The Jewish Immigrants Who Helped the U.S. Take on Nazis

They became Americans to fight for freedom and democracy—which meant taking down Hitler and interrogating German POWs.


Shortly after the U.S. 3rd Army liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945, a 27-year-old intelligence officer named Albert Rosenberg began gathering evidence of the atrocities committed there, horrors that would become a keystone of coming war crimes trials and the voluminous literature documenting Nazi wickedness. Lieutenant Rosenberg was no ordinary GI. He was a Jew born in Germany who, in 1937, had left his home country for the United States after becoming the target of Nazi violence. He’d been drafted into the Army in 1942, becoming one of the 2,000 or so young Jewish German exiles deployed as interrogators and spies against their erstwhile countrymen.

Rosenberg, a native German speaker who was also fluent in English and French, made a powerful impression on French resistance fighter Jorge Semprún, one of the Buchenwald survivors who helped interpret the camp’s infernal workings. Rosenberg was a “thin, gangly intellectual with a sad and piercing gaze,” Semprún would recall years later. “He had become an American to bear arms, to make war on Nazism. To make war on his own country. By becoming an American, he had chosen the universality of the democratic cause, an abstraction that could not become reality until his country had been defeated.”

In late 1942, the Army decided to create a special program to make use of the émigrés’ familiarity with Germany and its language—bright and bilingual, and highly motivated, they were well equipped to extract secrets from German POWs. After being plucked from other units, the men were hastily naturalized, trained in interrogation and propaganda techniques, shipped off to England and attached in small units to the combat forces that invaded Normandy and subsequently defeated and occupied their former homeland. They provided roughly two-thirds of the human intelligence used in the fight against Nazi Germany, according to an official estimate quoted in Sons and Soldiers, military historian Bruce Henderson’s sparkling new account of these émigré-fighters.

These newly hatched Americans trained mostly at Fort Ritchie, a mountain base near Hagerstown, Maryland, that was unconventional in every way. “The soldiers, moving about with a thoroughly unmartial gait, conversing in languages never heard in the Appalachians, might have been taken for Central European vacationers at a spa, gossiping about their cures,” Henderson quotes one émigré as saying. Though the recruits learned how to use rifles and march and drill, and occasionally took long forays into the woods—they frequently got lost and were rescued by puzzled farmers—the bulk of their eight-week training courses consisted of learning German military structures and other information crucial for extracting secrets from captive Wehrmacht soldiers.

The “Ritchie Boys,” as they would become known, employed guile and smarts to glean insights from the POWs while respecting the Geneva Accords. They learned how to distinguish between soldiers with greater or lesser adherence to Nazi ideals; to use bits of intelligence picked up from one soldier to present themselves to a different detainee as all-seeing, making the soldiers feel hopeless about withholding information. One tactic was to present unhelpful POWs with the false impression that they would be shipped to much-feared Russian POW camps if they failed to cooperate. But notably, the émigré soldiers never used waterboarding, electric shock or other “enhanced techniques.” In itself, this was a remarkable fact given the horrible casualties they saw inflicted on their comrades daily, as well as their own deeply personal motivations for seeking revenge on the Germans, who had persecuted and murdered their families and forced them into exile in the first place. They fervently believed that stooping to torture would render them no better than the Nazis.

Personal feelings could be submerged, the Ritchie Boys found, in the interest of an American cause that they identified with freedom and democracy. If the German-born Jews of the 1940s believed in America—much the same as our Afghan and Iraqi helpers in more recent conflicts—it was because they believed in what we stood for, rather than some blind or ethnically tinged nationalismAnd they continued to believe in and fight for that America, even as they sometimes faced prejudice and discrimination in the military, and even as many Americans embraced exactly the kind of nationalism that excluded Jews, blacks, Hispanics, and others from a full and equal place in the nation.


Many of us have grown accustomed to thinking that the American troops who liberated Europe from Hitler were conscious that the epitome of his evildoing was the murder of 6 million Jews. But rescuing or avenging the Jewish victims of Nazism was at best a minor U.S. objective. The Ritchie Boys enlisted in a campaign whose objectives had surprisingly little to do with the oppression that had brought them to the United States.

When the United States entered the war, most Americans had extremely low opinions of their Jewish co-citizens, with one 1938 U.S. Roper survey finding that 60 percent of respondents had a low opinion of Jews. Similarly, a Gallup poll done for Fortune magazine that year found two-thirds of Americans wanted to keep Jewish refugees from entering the country.

At its extreme, American anti-Semitism fueled pro-Nazi organizations like the German American Bund, which propelled 20,000 people into Madison Square Garden in 1939 and thousands more to rallies in cities across the country. Far more socially acceptable was Charles Lindbergh’s America First movement, which railed against a Jewish plot to suck America into a war that was of no concern to us. America First—words that President Donald Trump echoed, with an uncertain degree of historical awareness, at his inauguration and since—was much larger in scope than the Bund, with nearly a million paid members at its height, according to Wayne Cole’s book, America First. Even after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when Lindbergh’s movement shriveled in size and influence and the Bund was on the decline, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisers still had to contend with powerful widespread resentment of the Jews. The leadership shied from making Jewish persecution a central justification for war or a major facet of the indoctrination of American GIs. Their leeriness was built upon concerns that were not imaginary.

Such attitudes were very present in the military. Anti-Semitism in the ranks is a major theme in bestselling postwar novels such as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions and Stefan Heym’s The Crusaders. In The Crusaders, the mess chief, Dondolo, speaks for many of his kind when he tells a Jewish GI, “It’s because of people like you I had to leave my kids. Bunch of Jews get themselves into trouble, and the whole American army swims across the ocean. This fellow Hitler, he knew what he was doing … we should be fighting with them against the Communists.”

Although, on balance, most of them had more positive than negative experiences, the German émigrés—as well as American-born Jews—withstood taunts, discrimination and mistrust at the hands of their comrades in arms. “Most of the guys in basic training were Southerners who hated the Jewish boys from New York and busted our chops most of the time,” George Sakheim, who had fled to the U.S. via Palestine in the 1930s, told me in an interview. In one example of the petty cruelty that stemmed from such attitudes, Sakheim was forced to cut the camp commander’s lawn with scissors as a punishment for having shoes that were insufficiently shined. As Victor Brombert, another Ritchie Boy, recalled in his memoir: “The notion that Jews were cowards who managed to get soft jobs or to stay out of the army altogether, and had pushed America in to the war, was not uncommon among the soldiers.”

After being deployed to the front, the émigrés joined five-man interrogation and mobile radio teams that often were led by American-born officers whose qualifications consisted of a little German-language training, or German heritage. Some of the unit commanders were brazenly anti-Semitic. “Our captain wore his friendliness to Germans on his sleeve. We felt very uncomfortable,” recalled Ritchie Boy Henry Schwab in a 1996 interview on file at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “The army policy was we were fighting a war against the Germans. The fact that the Jews were being rounded up and annihilated was more of a local problem that didn’t have a military priority. A side issue. I took my soldiering seriously and the German-friendly captain hammered that down on us, never mind your personal stories and experience.” Gerald Bamberger, another Ritchie Boy, concurred: “The Holocaust at that time was not discussed. Not as an American soldier under those circumstances.”

