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December 22, 2014 / 30 Kislev, 5775
 
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Posts Tagged ‘Romania’

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,”

Title: The Bugs Are Burning: The Role of Eastern Europeans in the Exploitation, Subjugation and Murder of Their Jewish Neighbors

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Title: THE BUGS ARE BURNING: The Role of Eastern Europeans in the Exploitation, Subjugation and Murder of Their Jewish Neighbors During the Holocaust

Authors: Dr. Sheldon Hersh and Dr. Robert Wolf

Publisher: Devora Publishing 

 

 

In this meticulously documented treatise of centuries old European anti-Semitism, authors Drs. Sheldon Hersh and Robert Wolf graphically depict the hellacious barbarism and heinous atrocities committed against the Jewish people throughout Eastern Europe before, during and after the Holocaust by those they believed to be their close neighbors and friends.

 

        They painstakingly take us through a nightmarish odyssey of the toxic manifestations of deeply entrenched anti-Semitism in such countries as Lithuania, Latvia, the Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Croatia and Poland in the decades preceding the Holocaust. Quoting from a litany of respected books on the history of pre-Holocaust Jew-hatred, they impart unique perspective on the nihilistic philosophies that proliferated throughout Europe in the early 20th century and offer, as well, a salient exploration of the genesis of bellicosity towards Jews and the ramifications thereof. 

 

Lusting for Jewish blood, the indigenous gentile population of Eastern Europe, the authors inform us, rapidly morphed into unabashed miscreants. Gladly becoming more than “willing participants” in the wholesale slaughter of the Jews when their respective countries were occupied by Nazi forces, these Eastern Europeans   possessed no compunction about liquidating Jewish assets and property, or for that matter, engaging in the most horrific forms of sadistic mass murder of their Jewish neighbors.  

 

        Clearly, rabid Jew-hatred was endemic to Eastern Europe since the influx of Jewish immigrants centuries before. Aided and abetted by the insidious dogma of the Church and the hateful rhetoric against Jews in the media and the government, resentments of the Jews grew exponentially as the continent stood poised to explode like a powder keg. One need only read of the wanton murder of Jews prior to the   advent of Nazism throughout Europe to gain a cogent understanding of why   Hitler’s manifesto held sway in these countries – they were already soaked with Jewish blood and tears.

 

In June of 1941, when German forces occupied a town called Jedwabne, the Polish residents held a town meeting in which they decided that the Jewish residents be annihilated. One can only recoil in horror as the authors tell us, “Hooks and wooden clubs were the murderers’ instruments of choice. Jews were set upon; their heads severed from their bodies and kicked about like soccer balls. To escape the killers, women fled to a nearby pond and drowned themselves along with their babies. Those who survived were brought to the town square, where they were beaten with clubs and stones, and herded into a barn that was set ablaze by their Polish neighbors. As for the younger children, they were roped together by their legs, carried on the executioners’ backs to be impaled on pitchforks, and thrown onto the smoldering coals of the burning barn.”

 

        Other such depraved stories of mass murder of Jews in other countries are also told here in chilling detail. The authors give us something to reflect upon as it pertains to the scourge of modern day anti-Semitism when they quote Deborah Lipstadt in her book, Witnesses to the Holocaust. She writes, “The Holocaust was not committed by a cadre of sadistic beasts. Before the war these people were doctors, lawyers, architects, teachers, clerks, farmers and students…It means that it takes relatively little to turn ‘normal’ humans into creatures capable of the most sadistic acts.”

 

        Eastern European collaborators murdered well over a million Jews sans the assistance of the Nazi death machine while the world stood in abject silence.  They had interpreted the world’s reluctance to voice objections to such acts as tacit imprimatur to continue their rampages. 

 

This book is replete with a plethora of profound lessons on the vituperative and lethal nature of unchecked anti-Semitism, but its most paramount insights relate to the existential perils that the Jews of today’s world confront.

 

Jew hatred has become a fashionable and “politically correct” phenomenon in the spheres of the Western academy, but this time around it is couched in semantics. While classical Jew-hatred is dismissed by intellectuals as blatantly racist, the very same menacing sentiments have been summarily replaced by the en vogue terminology better known as “anti-Zionism”. Much more than a cut and dry history book, The Bugs Are Burning teaches that the brand of Jew-hatred we are now witnessing must be accorded intellectual and emotional gravitas and addressed in the strongest of terms. Now, before it is too late.

