Grapevine: A bittersweet remembrance

Every year of the Holocaust was an important year, with extraordinary displays of humanity and courage.

Buchenwald survivor celebrate liberation (photo credit: Margaret Bourke-White)
Buchenwald survivor celebrate liberation
(photo credit: Margaret Bourke-White)
Every year of the Holocaust was an important year, with extraordinary displays of humanity and courage – in sharp contrast to Nazi brutality, which though primarily directed at Jews, included: the physically and mentally disabled in most of the countries they occupied; Gypsies; trade unionists; Communists; Socialists; Jehovah’s Witnesses; homosexuals; and many others.
Since 2009, the Jewish world has been commemorating 70th anniversaries of Holocaust history. Last year marked the 70th anniversaries of both the Warsaw Ghetto and Treblinka Uprisings, as well as September’s Theresienstadt premiere of Brundibar, the famed children’s opera composed by Czech Jewish composer Hans Krasa, with a libretto by Adolf Hoffmiester.
The two wrote the opera in 1938 and submitted it to a government-organized competition, which was subsequently canceled due to the political turmoil of the time. Nonetheless, they did not shelve it and took it instead to a Jewish orphanage in Prague, which also served as a temporary school for children who had separated from their parents. Rehearsals began in 1941, and the first performance was in 1942.
However, Krasa was not present to applaud. Together with set designer Frantisek Zalenka, he had already been transported to Theresienstadt.
Within less than a year, nearly all the children who had sung in the original chorus were also in Theresienstadt. Hoffmeister was the only person associated with the opera who managed to escape from Prague before the Nazis found him. Relying on his memory and a partial piano score that he had been able to retain, Krasa reconstructed the whole opera, adapting it to the musical instruments that were available in the camp.
An extraordinary number of highly talented people in all fields of the arts had been sent to Theresienstadt, and once the Nazis became aware of this, they used the camp as a model center of culture to show to the Red Cross and other visitors.
With regard to Brundibar, which was staged dozens of times, what visiting audiences did not know was that the cast kept changing – as its members were deported to Auschwitz, in most cases never to return.
One of the few survivors of Theresienstadt and one of the last – if not the last – of the original Theresienstadt cast is Ela Weissberger, who lives in New York but will be coming to Israel for a special commemorative production in Even Yehuda on April 2, at the Walworth Barbour American International School’s Davey Family Performing Arts Center.
The event is being co-sponsored by the US and Czech Republic embassies, along with the Theresienstadt Martyrs Remembrance Association, Zeitner Children’s Books Publishing House and the Czech Center Tel Aviv. Education Minister Shai Piron and US Ambassador Dan Shapiro have indicated they will attend.
■ IN ADDITION to the extremely varied entertainment at the third annual Keren Malki Rainbow Music Show, which will be held at the Rebecca Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theater on Sunday, April 6, there will be a very special guest who will have come the furthest distance to not only enjoy the program, but to actually address the audience.
Former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, a true and outspoken friend of Israel, will be coming to the show and will have something to say about Australia-Israel relations – which date back to long before the establishment of the state.
Malki Roth, in whose memory Keren Malki is named, was born in the Australian city of Melbourne in 1985, and was just a toddler in 1988 when she accompanied her parents, Arnold and Frimet, and her older siblings to Israel. Her life was cut short in August 2001, when she was one of the 15 people murdered in a senseless terrorist attack on the now-defunct Sbarro pizza parlor on the Jaffa Road/King George Avenue intersection.
Malki had been a loving and devoted sister to one of her younger sisters, who is severely disabled; she was also a promising musician, and played both the flute and the guitar. After her death, her parents established the Malki Foundation, which assists families that have children with disabilities – as this is one of the best ways to carry on the relationship Malki had with her sister.
■ DISTURBING INCIDENTS involving teenagers prompted Orit Shamir, the principal of the Amit Renanim girls school, to come up with an idea that would enable religiously observant high school graduates to meet in a community environment that might lead to marriage, but which primarily would deal with issues relevant to young adults – such as academic and employment consulting, economic sensibility and responsibility, communication and interpersonal relationships.
