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August 29, 2014 / 3 Elul, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Budapest’

My Machberes

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Fighting Home Foreclosures

Today’s weak economy affects almost everyone, including members of the observant community. Being unemployed, or just not earning enough, can cause uncomfortable predicaments, including that of not being able to pay one’s mortgage bills. Should enough months pass without one’s fiscal profile improving, the holder of the mortgage will move to foreclose on the underlying property.

This applies as well to homeowners who are current with their mortgages but in default on real estate property taxes. New York City auctions off default tax bills, many of which are purchased by banks with aggressive collection arms. Banks want to get paid. After a deluge of threatening notices, legal letters begin to appear. How one deals with those legal letters can determine eventual results.

In Brooklyn, many such situations end up in the courtroom of New York State Supreme Court Justice Arthur M. Schack. Judge Schack is widely quoted in the national media on his handling of mortgage foreclosures. The New York Times noted in 2009 that he “tossed out 46 of the last 102 foreclosure motions that have come before him.”

Judge Schack feels that as a judge, his “job is to do justice.” legal papers presented to him must conform to legal requirements. He requires that the papers introduced in his Court must (a) prove there is a mortgage, (b) prove who owns the mortgage, and (c) prove the mortgage is in default. At times the actual owner of the mortgage is difficult to determine, especially after subsequent assignments.

Presently there are approximately 12,000 mortgage foreclosures in various stages of process in Brooklyn. Twenty-five percent of those cases are assigned to Judge Schack’s courtroom. Each case is unique. Some are adjudicated by modification, some are dismissed, and others are foreclosed.

Many judges across the country have followed his lead and have intensified their scrutiny of the paperwork being presented. As a result, more cases are dismissed. According to Judge Schack, there is no backlash. Banks are free to appeal. Favoring neither the big guy nor the little guy, he says his mission is to achieve justice – something that cannot be accomplished with faulty paperwork.

Justice Schack’s Background

Justice Schack is a Brooklyn native, a product of Brooklyn’s public schools and Brooklyn College, earning his law degree from New York Law School. He has served as counsel for the Major League Baseball Players Association and maintained a general law practice, primarily in the areas of tax and real estate law. Judge Schack is also active in community affairs. In addition to being closely affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America, he has been a member of Community Board 10, serving in many capacities.

NYS Supreme Court Justice Arthur M. Shack

In 1998 Judge Schack was elected to New York City’s Civil Court for a 10-year term. In 2003 he was elected to the New York State Supreme Court. (In both elections, his candidacy was endorsed by The Jewish Press.) Impressively, more than 250 of his decisions were published by New York State Official Reports and the New York Law Journal. More than 50 of those decisions deal with foreclosure issues. In addition, he has been a guest speaker on foreclosure issues for the New York Judiciary, the Vermont Judiciary, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and major national business and financial media.

Greatly respected, he has been appointed an officer of the Brooklyn Bar Association and an executive of the New York City Association of Supreme Court Justices.

Judge Schack gives straightforward counsel, advising anyone in a difficult predicament to respond to all legal challenges. The courts will advise legal counseling, arbitration, compromises, settlements, and modification. All these possibilities are unavailable if the delinquent homeowner hides. The chances of holding on to one’s home are infinitely greater if one responds. The process, according to Judge Schack, can only help, and, of course, the sooner the better.

 

History Is Repeated In Hungary

The present Jewish population of Hungary is approximately 100,000, with most residing in Budapest. The first Jews settled in Hungary in the 11th century. The first record of an officially appointed rabbi for Buda, one of the three cities that eventually combined to become Budapest, was Rabbi Akiva ben Rabbi Menachem Hakohen zt”l in the 1400s. The first sefer to be published in Hungary was Minhagim Shel Kol Hamedina, in 1421, by Rabbi Rabbi Isaac Tirna, zt”l. This was before the printing press. The sefer was hand copied and circulated.

Chasam Sofer, zt"l

There were 45,000 Jews living in Budapest in 1869; 102,000 in 1890; 204,000 in 1910; and 205,000 in 1930. The Emancipation Act of 1868 granted the Jews equality before the law, and they were no longer excluded from owning property and holding public office.

Rising Above Aggravation (Part One)

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

For the past month I’ve been on the road, crossing continents and addressing Jewish communities wherever they are. I go from the airport to the local synagogue or some other venue where people gather.

Invariably I am asked, “Rebbetzin, how do you do it? People younger than you cannot keep up with such a schedule. Travel is so difficult. Don’t you find it exhausting?”

“Exhausting?” I answer, “it’s far beyond that. Travel nowadays has become a nerve-wracking nightmare.”

During these past weeks I have spoken in Brazil, Hungary and Eretz Yisrael. But allow me to describe to you just one small part of what I experienced. There are no longer any direct flights from New York to Budapest, so our travel agent suggested we go through Paris. We had quite a lot of luggage because from Budapest we were scheduled to fly directly to Eretz Yisrael, and the climate on these two continents is totally different. Hungary was bitterly cold and Israel was experiencing an unprecedented heat wave.