Clowns Who Care: Lev Leytzan Warms Hearts, Heads, Hands and Toes

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

The young adult clowns of the Long Island-based charity Lev Leytzan, a medical clowning troupe, returned recently from an 11-day humanitarian mission to Romania and Israel to celebrate Chanukah.

 

The goal of the trip, Lev Leytzan’s eighth in five years, was to bring warmth to the bodies and souls of the sick, the elderly, orphans, and Holocaust survivors. The group brought socks, gloves, and hats to audiences along with slapstick humor, funny red noses, and a special kind of compassion.

 

Lev Leytzan brings clowns to the most unlikely places – hospital rooms, nursing homes, the apartments of shut-ins. “We went to many hospitals and visited people in their homes,” said Effie Pill, a Lev Leytzan member on his first overseas mission. “In Romania, where we saw so much poverty and sadness, we brought smiles and laughter. In Israel, where I am used to being a tourist, I went to people’s homes and hospitals and gave sick people the chance to feel good.”

 

One Lev Leytzaner recalled a mother at the Bucharest children’s hospital pulling him aside to tell him her seven-year-old daughter was hospitalized again, and that this would be the last time. Funeral plans were underway. “My baby girl has been lethargic for so long; it’s been months since she’s had visitors. Now she’s playing and laughing, she loves the clowns. She’s dying, yet look at her, she’s living.”

 

Slapstick, clowning and comedy filled the corridors during the hours we spent at the hospital. It was sad to see the drab hallways of the huge triage area that was the hospital’s treatment center. Toward the end of our visit, we passed out many scarves, hats and gloves. Mothers called over an English-speaking nurse to explain what these gifts meant to them.

 

“Being homeless and living with children in a park and in cardboard boxes is our plight,” said one. “Your clowning warmed our hearts and memories, while these wonderful gifts will keep our bodies and spirits warm. Bless you.”

 

While in Romania we met an elderly Holocaust survivor who said he’d lived in the same facility in Bucharest for many years. “My family is long gone,” he told us. “I love clowns, I love that they make bubbles and juggle with me. It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed so hard. I was clapping and dancing a little too. I’m usually grouchy and don’t have too much to be happy for.”

 

 

(L-R) Adam Gindea, Avi Ballabon, Effie Pill, Moshe Marton

 

 

He thanked us for coming and asked, “Was it a far ride?”

 

We went from Romania to Israel. When we do our home visits there, we never know with whom we’re going to meet – we don’t know their names or their stories. Upon entering one particular home, ready to clown, we found a family with many candles lit and the shades drawn. The sadness was palpable and the clowns were uncertain about what to do. Invited to sit, we were told one of their children had recently been murdered by Arab terrorists. We thought we were there to help the daughter who survived cancer and instead we sat and sang with this family that was experiencing such tremendous pain.

 

The Chanukah trip was organized under the auspices of Lev Leytzan’s Ambassador Program, the organization’s international outreach arm. The program’s director, Beth Friedlander, chose Bucharest for the mission due to the dire circumstances of the Jewish community there. The city’s 6,000 Jews are mostly aging, largely isolated, and impoverished. Many are Holocaust survivors. Social services are few and the groups that provide them, whether government- or privately-funded, are always strapped for money.

 

“The activities of Lev Leytzan seemed a perfect fit for these lonely, disadvantaged, and needy people,” Ms. Friedlander said. “Bringing tangible items such as socks, gloves, and hats is a great way to address an immediate hardship.”

 

During the Israel leg of the trip – the group’s annual Chanukah in Israel outreach program – the clowns interacted and played with the sick and needy throughout the country, especially children, and delivered gifts sponsored by the Ossie Memorial Toy Fund.

 

“After the success we had in Munich and Budapest last year, I couldn’t wait to find out where we’d be going next,” said one of the Lev Leytzan clowns. “It’s hard to be away during Chanukah, but I know it’s worth it. There’s nothing like seeing the joy on the faces of the people we touch.”

 

The clowns themselves fund the majority of the cost of the humanitarian missions. By enhancing the lives of others they gain maturity and perspective unusual in people their age. The trip to Romania and Israel broadened their horizons and inspired many disadvantaged and needy people hungry for human connection.

 

(Special thanks to Yeshiva Derech HaTorah’s Women’s Organization for helping to organize the sock, glove and hat drive in Brooklyn.)

