Holocaust survivors who resisted the Nazis as ghetto fighters, partisans, soldiers in the Red Army, or simply as freedom fighters who joined forces with non-Jewish comrades, are almost obsessive in their endeavors to prove that contrary to popular belief, not all Jews went like lambs to the slaughter.
Many such survivors – who lost all or nearly all of their immediate families, as well as friends and neighbors in their villages, towns and cities – also have a sense of mission to keep alive the memory of Jewish life in those places, as well as in the ghettos during the war.
One such person is Kovno-born historian Dov Levin, who fought as a partisan against the Nazis and later fought in Israel’s War of Independence. Together with the late Prof. Zvi Bar-On (Brown), a philosopher who was born in Warsaw but went to Kovno where he joined the Jewish underground and fought as a partisan against the Nazis, Levin wrote The Story of an Underground, which details the resistance of Kovno’s Jews during World War II.
The book was initially published in Hebrew by Yad Vashem in 1962, and might never have been translated into English were it not for the determination of Reuven Geffen, a distant cousin of Levin.
Geffen’s grandmother and Levin’s grandmother were sisters. Geffen’s grandmother married Rabbi Tobias Geffen, and the two left Kovno for the US in 1903. Of the relatives who stayed behind and their progeny, Levin was the sole survivor. After reaching Palestine in October 1945, Levin wrote to a cousin in New Orleans, who forwarded the letter to Levin’s great-uncle Rabbi Tobias Geffen in Atlanta, who was famous for having given kosher certification to Coca-Cola.
This led to an exchange of correspondence, with many letters crossing the sea in both directions before Levin and the rabbi came face to face in 1961, when Levin paid his first visit to the US. The rabbi and his wife had eight children, who provided them with many grandchildren and great-grandchildren – all of whom took Levin to their collective bosom.
Over the course of time, Levin persuaded many of them to either immigrate to Israel or at least visit; he and his wife, Bilha, helped all those who came. Reuven Geffen was one of the many relatives welcomed and assisted by the Levins. He read some of Levin’s prolific writings, but became much more interested after his own 19-year-old son Idan died tragically in 2009, while serving in the IDF.
Geffen was extremely moved when Levin called to comfort him in his grief; he could not imagine how a man who had lost all of his nearest and dearest could have so much compassion.
He started reading books and articles Levin had written about Jewish life in Kovno, and in learning about Jewish resistance against the Nazis, discovered aspects of Holocaust history of which he had been totally unaware, even though he had read a lot of Holocaust-related literature.
Remembering a book about the Jewish underground that had been in his father’s bookcase, but at the time had been unable to read because he was not sufficiently versed in Hebrew, Geffen – whose Hebrew had improved enormously – ordered a copy from a store dealing in rare books.
After reading the book, which is largely based on personal interviews with former partisans, he made it his mission to have the book translated and published in English. He was introduced to Gefen Publishers (no relation) by his cousin David Geffen, whose byline often appears in The Jerusalem Post. Gefen CEO Ilan Greenfield, whose late mother Hana was a Holocaust survivor, initially thought the book was yet another Holocaust survivor or partisan memoir – but the more he became involved with it, the more he realized its significance and what an important learning tool it could be for countless people with gaps in their knowledge of the Holocaust years.
He has now reached the conclusion that every book of this kind, no matter what the style or how well or badly written, is important because of the message it conveys. What is particularly crucial about this book is that Levin interviewed the partisans more than half a century ago, and was thus able to get firsthand stories of many who have since died. Among these were Zev Birger, who for many years headed the Jerusalem International Book Fair; poet Abba Kovner, the visionary for Beit Hatfutsot, and his wife, Vitka, a partisan heroine in her own right; and Avraham Sutzkever, the acclaimed Yiddish poet who The New York Times described as “the greatest poet of the Holocaust.”
Naturally, the book also contains Levin’s and Bar-On’s own testimonies.
Some of the surviving partisans attended the launch; asked to stand, they were given an ovation.
■ OF ALL the changes that President Reuven Rivlin is encountering in his new role, one thing that remains constant is his allegiance to Jerusalem, the city of his birth. In welcoming a solidarity delegation of the French Consistoire headed by its president Joel Margi, Rivlin, true to form, said: “Welcome to Jerusalem.”
What was remarkable about the members of the large delegation was that they all spoke Hebrew. The meeting was in fact conducted in Hebrew, and there was no need for an interpreter. Excusing himself from saying anything in French, Rivlin said at the start of the meeting: “I can speak Hebrew and I can speak English, but you wouldn’t be able to understand my French.”
At the beginning of the week, Rivlin – who stopped being a legislator less than a month ago – signed all the laws passed by the Knesset since he took up his office as president.
■ THE LOVE story of Moral Malka and Mahmoud Mansour is reminiscent of a similar story that took place in the late 1920s in Jerusalem when Alegra Belu, a beautiful Jewish girl from Mahaneh Yehuda, and Jabra Francis Raheel, a Christian Arab from Ein Kerem, met and fell in love. Then too, as happened in recent weeks with Malka and Mansour, there were those who tried to keep the young lovers apart. But they fled to Bethlehem, where Alegra converted to Christianity and they married.
