Grapevine: He was there

A brief of Jewish news from around the world.

By
January 27, 2015 22:31
President Reuven Rivlin (L) meets former secretary of state Henry Kissinger in New York

President Reuven Rivlin (L) meets former secretary of state Henry Kissinger in New York. (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)

One of the most prolific journalists in the Jewish world is Los Angeles- based Tom Tugend, whose byline has for decades appeared in The Jerusalem Post and numerous other publications.

After more than 60 years in the profession, Tugend shows no signs of slowing down. He’s still churning out highly informative stories at a rapid pace, and hopefully this year – which is not only the 70th anniversary year of the liberation of Auschwitz, but the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Allied Forces against the Nazis – will write about his own adventures as a soldier, given that he is a veteran of both World War II and the War of Independence.

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Born in Germany, he and his family began to feel the oppression of the Nazi regime in 1933. His father, a physician, was no longer permitted to treat non-Jewish patients. The family had to move out of their comfortable home to a much poorer neighborhood; they were not permitted to have any non-Jewish household help.

Tugend’s father was not among those German Jews who were in denial about what the future held for them, realizing it was going to get a lot worse before it got better – if at all. In 1937, with the help of American friends, he left Germany, went to England and from there proceeded to the US. Two years later Tugend, then 13, got out of Germany along with his mother and sister, arriving in America as refugees – only four months prior to the Nazi invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II.

By the time he was 18, Tugend was itching to join the US Army; upon joining, he was sent to France with an infantry division.

After the war, when his commanders learned German was his mother tongue, they sent him back to Germany to hunt down Nazis. He subsequently joined the fledgling Israeli army, and during the War of Independence, headed an anti-tank crew. When Uncle Sam put him back in the uniform of the US Army during the Korean War, instead of being shipped abroad, he was sent to San Francisco and assigned to run an army newspaper; that experience paved his way to a lifelong career in journalism.

In addition to the many subjects that he covers, Tugend has the lowdown on Jewish Hollywood.

■ On the subject of Hollywood, Variety magazine reported that several Hollywood executives had joined Steven Spielberg on his journey to Poland to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Among the Hollywood personalities was Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav, who worked with Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation, the Polish government and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum to bring a group of 100 Auschwitz survivors and their families to Poland for the ceremony. Also included in the delegation were 25 teachers from around the globe, who are participating in a four-day seminar on teaching the effects of genocide on world history.

Zaslav is chairman of the Auschwitz: The Past Is Present committee, heading a team that includes Spielberg, Len Blavatnik, Haim Saban, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, investor Joel Citron, attorney Stephen A. Cozen, World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder and tech mogul Yuri Milner. Among others in the group, according to the Variety report, are Barry Diller, Ari Emanuel, David Geffen, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ron Meyer, Leslie Moonves, Eric Schmidt, Diane Von Furstenberg, Rob Wiesenthal and Jeff Zucker. Zaslav’s family managed to escape from Warsaw in the early 1940s; some of Weinstein’s relatives were murdered in Auschwitz.

Spielberg and Zaslav spearheaded a fund-raising effort to cover the costs of the trip to Poland for survivors and some of the other participants.

■ Before leaving for New York, President Reuven Rivlin announced that during his visit, he hoped to mend the rift between Israel and America; the implication was a meeting with US President Barack Obama.

On Sunday night, Rivlin’s Spokesman’s Office released a statement that was met with a number of cynical interpretations in Israel. The verbatim text was: “Over the past few days, there has been contact between the relevant parties in Israel and the US, discussing the possibility of a meeting between President Obama and President Rivlin during his visit to New York to address the United Nations Holocaust commemorations.

“At this stage, it has been agreed not to hold a meeting during his visit, due to the schedule constraints of both leaders, and that a meeting would be scheduled at a later date.”

Various commentators had their own takes on the possibility of a meeting, and the reason it will not take place. Among reports were suppositions that: the White House had initiated contact with Rivlin’s office in Jerusalem and conversely, Obama didn’t want to get involved in Israel’s domestic imbroglios; Rivlin had decided not to embarrass Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so close to the election; Obama wasn’t really interested in meeting Rivlin; etc. etc.

It’s become increasingly harder to tell what the media is reporting, and what the media is inventing. Because speed is now such an important factor in getting out the story, news outlets simply feed off each other, occasionally embellishing along the way with both fact and fiction. Even if Rivlin had planned to change his schedule and fly to Washington, weather conditions would have made that impossible – as his address to the UN General Assembly was postponed because of the anticipated blizzard. Perhaps the absence of a meeting with Obama was the Creator’s way of saying, “Don’t mess with Me. I decide which Israeli officials Obama will meet.”