I must admit I usually run late. My schedule is so tight that it does not permit me to be early. In addition to packing, there is much to do before I depart, not the least of which is writing this column. So, as usual, we arrived at JFK just in the nick of time. We went through the endless security check, removing our jackets and shoes, etc. etc. and finally, when we arrived breathless at the gate, we discovered that our flight to Paris had been delayed two hours. We tried to explain to the agent that we had to make a connecting flight. “Don’t worry,” she assured us, “they know that. You’ll have plenty of time.”

Finally, we boarded the plane and it started to taxi down the runway, but suddenly, it came to a stop. “We are very sorry for any inconvenience,” came the polite announcement, “but due to the weather, there will be a further delay.” And with this, we were consigned to sit on the runway for another hour.

Would that be enough to aggravate you? Wait; that was just the beginning.

So what do I do to protect myself from stress? I tell myself, Baruch Hashem that I didn’t listen to those who said that I could depart on Thursday night rather than on Wednesday and still arrive in Budapest in time forShabbos. Baruch Hashem, I never forgot the teaching of my revered father, HaRav HaGaon Avraham Halevi Jungreis, zt”l, who was careful never to schedule any travel that would bring him to his destination on erev Shabbos.

“The Satan is on the road erev Shabbos,” he would say, “and places obstructions in one’s path.” So I smiled to myself and in my mind said, “Thank you, Tatie,” and that thought, in and of itself, was calming. B’ezrat Hashem, I would still arrive in Budapest in ample time to speak at the Shabbaton.

Finally we arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris – and of course missed our connecting flight. The airport is one of the biggest and most difficult to navigate in Europe, and we were sent from gate to gate, airline to airline, even to Malev, the Hungarian national airline, only to discover there was no longer a Malev desk. Not only were the distances between these gates enormous; the agents were, for the most part, discourteous and arrogant. We called our hosts in Budapest, Adrienn and Robie, who had visited our Hineni organization in New York and become totally inspired and committed. They were at the airport awaiting our arrival and worried as to what could have happened to us. They suggested we take a flight to Vienna where they would pick us up by car.

There were only two problems with that suggestion – our luggage, which was ticketed for Budapest, had yet to be located, and heavy snow was falling in Vienna as in most of Europe.

At another airline counter it was suggested we buy new tickets which would perhaps get us to Budapest on time. We called our travel agent in New York, but there was not much he could do. But before we could even consider purchasing new tickets, we were informed there were no seats available on that flight. The web of aggravation tightened around us. Another thought from my childhood gave me some comfort: “Let it all be a kapporah” (an atonement that would spare us from all other problems).

We finally arrived in Budapest at 1 a.m. – only to discover to our dismay that all our luggage was missing. We were directed to Lost and Found where the agent searched the computer and curtly informed us that she was very sorry but had no idea where our luggage might be.

“Is it still in Paris?” I asked hopefully.

“No,” she responded coldly.

“Then where is it?” I persisted.

“I already told you. It did not come up on the computer. I have no further information to give you!”

“When do you think you will know?” I asked again, and this time there was a definite touch of annoyance in her voice as she said, “If we find it, we will let you know.”

Bear in mind that while we were supposed to arrive in Budapest on Thursday morning, it was now erev Shabbos. I did not have a change of clothing or shoes (I always travel in sneakers). And worse, from Budapest we were scheduled to continue on to Eretz Yisrael, and all our clothing was missing. To console us, the agent offered us a little kit containing a toothbrush, toothpaste and a T-shirt.

As we left the airport, I once again asked, “When can we expect to get our luggage?”

Again, she repeated, “I cannot tell you. I will be searching, but so far the computer shows nothing.”

How could I go into Shabbos wearing these crumpled clothes? How could I speak before a large audience? Would you agree that this was surely enough to test anyone’s nerves?

Once again, I tried to muster my strength and to say to myself, “Kapporah.”Somehow it will all come out right. Is it not written that he who is on a mitzvah mission cannot fail? And surely, reaching out to our brethren who are on the brink of disappearing in the deep sea of assimilation is one of the greatest mitzvos.

On our way to the hotel we were told that while it had snowed the entire day and stopped on our arrival, heavy snow was forecast through Shabbos. Now I had a new concern. “Will we have an attendance?”

“Oh, Rebbetzin, don’t worry,” Adrienn assured me. “Everyone will come. Nothing will keep them away.”

Just the same, I couldn’t help but worry because I knew that, under the best of circumstances, in countries like Hungary Jewish awareness is so minimal you can consider yourself fortunate if 40-50 people show up.

We fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. In the morning, to our relief, we saw the sun trying to emerge and melt away the snow. We called to see if there was any news of our luggage. “No,” they told us, “we are still searching, but if we locate it [and the word "if" had an ominous ring] we’ll contact you.” At this point we had no choice but to resign ourselves to reality and try to clean and iron our clothes in honor of Shabbos.

