Heroes in our midst

A round-up of news from around Israel.

In this file photo taken on April 18, 2013 89 year old Simcha "Kazik" Rotem (C) attends a commemoration ceremony in Warsaw  (photo credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP)
In this file photo taken on April 18, 2013 89 year old Simcha "Kazik" Rotem (C) attends a commemoration ceremony in Warsaw
(photo credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP)
Often we are unaware of the great people in our midst, until they die and we learn of their remarkable histories and qualities in the eulogies at their funerals and the obituaries that appear in the media.
In recent years some of the great heroes of the Holocaust have faded into the dust of time. Just to survive the Holocaust was a form of heroism in itself. Among the recent losses were Samuel Willenberg, one of the last survivors of the Treblinka revolt, who died in February 2016; Nobel Prize laureate and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, who died in July 2016; Auschwitz survivor and journalist Noah Klieger, who died on December 13; and Simcha Rotem, one of the last survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, who died last Saturday, December 22. Wiesel’s prolific writings contributed greatly to Holocaust awareness among people of all backgrounds. Klieger led groups to Auschwitz, accompanied Israeli presidents and prime ministers on visits to Poland, and participated for many years in the March of the Living.
Willenberg and Rotem, who were born in Poland, returned there many times to give testimony and to tell their stories to youth groups and to adults both Jewish and non-Jewish. Willenberg went back to Treblinka more than 30 times, and also designed the Holocaust memorial in his native Czestochowa. Both were long ago recognized and decorated as heroes by senior Polish officials at ceremonies held in Israel and in Poland.
Reports of Rotem’s death and a synopsis of his life appeared in numerous Polish publications, as well as in publications in more than a dozen countries, as did reports of Willenberg’s death in 2016. Israeli dignitaries visiting Poland would often include Willenberg or Rotem or both in their entourages.
In April 2008, Rotem was among the Holocaust survivors who traveled to Poland with president Shimon Peres to mark the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
On one of the evenings during the visit, prior to a concert recital given by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the National Opera House in Warsaw that was hosted by the Warsaw
Municipality, mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz – after greeting Peres and Polish president Lech Kaczynski as well as many Holocaust survivors from the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz and Sobibor death camps who filled the auditorium and the galleries on seven levels – listed some of the cultural contributions to Poland and the world by literary giants who happened to be Jewish, and reflected on how much poorer the world would have been without Jews.
She also presented the key of the City of Warsaw and honorary citizenship to Rotem and made much of his involvement in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the subsequent Polish Warsaw Uprising.
Among the other survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto who were there to witness the presentation was Israel Levin, who had been the only child among the ghetto fighters. Rotem had led those who survived through the sewers to the Aryan side. He did not recognize Levin when they met. “I can’t forget you,” said Levin. “You’re the one who lifted me out of the sewer and saved my life.”
Fast-forward to May 2013, when Poles in their home country and around the world celebrated Poland’s Constitution Day. One of the traditions in Israel in celebrating this very special day in the Polish calendar is to award medals to people who fought in Jewish and Polish resistance movements against the Nazis. Five such heroes were recognized five years ago at a reception hosted by Polish ambassador Jacek Chodorowicz and his wife, Monika, at their palatial residence in Udim near Netanya. Because this coincided with the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, all five honorees were people who had fought in either the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising or the Polish Warsaw Uprising of 1944, or in both.
They were: Stanislaw Aronson; Peretz Hochman, who died a month earlier and whose medal was accepted by his wife, Sima, and son Ran; Simcha Rotem; Kazimierz Rutenberg; and Samuel Willenberg.
The medals were awarded by Robert Kupiecki, Poland’s deputy minister of defense, who came to Israel with his senior adviser, Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska, who had preceded Chodorowicz as her country’s ambassador to Israel. Both she and Kupiecki came to Israel to participate in a strategic military dialogue.
In that year, Rotem once again returned to Warsaw to participate in the Polish government’s 70th anniversary commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, at which he was one of the speakers. During that visit, then-president Bronislaw Komorowski conferred on him the Grand Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, one of Poland’s highest honors.
