Holocaust survivor gets death threats

Isaak Behar, one of Germany's best-known survivors, to beef up security.

auschwitz 298.88 (photo credit: )
auschwitz 298.88
(photo credit: )
Facing death threats from neo-Nazis, one of Germany's best-known Holocaust survivors and educators has been forced to have police install security measures at his home as attacks by the far-right in the country spiral. On Thursday, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, Isaak Behar, 83, is to lead an annual ceremony at Grunewald railway station, in west Berlin, in which he will say Kaddish for his parents, Nissim and Lea, who were murdered at Auschwitz. A thousand or more Germans, almost all non-Jews, are expected to attend. Behar's parents were forced onto a train at the station on December 13, 1942, along with hundreds of others, and were sent to the gas chambers upon arrival at the death camp. A total of 50,000 Jews are thought to have been sent to concentration camps from Grunewald. Father-of-two Behar runs Holocaust educational programs in Berlin schools, as well as within the German police service and the army. He is well known as the elder statesman of the Jewish Community in Berlin and as a delegate councillor in Germany's Zentralrat der Juden (Council of Jews). Behar - who is one of the few Jews to have returned to his native Berlin after the war - says he has been forced to connect his home to an elaborate security system after receiving threats from neo-Nazi groups. The city's police have installed a complex system of buttons that trigger an emergency call when pressed. He and his wife have a button on either side of their bed, and there is one in every other room in their home. "I have received threats: 'Close your mouth or we will close your mouth,'" he said. "By night, they have played Nazi music three times on the telephone. We have changed our phone numbers three times." Behar added, "I am not so important like a minister that I should have three bodyguards, but every step I take I have to tell the police. If anything happens to me, they don't want the newspapers to write: 'Where were the police?'" He said he was deeply concerned about the rise of the far-right in Germany. Attacks by neo-Nazis have gone up by 20 percent this year, according to police figures, with around 8,000 neo-Nazi crimes reported in the first eight months of 2006 compared to 6,605 for the same period in 2005. "I am very, very sorry, because what people are seeing on the television and in the newspapers now are new Nazis, the NPD," he said, referring to the National Democratic Party. "They are seeing it [for] the first time, but I am seeing it [for] the second time. And this is, for myself, very bad." He added, "A recent survey asked people if they would like to have a Jew as a neighbor - and you would be astonished by what they found out: 20% said they would not want to have a Jew as a neighbor. One in five! Most of the people questioned did not even know one single Jew personally. It was prejudice, pure and simple. "What should I do?" he asked bitterly. "Should I walk on my hands? What should I do to convince one in every five people to support me as a neighbor?" The solution, Behar said, was education - and he said he intended to continue doing everything he could in that area. "When I think about why I stayed in this country after everything that happened, I know that there is one very positive thing. I have made more difference on the inside than if I could have done on the outside. Now more children than ever before, both Jewish and non-Jewish, want me to tell them what happened." Behar survived the Holocaust by hiding out in Germany. He happened to be out on that day in 1942 when the Gestapo came for Nissim and Lea - Sephardi immigrants from Turkey. He returned to find his home ransacked and deserted. He spent the rest of the war living on the streets, in trains, and finally in the home of Communist sympathizers who loathed Hitler. After deciding to stay in Germany instead of joining surviving relatives in England or the US after the war, Behar became one of the country's best-known Holocaust educators. Twenty years ago, he taught his first-ever class at a local school, hoping to educate students ignorant of the Holocaust. Word got around of the impact he was having, and more and more schools demanded his services, followed by the police and the army. On Thursday night, as on every anniversary of Kristallnacht, Behar will say Kaddish for his family because it was on that night in 1938, as his family watched Fasanenstrasse synagogue burn from their apartment opposite, that his mother had a premonition about her fate. "We, all five of us, were looking at the burning of the synagogue and my mother was crying," he recalled. "My father told her not to cry. 'They are only stones,' he said. "But my mother answered: 'If these stones burn, you will very soon see people burn.' And this she said in 1938." Behar continued, "I was astonished to hear her reply because this sounded stupid to me, and I said to myself: 'I pity her. I have a stupid Turkish mother.' I always thought I was the intelligent one. My father and mother came from Turkey, and didn't go to school. "Now the tragedy: Four years later, they were burned. She was burned, with her whole family. She was right. They will never leave me."