” were commonplace.

The firsthand specificity from the archive makes seemingly obvious points that, unless you lived through it, you might not think about. As an example, Ringleblum was lucky enough to live in the area that eventually became the ghetto. As such, he did not have to move — and was able to use his residence as a home base. People who came in from elsewhere in the city, or from the countryside, were frequently not given enough time to collect things of value. With nothing to sell for food, they were often the first to die.

Actor Jowita Budnik portrays Rachel Auerbach working at a soup kitchen. (Anna Wloch/ Courtesy)

That this movie exists at all is something of a miracle. All but three of the Oyneg Shabes group were killed, and only two knew where to look for the materials. The first cache was found in the Warsaw rubble right after the war. The second in 1950.

There’s a third still out there somewhere, believed to be under the Chinese Embassy. You’d think the Polish government would figure out the logistics to look for it, especially considering that the film ends with a card stating that only three document collections from Poland are in UNESCO’s Memory of the World collection: the music of Chopin, the scientific work of Copernicus and the Oyneg Shabes Archive.

Interestingly enough, the same month “Who Will Write Our History” makes its US debut (and also at New York’s Quad Cinemas), there’s another film with similar themes and technique. Claus Räfle’s “The Invisibles” moves from Warsaw to Berlin, to detail the lives of four individuals who hid in plain sight during the entirety of the war.

It’s another example of how individuals are easily overwhelmed by outside forces. There are plenty of Germans who want to help their Jewish neighbors, but each have different breaking points for the amount of risk they can take.

A still from Claus Räfle’s ‘The Invisibles.’ (Courtesy)

One clever Jew uses a list of apartments known to have spare rooms for young men about to get “called up.” He bounces from place to place until he can find something more secure. On the other side of this, a woman with safe shelter stays as long as she can until her host is discovered by the agency that assigns rooms for those that have been bombed-out. After this she ends up a servant in a Nazi officer’s home, never quite sure if he knows her true identity.

Unfortunately, Räfle’s film lacks the focus of Grossman’s (and is extremely repetitive) but is most interesting, again, when it gets into the minutiae of just how someone could survive the war in a city that Joseph Goebbels boasted was finally Judenrein.

A still from Claus Räfle’s ‘The Invisibles.’ (Courtesy)

One woman, Hanni Levy, found safe houses when she could, but much of the time she did something so obvious it sounds like a joke. She just … walked around. For months at a time, with dyed blonde hair and no yellow star on her clothing, she roamed the Berlin streets, ducked into movie theaters, stayed in parks, kept her head down and maintained hope.

Levi is still with us at age 94, and living in Germany. So for her, at least, hope and luck somehow were enough. Neither “The Invisibles” nor “Who Will Write Our History” are naive enough to suggest that, most people would find such a miracle.

“Who Will Write Our History” will be screening in these North American, European and Israeli cinemas starting January 18. “The Invisibles” will show at New York City’s Quad Cinemas and Landmark 57 West, and at Los Angeles’ Royal starting January 25.

War hero or Nazi collaborator? Family partners with victim’s kin to expose truth

Vilnius trial will see whether Jonas Noreika was whitewashed by Lithuania’s Genocide and Resistance Research Center; his granddaughter says he did his best to help Nazis kill Jews

Left to right: Grant Gochin (Courtesy); Accused Nazi collaborator Jonas Noreika (Courtesy); and granddaughter Silvia Foti (Ina Budryte/via JTA)

Left to right: Grant Gochin (Courtesy); Accused Nazi collaborator Jonas Noreika (Courtesy); and granddaughter Silvia Foti (Ina Budryte/via JTA)

LONDON — Seventy years after he was shot by the Soviets, the reputation of Jonas Noreika goes on trial in Lithuania next week.

Noreika — a hero to many in the Baltic state for resisting the Communists’ subjugation of their country — stands accused of being a Nazi collaborator who was complicit in the Holocaust.

It has been brought by Grant Gochin, a Lithuanian citizen living in the US, whose relatives were among Noreika’s victims.

But in an extraordinary twist, Gochin’s effort is being actively supported by Noreika’s granddaughter. Silvia Foti has spent more than two decades investigating “General Storm,” as her grandfather is known to many in his former homeland. Her conclusion is brutal: “Jonas Noreika willingly played a role in cleansing Lithuania of Jews. He did everything in his power to help the Nazis kill Jews, and nothing to stop them.”

Foti, a Chicago high school teacher who is soon due to publish a book about Noreika, has submitted a letter to the court stating that her independent research corroborates material gathered for Gochin’s lawsuit. Lithuanian academics have spent 850 hours reviewing 20,000 pages of historical documents.