 

Editor’s Note: Founded in 2004 by Dr. Neal C. Goldberg, Lev Leytzan trains teens and young adults in the art of medical clowning and spreading joy and laughter to Jewish children and the elderly in the New York area, Israel and other countries. To support Lev Leytzan visit www.levleytzan.com or call 516-612-3264.

Geographical Silhouettes

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

Peter Krausz: (No) Man’s Land

Through January 16, 2010

745 Fifth Avenue, 5th floor, New York

http://www.forumgallery.com/

 

 

Per Deuteronomy 21, when a corpse is found in the wilderness, an elaborate ceremony ensues that is clearly intended to disrupt the regular routines of the townspeople living nearby. The judges and elders determine which city is closest to the crime scene, and the elders of that city take a young calf, which has never been yoked, to a dismal valley, which could never sustain agricultural life, where they break the calf’s neck. The Levites then arrive to observe the elders washing their hands over the bloody calf and declaring, “Our hands did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes perceive it. Therefore, God, forgive your people Israel, whom You redeemed, and do not allow innocent blood to flow amongst your nation, and let this blood atone for them.”

 

Everything about the episode of the Eglah Arufah – the broken calf -screams desolation, wilderness and boundaries. Since the murder victim is found outside the city limits, culpability is measured by the closest city, perhaps because that is likely to be the killer’s hometown or because that city should have better policed its outskirts. The calf, like the victim, is pure sacrificed potential, having never been worked, and the valley is so remote that even the flora avoids it. What better place for contemplation of the corpse and the atonement than the wilderness which cleansed the Israelites after they departed Egypt and which helped mold prophets and leaders like the shepherd boys Moses and David?

 

 

Peter Krausz. “(No) Man’s Land No. 14.” 2008. Secco on panel. 24 x 80 inches

 

Just as in life, it is necessary to set boundaries in art, although there are of course different sorts of boundaries. In a drawing, lines are used to capture the contours of objects (negative space), while paintings are shape based (positive space). An artist either draws around an object or paints the actual forms of the object. In a C?zanne still life, an apple ends where a pear begins, and in a Thomas Cole landscape, the horizon line separates a stormy sky and a mountain. But though it is necessary to set borders in art, not all artists are thrilled about the notion of setting limits.

 

Montr?al painter Peter Krausz knows enough about borders – the real sort, not just the aesthetic ones – to be suspicious of them and the people who tend to set them up. Krausz and his family escaped from Eastern Block Romania in 1969, which has led to his “long-standing preoccupation with the concept of borders,” according to a press release from Forum Gallery, which is showing his work through January 16, and with “the frontiers that sometimes follow natural geographical features but which are often arbitrarily, even brutally, imposed on nature, landscapes, and human beings.”

 

Peter Krausz. “(No) Man’s Land No. 9.” 2008. Secco on panel. 40 x 30 inches

 

 

Krausz created the 15 works of the Forum Gallery show using a mixture of high and low-tech techniques. Using satellite photographs from Google Earth, Krausz identified “no man’s land” areas, which are either unoccupied or disputed. He traveled to the areas and photographed them. Based on his photographs and the satellite images, Krausz painted the areas from a bird’s eye perspective, which he compares to Japanese emperors looking out over their land from a high vantage point as a way of owning the land. It also resembles Moses standing on Mount Nebo overlooking the land of Naftali, Ephraim, Menasseh and Judah, as well as the sea, the south and the plains, and as far as Jericho and Tzoar – all effectively no-man’s lands to him.

 

Krausz, who was born in 1946 in Romania, trained at the Bucharest Academy of Fine Arts. Today he is professor of fine art at the University of Montr?al. He uses a painting technique called secco, where he starts with a dry plaster surface and then applies a series of thin layers (like watercolor) of egg-based paints. The paintings have rich, earth tones, and seem to go on forever, since Krausz crops out the horizon line. This has the effect of making the landscape look like a story sea of continuous waves (even if they have trees on them) for as long as the eye can see. In the documentary “Peter Krausz: No Man’s Land” (Doina Harap Productions, 2009), Krausz says he also removed figures from the landscapes to arrive at an “almost biblical,” pre-human sort of scene. “Before the houses, the roads and the telephone post,” he says, “a universal landscape.”

