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February 12, 2016 / 3 Adar I, 5776

Posts Tagged ‘WWII’

Seventy Years Since The German Invasion Of Poland

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

      September 1, 1939 is the date on which Germany invaded Poland, starting WWII. While it should be said that the start of the war was not the start of the Shoah, which actually began with the rise of Nazism in 1933, it was a major milestone in the annals of the Holocaust. Within the first few days of the war, Germany had conquered and/or bombed much of Poland, including the capital, Warsaw.


     Danzig, today’s Gdansk, fell on the first day trapping 5,000 Jews. In Warsaw 3,000 Jews were killed in the indiscriminate bombing. On Sept. 2, in Stutthof, near Danzig, a sub-camp was created for civilian prisoners of war (Jews).  On Sept. 3, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany upholding their treaty with Poland signed only a week earlier.


     The future Prime Minister of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, vowed that Jews would fight to defeat the Germans and Hitler y”s. A total of 1.5 million Jewish servicemen and women would eventually fight on the side of the Allies opposing Germany. Five hundred and fifty-five thousand Jews fought in the U.S. Armed Forces, 116,000 fought for Great Britain and 243,000 from other countries. 


      During the first week of the invasion the Germans rolled into Krakow, Lodz, Tarnow, Radom, and Przemysl as well as many small shtetlach along the way.


     The reason or the invasion given by Germany was to gain Lebensraum, (living space) but the effort to eliminate the Jews was an open secret. On a train carrying German troops to Poland there were painted signs reading, “We are going to Poland to thrash the Jews.”


    Persecutions of the Jewish communities began immediately. During the first few weeks of the war, Chief S.S. Security Service, Reinhard Heydrich y”s, issued orders to the Einsatzgruppen to establish ghettos for the Jewish population in cooperation with the civil and military authorities. He decreed that all Jewish communities with a population of less than 500 people should be dissolved.


German soldiers headed to Poland



     All Jews living in rural areas had to move to the cities, where ghettos were to be established, in order to facilitate their transfer to concentration camps. Heydrich also ordered the establishment of the Judenrat (Jewish councils) that would run the everyday life in the ghettos and work with the German authorities.  The first ghetto to be established was in Piotrkow/Treblinka on Sept. 30 1939.


     On September 17, the Russians invaded Poland from the East and according to the August 23, 1939 Non-Aggression Act between Germany and Russia, divided Poland in half. According to the secret protocol of the Non-Aggression Act, also known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the Germans retreated from some territory that they had agreed would belong to Russia, which they had already conquered.


     It is interesting to note that in some cases Jews tried to escape to the German controlled areas when the Russians attacked, fearing a repeat of the Cossack atrocities 20 years earlier during World War I.


     The Germans for their part expelled many Jews to the Russian side where they were forced into exile, often to Siberia, as possible enemies of the state.


     In certain areas of Poland it can be said that the Russian invasion of Poland gave Jews a chance to escape. The Jews of Galicia, which was under German occupation, saw the devastation of the Jewish communities almost immediately while those in the Russian sector had a chance to organize and find refuge.


     The most famous case was the escape of the Jews who received visas from the Japanese Diplomat Chiune Sugihara. Many of these Jews made their way to Japan and later to Shanghai.

Peace at Home And Among Our People (Part Two)

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

Special Note: In my last column, I discussed the tragic consequences of  Sinas Chinam jealousy and hatred of the brothers toward Joseph that cast us into our first exile in Egypt, which continues to plague us to this very day. The following is a continuation of that column:

It is well known that the story of “Kamtza and Bar Kamtza” was pivotal to our exile but we have yet to learn the lesson of that shameful tragedy. The very title of the story is puzzling, since the controversy was not between Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, but between Bar Kamtza and the anonymous host of the party. Why is Kamtza implicated?

To refresh our memories: A gentleman in Yerushalayim made a party. He had a best friend named Kamtza and an enemy whom he despised named Bar Kamtza. He sent his servant to invite Kamtza to his party, but his servant mistakenly delivered the invitation to his enemy, Bar Kamtza. Happily, Bar Kamtza came to the party only to be ordered to leave.

Mortified, he pleaded to be allowed to stay. He even offered to pay for the cost of the party, but his host remained adamant and had him thrown out. So, the question remains – why is Kamtza, the good friend, who never even made it to the party, implicated? Why is he named as a central player?

