Something that almost always fascinates first-time visitors to the President’s Residence is the row of busts of former presidents of the state. Sometimes they try to guess who they are, and then are amazed to discover that of Moshe Katsav, the disgraced former president who is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence on charges of rape and other sex offenses.
When Shimon Peres was president, he received requests to remove the bust and his photograph from the photographs in the entrance lobby. Peres refused, saying that he was not prepared to delete history.
Katsav had been an elected president, and the removal of his bust and his photograph would not change that.
On Tuesday, as final preparations were being made for the Independence Day festivities, at the end of the long path leading to the garden, a man was busy polishing up the busts of all the former presidents, starting with Chaim Weizmann and working his way through from Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Zalman Shazar, Ephraim Katzir, Yitzhak Navon, Chaim Herzog, Ezer Weizman and Katsav to Peres. First he used a dry cloth to get rid of the dust. Then he sprayed each bust with window cleaner and rubbed it till it got a good sheen.
Although Katsav has appealed to President Reuven Rivlin to have his sentence commuted, and has no idea of what the outcome will be, he can rest assured that his bust was gleaming no less than that of any other former president.
Behind each of the busts is a long vertical placard with photographs and texts presenting highlights in the lives of each of the presidents – including Katsav, whose honor and dignity in this particular area are not diminished.
■ IT IS not unusual for parents of fallen soldiers to want to bring another child into the world to ease the pain of loss. There have even been cases of soldiers whose sperm was frozen before they went into battle and whose parents later looked for a surrogate mother to help them become grandparents to the child of the son they lost.
Some of the mothers of fallen soldiers who conceived another child were of an advanced age for pregnancy, and endangered their own lives in the desire to give birth yet again. But this did not apply to Sarit Vanunu, 39, whose son Ben, a soldier in the Golani Brigade, paid the supreme sacrifice in Operation Protective Edge. On the morning before Remembrance Day, Vanunu gave birth to a daughter at Kaplan Medical Center, with her husband, Ilan, and older daughter Ron at her side. Ron followed in Ben’s footsteps and is currently serving with Golani. In addition to the baby, she has three other siblings.
In the evening after the baby was born, the family stood together as a memorial siren was sounded across the country. During the day, other bereaved parents whose sons fought and fell together with Ben came to Kaplan to rejoice with the Vanunu family at the sunshine that had entered their lives and given them fresh purpose to carry on.
■ IN JULY 2015 Gilad Japhet, a hi-tech executive and the founder and CEO of My Heritage, a Jewish genealogy database that helps people to not only trace their ancestors but to reunite with living relatives after decades of separation, enthralled participants at the International Jewish Genealogy Conference in Jerusalem with stories of what My Heritage had helped to achieve.
One story he did not include in his tales of near miraculous discoveries was that of a case involving brothers Izak Szewelewicz, who lives in Israel, and Shep Shell, who lives in Canada. The two brothers had not seen each other in 65 years and were not even aware of each other’s existence. Szewelewicz was born in a displaced persons camp in Bergen-Belsen, but has no memory of the time he spent there, because in 1948, at the age of three, he was sent to Israel for adoption. Meanwhile, Aida, his biological mother, migrated to Canada, from where she later located and contacted Szewelewicz when he was an adolescent.
They met several times and stayed in touch, but she always refused to answer any questions about his father.
A few years ago, Szewelewicz applied for documents from Bergen-Belsen and discovered to his amazement that he had a brother named Shepsyl and one other relative.
He shared this information with his family in Israel, and in 2013 his nephew Alon Schwarz asked My Heritage to help find Szewelewicz’s brother. Records indicated that Shepsyl had also migrated to Canada with the other relative. Szewelewicz wondered if that could have been his father.
The case was so intriguing that Japhet took it on as a special mission and assigned expert researcher Laurence Harris to utilize all of his expertise to find the brother in Canada. The search eventually led to Melanie Shell, the only daughter of a blind Winnipeg man in his 60s named Shep Shell. His name had been anglicized in Canada, and his original name was Shepsyl Szewelewicz.
An emotional reunion took place in Canada.
Shep is a visually impaired Paralympic skier, cyclist and marathon runner. A few days after the brothers met, they went to visit Aida at the nursing home in which she was living. This was the first time that Shep had met his mother since he was a baby. It was an extremely emotional reunion for all three, and Shep later wrote to My Heritage saying how much it meant to him to finally be able to close a circle.
Izak was also most appreciative. Schwarz has produced and directed a feature-length documentary on the search that led to the reunion. The film is called Aida’s Secrets and includes additional surprising discoveries made as a result of DNA testing.
■ MANY PEOPLE who thought that they had lost everyone and everything as an outcome of the Holocaust have likewise made astounding discoveries thanks to research institutes and genealogical databases.