The Ritchie Boys, with great discipline and loyalty to the U.S. cause, were trained to ask questions of tactical value to the advancing U.S. armies. The fate of Europe’s Jews did not arise. “Not once in my months of interrogation,” said Bamberger. “Nothing came up about Jews in Germany.” After the discoveries of the horrors at Buchenwald, recalled Schwab, who lost two aunts and an uncle in the concentration camps, “we grew more and more resentful.” And yet the Ritchie Boys believed passionately in the principles that Americans would come to view as the core justification of our campaign: to liberate Europe from a tyrant and establish a rule of law based on democracy and freedom untainted by racial hatred.


During the post-WWII period, young German-born Jewish American troops like Henry Kissinger, Albert Rosenthal and Victor Brombert had more to offer Germany, and America’s objectives there, than the typical occupying troops. They had a revitalizing passion for American ideals—a vision that would serve their new country, as well as the European lands they now occupied as American citizens. “Perhaps these youngest Americans, who had only come recently, who had known only hatred, civil war, class struggle and terror, had a specific mission to fulfill, not just to defend their new homeland, not only to destroy Hitlerism, but also to liberate their old country from the shackles of prejudices rooted in a history of centuries,” wrote émigré screenwriter Leo Lania, whose son served in the U.S. military.

In the postwar period, many of the Ritchie Boys were discouraged by the McCarthyism running rampant in the United States, leading a few to move back to Europe. Hanus Burger, a German-speaking Czech theater director who became a Ritchie Boy after fleeing to the United States in 1939, organized a hunger strike aboard the ship taking troops to England to force the authorities to allow black and brown GI members of his theater production to eat with the rest of the crew in the onboard mess hall. During the war, he helped run front-line radio stations that broadcast under a false flag to the German population. After working for the United Nations and CBS after the war, Burger, a former Communist, found the atmosphere increasingly uncomfortable. He returned to Czechoslovakia, only to flee to Austria after the Soviet invasion of 1968.

Others, like the Austrian-born opera singer and psychologist Manfred Hecht, never felt at ease in either world. Europe, for Hecht, “was like a lover who was very beautiful with a lot to offer you who betrayed you so cruelly you could never get over it.” Yet in the United States, he felt like an odd man out. “Too young, too old, strong Jewish identity but quite irreligious. I think I contributed. But integrated? Not really. Too many contradictions involved, too many various pools.”

And some, stung by anti-Semitism, became single-minded Zionists. Among these was William Perl, a brilliant interrogator who led the prosecutorial team questioning suspects in the Malmédy massacre of 84 American GIs, the worst wartime German atrocity against U.S. troops. With the perpetrators in U.S.-run jails in Germany following the trial, which was held at a court set up in the former Dachau concentration camp, Perl and his German-Jewish fellows became the targets of a bizarre campaign of recrimination. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who was in contact with German-American isolationists and SS apologists, made his first major appearance on the national scene in 1949 by claiming that Perl’s team had tortured and mistreated the German troops to obtain false confessions. After a series of investigations, the charges were dropped; Perl would go on to become leader of the Washington branch of the militant Jewish Defense League.

One of the best-known Ritchie Boys, the charismatic Hungarian-Jewish journalist Hans Habe, found another kind of frustration while editing the first newspapers to appear in U.S.-occupied Germany after the war. He struggled with General Dwight D. Eisenhower, his commander, over the latter’s requirement that American writers be featured prominently in the papers. Habe wanted to hire Germans who had proven anti-Nazi credentials. “For Eisenhower, the only way to reeducate the Germans was to Americanize them. I understood that this was impossible,” he wrote later. There were good German qualities to be salvaged, he believed, and in any case it was impossible to erase German culture. Furthermore, “it was the ideals of America that mattered, not its superficial culture of bubblegum and baseball and saving the flag.’’

Habe’s observations came to mind in Augustwhen President Donald Trump, upon announcing an increase in troops for Afghanistan, declared that the United States was not in that country for “nation-building” but rather “to kill terrorists.” Habe and his co-editors felt that an invasion was not like a janitorial job, where one could enter with mop and scrubbers, wipe up the mess and leave. It was necessary to understand one’s enemies and one’s friends before setting out on a mission of pacification. A profitable intervention required a strategy fit for the particular country, with particular resources and power structures. The subtle tasks of altering these structures, and adapting them, was nation-building, by any other name.

It has been said that, in the end, World War II was the theater in which Jews became definitively American. “One fought as an American,” wrote Deborah Dash Moore in her 2004 book GI Jews. “That meant one stood up as a Jew. A new type of Jew was being forged in the military.” It was also the moment when Jews were ultimately accepted as Americans. Both émigré and U.S.-born Jews experienced prejudice, but the military command emphatically sided with religious freedom. Anti-Semitism had declined dramatically by 1964, when a B’nai B’rith survey found suspicion of Jews in 29 percent of the population. Revelations of the Holocaust were important factors in this remarkable change, as were the civil rights movement and the inspiring new state of Israel, and the relatively new concept of a Judeo-Christian ethic—all factors that in some sense emerged from the cauldron of the war.

As for Lieutenant Rosenberg, the Army ended up shelving his report because it was deemed too politically sensitive in its depiction of the complex brutality of Buchenwald, with its byzantine architecture of criminal and Communist capos, secret resistance organizations and conspiracies resting on the venality and occasional humanity of certain SS officers. Jews were at the absolute bottom of the pecking order, mostly confined to the so-called “Little Camp,” a typhus- and dysentery-ridden warren of makeshift tents on the downhill side of the main camp, separated by rows of barbed wire. It was left to another Buchenwald prisoner, the German politician Eugene Kogon, who had worked compiling the facts with Rosenberg, to write the book. When it appeared in German in 1946 and in English four years later, The Theory and Practice of Hell offered the first detailed picture of the camps.

In breaks during their interviews at Buchenwald, Rosenberg and Semprún would stroll through a park in nearby Weimar, where the poets Goethe and Schiller had once ambled, discussing German literature and philosophy and their relationship to the Nazi catastrophe. Semprún, a writer and cultural official who lived until 2011, would never see Rosenberg again, but retained a fond memory of this young man who reawakened him to life after the inhumanity of camp life. Rosenberg became a social worker, civil rights activist and professor at University of Texas-El Paso, and died in 2014.

Anyone who has been close to the front lines of a conflict knows that a foreign army’s success depends on its relationship with locals familiar with the territory who are willing to risk their lives to protect and further its mission. Generations after Rosenberg and the Ritchie boys performed that role or translated for those who did, U.S. troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan continue to depend on local translators and fixers willing to give their lives to an American cause. And one of the great heartbreaks for many of the Americans who fought in recent wars, or who covered them, is the U.S. government’s frequent failure to recognize both the sacrifices of these allies and their ideal qualifications to become U.S. citizens. (About 10,000 Afghans who served as translators for the U.S. military and civilian groups are currently waiting for U.S. visas.) Like the German-Jewish émigrés of the 1930s and ’40s, these people fight with us not just for salaries, but because they believe in an America that is more than an ethnic enclave—they believe in the place they’ve heard about, where people of diverse beliefs, races and creeds all have the same protections that people generally want: a fair living, freedom from fear, the right to pursue happiness without impinging on the happiness of others. These are simple ideals, not always fulfilled, yet without their universality, America is alone in the world.


