Friday, January 27, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, as declared by the United Nations. The date was chosen for its symbolism. Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazi death camps, was liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.
Many Jews served in the Red Army, and after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Jewish Red Army veterans came in large numbers to Israel. More recently others also came, as well as Holocaust survivors from Ukraine.
Some Red Army veterans who came to Israel are still living. According to the Authority for the Rights of Holocaust Survivors, there are currently 150,600 Holocaust survivors in Israel, mostly in their mid-eighties and upward.
Among the commemorative events throughout the country this week, will be a gathering of heads of diplomatic missions at the Massuah Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, which is located at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak, on the Coastal Plain southeast of Netanya. US Ambassador Tom Nides will be among the speakers at the official ceremony, after which there will be a discussion among diplomats moderated by Gil Haskel, the chief of State Protocol. The event, which is by invitation only, will take place on Friday.
Yad Vashem and Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust
■ YAD VASHEM has gone to great lengths to recognize Righteous Among the Nations ־ namely, non-Jews who risked their lives and those of their families in order to save the lives of Jews. But for some odd reason, Yad Vashem for many years ignored Jews who saved Jews.
This lacuna has been partially amended by the Jerusalem-headquartered B’nai B’rith World Center, working together with the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers. Since 2011 they have awarded citations in public recognition of the heroism of Jewish rescuers.
But there are still so many untold stories. In Hungary, for instance, in addition to the amazing efforts of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and some of his colleagues from other embassies, there was a Jewish underground movement, which rescued some 45,000 Jews, but very little is known about its members. This is something the offspring of the rescuers cannot understand, given the volume of published Holocaust history research by numerous organizations and individuals around the world.
The rescuers disguised themselves as Christians, prepared false documents, smuggled people to safe houses and across borders, and when they procured train tickets for Jews, they also sent bodyguards to protect them in case of trouble. These train travelers were escorted mostly from Budapest to isolated villages. The rescuers also managed to save some 5,000 Jewish children whom they placed in 50 houses which bore plaques stating that they were under the custody of the Red Cross.
After the war, the rescuers did not speak of what they had done, but some, in the twilight of their years, shared their stories with children and grandchildren.
One of them, David Gur, now 97, father of three, grandfather of 10 and great-grandfather of eight, was a member of the Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth group and a leading underground figure, who was tasked with forging documents. After the war, he was involved in organizing illegal immigration of survivors to the Land of Israel, and came himself in 1949. He joined Kibbutz Ga’aton, studied engineering at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and subsequently became a project manager.
Another member of the underground still living is Sarah Epstein, 97, who is a member of Kibbutz Brenner. She also has three children and is a grandmother to nine and great-grandmother to 24.
She was among the over 1,600 Jews on the famous Kastner train that left Budapest for Switzerland via Bergen-Belsen. Pregnant when she arrived in Bergen-Belsen, she was under great pressure during her brief stay there to abort, but she refused.
The train, which consisted of 35 cattle cars, was named for Rudolf Kastner (the grandfather of Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli), who negotiated the transport with Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, who sent so many Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. Kastner was able to acquire a huge ransom from a wealthy Orthodox Swiss Jew by the name of Isaac Sternbuch, who with his wife, Recha, was involved in various rescue operations and gave shelter in their home in Switzerland to Jewish refugees.
Poland and helping Jews in the Holocaust
■ TOO OFTEN, when the subject turns to Jews and Poland, whether in conversation or in essays, the word “antisemitism” creeps in. Former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir used to say that Poles imbibe antisemitism in their mother’s milk.
But that’s far from the truth. Poland is credited with the largest number of Righteous Among the Nations. Some people attribute this to the fact that there were more Jews in Poland than in most other countries. But that doesn’t mean that non-Jews had to put their own lives on the line in order to rescue them. Yet thousands did.
Even today, when antisemitism is again the bane of Jewish existence in Poland, many Poles go out of their way to befriend Jews, to take care of Jewish cemeteries, and to preserve the memory of Jewish contributions to Polish culture, medicine, science, economy and more.
This year, for instance, the city of Lodz is honoring the memory of one of its native daughters, prizewinning author and poet Chava Rosenfarb, on the 100th anniversary of her birth. The Lodz City Council, headed by Hanna Zdanowska, unanimously decided to dedicate 2023 to Rosenfarb’s memory and to hold a special conference on Yiddish women writers.
One of the more significant contributors to postwar Yiddish literature, Rosenfarb was one of several Yiddish women writers born in Lodz – and of course many more were born in other parts of Poland. Her parents were Bundists, and Yiddish was not only the language spoken at home but also the language of her education. She went to a Bund Yiddish elementary school and later to a Jewish private high school. Her father, recognizing her talent, encouraged her to be a writer.
