Grapevine: Indelibly carved in Jewish collective memory

Musical reminders of the Holocaust, Yossi Peled celebrates his 70th, the Israel-Czech Chamber of Commerce is launched.

THURSDAY IS International Holocaust Remembrance Day as designated by the UN in November 2005. This day was chosen because it is the date on which the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp was liberated by the Red Army. There will be various commemorations here; the most important will be a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial in the very building in Jerusalem in which it was held. There is much to remind us of the Holocaust, but there is also much that is fading as Holocaust survivors die out and take with them the traditions of European Jewish communities.
Among those who are trying to preserve something of those traditions is Chilik Frank, a hassidic musician who has a klezmer band and is widely recognized as a leading clarinetist. His repertoire and his many CDs include melodies of all the old hassidic courts. He is currently working to revive the songs sung by Jews during the Holocaust. Among these is the melody most commonly sung today to “Ani Ma’amin” (I believe), composed on the train en route to Treblinka by Rabbi Azriel David Fastag, a Modzitz hassid.
Before the war, Fastag, who had an exceptional voice, was known far and wide. People came from all over Warsaw to hear him sing. On the High Holy Days when his brothers would join him, he sang in the synagogue of Modzitzer Rebbe Shaul Yedidya Elazar. With the Nazi invasion, Fastag, like so many other Jews in Warsaw, was rounded up and put in a cattle car going to Treblinka. He began to sing as the train rumbled toward its fateful destination.
Initially there was silence, but as he repeated the melody over and over, it reached the hearts of the people on the train, nearly all of whom knew the words that were a testament of faith in the coming of the messiah. The melody went from cattle car to cattle car. Fastag, who had initially been oblivious to the chorus around him, cried out that he would give half of his portion of the world to come to anyone who could take the melody to the Modzitzer Rebbe, whose disciples had succeeded in getting him out of Poland to Lithuania, and then via Russia and Shanghai to America. The rebbe had always loved Fastag’s voice and his music, and it was important to Fastag that this last melody should reach his ears.
Two young men took the mission upon themselves and jumped from the train. One was killed instantly. The other survived and eventually came here. Throughout his difficult journey he had sung the melody over and over so as not to forget it. The notes were transcribed and sent to the rebbe in New York. He sang it in the synagogue on Yom Kippur in memory of the 6 million Jews who had been murdered. Congregants wept as he explained the origin of the tune. With this tune, he said, the Jews went to the gas chambers, and with this tune they will greet the messiah.
■ ALSO PERPETUATING the melodies of the Holocaust are members of the Ramat Gan Children’s Harmonica Orchestra founded by Shmuel Gogol, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz. Gogol had been one of the children cared for in the famous orphanage run by educator Janusz Korczak, who could have saved himself but opted to stay with the children. Korczak found all sorts of reasons for giving children rewards. He gave Gogol a harmonica which proved to be the instrument that saved his life. A talented young musician, Gogol was chosen to play in the Auschwitz orchestra.
In 1993, when Yitzhak Rabin went to Poland for the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, he was accompanied by a large delegation of Holocaust survivors that included Gogol. Rabin had a special reason for taking Gogol with him. He wanted him to play the harmonica in Auschwitz again – but this time not as a persecuted Polish Jew, but as a proud Israeli. Gogol stood in that fearful place and played “Hatikva.” It was not only his anthem but his song of triumph over the Nazis. He died only a few weeks later.
■ HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR Joseph Bau used another art form in which to convey his experiences. A graphic artist and animator, poet, author and playwright, Bau for many years used his talents to tell his story. Part of his story was also told in Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award winning film Schindler’s List. It was at the Plaszow concentration camp that Bau met and secretly married Rebecca Tennenbaum. Their marriage was featured in the film. Bau was subsequently transferred to the Gross Rosen concentration camp and from there to Oskar Schindler’s camp, where he stayed till the end of the war. Rebecca was sent to Auschwitz, where three times she managed to evade the gas chambers.
After the war, the two were reunited and in 1950 they came here with an infant daughter. Another daughter was born to them. After Bau died in 2002, his daughters Cilla and Hadassa turned his apartment at 9 Rehov Berdichevski, Tel Aviv, into a museum. Last week, someone broke in, threw many of the exhibits onto the floor and stole two cameras used for animation. Bau had built them himself 60 years earlier. The cameras, of course, have historic value, but beyond that have nostalgic and emotional value for Bau’s daughters who travel the world to tell his story. They are hoping that the thief will feel some kind of remorse and restore the stolen items.