Szymon Laks’s Music of Another World A Polish-Jewish composer who survived Auschwitz as the camp’s musical conductor wrote in an elegant style out of step with his times. Now the times are coming around.

Szymon Laks

After a 2008 performance in Warsaw of a piano quintet by the Polish composer Szymon Laks (1901-1983), a woman approached the pianist to confide that she hadn’t had the pleasure of listening to Laks’s music for 50 years. On the previous occasion, she explained, she’d been in Paris with her late husband Władysław Szpilman—the composer and pianist who is the subject of Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning film, The Pianist (2002). The Szpilmans had been friendly with Laks after World War II, but had returned to Poland while Laks remained in Paris, his long-time adoptive home.

If the performance in Warsaw proved a stirring experience for Halina Szpilman, it was no less stirring for the performers, the Toronto-based ARC Ensemble. The score of the Piano Quintet is built on popular Polish melodies, many of them still familiar, and their effect on audiences in Warsaw was electrifying.

At the turn of the 20th century, when Laks was born, Warsaw was still a provincial capital under the Russian tsar, and Poland as a whole was still under the divided yoke of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Imperial Russia; it did not gain (temporary) independence until 1918. After studying mathematics at Wilno (now Vilnius) University, young Laks enrolled at the Warsaw Conservatory, graduating in June 1923. A brief stay in Vienna was soon followed by a move to Paris, where his musical personality was shaped by studies with leading composers and conductors, by the city’s abundant cultural offerings, and by his involvement in the establishment of a society of young Polish musicians like himself.

In Paris, Laks became an industrious and versatile musician, playing the violin at cafés and the piano for silent films, teaching, touring as a ship’s musician, and composing. Most of his own music would remain rooted in the pre-World War II language of the “Paris school”: neoclassical and transparent, its form rigorous and disciplined. Even as he grew and matured as a composer, he never abandoned these French roots. One of his initial published works, issued in 1927, was an elegant and very French sonatina for piano, with echoes of Stravinsky and Ravel. Its craftsmanship revealed a composer of uncommon ability, and its energy and rhythmic vitality would become hallmarks of subsequent compositions.

The Nazi occupation beginning in May 1941 cut short Laks’s burgeoning career. Rounded up and taken to the transit camp at Pithiviers, about 50 miles south of Paris, he was eventually deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on July 17, 1942. Laks would remember little of the journey, which took nearly three days, save for a single incident when the train stopped and he managed to push through the human crush to a small meshed window, the only source of fresh air. Through the opening he made out the name of the station. It was Eisenach, the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach: a town he had always wanted to visit.

On arriving in Auschwitz,Laks was tattooed with the number 49543 and sent to work in a labor detail. Prisoners generally survived only a few weeks before succumbing to the combination of punishing work, beatings, minimal nutrition, and the cramped, dehumanizing, unsanitary conditions. The details of how Laks managed to survive are chronicled in a dispassionate memoir he published shortly after the war, later issued in English as Music of Another World. Publication in Poland itself, still infected by its own lingering anti-Semitism, was denied by the country’s minister of culture.

In the book, Laks attributes his survival to “a series of miracles.” The first occurred early on when the barrack’s kapo, a Pole, asked if any of the Polish-speaking inmates could play bridge. Volunteering, Laks made up a fourth for the kapos’ nightly game. When it emerged that he was a musician, his kapo immediately arranged for him to join the camp orchestra. Although Laks avoids identifying him, there can be no doubt that this “benefactor” saved his life.

Although musicians were not exempt from physical work, Laks’s abilities as a copyist and arranger separated him from the others; he was installed in the relatively luxurious musikstube (music room) where his work was rewarded by certain privileges and even occasional amenities. He proceeded to turn out arrangements of favorite songs, potpourris, and musical diversions for which he was paid in cigarettes, the camp currency.

Survival became even likelier when he was appointed conductor, replacing a seriously underqualified German Pole named Franz Kopka. He candidly describes his role in initiating the switch:

I admit it without any scruples—I had intentionally introduced into my orchestrations the greatest number of difficulties in rhythm, counterpoint, and syncopation, for the percussion instruments as well, which made it impossible for Kopka to conduct the rehearsals, let alone public performances!

The ploy was hardly without risks. Retaliating, Kopka would accuse Laks of stealing food and performing “forbidden Polish music.” Fortunately the camp commandant had none of it, tearing off Kopka’s conductor’s lyre and formally awarding the baton to Laks.

Making Laks still more useful was the fact that in addition to his skills as a violinist, composer, arranger, and conductor, he was something of a polyglot, being fluent in Polish and French, comfortable in English, German, and Russian, and passably familiar with other languages as well. He also developed a special facility in the orchestration technique known as “odeon”—which, by adding small “alternative” lines to players’ parts, enables instrumentalists to fill in missing parts as the occasion demands, thereby making it possible, as he writes, “for any group to perform any work, regardless of the presence or absence of one or even a few musicians.” The system was especially appropriate for an orchestra whose players routinely sickened and died, to be replaced by new arrivals.

There has been considerable debate over the role of music in the camps. Beyond its obvious utility to the Nazis, did it in any way ameliorate the suffering of the prisoners, recalling to their tortured spirits the persistence in the world of beauty, nobility, and grace? Could it even have instilled or rekindled the will to live?

Laks himself grants none of this. In his view, music was merely one more part of the madness, irrelevant to the quality or the mental stability of prisoners’ lives and powerless to reach them. He writes dispassionately about the marches played as labor detachments left in the morning and returned at night (always, it seemed, at a slower tempo); about the tunes from popular operettas played as macabre commentary at assemblies; and about the bespoke performances that indulged the cultural pretensions of SS officers. Whatever distraction music may have provided for the orchestra members themselves, he regards as delusory the notion that it served to heal or raise prisoners’ spirits. To the contrary, the privileges enjoyed by orchestra members—increased rations, reduced physical labor—were often bitterly resented and led to inevitable suspicions of collaboration.

Once the orchestra was disbanded, Laks was transported briefly to Sachsenhausen and then to a sub-camp of Dachau. In late April 1945, close to the war’s end, the guards marched the prisoners out of the camp and then deserted, leaving them to their own devices. By mid-May, Laks was back in Paris. Two years later, he became a French citizen.

The trauma of Auschwitzleft Laks alienated and reclusive, pursued by memories of his internment, remorseful at having survived when so many had perished, and inevitably speculating as to what he might have done differently so as to evade roundup altogether—in brief, the endless replaying of history and reimagining of circumstances that are the survivor’s legacy. In the immediate postwar years, he left his apartment only when obliged to and avoided social interaction. He did marry, though; his son André, now in his sixties, became a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne.

Laks’s disquiet, however, is rarely expressed in his music, and only a few of his works refer specifically to the Holocaust. A notable exception is the Lament for Jewish Villages (1963), which mourns the passing of Jewish life in Poland. One also wonders whether the wordless melancholy of his Passacaille, composed in 1945, may be another attempt to express the inexpressible; the only voiced syllable is the singer’s “ah.”

