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February 11, 2016 / 2 Adar I, 5776

Posts Tagged ‘Soviet Union’

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.”                     


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.

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?

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.

‘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.

Gleizer’s Paintings: From The Heart Of The Beast

Wednesday, March 17th, 2004

Chassidic Art Institute – 375 Kingston Avenue,
Brooklyn, New York 11213; (718) 774 9149.

Noon – 7 p.m.; Sunday – Thursday

Zev Markowitz, director.



Mikhail Gleizer was born at the end of the Second World War in the Soviet Ukraine under the reign of the dictator Joseph Stalin. He grew up in the totalitarian state of Khrushchev and first attended art school in Leningrad while Premier Leonid Brezhnev ruled the one-party state of the Soviet Union. The prospects for free and uncensored creativity were sparse during those years, and yet Gleizer slowly built a career. He exhibited his paintings, watercolors and graphics in many of the official exhibitions that the Party bureaucracy allowed, in addition to scattered independent and international venues. It was not easy to be an artist in those years,
especially since a growing body of his work concerned Jewish themes. Yet he continued to make paintings throughout the 1980’s and achieved a certain success in book illustration, including Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Milkman.

Additionally, he created many prestigious theater and costume designs. Not surprisingly, the nuclear disaster at nearby Chernobyl in 1986 cast a pall over his artistic success. Finally, in 1991 Gleizer left his homeland and immigrated to the United States. Now in his new home in Brooklyn, he is showing a collection of 22 paintings from the 1980’s at the Chassidic Art
Institute. Remarkable works on their own, the context in which they were created infuses them with a passionate urgency that we cannot ignore.

Three interrelated subjects, all detailing Jewish life set in small Ukrainian villages, dominate the exhibition. A collection of ten lyrical depictions of Jewish tradesmen from fishmonger and grocer to the local butcher establishes an honest and simple tone to the paintings. A set of four paintings from 1985 presents a village intersection lined with a jumble of houses from an aerial
perspective. Finally, eight paintings done in the early 1980’s focus on the people of the village as they observe Yom Tov, Shabbos and a genuine Jewish life.

Each tradesman dominates the center of his painting, surrounded by his place of business and
occasionally confronted by a customer from the village. The straightforward, folksy and rather programmatic depictions belie the complex paint handling. In The Glazier (1987), the stock, peasant figure is deceptively centered while the shifting planes on the ground around him expressively push and pull the figure as he carries newly glazed window frames. They form a kind of picture within a picture, gently reflecting the workman as he trudges through the village. There is more here than meets the eye.

Gleizer’s pictorial narrative becomes more complex in the paintings of the village streets. The intersection, seen from a slightly elevated perspective, tilts dangerously up towards us. At times, the houses veer off to each side threatening to slide off the face of the earth. In one painting, we see a horse and buggy careening up a street as a bicycle plummets down another in a dizzying dance. This unnerving perspective is rooted however in the simcha that follows.

In The Orchestra (1985), a three-man klezmer band approaches from the bottom of the canvas, announcing a wedding that appears in the next painting. The heavily impasto-paint builds a passionate joy that seems to infect the streets, houses and finally, the very heavens themselves. The subtle shades of white, cream and pinks of the streets and sky impart an otherworldly glow to the joyous village celebration.

Zev Markowitz, curator of the exhibition, explains that these images accurately depict Jewish life as it was in some small Ukrainian villages in the 1980’s. While what we see here seems normal for Russia of 100 years ago, can it really be true, a mere 20 years ago? Evidently so,
and that is why these simple paintings take on the force of a revelation. Gleizer clearly understood how important it was to capture the Jewish life that refused to be obliterated under the relentless heel of Communism. Making these paintings as the Soviet Union was collapsing under the weight of its own oppression, was an act of resistance celebrating the Jewish communities that tenaciously remained.

The final set of paintings provides a glimpse into the substance of their lives that afforded so much resistance. Succos seems to come alive as men prance through the streets with lulav and esrog on the way to shul on Chol Hamoed. The joyous procession of a Sefer Torah through the streets confirms the spiritual heart of the community. While such public displays of Jewish
piety might provoke comment and perhaps even censure in many of the streets of America, one can only wonder what risks these Jews braved in Communist Russia.

One of the more tender paintings depicts a young family on a Shabbos or Yom Tov outing. Dressed in their finest, but simple clothes, they stroll alongside a river with the village peacefully seen behind them. The wife is a picture of modest beauty while the husband, who
seems to be startled at being viewed by the artist, shelters his young daughter against the black of his bechesheh.

A gentle spring shower of white blossoms magically dapples the bucolic scene. This is a picture of the simple Torah life lived in harmony and peace we could all aspire to.

