Grapevine February 20, 2022: Holocaust still discussed at major Jewish conferences

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR holds a Torah as he arrives at the entrance to Auschwitz for the annual March of the Living marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in May. (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR holds a Torah as he arrives at the entrance to Auschwitz for the annual March of the Living marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in May.

One of the first sessions at today’s opening of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will be “Holocaust Denial and Distortion” and on Monday there will be the session “Holocaust by Bullets: Telling the untold story for future generations.”

Among the participants in this particular session is former president of Poland Alexander Kwasniewski, who said in an address to the Knesset during his presidential visit to Israel in May 2000, “We must not allow those who, bringing disgrace upon the Polish people, were helping the criminals, including those who took part in the antisemitic excesses after the war. In Poland, we are aware of the dead weight, which our domestic antisemites have put on the present-day and the future relationships between Poles and Jews, and that’s why we forcefully emphasize that one must not falsify history! One must not conceal the truth! Every crime and every roguery should be named and castigated, and circumstances examined and revealed.”

To say this in Poland today, would be a criminal offense, so it will be very interesting to hear Kwasniewski’s views during his current visit.

■ IT IS understandable that Holocaust-related subjects are high on the agenda of the Conference of Presidents, given the huge global spike in antisemitism and the reappearance of Nazi insignia in radical supremacist movements. There’s also another reason for Jewish organizations, especially those with Israel connections, to discuss the Holocaust.

This year is the 70th anniversary year of the signing of the agreement between Konrad Adenauer, the first post-war chancellor of West Germany, Israel’s Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett and Nahum Goldman as head of the Jewish Agency, for German reparations to be paid to Israel. The agreement was signed on September 10, 1952, and met with fierce opposition in Israel and much of the Jewish world.

FORMER PRIME minister Moshe Sharett (right) and Israeli-Arab MK Amin-Salim Jarjora. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)FORMER PRIME minister Moshe Sharett (right) and Israeli-Arab MK Amin-Salim Jarjora. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

One of the staunchest opposition leaders in Israel was Menachem Begin, who said that Jewish honor shall not be sold for money and Jewish blood shall not be atoned for by merchandise, while David Ben Gurion argued that reparations would help Israel to get on its feet economically.

With hindsight, it is virtually impossible to deny that Israel would have accomplished all that it has achieved without the help of German reparations.

Yes, the Americans were very generous and Jewish philanthropists collectively gave significant amounts of money for projects in the nascent Jewish state, while far less affluent Jews put coins in the Blue Box, eventually finding their way to Israel.

On Thursday, to mark the 70th anniversary of the signing of the reparations agreement with Germany, Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi will host an all-day Zoom seminar, in Hebrew, that will go back in time to examine the Knesset debate on reparations, and the protest rallies during the debate and after the agreement had was signed. Topics will include:

• how the agreement was viewed by Ben Gurion and by Begin,

• how relations with Germany were reported in those years by the Israeli media,

• the ideology, pragmatism and politics in Israel-Germany relations,

• the dilemma of the Zionist Left with regard to economic, security and political relations with Germany,

• the united opposition of the radical right to relations of any kind with Germany.

As well, it should be remembered that in Germany, there were many who had reservations about the reparations plan, while others felt that the country should give Israel, not only substantial financial resources, but its younger generation should go to Israel to volunteer in an array of projects designed to help the weakest and most vulnerable elements of society. In the course of time, Germany became one of Israel’s greatest allies in Europe.

Among the speakers at the seminar will be Prof. Meron Medzini, who celebrates his 90th birthday this year and can remember the emotional storms raised on the issue of reparations. A somewhat younger speaker is David Vitzthum, a researcher into relations between Germany and Israel, and a former Israel Radio representative in Western Europe, who was headquartered in Germany, and currently leads tour groups on cultural expeditions to Germany. The seminar is free of charge but registration is required. For registration details, contact: 02-539-8855.

■ WHEN ECONOMY and Industry Minister Orna Barbivay travels to Morocco today to sign a cooperation agreement with her Moroccan counterpart, she will be accompanied not only by members of her ministry, but also by her husband Moshe Barbivay, who was born in Morocco, but which he left with his parents in 1958 when he was three years old. This will be the first time that he returns, and although he probably doesn’t remember anything from so early a period in his childhood, it will nonetheless be an emotional experience as the visit will take the delegation to Rabat, Casablanca and Marrakech.

■ THE ANNUAL award ceremony of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish literature takes place alternately in Israel and the United States. With the opening of Israel’s new National Library in Jerusalem later this year, it will be the venue for the Israel Prize ceremony and festivities, as well as for the official announcement of the new recipient of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, awarded in association with the National Library of Israel (NLI). In previous years, the Prize was only awarded for original works in English. This year, works that have been translated into English will also be eligible for consideration for the first time.

This is part of a new collaboration between the Sami Rohr Prize and the NLI.

The Sami Rohr Prize is the premier award of its kind, recognizing the unique role of contemporary writers in the examination and transmission of the Jewish experience. The annual $100,000 prize is presented to an emerging writer, who demonstrates the potential for continued contribution to the world of Jewish literature for fiction and nonfiction in alternating years.

Since its inception in 2006, the prize and the prestige that it evokes has helped to increase the status of Jewish writers in all spheres across the globe. Recent winners have included Benjamin Balint, Michael David Lukas and Ilana Kurshan. In 2021, Nicole Krauss became the first recipient of the Sami Rohr Prize’s Inspiration Award for Fiction.

“The passionate vision and activities of the Sami Rohr Prize literary initiatives, paired with the unparalleled collections, the mission and the setting of the NLI, present exceptional opportunities for the joint cultivation of a vibrant literary culture and community,” says NLI rector Shai Nitzan.

“We are extremely excited about the potential of this new association. The Sami Rohr Prize and the NLI share a vision of encouraging the growth of a prolific global Jewish literary culture and are committed to working together towards this common goal. Our collaboration will inform, encourage and enrich each other’s work, and we hope that it will help nurture ever-growing Jewish literary excellence and creativity,” adds George Rohr, the co-founder of the prize and the son of the late Sami Rohr who was a great lover of Jewish literature.

The 2022 Sami Rohr Prize finalists will be announced on April 26 and the winner will be announced on May 17. The award ceremony will be a virtual event at the end of July. Before that, on March 22, Sami Rohr fellow Gal Beckerman will appear in a Zoom conversation with NLI head of collections, Dr. Raquel Ukeles. A registration link will be published closer to the date.

■ FORMER SECRETARY-GENERAL of the Histadrut (Federation of Labor) Ofer Eini, who stepped down in 2014, after eight years at the helm, has announced that he’s making a comeback. Eini is furious about what he terms the complete failure of the government to provide adequately for people who have lost their jobs and their income during the high crisis period of the pandemic and have not been compensated. Additionally, he thinks current head of the Histadrut Arnon Ben David has not been sufficiently forceful in trying to get the Finance Ministry to recognize the importance of providing a lifeline for people who are unable to feed their families. Eini is throwing his cap into the ring for the upcoming Histadrut elections and has voiced confidence that he will win. Ben David is equally confident that the ball will remain in his court.

Either way, the removal of the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 restrictions will help to revive the tourist industry, put tour guides back to work, and will provide additional business for hotels, restaurants and operators of tourist attractions. With spring and summer just around the corner, many people who live abroad and could not join their families for important events over the past two years will be coming for Passover, and after that, Israel can anticipate a boom in tourism, but not enough to fill all those new hotels that were built over the period in which there were hardly any tourists.

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