When I arrived at the synagogue, I understood the meaning of kapporah. It all paid off. The shul was packed with countless secular young people – a rare sight in European countries where Judaism is disappearing. I very much wanted to address my audience in Hungarian, but while I speak Hungarian my vocabulary is limited since I was deported to the concentration camps at a young age.

I told our hosts I would make a few introductory remarks in Hungarian but would then continue in English, pause after every few paragraphs, and have a translator convey my thoughts. Miraculously, however, no sooner did I start speaking in Hungarian than Hashem gave me the words and I was actually able to dispense with the translator and speak freely.

The response was electrifying. Suddenly, the loss of luggage, the aggravation in Paris, the stress at Kennedy, all disappeared. Nothing was important except the Jewish light sparkling in their eyes. This blessing was repeated at the Shabbos seudah and again motzaei Shabbos when we had a huge gathering in one of Budapest’s theaters. Jews came from all over Hungary and the large hall quickly filled to capacity. We showed our film, “Triumph of the Spirit” which portrays my experiences during the years of the Holocaust. Amazingly, once again I was able to speak in Hungarian and dispense with the earphones that had been prepared for simultaneous translation.

Young and old, men and women – all were awakened. The pintele Yid in their souls became a flame from Sinai. Perhaps not since the Holocaust had there been such a gathering of Jews in Hungary. I’ve been receiving letters from our Hungarian brethren who are embarking on a life of Torah and mitzvos.

Would I do it again?

Of course. When you weigh the joy and berachah of seeing Jewish people who only yesterday were on the brink of spiritual death come to life again; when you see our Torah saturating their hearts, kindling their souls with commitment and faith, aggravation is replaced by spiritual joy, exhaustion by exhilaration and despondency by energy.

Would I do it again? Am I ready to undertake the next journey? Yes. It’s already set.

Am I tired? Of course. But the fulfillment in my heart is much more powerful than any exhaustion, and I believe this holds true for all of us. It’s all a matter of looking beyond the moment and seeing the greater picture of our life’s journey.

A World After This: A Memoir Of Loss And Redemption

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

 

 

Title: A World After This: A Memoir

Of Loss And Redemption

Author: Lola Lieber (with Alida Brill)

Publisher: Devora Publishing

 

 

   It is not often we find a Holocaust memoir where the author contributed to the saving of the saintly Bobover Rebbe, Shlomo Halberstam, met the infamous and controversial Kasztner and faced the devil Eichmann. Furthermore, she encountered gentiles that helped or contributed to her and her husband’s survival; from the Polish mayor of Niepolomice, the Nazi commander of the Bochnia ghetto, Polish expatriates in Budapest, a Hungarian janitor in Debrecen to a Hungarian doctor in Budapest.

 

   The book reads like a suspense novel, the passages are almost visual, and at times it will take your breath away. It captures Lola Lieber’s artistic eye and emotions in conveying experiences of horror, fright, hunger, suspense, relief and extreme happiness. It is not just a memoir standing there by itself; it is a picture in the woven tapestry of Jewish history.

 

   The book takes you on a spellbinding journey into the culture of Eastern European Jewry immediately before and during WWII and shows you what life was like for a couple of newlyweds, on the run just beyond the grasp of the Nazi death factories to which so many of their contemporaries were relegated.

 

   A World After This is educational. It explains the Nazis did not invent ghettos, the yellow stars were not the first invention to display one’s religion, and the killing machine was just a modern version of older and less advanced killing machines used against the Jews.

 

   To enforce the documentary and educational part, the book has maps, a glossary, and pictures of family members who died during as well as those who survived the Holocaust.

 

   But in the end this book is an ode to victory and survival of the Jewish people. Lola survived and is rebuilding the Jewish tapestry. Ultimately, it is a story about the survival of a woman who defied death to become a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and an accomplished artist and did her part in re-weaving and repairing the tapestry of Jewish history tore by the Nazis. A must read.

A World After This: A Memoir Of Loss And Redemption

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

 

 

Title: A World After This: A Memoir

Of Loss And Redemption

Author: Lola Lieber (with Alida Brill)

Publisher: Devora Publishing

 

 

   It is not often we find a Holocaust memoir where the author contributed to the saving of the saintly Bobover Rebbe, Shlomo Halberstam, met the infamous and controversial Kasztner and faced the devil Eichmann. Furthermore, she encountered gentiles that helped or contributed to her and her husband’s survival; from the Polish mayor of Niepolomice, the Nazi commander of the Bochnia ghetto, Polish expatriates in Budapest, a Hungarian janitor in Debrecen to a Hungarian doctor in Budapest.

 

   The book reads like a suspense novel, the passages are almost visual, and at times it will take your breath away. It captures Lola Lieber’s artistic eye and emotions in conveying experiences of horror, fright, hunger, suspense, relief and extreme happiness. It is not just a memoir standing there by itself; it is a picture in the woven tapestry of Jewish history.

 

   The book takes you on a spellbinding journey into the culture of Eastern European Jewry immediately before and during WWII and shows you what life was like for a couple of newlyweds, on the run just beyond the grasp of the Nazi death factories to which so many of their contemporaries were relegated.