Even more discoveries are likely to be made with the establishment of the Moshe Mirilashvili Center for Research on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union under the auspices of Yad Vashem’s Institute for Holocaust Research. The center’s inauguration was marked this week at a ceremony in the Yad Vashem Synagogue attended by Michael and Laura Mirilashvili and their family, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Immigration and Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin, chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate Avner Shalev, Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, chairman of the Yad Vashem council Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Russian Ambassador Alexander Shein and Georgian Ambassador Paata Kalandadze.
Recalling the horrific mass murders at Babi Yar, Shalev stated that research is a vital component in processing the loss. “It is imperative in building a consciousness of remembrance, and afterward, to creating an identity that can comprehend the terrible rupture in the history of the Jewish people and the whole of humanity,” he said as he commended Michael Mirilashvili as a man of vision who understands this and extended his help for the establishment of a research center in memory of his father, Moshe.
For many years it was almost impossible to gain access to Holocaust material in the Soviet Union. After the fall of Communism, many archives in the FSU were opened, enabling multidisciplinary research into the wartime fate of the Jews in the USSR. Supported by the Genesis Philanthropy Group, the European Jewish Fund and other donors, for the past several years Yad Vashem has invested efforts into researching the history of the Jews living in the Soviet Union before, during and after the Holocaust. The Mirilashvili Center will make it possible to consolidate and augment these endeavors and will lead to groundbreaking global academic discourse in this field.
Dr. Iael Nidam-Orvieto, director of the International Institute for Holocaust Research, presented an overview of current and future projects on which the center will focus its efforts. Headed by Dr. Arkadi Zeltser, a world-acclaimed scholar of Holocaust history in the FSU, the center will launch new areas of investigation, such as interethnic relations between Jews and non-Jews in the Soviet Union during the Holocaust, and continue the Research Institute’s ongoing projects in the field, such as “The Untold Stories,” an online investigation of the murder sites of the Jews in the Nazi-occupied territories of the FSU, and “Jews in the Red Army,” an online database of Jewish soldiers who fought in the Soviet Army during World War II.
The center will also initiate international conferences and workshops, in which it will present its research findings to senior and young scholars alike, and publish academic studies, articles, testimonies and collections of relevant archival documents for the benefit of the worldwide research community and descendants of Jews who lived in the USSR at that time.
■ THE AMERICAN Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem is hoping to raise $2 million by fielding what it considers to be a dream team in the upcoming Entertainment and Sports Programming Network Basketball Tournament in which the cash prize is $2m.
The team will include former Maccabi Tel Aviv star David Blu as well as Australian Cory Reader, who played professional ball for nine years, including a stint with the LA Clippers; Chidi Ajufo, who starred for the Amstetten Falcons in Austria, the Essex Pirates in the UK and SC Fukinese in Hong Kong; Shawn Weinstein, who played for Elitzur Maccabi Netanya, as well as Talk ’N Text Tropang Texters in the Philippines; Jean Baptiste Rugiero, who played for Les Canonizers de Sainte-Marie Metz in France; and Bracin Skywalker, an Olympic hopeful who plays in the JBL National Pro-Am Basketball League on a team sponsored by LA Laker Metta World Peace.
Also competing on behalf of Shaare Zedek are world-class businessmen Michael Fallas, owner of Fallas National Stores, and Jeff Feinberg, managing director of JL F Asset Management.
While this kind of support is extremely gratifying to Shaare Zedek, the powers that be at the Medical Center in Jerusalem may discover that they have a tougher battle on their hands at home. To guarantee an ongoing income, Shaare Zedek is planning to build a multistory shopping mall with cafes and entertainment facilities at ground level in an area that is now a car park. This would be a praiseworthy endeavor, if it were not located directly opposite the entrance to the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery. Staunch opposition to the project is being led by Beit Hakerem resident Efraim Schlein, who was born in the neighborhood, and by members of Yad Lebanim, the association of bereaved families that perpetuates the memories of the fallen.
Schlein who is also an expert on quality of the environment, has no objection to Shaare Zedek having a shopping mall and any other structure that will aid its revenues. What he objects to is the location.
Soldiers are still falling in battle and being buried in the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, he said. It is disrespectful to them and to their families to have a mall obviously designed for enjoyment directly opposite the entrance to the cemetery.
Schlein has already lodged an appeal with the District Planning Committee to deny Shaare Zedek a building permit, and is hoping that committee members will demonstrate sensitivity on the issue. If not, he intends to continue fighting, and quite a few Beit Hakerem residents share his opinion, though not necessarily Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who is also a resident of Beit Hakerem in a street in which the houses have not been dwarfed by high-rise buildings.