As for the Piano Quintet, it began life as Laks’s third string quartetthe first two are lostand was premiered in Paris on November 25, 1945, only a few months after his liberation. There is nothing in itor in the 1967 version for piano quintetto suggest anything but a cheerful divertissement effectively stitching together various well-known Polish songs and dances. Indeed, its conception, if not its composition, may well have begun while Laks was still a camp prisoner. We know that he arranged Polish material there, specifically the three Polonaises reproduced in the appendix of Music of Another World—and perhaps elements of that composition are included somewhere in the twelve or so melodies that feature in the third quartet.

But in the quartet, as well as in its arrangement for piano quintet, the musical nostalgia is specifically Polish rather than anything connected to Jewish sources. And that is not surprising: like his assimilated contemporaries Alexandre Tansman and Jerzy Fitelberg, Laks was a well-traveled cosmopolitan. Moreover, whatever nostalgia he may have felt for the land of his youth, he certainly had no desire to leave postwar Paris, despite its deprivations and rationing, for the ruins and misery of postwar Poland.

Between 1954 and the early 1960s, ill health and economic straits slowed Laks’ musical output to a few film scores composed under a pseudonym. But in 1962 his concise Fourth Quartet (1962), a rhythmic, jazz-inflected piece, took the grand prize at the prestigious Liège competition. The influential critic and composer Alexis Roland-Manuel, who was on the jury, praised the work for raising its melodies “to the very height of harmonic taste, simultaneously revealing Slavic nature and French culture.” There followed a technically demanding Concertino for wind trio (oboe, clarinet, and bassoon), composed in 1965 and showcasing Laks’s superb contrapuntal skill.

Then in June 1967, in the wake of the Six-Day War and, especially, its terrifying months-long prelude when the very survival of Israel appeared to hang in the balance, Laks abandoned composition. “He told me,” his son André has testified, “that writing music had lost its meaning in his eyes. I was too young at the time, or too far from his past, really to understand.” Further deepening Laks’s depression was the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Poland in 1968, which forced most of the country’s remaining Jews to leave. For the remainder of his life he concentrated on writing, translating, and correspondence. He died in Paris on December 11, 1983.

 Laks did littleto promote his music, and his backward-looking style and language separated him from the fashionable trends of the mid-20th-century musical scene. At that time, the composers winning critical approbation included—at the “progressive” end—Karlheinz Stockhausen, Elliott Carter, Luciano Berio, and György Ligeti and—at the relatively more traditionalist end—Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten. Now, more than a half-century since Laks composed his major works, we are under no constraint to criticize them for failing to conform to contemporary trends; the passage of more time may enable still greater appreciation of them for what they are.

In programs commemorating the Holocaust, composers who perished often receive a kind of compensatory attention while survivors like Laks and a number of others tend to be passed over, as does the work of hundreds of émigrés. But at least in Laks’s case, this is now changing. The publisher Boosey & Hawkes has issued a number of his scores, and the ARC Ensemble has included several first-ever recordings in its recent release, Chamber Works by Szymon Laks (Chandos 10983). In addition to the Piano Quintet, the CD features his Passacaille, Sonatina, Fourth String Quartet, Divertimento, and the wind Concertino. All repay listening.


These photos of Holocaust survivors from the SS Exodus are incredible

By Andrew Tobin

Children posing for a photo in hats that read “Exodus 1947” in a displaced persons camp in Germany, September 1947. (Robert Gary)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — In the summer of 1947, when the British turned away the SS Exodus from the shores of Palestine, the world was watching.

Before the eyes of the international media, British troops violently forced the ship’s passengers — most of them Holocaust survivors — onto ships back to Europe. The resulting reports helped turn public opinion in favor of the Zionist movement and against the pro-Arab British policy of limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine.

But much else was happening in the aftermath of World War II, and attention soon shifted elsewhere. One of the only journalists to stick with the story was Jewish Telegraphic Agency correspondent Robert Gary, who filed a series of reports from displaced persons camps in Germany.

Seventy years later and decades after his death, Gary is again drawing attention to the “Exodus Jews,” albeit mostly in Israel.

An album of 230 of his photos will be sold at the Kedem Auction House in Jerusalem on Oct. 31, and a number of the images reveal the reality inside the camps, where the Jews continued to prepare for life in Palestine under trying conditions.

Some of the photos, which are not captioned, capture the haunting similarities of the DP camps to those in which the Nazis interned and killed millions of Jews during the Holocaust, including images of Exodus Jews repairing barbed-wire fences under the watch of guards.

But others show the Jews participating in communal activities and preparing for their hoped-for future in Palestine. In one photo, Zionist emissaries from the territory — young women dressed in white T-shirts and shorts — appear to lead the Exodus Jews in a circular folk dance.

Shay Mendelovich, a researcher at Kedem, said he expects there to be a lot of interest in the album, which is being sold by an anoymous collector who bought it from the Gary family. Mendelovich predicted it could be sold for as much as $10,000.

“The photos are pretty unique,” he said. “There were other people in these camps. But Robert Gary was one of the few who had a camera and knew how to take pictures.”

Jews dancing in a DP camp in Germany, September 1947. (Robert Gary)

Between 1945 and 1952, more than 250,000 Jews lived in displaced persons camps and urban centers in Germany, Austria and Italy that were overseen by Allied authorities and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Despite having been liberated from the Nazi camps, they continued to languish in Europe under guard and behind barbed wire.

Gary was an American Jewish reporter who JTA sent to Europe to cover the aftermath of World War II. He detailed the living conditions in the camps more than a year before the Exodus journey: inadequate food; cold, crowded rooms; violence by guards and mind-numbing boredom. But he reported in September 1946 that the greatest concern among Jews was escaping Europe, preferably for Palestine.

“Certainly the DP’s are sensitive to the material things and sound off when things go bad (which is as it should be), but above all this is their natural desire to start a new life elsewhere for the bulk in Palestine, for others, in the U.S. and other lands,” he wrote. “Get any group of DP’s together and they’ll keep you busy with the number one question: When are we leaving?”

In July 1947, more than 4,500 Jews from the camps boarded the Exodus in France and set sail for Palestine without legal immigration certificates. They hoped to join the hundreds of thousands of Jews building what would become their state.

Organized by the Haganah, a Zionist paramilitary force in Palestine, the mission was the largest of dozens of mostly failed attempts at illegal Jewish immigration during the decades of British administration of the territory following World War I. The British largely sought to limit the arrival of Jews to Palestine out of deference to the often violent opposition of its Arab majority.

The Haganah had outfitted and manned the Exodus in hopes of outmaneuvering the British Navy and unloading the passengers on the beach. But near the end of its weeklong voyage, the British intercepted the ship off the shore of Palestine and brought it into the Haifa port. Troops removed resisting passengers there, injuring dozens and killing three, and loaded them on three ships back to Europe.

Even after two months on the Exodus, the passengers resisted setting foot back on the continent. When the British finally forced them ashore in September 1947 and into two displaced persons camps in occupied northern Germany — Poppendorf and Am Stau — many sang the Zionist anthem “Hatikvah” in protest. An unexploded time bomb, apparently designed by Zionist activists to go off after the passengers were ashore, was later found on one of the ships.

Jews repairing fencing at a DP camp in Germany, September 1947. (Robert Gary)

The widely reported events won worldwide sympathy for European Jews and their national aspirations. An American newspaper headlined a story about the Exodus “Back to the Reich.” The Yugoslav delegate from from the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine called the affair “the best possible evidence we have for allowing Jews into Palestine.”

