Grapevine: Coincidence and memory

The Tunnel of Memory, which commemorates some of the local Holocaust victims (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
The Tunnel of Memory, which commemorates some of the local Holocaust victims
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
There were at least two interesting coincidences this week. The first was Polish Constitution Day, which is always on May 3, but which this year was celebrated on the night before Holocaust Remembrance Day, due to the fact that this is a leap year in both the Jewish and the Gregorian calendars. The Polish-Jewish symbiosis, which goes back almost a thousand years, made this year’s reception at the residence in Udim near Netanya of Polish Ambassador Jacek Chodorowicz and his wife, Monika, particularly poignant.
The second was the awarding of the Chaim Herzog Prize to Maj.-Gen. (res.) Orna Barbivai, which took place at the President’s Residence on the morning before Holocaust Remembrance Day. President Reuven Rivlin remarked on the outstanding record in matters of security of Chaim Herzog, Israel’s sixth president, and said that Barbivai also represented security. However, given the date, both he and Herzog’s youngest son, opposition leader Isaac Herzog, neglected to mention that as an officer in the British Army, Chaim Herzog had been among the liberators of Bergen-Belsen as well as other concentration camps, and that his concerns with security were honed far beyond the battlefields of Israel, but used to good advantage in the IDF.
■ IN POLAND, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is commemorated according the Gregorian calendar date and not that of the Jewish calendar. Chodorowicz referred to the commemoration in Warsaw in his address to the large crowd of mainly Polish expatriates and first- and second-generation Holocaust survivors. He was speaking in the context of the shared history of Poles and Jews.
But before that he spoke proudly of the Polish Constitution, which was initially adopted on May 3, 1791. It was the first in Europe and the second in the world, after America. Although it remained in force for less than two years, it remained the guiding light for the long struggle of Poles to build an independent democratic state. In this respect the Poles, like the Jews, dreamed of freedom and statehood.
Poles and Jews have a joint remembrance of tragedies, said Chodorowicz, referring specifically to Holocaust Remembrance Day, on which both grieve and pay homage to the fallen. (The number of non-Jewish Poles murdered by the Nazis was only slightly less than the number of Jewish Poles.) On the previous evening, said Chodorowicz, an exhibition had been launched at Beit Lohamei Hagetaot to pay homage to Polish Righteous Among the Nations, in particular the slain Ulma family, in whose memory the Museum of the Righteous was recently opened in Makowa. The Ulmas had sheltered two Jewish families when they and their six children were slaughtered by the Nazis. Chodorowicz also spoke of Samuel Willenberg, the last survivor of the Treblinka Revolt, who died in February this year, and had always been a vital presence at Constitution Day receptions and other events hosted by a series of Polish ambassadors.
Coming to the present day, Chodorowicz spoke of constantly flourishing relations between Poland and Israel in the 26 years since the restoration of diplomatic relations, which he said were a steadily expanding partnership irrespective of the political orientation of the government in either country. Israel is Poland’s biggest trading partner in the Middle East, he said, with two-way trade standing at $800 million a year. It was inevitable that Chodorowicz would raise the issue of the debate on the need for educational trips to Poland by Israeli youth. Chodorowicz sees such trips not only as a means of inculcating Holocaust history but as an opportunity for expanding people-to-people contacts, which are one of Poland’s goals toward strengthening friendship between the two countries.
These days, no European ambassador can give a speech that is devoid of any reference to Middle East terrorism and uncontrolled emigration from there – both of which pose a threat to Europe. Chodorowicz is confident that these challenges can be surmounted.
He said that the fight against extremists would continue, as would humanitarian aid to displaced people. Reiterating the European Union’s position on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Chodorowicz looked forward to a time when there would be peace and security in the region.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett represented the government, and temporarily ignoring the speech prepared for him by the Foreign Ministry, exclaimed spontaneously that “one can’t help but be awed by this amazing house.” Bennett said that after seeing the house, he’d asked about the architect and learned that it was Willenberg’s daughter, Orit Willenberg-Giladi.
