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April 17, 2014 / 17 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘concentration camps’

World’s Oldest Holocaust Survivor Stars in Oscar-Nominated Film

Friday, February 14th, 2014

In her 110 years, Alice Herz-Sommer has been an accomplished concert pianist and teacher, a wife and mother — and a prisoner in Theresienstadt.

Now she is the star of an Oscar-nominated documentary showing her  indomitable optimism, cheerfulness and vitality despite all the upheavals and horrors she faced in the 20th century.

“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” a 38-minute film up for best short documentary at the Academy Awards to be handed out next month, begins in her native Prague. Alice — everyone from presidents on down calls her Alice — was born on Nov. 26, 1903 into an upper-class Jewish family steeped in literature and classical music.

A friend and frequent visitor was “Uncle Franz,” surname Kafka, along with composer Gustav Mahler and other luminaries.

Trained as a pianist from childhood, Alice made her concert debut as a teenager, married, had a son and seemed destined for the pleasant, cultured life of a prosperous Middle European. But everything changed in 1939 when Hitler, casually tearing up the Munich accord of a year earlier, marched his troops into Prague and brought with him his anti-Semitic edicts.

Her public concert career was over, yet the family managed to hang on in an increasingly restrictive existence in the Czech capital.

In 1943, however, Alice and her husband, their 6-year old son Raphael (Rafi), and Alice’s mother were loaded on the transport to Theresienstadt. The fortress town some 30 miles from Prague was touted by Nazi propaganda as the model ghetto — “The Fuhrer’s gift to the Jews,” with its own orchestra, theater group and even soccer teams.

With the full extent of the Holocaust still largely unknown, Alice took her deportation with relative equanimity, as was typical for many European Jews.

“If they have an orchestra in Terezin, how bad can it be?” she recalled asking, using the Czech name of the town.

Alice soon found out, as her mother and husband perished there. Alice was saved by her musical gifts and became a member of the camp orchestra and gave more than 100 recitals.

But her main focus was on Rafi, trying to make his life bearable, to escape the constant hunger and infuse him with her own hopefulness.

“What she did reminded me of Roberto Benigni in the Italian film ‘Life is Beautiful,’ “ said Malcolm Clarke, director of “The Lady in Number 6.” “He plays an Italian Jew who pretends to his young son that life in the camp is some kind of elaborate game for the boy’s special amusement.”

Liberated in 1945, Alice and Rafi returned to Prague but four years later left for Israel. There she taught at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and performed in concerts frequently attended by Golda Meir, while Rafi became a concert cellist.

Alice said she loved her 37 years living in Israel, but when Rafi, her only child, decided to move to London, she went with him. A few years later Rafi died at 65, but the mother remained in her small flat, No. 6, in a North London apartment house.

Nearly all of the film was shot over a two-year period inside the flat dominated by an old Steinway piano on which Alice played four hours each day, to the enjoyment of her neighbors.

Originally the filmmakers considered “Dancing Under the Gallows” as the film’s title before going with “The Lady in Number 6.”

It was a wise decision, for the film is anything but a grim Holocaust documentary with Alice’s unfailing affirmation of life, usually accompanied by gusts of laughter.

Her health and speech have declined in recent months, and she no longer does interviews. But in a brief phone conversation, conducted mainly in German, Alice attributed her outlook partially to having been born with optimistic genes and a positive attitude.

Yesterday’s Ashes, Today’s Crime

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Sometimes when you read a news article, it has the power to stab you right in the heart. I saw the headlines, “Majdanek Museum Employee Charged with Anti-Semitism.” My first problem with this dates back over 10 years, to when I visited both Majdanek (Maidanek) and Auschwitz. These are NOT museums, people, these are/were death camps, concentration camps. These show the worst of humanity, then and now.

They took us to Majdanek first, a short time after we had arrived in Poland. I had already asked the Israeli guides why so much of what we were seeing had not been moved to Israel. The graves that were desecrated…not back then, but now.

First, before Majdanek, I saw this gravestone and I asked, “why haven’t we moved this cemetery to Israel?” The guides didn’t answer my question, but I left it alone. I was a parent and was supposed to know the answers.