Later, the Exodus achieved legendary status, most famously as the inspiration and namesake of the 1958 best-seller by Leon Uris and the 1960 film starring Paul Newman. Some, including former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, credited the Exodus with a major role in the foundation of the State of Israel in May 1948.

Gary, who was stationed in Munich, had close ties to Zionist activists; he reported early and often on the continuing plight of the Exodus Jews in the camps. His dispatches highlighted their continued challenges, including malnutrition, and unabated longing to immigrate to Palestine.

In a report from Poppendorf days after the Exodus Jews arrived, Gary said the dark running joke in the camp was that the alternative was simple: “Everyone would choose a tree from which to hang himself.”

“The Jews of Germany demand and expect a chance to start life anew under reasonably secure circumstances,” he wrote. “They feel these places exist mainly in Palestine and the U.S. And they are determined to get there, either by legal or illegal means, or just by plain old fashioned patience.”

Pnina Dromi, who later became Gary’s wife, was among the emissaries that the Jewish Agency for Israel sent to the camps from Palestine to prepare the Jews for aliyah. As a kindergarten teacher, she taught the children Hebrew and Zionist songs. Other emissaries, she said, offered military training in preparation for the escalating battles with the Arab majority in Palestine.

“In the photos, you see a lot of young people in shorts and kind of Israeli clothes,” she said. “We were getting them ready for Israeli life, both good and bad. You have to remember Israel was at war at the time.”

A 1947 photo of the fake certificate identifying Robert Gary as a passenger of the SS Exodus. (Courtesy of Kedem Auction House)

Gary continued visiting the DP camps in the weeks after the Exodus Jews returned to Europe. Somehow he even obtained a fake certificate identifying him as one of the former passengers of the ship. But by late September 1947, JTA reported that British authorities had tired of Gary’s critical coverage and barred him and the only other journalist still reporting on the camps from entry.

“The fact that Gary and [New York newspaper PM reporter Maurice] Pearlman were the only correspondents still assigned to the story, and had remained at the camps, aroused the authorities, who charged that they ‘were snooping about too much,’” according to the report.

Israel declared independence in May 1948, and after Great Britain recognized the Jewish state in January 1949, it finally sent most of the remaining Exodus passengers to the new Jewish state. Nearly all the DP camps in Europe were closed by 1952 and the Jews dispersed around the world, most to Israel and the United States.

Gary soon immigrated to Israel, too. He married Dromi in 1949, months after meeting her at a Hanukkah party at the Jewish Agency’s headquarters in Munich, and the couple moved to Jerusalem, where they had two daughters. Robert Gary took at job at The Jerusalem Post and later worked for the British news agency Reuters. Pnina Gary, 90, continued her acting career.

She said her husband always carried a camera with him when he was reporting, and their home was filled with photo albums.

Decades after Robert Gary died in Tel Aviv in 1987, at the age of 67, Pnina Gary wrote and starred in a hit play, “An Israeli Love Story.” It is based on her real-life romance with the first man she was supposed to marry, who was killed by local Arabs in an ambush on their kibbutz.

“We knew life wouldn’t be easy in Israel,” she said. “That’s not why anyone comes here.”


Roma Holocaust survivors look to Jews as model for recognition — and reparation

Despite the murder and confiscation of property during WWII, illiteracy, lack of organization and racism prevent the community from receiving proper compensation

 By Julie Masis

CHISINAU, Moldova –This September, about 70 Roma survivors of World War II in Moldova will receive compensation from Germany.But the reparations given to these elderly people in Europe’s poorest country will not take the form of cash — only food and coal to use as fuel, and only for a few months. The budget is about $600 per person.

“These are people who never received any compensation before,” said Marin Alla, the director of the Voice of the Roma Coalition, an NGO that is distributing the aid from the Germany-based EVZ Foundation. “They are trying to survive. Some have a pension of 15 euros ($18) per month, others get 50 euros ($60) per month.”

He said there are now about 600 Roma who lived through WWII left in Moldova, but the funding from Germany is not sufficient to help all of them.

None of the Roma Holocaust survivors in Moldova currently receive German pensions, he said.

Jewish Holocaust survivors in Moldova who were in camps, ghettos and labor battalions have been receiving a pension of 336 euros ($400 USD) per month since 1998. Even those Moldovan Jews who fled from Fascist occupation have been entitled to a one-time hardship fund of 2,556 euros ($3,048 USD) since 2013, according to Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference.)

In addition, Jewish victims of Nazism in Moldova receive help with home care, food, medicine, as well as winter clothes and coal. Almost 700 elderly seniors in Moldova are currently receiving this aid, according to the Claims Conference.

The situation in Moldova is similar to the rest of Europe, where compensation for Roma survivors of the Holocaust came many decades after the Jewish survivors began receiving compensation — or not at all.

“The authorities said, ‘The Roma had nothing anyway, so what should they be compensated for?’” said Mirjam Karoly, the senior advisor on Roma and Sinti issues at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose father was born in a Roma concentration camp in Austria. The authorities said, ‘The Roma had nothing anyway, so what should they be compensated for?’

“They were second-class victims. [The authorities said] the Roma are not victims of the Holocaust because they were put into camps for crime prevention purposes because they were criminals. So they were using the Nazi language,” she said.

The compensation for Roma survivors has varied from country to country.
For example, a year ago, it was announced that Roma survivors in the Czech Republic would get a one-time payment of 2,500 euros ($3000) each as a result of months of negotiations between the Czech and German foreign ministries.

In Romania, 200 Roma survivors began to receive monthly pensions from Germany two years ago — but only thanks to the efforts of a dedicated historian. Because the compensation came 70 years after the end of the war, very few of the survivors were still living.

Petre Matei, a researcher at the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, helped Roma survivors in Romania apply for German pensions. He said that the reason that the Roma began to receive pensions decades after the Jewish survivors is because many Roma are illiterate, the Roma community is not organized, and because there is still a lot of discrimination against the Roma.

“The problem for the Roma is that they can’t read and write, and even if they could, they wouldn’t be able to speak German,” Matei said. “Also, to be anti-Semitic could be problematic, but to not like the Gypsies in Eastern Europe, it’s not that dangerous.”

To be anti-Semitic could be problematic, but to not like the Gypsies in Eastern Europe, it’s not that dangerous

Of the 300 Roma Holocaust survivors in Romania who applied for German pensions because they were deported to concentration camps, 200 survivors received the pensions which average approximately 200 euros ($239 USD) monthly plus a sum of approximately 12,000 euros ($14,000 USD) which is supposed to make up for the money that they should have been paid in the last 10 years, Matei said.

The other 100 Roma concentration camp survivors did not receive the pensions because they were younger than 11 years old during the war, so the German authorities decided that they were too young to perform forced labor, Matei explained. (Those 100 people have become eligible for a one-time payment from Germany this year.)

It is not clear how many Roma Holocaust survivors received compensation in other countries because compensation programs often lumped the Roma together with everyone else.

As a result, the Roma were often underrepresented, according to Ralf Possekel, who is in charge of quality management at the EVZ Foundation in Germany, which is funded by the German government and private companies to compensate the victims of Nazi forced labor camps.