 

   A World After This is educational. It explains the Nazis did not invent ghettos, the yellow stars were not the first invention to display one’s religion, and the killing machine was just a modern version of older and less advanced killing machines used against the Jews.

 

   To enforce the documentary and educational part, the book has maps, a glossary, and pictures of family members who died during as well as those who survived the Holocaust.

 

   But in the end this book is an ode to victory and survival of the Jewish people. Lola survived and is rebuilding the Jewish tapestry. Ultimately, it is a story about the survival of a woman who defied death to become a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and an accomplished artist and did her part in re-weaving and repairing the tapestry of Jewish history tore by the Nazis. A must read.

Perfect Heroes

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

In the summer of 1993, shortly before I was to participate in an international conference on the concept of the hero in Jewish history, I began researching how Israeli society had perpetuated the memory of the Yishuv (Jewish community in pre-state Israel) parachutists from World War II.

These were a group of some three-dozen young parachutists (including three women) from Eretz Yisrael who were dropped by the British behind enemy lines in Eastern Europe and the Balkans during World War II.

The young parachutists, most of whom had arrived from Europe only a few years earlier, faced a double mission. Their British mission was to make contact with pilots who had jettisoned over enemy territory and assist them in making their way back to Allied occupied lands. Simultaneously, their Zionist mission was to contact Jewish communities in Europe, assist them in rebuilding the local Zionist movement, and, when necessary, help their members escape from the Nazis.

Seven of the parachutists, including two of the women, lost their lives during the operation. The most famous of them was undoubtedly Hannah Szenes, a young Jewish immigrant from Hungary who had been in the Yishuv for only four years before volunteering for this mission.

Having made contact with those parachutists who had returned from the operation and relatives of those who had not, I became determined to continue the project. And when I was knee-deep into the documentary section – burrowing through dozens of archives containing material on one parachutist or another – I realized that the book I would write had essentially been conceived at the intersection of three incidents during my childhood. Two and a half decades later, the seeds planted in me at this time ultimately sprouted into a decision to study how the parachutists underwent a metamorphosis from ordinary people to “perfect heroes.”

The first incident took place when I was four or five. Every Shabbos afternoon my father and I would go for a walk in our New York neighborhood, heading toward the nearby park, with its huge statue of Atlas bearing the world on his shoulders. To while away the long summer afternoons my father would tell me stories about the hero who bore the world on his back, whom he called koyach (“strength” in Yiddish).

I often confused that Greek hero with the ancient Jewish fighter Judah Maccabee, about whom he also spoke, but the message was clear. Every generation needs heroes – contemporary heroes, my father insisted, and not only those from the distant past.

The second incident took place during my early school years. Throughout the hour-long ride to my school, the younger children often tormented each other with shouts and shoves, but, when tired of mischief, would exchange stories as well. A favorite friend of mine on these rides was Danielle, and my mother often spoke about Danielle’s distant cousin, a true heroine who had been killed in the Holocaust. She was a parachutist who had been sent to rescue Jews from the Nazis. Danielle’s last name was Reik and the parachutist was named Haviva.

The third incident occurred a few years later. In my summer camp the directors and counselors took advantage of every opportunity for “Zionist brainwashing.” It seems to have succeeded since many of my fellow former campers now live in Israel. Not only were all camp instructions given in Hebrew – an unusual policy in an American Jewish summer camp – but every age group had a Hebrew name and every activity cabin bore the name of someone whom the camp directors of the 1950s and 1960s considered a Zionist hero.

We would start our morning roll call in Hannah Szenes Hall, hold afternoon activities in Haviva Reik House, and finish off the day with an evening campfire outside Enzo Sereni Cabin. No one ever explained to the campers exactly who these heroes were; the directors and counselors apparently adhered to the policy that it was the symbolism that mattered. Nevertheless, my bunkmates, many of whom were also my schoolmates, understood how great an honor it was to conduct activities in a building named after a Jewish hero or heroine from Eretz Yisrael.

A quarter century later the three incidents metamorphosed into the basic coordinates of what would become my book Perfect Heroes: heroism, Zionism, and parachutists – more precisely, the Yishuv parachutists of World War II. What began as an investigation into the history of the parachutist-emissaries (as they preferred to be called) gradually became an exploration of how the concepts of heroism and the hero evolved in an emerging state and a developing society.

To this day the parachutists’ mission is considered the pinnacle of Yishuv activity within the framework of the British army, on behalf of European Jewry during the Holocaust. At its height the operation encompassed some 250 volunteers who came from settlement movements, the military, and the Palmach, a Zionist military home guard originally established by the British to defend Eretz Yisrael against invasion. Of those, 110 were trained in various preparatory courses in Eretz Yisrael and abroad. Thirty-seven men and women were assigned to the operation and thirty-two of them did, in fact, participate reaching Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Bulgaria, and Italy during the war or immediately thereafter.