Meanwhile, Rivlin did meet with former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger. It may not be common knowledge that Kissinger is a soccer fan; Kissinger’s family also managed to get out of Germany in 1938. When he and Rivlin met on Sunday night, after exchanging the usual platitudes and discussing the possibility of the resumption of peace negotiations with the Palestinians, they turned to a subject that continues to excite both of them – discussing some of the recent games they had watched on TV.

Before that, Rivlin had said that even though various Israeli administrations had not always seen eye-to-eye with Kissinger, Israel always appreciated his role and concern.

However, when the conversation turned to soccer, there was perfect agreement between the two men. They both love the game.

■ All being well, Rivlin will address the UN General Assembly Wednesday . He did get to meet UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday, and thanked him for all he has done to promote Holocaust remembrance at the UN, and for his unwavering commitment to the fight against anti-Semitism.

Rivlin stressed the need to act with a firm hand against anti-Semitism, and asked that the UN continue to act to raise awareness on the issue.

With regard to the importance of Holocaust commemoration, Rivlin said understanding the lessons of the past is crucial in facing today’s challenges in the Middle East and across the world. Religious hatred is on the rise, the poison of fundamentalism and terrorism has left no corner of the globe immune, and the need to fight this threat is a primary international interest, he underscored.

Ban told Rivlin he had visited Auschwitz- Birkenau approximately a year ago, and the visit had made a profound impression on him – making him even more committed to the fight for human rights.

Unless the blizzard again interferes with the schedule, Rivlin will address the UN at 7 p.m. tonight Israel time. The live broadcast of the ceremony can be accessed at webtv.un.org.

■ Through his Destiny Foundation, Jerusalem- based Rabbi Berel Wein has made a number of documentary films about Jewish history, Jewish tradition and Jewish life. What was missing from the series was a film on the Holocaust – a subject he knew he must deal with, but did not want to tackle only from the traditional perspective of the victims.

And then, by fortunate coincidence, Rabbi Yosef Wallis came into his life and told Wein an incredible story about his own family. In so doing, he gave Wein the key to his film Passing the Torch, which had its Israeli premiere this week at Jerusalem’s Cinema City, following successful premieres last year in New York and London.

The story begins not in Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia or France, but in Spain – and not in 1933, 1939 or 1943, but in 1691. Wallis is a direct descendant of Rafael Valls, the last Jew to be burned at the stake in Palma de Mallorca. Valls was the leader of the clandestine Jews known as the Chuetas; most belonged to families who had converted to Christianity 150 years earlier, but continued to practice Judaism in secret and to marry among themselves.

Valls was arrested when it was discovered he had encouraged his flock to observe the Fast of Esther. He had been a wealthy and influential man and could have saved his own life, had he been willing to once and for all renounce his Judaism and kiss the cross. He refused; there was no big deal in kissing the cross and not really meaning anything he was forced to utter, said Wallis in relation to his ancestor, but it was a public act, not a private one – and he simply could not denigrate his heritage in public.

Fast-forward to the 20th century, to a hassidic household in Hungary. It’s Friday night and Shraga Feivel Winkler, the maternal grandfather of Yosef Wallis, is making Kiddush for his wife and six children. Suddenly, Nazis burst into the house, arrest the family and deport everyone to Auschwitz. During the selection, one of the children, Judith, was saved. With green eyes and blonde hair, she didn’t look Jewish, and the Nazis gave her the benefit of the doubt, thinking she might be the maid.

Judith’s mother realized the fate that awaited her and the other children, and as they were separated from each other she called out, “Judith, don’t forget! You are a Jewish girl.” That was the last time Judith’s mother spoke to her, and her words carried a message, mission and responsibility.

Over time Judith was transferred elsewhere, including to Dachau. It was there she came across Judah Wallis, one of the few people who were in Nazi captivity from 1939-1945 and somehow managed to survive.

While Judah was in Dachau he witnessed another Jew being taken to his death; the man suddenly threw a small bag in his direction. Judah thought it might contain a morsel of bread, but upon opening it, discovered a pair of tefillin. To be caught with tefillin meant instant death; he quickly hid them under his shirt and later found somewhere else to hide them in the barracks. But in the morning, he could not resist putting them on.

A German officer appeared unexpectedly, grabbed the tefillin and at roll call a few minutes later, in the presence of thousands of silent Jews, waved them in the air and barked at Judah, “Jewish dog! I sentence you to death by public hanging for wearing these.”