“Our experience is when we did a general project for survivors, very few Roma attended,” Possekel said. “It’s hard to reach the Roma people, it’s hard to include them.”  It’s hard to reach the Roma people, it’s hard to include them

Because of this observation, EVZ began to work directly with Roma organizations to help Roma survivors. In addition to the project in Moldova that started in September, EVZ has nine similar projects in Ukraine and one in Russia and is planning to expand the program to Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania, Possekel said.

The budgets of these projects are small and cash is not distributed to the survivors directly. EVZ funds food, home repairs and volunteer helpers for the elderly, Possekel said.

One EVZ project in Ukraine even aims to bring a Roma organization for Holocaust survivors together with a Jewish organization “because Jewish organizations have huge experience working with survivors,” Possekel said.

Indeed, while the Jewish and Roma communities have not been historically close, during WWII both suffered.

Of the 25,000 Roma who were deported to Romanian concentration camps from Moldova and Romania between 1942 and 1944, only approximately 11,000 survived, according to Ion Duminica, a Roma researcher at the Moldovan Academy of Sciences. But these numbers are estimates at best, he said.

Lured by fascist propaganda to the so-called “work camps,” the Roma perished from hunger, typhus and from the cold. There were cases of cannibalism, with parents trying to save their starving children by feeding them dead family members, Duminica said.

The Roma said, ‘We wished that we were executed like the Jews’

“The Roma said, ‘We wished that we were executed like the Jews,’” said Duminica who interviewed survivors. “When they remember [that time], they start crying.”

Worldwide, historians estimate that between 500,000 and 1.5 million Roma were murdered during the Holocaust, with some countries such as Germany, Austria, and the Baltic states losing their entire Roma populations.

“Many groups were victimized (by the Nazis), but only the Jews and the Roma were victims of the Final Solution, victims of genocide,” said Prof. Ian Hancock, the director of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas in Austin.

Hancock points out that the Roma also had their property stolen from them during the Holocaust — their gold, their horses, and their homes — and are therefore also entitled to compensation.

In Moldova, so far, this compensation has not come.

“They mistreated us then and they still mistreat us now,” said Artur Cerari, the Roma Baron of Moldova who is regarded as the most respected Roma leader in the former Soviet Union. “The Jews get pensions every year and every month, but the Roma got nothing.”


7 Overlooked Memorials to the Heroes Who Fought Nazis

These women and men faced terrible danger and deserve to be remembered.

MANY OF THE WORLD’S BEST statues and memorials honor those who accomplished extraordinary things despite a steep personal cost. Europe is dotted with statues that memorialize the attempts made by desperate people who opposed the Nazis. They did what they could with what they had, and often paid unimaginable prices for their efforts. Their likenesses implore us to remember their actions and consider our own, so that we don’t take the past for granted, idly watch the present, or let the future repeat such atrocities.

Tatyana Markus Memorial

Kyiv, Ukraine

In 1941, when the German Army entered the city of Kyiv, young Tatyana Markus was there to greet them, congratulatory flowers in hand. But instead of graciously handing the flowers over to the triumphant soldiers, she threw them—and the grenades hidden underneath them—at the approaching contingent, killing four Nazi soldiers. Her father threw a second grenade, to prevent them from retaliating. She was able to get away, but he was killed in the ensuing fight.

Later, Markus assumed a fake identity and went undercover. A young operative, she won the confidence of several German army officials and gathered information that helped the Ukrainian rebels resist them. She also worked in a German officers’ mess hall and lured soldiers into isolated areas where she killed them herself.

After the mysterious deaths of so many soldiers, the Gestapo launched an operation to find their killer. Markus was caught in August of 1942 and tortured for information for more than five months, a process which intensified when her Jewish heritage was discovered. But she refused to provide them with any information about her comrades. She was killed in January of 1943 and, according to some accounts, thrown into the notorious Babi Yar ravine, where thousands were massacred by the Nazis.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, a statue of the courageous young woman who gave her life in the fight against the Nazis was unveiled in Babi Yar in 2009, just a few years after she was honored as a “Heroine of Ukraine.”

Denkzeichen Georg Elser

Berlin, Germany

Georg Elser was a carpenter and a member of the leftist Federation of Woodworkers Union. As early as 1933 he opposed the Nazis and refused to perform the Hitler salute; Elser felt the Nazi Party’s potential rule would be a detriment to workers’ rights and a catalyst for war.

 In 1938 he traveled to see Hitler’s annual speech at the Bürgerbräukeller beer hall, cased the joint, and came home with a plan to assassinate Hitler. Elser took a job at an armament factory and systematically stole explosives. He eventually amassed 105 blasting cartridges and 125 detonators. He built and tested timed explosives using clock parts and turn signals from cars in a secluded orchard owned by his parents.

At the end of 1939 he moved to a place near the Bürgerbräukeller and spent his nights hiding in the hall, carving out the pillar next to the speaker’s rostrum. He installed a homemade time bomb in the emptied column and left town for Sweden on the morning of November 8. That night, eight high-ranking Nazi officers were killed and 63 were injured when the bomb exploded right on time at 9:20 p.m., exactly 13 minutes after Hitler left the event. His flight had been canceled due to fog, so the event started a half hour early.

Officers found Elser on the Swiss border with wire cutters, notes, sketches, firing pins, and a blank postcard of the interior of the Bürgerbräukeller. He spent his last days a prisoner, and in 1945, shortly before the end of the war, he was killed on Hitler’s orders in the Dachau concentration camp.

The 56-foot sculpture erected in his honor in Berlin is an outline of Elser’s profile, and lights up at night. It was unveiled on November 8, 2011, to coincide with the anniversary of his heroic attempt.

Stjepan Filipović Monument

Valjevo, Serbia

Stjepan Filipvić joined the laborer’s movement in 1937. He spent a year in jail for his association with the anti-fascist group, but his conviction remained. He joined the Communist Party of Yugoslavia in 1940, and by ‘41 he’d been made commander of the Partisans’ Tamnavsko-Kolubarski unit in Valjevo. He was captured by the Axis forces in 1942 and sentenced to death. But even in his final moments, he resisted the Nazi occupation. The Yugoslav communist stood on the gallows in Valjevo, rope around his neck, and threw his fists in the air and shouted out his last words to the onlookers: “Smrt fašizmu, sloboda narodu!” (“Death to fascism, freedom to the people!”).

Stjepan Filipović was declared a National Hero of Yugoslavia in 1949, and in 1960, a 52-foot statue was erected in his honor. The sculptor Vojin Bakic’s monument to Filipović stands in the same defiant pose in the city where he was killed.

Warsaw Uprising Monument

Warsaw, Poland

In August of 1944, an uprising broke out in Warsaw, Poland, which at the time had been occupied by Nazi forces for five years. The Polish resistance had been planning an attack for some time, but they were forced to carry it out much sooner than expected and without help from the Allied forces.

The resistance expected Soviet help to arrive during the 68-day battle, but it never came. Documents are hard to obtain and the motive is unclear. It’s possible the Soviet troops were too tired or the roads were too treacherous to quickly maneuver, or Stalin stopped the aid for fear the uprising might encourage Russian workers to move against his leadership.