As a best friend, Kamtza had to be aware that his friend’s heart was filled with animosity and hatred. It would have been his responsibility to warn his friend not to allow such venom to overtake him. So too should the rabbis and all the other guests at the party have taken a strong stand and protested. But everyone remained silent and thereby countenanced this shameful act. Those same people would surely have protested had they seen their host serving treif, so how could they have remained impervious to his reprehensible behavior, which was a pure manifestation of sinas chinam – a treif manner of behavior?

We are all familiar with the teaching of Chazal that calls upon us to be among the disciples of Aharon, Kohen Gadol, and pursue peace among our fellow man. In Judaism, the pursuit of peace is so critical we are even permitted to bend the truth for its sake. When there is a conflict between emes and shalom, emes must take a back seat, for there is no greater good than shalom. So, it is that Aaron had no problem telling two warring parties that the other regretted his actions and wanted to make peace even though that may have been far from the truth.

We, however, not only fail to generate peace, but consciously or unconsciously, we often incite further discord. It behooves all of us to ask ourselves whether we are among the disciples of Aaron or those who attended the infamous party from which Bar Kamtza was ousted.

This question is all the more pertinent to us, for we are the generation that has been destined to live in this trying period of Chevlei Moshiach when, with every passing day, our trials and tribulations intensify. So the question remains B how can we spare ourselves this intense pain that is endemic to this period and speedily bring about the geulah?

But how do we go about making peace and fostering it among our family, our community and our people? Obviously, every conflict, every situation, is different, but the first step is to unlock the heart sealed by hatred. Experience has taught me that the best way to accomplish this is through Torah study and a story that has the power to reach the heart.

In one of my books, I tell the story of the Maggid of Kelm. On one occasion, he challenged his congregation and asked, If, chas v’shalom, Moshiach does not come in our lifetime and we are buried here in Kelm and then one day, we receive an invitation to arise from our graves and return to Kelm for half-an-hour, what would you do? Where would you go? And what would you say?”

Very often, I challenge my audiences with this very same question. What would you do? Where would you do? And what would you say? Would you check on your business, go shopping, to the gym? Would you visit your family? And if you did, what would you say?

On 9/11 we found out. For the very first time, something happened on that day that we had never encountered. Thousands of people were trapped in the Twin Towers. They knew that they were going to die, and somehow, they succeeded in sending out a last message. Tragically, there is nothing new about people being killed and dying, but this was the very first time that we had a recorded message from those facing death. Amazingly, they all got through on their cell phones.

Incredibly, they all left the same message B three little words, I love you…I love you Mom…I love you Dad…I love you, my husband…I love you, my wife…I love you, my children… I love you Grandma I love you Grandpa – I love you all so much!

I allow the people to digest the story and then I ask, Should we not say, “I love you” before it is too late? All the things that we fight about – money, kavod…Is it really worth it? In the end, when all is said and done, it’s all shtuot – nonsense. So once again I ask, Is it really worth it? Is it really worth destroying those who are nearest and dearest to you?” When these two preparatory steps are taken you can anticipate that you will succeed in making shalom. I learned this lesson long ago from my revered father, Harav HaGaon Rav Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l.

At the end of WWII we were taken to a DP camp in Switzerland. A group of Polish young men, all of whom had undergone horrific, torturous experiences in Auschwitz arrived at our camp. They were orphans, angry, bitter, and openly expressed their hostility toward Judaism and Hashem. No one had much to do with them, but my father could not bear to see Yiddisheh neshamos so affected. He didn’t argue with them or admonish them, nor did he give them mussar. Instead, every night, my father went to their dormitory and said the Shema with them. Then he would go to each bed, give each boy a brachah and a kiss. Thus, my father converted their anger, and bitterness into faith, commitment and love.

The lesson of my father has guided me in my efforts to make shalom and unify family members. But those lessons should guide all of us, for they belong to our people.

(To Be Continued)

KAJ Stalwart, Son-In-Law of Rav Breuer, Passes Away

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

Last Shabbos Jerry Bechhofer was standing in shul as always – two rows in front of mine, tall and smiling. After davening he wished me a warm good Shabbos. Three days later he suddenly passed away at age 86 after a surgical procedure.