Shamir’s initiative became a reality last Saturday night with the opening in Ra’anana of Midrasha, a social and cultural meeting place. Ra’anana Mayor Ze’ev Bielski addressed the launch gathering, as did Rabbi Ephraim Zik, head of the Ra’anana Bnei Akiva High School Yeshiva, and Rabbi Eran Straus, head of Amit’s Gwen Straus Science High School for Boys. More than 100 young men and women attended, and also heard Naama Mozes and Rabbi Zvi Koren talk about the transition from adolescence to becoming a young adult.
It wasn’t all serious, however. Standup comedian Yair Orbach gave a much lighter touch to the end of the evening.
■ IT’S VERY difficult to upstage a speaker of the caliber of Rabbi Daniel Gordis, but American philanthropist and nursing home, real estate and banking magnate Hart Hasten almost succeeded.
Hasten, who is president of the US Friends of the Menachem Begin Heritage Foundation, was standing in this week for Herzl Makov, the director-general of the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, at one of the many events celebrating the centenary year of Begin’s birth. This time, it was co-hosted by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, in appreciation of the fact that Begin was the first Israeli leader to openly embrace the Evangelicals, and recognize them as true friends and supporters of Israel.
Gordis has a good relationship with the ICEJ, in addition to which his recently published book, the masterful biography Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, has received largely favorable reviews – even from those who may not agree with the portrait he painted of Begin, but cannot help admiring Gordis’s eloquence and wide-ranging knowledge.
Hasten, the father of Josh Hasten, who lives in Israel and writes feature stories for The Jerusalem Post, is an author himself and an engaging speaker who spices serious comments with a touch of humor. Because Makov was unwell, Hasten was asked to step in and introduce Gordis, who was running against the clock because he had another engagement to fulfill on the same night.
Usually, whoever introduces a speaker extols that person’s virtues for five minutes – 10 at most – and sits down. But Hasten, once he gets wound up, is hard to wind down – especially when speaking of his two favorite subjects: America, where the young Polish-born, penniless Holocaust survivor became a millionaire before he was 40; and Menachem Begin, who was his hero, mentor and friend.
David Parsons, ICEJ’s media and public relations director, and executive producer and co-host of the ICEJ’s radio talk show Front Page Jerusalem, tried unsuccessfully to get Hasten to relinquish the microphone, but it’s hard to get anyone who is on a roll and obviously appreciated by the audience to step out of the limelight.
In addition to Begin, Hasten said he had another hero – Ronald Reagan. He also spoke of how much he loved America.
He and his family had escaped from Poland to Kazakhstan during the war, and then spent five years in a displaced persons camp in Austria before coming to America in 1951. Hasten, then 20 years old, got a job as an elevator operator for 90 cents an hour. Recalling his arrival in the US, he said: “I was stateless, homeless, powerless, penniless and speechless.”
The last element was not due to being in awe of America, but simply having no English at his command. Today, Hasten’s English bears no trace of a Polish or Russian accent; he sounds like a native-born American.
Someone he worked with on his first job told him he would never amount to anything, Hasten recounted. Five years later, he was that person’s boss. “I didn’t fire him; he quit,” Hasten told his audience, which included a large number of men with kippot on their heads.
He first learned about Begin while in the DP camp in Austria, and finally met him face to face in Chicago in 1969. There was instant chemistry between them, and this led to an abiding friendship.
Begin was in Los Angeles when his wife Aliza died in Jerusalem in November 1982.
Begin had been scheduled to address a meeting of 5,000 Evangelicals in Dallas, but had to cancel to fly back to Jerusalem for the funeral – and Hasten and his wife, Simona, flew back with him. “Begin loved Evangelical Christians,” Hasten declared this week in Israel’s capital, adding that it was Begin who had introduced him to famous Southern Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell.
Hasten was also proud of the fact that together with Begin’s close aides, the late Harry Hurwitz and the late Yechiel Kadishai, he had raised $23 million to pay for the construction of the Begin Heritage Center.
“It’s all paid for – no mortgage,” he said with satisfaction.
By sheer coincidence, the ICEJ event took place the day after the State Archives – in celebration of the 35th anniversary of the Camp David Accords – declassified the documents related to the intensive negotiations that preceded the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. Hasten did not refer to this. Had he done so, he might have spoken for more than the half hour he was on his feet.
