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May 30, 2016 / 22 Iyar, 5776

Posts Tagged ‘Soviet Union’

The Enduring Strength of the Jewish Spirit

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

Making aliyah in 2000 afforded our family an opportunity to become part of the continuity of the Jewish people in the Jewish Land. In addition, we have been blessed to live in a community that has both the brightest Jewish minds of our times and some of the most courageous Jews of our generation.


Growing up Jewish in America during the 1970s and ’80s meant becoming involved with the movement to free Soviet Jewry. Who could have imagined that thirty years later, we would count among our dearest friends, Ari (nee Leonid) and Mila Volvovsky, heroes of that struggle, which shook the Soviet Empire to its very foundations?  Their story is something out of a Biblical tale, replete with adventure, suspense, tears and laughter. It is a story reminiscent of the history of our people, a people who have been exiled, enslaved, tortured and slaughtered, and yet, a people whose spirit, will, and faith have continued against all the odds.




Ari and Mila Volvovsky during their struggle for freedom


Ari and Mila grew up in Soviet Russia and had very little knowledge of the noble and often horrific history of their own people. They knew that they were Jewish, which to them meant their parents expected them to marry Jews. While their Soviet identification cards labeled them as “Jews”, they were not familiar with any part of Jewish history.  All that would change after the 1967 Israeli/Arab War.  When Israel reunited Jerusalem and regained the Old City, pride ignited in the souls of our Jewish brethren.  In many Soviet Jews, it also ignited a desire to reclaim their heritage through learning, becoming religious and applying to leave “Mother” Russia and return to the land of their Fathers, Israel.


An illegal (banned by the Soviets) typed unbound copy of Leon Uris’ Exodus circulated from Jew to Jew in Moscow. Ari and Mila had only one night to read it before they had to pass it on to the next family. Mila recalls how they stayed up the whole night, how they were exhausted the next day at work and yet exhilarated by the novel.  (Later on at Ari’s trial, reading this book was mentioned as one of his crimes against the Soviet State.) This story, Hebrew lessons, Bible and Halacha classes, and meetings with supporters outside of the Soviet Union, all afforded Ari and Mila the opportunity to begin learning about Judaism.  They also provided fodder for the KGB to arrest Ari and send him to a labor camp in Siberia. The Soviet authorities sentenced him to three years in this labor camp; however, due to the Herculean efforts of Mila, the outside world, and a miracle from God, his sentence was commuted to two years.


According to Mila it was a difficult but electrifying time for them and their friends. When asked if they were ever afraid, Mila responded that they never lived in fear. They chose, and were chosen, to fight this battle. Ari was arrested on at least three separate occasions and thrown into prison, without a trial, all before his infamous trial after which he was sent to a labor camp. Whenever he was interrogated, and later at his trial, Ari insisted on speaking only Hebrew. He refused to respond in any other language. During the time he was in the labor camp, Mila was followed whenever she left the house, and their phone was bugged. 


As soon as Ari and Mila applied to leave the Soviet Union (in 1974) they were fired from their jobs. With no jobs and very little money they lived with their parents. Right before the summer Olympic games (1980), the Soviets decided to “clean-out” Moscow and banish all dissidents. Ari and Mila were told that they could no longer live there. They were sent to Gorky, a “closed” city.  This mean that, unlike in Moscow, very few, if any outsiders could come to visit them. They continued their struggle against the Soviets. They met with others in the forests around Gorky, sang Israeli songs, planned Jewish Cultural Events, and continued to grow in their Jewish knowledge. The Soviets shadowed their every move, listened to their phone conversations, opened their mail, harassed and harangued them at every opportunity; however, Ari, Mila and their friends were relentless. They sat in front of their interrogators denying their guilt and evoking the powers of the free world to put an end to the demagoguery of the Soviet Beast and pry open its jaws to free the citizens who demanded the right to return to their God-given Homeland.



Mila Volvovsky campaigning for her Ari’s release


After Ari was sentenced to three years in the labor camp, he was moved around from prison to prison for two months.  In one place he shared a cell with five other men, real criminals. The lights were on 24/7 and the guards were Soviet women who had a passion for causing pain. He tells a miraculous story of how he made a chanukiah out of stale bread, threads from his prison uniform and oil from the top layer of their morning porridge. He taught his fellow, non-Jewish cellmates, to sing Maoz Tzur after he lit the oil candles, and miraculously the guards were not in the corridors during the same time for each of the eight days of Chanukah.


During the winter months in Siberia, the temperatures went below -40 Celsius.  The bathrooms were outside, as well as much of the work prisoners were expected to do.  Three months out of the year the temperatures jumped to +40 Celsius and within the mud the most vile and infectious mosquitoes were bred. At first Ari was sent to saw wood in the freezing cold weather. Next he labored in the quarry cutting stone until he fainted and his fingers developed severe arthritis. He felt like the Hebrew slaves of Egypt making stones for the mighty Pharaoh’s building projects. He was then sent to sew covers for machinery, also physically difficult. There were no fruits and vegetables in Ari’s diet and many prisoners suffered from maladies caused by severe vitamin deficiencies.


While Ari was struggling to survive his sentence, Mila was working to make the entire world aware of her husband’s plight. Hundreds of letters, from all over the world, arrived at the camp every week; although, Ari received very few of them, and only those written in Russian had any chance of being delivered. Of course, those were the ones the authorities could read and decide if they would deliver them or not.