By the end of the uprising, the Polish resistance had managed to kill 8,000 Nazi soldiers and wounded around the same number. But as the Nazis razed the city, the resistance deaths had climbed to 16,000 people, and the civilian death toll, including the Jews being hidden by the Polish people, reached as high as 200,000. The Nazis went on to destroy almost 90 percent of the buildings in the area.

A 33-foot-tall bronze sculpture was unveiled in 1989 to commemorate the resistance. It depicts a group of fighters in active combat while running beneath the ruins of a falling building. A smaller structure shows insurgents entering a manhole, which pays tribute to the way the Poles made use of the city’s sewer system.

The Little Insurrectionist

Warsaw, Poland

Hitler and SS leader Heinrich Himmler made the Polish capital city a specific target early on in the war. Their plan of attack was detailed in the horrifically succinct Order for Warsaw: “Every citizen of Warsaw is to be killed including men, women and children. Warsaw has to be leveled to the ground in order to set a terrifying example to the rest of Europe.”

The children of Warsaw were no strangers to the ongoing atrocities, and many young boys in the Polish Underground Scouting, known during wartime as the Gray Ranks, played an integral role in the Warsaw Uprising, mostly carrying messages for the troops, but sometimes donning stolen German helmets and guns and fighting on the front lines.

This statue of a young boy wearing an oversized helmet and holding a German submachine gun is reputed to be modeled after a child soldier called “Antek,” a 13-year-old boy who was killed on August 8, 1944.

Mauthausen Memorial

Marbach, Austria

The Mauthausen Memorial describes itself as “a former crime scene, a place of memory, a cemetery for the mortal remains of thousands of those murdered here and, increasingly, a site of political and historical education.” Between 1938 and 1945, the Mauthausen concentration camp was the center of more than 40 sub-camps and was the main site of persecution by the National Socialist regime on Austrian territory.

The memorial features a museum in the preserved buildings of the center camp. There are three permanent collections, including the “Room of Names,” which features over 81,000 names of those killed at Mauthausen and the surrounding sub camps.

The outside areas feature sculptures that honor the 190,000 people from over 40 different nations who were imprisoned during the camp’s seven years of terror. Memorial sculptures of varying sizes and styles pay homage to the Jewish, French, Dutch, Polish, and other victims of Mauthausen. One particularly striking statue is the Albanian Memorial, which portrays an Albanian resistance fighter standing over a defeated Nazi soldier. He’s about to strike the Nazi in the face with his rifle stock.

Wojtek the Soldier Bear Memorial

Edinburgh, Scotland

A beer-drinking, Nazi-fighting brown bear named Wojtek was an unlikely but beloved member of the 22nd Artillery Transport Company. The Polish 2nd Corps adopted the orphaned bear in Iran in 1943. To bypass a rule that forbade soldiers from bringing pets into theaters of operations, Wojtek was enlisted and accordingly given an official number and the rank of private.

Private Wojtek
 served with the Poles for the rest of the war, most notably during the pivotal Battle of Monte Cassino, when he voluntarily helped move crates of ammunition. He was so popular among his fellow soldiers that a graphic of a bear carrying an artillery shell became the official emblem of the 22nd Company.

After the war ended, Wojtek was moved to the Edinburgh Zoo. His old Polish brothers-in-arms visited him regularly, as did the scores of new admirers he gained during the remainder of his life.

Unveiled on November 7, 2015, the bronze statue in Princes Street Gardens commemorates not only the much-beloved bear, but also the Polish soldiers who bravely shared the same harrowing journey.


Croatia removes plaque with WWII pro-Nazi regime’s slogan near death camp

‘For the homeland — Ready! salute, used by puppet regime during war, has resurfaced among nationalists and right-wingers

ZAGREB, Croatia — Croatian authorities on Thursday removed a plaque bearing a salute used by the country’s pro-Nazi regime during World War II that was placed last year near the site of a notorious wartime concentration camp.

Workers took down the plaque in the town of Jasenovac that honored fallen Croatian fighters from the country’s 1990s war and moved it to a memorial site in the town of Novska.

The “For the homeland — Ready!” salute was used by the pro-Nazi puppet regime that was established in Croatia during World War II. Tens of thousands of Jews, Serbs, Roma and Croat anti-fascists were killed in Jasenovac and other camps. The salute has since resurfaced among nationalists and right-wingers.

Croatia’s right-leaning government has faced criticism for not responding sooner to the plaque. Jewish and Serb groups have boycotted official Holocaust commemoration ceremonies in protest of the plaque and junior partners have threatened to walk out of the ruling coalition.

Critics argue that the government’s reluctance to act has only encouraged the surging right in the European Union’s newest member state.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said Thursday the salute was unacceptable to him because of its link to the WWII Ustasha regime. But Plenkovic added the government wanted to resolve the divisive problem through dialogue and with respect those who died in the 1990s war.

That war erupted after Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia and minority Serbs launched a rebellion. Around 10,000 people died in the 1991-1995 conflict.

Ivan Friscic of the Croatian fighters union said the group agreed to move the plaque from Jasenovac.

“It will be placed elsewhere as it is,” he said. “With all the symbols and signs, and no one must touch it.”

Local media said ex-fighters used the “For the homeland — Ready” salute at Thursday’s press conference.


The woman who carried Hitler’s teeth on V-Day

The memoir of a Jewish military translator who helped the Soviet army identify Adolf Hitler’s burned corpse is about to be published in English for the first time.

Elena Rzhevskaya, who died in April at the age of 97, was just 25 years old in May of 1945 when she carried a box of the Nazi dictator’s teeth around war-torn Berlin in search of an expert who could confirm that the teeth had belonged to the Fuhrer.

Eventually she found a dental assistant who had visited Hitler in his underground bunker just days before his death. The dental assistant was able to draw a sketch of Hitler’s teeth from memory, which matched with the drawing made by the Soviet pathologist who autopsied Hitler’s charred body.

Rzhevskaya’s memoir, entitled “Berlin, May 1945,” will be published in the United Kingdom and will also be sold in the United States, said Elena Rzhevskaya’s granddaughter Liubov Summ in a telephone interview from Moscow.

The book, which was first printed in 1965 in Russian and sold more than a million copies in the Soviet Union, has already been translated to German, Italian and Japanese. But there has been no English translation until now, nor has the book been translated to Hebrew, Summ said.

Explaining why her grandmother was trusted with the dictator’s teeth, Summ said, “She was an officer and a woman and everyone knew that [all the men] would get drunk on Victory Day.”

“She carried the box under her arm. It smelled lightly of perfume. She saw her own reflection in a big mirror and thought, ‘My God, am I standing here holding in my hands the only thing that is left of Hitler?’”

Hitler’s dental assistant Kathe Heusermann’s recollection and the letters of the Soviet pathologist who removed the teeth from Hitler’s jaws will also be included as appendices in the book. They are being published for the first time, said Summ.

It was possible to identify Hitler from his teeth because he had had extensive dental work. By the end of his life, Hitler had very few of his own teeth left, and most of them had crowns. The remaining teeth were prosthetic and were held together with bridges.

“His teeth were in such bad shape that his dentist was with him in the bunker,” Summ said. “There are photos that are very unpleasant to look at.”