The guides were there for our daughters – it was all about the daughters. I was there to help Amira and other girls; other parents did the same. In one place, the guides came over and said we were in a miserable little village where they hated Jews and were as likely to throw something at the girls as yell at them.

“Walk on the outside,” I was told by the guides and so the parents formed a border and as the girls talked with each other and moved forward, we watched on the sides – this was Poland to me…this, and the shattered gravestones.

And then we got to Majdanek – which is the easiest of concentration camps to understand because unlike the others, Majdanek was abandoned by the Germans – perhaps it was too small and they couldn’t kill enough people fast enough. I don’t remember the reasons – only that it was abandoned whole and remains to this day. Little is left to the imagination. If you want to see a gas chamber…this is where you go.

And as we approached the Har Effer…I realized that I didn’t know what “effer” meant. Har means mountain…effer? I asked Amira – we were walking closer and closer to this spaceship type of building. It took her a moment to think of the English word…”ashes.”

Mountain….Mountain of…Mountain of Ashes? I thought to myself in horror – no, it couldn’t be. No way – it is symbolic, right? Please God, let it be symbolic…it wasn’t. It isn’t. Once inside the “spaceship” – I faced a mountain of human ashes. And this time, I didn’t ask the Israeli guides why Israel had allowed these remains to stay there in Europe, “if we took it all home,” I said to one of them, “there isn’t enough room in all of Israel, is there?”

He smiled the saddest of smile at the greatest of truths. We could fill the land of Israel with the bones and ashes and gravestones of 6 million and still it wouldn’t be enough. Majdanek remains in my heart – my first experience with a death camp, a gas chamber, crematoria…and the ashes, so many ashes.

According to the article, a man who worked at the camp for 20 years, has been arrested for distributing anti-Semitic posters…and it only gets worse. He used the facilities at Majdanek to print some of them.

Each time I read a story like this one, I find I have nothing to say to the Poles, to Europe in general. Each time, I want to turn to the Jews – there in Poland still, those in France, and even England. Get. Out. Now.

Rare Color Footage of the Liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau

Monday, January 27th, 2014

See a longer version of the Buchenwald footage here: Norman Krasna’s Color Footage from Buchenwald.

This video shows the Liberation of the Buchenwald and Dachau Concentration Camps. Watch the German Townspeople who were ordered by the Americans to go to the camps and watch.

I find that the color enhances the reality of these images, doesn’t permit them to be overlooked. The black and white images we’ve all been saturated with, unfortunately, have all merged over time into one, continuous and incomprehensible fog. The color, especially when reflected from the Germans being forced to look at what they had done, makes it impossible to overlook the horror.


Temptations, Tests, and the Search for Spiritual Courage

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

I was recently walking down the street when I smelled one of the most amazing unkosher cuisines I could ever remember smelling. As I stared at my food enemy, I had a thought which I imagine most religious Jews have at one point or another. I wondered: Was God testing me with this great smell? Was this amazing scent a way to bring my downfall?

Pondering this trivial “test” led to a greater philosophical and theological question: What is the religious nature of temptations and tests?

The Torah says, “Remember the entire path along which the Lord your God led you these forty years in the desert, He sent hardships to test you.” (Deut. 8:2). We read that G-d has Bnei Yisrael wander in the desert for 40 years as a test.

What is this about? To place a nation (man, woman, and child) through such transient and confused misery for decades as a test? I also often wonder if the Jewish people are being tested today, with our own state in Israel and unprecedented wealth and influence in the US. What will we do with the great blessings we’ve been granted? What does this idea mean that G-d tests us as individuals and as a nation?

It must be more than schar v’onesh (that God is merely keeping our score card) or that G-d is merely flexing power in the world.

I also can’t relate to the cynical answer found in the book of Job, where God tests Job because of a disagreement with Satan. My belief in a benevolent and personal G-d precludes the possibility of random tests.

Still within distance of smelling my temptation of the day, I began to ponder answers:

For years, the most compelling answer to me has been that it is through the struggle of these challenges that we truly grow. These temptations are ways of teaching people about G-d and the incredible human capacity for compassion and spiritual depth. The Ramban argues that this was exactly the purpose of the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac) for Avraham.