Unfortunately, Rotem will not be around for the opening in Warsaw of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum that will coincide with the 80th anniversary of the uprising.
Till now, we have been able to hear the witnesses to the Holocaust speak in their own voices. We have been able to see them and touch them, and in some cases to see the numbers on their arms – numbers that never faded, no matter how often the arm was washed or perspired in the heat of a summer’s day.
We will not have the privilege for much longer, and ways must be found to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust remains a permanent fixture not only in Jewish consciousness but in that of the world. We also have to remember that while Jews were the main targets, there were millions of other victims, most notably the Romani, part of whose story is told in the book And the
Violins Stopped Playing by Alexander Ramati, who later directed a film of the same name.
■ HOLOCAUST HEROES are not the only ones disappearing from the scene and fading into the narratives of history. The underground fighters from the Hagana, Palmah, Stern Group and Irgun are now also very few in number.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been scheduled to go to Tel Aviv University last Thursday to attend an evening tribute to pre-state underground fighters who had been engaged in sabotaging and fighting the British Mandate authorities and Arab marauders. But due to other commitments, he had to back out in what was almost the last minute.
However, Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev was on hand together with World Zionist Organization vice chairman Yaakov Hagoel. The two conferred decorations on the veteran fighters, who included former Hagana member Baruch Levy, Etzel chairman Yair Asiskovich and chairman of the Palmah Generation former IDF major-general Shaike Gavish, who at age 93 is still straight-backed and active. Representing the Stern Group was Yair Stern, whose late father, Avraham Stern, was the founder of the militant Zionist organization which the British called the Stern Gang. Avraham Stern’s nom de guerre was Yair. He was killed by the British in February 1942. His son was born four months later and given the name Yair. Although he never knew his father, Yair Stern inherited his mantle and from childhood to the present day remained a Stern Group prince.
■ WITH ALL the worries that Netanyahu currently has on his head, the least is his son Yair’s current girlfriend. Back in early 2014, Yair, then 23, earned media headlines not because of his caustic tongue, but because he was dating a non-Jewish Norwegian girl, and his parents seemed to be okay with that. The prime minister was reported to have chatted about the relationship when he met at the World Economic Forum with his Norwegian counterpart. Rabbis and religious MKs expressed their dismay over the situation, but the romance soon fizzled. Later the young Netanyahu dated model Lee Levi, whose reputation he sullied with the crude things he said about her while under the influence of alcohol. More recently he has been dating Stephanie Khazaniuk. In fact, they’ve been going steady for three months, but until last week were careful to keep their relationship under wraps. Now that it’s been made public, it could be serious.
■ IN THE family of former education minister Gideon Sa’ar and his wife, television presenter Geula Even-Sa’ar, they believe in equal opportunity. Sa’ar took time out from politics so that his wife could realize her dream and her potential to be the chief news presenter on Kan 11. Now that she’s done that, it’s time for her to step back, so that Sa’ar can return to the political arena and make a bid for the Likud leadership or at least for a ministerial position in the new government.
Without any prior warning to the powers that be at Kan 11, Even-Sa’ar announced on Monday night in a live news broadcast that she was taking a backseat because, as the wife of a leading political figure, she cannot continue in her present position. This paves the way for Michal Rabinovich, who till now has filled the void when Even-Sa’ar was absent.
Rabinovich was the chief news presenter on Channel 1 in the days of the Israel Broadcasting Authority and was demoted with the demise of the IBA and the advent of Kan 11. It will be remembered that she cried on camera the night that she had to announce that it was Channel 1’s last broadcast. Even-Sa’ar, for her part, had long ago been considered as chief news presenter when Haim Yavin first left Channel 1. She had a brief interlude before Yavin, who had gone to what was then Channel 2, returned to Channel 1 and took over his former role. However, in the case of both Even-Sa’ar and Rabinovich, it appears that all good things come to them that wait.