■ AMONG THE youngest of Holocaust survivors is Minister without Portfolio Yossi Peled who was born in Belgium during the war and together with his sister was adopted by a Christian family with whom he lived until he was six. His father and many other relatives were murdered in Auschwitz. His mother survived the war, reclaimed her children and brought them here. Peled had a distinguished army career from which he retired in 1991 with the rank of major-general. He celebrated his 70th birthday on January 18. Some 450 people came to the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds to wish him well.
Among them were political adversaries from the Labor Party such as Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Isaac Herzog and Avishay Braverman and members of Ehud Barak’s Independence faction. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni was also there, along with Dalia Itzik, and the Likud was very well represented by both ministers and MKs. The party, organized by Peled’s son Or, was initially intended as a surprise, but it’s very hard to keep a secret here under any circumstances, and certainly, with so large an invitation list, there was bound to be a leak – and there was.
Peled, who was a director of several companies prior to becoming an MK, retained the friendships he had made in those circles and there were also a lot of business people present. In an emotional address, Peled referred to Auschwitz, where last year he had accompanied Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for the 65th anniversary commemoration of liberation, and spoke of his father who had perished there.
■ THE GUEST list from the Czech Republic for the launch of the Israel-Czech Chamber of Commerce was headed by Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg (who is also a child Holocaust survivor, albeit not Jewish), and Pavel Smutny, president of the Prague-headquartered chamber. And of course Czech Ambassador Tomas Pojar, who was roundly praised for his help in getting the new chamber up and running, was also present. Among the Israeli guests were Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and representatives of leading industries that do business with the Czech Republic, including some like Osem, Tivol and Teva which also have factory plants there.
Several of the Israelis were either born in the Czech Republic or were born to parents who came from Czechoslovakia. The only thing that marred the event at the Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv was the absence of Becherovka, the traditional Czech liqueur, with which to toast the new venture. An attempt was made to bring it into the hotel, said ICCC chairman David Hercky, but the kashrut supervisor would not allow it, even though the organizers offered to bring in plastic cups from which to drink. Instead, the toast was made with Israeli wine.
For Smutny the event was particularly emotional, because ever since his own chamber was established 15 years ago, he had been dreaming of a sister chamber in Israel – and at last the dream had come true. Both Schwarzenberg and the new chamber’s honorary president Dan Propper spoke of the long and warm relationship the country has had with Czech leaders and the Czech people since long before the establishment of the state. Propper recalled that it had been the Czechs who supplied arms during the War of Independence, and Schwarzenberg noted the friendship demonstrated by Czech president Tomas Masaryk toward the Jewish people and the Zionist enterprise. As for the new venture, he saw it as a bridge that would enable the expansion of both economic and cultural relations.
Ayalon praised the friendship, morality and decency of Schwarzenberg and the Czech people. “In a world of uncertainties, countries like the Czech Republic and Israel can trust each other.” Commenting on Schwarzenberg’s integrity, Ayalon said that he was a man who speaks his mind and is not afraid to go against the majority. In historical terms, Ayalon characterized Czech-Jewish relations as “a beacon of hope and a compass of morality.” As for economic relations, Skoda cars are doing very well here and many government ministers use them. Bilateral trade is in the realm of $400 million. Ayalon was confident that under the leadership of Propper and others involved in the new chamber, the figure will rise to $1 billion within the next decade.
■ IT SEEMS to have been Propper’s week. Only a few days earlier, he had given a riveting address at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange to the Israel Britain and the Commonwealth Association. He was speaking in his capacity as chairman of Osem Foods, of which his late father had been one of the founders. The event was held in conjunction with the Tel Aviv International Salon Club. Although it took place at mid-morning on what used to be the trading floor of the TASE before trading became computerized, it attracted a full house.
One of the eye-catching items in the room is a statue of a white bull with blue markings and the logos of many of the companies that are listed on the TASE. There are also illuminated boards on facing walls showing real time trading fluctuations of the 10 leading companies, with rising share prices in green and declining ones in red.
Propper was not in the room during introductory remarks by IBCA chairman Austen Science, TASE CEO Esther Levanon and TASE head of research Kobi Avramov, and explained that he’d been watching a board outside and was pleased to see that Osem shares were up by 0.9 percent. After that everyone else’s eyes were fixed on the boards to monitor Osem’s progress. At one stage it was up by 1.34%, but by the time Propper finished his fascinating account of company history and policy, it had disappeared from the board. Propper was unperturbed, knowing from experience that it would rise again.
This year will mark the 60th anniversary of IBCA, which was established at a time when relations between Britain and Israel were not good, said Science. The principal objective at that time was to improve those relations.