Piety is a notoriously difficult emotion to convey without lapsing into sentimentality and emotionalism. The very vulnerability that it exposes to the world demands that its expression be modest. Torah 2 (1980) captures the simple act of honor towards a Sefer Torah being carried through the streets, possibly to a house of mourning. On the right, a man bends over, bowing to kiss the mantle of the crimson Torah. Behind him, ghost-like figures pass to and fro while the shul guards the scene from the far side of the street. Piety blossoms into a humble expression of honor as the painting seems to suggest to us that there is no place that the sacred cannot be acknowledged. Our job is to simply recognize it.

Zev Markowitz, the director of the Chassidic Art Institute, tells me these paintings depict scenes from little villages, shtetlach in the Vinnitza and Jetomir region of the Ukraine that Gleizer would visit to paint and draw. Considering the oppressive world that these villages
existed in, they seem a universe removed from the freedom that we take so much for granted here. And yet I recognize the people, their lives, passions and their faith. They are my people. For Gleizer to make that leap from oppression to freedom, across what amounts to a veritable chasm, is a testament to a unique amalgam of personal courage and creative faith in the Jewish People. These humble paintings are illuminated by his courage.

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

Q & A: On The ‘Evergreen Tree’ In A Jewish Home

Wednesday, January 28th, 2004
QUESTION: I am active in kiruv work in a neighborhood where there are many Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, these people were kept ignorant of their Jewish heritage.
Lately I’ve noticed a new phenomenon. At this time of year, many of them seem to be bringing evergreen trees into their homes. They claim that they always did this in Russia in celebration of the “winter festival”.
What should my attitude be as a kiruv professional?
Name Withheld
Brooklyn, NY
ANSWER: Your work is vital, and by all means you must keep the channels of communication open and explain to them, individually or as a group, that this is not appropriate. Contrary to what you refer to as being a new phenomenon, this problem has been with us for many years.My uncle, HaRav Sholom Klass, zt”l, was asked this same question thirty years ago, before the latest large immigration of Russian Jews to America.

His answer specified: “It is prohibited for a Jew to use any religious object or even a symbol related to another religion on their holiday. Christmas is a day on which Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.

“Different customs and symbols are observed in various countries. Such symbols as a star, a yule log, mistletoe, a Christmas tree, Santa Claus, etc., are related to the Christmas holiday. That holiday has always been, and is, a religious festival but many people have made it into a secular holiday because of its impact upon industry and commerce, when millions of people buy products of all kinds as gifts. Merchants sell more of almost every kind of merchandise during this season than at any other time of the year. Stores in the United States and other countries depend on Christmas shoppers for a fourth of the sales they make during the entire year.

“But this does not detract from the fact that it is a Christian holiday and we must not use any of its symbols.

“The Gemara (Avoda Zara 6b) tells us that a certain official once sent to Rabbi Judah Nesiah II (who lived in the middle of the 3rd century) a Caesarean denar (a coin engraved with the image of the Emperor in commemoration of his coronation, as many emperors considered themselves gods to be worshiped) on his festival day. Resh Lakish happened to sit before him. Rabbi Judah asked him, ‘What should I do? If I accept the coin, he will go to praise the idols for it; if I don’t accept it, he will be displeased.’

“‘Take it,’ answered Resh Lakish, ‘and drop it into a well in the messenger’s presence.’

“But this will displease him all the more,’ said Rabbi Judah.

“I mean that you should do it as if by accident,’ Resh Lakish replied. (This way he will not be angry and you will not have accepted a gift bearing a symbol of their religion on their holiday).”

My uncle concluded that it amazed him that we seek to follow other people’s practices when we ourselves have many beautiful holidays, such as Chanukah, Sukkot, etc., and our religion is the source of all worship of G-d.

Indeed, our Father Abraham, who came to the unusual understanding of his Creator at age three (Nedarim 32a), is today the undisputed source of true belief in G-d. Other nations subverted that belief, in contrast to Abraham who destroyed his father Terach’s idols because they were the vehicle that fostered the denial of G-d’s existence (Bereishit Rabbah, Parashat Noach; Yalkut Shimoni, Parashat Noach).

As stated by Rambam (Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 7:10-11), idol worship trees such as the ashera – pagan symbols adapted by Christianity – are a violation of the prohibition of idol worship. A Jew is forbidden to derive any pleasure from it, much less possess anything that is part of it. The only way we can combat lack of Torah practice and at the same time promote the removal of all vestiges of idol worship in any form is by providing a true Torah education for every Jewish child and adult.

This was how Abraham, who was entrusted by his father to watch and run his idol “shop,” sought to prevent his customers from purchasing and worshipping idols. He tried to explain logically to the customers the futility of the idols.

You are now in the same situation Abraham was. Just as Abraham’s wisdom, patience, and caring were rewarded with a great nation that would follow his beliefs, so may you be rewarded for the merit of seeking to rescue his children and restore them to the true belief in Hashem that their fathers sought for them.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/ask-the-rabbi/q-a-on-the-evergreen-tree-in-a-jewish-home/2004/01/28/

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