Alternatively, perhaps there is a utilitarian approach that more people can learn from a test than the one having to undergo the discomfort of the test. The Rambam and Radak argue that the purpose of the test at the Akeidah was not for Avraham to learn but for the future adherents of the Abrahamic faith to learn. This sets a gold standard for others to try to follow.

Rav Kook goes even further, arguing that Avraham was being tested in order to “prove” to the pagan religions that monotheism can match the religious passion of pagan worship through the act of inward sacrifice, without the need for savage and barbaric sacrifices. One is being tested in order to teach others through its example.

Another utilitarian approach is that tests can provide opportunities for others to do mitzvot to help when we are struggling. It is for the moral good of the community at large.

These explanations may be true and all of them are worth thinking about but Rav Tzadok teaches that just as a person needs to believe in G-d so too one needs to believe in oneself. These days many of us (including myself) are struggling less with why we are tested by G-d and more with how we can overcome our obstacles and challenges to live a happier, more meaningful, more successful life. Do we believe in our own capacity to overcome in the face of adversity?

One tool that we can all consider experimenting with: The Gemara says that the Torah is the seasoning for the yetzer hara (personal evil inclination). The Maggid of Mezritch offers a beautiful interpretation that since the yetzer hara is the main dish and the Torah is the seasoning, we must serve God with the full ecstasy of the yetzer hara. The purpose is not to destroy or subdue the yetzer hara but rather to spice it up – to access its energy and channel it towards good.

This is to say that when we experience struggle we should use that temptation and channel that new energy towards good rather than attempt to dismiss or remove the temptation. This is why the Midrash explains that without the yetzer hara there would be no business or procreation. In a complex way, we need our desire for self-advancement to further societal goals.

A Call to Action: Shut Down the Claims Conference

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

By Naomi Vilko, MD

Many Jewish Americans are unaware not only of the sordid behavior of the Claims Conference (Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany); they are also unaware of its existence and mission. Established in 1951, the Claims Conference has the tasks of negotiating for compensation and restitution for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution and of distributing payments from the German government to individual Jewish Holocaust survivors and the social services agencies that serve them.

Shamefully, $57.3 million intended for survivors was stolen from the Claims Conference by 31 people – 11 of them employees – over 16 years. [For more information, please read Isi Leibler’s numerous articles covering the Claims Conference scandal on his blog.] Now, influential Jews including Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress and Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel have insisted upon an independent investigation into the Claims Conference fraud as well as a change in its leadership and governance. I am grateful to Rabbi Mark Golub of Shalom TV, Isi Leibler of The Jerusalem Post and staff writers from The Jewish Daily Forward and The Jewish Week who have been following the Claims Conference scandal and pressing for justice for the survivors. I hope that we can mobilize the Jewish community to quickly close this corrupt agency and transfer the funds to another agency who will distribute them in time to help those in need.

Many Holocaust survivors have not received compensation for their suffering and losses because for some of these aging victims, the process is simply too painful; others have not received compensation because the Claims Conference is at best, difficult and obstructionist, and at worst, corrupt. Claims Conference officials have also continued to expand the definition of “Jewish victim of Nazi persecution”. Today, it administers programs providing funds not just to those who survived ghettos, concentration camps, forced labor battalions and death marches, but to anyone who fled Nazi invasion, lived in hiding, or lived under curfew. As a Psychiatrist specializing in trauma, I am well aware that it is difficult to tease out the quantitative and qualitative differences between different traumatic experiences – but I am certain that those who survived concentration camps (the youngest of whom are in their 80s) should receive assistance immediately and without the frustration of dealing with the uncaring staff of the Claims Conference and its various agencies.

My mother and I have dealt with the issue of reparations since my father, a survivor of 5 concentration camps, death marches, Hungarian forced labor and a ghetto, died suddenly in 1962. My father was denied any compensation. As his widow and a survivor herself, my mother appealed, but the appeals were denied. Recently, I again contacted several Jewish agencies in a futile attempt to assist my now 92-year-old mother with paying for her home-care. I was astounded to learn that if she only needed assistance 20 hours/week, she would receive funds, but since she requires 24-hour assistance (which she pays for herself) she will receive nothing to defray the expense. We were advised that she could go on Medicaid and/or be sent to a nursing home.

