Grapevine: A time to remember...

The Hidden Jews are offspring of Jewish parents given to Catholic families during World War II in the hope that they would save them from the Nazis.

August 2, 2012 21:59
Warsaw Ghetto monument in Poland

Warsaw Ghetto monument Poland 311 (R). (photo credit: Agencja Gazeta/Reuters)

It's not only because the 70th anniversary of the Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto will be commemorated next year that Education Minister Gideon Saar is putting much greater emphasis on Holocaust studies into Israel’s school curriculum.

At Yad Vashem this week, Saar sat transfixed as he watched archival footage of the round-up of Polish Jews who were being deported to the death camps in cattle cars; and painfully delivered testimonies by Eliyahu Rosenberg who had been taken from Warsaw to Treblinka and had escaped during the revolt on August 2, 1943; and Avraham Bomba, a barber who had been deported from Czestochowa to Treblinka, who escaped and returned to Czestochowa in an attempt to warn other Jews, but they wouldn’t listen to him.

Later, in an eloquent address, delivered with far more emotion than Saar usually displays, he borrowed from the Passover injunction, saying “We must in all future generations see ourselves as those who survived Treblinka, Auschwitz, Majdanek, Belzec and Sobibor.”

What haunted him most, he said, were the scenes of children standing with their mothers with puzzled expressions on their faces as if asking what all this was about, and then only 25 minutes or so later, being clasped by their mothers in an embrace of death.

The gathering at Yad Vashem which included many Holocaust survivors was to mark the 70th anniversary of “Operation Reinhard” which was the code name for the diabolical Nazi plan to exterminate all Polish Jewry. It was in 1942 that the Nazis decided on the Final Solution to the Jewish “problem,” and although Polish Jewry was indeed decimated, the plan did not succeed, and the greatest revenge that the Jews had on the Nazi regime said Saar, was the establishment of the State of Israel with its own powerful army.

Invoking the Biblical verse “remember what Amalek did to you,” Saar emphasized both the importance of memory and of historical accuracy. “Let us not forget that Jews died with weapons in their hands in the Ghettoes of Warsaw and Bialystok,” he said, implying that contrary to general belief not all Jews went like lambs to the slaughter, and before there was an Israel Defense Force, there were Jews in the ghettoes and among the partisans who took it upon themselves to fight the Nazis, as did tens of thousands of Jews in allied armies.

A similar commemoration was held in Poland last week, and this week Piotr Zuchowski, Poland’s deputy minister of Culture and National heritage came to Israel to participate in the Yad Vashem commemoration. Like Saar, he too stressed the significance of memory saying that he found the Holocaust a difficult subject to talk about.

“The deeper I get into it the more difficult it becomes,” he said.

Sometimes, he said, he thought it was better to be silent, “and yet whatever we say is not enough. We must shout it out.” The greatest danger to the preservation of Holocaust remembrance said Zuchowski, is ignorance.

“If we don’t tell the truth, others will come to perpetuate their lies.” He wondered aloud at what point people lose their humanity and stop treating other people as brethren. To him, the Holocaust was particularly meaningful because he had curated an exhibition dedicated to the Holocaust, the central focus of which was a slice of bread weighing 140 grams. That was the daily ration. People born after the Holocaust could not comprehend it, he said, but those who had been there knew exactly what 140 grams of bread meant.

■ ALSO THIS week, more than 40 “Hidden Jews” living in Poland participated in a unique four-day seminar organized in Lublin by Shavei Israel, an organization founded by Jerusalem Post columnist Michael Freund with the aim of bringing “lost” Jews back to the fold. The seminar was wholly dedicated to the study of Talmud, but what was equally important was the venue of the gathering – the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva where the Daf Yomi daily cycle of Talmud Study was initiated in 1930 by Rabbi Yehuda Meir Shapiro. The seminar coincided with the world-wide completion and renewal of the seven year Daf Yomi cycle.

The Hidden Jews are primarily the offspring of Jewish parents who gave them to Catholic families during World War II in the hope that they would save them from the Nazis. Very often, the Jewish parents had been murdered or died of illness or starvation and the children were raised as Catholics, not knowing their true identities until their adoptive parents, in the twilight of their lives, revealed the truth. In some cases, people knew they were Jewish but were afraid to admit their identities during the harsh post-war period.