At one point, the Commandant of the camp called Ari into his office.  He was holding a letter from President Reagan, requesting Ari’s release. The Commandant wanted to know if Ari was related to Reagan! Mila begged, bartered and bribed to get supplies to her husband. The first time she was allowed to visit was after nine months.  Another time she and her daughter, Kira, flew the over 10,000 kilometers to meet their beloved father and husband for one hour.  Mila says that if not for the support of activists around the world, she never could have visited, or bribed the authorities to smuggle things to Ari in the prison camp.



Ari Volvovsky


Ari regales us with the real life adventures of the Soviet Refusniks each time we are at their home.  One commandant told Ari that, if he would ask to be pardoned, he would be released. Ari refused on the grounds that he had done nothing for which he needed to be pardoned!


At the Purim seuda this year, someone asked Ari when he had his Brit Milah. Before answering, he first acknowledged that he could completely empathize with Avraham Avinu! To have a brit in the former Soviet Union was forbidden as it was considered a “non-registered” surgery. At the age of 36, Ari decided to perform this difficult mitzvah. Both a non-Jewish and a Jewish surgeon came to Ari’s home. The non-Jew took this very dangerous risk to teach the Jewish doctor how to perform what is a complicated procedure for adult males.  They gave Ari a glass of vodka to drink and a local anesthetic before the procedure was done on the kitchen table and soon Ari joined the halachic ranks of the Jewish people. This Jewish doctor went on to perform hundreds of illegal circumcisions in the Soviet Union until he too, was able to come on aliyah.


Ari learned the art of sh’chittah and slaughtered chickens so that he and his fellow Jews could have kosher meat. He taught Hebrew to many Soviet Jews, who later made aliyah.  The father of a Jew Ari met in the labor camp, told Ari he was so happy his son had been sentenced there, because after meeting Ari, he returned to his Judaism and later made aliyah. Even in the most inhospitable of environments Ari, like Avraham Avinu, was bringing people closer to God and Judaism.


Today, Ari, a PhD in Cybernetics, teaches at the prestigious Machon Lev. Last year, Mila, their daughter Kira, her husband, their son Shai, (born here in Israel), and their two grandchildren, celebrated Ari’s and Mila’s 20th year of freedom from the Soviet Union’s oppressive regime, and their aliyah to Israel.


As we sat at their Purim seuda, Mila pulled out a box, which contained all of the letters Ari had received and written in the Labor Camp. At the airport, when they were leaving Russia, the KGB tried to prevent him from taking them out of the country.  Once again, Ari stood-up to the officials and asked them to show him the law which prevented him from taking personal letters out of the country. They couldn’t.  Now, 20 years later, Mila plucked one letter out of the hundreds.  It was a letter she had written to Ari on Purim, over 20 years ago! In it she expressed the hope that by the following Purim their family would be together in Eretz Yisrael celebrating the joy that this holiday promises.


A year after that letter was written Ari was released. A few years later the “mighty” Soviet Union collapsed. Mila’s Purim wish and hope had come true. Ari and Mila had triumphed.


            As we watch the news and see how so many new Hamans want to destroy our people, we have hope and faith, like our Soviet Jewish brethren did, not so many years ago, that we, through our own efforts and the kindness of God, will triumph.

Karen Guth

In The Footsteps Of Duranty And Matthews

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote a piece earlier this week (“What Iran’s Jews Say,” Feb. 23) that brought to mind the naïve and insidious reporting by such legendary Times dupes as Walter Duranty and Herbert Matthews, whose whitewashing, respectively, of the Soviet Union in the 1920s and ‘30s and Fidel Castro in the 1950s will stand forever as monuments to the argument that the self-described “paper of record” is often anything but.

It also conjured memories of the insufferable Mike Wallace filing reports for “60 Minutes” from Syria and the Soviet Union back in the 1970s and ‘80s designed to confirm the liberal rubes of Cambridge and the Upper West Side in their instinctive belief that real evil in the world was to be found only in the warmongering fantasies of Ronald Reagan. (More about Wallace later.)

To be sure, Cohen peddles his views on the paper’s opinion page, while Duranty and Mathews did their editorializing in the guise of news stories, but Cohen’s style often strays from the conventional thumbsucking “here’s my opinion” format to a more newsy-seeming “these are the facts” approach.

Such was the case with his column on his visit to Iran and the all-around contentedness – and anti-Israel sentiment – he says he found among the Jews with whom he came into contact.

Perhaps, observed The New Republic’s Martin Peretz in an online critique of the article, the happy talk Cohen heard in the Iranian Jewish community “is authentic. Maybe. And maybe not. After all, until the railroad cars rolled living Jews into Sobibor and Maidanek from which they did not emerge, many German Jews (or Germans of Jewish extraction) also gave the Reich the benefit of the doubt. Some gave it even to Hitler himself. Certainly, many Americans and Brits and French did.”

And while he believed Cohen was being truthful when he wrote, “I am a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran,” Peretz made the point that “There are probably millions of Persians who feel warmly about their Jewish neighbors … and remember their Jewish former neighbors with fondness. Forgive the German analogy again: even under the Nazis there were Germans who bemoaned the loss to Germany of its Jews….”

It would be easier to take Cohen’s reporting from Iran at face value if one weren’t acquainted with his biases and preconceptions, but by writing the following he sort of gave the game away even to readers less familiar with his history of sanctimonious posturing:

One way to look at Iran’s scurrilous anti-Israel tirades is as a provocation to focus people on Israel’s bomb, its 41-year occupation of the West Bank, its Hamas denial, its repetitive use of overwhelming force. Iranian language can be vile, but any Middle East peace – and engagement with Tehran – will have to take account of these points.