Bechhofer was a veritable stalwart of Washington Heights’s Breuer’s community (KAJ) and a tireless worker and advocate on its behalf. He was also the last living son-in-law of KAJ founder Rav Joseph Breuer, whom he helped take care of for 26 years. (After Rav Breuer’s wife passed away in 1954 he lived with his daughter and son-in-law until his own passing in 1980. As Agudath Israel head Rav Yaakov Perlow recounted during Tuesday’s eulogies, Bechhofer revered his father-in-law and always deferred his head-of-household position to him.)

Born in Furth, Germany in 1922, Bechhofer started working at 14 and practically didn’t stop until his dying day. He personified the traits of duty, integrity, hard work and community, and even in his mid-80s Bechhofer worked – both professionally and for the community – virtually seven days a week, keeping hours that many 20-year-olds find grueling.

Escaping Nazi Germany, Bechhofer arrived in America in 1939. Within a few years, though, he returned to his home country as a proud member of the invading United States military, which he joined as a volunteer in 1943. As an artillery officer he saw action in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany; was awarded a bronze star; and achieved the rank of first lieutenant by war’s end. Among his many interesting WWII experiences, Bechhofer was once assigned the unenviable task of accompanying Nazi leader Hermann Goering when the army was transferring him from one place to another.

After the war, Bechhofer returned to New York and settled in Washington Heights, sometimes teasingly called the Fourth Reich because of its high concentration of German Jews. There he married Meta Breuer, the youngest of Rav Breuer’s children, and Bechhofer embraced his wife’s family’s legacy as his own. As a guest at his Shabbos table several times in the past few years, I hardly remember Mr. Bechhofer letting a time pass without delivering a d’var Torah from Rav Shlomo Breuer (his father-in-law’s father).

In the years following WWII, Bechhofer often helped many fellow immigrants, unaccustomed to the language and culture of their new home, find jobs. In his own profession, Bechhofer was an innovator, inventing a primitive form of IBM word processing in the late 1950s. In his later years, he was the comptroller for a spice import company in New Jersey.

Above all else, however, Bechhofer was a staunchly dedicated member and leader of KAJ. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of KAJ’s parent community in Frankfurt, Germany, and his rabbinic successors constantly stressed the importance of involvement in and dedication to community – and no one treated this duty more seriously than Bechhofer. As one community member put it, “He was addicted to working for tzorchei tzibbur and devoted his life tirelessly to that end.” His commitment to KAJ’s yeshiva and its annual dinner and journal campaigns, which he spearheaded decade after decade, was particularly legendary and praised by KAJ’s Rav Yisroel Mantel in his eulogy.

Mr. Bechhofer may have left this world, but his memory is an inspiration to me and, I am sure, to so many others as well. I was shocked to hear of his passing and still can’t imagine Washington Heights without him. He belonged to the shrinking generation of older, German-born KAJ members in whom the very best virtues of German Jewry rest – virtues that helped create and continue to maintain the community and shul I belong to.

He is survived by his wife, Meta; brothers Fred and Ernest; sister Sonya; sons Samson, David, and Yaakov; and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Sixty-Five Years Since The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

         In what has been one of the major memorial events in Poland commemorating WWII, Warsaw saw a gathering of world leaders this week at the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.


         This year’s anniversary, April 19th falls out on Shabbat-Erev Pesach, and in deference to the Jewish victims and surviving community, the government has scheduled to start on the 15th and continue throughout the week. Leading the Israeli delegation is Israel President Shimon Peres, who was born in Poland.



Remnants of the wall surrounding the Warsaw Ghetto.



         Polish Minister of State Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka said that Peres was invited to participate in the ceremonies because the Government wants the event “to bring together Jews and Poles.” Peres landed in Poland, where he was born, and will join survivors of the uprising at Warsaw’s Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto. Three sections of the ghetto wall are still visible, measuring 12 to 20 feet (three to six meters) high.


         During his visit in Poland, Peres will address the Polish Parliament, in Hebrew. He also is scheduled to meet with Irena Sendler, a 98-year-old Polish woman who helped save 2,500 Jewish children during the Nazi Occupation, which systematically murdered more than two million Polish Jews.


         The uprising in the ghetto began when several hundred young Jews took up arms against the Nazis instead of letting themselves be shipped off to death camps. The Nazis were surprised by the revolt, which lasted for three weeks, before the German Army overcame the Jews and torched the Jewish area.