Grant Gochin is pursuing a case against a Lithuanian state entity tasked with researching and educating about genocide and war crimes. (Courtesy)

Gochin praises Foti as “a woman of incredible bravery and dignity who understands that reconciliation can only come from a place of truth, and that truth must be told.”

“Her stepping forward means everything to me because her independent research validates all of my research, it shows that people that believe in truth and justice can cooperatively work towards a better future,” Gochin says.

“Her integrity restores my faith in humanity. I hope one day, Lithuania will recognize her as a true Lithuanian hero,” he adds.

Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, invaded in 1941 by the Germans, and then annexed by Josef Stalin after the advancing Red Army swept through the country in 1944. The country’s independence was not restored until the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly 50 years later.

“General Storm’s” supposed heroic status rests on his effort to organize postwar resistance to the Soviets while working as a lawyer at Vilnius’s Academy of Sciences. Arrested and tortured by the KGB, he nonetheless led the defense of 11 fellow anti-Soviet rebels. He was executed at the age of 37 in 1947.

But this narrative obscures a darker side to Noreika’s story, who was a member of Lithuania’s nationalist underground. It initially viewed the Germans as liberators, timed an uprising against the Soviets to coincide with their arrival, and falsely hoped they would restore the autonomy snuffed out by Stalin the previous year.

Indeed, even before the German occupation, local paramilitary groups initiated pogroms against Jews. Most of Lithuania’s Jews were murdered by December 1941 — a month before the Wannsee Conference commenced the Final Solution — with a significant role played by Lithuanian auxiliary forces.

Over two hundred thousand Jews, an estimated 96 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish population, died in the Holocaust — the highest percentage of any country in Europe.

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

Noreika led the nationalist uprising in Žemaitija and then became a county administrator in the northwestern part of the country after the German invasion. On his watch, an estimated 14,500 Jews are believed to have been murdered in Plungė, Telšiai, and across the Šiauliai district. While he may not have killed Jews personally, Noreika signed directives in the summer of 1941 which ordered Jews to be sent to ghettos and outlined how their property should be distributed. His family benefited directly from the plunder, moving into a house in Plungė seized from its Jewish owners.

Gochin’s lawsuit charges that the Genocide and Resistance Research Center, which was established in 1992 to study the country’s experience of Nazi and Soviet occupation, has intentionally distorted Noreika’s role in the murder of Jews and persists in portraying him as a national hero. Its actions are, it is claimed, tantamount to Holocaust denial, which is a crime in Lithuania.

Noreika’s memory is honored by street names, memorials and an inscribed stone block on a central Vilnius street. A village school in his hometown is also named after him. In 2015, a petition signed by prominent Lithuanian politicians, historians and writers called upon the government to remove a plaque from the Vilnius Library of the Academy of Sciences Building. The Genocide and Resistance Research Center reportedly denounced the move as Russian-inspired and said it was “assisted by some Jews.” Critics in turn accuse the Center of being “a bastion of far-right extremism that, in the opinion of many, does grave damage to the image of modern democratic Lithuania.”

Last year, Lithuanian Jewish community leaders joined calls for the plaque to be removed. “Noreika collaborated with the Nazi regime and contributed to the persecution of Lithuanian Jews, and this person can in no way be portrayed as a Lithuanian hero,” they said in a statement.

“We believe the Lithuanian people, now celebrating 100 years of statehood, are mature enough to accept the whole of historical facts and the state is capable of accepting responsibility for this public display of disrespect to historical truth,” read the statement.

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

The Center refused a request to comment on the case from The Times of Israel.

An obsession rooted in a family tree

Gochin’s interest in Norieka was sparked when he began genealogical research in the 1980s.

“Virtually every branch of my family ended in 1941 in Lithuania as a result of Holocaust murders. My family came from one region in Lithuania, I researched who murdered them. All roads led to Noreika,” he recalls.

At first Gochin, who was born in South Africa and serves as the Special Envoy for Diaspora Affairs for the African Union, believed that Noreika had been honored by the Lithuanian government in error.

“It took me a long time to recognize that honoring Holocaust perpetrators was a deliberate inversion of their history,” he says.

Gochin has detailed his campaign to expose and counter Lithuania’s alleged Holocaust revisionism in a series of blogs for The Times of Israel.

Accused Nazi collaborator, ‘General Storm’ Jonas Noreika (Courtesy)

Der Spiegel magazine had written about Norieka’s complicity in the 1980s, and some of his documents had been known since the 1970s. Over the past six years, others have attempted to bring the truth about Noreika’s wartime record to light.

Last year, Gochin commissionedLithuanian Holocaust experts Andrius Kulikauskas and Evaldas Balčiūnas to investigate Noreika’s crimes. Their 40-page report was rejected by the Genocide and Resistance Research Center which went on to accuse Gochin of “possibly violating the Republic of Lithuania’s Constitution and the Republic of Lithuania’s Criminal Code.”