So there you have it. Whether or not those Jews Cohen spoke with are truly representative of Iranian Jewry is a matter open to debate. But Cohen’s attempt to rationalize Iran’s genocidal threats against Israel by putting the onus on Israeli actions and policies (leave it to a liberal to blame the victim) calls into question both his motives and his judgment.

In a February 1991 article in Commentary, the late Jerusalem Post editorial page editor David Bar Illan wrote that when the aforementioned Mike Wallace traveled to Syria in 1975, he “gave a clean bill of health to [Syrian dictator Hafez] Assad’s treatment” of the Syrian Jewish community. “He was particularly delighted to show that the Jews of Syria – though suffering from some travel restrictions – were quick to declare on camera that if they could only join the Syrian army they would be eager to fight against Israel.”

Bar-Illan also recalled Wallace’s contribution to Americans’ understanding of the plight of Soviet Jewry: “From 1980 on,” he wrote, “Leonid Brezhnev claimed that no Jews wanted to leave the Soviet Union. But pesky Jewish organizations in New York and that intolerably intransigent government in Israel kept insisting that 400,000 of them, risking jobs, jail and family safety, had applied for visas to Israel.

“Again Wallace knew whom to believe: standing in front of the Kremlin, he announced, with an arrogance only celebrated TV know-nothings can muster, that all the Jews who wanted to leave the Soviet Union had done so and the rest were getting along just fine.”

Bar-Illan would have loved Roger Cohen.

Jason Maoz can be contacted at jmaoz@jewishpress.com

Jason Maoz

Madoff Scheme Delivers Major Blow To FSU Jews

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008

MOSCOW – The Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Bernard Madoff is the latest in a string of financial blows to Jewish aid programs in the former Soviet Union, wiping out a major foundation that was the primary funder of Jewish higher education in Russia.

  The Chais Family Foundation, a $178 million philanthropy forced to close after investing all its money in Madoff’s fraudulent fund, gave away more than $12 million per year to Jewish causes. About $2.5 million of that focused on the former Soviet Union, where the foundation funded at least 12 cultural and educational programs.

  Even before the foundation’s collapse, several organizations had announced in recent months that they would be reducing support for programming in the region, fueling doubt and fear among Russian Jewish communal leaders.

  “Many of my colleagues and others think that 2009 could be the hardest year for the Jewish community of the former Soviet Union,” Mikhail Chlenov, the general secretary of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, who also sits on the board of a program that was funded by Chais, told JTA. “Education is the first sphere of work that is already suffering, but social welfare programs could be next.”

  Re-creating a Jewish community in the former Soviet Union following the collapse of communism has been an intense project undertaken by the broader Jewish community, drawing hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years from the Jewish Agency, Chabad and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

  The Chais Foundation’s annual $2.5 million contribution was the driving force behind creating a sustainable and self-sufficient piece of infrastructure in the region – a higher education system equipped to train Jewish professionals and teachers.

  Chais funded the Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies in St. Petersburg, the Jewish studies department at Moscow State University and the Chais Center for Jewish Studies in Russia, which it founded. The Chais Center brings professors from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to the region to create accredited programs. Hundreds of Jewish professionals have been trained through the center.

  In addition, the foundation was a major funder of the Open University of Israel, which transmits online curricula to the former Soviet Union. Those programs are now in danger.  Arkady Kovelman, the head of the Jewish studies program at Moscow State, said his program could definitely expect to lose some opportunities for grant money.

  The Moscow program relies on academics from the Chais Center at Hebrew University who conduct courses in Hebrew and Russian. Kovelman says it is too early to tell if the program will continue or what the loss of Chais money will do to his program.

  “I am hoping that it will not have an immediate impact,” Kovelman said. “They are telling us that everything is more or less OK.”

  Even if programs in Russia weather the loss of Chais, the foundation’s closing is only the latest in a half-year of calamity for programs in the region pinched by the downturn in the global economy.

  The Heftziba system – a network of 41 state-sponsored schools that offer Jewish curricula, which is administered by the Jewish Agency – is in peril. The system, set up by Russian municipalities in conjunction with the Israeli Ministry of Education, has seen its finances gutted by $40.5 million in cuts to the Jewish Agency’s overall budget.

  The agency, which pays to have some 11,000 students bused to the schools, is reducing its funding for the system from $12.7 million in 2008 to just over $5 million for 2009, with the hope that local philanthropists will help pick up the slack.

  Alan Hoffmann, the director of the Jewish Agency’s education department, estimates that the Heftziba budget now has a $5 million hole. “It could really be a mortal blow” to the school system, he said Sunday.

  The Jewish Agency already had been forced to adjust after Russian-Israeli philanthropist Arcadi Gaydamak pledged $50 million in 2006 to help establish programming in the former Soviet Union, but then froze the gift after giving only $10 million.

  The two other Jewish-run school networks in the region – the secular ORT system and the Orthodox Shma Yisrael – have suffered from cutbacks undertaken by the Jewish Agency. Shma Yisrael has lost $200,000 in funding and the ORT schools are struggling through a budget cut of $1.2 million in recent months, according to ORT officials, JTA reported in November.

  In the past three months, the largest Jewish educational network in the region, Chabad’s Or Avner system, has been forced to make significant cutbacks as its main benefactor, Lev Leviev, withdrew a substantial portion of his funding in the face of the financial crisis.