 

Peter Krausz. “(No) Man’s Land No. 6.” 2008. Secco on panel. 36 x 80 inches

 

In the documentary, Krausz explains that he learned he was Jewish when he was the victim of anti-Semitism. “I could say I became a Jew the moment my little schoolmates called me a dirty Jew – that’s when I realized I was one. Because otherwise there was nothing else in my surroundings in Bucharest to let me know I was one,” he says. “So when that happened I became one and it stayed with me. Especially the history – the history of the Jewish people is of particular interest to me. Why this ongoing persecution that never ceases and is still continuing?”

 

Anti-Semitism has become a part of some of Krausz’s other series, like “De Natura (Humana),” where out-of-focus images of a man in a public bath echo Concentration camp iconography. In their book “Image and Remembrance: Representation and the Holocaust,” Shelley Hornstein and Florence Jacobowitz argue the images’ sense of “vulnerability” and “menace,” coupled with Krausz’s larger body of work, suggests a World War II theme. Krausz himself says that the photographs, coupled with an installation of long keys reminiscent of factory keys to open valves, evoke the Holocaust, and “you cannot help but think of the concentration camps, of the shower rooms where people were killed, gassed.”

 

 

Peter Krausz. “(No) Man’s Land No. 7.” 2008. Secco on panel. 40 x 30 inches

 

 

But even where Jewish themes and content is not so blatantly apparent, one gets the sense that Krausz’s work has a Jewish component to it. “For many years, even crossing the border into the United States was hard. We arrived at the border and there was … a little fear,” he says. “This might be hard to understand for Canadians or Americans, but for us the border still represents something dangerous and closed.” When Krausz returned to Berlin in the late 1980s, seeing the Berlin Wall, which was “extremely visible and heavy,” his fears of borders were renewed.

 

But no matter how much fear and pain bred Krausz’s work, the borders in his paintings are created by a generous hand, which seeks to understand the landscapes rather than to enforce rigid limits on them. It is a clich? amongst art instructors to tell students to allow the paint (or charcoal) to speak, but that is exactly what Krausz does for the landscapes he observes, studies and then recreates. It would be presumptuous and coy to call his mapmaking Tikkun Olam (the pop-Kabbalistic notion of repairing the world) or even progressive (in Hegel’s sense), but some viewers may well see a redemptive aspect mixed in with the wilderness of the no man’s land.

 

“It is often said that when you’ve left your home and you’ve immigrated and traveled, you’re always trying to rediscover the landscape of your childhood,” Krausz says. “So when I started focusing on landscaping in my work, I wondered if it was because I was trying to find this landscape that I had not seen again until 1994, when I returned to Romania after 25 years.”

 

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

Title: The Ransom Of The Jews – The Story Of The Extraordinary Secret Bargain Between Romania And Israel

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2005

Title: The Ransom Of The Jews – The Story Of The Extraordinary Secret Bargain Between Romania And Israel
Author: Radu Ioanid
Foreword by Elie Wiesel
Publisher: Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, IL

 

Throughout Jewish history, we have unfortunately grown accustomed to ransoming our people from being held hostage by many evil empires. In fact, we pray daily for the redemption of our people from the many galuyot, and the act of redeeming beleaguered communities (such as Soviet Jewry) and prisoners is considered one of the greatest mitzvos that one can accomplish.

From the very beginning of the Zionist enterprise, Israel has been instrumental in delivering entire endangered Jewish communities. One such community was that of the Romanian Jews.

Radu Ioanid, of The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., researched the rescue of hundreds of thousands of Jews whom Israel ransomed from the Romanian government during the 1950′s and 60′s. Although Romania’s leaders, including Gheorghiu-Dej and Nicolae Ceausescu, ran maverick governments within the Soviet eastern bloc, Communist Romania remained a repressive country, with children trained to report on the “traitorous” activities of their parents, and religious expression repressed.

In fact, the Romanians were such prolific wiretappers that in 1967, when Nahum Goldman, chairman of the World Jewish Congress visited Bucharest to make a speech at the Athenee Palace Hotel, he wanted to have the speech taped, but his technician bungled the job and was unable to make the recording. This was reported by Rabbi Rosen, the head of the Jewish community, to Emil Bodnaras, a member of Romania’s Politburo, who retorted: “Tell Goldman not to worry; we have a tape of the entire speech.”

By 1989, 40 years after the beginning of the Romanian aliyah, more than 380,000 Jews had emigrated to Israel at the cost of many millions. This aliyah was conducted under such secretive terms that a special law was passed by the Knesset which referred to it as the “sha-sha aliyah” (the hush-hush aliyah).