Although confident of the historical facts, Gochin is nonetheless doubtful about the independence of the Lithuanian courts, which he believes tend to favor the position of the state.

“I brought this case because appealing for honesty about the Holocaust from the Lithuanian government has proven to be futile,” says Gochin. “It is clear to me that the only means to accomplish truth is via an independent, impartial, honest legal process, without government influence — this process will only be available in European courts. This case is a stepping stone to get the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.”

Gochin holds out little hope for the case which begins next week — it is presided over by a judge who, he says, has twice ruled against him using technicalities on other Noreika lawsuits — and plans to appeal any unfavorable decisions until he can get out of the Lithuanian courts and into the European courts.

The European Court of Human Rights enforces the European Convention on Human Rights which has been ratified by almost all European countries.

Gochin does not blame individual Lithuanians, saying they have been fed lies about the past by their government.

The Ninth Fort in Kaunas, Lithuania, which came to be known as the 'Fort of Death' during World War II, when it served for the murder of over 10,000 Jews by Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators.

The Ninth Fort in Kaunas, Lithuania, which came to be known as the ‘Fort of Death’ during World War II, when it served for the murder of over 10,000 Jews by Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators. (Shutterstock)

“These frauds are all the population knows, and having someone tell them that the national narrative is a fraudulent construct is disconcerting and not credible to them,” he argues. “They therefore, understandably, resist the facts. The government is unable to now admit the extent and deliberateness of their Holocaust frauds, so they decline to address facts. They cannot reject the case as the evidence is clear and overwhelming, so they continue on their path of distortion and aversion.”

‘It took me years to get psychologically ready to confront this’

Sylvia Foti (Courtesy)

Foti, however, shares Gochin’s determination that the truth will out. The two have been in contact since last year, when she informed him that, while most of his research was complete, he had missed many thousands of her grandfather’s victims.

Like Gochin, her involvement in the Lithuania lawsuit stems from researching her family history. As she originally detailed in a piece for Salon magazine last summer, Foti promised nearly 20 years ago that she would complete the biography of Norieka that her dying mother had been working on.

“I thought I would be writing about a hero because that is all I ever heard about him,” she suggests today.

But, on a visit in 2000 with her brother to the school named after Norieka in his birthplace, she was confronted with the first indication of a dark family secret. The headteacher let slip to his guests that he had “got a lot of grief” for deciding to name the school after an accused “Jew-killer.”

“My first reaction was disbelief and denial, that was just Communist propaganda,” Foti recalls.

Illustrative: A boy playing soccer at the entrance to the former concentration camp known as the Seventh Fort in Kaunas, Lithuania, July 12, 2016. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

“It took me years to get psychologically ready to confront this, as I was terrified of discovering that he was involved in killing Jews, so I delayed my investigation into the rumor,” she says.

Eventually, however, she began to uncover compelling evidence of her grandfather’s anti-Semitism. A book he had written in 1933 called “Raise Your Head Lithuanian” was, Foti says, “a rant against Jews, calling upon Lithuanians to boycott all Jewish businesses.” This and other facts deeply implicated him in the Holocaust.

Foti worked on her research during school holidays. In the summer of 2013, for instance, she spent seven weeks in Lithuania interviewing relatives, taking a Holocaust tour, and poring over documents from the period.

She also visited the Genocide Museum (recently renamed the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fighters) and interviewed its director.

“I found it odd that the Genocide Museum based its opinion of my grandfather solely from the KGB transcripts, which did not delve into his tenure as district chief of Šiauliai, but rather his rebellion against the Communists in 1945-46,” she argues. “The Genocide Museum discounted the documents my grandfather signed as district chief of Šiauliai during the Nazi occupation.”

In her piece for Salon, Foti also described how she hired a Holocaust guide who described to her how her grandfather, as a captain, 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. My grandfather was a master educator.”

Illustrative: The Jewish cemetery in Šiauliai, Lithuania. (screen capture: Google Street View)

“General Storm, as he is known, is a legend,” Foti suggests. “However, incredibly, Lithuania has been largely unaware of his willful role in the Holocaust. The reasons are psychologically and historically complicated, and it has taken me nearly two decades of research to figure it out.”

“As his granddaughter, it pains me to come to this conclusion,” she argues. “But it took me many years of grappling with denial. So, in this regard, I understand how difficult it is for Lithuanians to accept this. All we have heard is that we were the victims, caught between the Communists and the Nazis. For me, changing the narrative has changed my very identity. I have had to come to terms that I am the granddaughter of a perpetrator who has had his crimes covered up by the Lithuanian government.”