Gordis, a compelling orator when he was finally able to speak, made the point that it took Begin, who was a genuine liberal (not in the “Left vs. Right” sense) and, in contrast to founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion, a biblical Jew (in the sense of someone who lived the Bible, not just had a solid grasp of it), to value Christian support. Like Begin, Christians truly knew their Bible and that those who bless Israel will be blessed; that the Jews dwell alone; and that as a leader of Israel, he would be isolated.
In this way, he understood Jewish destiny in the long biblical sense. When US president Jimmy Carter told him it was the “last opportunity” for peace, Begin thought that absurd. For a people that is ancient and has thousands of years before and ahead of it, the idea that Carter could talk of “last chances” was ridiculous, Gordis explained.
Begin was not “Orthodox” but he was the most deeply Jewish prime minister, said Gordis, noting that Begin recited Psalms when the Israel Air Force sent its best pilots to bomb the Iraqi nuclear plant.
■ BECAUSE HE was such a driving force in the establishment, construction and operation of the Begin Heritage Center, the memory of Harry Hurwitz has been perpetuated in different ways. Given that Hurwitz and Begin were such great public speakers, one of these ways is a national public speaking contest organized by Sia’h vaSig Israel Debating Society, the Harry Hurwitz Memorial Fund and the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. The English and Hebrew finals of both the junior and senior divisions will be held at the Begin Heritage Center on March 30.
Sia’h vaSig was founded by Ann Kirson Swersky, who will of course be present to listen to the finalists and present awards to the winners. Swersky has two quotes under her email signature: One is Benjamin Franklin’s, “Well done is better than well said,” and the other is from an anonymous source, “When all is said and done, more will be said than done.”
■ BIRTHDAY PARTIES are by and large happy- go-lucky affairs with lots of food, booze, balloons, dancing and mixed company. Not so in haredi circles, where the celebration is decidedly different.
Accordingly, Rabbi Yisroel Goldberg, director of the Chabad Rehavia Center in Jerusalem, had a birthday party this week that was attended by both men and women, sitting at separate tables with a screen dividing the genders, though the head table was visible from both sides of the screen.
The Canadian-born Goldberg, who has been in Israel for a little over three years, has chalked up a number of admirable achievements and in a remarkably short time, built up a cohesive congregation with regular programs for people of all ages, including a havruta learning program.
At his party – which also included learning, though on a wide scale – Goldberg pledged to do one-on-one study with anyone who asked him. Insofar as the ability to develop interpersonal relationships, he said, nothing is more rewarding than studying the same text with one other person, even when there is strenuous disagreement between the two over the interpretation of the text. It not only strengthens relationships, it broadens horizons.
Goldberg’s congregation has grown at a rapid pace, so much so that he does not have sufficient room on his own premises. He therefore turned to the neighboring Great Synagogue and Yeshurun congregations, who were happy to help and made their own facilities available to him. There were representatives from both congregations at the party, who said that ordinarily, established congregations were resentful of the new boy on the block – but Goldberg’s winning personality had easily endeared himself to the extent that they couldn’t refuse, and were more than delighted to help him.
■ AMONG THE frequent guests at the French ambassador’s residence, especially at receptions for new recipients of the French Legion of Honor, is Jerusalem Cinematheque co-founder Lia Van Leer, who has herself been honored by France with two such distinctions. Van Leer, who in August will celebrate her 90th birthday, does not allow advancing age to stop her from traveling around Israel or abroad, even though walking is becoming increasingly difficult for her.
Van Leer was present at the residence of French Ambassador Patrick Maisonnave this week when Beersheba-born actress and filmmaker Ronit Elkabetz, who is on a frequent filmmaking commute between Israel and France, was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor.
Maissonave conferred the decoration on behalf of French President Francois Hollande.
Elkabetz has been the recipient of many awards in Israel and Europe, including the Ophir and Jerusalem Film Festival awards for Best Actress, and the Jerusalem Film Festival Wolgin Award for Best Israeli Feature. Van Leer established the Jerusalem Film Festival in 1983.
Earlier in the week, Van Leer was in the audience of the Jerusalem Press Club to hear prominent Israeli and Palestinian business people, who are members of Breaking the Impasse, talk about the economic potential for the region if peace is achieved.
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