  On top of these cuts, the Joint Distribution Committee, which provides social services to the frail and elderly in the region, is cutting its $100 million-plus 2009 budget in the region by about $5 million.

  “You put those factors together in one six-month period from June 2008 until January of 2009 and you have some serious dynamite there for some institutions,” Hoffmann said.  “I think it is a serious body blow to Jewish life in the FSU.” The survival of Jewish programming, he said, “will depend on how quickly the world economy improves and the philanthropy world improves.”

  U.S. Jewish leaders and Israeli officials have long hoped that the creation of new Jewish wealth in the region would lead ultimately to the formation of a home-grown Jewish philanthropy class that one day could pick up the mantle. But that had been slow in coming, even before the financial crisis and the drop in the price of oil wiped out huge swaths of Jewish wealth in the region.

  For a system still largely dependant on outside money, the disappearance of Chais could really hurt.

  Outside of higher education, the foundation funneled tens of millions of dollars into several programs aimed at promoting Jewish identity among youth.

  Hillel in the former Soviet Union relied on the Chais Foundation for 23 percent of its budget and the ripples of the Madoff scheme have forced its operations “to the edge,” said Hillel FSU director Osik Akselrud.

  The Sefer Center, an umbrella group that holds conferences and brings together students in Jewish studies from across the region, had relied on the Chais Foundation for 50 percent of its budget, said its director, Victoria Mochalova. She also learned in a terse message last week that her organization would need to look elsewhere for support.

  In the face of the bad news, Mochalova predicted that the older generation of Jewish community activists in the former Soviet Union who had built the network from scratch would find a way to get through a decrease in funding.

  “We never had a great situation and we have learned how to live in a hard situation,” she said. “For the young it is a big blow to take.”                     


Grant Slater

World War II Art And Propaganda

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

The Library of Congress World War II Companion

Edited by David M. Kennedy

Simon & Schuster, 2007, $45,




         One of the greatest insights Jacques Derrida laid out in his conceptualization of Deconstruction was that a thing can coexist with its opposite, and in fact, neither can be properly understood without the other. To understand darkness, we must have a notion of light and vice-versa, so that the two become co-dependent rather than mutually exclusive. Thus, part of understanding good art is comparing and contrasting it with its evil twin, propaganda.


         If art involves creating and arranging visual forms in a way that is pleasant, true and beautiful, propaganda manipulates visual information to deceive viewers with a charged political agenda. Successful art often inspires viewers to incorporate its vision into their lives; propaganda insists that viewers adapt their beliefs and ideology to fit the misleading narrative, though Derrida would caution that art often exhibits propaganda-like properties, while propaganda often employs artistic elements.


         This column often explores Holocaust art, whether created by survivors, victims or people who found artistic inspiration in the Holocaust despite less direct experience of the events. Indeed, the Holocaust was not simply a Jewish tragedy – the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates the Germans killed at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians during World War II – and as such, many non-Jewish artists turned to the Holocaust for subject matter.


         This column has often alluded to Hitler’s denouncement of degenerate art (“entartete Kunst”) and conflation of Jewish art with the degenerate. It is vital to keep this aesthetic-political backdrop in mind when considering Holocaust art. This  is why the new “World War II Companion” from the Library of Congress, edited and introduced by David Kennedy, is such an important book. The companion devotes the entire chapter 10 (pages 783-843) to “The Media War,” with subsections on “propaganda and censorship organizations and agendas,” “censorship issues,” “black propaganda,” “propaganda techniques,” “the media,” “propaganda, truth, and influence” and “principal sources and further reading.”




From the catalog for “Exhibition of Degenerate Art” in 1937, arranged by Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels.



        According to the section on art, the authors argue that each of the governments involved in the war “viewed art as it did other media – as a potential tool to reinforce nationalism, shape national culture, and imbue the citizen with certain values.” Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union sought to control artists more than Britain and the United States did, yet “Italy organized its artists and allowed experimentation.”


         Perhaps the most gripping image collected within the Library of Congress’ book is a page from the catalog for the “Exhibition of Degenerate Art,” which was “curated” by Joseph Goebbels in 1937. The first sentence on the top of the page (see image one) reads, “Even this was once taken seriously and highly paid,” and the works below are by Johannes Molzahn (1892-1965), Jean Metzinger (1883-1956) and Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), all German, and none of them Jewish. As was the case with non-Jewish artists like Swiss painter Paul Klee (1879-1940) and German painter Max Ernst (1891-1976), the Nazis often accused painters they hated of being Jews, even when they had no connection whatsoever to the Jewish community.



Joseph Goebbels at a Berlin book burning on May 10, 1933. According to the authors, “Germany is perhaps less known for books it produced during World War II than the books it burned.”



         The Japanese government followed the Nazis’ lead in denouncing the avant-garde. In 1938, Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe began to monitor artists affiliated with the surrealist movement, whom he conflated with the communist movement. A few years later, the official Government Information Bureau policed artists and their work as it did all other media. In Germany, cartoonist Hans Schweitzer, a Goebbels appointee, became the Reich Plenipotentiary for Artistic Formulation. In this capacity, Schweitzer closed the modern wing of the Berlin National Gallery and removed another 16,000 modern works from other museums and galleries.