         Also attending the ceremonies will be the mayors of, approximately, 30 European and Israeli cities whose inhabitants have family ties with the victims and survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto,” said Hanna Paluba, an official of the Shalom Foundation, which organizes the annual commemoration.



Monument over Mila 18, Headquarters of the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters.



         Leading the U.S. delegation was Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff, who was among five members named by President Bush. Joining Chertoff are Victor Ashe, the U.S. Ambassador to Poland; Phyllis Heideman, a lawyer and member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council who is also active in B’nai Brith International and the Republican Jewish Coalition; David Mitzner, a Warsaw-born developer who is a major donor to Holocaust remembrance causes; and Bill Lowenberg, a San Francisco-based Holocaust survivor also active with the RJC and in Holocaust remembrance.


         The foreign dignitaries will be joined by most of the Jewish community in Poland, for whom evidence of the Shoah is ever present in their daily lives, dwelling in a city that had been destroyed by the Germans and which today is filled with monuments.



Memorial to the heroes and victims of the Warsaw Ghetto.



         Some of the guests will be visiting the present-day Jewish community to witness the growth and development of what had until recently been thought of as a dead community.


         Mr. Peres will also be going to the offices of the Museum Of The History Of Polish Jews, of which he serves as the Chairman of the International Honorary Committee. 

Art That Produces, Not Consumes

Wednesday, September 13th, 2006

Feminine Principals: Works in Iron, Fiber and Glass

Orna Ben-Ami, Georgette Benisty and Saara Gallin

Through January 14, 2007

The Yeshiva University Museum

15 West 16th Street, New York

212-294-8330, http://www.yumuseum.org



The current show at the Yeshiva University Museum is bizarrely titled. “Feminine Principals: Works in Iron, Fiber and Glass” carries unexpected implications on several counts. It is not often that women, especially Jewish women, are celebrated in the arts. Even less likely are exhibits of work by Jewish women artists who identify as feminists. But the invocation of “principals” – where “principles” seems more natural – suggests that the three artists in the show are the most important, feminist Jewish artists. Viewers who expect such results will be disappointed (since there is much feminist art that is at least as good that is not in the show). But the show is not without merit.


Orna Ben-Ami’s iron sculptures – which bombard the viewer who just enters the exhibit – contain strong narrative components. “I Can’t Paint 1” is a canvas on an easel signed by the artist in both English and Hebrew. It is no wonder that the artist cannot paint, as the canvas is hopelessly torn. Art of this sort, which is art “about the inability to make art”, sets itself in companionship with the intellectual (and ultimately nihilistic) art forms of Dada and Surrealism, and it resembles some of Moico Yaker’s drawings, recently exhibited at the YU Museum called “Having Trouble to Pray.”


Hanging in a corner, near “I Can’t Paint 1,” is an enormous Torah pointer that looks like a gun. A suitcase with tree roots emerging from within sits on the floor nearby, perhaps combining the wandering Jew, who must always have packed bags ready for easy escape (thus the suitcase), with the Jew’s deep rooted identity. “Superior Power” shows tzitzis hanging from above, in a way that resembles a marionette, and a piece on mutar (allowed) andassur (forbidden) shows clothing behind bars, perhaps a commentary on the laws of modesty, or tzniut.


A statement from Ben-Ami is plastered on the wall above “I Can’t Paint 1“: Creating is like giving birth, so whatever the material will be, creating is very feminine. I am trying to soften the material-but more than this physical fact, what I am trying to do is put emotions in it.”


The fact that the iron sculptures are made by a woman is certainly significant. Most people think of ironwork as the domain of the male artist, who can cope with the weight, roughness and mess. Women are thought of as daintier artists who weave, sew or paint. But Ben-Ami shows how subjective this account is. And indeed, more than 50 years ago painting was considered a male endeavor, as Jewish artist Anni Albers and other women artists in the Bauhaus discovered when they were barred from painting.



Roots.” By Orna Ben-Ami, 1999. Courtesy of Yeshiva University Museum, New York,

May 7, 2006 – January 14, 2007.



But beyond the material, there seems to be little that is truly feminist about Ben-Ami’s work, even given her statements that seem to suggest that all art (even made by men) is feminist in its resemblance to giving birth. Georgette Benisty’s fabric figures follow suit. Benisty’s series is called Renouer (renewal), and according to the Museum pamphlet, they “reflect her desire to stitch together the dispersed fragments of her Moroccan past and French culture, interweaving the color, rhythm, architecture and antiquities of her native land through fabric, paint and collage.” But Benisty’s fabric works, like Ben-Ami’s iron works, do not immediately reveal how they fall under the banner of the “Feminine Principals” show title.