They lived as Christians, married Christians, and until recent years, did not tell their children about their backgrounds. Now, many of these Hidden Jews are returning to their roots and eager to reclaim their spiritual heritage.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, notes Freund, “an increasing number of young Poles have began rediscovering their Jewish roots and expressing a desire to draw closer to Israel and the Jewish people. It is incumbent upon us to reach out to them and help them to do so.” The Shavei Israel seminar was led by Rabbi Boaz Pash, who was joined by several Jews who flew into Poland from abroad to participate in this uplifting event.

■ THROUGHOUT THE Jewish world, young people are increasingly travelling to Poland, not only on roots missions and to learn of the travesty of the Holocaust, but also to participate in restoration projects in places that once housed Jewish communities which are no more, or in which the Jewish communities are too small to take responsibility for such projects. Last week, Bnei Akiva members from South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand – who are on their Hachshara (leadership training) year in Israel, visited Poland on a Jewish heritage trip. In addition to visiting the death camps the group wanted to do something positive to help preserve Jewish memory in Poland, and opted to restore graves in the abandoned and neglected Jewish cemetery of Kalisz. They cleared away overgrown shrubbery, unearthed broken gravestones and lifted them back to their upright positions, and they also painted in faded inscriptions.

The reason they went to Kalisz said Rabbi Rafi Ostroff, who led the group, was in respect of Rabbi Chaim Elazar Wax, who had been an avid Zionist and a leading figure in the community who was particularly known for his responsa work Nefesh Chaya. With financial support from Sir Moses Montefiore, Wax advocated the establishment of Etrog agriculture in Israel, at a time when the Etrog was an important symbol in Jewish culture.

He travelled to the Holy Land in 1886, with his fatherin- law, Rabbi Trunk, to supervise Etrog plantations and establish housing and jobs for members of the Warsaw Jewish community who had come to live in the Land of Israel.

The Bnei Akiva group was warmly welcomed by Halina Marcinkowska, who is responsible for the cemetery, and is one of only 10 Jews who are today living in Kalisz. The Kalisz Municipality was also appreciative of the group’s presence and sent workers to assist in cleaning up the cemetery. “It was a humbling experience to work in the cemetery in Kalisz, and to read the inscriptions on the newly restored tombstones of those who were buried there,” said Program Director Jonny Lipczer. “In a small way, we were able to tell the dead ‘We have not forgotten you.”

Commenting on the Polish experience, Justin Gillman, from Johannesburg, said: “After a week of seeing the destruction of countless Jewish communities, we were able to spend some time helping to preserve the memories of those who once lived there. During our journey through Poland, Bnei Akiva taught us that while we must remember what happened, it is no less important to respond and take positive action to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.” Yonatan Rubinstein, from Melbourne, added: “Working in the Kalisz cemetery was a really nice way to contribute to the local community, once home to thousands of Jews. We felt that we were truly making a difference.

While I was repainting the faded tombstones in the cemetery I felt as if I was bringing back the pride and joy which once shone so brightly from the Kalisz Jews. Now with readable headstones, they can be remembered and recognized as they deserve to be.”

■ THIS IS a time of remembrance not only for Polish Jewry, but for all Jews who suffered under the Nazis. On Monday, Czech Ambassador Tomas Pojar and Dr. Eli Fischer, the Czech-born scientist and industrialist, famous for his medicinal and cosmetic products, will present something of the Czech side of the story at the post-opening of an exhibition at ZOA House in Tel Aviv on The Assassination of Richard Heydrich – the death of a Holocaust Architect. The exhibition is in tribute to the 70th anniversary of an operation by an anti-Nazi Czechoslovakian resistance movement, carried out in the framework of what was code named Operation Anthropoid. The two people assigned to the May 27, 1942 mission were paratroopers Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabzic whose heroism enabled the elimination of one of the most fanatic of all Nazis. The exhibition, a joint project of the Embassy of the Czech Republic and the Military History Institute in Prague, covers the period from 1939-1945, with the main focus on the autumn of 1941, when Heydrich arrived in Prague, to May 1942, when he was assassinated. The Nazis avenged his death by burning the villages of Lidice and Lezaky and murdering thousands of Czechs who were members of resistance movements. Heydrich had been a leading figure in mapping out the final solution to the Jewish “problem.”