Although the TASE was not established until 1953, said Avramov, trading actually started in 1935, and was conducted by the Anglo-Palestine Bank. Today, there are 600 companies traded. Levanon was very proud of the fact that the TASE has signed memorandums of understanding with the London Stock Exchange, New York Stock Exchange, NASDAQ, the Toronto Stock Exchange and the Shanghai Stock Exchange which all have Israeli companies among their listings.
“The Israeli story as reflected by TASE is a very convincing story,” she said. This was endorsed by Avramov who stated that the investment environment is very transparent and that trading is supervised in real time by the Securities Authority.
Osem was established in 1942 “under the Union Jack,” said Propper. It was founded by seven families that ran three pasta workshops. Over the years it kept developing new food products and introduced savory snacks here. It went public in 1990, and over a time 53.5% of its stock was acquired by Nestle, which according to Propper is happy with the status quo and has no intention of taking over the whole operation. The volume of sales is $1 billion. The company has 4,800 employees and 11 factories, with nine here, one in the Czech Republic and one in the US.
Propper attributed Osem’s success to its human resource policy. Its efficiency programs are not aimed at laying off people, and its employees know that as long as they contribute properly, their jobs are assured. “It’s not a union agreement, but an understanding that we have with the workers,” said Propper, adding that the workers have such confidence in management that they contribute to efficiency.
He cited as an example the company’s Sderot plant, where three women who are good friends were operating the same machine. They realized that only two people were needed for the task, so they came to the manager and asked him to decide which of them should be moved to another station. “This happens in different ways in other parts of the company,” said Propper. The Sderot plant employs 500 people. Other plants are in other peripheral areas with the aim of providing employment for the local population. Propper has always lived by his father’s maxim: “Work hard during the day so you can sleep well at night.”
■ THE HEAD of the Jewish Leadership faction within the Likud, Moshe Feiglin, is the nemesis of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who succeeded in keeping him off the Knesset list. Nonetheless, Feiglin, a religious nationalist, is gaining an increasing number of followers, as witnessed at his annual gala dinner held last week at the Leonardo Hotel in Ramat Gan, which was attended by more than 500 people who paid NIS 400 each.
The musical fanfare and cheers that went up when Feiglin approached the stage prompted him to say that he felt as if he was the new coach for the Betar Jerusalem soccer team. He commented that of all the dinners that his faction has had to date, this was the largest. He also referred to what he called “the collapse of the Labor Party,” asking the audience not to applaud.
■ ONE OF the major benefits of being a high-ranking civil servant is that one gets to know a lot of people who can be of help when one decides to join the business world. That’s what happened to Rafi Farber, 62, a former director-general of the Tourism Ministry and subsequently head of its North American office. He obviously made so good an impression that after returning and going into the hotel business, he kept getting reelected to the executive of the Hotels Association. He now owns two hotels in Jerusalem and one in Tiberias. All three attract large numbers of Christian pilgrims.
Of the 11 directors-general who have served in the Tourism Ministry over the years, Farber is the only one who actually became a hotel owner, though others became active in the Hotels Association in one capacity or another. Farber and president Ami Federmann, of the Dan Hotel chain, are going to have quite a battle on their hands this year, fighting government and municipal authorities on matters such as compensation for devaluation of the dollar, reductions on municipal taxes and on water rates, promoting fewer insulting security checks on pilgrim groups and easing the process for hotel investors to get a business license.
With the growth of tourism this year, despite the economic crisis, there has been a dearth of hotel rooms, especially in Jerusalem, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. There is a crying need for more hotels in the capital, says Farber, and the association will work toward attracting more investment in hotel construction.
■ FOR MORE than three decades, he’s been known as “our correspondent in the North,” but now Menahem Horowitz is returning to the center. Born in Ramat Gan to a rabbinical family, Horowitz, 54, did his army service in Kiryat Shmona, arriving there in 1978. At the time, he was focused on a pedagogic career, and recognizing the need for good teachers there, decided to stay. He became a teacher in the state religious school, and was frequently interviewed by the media following Katyusha rocket attacks. His descriptions were so fluent, graphic and accurate that he was offered a job with Army Radio. He subsequently became a print media reporter as well, reporting from all over the North for Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post and the now defunct Hadashot and Hatzofeh. In 1994, Channel 2 news appointed him as its man in the North. One memorable production was when he took the totally irreligious (and sometimes anti-religious) Tommy Lapid on a Jewish roots tour of the Galilee that included meals in kosher eateries, with Lapid good-humoredly chiding Horowitz on the gourmet delights he was missing because he observed kashrut. Horowitz will have his formal farewell to the North not in the North, but at the Leonardo Hotel in Ramat Gan on February 5.
Rumor has it that he can’t bring himself to sell his home in Kiryat Shmona. In other words, he’s not burning his bridges.