         The journal Die Kunst im Dritten Reich (Art in the Third Reich), edited by Alfred Rosenberg, published only state-supported, National Socialist valued, art criticism. And not surprisingly, the House of German Art, opened in 1937 with Hitler’s mandate to “confirm the sound instinct of the people,” failed to attract nearly the attention and visitors who flocked to the “Exhibition of Degenerate Art.” That exhibit, according to Hitler, displayed “artistic lunacy” and “pollution,” and showed how modern art was “the monstrous offspring of insanity, impudence, ineptitude and sheer degeneracy” in the words of Head of the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts Adolf Ziegler.


         Unlike his counterparts in Germany and Japan, Benito Mussolini, prime minister of Italy, did not crack down on artists even as the rest of his political movements became increasingly fascist. At an opening of an exhibit of seven 21st century painters in 1923, Mussolini said, “I declare that it is far from my idea to encourage anything like an art of the State … Art belongs to the domain of the individual. The State has only one duty: not to undermine art, to provide humane conditions for artists, and to encourage them from the artistic and national point of view.”



From a September 1943 issue of Time magazine. This is the first photograph of dead American soldiers published in an American publication. The image depicts soldiers ambushed by the Japanese at Buna Beach.



         Readers of this column will remember from the Oct. 24 column, “Forward-Looking Photographs” that Mussolini chased Forverts employee Elias Grossman out of Italy after his etching of the prime minister appeared in the New York Herald Tribune with the caption, “What Price Mussolini?” Threatening an artist’s life is of course hardly the same thing as providing “humane conditions for artists,” and indeed in 1938, the Italian government did ban the creations of Jewish artists from exhibition and began to support only artists whose works celebrated Mussolini and Italy.


         Britain and the United States did not censor artists to nearly the extent that the axis countries did, but the allied countries did support propaganda that uplifted the allied forces both physically and morally. Sir Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery in London, convinced the Ministry of Information to create the War Artists Advisory Committee. In the Soviet Union, which combined distaste for modern art and for the traditional culture of the czars, idealized the Soviet people and its place within the war. Posters declared “Stalin is Leading Us to Victory,” “The Motherland Calls!” and “Death to the Fascist Reptile!”



“The New Order,” by Saul Steinberg. 1942. Figures include Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito and Henri Petain of Vichy France.



         Norman Rockwell is the best known of the American artists who drew in support of the allied forces, primarily his works “OURS … to fight for” and “Four Freedoms.” John Steuart Curry helped sell war bonds with his paintings, “Our Good Earth” and “The Farm is a Battlefield.” Rockwell’s works were used by the Office of War Information, and shortly after the Peal Harbor attack, the U.S. War Department formed the Art Advisory Committee, chaired by artist George Biddle, and several art organizations founded Artists for Victory.


         When compared side by side, it is clear that the axis countries singled out artists in their restrictions upon freedom of expression and free speech far more than the allied countries did. This most likely indicates that the axis leaders feared the power of images to thwart their fascist programs. But even as they allowed for a more or less free marketplace of images, the allied countries still turned to artists to create propaganda to enlist support of the war. Images, insofar as they interact with our right brain rather than our left brain, have that power of speaking directly to our emotions by circumventing our logical faculties. And however useful the images of World War II were, they seem directly linked to the widespread suspicion of images, particularly war images, that many people feel today as the boundary between journalism and propaganda becomes more blurry.


        Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

Menachem Wecker

Revisiting Seymour Hersh’s Pollard Hit Piece

Wednesday, November 7th, 2007

The Monitor lately has been on the receiving end of a number of e-mails that either contain or link to a hit piece on Jonathan Pollard by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh that appeared nearly nine years ago in The New Yorker (Jan. 18, 1999 issue). While the article is not accessible on The New Yorker’s website (the archives section of which is almost non-existent), it’s easily found on the Internet.

The Monitor examined Hersh’s story when it was first published and came away severely unimpressed. Here’s how the critique looked back then:

One can agree or disagree with the proposition that Jonathan Pollard ought to serve out his life sentence for spying on behalf of Israel, but alarm bells should go off – on both sides of the argument – when someone like Seymour Hersh slithers out from under his rock to take up the cudgels for the anti-Pollard position.

In his lengthy New Yorker article, titled “The Traitor,” Hersh recycled several allegations first aired in his 1991 book The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy, the most serious of which is that an unknown quantity of the most highly-classified data stolen by Pollard ended up in Soviet hands.

The Samson Option was widely panned for its unsubstantiated charges and unseemly reliance on questionable sources. Hersh’s prime informant for the book’s most sensational claims was one Arie Ben-Menashe, an individual whom The Jerusalem Post labeled “a notorious, chronic liar” and whom journalist Steven Emerson described as “an abject liar” – and who indeed failed a lie-detector test administered by ABC News.

Another source for The Samson Option, a character named Joe Flynn, admitted that he’d deceived Hersh in exchange for money. According to the Near East Report, “After Flynn was exposed, Hersh said he regretted not checking his facts more carefully.”

Hersh first achieved notoriety in 1969 when, as a freelance journalist, he broke one of the biggest stories of the Vietnam War: the massacre of unarmed civilians by American soldiers in the South Vietnamese village of My Lai. Hired by The New York Times in 1972, he went on to cover (in some cases uncover) the CIA scandals that rocked Washington in the mid-1970’s.

But Hersh’s luster began to fade during his last few years at the Times as critics raised doubts about both his methods and his fairness. In Fit To Print, his 1988 biography of former Times executive editor A. M. Rosenthal, author Joseph Goulden wrote: “Rosenthal now concedes that he had serious second thoughts about some of Hersh’s reporting, even during the glory days of the 1970’s when his stories featured prominently on the Times’s front page.”