Jewish social agencies are doing the best they can to help survivors, but they say that they have limited funds. After helping themselves to large salaries and allowing fraud to persist under their noses for over a decade, is it any surprise that the Claims Conference does not have enough funds for the survivors it “claims” to serve? Furthermore, while it is commendable in theory for the Claims Conference to work to expand eligibility for these funds, I must ask: if there is not enough money available to help the survivors who have already been identified, what is the result of such efforts beyond making the bread lines longer?

It is an outrage and an embarrassment that the Claims Conference has continued to operate without oversight, even after failing in its responsibility to adequately investigate and prosecute the fraud for so many years. We must shut down the Claims Conference and transfer the funds to an existing agency, such as the Jewish Federation or the World Jewish Congress that can quickly prioritize the way funds are distributed to survivors. We have an obligation to take care of those who have been tortured and enslaved because they are Jewish – before it’s too late.

There are many survivors who have no children to care for or advocate for them and who live isolated lives in apartments with no services and little human contact. My hope is that raising awareness of the additional psychological trauma survivors experience as a result of the reparations and compensation processes and, specifically, the New York based Claims Conference itself, may lead the Jewish people to take action. Let’s face it: The Jewish people have not adequately taken care of the survivors, who are now extremely elderly and dying. They are entitled to live the last years of their lives with dignity.

Survivor of North Korean Jail Warns of ‘Holocaust-Era Inaction’

Friday, June 21st, 2013

When guards dragged Shin Dong-hyuk from his North Korean cell in 1995, he was pretty sure the end was near.

Dong-hyuk, then just 13, was born in the prison known as Camp 14, not far from Pyongyang. Camp 14 is part of a network of political prisons believed to be the largest in the world, where an estimated 150,000 dissidents and their families live in conditions reminiscent of Holocaust-era concentration camps.

As he was brought to the camp’s execution field, Dong-hyuk realized he wasn’t the one due to be killed that day — it was his mother and brother. The boy calmly watched the executions, he says now, having been brainwashed into believing his family members deserved to die. After all, he was the one who had turned them in.

“They hanged her and shot him for planning to escape,” Dong-hyuk, now 31, told JTA in Brussels. “I was only brought to watch.”

In 2005, Dong-hyuk (pronounced dong-YUKE) became the only known survivor of Camp 14. In the years since, he has traveled the world raising the alarm about North Korea’s treatment of political dissidents, including five visits to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and a meeting with survivors in 2009 at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. He plans to visit Yad VaShem in Jerusalem later this year.

To date, the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva has convened 19 special sessions, none on North Korea. Israel has been the subject of six — more than the Syrian civil war, in which 90,000 people are believed to have died, or the genocide in Darfur, which has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, according to some estimates.

Dong-hyuk’s father and grandfather were incarcerated because two of the grandfather’s brothers had defected, Dong-hyuk said in a recent interview on “60 Minutes.”

His accounts of his treatment at the hands of sadistic guards, and the arbitrary torture to which he was subjected, are reminiscent of Holocaust stories, but Dong-hyuk is careful to avoid such comparisons, saying the only thing Nazi camps have in common with those in North Korean is “that they never should have existed.”

Yet he feels a certain kinship with survivors of the Nazis. “Through the horrific stories of Holocaust survivors, I could see my own life in the prison camps,” Dong-hyuk said. “

Yoon Yeo-sang of the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights likenins global inaction on North Korean camps to the world’s indifference to the Nazi genocide in Europe.

“What goes on in North Korea is maybe worse than the Holocaust, where the Nazis were active for 12 years,” Yeo-sang said. “The enslavement of the camps in North Korea has been going on for decades.”

Dong-hyuk lost a piece of his index finger as punishment for breaking a machine at a military factory where he and his family were forced to work. Another time he was given a choice between hunger and a beating. He chose the beating.

“We were constantly hungry,” he said. “Some ate rats and insects to survive. I was hungry for 23 years.”

The North Korean government has long denied the existence of political prisons, and in the absence of other escapees, there is no way to corroborate details of Dong-hyuk’s story. But Yeo-sang says that Dong-hyuk’s testimony is consistent with accounts by survivors from different areas.