As far as Alegra’s family was concerned, she was dead. They tore their clothing as a sign of mourning and sat shiva for her.
Jabra and Alegra returned to Ein Kerem in 1930, and Jabra built a magnificent two-story house for his bride as an expression of his love for her.
Even though Alegra wore a large crucifix around her neck, her home in the center of the village was widely known as The House of the Jewess.
In 1945, on learning of the death of her father, Nahum Belu, Alegra brought her three children to the house in which the family had gathered to mourn him.
Her mother ordered her to leave, and she went outside and wept. Many years later some of the Jewish and Arab cousins met again, but were unable to create a sense of kinship. Ironically, after her death, Alegra’s house became a synagogue and subsequent to that, a boutique hotel which bears her name.
■ PERHAPS BECAUSE of the outstanding role of the biblical Deborah, who was known as a great judge in ancient Israel, women seem to have found it easier to reach high-ranking positions in Israel’s justice system than in other areas of public service and academia.
The late Miriam Ben-Porat, who was one of the first female law graduates of the Hebrew University, reached the position of deputy state attorney as early as 1953. She went on to become a judge and later president of the Jerusalem District Court, and was also a law professor at the Hebrew University. She was the first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court, and after retiring from the bench became the first woman to be appointed state comptroller, serving two terms.
Ben-Porat paved the way for many other women to become lawyers, district attorneys, judges, university law professors and even justice ministers.
Indeed, Dorit Beinisch was the first and so far, only female president of the Supreme Court; Elisheva Barak was vice president of the National Labor Court; some years later, Nili Arad became the first woman president of the National Labor Court; current Supreme Court Justice Daphne Barak-Erez was previously dean of the law faculty at Tel Aviv University; Yehudit Carp, a deputy attorney-general, was renowned for her pursuit of truth, justice and civil rights; Prof. Ruth Lapidoth is one of Israel’s foremost experts in international law; and the list goes on.
Last week, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who at the beginning of the year created something of a furor when she appointed Emi Palmor director-general of the Justice Ministry, after Palmor had served for 14 years as director of the ministry’s pardons department – last week dropped a much bigger bombshell, when she named Palmor interim director of the rabbinical courts, following the retirement of Rabbi Shlomo Dichovsky after four years in the post. No woman has held the position before and Livni, who is at odds with Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef – who also serves as president of the Rabbinical High Court – decided Palmor will remain in office until such time as Livni and Yosef can settle their differences.
Vered Swed, director-general of the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women in the Prime Minister’s Office, welcomed Livni’s decision, saying Palmor’s new appointment represented a tremendous breakthrough for women and yet another crack in the glass ceiling. The rabbinical courts deal with the fate of women, she noted, which makes Palmor the right person in the right place at the right time.
There are now seven women directors- general in government ministries, Swed commented, as well as a woman heading the Bank of Israel, with women also at the helm of various commercial banks. The significance of this is that women have proven they can integrate well into areas once considered part of a man’s world. Swed called on more women to compete for key positions in both the public and the private sectors.
Meanwhile, Livni – in addition to her ambition to have (male) former attorney- general Menahem Mezuz appointed to one of the two soon-to-be-vacated positions on the Supreme Court – is equally eager to have a female appointee among the new justices. Names that have been bandied about as candidates include, among others, Judge Devorah Berliner, the president of the Tel Aviv District Court who was favored by former justice minister Yaakov Neeman, but was ruled out by the nine-member judicial appointments committee; Michal Agmon-Gonen and Ruth Ronen, who also serve on the Tel Aviv District Court; Revital Yaffe-Katz of the Beersheba District Court; and Yael Wilner of the Haifa District Court.
■ FINANCE MINISTER Yair Lapid is going to extraordinary lengths to appease those Americans whose noses might have been put out of joint by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
This is not really the task of a finance minister, but perhaps Lapid fancies himself in another ministerial position that would allow him to retain the same two initials in his title (foreign minister).
It should be remembered that when coalition talks were held for the formation of the present government, Lapid’s shopping list included the Foreign Ministry, which he wanted for himself. No one can say for sure whether this government will last its full term, or whether there will be early elections. In the event of the latter, Lapid is no longer the golden boy he was on the eve of the last Knesset elections.
On the other hand, too many people are blaming Netanyahu for what appears to be a rift in Israel-US relations. The Americans themselves have said on more than one occasion that there can be differences among friends, and Netanyahu has never failed to acknowledge that America is Israel’s greatest ally. But that doesn’t mean he has to be a performing dog to US President Barack Obama’s orders.
Yet his own ministers and people from his own party are undermining Netanyahu, and running to kowtow instead of giving their prime minister the backup he needs, even if they think he’s wrong.
That’s what members of a government do in wartime. Then again, they may be so fearful of the consequences of a deep and permanent rift with America, they would grovel in the dust in order to prevent such an eventuality.
Lapid, who is also a member of the security cabinet, said in the wake of reports of an angry exchange between Netanyahu and Obama that he was worried by this trend, which must not be allowed to continue – because Israel’s relations with the US are a strategic asset that must be maintained.