■ ON THURSDAY of last week, Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov received Greek Patriarch Theophilos III among the many guests whom he invited to join him and his wife in a pre-New Year toast in their Herzliya Pituah residence replete with Christmas tree, and on the following day Viktorov again met the Greek patriarch – this time at the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem, where they discussed developments in Ukraine which have led to a schism in the Orthodox Church. They also spoke about their mutual concerns for the fate of Christians in most countries of the Middle East. At the pre-New Year toast, Viktorov wished Israel peace and stability.
■ CHARLES DICKENS, in A Tale of Two Cities, wrote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” But the situation could have well been applied to Israel on Monday of this week when Prof. Amir Yaron, the new governor of the Bank of Israel, was officially appointed in a ceremony at the President’s Residence.
But only a few hours after lauding Yaron, Prime Minister Netanyahu put an end to guesswork about the date when Israel would again go to the polls. There were people who criticized him and people who praised him and said they had faith in him. There were people who saw all the new hurdles that have suddenly presented themselves as challenges, and others who saw them as opportunities. It was a tumultuous day in more ways than one.
Yaron’s inauguration ceremony was moderated by television personality and lecturer on the Bible portion of the week Sivan Rahav Meir, who could not resist mention of the fact that Joseph had been governor of the Bank of Egypt after having interpreted Pharaoh’s dream. One wonders if there was an implication of the seven years of plenty and the seven years of famine in her reference to Joseph. The stock market continued to tumble on Monday. Observing that until his appointment, Yaron, who had been absent from the country for 25 years, was virtually an anonymous personality in Israel, President Reuven Rivlin told him that the media would now write about him frequently – and it would not always be flattering. “It will usually be against you,” he said.
■ THE TEST of the success of an event can often be gauged by the length of time that the attendees linger afterward. If indeed that is a yardstick, Telfed, the Israel branch of the South African Zionist Federation, can pat itself on the back. South African expats came from far and wide to fill a large lecture room to overflowing in the Hebrew University’s Bloomfield Library on the Mount Scopus campus.
There were veterans who came to Israel in the 1960s and 1970s and relative newcomers who came during the last five years. What they all brought with them to Israel, regardless of where they came from in South Africa, was a strong work ethic and the ability to succeed. Almost everyone in the room was a success story, as is South African aliyah in itself.
The proof was not only in figures quoted by Telfed CEO Dorron Kline, but in the interesting eye-catching exhibition in the lobby of the library, which told the story of 175 years of Jewish community life in South Africa in most of its diversity. The graphically attractive exhibition, mounted on folding screens, includes wonderful short anecdotes about people and events, and will be of interest to anyone who comes from a well-integrated Diaspora community. It was fun to see how excited some of the crowd became as they recognized themselves, relatives or friends in the collage of old photographs. The exhibition will remain on view till January 3. It is to be hoped that it will be committed to magazine format in some future Telfed publication.
South African expat Prof. Gideon Shimoni, who has been teaching at the Hebrew University for more than 30 years, said that in all his experience at the Hebrew University, he had never seen an exhibition in the library, and certainly not one on South African Jewry. He attributed a certain homogeneous quality among South African Jews to the fact that 70% of them stem from Lithuania, mostly from the province of Kovno. He described the structure of the community as “Litvak wine in Anglo bottles.”
Kline said that when he and his wife were aliyah emissaries in South Africa in 2002, 89% of those Jews leaving South Africa were not opting for Israel. But today the number of South African immigrants to Israel each year is in the range of 350, which he said is more than half the total of Jews who leave South Africa each year. The total number of South Africans who made aliyah is around 25,000 and, of those, only 13% did not stay, said Kline. Lone soldiers continue to come from South Africa to serve in the IDF and are supported by Telfed, which also supports 400 needy South Africans in Israel who have fallen on hard times.
Honorees for the evening were two former South Africans who have lived in Israel longer than in South Africa, and who have made their mark in hi-tech. They were Maxine Fassberg, the former CEO of Intel Israel, and Michael Dick, founder and CEO of c2a Security.