Dong-hyuk said the trigger for his escape was meeting an inmate named Park, who had been on the other side of the electric fence and told stories of people eating pork and chickens. In the course of their escape attempt, Park was electrocuted and died on the fence. Dong-hyuk says he crawled over his friend’s body to escape.

From the camp, Dong-hyuk walked to China, bribing locals to avoid detection. He now lives in South Korea, where he runs an organization, Inside NK, that tries to publicize the cause of North Korean prisoners and document the testimony of survivors.

“Too much attention goes to [the North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un and his wife and too little attention to ending the camp reality,” Dong-hyuk said.

But there is also a personal reason for his devotion to the cause: Dong-hyuk says he feels guilty for betraying his mother and brother as a boy and hopes that admitting to his actions and raising awareness for other prisoners will serve as a small act of penance.

Germany Arrests One of 10 Most Wanted Nazis

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

German police arrested on Monday one of the 10 most wanted Nazis, 93-year-old Hans Lipschis,  who is facing charges of complicity in murder as a former guard at the Auschwitz extermination camp.

State prosecutors in Stuttgart are preparing an indictment against Lipschis, a native of Lithuania who was a guard at Auschwitz from the autumn of 1941 until the Nazis abandoned the camp in January 1945, according to German news reports.

Lipschis reportedly belonged to the Totenkopf-Sturmbann, or Death’s Head Battalion, that guarded the camp, and he later became a cook for SS troops at the camp.

The Zeit online newspaper reported that Lipschis is one of the “ten most wanted Nazi war criminals.”

Lipschis told the German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag last month that he was in Auschwitz “as a cook, the whole time.” He reportedly moved to the United States in 1956 but was expelled in 1982 after immigration authorities determined he had lied about his Nazi past in order to gain entry into the United States.

The arrest has been greeted by the SimonWiesenthalCenter’s top Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff as a positive step.

It follows the announcement last month by Germany’s Central Office for Clarification of Nazi Crimes, based in Ludwigsburg, that it had provided information about 50 former Auschwitz guards to German courts, with the aim of assisting in possible war crimes trials. All the suspects are around 90 years old.

The development was triggered by the 2011 guilty verdict in Munich against former death camp guard John Demjanjuk, as an accessory to murder of nearly 29,000 Jews at Sobibor in Poland. There were no direct witnesses to Demjanjuk having physically committed murder himself, but there was sufficient evidence that he was a guard at the camp.

Kurt Schrimm, who heads the Ludwigsburg agency, told reporters last month that, since the Demjanjuk verdict, “any job in a concentration camp is sufficient evidence towards a conviction as accessory to murder.”

Amsterdam Fined Holocaust Survivors for Unpaid Taxes while Hiding

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

The City of Amsterdam fined hundreds of Jewish Holocaust survivors as late as 1947 for failing to pay taxes while they were in hiding or in concentration camps.

The affair was exposed in an article in Het Parool, a local daily. Many of the houses in question were confiscated and used by members of the NSB Dutch Nazi party while the Jewish owners were in hiding or in camps.

The city went after survivors as late as 1947, the report said. Other Dutch municipalities waived such debts, Het Parool reported. The following year the city agreed to reimburse half of what it charged to some Jews who were taxed in absentia. The city’s archives contain 342 requests for reimbursement, Het Parool reported.

The documents about this taxation were discovered by Charlotte van den Berg, a 23-year-old university student. She said she found them bundled with an elastic band in the archive section of one of the city’s departments while conducting research on Jewish home owners.

A spokesperson for the city told the daily the city would investigate the matter, including how much money was collected from Holocaust survivors, together with the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

About 75 percent of Holland’s pre-World War II Jewish population of 140,000 was murdered in the Holocaust, according to the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel, a Hague-based watchdog on anti-Semitism which is known locally by its acronym CIDI.

Ronny Naftaniel, CIDI’s senior advisor, told JTA that although the discovery was “shocking,” there have been various reports of the city’s conduct after World War II, though “few facts were known. The City of Amsterdam has never, to my knowledge, taken steps to correct its actions,” said Naftaniel, who used to serve as the treasurer of Holland’s Central Jewish Board, or CJO.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/amsterdam-fined-holocaust-survivors-for-unpaid-taxes-while-hiding/2013/04/02/

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