It brings to mind an old joke that circulated in the early years of the state, when Israel faced acute economic austerity.
Some of David Ben-Gurion’s closest confidantes would urge him to go to war against America, because in the final analysis this could only be to Israel’s benefit. This argument was bolstered by what America had done to help restore the economies of Japan and Germany.
Yet Ben-Gurion remained unconvinced.
“What if we win?” he snapped.
Maybe Obama, who told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that Netanyahu was too strong and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas too weak for lasting peace, may have been inadvertently referring to his own relationship with Netanyahu – who is perhaps too strong for Obama.
■ SOME PEOPLE simply cannot stay away from worthwhile causes. One such person is Doreen Gainsford, who came to Israel from the UK more than 30 years ago. Another is Rachel Lord, a civil rights lawyer who happens to be the wife of Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma.
In the 1970s, Gainsford was at the forefront of a group of Jewish housewives known as the 35s, who were vigorous, out-of-the-box campaigners in the struggle for Soviet Jewry. Many of these women subsequently came with their families to live in Israel.
Gainsford, the perennial activist, joined several organizations, but the one to which she was most dedicated was Mini Gifts, which she founded with the aim of making Ethiopian immigrant women self-sufficient. A former designer for Christian Dior when she still lived in England, Gainsford designed fabric mixes and patterns for Mini Gifts from which the Ethiopian women could work in their own homes, producing a variety of quality gift items sold to buyers in Israel, Europe and the US.
Gainsford is currently occupied with helping flower growers in the South, and has been posting notices on her Facebook page to announce sales from her own home in Herzliya Pituah; the flowers are sold at four bunches for NIS 100.
When Lord, who is president of the Diplomatic Spouses Club, learned what Gainsford is doing to assist southern flower growers, she got in touch and offered the Australian residence as a venue for a flower sale, inviting members of both the Diplomatic Spouses Club and the International Women’s Club to come and buy, and thereby support the flower growers. The event was combined with a morning tea, and according to Lord’s young daughters, “Mummy baked all the cakes herself.” The ambassador, carrying the youngest of his three daughters, played doorman.
In the 14 months she has been in Israel, Lord has immersed herself in a number of causes, among them the Syrian civil war victims being treated at Safed’s Ziv Medical Center, and children with life-threatening illnesses being treated at Schneider Children’s Medical Center for Israel in Petah Tikva. She has also traveled extensively throughout the country to explore social welfare and civil rights issues at close quarters. Gainsford was delighted to join in a collaborative effort with Lord, but said good intentions often result in frustrations and a lot of hard work. She spent days chasing flower growers, who she said seldom returned phone calls or emails. They were suffering not only from European boycotts, she said, but also from a dearth of customers in Israel – as people are not into buying flowers when there’s a war raging.
Nonetheless, with her usual perseverance, Gainsford succeeded in making contact, and due to her own very wide circle of friends and acquaintances, has been able to do very well as a flower seller.
■ DIPLOMATS, SEPARATELY and together, are visiting cities, towns and villages located on or near the Gaza Strip.
Last week, Netherlands Ambassador Caspar Veldkamp visted Sderot and the Eshkol Regional Council, not only in order to be able to report back to his Foreign Ministry, but also to meet with Dutch citizens living in the area. The meeting at the Neveh Eshkol care center for the elderly was organized by Irene van Stegeren, a Dutch woman married to an Israeli. Veldkamp spoke to each of the people present and listened to stories of their individual experiences, also visiting a farm and campground in Sde Zvi owned by a Dutch-Israeli couple, Uzi and Tamar Manor.
Veldkamp said he wanted to pay tribute to the citizens of the region. “They have shown great resilience under rocket and mortar fire from Hamas and other terrorist organizations. The threat from attack tunnels seems to have made a great impact. It is important to hear directly from people who are experiencing these threats.” He pledged to continue to remain in touch with the Dutch community living in the region.
A more disturbing story about a Dutch citizen is that of lawyer Henk Zanoli, who together with his late mother, Johana Zanoli, had been declared Righteous among the Nations; the two had received medals from Yad Vashem in recognition of the great personal risks they took in saving a Jewish child from the Nazis.
Zanoli, who has Palestinian relatives by marriage in Gaza, returned his medal to Yad Vashem after three generations of his family were killed due to a bomb dropped by an Israeli fighter jet. He sent his medal to Israeli Ambassador in The Hague Haim Davon, with an explanatory letter as to why he could no longer accept it.
■ NOTWITHSTANDING THE security situation in Israel, a three-year-old Romanian child arrived here at the beginning of last week to undergo lifesaving heart surgery. Accompanied by his mother Mihaela, David Lucio Stan Coman traveled from his hometown of Galati on the recommendation of Dr.
Alexandru Cornea, a Bucharest-based cardiac surgeon who is familiar with Israel’s Save a Child Heart’s project. Cornea contacted Dr. Akiva Tamir, head of pediatric cardiology at Holon’s Wolfson Medical Center, where SACH is headquartered, to discuss the case with him; he was told to get David to Israel as quickly as possible.
David is the fifth Romanian child who has come to Israel this year to benefit from the lifesaving surgery of Save a Child’s Heart.