The exhibition is also partly devoted to the immediate post-war era when the Czechs helped train the fledgling Israel Air Force and also provided weapons and uniforms for the Israel Defense Forces.

■ US AMBASSADOR Dan Shapiro and French Ambassador Christophe Bigot participated in a memorial service at the Hebrew University Mount Scopus this week to honor the memories of nine students and staff members killed in a terrorist bombing 10 years ago. Both ambassadors laid wreaths at the close of the ceremony that was held in the Nancy Reagan Plaza near the site of the main cafeteria where the bombing took place a decade ago.

Hebrew University vice-president and director-general Billy Shapira read out the names of the victims: Benjamin Blutstein, Marla Bennett, Revital Barashi, David Gritz, David Diego Ladowski, Janis Ruth Coulter, Dina Carter, Levina Shapira and Daphna Spruch.

The tragedy was magnified by the large number of people wounded in the explosion.

Close to a hundred people suffered injuries. “A decade has passed since the attack, and it is not only a time to mourn, but also a time to reflect upon the mission entrusted to us, said HU president Prof. Menachem Ben Sasson. We are entrusted with the development of knowledge that knows no shade of skin or religion.

And so we say to the families, we shall endure. If depraved terrorists wish to disrupt the things upon which all human beings base their lives, they will not succeed.” Adrian Kramer from the Rothberg International School, who at the time of the bombing served as director of student activities, described the impact the attack had on his life, and spoke in particular to the family of David Diego Ladowski, who was killed in the attack in the week that he was supposed to leave for South America on a diplomatic mission for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Ina Zussman-Masami, a Hebrew University student who was seriously wounded in the attack, recounted how a stranger, Pierre Saban, saved her life, visited her in hospital and later became a dear friend. Saban died four years ago.

Bigot, spoke of the French- American citizen, David Gritz, an only child and gifted student who was killed in the bombing, and noted that a scholarship has been established in Gritz’s memory at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Paris Institute of Political Studies), to enable the best and brightest Israeli students to pursue post-graduate studies there “I see this scholarship as a symbol of the enduring bond between our academic communities, in France and Israel, and of the strong response that our two countries give to terrorism,” said Bigot. “Our intellectual ties and common pledge to peace and security will always be stronger than violence and barbarism.”

Referring to the Americans who were killed, Shapiro spoke in similar vein. He had taken the time to learn something about each of the victims and spoke of the gifts lost to humanity through violence inspired by hate. He noted that the cafeteria was a place where not only students from many parts of the world came together but also where Jews and Arabs shared a meal.

The terrorists struck at the heart of tolerance, he said.

Nonetheless, he continued, “The connections between the American and Israeli people built by Marla, Ben, Janis, David, and Dina, this closeness could not and cannot be taken away. In fact, a decade has passed and the connections we feel for each other are only stronger.” He added that both he and his wife Julie had studied at HU, which continues to accept students from around the world.

■ AND ON a somewhat lighter note, while it’s not terribly polite to remind a lady of her age, it’s somewhat difficult to ignore the fact that Queen Elizabeth II of England is 86, considering all the pomp and ceremony that accompanied her Diamond Jubilee on the throne. Veteran photographer David Rubinger, who is two years her senior, received a series of photographs of Her Majesty in the company of American Presidents who served in office while she was on the throne, and some of these photos are reminders of what a radiant and beautiful queen she was in her younger years.

The photos, working backwards in chronological order, are with: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr. Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter (where she looked like a film star long before the Olympic Games James Bond clip), Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Harry S. Truman. She has outlived six of these presidents.

Now comes the punch line. This was not merely a photojournalistic timeline. The final photo shows that it was an advertisement for Duracell batteries, three of which are superimposed on a portrait of the queen that was taken in recent years.

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