On the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day, he said, he could not help but wonder that if someone had tapped on Willenberg’s shoulder as he ran from Treblinka and had told him that he was going to live and get married, and that a Jewish state would be formed, and that state would have diplomatic relations with Poland, and that his daughter would design the home that would become the residence of the Polish ambassador – what would he have thought? Returning to the formalities, Bennett also mentioned the close relations between Poland and Israel and the upcoming government- to-government meeting in November that will be headed by the prime ministers of both countries. He was also hopeful that Andrzej Duda, the president of Poland, would pay a state visit to Israel. Without specifically mentioning educational trips to Poland, Bennett concurred with Chodorowicz on the importance of people-to-people and student-to-student contacts.
Among the guests were Moshe Arens, who was foreign minister at the time that diplomatic relations with Poland were resumed, and Mordechai Palzur, who was Israel’s first ambassador to Poland after a long hiatus. Also present was Ada Willenberg, who together with her daughter, Orit, is working toward the construction of a Treblinka Museum. Her husband had been fearful that he would not live to even see the laying of the cornerstone of the museum, which has been designed pro bono by Orit.
Ada Willenberg, being a practical person, laid out the money for the cornerstone, and they had a ceremony shortly before his death. Now they have to find the money for the museum – and raising $10m. is not that easy. On the other hand, Willenberg says that if everyone who lost someone in Treblinka contributed $10 in memory of the person lost, the much-needed funding could be raised in a very short period.
■ EVERY IMMIGRANT community living in Israel brings its traditions with it, thereby enriching Israel’s multicultural landscape.
This applies not only to new immigrants but also to foreign workers, who tend to create communities perhaps even more than new immigrants because they are generally more vulnerable.
Perhaps most visible among the foreign worker communities are the Filipinos and Filipinas, who are highly favored as caregivers for and by senior citizens. This is due to the fact that respect for the aged is ingrained in Filipino culture. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule as in everything, but by and large caregivers from the Philippines are considered to be the best and the most loyal. Evidence of their popularity runs in a joke about a Palmah reunion at which one veteran leans across to another and says: “I don’t remember that he we had so many Filipinos in the unit.”
Be that as it may, the Filipinos have brought their own customs to Israel. They avidly read the Facebook of the Philippine Embassy, and they are happy to travel long distances to participate in events organized or sponsored by the embassy, such as Labor Day and Flores de Mayo, which are a fusion of the secular and the spiritual. Labor Day is a secular holiday, and Flores de Mayo – Spanish for “Flowers of May” – is a monthlong festival in the Philippines, though not necessarily in Israel, and is one of the May devotions to the Virgin Mary.
Flores de Mayo, also known as Santacruzan, this year drew a crowd of some 400 people, including children, to Independence Park in Tel Aviv. Many employers allow their caregivers to take time out to celebrate their various festivals. Participants were members of 31 Filipino community organizations and groups. Many of the participants came in the traditional attire of their country and bore colorful floral arches and huge colorful fans. Notable guests who attended included Fr. David Neuhaus, patriarchal vicar for Saint James Vicariate for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel; Eliav Blishowsky, the Tel Aviv Municipality’s director for international relations; Fr. Carlos Santos of Saint Peter’s Church in Jaffa; Philippine honorary consuls, members of the Filipino clergy in Israel and friends of the embassy.
Many of those present paraded and performed traditional Filipino dances and sang Filipino songs. Singer Rose Fostanes, who captured Israeli hearts and newspaper headlines when she won the X Factor song contest, was also at Flores de Mayo and sang “Manila.” During the event members of the embassy lauded the contributions that Filipino workers around the world are making to the Philippine economy. There were King and Queen of Flores competitions as well as other contests.
Ambassador Neal Imperial conveyed the Labor Day message of President Benigno S. Aquino III, while Labor attaché Rodolfo Gabasan read a message from Department of Labor and Employment Secretary Rosalinda Dimapilis-Baldoz.
Imperial encouraged Filipinos in Israel to continue to work well and to preserve traditional Filipino values in their homes, so as to uphold a positive image of the Philippines in Israel.
■ ONE OF the frustrations of kosher foodies is the proliferation of nonkosher gourmet restaurants specializing in the cuisine of specific countries. The closest that kosher diners can usually get to such fare is reading the menu, which may cause one to salivate – but not to taste. Thus, when a kosher hotel partners with a foreign embassy to host a food festival that features delicacies from the country represented by that embassy, it is a matter of particular delight to kosher foodies.