He then sneeringly asked Judah to state his last wish, and Judah asked to go to his death wearing his tefillin. Many of those watching began to cry; Judah was surprised they still had tears left to shed. Even women from the adjoining camp, separated by a barbed wire fence from the men’s camp, were forced to watch the projected execution. Among them was Judith.

Moved by the display of tears, Judah called out in Yiddish: “Yidden, don’t cry. With tefillin on, I am the victor. Don’t you understand, I am the winner!” Germans have little difficulty in understanding Yiddish, and the furious officer yelled at Judah that hanging was too good for him, and that he would experience a much more painful death.

Two heavy rocks were placed under his arms, and he was given 25 lashes on the head. He was told that if he dropped one of the rocks, he would be shot instantly. Sheer willpower and unbelievable strength enabled him to withstand the ordeal. He lost consciousness after the 25th lash and was left for dead. Another Jew, realizing he was alive, covered his head with a rag and dragged his body to the side. When Judah eventually awoke, he hid in one of the barracks.

Two months later, Dachau was liberated.

On the day of liberation, Judith, then 17, realized she had no one left in the world; fearful of the future, she walked over to the men’s camp, found Judah, told him that she had no one and was afraid of being alone, and asked him to marry her. He said yes.

Elsewhere in the camp was the Klausenberger Rebbe, Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam, who despite the loss of his wife and 11 children had not lost his faith; in fact, he ended up bringing many of those who had lost their faith back to Jewish observance. Judith and Judah approached him and asked him to marry them. He agreed and prepared a handwritten marriage contract, which Yosef Wallis has as a treasured possession.

His grandfather, Shraga Feivel Winkler, was killed in Dachau on the day of liberation.

Before the Allied Forces reached the camp, a Nazi officer tried to make him eat pork; no one would have blamed him had he done so – but he refused. Had he been taken to a private room, explained Wallis in the film, he might have eaten a piece of pork, but this was in public, and it was a test not only of his faith but of Judaism. To eat the pork would have made a mockery of Judaism, and he was decidedly unwilling to allow that. He was killed standing up for his beliefs.

Wallis was born in Israel and later moved to the US, serving in Vietnam; he then came back to Israel and joined the air force, serving in the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War. He lost religion along the way, becoming a highly successful businessman with an airplane factory in Ramat Gan and a fancy house in Ra’anana. One day, his wife called him at work and asked him to buy some takeout on the way home. He stopped at a place famous for its pork delicacies and suddenly, it hit him: His grandfather had sacrificed his life rather than eat pork, and here he was, happily indulging in what was taboo for Jews.

He left the store without buying anything.

This was the beginning of a turnaround or rather, a return to his roots. Today, he is the CEO of Arachim, one of the most successful outreach organizations in Israel, which helps Jews to reclaim their spiritual heritage.

■ Philippines Ambassador Nathaniel G. Imperial will host a reception tomorrow to mark the joint issue of a Philippines-Israel stamp, commemorating the provision of a safe haven for Jews in the Philippines during World War II. Among those expected to attend the event in Rishon Lezion are city Mayor Dov Zur, Postmaster-General and CEO of the Philippines Postal Corporation Maria Josefina M. Dela Cruz, and Israel Postal Company CEO Haim Elmoznino.

In 1940, Philippines president Manuel L. Quezon offered Jews escaping Nazi persecution more than just a haven – he offered them property and a livelihood. Unfortunately, too few took advantage of the offer.

Seven years later, the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote in favor of the UN resolution on the partition of Palestine.

For some odd reason, Yad Vashem for many years refused to recognize what the Philippines had done to save Jews – this despite the fact that there was significant literature on the subject, including a book by one of the people who had been saved. One of the Philippines ambassadors to Israel, the late Antonio Modena – who died in 2007, the year when Israel and the Philippines celebrated the 50th anniversary of the establishment of their diplomatic ties – worked tirelessly toward getting recognition from Yad Vashem. In 2009, then-ambassador Petronilla Garcia presided over the launch of the Open Doors Monument in the World’s Nations Park in Rishon Lezion, which borders the Righteous Among the Nations Boulevard.

The Philippines Embassy has since had a special relationship with Rishon Lezion, and on special occasions, members of the Philippines community in Israel flock to the city to mingle with some of those who were saved and their descendants.

■ Tourists and Israelis alike are familiar with the work of architect and sculptor Frank Meisler, in particular his silver paperweights that depict Jerusalem as the center of the universe. This particular work of art, which is almost but not quite a national symbol, is often presented by Israeli officials to foreign dignitaries.