When Heusermann was questioned, she talked not only about Hitler’s teeth, but also about what she saw and heard during his last days in the bunker, Summ said. Rzhevskaya listened and later included these stories in her book. For example, Heusermann said that she tried to talk Magda Goebbels out of murdering her six children, and shared the story about how Eva Braun, who got married to Hitler just before their suicide, wanted everyone in the bunker to call her “Frau Hitler.”

“Everything that Kathe said, was said with my grandmother’s lips — because my grandmother translated,” Summ said.

The two women bonded. Heusermann told Rzhevskaya about how she had twice been raped by Soviet soldiers. Rzhevskaya also found out that Heusermann had hidden a Jewish dentist, for whom she worked before the war, in her home.

“He returned to Berlin at the end of April, met her and asked her to hide him in her apartment, while she was going to Hitler’s bunker to work every day! You understand [what would have happened] if someone found out,” said Summ. “She is also one of the righteous in a way.”

Summ said that the last time the two women spoke, Heusermann promised that as soon as the Soviet interrogations stopped, she would bring Rzhevskaya to her hairdresser.

But that was not to be. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin decided that Hitler’s suicide and the story about how his body was discovered should be a military secret. Heusermann was sent to the gulag, where she spent 10 years, including six years in solitary confinement, Summ said. By the time she returned home, her fiancé had married someone else.

“They told her that by helping to fix Hitler’s teeth she contributed to the continuation of the war, and that she should have hit him on the head with a bottle,” Summ said. “But her actual fault was that she was a witness of Hitler’s death and that was a secret.”

After the war, Rzhevskaya — whose birth name was Kagan — returned to Moscow, studied literature in university and became a writer.

She changed her family name because she could not get a job with a name that sounded so obviously Jewish, said Summ.

“She would phone schools and libraries and they would tell her that there was a vacancy, but when she went there, and they saw her documents and her Jewish name, they would not hire her,” Summ said. “She couldn’t even get a job in a village school.”

When she became a writer, she also didn’t want to use her real name because she didn’t want to the impression that “the Jews are writing about the war again,” Summ said.

So her grandmother adopted the name “Rzhevskaya,” which means “From Rzhev,” the town where she was almost killed by shrapnel from a German bomb in 1942. It was also here that she was sent on her first translation assignment, questioning a German soldier who was taken prisoner.

Her first memoir, entitled “Memories of a Wartime Interpreter,” originally included a few pages in the end about what it was like to identify Hitler from his teeth, but the editor of the magazine that published the memories cut those pages, Summ said.

“No one wrote about this before, so why should we be first?” the editor reportedly said, according to Summ. “It was a funny comment for an editor of a magazine.”

But in the Soviet Union, editors had to be cautious.

It was not until after Stalin’s death that Rzhevskaya openly wrote about identifying Hitler, and it was not until 1996 that she found out what happened to Hitler’s dental assistant.

“It was a big blow for her,” Summ said. “Heusermann returned home when she was 45 years old. She ended up losing her [future] husband and never had children, and this really haunted my grandma.”

The Soviet pathologist was also upset that the story about the identification of Hitler’s teeth was kept secret.

“He was hurt that he did this work to identify Hitler, but he didn’t get any recognition,” Summ said.

To remember Rzhevskaya, a special evening in her honor will be organized in Moscow on her birthday, October 27, her granddaughter said.

The museum in the town of Rzhev is also planning a local history conference dedicated to her memory in the spring. A few handwritten pages from Rzhevskaya’s memoir and her World War II military uniform, which she kept all of her life, will be donated to the museum.

Source: The Times of Israel

A teachable moment about anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism is a form of hatred that shares characteristics with other kinds of prejudice such as racism and homophobia. Included are the fear of the other and the unknown, stereotyping and discrimination.

On the other hand, anti-Semitism has a distinct history. What has made it distinctive and what goes a long way in explaining some of the historical anomalies about it – how long it has lasted, its contradictions, its lethality–is the idea that Jews are all-powerful, poisonous and a threat to society.

This theme has appeared time and again over the centuries to justify hatred of the Jew. It reached its culmination in the 20th century with the infamous fraudulent document known as The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and in the Nazi extermination of European Jews.

The Protocols, emerging in 1903, conjured up the fantasy of Jewish leaders’ secret plans to take over the world, despite the fact that at the time Jews had no country of their own, no army and no power. And the Nazis exploited that theme to implement their anti-Jewish program, which ultimately became the Holocaust.

All of this comes to mind with the images of the Charlottesville hate rally and the Vice TV video of it by reporter Elle Reeve fresh in one’s consciousness. Reeve pointed out that despite the president’s making it sound as if the rally was about maintaining Confederate leaders statues, in fact, the demonstrators were obsessed with Jews, screaming things like “Jews will not replace us” and claiming that Jews were behind all the evils in America.

This comes at a time when anti-Semitism, long a forgotten subject, had already begun to reenter the American conversation.

While Europe, from the beginning of the new century, saw a revolting resurgence of anti-Semitism, America until the past year seemed largely immune with the disturbing exception of the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement among student groups on some campuses, carrying with it certain anti-Semitic connotations.

Then came the dramatic rise of anti-Semitic incidents, an over 30 percent increase in 2016 and the first quarter of 2017, even if one doesn’t count the traumatic bomb threats against Jewish institutions in January and February, most of which it turned out came from a disturbed American-Israeli Jew.

Some of the increase was attributed to the rhetoric of the Trump campaign and the bias expressed toward various groups, which seemed to embolden haters of all kinds, including those filled with hatred toward Jews.

To see neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching on the streets of Charlottesville, drawing a relatively large crowd and attracting nationwide attention because of the violence that accompanied it, was disturbing and a direct outgrowth of the new enabling mood for extremism in this country.

At the same time it should serve as a teachable moment about the nature of anti-Semitism, which some in this country are either ignorant about or have chosen to forget.

Because Jews have been successful in America and because anti-Semitism has been significantly reduced in recent decades, there is a tendency among some to conclude that Jews should not be included in minority coalitions struggling for equal rights and against intolerance. It is even suggested that Jews are part of the white establishment, benefit from white privilege and are not a vulnerable group.

This, however, fails to take into account that unique and essential element of anti-Semitism, the accusation of alleged evil Jewish power, which often means that Jews paradoxically could be most vulnerable exactly when they appear to be doing well.

It has often been noted that Germany before the rise of Hitler was one of the places in Europe where Jews had advanced in society and played a role in many areas of German life. All of which became a focal point of Nazi propaganda and ideology.

The neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville would be anti-Semitic whether or not Jews were prominent in American life. But the fact that Jews are successful and have a good life in America adds credibility and strength among their followers to their charges of Jewish control of America.

None of which should lead to pushing any panic buttons. It should, however, send warning signals about avoiding complacency about anti-Semitism in America. (There’s been more than two dozen anti-Semitic incidents in the two weeks post-Charlottesville). And it should make many do some rethinking when they dismiss the notion of anti-Semitism as relevant to the struggle against oppression.

The good thing to take away from this experience is that, unlike the president, the vast majority of Americans, leaders, mayors and others, on the right and the left, understood and rejected what they saw in Charlottesville.

This is reassuring that America will remain a welcome home for the Jews of this great county.

Source: The Times of Israel
Ken Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.