Hersh left the Times in 1979 and commenced work on a book about former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, whom Hersh made no secret of despising. When The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House was published in 1983, The New Republic’s Martin Peretz wrote that “there is hardly anything [in the book] that shouldn’t be suspect.”

The late former attorney general John Mitchell (cited by Hersh as a major source) insisted that “almost every episode or statement on Kissinger ascribed to him by Hersh [was] a distortion, an exaggeration, a misinterpretation, or an expletive-deleted lie.”

More recently, while researching The Dark Side of Camelot, his 1997 debunking of the mythology surrounding John F. Kennedy, Hersh fell for the claims of a forgerer whose material would have been included in the book if not for a last-minute investigation by ABC News that cast doubts on the man’s story.

In his New Yorker piece on Pollard, Hersh detailed various scenarios involving Israel’s alleged transfer of pilfered U.S. material to the Soviet Union, only to lamely confess that his sources “stressed the fact that they had no hard evidence – no ‘smoking gun’ in the form of a document from an Israeli or a Soviet archive – to demonstrate the link between Pollard, Israel and the Soviet Union…”

Hersh also alleged that the late CIA director William Casey told an associate (unnamed, of course) of his knowledge that “the Israelis used Pollard to obtain our attack plan against the U.S.S.R. – all of it. The coordinates, the firing locations, the sequences. And for guess who? The Soviets.”

But Robert Gates, who was appointed Casey’s deputy in 1986, told Hersh that the director “had never indicated to him that he had specific information about the Pollard material arriving in Moscow.”

Furthermore, said Gates, “The notion that the Russians may have gotten some of the stuff has always been a viewpoint [italics added].”

On such slender reeds did Hersh rest his case against Pollard.

Snake repellent, anyone?

Jason Maoz

Twenty-Third Annual Holocaust Memorial In Brooklyn

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

         Last Sunday the Holocaust Memorial Committee, located in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn held it’s 23rd annual Holocaust memorial gathering.


         The moving and emotional event was attended by over 1,000 people from all over the metropolitan area. They were greeted by politicians who have been strong supporters of the Holocaust Committee over the many years that the gatherings have been taking place.


         Among those that were in attendance were Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, Councilman Michael Nelson and this year’s keynote speaker Congressman Jerry Nadler. This year, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the reunification of the holy city of Jerusalem in 1967, a special exhibit was displayed that included art posters, photographs and newspaper accounts of the Six Day War. Mr. Ira Bielus, founder of the Holocaust Memorial Committee, read aloud the famous ‘Letter to the World From Jerusalem’.  The letter, widely published after the 6 Day War, proclaims that the Jewish right to Jerusalem is a fact and the world has no right challenge it. 



Students lighting candle in memory of Prof. Lebresco at the Holocaust Memorial gathering in Manhattan Beach.



         Manhattan Beach is a neighborhood that is becoming home to more and more immigrants every year. This year, the Holocaust Memorial Committee recognized that it was 40 years ago that the struggle to save Soviet Jewry began, for with the closing of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel, so too was the door to emigration closed to Jews who wanted to leave the Soviet Union.


         During the candle lighting ceremony a special tribute was given to Professor Liviu Libresci, z”l, a Holocaust survivor who sacrificed himself to save his students during the massacre at Virginia Tech in April.


Attendees examining models of concentration camps done as part of an educational project sponsored by Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz.  

(Photos by Shmuel Ben Eliezer)



         As always, the highlight of the program was the awarding of the Steven Cymbrowitz/HMC/Lena Cymbrowitz Foundation/David S. Sterner and Slyvia Steiner Charitable Trust Essay, Poetry and Art Contest, which was open to students from all over the Brooklyn area. This program has seen increasing participation every year, fuelling the hope that through Holocaust education and awareness, hatred of others can be stamped out in future generations.

Shmuel Ben Eliezer

‘Say It Ain’t So’… But It Was So

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2005

Much of childhood is spent in illusion. We grow up imagining things not as they are, but as we wish them to be. When we confront an unimaginable reality, the colloquial American phrase – taken from, of all things, an apocryphal baseball vignette – is “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” That was the initial American response to “the terrible secret” – the accounts of mass murder and extermination in the Nazi death camps.

Say it ain’t so. But it was so.

As the Sabbath ended each week sixty years ago, my father recited the Havdala prayer in our New York apartment – in the home that he and my mother made for themselves and me, then their only child, in the enlightened new world to which they had escaped from Poland. We inhaled the spices, examined our fingernails by the light of the braided torch, and my father sat and sipped the Havdala wine. And then he recited and had me repeat after him, “A gute voch, a gezinte voch, und a mazeldicke voch, un der zaide zolt balt befreit veren” – May we have a good week, a healthy week, a lucky week, and may grandfather soon be freed.

He felt, but could not bring himself to believe, that his father was dead. Nor could my mother, who had taken leave of her father in Lodz, Poland, in September 1939. And as my father intoned this weekly mantra, this 8-year-old grandson imagined a joyful reunion with grandfathers who were spoken of, but whose faces I could not recall and whose touch had faded from memory.

Say it ain’t so. But it was so.

I now have a grandson who is 8 years old and four younger grandchildren. But I am a grandfather who never really knew his own grandfathers. Both were murdered when they were younger than I am today. Both were men of great distinction, leaders in their communities, whose lives were brutally extinguished only because they were Jews.