The one million dollar payoff money was carried aboard a plane at Zurich airport by a Romanian diplomat headed for Bucharest. He arrived minus the suitcase containing the ransom money sent from Israeli intelligence to Gheorghiu-Dej. The suitcase later turned up intact (or else the operative might have lost his head). Part of the ransom was paid in investments in factories and agricultural commodities desperately needed by Romania’s anti-Semitic officials.

The other side of the coin was that this arrangement made possible Israel’s only embassy within an Iron Curtain country during the Cold War period, and even assisted the efforts of The United States in using Romania as a lever within the Communist world to further its own aims.

The Girl From Transylvania

Wednesday, March 17th, 2004

“You will never see your land of Israel, your precious Jerusalem, your Carmel, your Galilee. It will never happen. You will never leave Romania.”

The Securitate agent glared at her in anger.

The Romanian Securitate was the feared secret police, the foundation block of the totalitarian regime imposed on Transylvania by Stalin, and it controlled Romania until the fall of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Years later, after Russia itself had junked its rusty communist regime, the methods and secrets of the Securitate would be exposed, its files opened and scrutinized. There were files on millions of ordinary Romanian citizens. More than 700,000 people had been employed as informants.

“You will tell us everything you know about the Zionist underground in Romania. You will tell us the names. Or you will never see the sun again.”

She was born Magdalena Fisher in 1920 inside Hungary, but while she was still a toddler her parents moved to the Transylvanian town of Brasov. Hungarian Jews, including those in Transylvania, were a heterogeneous lot. They ranged from the ultra-Orthodox in their black coats to the modernist secularists. Large numbers belonged to the “Neolog” movement, something roughly analogous to the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States.

While Jews had been murdered and brutalized by the Romanian fascists during World War II, especially those from the Iron Guard, most survived the Holocaust years. Jews from the northern part of Transylvania had been deported to the death camps by the Hungarian fascists. But Brasov was in southern Transylvania and most of its Jews had survived the war.

Transylvania: The name conjures up late-night horror movies and Count Dracula. But in fact Transylvania had been a center of culture, including Jewish culture, for centuries. The first Jews had settled there in Roman times. The Khazars probably had contact and influence with Transylvanian Jews.

Transylvania became a multicultural wonderland, a mix of Magyars, Romanians, Vlachs, Tartars, Gypsies, Swabian Germans, and Jews. Many of the Transylvanian Jews were Magyarized, migrants from other Hungarian areas, while others were German-speaking, and there were also communities of Sephardim mixed among them.

World War I found Hungary still under the Habsburg rule, and so on the losing side of the war. The Trianon Treaty of 1920, which officially ended the war, stripped Hungary of many of its territories and awarded Transylvania to Romania. It remained an enclave of predominantly Hungarian speakers within the Romanian state. The resentment at this played a role in Hungary aligning itself with Hitler in World War II.

A Leader Of Betar

Magdalena’s father was a Czech-born engineer who worked with the sugar factories concentrated in Brasov. They were modern Jews, Neologs. The Jewish day school went only up to the fourth grade, after which she attended Catholic school, excused from the religion classes, and with classes in Judaism with the local rabbi, Dr. Deutsch, after school. She was an only child. Her classmates would argue over what they were – Hungarians, Romanians, Transylvanians, Magyars – but for her the question was easy. She was a Jew.

Her father, one of the early leaders of the Betar movement of Transylvania, raised her not only as a Jew, but as a militant Zionist. In 1923, the mainstream Zionist movement had been split when Vladimir Jabotinsky resigned from the Zionist Federation, which was dominated by socialists seeking to create a Jewish state through cooperation with the Arabs.

Jabotinsky was a skeptic and a realist. He correctly expected the Arabs to oppose any form of Jewish sovereignty and concluded that the Jewish state must be created through uprising and armed struggle by the Jews. He expounded his views in his most famous essay, “The Iron Wall.”

Jabotinsky had set up his own dissident Zionist movement outside the Zionist Federation. He named it Betar, a play on words. Betar had been one of the last holdouts in the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome, but it was also the acronym for Brit Trumpeldor, the Covenant of Joseph Trumpeldor, named for the martyred hero of the Zionist militias in the Ottoman Galilee.