Coming up in this category is an Indian Culinary Festival which is the result of discussions held by representatives of the Indian Embassy with the management of the Dan Hotel chain, which has previously hosted food festivals highlighting the specialties of other Asian countries. India’s celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor is coming to Israel to ensure the authenticity of the cuisine. Initially, he will join David Biton, the executive chef of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, to prepare meals that will be served in the hotel’s La Regence restaurant, and will be on hand from May 17 to 19, after which he will give a workshop in Indian cuisine at the Dan Gourmet restaurant in Tel Aviv on May 22. Kapoor has his own television show and website where anyone interested in the flavor of India can choose from hundreds of recipes.
■ LESS THAN two months ahead of Australia’s federal elections, Lucy Turnbull, the wife of the Australian prime minister, is leading a 22-member mission of Australian women leaders to Israel. The mission members are all high-ranking personalities in their respective fields, which include banking, law, technological innovation, biotechnology, marketing, communications, pub properties, scientific and industrial research, business strategies, education, insurance, investment and bilateral business. Turnbull is chief commissioner of the Greater Sydney Commission, in which capacity she has been tasked by the New South Wales state government to assist in delivering strong and effective planning for the whole of metropolitan Sydney. In a nutshell, she is an urbanist, businesswoman and philanthropist, with a long-standing interest in cities and technological and social innovation.
Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma will host a reception for the group, which is coming to Israel under the auspices of the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce, which has organized several missions to Israel this year. Sharma’s wife, Rachel Lord, is also high on the list of female achievers and is a human rights lawyer, with a master’s degree in international law. She is on leave from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and before her husband’s appointment as ambassador, she worked on Australia’s successful campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council. She has also worked as an adviser on international law and human rights to former attorney-general Philip Ruddock, in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Attorney-General’s Department.
This is actually the season for down under activists to come to Israel for annual conferences held by universities, museums and Zionist organizations. Far away though Australia may be geographically, in terms of identification with Israel and promoting its interests, the Jewish community of the island continent is exemplary.
■ DISINVITING SEVERAL hundred people is not a simple task. South African Ambassador Sisa Ngombane had sent out invitations last month for the 22nd anniversary of Freedom Day, and two days later sent out a notice to announce that the event had been postponed. The reason: it was supposed to coincide with the unveiling of a large statue of the late president Nelson Mandela, who remains South Africa’s symbol of freedom. The statue had not arrived in Israel in time, so the event was postponed. The statue is now in Israel, but has yet to be put in place, and with so much going on over the next month, the ambassador is hard-pressed to find a suitable date for the unveiling.
■ JORDAN’S CHARMING and charismatic Ambassador Walid Obeidat steadfastly but pleasantly refuses requests for interviews, telling eager but frustrated journalists that he likes to do his work quietly. Though evasive with members of the fourth estate, the popular Obeidat is frequently engaged in animated conversation with fellow diplomats.
■ FOR ANYONE searching for their Sephardi Jewish roots, the name Genie Milgrom is a kind of open sesame. Milgrom is a Cuban American who was raised Catholic, whose family practiced certain Jewish customs handed down from generation to generation without explanation, and whose grandmother left her a couple of trinkets expressive of Jewish symbolism.
Milgrom, who converted to Judaism even before her grandmother died, has been on an endless quest to trace her roots, and so far she’s done a very good job in proving her Jewish ancestry.
Thus the letter from historian Prof.
Roger Martinez-Davila began with an introduction stating that he is a Roman Catholic descendant of the Sephardim, a historian of medieval Spain and a colleague of Genie Milgrom, with whom he shares a passion for tracing Sephardi roots.
He’s keen to mobilize Hispanic and Jewish people to discover details about medieval Jewish history, which he says can be found in, of all places, Spain’s cathedrals.
He cites as an example Salomon Halevi, a rabbi who converted to Christianity in late-14th-century Burgos and became Bishop Pablo de Santa María. “Was he a turncoat who abandoned Judaism or the fountainhead of a prominent converso ecclesiastical family?” asks Martinez-Davila.
The extended family, which included the intermarried Carvajal family, founded the synagogue of El Tránsito in Toledo, Spain, and produced Cardinal Bernardino López de Carvajal, who almost became the pope – and was twice considered in conclave balloting – in the early 1500s.
Other family members, like Luis de Carvajal “the younger,” returned to Judaism and were executed by the Inquisition. This is what Martinez-Davila calls “a complicated story,” and he has dozens more like it.
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