My father’s father was the rabbi of Rzeszow, an important Jewish community in Galizia, southern Poland. Rabbi Aaron Lewin was elected twice to the Polish Sejm, where he fought, with a fluency in Polish that astounded freethinkers who thought that no traditional rabbi could converse with the gentiles, for the civil liberties of the Jews of Poland. He was a talmid chacham – a great scholar with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, the Talmud, Midrash, and rabbinic writings. He wrote brilliant books in Hebrew on Torah and Jewish law while traveling from Rzeszow to Warsaw in a first-class rail compartment provided by the Polish government to members of the Sejm.

Rabbi Aaron Lewin, zt”l, was killed on the night of June 30, 1941, as the Nazis entered Lwow (known to Jews as the great city of Lemberg). Ukrainian mobs dragged him from the home of his daughter, to which he had fled when Hitler marched into western Poland, and murdered him and his brother, the distinguished Rabbi Ezekiel Lewin of Lemberg, zt”l, and hung their bodies from hooks at the city’s prison. His widow, his daughter (my aunt) and her little child, aleihem hashalom, were discovered many months later in a hiding-place in Lwow. They were taken to their deaths in the Belzec extermination camp.

I traveled to Lwow in 1989 to see if I could find the manuscript my grandfather had with him in Lwow when he was murdered. The fourth volme of his magnificent work on Torah – HaDrash VeHaIyun – was published in the summer of 1939. The Reisher Rav completed the work with the second half of Bamidbar and all of Devarim by 1941, and we know that the manuscript was with him in June 1941. I took with me on my trip to the then-Soviet Union a biography of my grandfather authored by my father that contained a photocopy of a letter written by my grandfather so that I might identify the manuscript if I found it. At the front of the pamphlet was a photograph of my grandfather.

When my family and I disembarked from our flight to what was then Leningrad, we were greeted by the Soviet customs official who insisted that we unpack our bags. I had collected many Jewish-content books in Russian to distribute to Jews who, notwithstanding perestroika and glasnost, were still trapped in the Soviet Union. The official asked me to whom I was delivering the Russian books. With a straight face I insisted that I was learning Russian and intended to use them myself. As the pile of Russian books grew, he became more skeptical, and he indicated that he intended to confiscate them all.

The he came to the pamphlet with the Reisher Rav’s biography. He asked what that was. I replied, “It’s a biography of my grandfather. I’m traveling to Lwow, where he was killed by the Germans.” I did not report truthfully that it was really the Ukrainians who killed him. The customs official looked into my eyes. “Your grandfather was killed by the Germans in Lwow?” I nodded. “Well,” he said, “take your books.” And he pushed the piles of books over to us. So my grandfather’s z’chus brought Jewish learning to Russian Jews almost 50 years after he was murdered.

My mother’s father, Naftali Sternheim, was murdered at Birkenau. He was ahead of his time, yet died long before his time. He was a man of daring and imagination. He flourished in business in Amsterdam and became one of the Jewish community’s lay leaders in that vibrant modern city.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s he was the forerunner of today’s Modern Orthodox Jew. Naftali Sternheim was devoutly religious, yet maintained a thoroughly modern home. His children – my mother and her brother – received traditional Jewish educations (my mother at a Jewish boarding school in Switzerland and my uncle at the Mirrer Yeshiva) and contemporary secular schooling. My mother even attended the University of Berlin. And my grandfather was a Zionist, making the arduous trip to Palestine in the late 1920’s. He was known for his philanthropy in Europe and in the Jewish communities of what was then Palestine.

He owned textile mills in Lodz, Poland, where he moved my mother and father after they were married and where I was born. We were all together in Lodz on September 1, 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland. Naftali Sternheim immediately traveled to Warsaw and then, by commercial airliner, back to Amsterdam for what he thought would be a short trip to recover precious stones and other property. We never saw him again.

Say it ain’t so. But it was so.

My parents escaped Poland, smugged across the border to what was still independent Lithuania with my maternal grandmother and my uncle in the middle of the night. I was three years old, and they warned me to keep absolutely silent while the smuggler led us through the forest because, they said, wolves would come out from between the trees if I made a sound.

Miraculously, I kept still and we made it to Vilna. My mother then invoked her former Dutch citizenship to obtain an endorsement on our travel document from Jan Zwartendijk, the Dutch Consul in Kovno. And this endorsement – declaring that we needed no visa to enter the Dutch colonies of Surinam and Curacao – was the basis for the issuance of a transit visa by a Japanese consul named Chiune Sugihara.

(The Sugihara visas saved several thousand Jews who had fled from the Nazis to Lithuania. Consul Sugihara defied instructions from Tokyo and hand-wrote visas from his consular office in Kovno, even to the day when he was o the train, recalled by his government for demotion to an ignominious post. The Mirrer Yeshiva owed its rescue to the Sugihara visas which were, for some reason unknown to this day, honored by the Stalin regime. The Soviets allowed the Jews with such Japanese transit visas to travel from Moscow to Vladivostok by trans-Siberian Railway in order to board a boat to Japan.)

The Sugihara visa enabled us to travel across Russia, through Japan, and then, on a non-immigrant visa granted to my father because of his status, to the United States. Both Zwartendijk and Sugihara are now on Yad Vashem’s honor roll of Righteous Gentiles.

My mother’s father, as mentioned above, was not as fortunate. He was trapped in Amsterdam into 1942, when he tried to enter Switzerland through a railroad stop where Jews had occasionally been successful in surreptitiously crossing the border. Dutch cousins who survived the war have told me they remember witnessing how he had a cache of diamonds sewn into the lining of his coat as he prepared for his journey by train. He was to leave the train when it stopped briefly in the middle of the night near the Swiss border.