On the night of Rosh Hashanah 5704 (October 1, 1943) the first two volunteers – Liova Gukowsky (Ahisar) of Kibbutz Yagur and Arye Fichman (Arany) of Kibbutz Beit Oren – parachuted into Romania. It was a cold, moonless night. The operation had been planned down to the last detail and, at least on paper, the chances of success seemed high. Jewish Agency personnel in Istanbul had notified Zionist activists in Bucharest of the two parachutists’ arrival, and a sum of money had already been sent to someone in the local Zionist underground to be passed along to them. In a picturesque passage in his memoirs Gukowsky described his fears and hopes as he jumped:

We knew that an alarm had been sounded all over the country and that the plane was being watched . Your heart pounds, thick sweat floods your body, the opening to the depths below darkens before your very eyes … and suddenly, after the torments of expectation, the signal is given. The shades of light playing on the airplane gave the command: Jump! My comrade jumped first, and I instantly slipped out after him. When I jumped, the parachute opened and I felt enfolded in its secure arms. The cry “Shema Yisrael …” flashed like lightning in the darkness of my soul – a sort of feeling of the sanctification of God’s name that passed, was cut off . And along with this came a sense of death. My ears perceived the bullets buzzing around me, a hail of bullets. “I won’t make it” was the thought that passed through my mind.

The operation that had begun hopefully ended in disaster with both parachutists captured by the Romanian authorities, their location having been revealed by double agents working both for the Yishuv and for the locals. During the next few months additional groups were sent to Europe, some to Yugoslavia from where they were supposed to make their way to Romania and Hungary, others to Slovakia where there was a free enclave. One parachutist, Enzo Sereni, was parachuted into Italy where he fell directly into Nazi hands. He spent the next months in detention camps and finally was deported to Dachau where he was murdered in late 1944.

The group in Yugoslavia waiting to enter Hungary – Hannah Szenes, Peretz Goldstein and Yoel Palgi – had a unique problem to deal with that totally disrupted its original plans: just after they reached Yugoslavia Hungary had been occupied by the Germans.

Despite this situation in June 1944 Szenes and later Palgi and Goldstein crossed the border from Yugoslavia to Hungary in an attempt to aid the Jews of that country. Szenes was caught immediately and put in prison, and through a set of circumstances Palgi and Goldstein were forced to later turn themselves over to the Nazis. The three spent the summer and early autumn of 1944 in a Hungarian jail, waiting for the Russian forces to advance and liberate Budapest, to no avail.

On October 28, Szenes’s trial opened in Budapest. All three parachutists were originally supposed to appear in court, but only Szenes was actually brought before the judges, who refused to issue a verdict on that occasion. Despite a valiant speech she made before her judges she was not set free and no judgment was issued.

On the morning of November 7 the Hungarian prosecutor entered Szenes’s small cell and informed her that the sentence that had just been passed – death by firing squad – would be carried out immediately. The brave parachutist vehemently refused to ask for clemency. Before she was executed she wrote two notes that she entrusted to her cellmate, one for her parachutist comrades and one for her mother who lived in Budapest and for a time had been incarcerated with her in the same prison.

While Szenes was marching in the snow to face a firing squad (she refused a blindfold), her mother was waiting in the Hungarian prosecutor’s office for permission to visit her daughter. A few minutes after the young woman had been shot the prosecutor cruelly informed Katherine Szenes that she no longer had anyone to visit.

As the Germans advanced toward Budapest, it seemed that the fate of the two other parachutists was sealed. Peretz Goldstein was transferred to the Oranienburg concentration camp in Germany where he was murdered. Yoel Palgi managed to escape from the deportation train and made his way back to Budapest where he hid until the liberation.

During that same summer of 1944 another group of parachutists – Haviva Reik, Rafael Reiss and Zvi Ben-Yaakov – had been sent to Slovakia where they assisted Jews living in the free enclave of Banska Bystrica. At some point they were joined by parachutist Abba Berdiczew who later left for Romania. With the advance of local Nazi-collaborating forces, they were forced to retreat to the mountains where they were assaulted by the Ukrainian auxiliary army and captured.

Reik and Reiss were executed along with 250 Jews who had been imprisoned with them and their bodies left in a ditch covered with dirt. Ben-Yaakov, who had pretended to be a Canadian soldier, was sent to Mauthausen where he was executed. So was Abba Berdiczew, who had been captured by Nazi forces on his way to Romania and sent to that same camp.

Meanwhile, no one in the Yishuv knew of the parachutists’ fate. Word of Szenes’s death reached the Yishuv through Palgi, who had learned of it from Szenes’s mother even before the liberation of Budapest. In June 1945 Yishuv representatives got final word of Reik and Reiss’s murders. As for Berdiczew, in June 1945 British intelligence decided that in all probability he had been murdered shortly after his capture.

Only at the end of the summer of 1945, when the British army had obtained confirmed evidence that most of the missing parachutists had indeed perished, were official death notices sent to the families. Katherine Szenes – the first to officially join the family of the bereaved – was now joined by the Reiss, Reik, Sereni, and Berdiczew families. In the absence of verified information about the fate of Goldstein and Ben-Yaakov, their families had to wait several months longer for official notices and letters of condolence.

