Grapevine: A bittersweet moment of triumph

This coming Monday, the world will witness the ultimate triumph – when more than half of Israel’s Knesset convenes at Auschwitz to proclaim that the Nazi ambition was a failure.

Child survivors Auschwitz holocaust (photo credit: Reuters)
Child survivors Auschwitz holocaust
(photo credit: Reuters)

Every time a Holocaust survivor celebrates the birth of a grandchild or great-grandchild, it is yet another mark of triumph over Hitler, and the Nazi extermination machine aimed at a final solution for the Jewish problem.

Although Jewish demography has not yet fully recovered in numerical terms from the enormous losses brought on by the Holocaust, the creation of a Jewish state and the postwar contributions by Jews to science, medicine, literature, music, art and other fields, best illustrated by the disproportionate number of Jews among Nobel Prize laureates and other prestigious awards, all point to victory over the worst oppressor in Jewish history. That victory is emphasized every year by the March of the Living, and was even more so in 2003 by the Israel Air Force flight over Auschwitz- Birkenau.
Now, this coming Monday, January 27, the world will witness the ultimate triumph – when more than half of Israel’s 120-member Knesset convenes at Auschwitz to remember, and to proclaim that the Nazi ambition was a failure. It will also be a triumph for public relations consultant and strategist Johnny Daniels, who is the personification of the Zionist credo: If you will it, it is no dream.
Last summer, during the annual Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow, the British-born Daniels, who has lived in Israel for the past decade, was sitting with a some people in a hotel in an area that used to be a hub of Jewish life. One of the members of the group was Holocaust survivor Zygmunt Rolat, a Polish-born philanthropist who made his fortune in America and has given generously to projects in his native Czestochowa, as well as elsewhere in Poland. Rolat has received several awards from the Polish government and from local councils, in appreciation for his contribution to Polish-Jewish dialogue and for his donations to educational and cultural projects. He is also a member of the board of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews located on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, and chairman of the museum’s North American council. In the course of conversation in Krakow, Rolat said that he would like to do something really special for International Holocaust Remembrance Day – something that would grab the attention of the world.
“Sure, have a session of the Knesset in Auschwitz,” quipped one of the members of the group. The idea seemed far-fetched, but it fired the imagination of the 28-year-old Daniels – and he decided to try to make it happen.
Both he and his wife come from families that lost close relatives in the Holocaust, so the concept really spoke to him. He figured that the cost of organizing and publicizing the event would be around $600,000 – and he didn’t have much time to raise it. Daniels founded a nonprofit called Out of the Depths, and relied heavily on people who shared his enthusiasm for arranging for Israel’s lawmakers to congregate in Auschwitz.
He had very little trouble convincing Auschwitz museum director Piotr Cywinski, and other Polish officials. Nor was it difficult to persuade Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of the merits of the idea.
As part of his fund-raising effort Daniels went to America, where he also appeared on television and was interviewed by Mike Huckabee on the Fox Broadcasting Network. Huckabee said that he, too, was going to Auschwitz to witness the symbol of force and strength, whereby Jews and Israelis “will be there on their own terms.”
The remark was perhaps inspired by the emblem for Out of the Depths – a Star of David, one vertical half of which is like the yellow star the Jews in the ghettos were forced to pin on their clothing. The other half is the star that appears on the flag of Israel.
■ WHILE THE MKs are in Auschwitz, Italian Ambassador Francesco Maria Talo will be at Yad Vashem, following an annual tradition by Italian ambassadors to place a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance, and to subsequently deliver an address in the auditorium. There will also be a video screening by the RAI Italian television network of the memorial ceremony taking place in Rome.
In July 2000, well ahead of the UN, Italy adopted a law designating January 27 as Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is listed in the Italian calendar as a date to not only commemorate Jews and other Italians who were persecuted, arrested and sent to death camps, but also all those who resisted in one way or another, by hiding Jews, fighting the Nazis or passing on vital information. The Italian legislation paved the way for the enactment of similar laws in other European countries.
In Israel, Italian commemorative events take place over several days, and began yesterday at the Italian Cultural Institute in Haifa. On Sunday, in cooperation with the Jewish Museum of Rome and the Haifa Cinematheque, there will be a photo exhibition of the ancient artifacts of the five synagogues of Rome, with Talo and Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav in attendance, after which there will be a screening of Ruggero Gabbai’s film The Longest Day. On Monday, following the events at Yad Vashem, Talo will remain in the capital to attend a screening at the Jerusalem Cinematheque of Roberto Faenza’s film Anita B, which tells the story of a young Auschwitz survivor. Afterward there will be a roundtable discussion with the participation of Faenza and writers Aharon Appelfeld and Dr.
Manuela Consonni, who will discuss how to commemorate the Holocaust when the last survivor has gone on to the next world.
Appelfeld was a child Holocaust survivor who escaped the concentration camp to which he and his father had been taken, remained in hiding for three years and then joined the Soviet army as a cook. Before coming to Israel, he spent several months in a DP camp in Italy. Consonni, a Hebrew University lecturer, is the author of Resistenza or Shoah: The History of the Memory of the Deportations and Extermination in Italy, 1945-1985, published by Magnes University Press in 2010.