Meisler was born in Danzig in 1929. When he was 10 years old, he was sent together with 14 Jewish children by Kindertransport to the Netherlands and from there to London where he was taken in by his grandmother who was already living there. He never saw his parents again. They had been arrested three days after his departure from Germany, sent to the Warsaw Ghetto and from there to Auschwitz where they were murdered. Meisler came to live in Israel in 1960 and opened a gallery in the Old City of Jaffa. Over the years, he has created a number of Kindertransport memorials each of which includes bronze statues of clusters of children carrying small suitcases. On March 1, his gallery will be the venue for the launch of a new book Memories that won’t go away: A tribute to the Children of the Kindertransport written by Michele M. Gold and edited by Marian Lebor. Gold is an educator and a board member at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. The 300 page book, which required enormous research, tells the stories of hundreds of Kindertransport children and some of their rescuers.

There are photographs of each child mentioned together with brief biographies. Several of Kindertransport children who are living in Israel have indicated their attendance, among them Alisa Tenenbaum who heads the Kindertransport Association in Israel.

Both Gold and Lebor who lives in Israel are daughters of Kindertransport children who grew up in Britain. Their mothers left Leipzig on the Kindertransport in 1939. Many years ago, former prime minister Golda Meir in an address to visiting Jewish journalists said that it was a fallacy to say that six million Jews had been murdered in the Holocaust. It was they, and their children, and their children’s children ad infinitum, she said. One can gain a true appreciation of the meaning of that when taking into account the approximately 10,000 children saved through Kindertransport and their total progeny to date.

■ The business and security communities were well represented at a reception hosted by Uriel Lynn, President of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and his wife Judith in celebration of the launch of Lynn’s book titled ‘Self Defense’. Also present at the Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv were leading cultural figures. Among the guests were Israel’s most outstanding ace pilot Brig. Gen. (Res) Ran Pecker and his wife Anat, former police commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki, Captqin David Shapira who who had rushed to the scene of a terrorist attack on Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in 2008, IDC Herzliya President and founder Prof. Uriel Reichman and his wife Nira, Prof. Yossi Gross and his wife Zvia, former ambassador to the US Zalman Shoval and his wife Kenna, theater director Yaakov Agmon, Keter Plastics chief Sami Sagol and his wife Tova, actor Oded Kotler, advertising executive Yafit Greenberg and her husband Rani Arad, Tourism Minister Uzi Landau, public relations super star Ran Rahav, leading car dealer Rami Ungar and his wife Yael, best selling author and Ben Gurion’s official biographer Michael Bar Zohar and many other well known personalities. In his remarks, Lynn said that self defense is the basis of Israel’s existence. He also warned of the vulnerability of Israel’s citizens in the face of brutal terror and declared that it was vital to teach people self defense which should be part and parcel of the struggle against terrorism. Pecker who chairs a project called Tzahala which aims to prepare young people for good citizenship and community involvement, said that given the situation in Israel today as well as the Middle East as a whole, there is no doubt that self defense should be a top priority.

Aharonishki spoke in similar vein, recalling that the watchword used to be that the nation is the army. Today that has to be changed to the nation is security, he said.

Education towards self defense and the contribution that each person can make to national security is of paramount importance he emphasized, and commended Lynn’s book as a gateway to thinking along these lines. It would be preferable if people did not have to defend themselves he, said, but in case the need ever arises, they should be well prepared.

■ Reacting to reports that Shas was demonstrating outside his home, Shas leader Yair Lapid leader Yair Lapid tweeted that he went outside to look for the demonstrators, but no-one was there. In response Shas leader Arye Deri wrote on his Facebook page that the reason Lapid couldn’t see them is because Shas is transparent

■ The one great thing about the upcoming elections other than the fact that they are a demonstration of the democratic process is that they inspire satire, and therefore give us something to laugh about. With the departure of State of the Nation from Channel 2 to Channel 10, Keshet lost no time in filling the void left on Channel 2 with a new season of Wonderful Country.

Not to be outdone, Channel One has introduced a new satirical program that is also based on political news events blending yesteryear’s headlines with current affairs.

Moderators are film and tv stars Oshri Cohen and Efrat Boimveld who memorably appeared together in 2003 in the drawnout serial ‘Our Song’ whose regular cast also included Ninet Tayeb, Ran Dancker, Maya Dagan, and Guy Zu-Aretz who were relative unknowns at the time and who have all gone on to become household names. The Channel One program takes its title from a declaration made by Aharon Barak when he was President of the Supreme Court – Hakol Shafit – Everything is Justiciable.

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