The last missing parachutist was also the oldest of the group, Enzo Sereni. The Labor party functionary, founding member of Kibbutz Givat Brenner and scion to an aristocratic Italian Jewish family, had accompanied the parachutists as liaison with the Yishuv authorities and only at the last moment had decided to join the mission and parachute with them into Europe.

Only in October 1945, almost a year after his death, did Enzo Sereni’s widow, Ada, who was on a Yishuv mission in liberated Europe, learn that her husband had died in Dachau on November 18, 1944.

Every nation needs heroes but often finds it difficult to cope with giants who are also flesh and blood. The process by which those who died became tiles in the mosaic of national heroism sometimes requires cosmetic touch-ups to their image, to the story of their lives, and even to the depiction of their political loyalty – all in order to make them blend in with the collective portrait of Yishuv heroism at the time.

This trend was manifested even before the ink had dried on the letters of condolence sent by the British army. Perhaps it is precisely this that the parachutists feared when they asked not to be considered heroes. In his last letter to his wife Zvi Ben-Yaakov had written: “Please don’t let them make me a national hero because this wasn’t heroism. Only here did I see just how much too weak we are to be called heroes.”

His request, like that of Rafi Reiss, was ignored. As long as they remained alive, the parachutists belonged to their families, their friends, and their kibbutzim. However, when they died new rules applied to them, a different dynamic that removed them from the personal framework of those who knew them and mourned their loss and transferred them into a national framework in which they would fulfill completely different functions.

For as soon as the parachutist died, the hero was created; as soon as the person dies, the symbol is born.

Prof. Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz is chair of the graduate program in Contemporary Jewry and teaches in the Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. This essay is adapted from her new book, “Perfect Heroes: The World War II Parachutists and the Making of Israeli Collective Memory,”

A Miraculous Nation

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Once again, I am on a plane. I am returning to New York after a long, two- week journey. It has been a grueling, but exhilarating tour. Each day, I addressed the Jewish community of another European country. The first stop was Paris. I was forewarned that in Europe if you draw an audience of 100-200 people, you could regard yourself successful, so my expectations were not very high. But when I arrived at the huge synagogue it was crowded wall-to-wall. There wasn’t a seat to be had, and people were still coming, not only residents of Paris, but from as far away as Strasbourg.

This was my first-ever speaking engagement in France, so I was astonished to be greeted by this outpouring of multitudes that all seemed to know me. One of my books had been translated into French, and as a result, many had been impacted and became committed to Torah and mitzvos. The Jewish neshamah is remarkable.

Although I do not speak French and most of the audience had to rely on simultaneous translations with earphones, and I spoke for more than an hour…no one moved; you could have heard a pin drop. People lingered on long into the night posing questions and asking for brachos. Nowadays, who does not have a problem? Who does not carry a burden?

Early the next morning, I arrived at the Gare du Nord to catch a train to Antwerp and was delightfully surprised to be greeted by a large contingent who had come to see me off and request just one more word of Torah, one more brachah. The rebbetzin of the community was also there, and she gave me some wonderful news. She had already received phone calls from many who had attended the program and now pledged to become Shomrei Shabbos and scrupulous about keeping Torah and mitzvos.

My audience in Belgium was totally different. Antwerp has a beautiful chassidishe heimish community, but no matter what type of community, I long ago discovered that, if you speak Torah, neshamos respond and open up. It has the power to touch every heart. This principle holds true for every country in which our people reside; Berlin, Budapest, London or Paris, the Yiddishe neshamah is very much alive.

A journey such as this, with a program in a different country each day, is physically and emotionally exhausting. To get up early in the morning after just a few hours sleep and race to the airport to catch yet another flight is no simple matter, even for a young person, how much more so for someone who, Baruch Hashem, has reached my age. So, first and foremost, I would like to publicly thank Hashem for the merit that He granted me that allowed me to make this awesome journey without any major mishaps.

I had only one glitch. When we arrived in Budapest, my luggage was missing. Five-hundred people (including a bus-load of yeshiva students from Vienna) were waiting in the beautiful ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel, a spectacular feat for the small, assimilated Jewish community of Budapest. For this accomplishment, I owe a debt of gratitude to Adrienne and Robie Deutsch, an amazing, lovely, young couple who became part of our Hineni organization when visiting New York and were determined to share their love of Torah with their fellow Hungarian Jews.

To return to the glitch – there I was, in a crumpled travel suit and sneakers, my luggage lost and 500 people waiting at the hotel. At the lost luggage counter they informed me that the suitcase had probably been left in Zurich (where we made our connection). Then, 20 minutes later I was told that, indeed, the suitcase had arrived in Budapest, but for some reason, it had not been unloaded and was on its way back to Zurich. They further told me that it would arrive in Budapest by seven or nine p.m., too late for my speech. With nothing further to be done, I decided to make the best of it and hoped that Hashem would regard it as my kapparah.