Fassberg, who came armed with family photos that included a tiny snapshot of her South African-born grandmother, said of herself that she was the ultimate South African immigrant. She went to a Jewish day school, was a member of Zionist youth movements, came on aliyah with the help of the South African Zionist Federation, enrolled at the Hebrew University, where she studied chemistry, and later taught chemistry and physics, until a friend suggested that she apply for a job at Intel. She submitted her CV and was accepted – and all the rest is history.
■ DECEMBER-JANUARY is the most popular period for Australians to visit Israel. It coincides with the Australian holiday season, which is usually very hot, and the relatively mild Israeli winter provides welcome relief. Among those who were in Israel last week for the annual conference of Israeli ambassadors serving abroad was Mark Sofer, who is ambassador to Australia and, according to coreligionists from down under, is doing a terrific job.
Sofer was well groomed for the task. Aside from considerable experience abroad, prior to his current appointment, he was deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry and head of the Asia and Pacific Division. It also helps that the British-born Sofer is a native English-speaker. At one stage, he took a break from the Foreign Service and headed the Jerusalem Foundation.
■ PHOTO EXHIBITIONS are back in vogue, particularly during December, January and February. Prior to the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday morning, Netanyahu inspected an exhibition of rare photographs titled “70 Years of Leadership” by the Public Committee to Commemorate the Memory and Work of Presidents and Prime Ministers of Israel in cooperation with the Government Press Office.
Some of the people in the photographs have receded from public memory, especially those no longer living. Those who are alive, if no longer involved in public life are also forgotten, and exhibitions of this kind serve to remind us that these people dedicated years of their lives for the betterment of the nation.
■ THE CHIEF photographer of The Jerusalem Post, Marc Israel Sellem, was among the photographers named as the best in specific fields by curators of the Local Testimony photojournalism exhibition that is on view at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. The exhibition is in conjunction with the World Press Photo Foundation. The photograph in the category of society and community shows a religious couple seated on a couch on a hillside with their baby. The father holds the child high in the air while the mother looks on lovingly.
Sellem is known for taking photos that make people sit up and take notice.
In February 2014, Sellem took a photograph at a press conference in Jerusalem where Netanyahu, pointing in the direction of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, inadvertently cast a shadow on her face making her look as though she was sporting a Hitler mustache. The photograph quickly went viral. Needless to say, Merkel was not amused.
In March of this year, as Netanyahu was perusing the text of his speech at the Knesset, Sellem managed to catch most of the front page in the lens of his camera. The text at the top of the page read: “In order to continue our great achievements, and to stand up to the great challenges before us, we need to continue together.” Judging by the Knesset’s behavior this week, its members did not absorb the message.
Another of Sellem’s memorable photographs is of a bearded haredi rushing down some stairs in the Old City of Jerusalem. The man, whose beard is waving in the wind, is wearing a black fedora hat and an open black frock coat (kapote) over an army uniform from which the white ritual fringes (tzitzit) worn by religious men protrude over the waist line of his trousers.
■ TWO Radio coanchors were discussing I., the Ethiopian pilot who received his air force wings this week, and was the first member of Israel’s Ethiopian community to pass the course and to become a combat navigator. While they were talking about how he has now paved the path for other members of his community to follow suit, a listener posted a question on the program’s Facebook page to ask whether selectors would turn I. away when he wanted to enter a night club. Unfortunately, that brand of racism still exists.
People have strange misconceptions not only about Ethiopians but about people of color in general. Racism is actually a sign of extreme ignorance.
■ JERUSALEM’S WALDORF Astoria hotel has taken on a new dimension as a film set. With minimum exposure and a low budget, a new Israeli film, starring Ran Danker and Avigail Harari, made use of the hotel’s presidential suite as the honeymoon suite for the two actors, who are playing a bride and groom.
The production, by Spiro Films, is headed by well-known Israeli producers Eitan Mansuri and Jonathan Dowek, who are playing their cards close to their chests and revealing few details about the plot other than the fact that it is exciting. When the film eventually premieres, the hotel’s top brass will all be invited.
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