The neutral Swiss caught him, however, and handed him over to the Nazis. He was sent to the prison camp at Westerbork, Holland, and from there deported to Auschwitz. And in Birkenau he suffered the fate of the Six Million.

Say it ain’t so. But it was so.

The liberation of Auschwitz sixty years ago happened on the 13th of Shevat, two days on the calendar before the date Jews through the centuries have celebrated life and rebirth of the new fruit of the tree. It was, at the same time, a celebration of human survival – a testament to life – and a coffin to many illusions. No longer could the bestiality of Nazism be denied. The photographed images of the unfortunate masses who had been herded together, starved and dehumanized in preparation for mass slaughter, silenced those who had been insisting that wartime accounts were unreliable and that it was impossible for human beings to be so cruel.

My father, Dr. Isaac Lewin, z”l, had been reporting in the Yiddish press on the Nazi atrocities in Poland and on the destruction of Jews in Polish ghettoes from the time he reached these shores in 1941. But no one was listening.

On September 3, 1942, a telegram reporting ghastly details of Hitler̓s Final Solution arrived in New York – just nine months after, we now know, Auschwitz was established as the central death camp. The reaction among the leadership of the American Jewish community was “say it ain’t so.” For many months thereafter, reports of deportations, mass slaughter, emptied ghettoes, and unknown destinations of the deported came to the United States. Committees led by American Jewish leaders met and debated – and neither they nor the American government did anything significant to stop the destruction of European Jewry.

Say it ain’t so. But it was so.

In November 1942, my father wrote in the Yiddishe Shtime about the “Catastrophe of European Jewry and its Impact in America.” He described the eight weeks that had passed since the news of mass murders of Jews had reached these shores, noting that there had been a prohibition – a “cherem” – imposed by the Jewish leadership against disclosure of this frightening tragedy to the press. Here is his original Yiddish first, and then I will translate:

“Anshtat zu klingen of alle glocken; anshtat poshut mar-ish oilomos zu zein – hot men aroifgelegt di flicht oif alle einteilnehmer in der baratung fun di partei-farshtehrer, vos is forgekumen koidem in lokal fun der Agudas HoRabbonim un dan in der local fun Yiddishen Velt Kongress – zu shveigen.”

“Instead of ringing all the alarm bells, instead of simply raising voices in earth-shattering cries, they imposed a duty on all participants in the consultations that took place first in the Union of Orthodox Rabbis and then in the World Jewish Congress to remain silent.”

My father condemned this ilence and demanded, at the end of his call to arms in the Yiddish-language journal:

“Mir fregen di fihrer fun Yiddishe organizatzias in America: Ma ta’anu le’yom pekuda? Vos vet ihr enfehren oib men vet a-mohl fun eich upnehmen a cheshbon, vos ihr hot getohn, ven dos blut fun eire brieder hot zich gegossen in shtrahmen?”

“We ask the leaders of the Jewish organizations in America: “What will you answer on the day of reckoning? How will you respond if you are ever asked to provide an accounting of what you did when the blood of your brothers was flowing in streams?”

They said it wasn’t so. It couldn’t be so. But it was so.

So what do we do today, sixty years after Russian allied troops entered and liberated the shearit ha-pleita, the survivors of the death camp that will live forever in infamy? Do we cry or do we laugh? Is it a time of tragedy or a time of joy? Do we wail or do we sing?

The answer is provided by looking back to the precise day of this liberation. It was January 27, 1945. It was, as I have said, the 13th of Shevat, 5705. But it was more than simply those dates of the secular month and of the Hebrew month.

The day of this liberation was Shabbat – a Saturday. But not an ordinary Shabbat. It was, of all days, Shabbat Shirah – the Sabbath of Song. Around the world, in the comfort of communities of Jews fortunate enough to have avoided or escaped the Holocaust, the portion of the Torah was read that includes the Song of Moshe Rabbenu and the Song of Miriam and the Song of the Jews at Yam Suf – the Reed Sea – after they escaped from the tyranny of a Pharaoh who was the first to try to annihilate the Jewish people.

Moses’ Song described the enemy who said “Arik charbi, torishemo yodi” – “I will draw my sword, my hand will demolish them.” But in the end “Tzolelu ka-oferet bemayim adirim” – “They sank like lead in the mighty waters.” The fledgling Jewish nation that had suffered bondage and genocide saw its enemies vanquished and its peoplehood established.

It is a tragic refrain of Jewish history. From destruction comes rebuilding. The prophet Isaiah (44:26) said “Ha-omer leYerushalayim tushav, ule-arei Yehuda tibonena, ve-chorvoteha akomem” – “He says to Jerusalem you shall be inhabited, and to the cities of Judah you shall be rebuilt, and its destroyed sites shall I raise again.” Or, as the classic song to Jerusalem declares: “Yerushalayim, Yerushalayim, ho’iri panayich livneich; Yerushalayim, Yerushalayim, mey-chorvotayich ev-nech” – “Jerusalem…shine your face toward your son; Jerusalem…from your ruins shall I rebuild you.”

It was so. And may we always remember that it was so. But may we also sing the Song of Deliverance and Rebuilding.

Nathan Lewin is a Washington lawyer who has appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court in many Orthodox causes. This essay is an adaptation of the keynote address delivered by Mr. Lewin last week at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Nathan Lewin

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/say-it-aint-so-but-it-was-so/2005/02/02/

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