Adrienne very kindly tried her hardest and brought me a selection of her blouses and shoes. I felt like Cinderella, except in Cinderella’s case, the shoes fit perfectly… but no matter, it would have to do.

After my program, while I was greeting the people, answering questions and signing copies of my book, my friend, Barbara, whispered in my ear that she had been in touch with the airport…the suitcase was nowhere to be found, and more, they had no idea of where it could be! At midnight, our friend Robie Deutsch informed me that the suitcase had been traced back to London and it would soon arrive from Heathrow! The “soon” turned out to be 5:00 a.m., just in time for us to catch our flight to Bucharest for the next program.

When relating the “saga of the luggage” by phone to my daughter, she wisely reminded me how fortunate it was that the kapparah was only that which was material. “Do you remember, Ima, how, when you led a group to Auschwitz, you fell and broke your shoulder? At that time you said that, in countries like these, where so much holy Jewish blood was spilled, where so much pain, suffering, and agony had been inflicted, of course there had to be a kapparah, but Baruch Hashem, this time it was only that which was material!”

“How right you are, zees kind,” I agreed. “How right you are!”

The most significant gift that I was given on this trip, for which I will be eternally grateful, is to have had the merit, the zechus, of witnessing the light of Torah in Yiddish neshamos. No matter how assimilated or alienated the audience may have been, no matter how demanding or uncompromising my message may have been, the people embraced every word. Eyes that were cold and distant became moist with tears as the Pintele Yid resurfaced.

I also had an added bonus…. in every community I visited I discovered that the singles crisis, which we are witness here in America, has become global. Young people simply cannot find shidduchim and with the ever-shrinking Jewish population of Europe, the dangers posed by intermarriage are very grave, so I tried to connect singles from the different countries that I visited. Whether or not these shidduchim will materialize, remains to be seen, but the very fact that someone is trying to help, gives singles hope.

The shidduch crisis in our turbulent world is real, and it behooves all of us to address it. My father, HaRav HaGaon Avraham Halevi Jungreis, zt”l, never left the house without his little black notebook. “Men ken kein mol nisht vissen…. You never know who you meet and for whom you can perhaps make a shidduch.” This is a responsibility that we should all take seriously, to help establish yet another Jewish home and give life to a new generation of Yiddishe kinderlach.

To be sure, I discovered many other real problems; the sinister shadow of anti-Semitism is hovering over every Jewish community even as Israel is being demonized. But the good news is that Pesach is here and this great Yom Tov heralds our redemption speedily in our own day.

May it come soon!

In The Quiet Brownstone Near The Danube

Wednesday, October 4th, 2006

     At first glance it looks like an ordinary brownstone. The front of the three-story building is a mixture of brown brick and painted stucco, like so many of the older buildings in Budapest. We are only a block from the Danube in the Obuda district at the foot of the Buda hills. There are plane trees in front of the building, with leaves already changing colors in the Hungarian foliage. Down the street are the remains of an old Turkish mosque, a leftover from the days of Ottoman occupation of Hungary. There are white curtains on many of the windows of the building.
 
      It is a few days before Yom Kippur, in the middle of the Ten Days of justice and judgment. It is sunny and warm. Across the street from the brownstone is the small restored Frankel Leo Street Synagogue and Jewish community center. They are located inside a courtyard, originally constructed to hide the synagogue and the Jewish families living in apartments around the yard. During World War II the courtyard was used as a stable by the Germans. The synagogue was rebuilt and rededicated in recent years. From the stairs in front of the synagogue one looks directly across at the brownstone – which happens to be the home of one of the worst war criminals of World War II still at large. He lives openly in the brown building behind the plane trees.
 
*     *     *
 
      In the early 1940′s, Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany but had not yet come under the direct control of Hitler’s Gestapo. Ruled by a fascist government of its own, Hungary’s armed forces conducted a series of atrocities against Jews and against some non-Hungarian groups. One area in which a large number of atrocities took place was Voivodina, an area now inside Serbia, but containing many ethnic Hungarians before the war.
 
      At the start of World War II, Hungary invaded the Voivodina and annexed it to Hungary. Its capital city is Novi-Sad, called Ujvidek in Hungarian. Wartime Ujbidek had a Jewish population of several thousand. They had first arrived in the area after the Ottomans had been driven from the town, and they had a magnificent synagogue.
 
      Sandor Kepiro held a doctoral degree in law when he volunteered to join the Hungarian gendarmerie. He served as captain in the militia that was stationed in Voivodina. Under his command, units of the militia massacred between 880 and 1050 Jews in Ujvidek over three days, beginning January 21, 1942. The Hungarian militia then murdered more than 2,000 others – Jews and Serbians – elsewhere in the province.
 
*     *     *
 
      The press conference is being held in the Frankel Leo community center. The event is the initiative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The head of its Jerusalem office, Dr. Efraim Zuroff, has flown into town especially for this. Zuroff is the leading hunter of Nazi war criminals in the world today, courageously filling the shoes of the late Simon Wiesenthal. He briefly tells the audience the story of the war criminal Kepiro. And where is Kepiro today, asks Zuroff? He points out the window across the street at the brownstone. Right over there.
 