‘Changing the narrative has changed my very identity’

Foti recognizes that she and Gochin have become “unlikely partners — the granddaughter of a Holocaust perpetrator and the descendant of Holocaust victims.” The pair are, she believes, “on a mission to introduce truth to our ancestors’ homeland.”

“This is not the first time our families’ paths have converged: our independent research has shown that my grandfather was instrumental in the murder of Gochin’s Lithuanian relatives,” she adds.

But, Foti defiantly concludes, “The shame of my family is the national shame. I will not participate in insulting the Holocaust victims further by tolerating lies about my grandfather and his horrific actions. Deliberately distorting history brings added shame to Lithuania.”

Germany returns Nazi-looted painting to heirs of Jewish French resistance leader

Portrait belonging to family of Georges Mandel is among 1,500 found in possession of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi-era art dealer

The painting 'Portrait of a Seated Young Woman' by Thomas Couture stands on a easel during a restitution ceremony to the heirs of Jewish French politician Georges Mandel in Berlin on January 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

The painting ‘Portrait of a Seated Young Woman’ by Thomas Couture stands on a easel during a restitution ceremony to the heirs of Jewish French politician Georges Mandel in Berlin on January 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

BERLIN — Germany on Tuesday returned a painting looted by the Nazis to the heirs of French Jewish politician and resistance leader Georges Mandel.

The portrait of a seated woman by 19th century French painter Thomas Couture had been on display in a spectacular collection hoarded by Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi-era art dealer.

Experts determined two years ago that the painting had been looted from Mandel, relying on a small hole in the canvas as evidence of its provenance.

Mandel’s lover had cited the hole above the seated woman’s torso when she reported the painting stolen after the war.

Gruetters was joined in the ceremony by a representative of the Kunstmuseum Bern, which inherited Gurlitt’s collection when he died in 2014, and an envoy from the French embassy.

Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media Monika Gruetters, right, overhands the painting ‘Portrait of a Seated Young Woman’ by Thomas Couture to Franz Rainer Wolfgang Joachim Kleinertz, left, and Maria de las Mercedes Estrada, second from left, heirs of Jewish French politician Georges Mandel, during a restitution ceremony in Berlin,on January 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

About 450 pieces from the collection by masters such as Monet, Gauguin, Renoir, and Picasso have been on display in Bern, the western German city of Bonn, and in Berlin.

Gruetters called the Couture painting’s return “a moving conclusion to the exhibitions of the Gurlitt trove” and underlined Berlin’s commitment to provenance research.

“We have Georges Mandel’s family to thank that we could show this work in all three exhibitions,” she said.

Georges Bonnet, left, the French Foreign Minister, left, and Georges Mandel, Colonial Minister, leaves the cabinet council at the Elysee in Paris, on April 12, 1939. (AP Photo)

“In this way, we could inform the public about the fate of the Jewish politician Georges Mandel, who was persecuted and imprisoned by the Nazis.”

More than 1,500 works were discovered in 2012 in the possession of Munich pensioner Cornelius Gurlitt.

His father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, had worked as an art dealer for the Nazis since 1938.

The discovery of the stash made headlines around the world and revived an emotional debate about how thoroughly post-war Germany had dealt with art plundered by the Nazi regime.

When Gurlitt died, the Berlin museum accepted the collection, though it left about 500 works in Germany for a government task force to research their often murky origins.

But determining their provenance has been slow, and it is still not clear how many of the works were stolen.

The Couture portrait was the fifth work from the collection returned to heirs, and the sixth definitively classed as having been looted by the Nazis.

Following protests, London mosque cancels planned Holocaust exhibition

(JTA) – Following protests by Muslims, a mosque in London dropped plans to host an exhibition on Muslims who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

The Centre for Islamic Understanding in Golders Green, which did not say why it cancelled the event, was due to hold the exhibition about Muslim Albanians who rescued Jews on Sunday.

It abandoned the plan after some Muslims protested the planned event’s links with Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, the Jewish News of London reported Friday.

Calls for a boycott were spearheaded by Roshan Salih, editor of the British Muslim news site 5 Pillars.

“Commemorations must never be done in conjunction with Israeli oppressors or their supporters,” he said. In response to the cancellation, he wrote that the mosque “is to be commended for responding to community concerns.”

Jews who helped community leaders at the mosque set up the exhibition had said prior to the cancellation that they saw the event as a significant moment in Jewish-Muslim relations in Golders Green, which is one of the United Kingdom’s most-heavily Jewish areas.

It’s “incredibly important to remember that Jewish and Muslim communities have always historically supported each other and will always continue to do so,” Rabbi Natan Levy, head of operations at the Faith Forums for London, which helped organized the cancelled event, told the Jewish News.

“By spending more time together and seeking to understand our commonalities and appreciate our differences we can provide a united front against hatred,” he added.