How a glass house saved Jews

Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was captured in Argentina, tried in Jerusalem and executed in Ramle in 1962, the survivors recognized a need to relate their experiences.

December 30, 2017 02:00
Left to right: Model of a Berlin synagogue, built by Holocaust survivor Hanan Weissman, Model of syn

Left to right: Model of a Berlin synagogue, built by Holocaust survivor Hanan Weissman, Model of synagogue in Nierjehazha, Hungary, also built by Weissman. David Leitner is from this village and Model of synagogue in Wadowice, Poland; Weissman created it as a birthday present for his wife . (photo credit: BATSHEVA POMERANTZ)

What connects a street in Jerusalem and a museum in a moshav near Ashdod? A sign indicating Moshe Kraus Street is on display at Beit Haedut (Testimony House) Museum at Moshav Nir Galim. The street, dedicated in Jerusalem’s Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood in 2015, gives long overdue recognition to an unsung hero who is credited with the largest rescue operation during the Holocaust, together with Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz.

Nir Galim was founded in 1949 by religious Holocaust survivors from Central Europe who sought a tranquil life with a view to the sea, amid agricultural fields.

The horrific experiences of the survivors were usually suppressed until two events changed this. The construction of two power-plant chimneys in the nearby Ashdod industrial zone was a visual reminder of the chimneys of Auschwitz- Birkenau.

In addition, after Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was captured in Argentina, tried in Jerusalem and executed in Ramle in 1962, the survivors recognized a need to relate their experiences, since he was responsible for deporting Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz.

Beit Haedut was founded in 1991 by veterans of the Bnei Akiva youth movement to educate about the Holocaust through its museum and various programs.

It is visited annually by some 25,000 people, including tourists from Israel and abroad, retirees, soldiers, and students of all ages.

“Beit Haedut’s displays don’t portray the Holocaust in chronological order, but rather emphasize the stories of rescue, resistance and heroism,” says Adi Feinerman, the museum’s pedagogical director. “During the tour students are exposed to artifacts that encourage discussion of the dilemmas of the Jewish reaction during the Holocaust.”

Beit Haedut focuses on Jewish spiritual resistance, while maintaining both the human and Jewish spirit, as well as mutual help. “We try to understand the point of view of the Jews at the time, how they viewed reality, and their coping mechanisms. We highlight the many points of light in the darkness, such as Jews helping others with ingenuity and courage, while endangering themselves.”

A tour starts on the green grounds surrounding Beit Haedut. In the museum’s entrance is an impressive Torah ark from the Hungarian town of Mateszalka, which had 1,500 Jews before the Holocaust.

“This ark is testimony to the splendor that characterized the synagogue and Jewish community in Mateszalka – a community which was nearly annihilated,” explains Feinerman.

A few weeks after the German invasion of Hungary, the Mateszalka ghetto swelled to 17,000 Jews, who came from the surrounding area. It was one of Hungary’s largest ghettos. Within a month, the deportations to Auschwitz started.

After liberation, a few survivors returned to the town and renovated the synagogue. However, attempts to revive the community were unsuccessful, and most of the Jews left. In the 1990s, remnants of the ark were found under a pile of straw by a Jew from Budapest and Beit Haedut brought the ark to Israel and restored it.

On permanent display are synagogue models, constructed from matchsticks by Holocaust survivor Hanan Weissman. Born in Ukraine, Hanan lost most of his family in the Holocaust, but after the war he married and had a daughter. He came to Israel and built a model synagogue for his wife as a birthday gift. It was the synagogue of her town, Wadowice in Poland.

The synagogue models are based on a book of photos taken before the Holocaust of shuls in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Feinerman adds: “Visitors learn from this display about the importance of the Jewish spirit. The Nazis didn’t only strive to destroy Jews, they also wanted to destroy their symbols, including the synagogue and Torah scrolls. In addition to being a spiritual center, the synagogue was like a community and social center.”

Unlike Jews in other parts of Europe, who had felt the Nazi boot since 1939, the routine of Hungarian Jews was hardly disrupted, since Hungary was an ally of Germany until the Germans invaded Hungary in March 1944.

The fall of Germany was a matter of time, and accordingly Hitler expedited the annihilation of Hungary’s large Jewish community. Within two months some 430,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz, mainly from the villages in the provinces.

The remaining Jewish community in Budapest, as well as foreign diplomats, worked against time in various rescue operations. Beit Haedut has panels describing such individuals as Raoul Wallenberg and Rudolf Israel Kastner.

Its riveting interactive display, the Glass House, inaugurated in 2014, focuses on the rescue operation of a glass factory in Budapest owned by a Jew, Arthur Weiss. Moshe Kraus and Carl Lutz, the Swiss vice consul, led the operation working with courageous members of Zionist youth movements.

Kraus, a Mizrahi Party official, ran the Jewish Agency’s office in Hungary, which issued entry permits to Mandatory Palestine under British rule. He and Lutz created a mechanism where those with certificates were regarded as foreign citizens under the protection of the Swiss consulate. The certificates were produced in the Glass House.

Although initially 8,000 certificates were authorized, many more were produced. There were also many forged certificates. At the request of Kraus and Lutz, other consulates in Budapest operated in the same manner, and more certificates protecting the Jews were issued.

At the demand of the Hungarian authorities, those with certificates were sent to safe houses of the consulate, where they had the option of possible rescue. The Glass House served as a safe house.

In April 1944, Kraus was one of the main figures who attempted to alert the world to the horrors of Auschwitz. He delivered a report written in Slovakia by two Jews who escaped the camp in order to tell the world about it. The report helped influence the Hungarian government to halt the deportations in July 1944, which gave a chance of rescue for some 200,000 Jews in Budapest who still remained alive.

After the war Kraus immigrated to Israel, where he lived in Jerusalem and worked for the Social Affairs Ministry. He did not have children. At the street-naming ceremony, former Israel Air Force chief Eliezer Shkedi spoke. His father, Moshe, was one of those rescued in the Glass House.

For more information:

To arrange a tour and to see the Glass House: (08) 856-8476.

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