Jabotinsky called his movement “Revisionist Zionism” – revisionist in the sense that it wanted some revisions in the British Mandate for Palestine, such as restoration of Transjordan, which had been stripped away from what Jabotinsky regarded as the Jewish homeland. Betar grew to a mass movement in Eastern Europe. Its Romanian headquarters were in Bucharest. Brasov in Transylvania had a large chapter. Its members leafleted, organized, lectured, published, harangued.

From the time she was in high school, Magdalena was one of the central leaders in Betar in her town. It was one of the high points in her life when Jabotinsky himself came to Romania. She and the other leaders met him in Bucharest. Asher Diament, the chairman of Betar in Braslov, introduced her to Jabotinsky as the most effective leader in the local chapter, the leader who “works with her heart,” and her face beamed with pride.

Before World War II, Romania had the third largest Jewish population in Europe, after the Soviet Union and Poland. At the start of the war, the Romanian government, headed by Ion Gigurtu, introduced draconian anti-Jewish legislature, which was openly inspired by the Nazi Nuremberg Laws. Antonescu, who followed Gigurtu as leader of the nation, created the “Legionnaire State” in coalition with the Iron Guard. Many Jews sought ways to escape to Palestine.

She continued her Zionist work at the university in Bucharest, until all Jewish students were expelled in 1943. Jews were also being barred from a long list of professions in Romania. In June of 1941, the Iasi pogrom had taken place. After false rumors that the local Iasi Jews were collaborating with Soviet paratroopers, the Romanian police had carried out a massacre of Jews, the worst in Romania during the war.

Meanwhile, Jabotinsky had died in the United States and was buried in the Catskills. (Jabotinsky’s remains would not be moved to Mount Herzl in Jerusalem until after David Ben Gurion, Israel?s first prime minister and a bitter opponent of Revisionist Zionism, left office.)

The war ended when Romania was liberated by the Red Army, but in a wink of an eye the Soviets had imposed a totalitarian communist regime on the country. The Romanian king was forced to resign. The Romanian communist party, which had perhaps a few hundred members before the war, was installed as the single political party, with a monopoly on the state. Industry was nationalized, agriculture collectivized, rival parties banned, gulag camps set up.

Magdalena had not planned to marry until she reached Israel, but she met Ladislau (Laszlo) Rosenberg, an engineering student. He was a member of the rival socialist Zionist movement, a cause of some early ideological debates between them, but she agreed to his proposal of marriage anyway. Some of her Betar comrades were displeased, preferring that she had chosen an ideologically purer mate. Together they dreamed of moving to Israel

Communist Harassment

Ironically, the Zionist movements had been legal in fascist Romania during World War II. Now the communist regime banned them altogether. She continued her work with Betar. She ran the local Keren Kayemet fund. She was the liaison of the movement for “Aliya Bet,” the illegal smuggling of Jews out of Europe and into Palestine in defiance of the British White Paper and its restrictions on entry of Jews into the Jewish homeland.

She would get a call late at night that several spaces on a ship had come open. People chosen for the ordeal had to leave before dawn the next morning, leaving behind everything except a small handbag.

The passage was dangerous. Even if they reached the ships safely, there was no guarantee – several had already sunk en route to Palestine, their human cargos drowning. She sent out not only Betar activists, but any Jew prepared to go. Her goal was to send one more Jew to Israel, and one more, and then one more.

The very first time the Securitate confronted her, she and Ladislau were at home. The agent barged in and informed her that she would have to report to Securitate headquarters the next day. But he began the interrogation in their home. We understand there are Zionist organizations that operate in Brasov, he said, reciting the names of all the movements except Betar.

She smelled a rat. Yes, she said, those are all Zionist organizations, but you left out one, an organization named Betar. The Securitate man grinned.

“You are a very lucky young woman,” he said. “Had you not volunteered the name of Betar, you would already be under arrest and would never have been heard from again.”

The interrogations at Securitate headquarters took place about once a month for the next two years. We demand the names of the Zionist leaders, they would repeat. She would give them names, lots of names, but only those of local Zionists who had already left Romania and were in Israel. As for those left behind, she would sigh and complain to the interrogators about how selfish it had been of those leaders to just abandon the simple folks left behind, people with no leaders at all.