      Zuroff’s translator into Hungarian is a young Christian Hungarian woman named Szilvia Dittel. She has blond hair and blue eyes and could easily be working as a fashion model. Instead, she serves as a guide and educator in the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest, which opened about two years ago. Before that, she attended courses at Yad Vashem. She and several others at the Center are members of the strongly pro-Israel Pentecostal Church in Hungary.
 
      I notice an old man in the room, slightly bent over, with thick glasses. He catches my attention when I come in because he and I are both wearing American-style baseball caps. Zuroff calls on the old man to come forward. The old man sits with his back to the cameras and asks that the reporters not use his name.
 
      He softly tells his story. He was six years old when the massacre took place. He and his parents were rounded up by the militia commanded by Kepiro. They were marched out onto the frozen Danube ice and lined up, stripped of clothing in the freezing cold. His parents held him in their arms, as groups of Jews were shot before their eyes. Because the Danube ice was so thick, the militiamen, intent on speeding up the killing, fired a cannon into it to break it up. Many of the Jews drowned in the waters of the Danube.
 
      He and his parents were just moments away from being murdered when suddenly the killing stopped. Kepiro had just received a direct order from his superiors to cease the executions. The boy and his parents returned to their home, only to find the boy’s grandparents murdered and lying in a puddle of blood in front of the building. The militia troops had killed the elderly of Ujvidek on the spot, not even bothering to march them out to the river bank. Other Jews were then rounded up and held in the local synagogue, and from there deported.
 
      Kepiro was the commanding officer of the militia carrying out the murders.
 
*     *     *
 
      Kepiro was tried twice for the mass murders. In 1944, the Hungarian government tried him and several other militia officers, but on the reduced charge of “causing embarrassment to the military and the state.” He was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. But the sentence was never served. The German army seized control of Hungary shortly thereafter and revoked the sentences.
 
      At the end of the war, Kepiro went into hiding for three years in Austria. He was tried in absentia in Hungary in 1946 and sentenced to 14 years. When things got too hot in Austria, he escaped to Argentina, where he lived until 1996. Then he returned to Budapest, living under his real name just across the street from the synagogue.
 
      He is elderly now, but healthy and energetic. He throws parties for other residents living in his building. Efraim Zuroff and his team had uncovered his whereabouts while investigating other ongoing cases, as part of what the Wiesenthal Center calls “Operation Last Chance.”
 
      Kepiro’s name is on the list of doorbell buttons at the entrance to the brownstone. The front door is suddenly opened by one of the residents, curious to see what all the ruckus outside is about. The camera crews pounce on her. Did you know you were living next to a genocidal murderer? ask the dozen reporters in Magyar unison. She shrugs and says she knew her neighbor had been in the gendarmerie, and adds – somewhat enigmatically – that she knows what took place in the war.
 
      This past August, Zuroff and the Wiesenthal people submitted the evidence they had amassed on Kepiro to the Hungarian State Prosecutor. But since then the Hungarian Prosecutor’s Office and other government officials have been dragging there feet, stonewalling, inventing one excuse after another for why they cannot toss Kepiro into prison.
 
      The 1944 conviction of Kepiro was for “embarrassing the state,” not for crimes against humanity, and so is subject to a statute of limitations. The 1946 conviction was for mass murder, but because the trial was in absentia, Hungarian law requires a retrial.
 
      Meanwhile, Kepiro is free as a sparrow, throwing parties for the neighbors, enjoying a nice view of the Buda Hills and the synagogue. The Hungarian government is talking about starting a new investigation from scratch.
 
      Zuroff and his people have submitted files for prosecution against 91 war criminals in Europe and are currently building cases for 450 more. Zuroff himself not only leads the hunt for the murderers, but is also a highly prolific writer, author of many articles and books, mainly about the Shoah. Perhaps his best known and also his most controversial is a 1999 book about the responses and activities of the Orthodox community in the United States during the Holocaust.
 
      The reporters and TV crews listen in quiet awe as Zuroff explains the importance of taking action at once against Kepiro. Each day that Kepiro is still free is one day more of injustice, one day less in which Kepiro will pay for his crimes, and one more day in which the conscience and honor of Hungary is besmirched. The Wiesenthal people have demanded that Kepiro at least be placed under house arrest pending prosecution. He has not been.
 
      Szilvia Dittel has spent the recent weeks working with the Wiesenthal people to prepare the press campaign. By the evening after the press conference, her sense of achievement has grown. A Hungarian Supreme Court justice has just spoken out about Kepiro, and there are reports that Serbia may file an extradition request.
 

      Will justice be done regarding Kepiro? Perhaps, says Zuroff dejectedly, but so far there have been no concrete steps taken to make that happen.

 

 

      Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/in-the-quiet-brownstone-near-the-danube/2006/10/04/

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