On Tuesday, the film will be screened again at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, and in Haifa at the Italian Cultural Institute there will be a screening of the documentary I Was There, which includes testimonies by Holocaust survivors as well as by Italians who resisted the Nazis. The film was made by ANED Rome, ANED being the Italian acronym for the National Association of Former Deportees to Nazi Camps.
On Wednesday, Micha Shagrir’s documentary Habricha (The Escape) will be shown at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. The storyline is about a group of teenagers from different backgrounds who retrace the escape of Jews from postwar Europe, traveling from Germany via Italy to the Land of Israel. En route, the youngsters speak to survivors, witnesses and people from their peer generation.
The last of the events sponsored by the Italian Embassy will take place on Thursday at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, with another screening of Anita B, followed by another roundtable discussion with the participation of Faenza.
■ THERE WILL be a number of Holocaust- related documentaries shown on Israel’s television channels on Monday, but one of the most heartwarming will be a screening on Channel 1 – telling the story of Czech-born concert pianist Alice Sommer, the oldest living Holocaust survivor.
Sommer, who lived for many years in Israel, migrated to London when she was 83 because her son Raphael, who made an international career for himself as a solo cellist, had moved there with his family. Tragedy struck again when Raphael died in 200l during a concert tour in Israel. But Sommer prevailed, continuing to regard each day as a present for which to be thankful; she celebrated her 110th birthday last November.
Still in possession of all her faculties and blessed with an extraordinarily positive disposition despite all she has suffered, Sommer lives alone in her small apartment in Belsize Park but continues to play the piano for long periods every day, to the delight of her neighbors – who enjoy free classical concerts coming through the walls of the building.
In July 1943, Sommer and her husband Leopold and their six-year-old son were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Her mother, who had been among the first to be sent there, did not survive. Leopold was sent to Auschwitz and then to Dachau, where he died of typhus.
Sommer survived because the Nazis loved music, and as long as she could play they allowed her to live. It was her talent that saved both her life and that of Raphael; she gave more than 100 concerts at Thereisenstadt.
In 1949, she came to Israel and taught at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. When she left Israel after 35 years in the country, she left behind many friends and admirers.
■ WHILE MEMORY is important, especially with regard to such traumatic periods in history as the Holocaust, there are those who believe that the best way to commemorate the Shoah is to celebrate survival – which is why the Castro mega-show is being held on Monday.
Aharon Castro, the founder of the Castro fashion house, was born in Greece, whose Jewish community was almost totally destroyed during the Holocaust. The Castros were fortunate.
The family decided to move to Tel Aviv in 1933, when Aharon was still a boy. The decision coincided with the rise of Nazism in Germany.
Of course, the Castros could not know at that time that their move was possibly a lifesaving measure.
Aharon Castro’s mother, Anina, was a trained dressmaker, and working out of their apartment quickly built up a reputation for herself. Surrounded by fashion all his life, it was natural for Aharon Castro to open a clothing store when he completed his army service in the early 1950s.
Since then, Castro has grown into a fashion empire run by Castro’s daughter Etti and her husband, Gabriel Rotter. Castro has two major fashion shows a year – one featuring the fall/winter collections for men and women, the other the spring/summer collections. This year’s spring/summer showing, by invitation only, features a change of venue. For several years now the shows have been held at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, where the hundreds of invitees could easily be accommodated.
This year, the show has moved to the Olympic-sized swimming pool at the Wingate Institute.
■ IN BETWEEN meetings with the prime minister of Canada, the president of Romania and other dignitaries, as well as getting ready for his trip to Davos, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu managed to find time to meet at his Jerusalem office with members of the World WIZO Executive, heading delegations from 35 countries who had come to Israel for the annual World WIZO conference.
Earlier in the day, the WIZO leaders had met with Knesset Speaker Edelstein, and participated in a discussion on the future of Jewish leadership in the Diaspora. The discussion was moderated by MK Aliza Lavie, who heads the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women.
Some of the same issues were raised at the meeting with Netanyahu.
The prime minister expressed interest in hearing about the problems confronting various Jewish communities around the globe, how they are coping with increasing incidents of anti-Semitism, and what they are doing to prevent assimilation and alienation by the younger generations, whose commitments to Israel and the Jewish people are in many places on the wane.
Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres traveled to Davos via El Al – which is still regarded as the national carrier, even though it has long been privatized. Outgoing El Al CEO Elyezer Shkedy, who announced nearly two months ago that he was stepping down, greeted them as they boarded the plane.
He must have been happy to have agreed to stay on until a replacement is found for him, because it was a historic moment: The first time the president and prime minister have flown together to an overseas destination.
Netanyahu, whose plenary address in Davos focused on innovation, information technology and the cyber industry, will deliver a similar speech at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds next week at CyberTech Israel 2014, sponsored by the Israel National Cyber Bureau. Of the 220 participating Israeli companies, half were established during the past four years, and are contributing to Israel’s becoming a cyber technology power house.