She risked her life by refusing to name the actual leaders still operating in the Zionist underground. One day the interrogators demanded that she tell them everything she knew about Moshe Fogel, one of the local Betar leaders. The Securitate claimed he was planning to blow up a local factory. We have a problem, she said. You see, every Jew has two names – one modern or ordinary, in Hungarian or Romanian, and one Jewish name. If you do not believe me, just go to the synagogue and ask the people there if this is so. I am afraid I only know people by their Jewish names and so, alas, I do not know whom you are talking about.

The Securitate interrogators were not amused. When she denied she knew what “Irgun Zvai Leumi” (the name of the Betar militia in Palestine) meant, their anger grew. She had said it so convincingly that even her husband momentarily thought it was true. If you tell Fogel we asked about him, you will be imprisoned, they threatened. The next day, Ladislau met Fogel in an alley and warned him of the investigation.

You will never be allowed to leave Romania, they promised. Emigration of Jews from Romania had begun, allowed in trickles, mainly people with immediate relatives abroad. She corresponded with those Betar leaders from her town now in Israel. Her mother managed to get an exit visa and was already living in Israel. They had hoped this would be a sufficient “family reunification” basis for obtaining a visa, but the regime was being vindictive with those who had been Zionist activists.

Home At Last

For eleven years Magdalena and her husband waited. They sang songs of the Jewish homeland from their small apartment on Stalin Street. They dreamed of setting up house some place in the Land of Israel. She learned that one of the leaders from Romanian Betar was now in Australia. He had gone there to settle the affairs of an aunt who had died, then stayed on, and she asked him to file an affidavit to sponsor their immigration to Australia. It worked.

They got papers to allow them to leave Romania, to go to Australia. They left for Austria as if they were en route to Australia, and the first thing they did in Vienna was to contact the Jewish Agency, in charge of immigration to Israel. It was 1960. We want to go home, they announced.

They were moved to the port in Italy from which they would embark. They could not believe their eyes. An indescribably lovely white ship was waiting for them – a ship called the Theodore Herzl, no less. They were on their way home at last.

On the ship, they were “processed” by the absorption bureaucrats. The clerks were sending everyone to the depressed Negev town of Dimona. They had had their share of experiences with bureaucrats before. Ladislau wanted to set up his own factory using some of his know-how, and Dimona obviously was not the place. Diament, the Betar commander from Transylvania, invited them to live in Tel Aviv near him. When the ship landed in Haifa, they looked up at the green mountain. By hook or by crook, they swore, we will live in this lovely town.

They agreed to forgo the nearly-free housing offered them in Dimona. They decided to pay their own way and live in Haifa. They set up a small furniture workshop, in which they both worked 16-hour days. They never had any children. Israel was their family and Haifa was their home. The Carmel, about which they had sung in the Transylvanian underground, was now theirs.

***************

Israel is a country of modest apartments and simple ordinary doors, behind which quietly live the most extraordinary of people. She bites her lip in pain as she limps across the floor. Ladislau died many years ago, and she lives alone, 83 years old, with a helper from Romania. She has been handicapped since a careless bus driver last year started the engine while she was only half on board, knocking her down and breaking her thigh.

But she is as energetic and optimistic as she had been back in Transylvania as a young girl. She lives every single moment that the state of Israel lives; she celebrates every moment of triumph and she suffers from every moment of tragedy.

There is only one thing I do not understand, my dear next-door neighbor, she says to me as I make notes for this article. The Chanukah candles are still flickering as we chat.

I am just an ordinary person, a girl from Transylvania, a Jew and a Zionist who loves all Jews and who loves her land and her country with all her heart – a simple Jewish woman whose life is of no interest. Why on earth do you think my story is worth telling?

Steven Plaut is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be reached at steven_plaut@yahoo.com.

November 14 Filing Deadline For Romanian Restitution

Friday, December 7th, 2001

As we report elsewhere this week, the Prime Minister of Romania has announced that the deadline for filing claims for restitution payments for those who once held property in pre-war Romania is November 14, 2001.

According to a statement by the Association of Jewish Romanian Americans, a “letter of intent” must be filed with the Romanian Ambassador in Washington DC by November 14, 2001 and documentation of claims must be produced within eighteen months thereafter. Registered letters should be sent to:

Ambassador Sorin Ducaru
Embassy of Romania
1607 23 Street NW
Washington, DC 20008

Those wishing to file a claim are urged to confirm the procedure with the Romanian Embassy at 202-387-6901.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/editorial/november-14-filing-deadline-for-romanian-restitution/2001/12/07/

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