Saara Gallin’s glasswork, though, is deeply feminist in both content and form. Gallin says her work directly responds to “the spoken and unspoken conflict women face in regard to their roles today.” She speaks of stereotypes of women that are “presented and reinforced by advertising and the media.” To counter these stereotypes, Gallin aims to use her art to showcase “significant, although quiet, voices of the women who define themselves by producing, rather then consuming.”


What Gallin means by producing and consuming is not readily apparent. As she describes it, “I believe we must look at what people do rather than at what they say. Talk is cheap. The women I have singled out speak with their actions.”


One piece that attends to this theme is “Braishit – In the Beginning” (1998). The 48-inch tall sculpture is made of three layers of glass, held together with an aluminum frame. The work is heavily personal, and without the “explanation” hanging beside the sculpture, the work would remain entirely mysterious. The back layer has motifs like lions, fish and a palm tree, covered by a layer of swirls of yellow and gray. On the top layer there’s a white dove and the word “yes” written (sand-carved into the layer and gilded) several times, in yellow capital letters with exclamation marks.


Gallin describes the piece as part of an “affirmative” series that refers to creation. “My goal has been to honor people who, by their deeds, have touched the lives of countless individuals. They have responded to the cynicism, which threatens man [emphasis mine] throughout the ages with an emphatic YES! To life.” The affirmation of life emerges in the piece in the form of several signatures that Gallin describes as a fireman, a schoolteacher, two community leaders, two justices of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, an attorney and a doctor.


Am Echad” (One People). By Saara Gallin. Photograph by Steve Halpern, courtesy of the artist.



“Am Echad” is a similar venture, but the iconography has changed. Instead of the flora and fauna, “Am Echad” – Israel at its 50th birthday, Gallin reveals – showcases a Jewish star and abstract gold and blue shapes, all covered by the Hebrew word “keyn” (yes) in a variety of fonts. Gallin identifies the typefaces as “going back to early Haggadahs,” and the signatures this time come from a soldier in the Jewish brigade in WWII, a soldier in Haganah, a botanist at the University of the Negev, two international attorneys (a couple it seems), a founder of Kfar Blum, the artist’s children, a person who saved 1,000 orphans by bringing them from Tehran to Israel in WWII, and an individual who resigned from the Nobel Committee to avoid voting for Yasir Arafat.


Gallin’s other work in the show is somewhat less political. It includes a lot of work exhibited in a circular form contained in a pedestal that evokes a globe, a magnifying glass or a mirror. One piece explores clouds (perhaps the “Clouds of Glory” that protected the Jews in the desert), with circular red forms that could double as red blood cells. A series called “Aishet Chayil” (Women of Valor) shows a woman identified as Glueckel of Hameln (1645-1724) and another identified as Gracia Nasi (1510-1569) on what appears to be a coin. Another shows three women framed within the circle, surrounded by abstract shapes, some of which look like candies, others like footprints. Some of Gallin’s more realistic works in the gallery show menorahs and mezuzahs.


Gracia Nasi.” By Saara Gallin. Photograph by Steve Halpern, courtesy of the artist.



Gallin’s work can thus be compared to the graffiti art of French artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat had his own language (houses, the word “home,” abstract shapes, trees), and one can tell by “reading” his paintings that his work was highly personalized and that he took it very seriously. Each piece of Basquiat’s was almost entirely about his signature, as is much of graffiti art, and it is hard to imagine something more personal than that. But the language is ultimately opaque and too esoteric to understand completely. Gallin writes in the exhibit brochure: “Light is the symbol of the divine. Glass is the vehicle, which makes light perceptible. The quality most unique to glass is its relationship to light. No other medium has the range of transparency or versatility of glass. I think of my work as sculpting with light.”


The notion of sculpting with light through glass and the luminous surfaces that Gallin captures are worth further examination, and the black-and-white images on these pages do not do them justice. But as an exhibit, “Feminine Principals” must be credited more with opening a door to discussing some of the contemporary art that is being produced by Jewish women, without offering much of a discussion of the wealth and breadth of that emerging field.


Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/art-that-produces-not-consumes/2006/09/13/

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