Following the Nazi invasion of Poland, when she was still a teenager, she and her family, like the rest of the Jewish population of Lodz, were placed in the Lodz Ghetto. In 1944, when the ghetto was liquidated, she and some of her family were transported to Auschwitz and later to Bergen-Belsen, from where she was liberated by British forces in 1945. In 1949, she married a fellow Holocaust survivor, and they moved to Montreal Canada.
Rather than focus on what she had endured during the Holocaust, Rosenfarb wrote works of fiction based on her observations and her own experiences. Among the many international prizes that she was awarded was the Itzik Manger Prize from Israel and the Canadian Jewish Book Award.
Jewish culture was always appreciated in Poland, and even in Communist times, there was Yiddish State Theater, in Warsaw, and an annual Jewish culture festival in Krakow. The Jewish Festival in Krakow was founded by a non-Jew, Janusz Makuch, who continues to direct it. Following its success, another Jewish culture festival, named in memory of Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, was founded in Warsaw by Jewish actress and singer Golda Tencer, and has enjoyed the support of the US Embassy. Coincidentally, Tencer was born in Lodz, in 1949.
Celebrating Polish Righteous Among the Nations
■ SOME OF the Polish Righteous among the Nations are still living, and Jonny Daniels, founder of the NGO From the Depths, makes a point of visiting them, celebrating their birthdays, bringing them flowers, food and ongoing recognition.
Most recently, bearing a huge bouquet of red roses, Daniels, together with Israel Ambassador Yacov Livne, visited Janina Rozecka on her 101st birthday. A hero of the Warsaw Uprising as distinct from the Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto, her underground name was Dora. She was active in smuggling papers and ammunition to resistance fighters throughout Warsaw. In addition, her family hid Jews in the attic of their apartment.
In recent months Daniels has visited other non-Jewish Holocaust heroes who saved Jews. All these Polish heroes are aged in their late nineties and more.
Daniels, who was born in Britain in January 1986, came to Israel at age 18, served as a paratrooper in the IDF, studied political science at Bar-Ilan University, was an adviser to several political figures, then moved to Poland around a decade ago, working as a strategy consultant, bridge builder between Poland and Israel, and public preserver of Holocaust memory from both Jewish and non-Jewish perspectives. There is no doubt that he will be a very visible figure later this year during events commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the official opening of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum.
One of the purposes of the museum is to familiarize visitors with the personal stories of more than 400,000 people who had lived in the ghetto, and who collectively represent the story of the whole of the city of Warsaw under German occupation.
60 years since the Elysee Treaty
■ AS PART of the reconciliation between France and Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War, the chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Dr. Konrad Adenauer, and the president of the French Republic, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, on January 22, 1963, signed the Elysee Treaty, which laid the foundations for bilateral exchanges at social, political and economic levels. In the interim, such exchanges have expanded to include almost anything and everything of bilateral interest.
In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Elysee Treaty, German Ambassador Steffen Seibert invited French Ambassador Eric Danon and his team for coffee, wine and cake, coupled with an exchange of views on Israeli politics, and coordination of joint initiatives for 2023 on projects that represent the values of both their countries.
Tribute to Raoul Wallenberg
■ A FEW days earlier, on January 17, Sweden’s Ambassador Erik Ullenhag lit a memorial candle to mark the 78th anniversary of the disappearance of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who was so instrumental in saving the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Referring to Wallenberg as an “extraordinary hero,” Ullenhag tweeted: “Not all of us can be heroes like Wallenberg – but all of us can do something to fight antisemitism and racism of today.”
Isaac Herzog talks to European Parliament
■ ULLENHAG’S SENTIMENT will in all likelihood be echoed in Brussels on Wednesday by President Isaac Herzog, when he speaks to the European Parliament. There has been a sharp rise in antisemitic incidents across Europe, and Herzog is bound to address this issue.
Dani Dayan goes to Germany
■ FOR THE first time in his life, Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan traveled to Germany this week to open a Yad Vashem exhibition at the Bundestag under the title of “Sixteen Objects.”
The exhibition, which was cocurated by Ruth Ur, executive director of the German Society for Yad Vashem, and Michael Tal, director of the Yad Vashem artifacts department, features unique Holocaust-era items, one from each of the federal states of Germany, whose stories are intertwined with individual Jews hailing from across Germany.
Dayan was accompanied to a series of events in Germany this week by Ambassador to Germany Ron Prosor and Kai Diekmann, chairman of the society. Dayan’s itinerary includes meetings with Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Bundestag President Bärbel Bas, Federal Minister of Finance Christian Lindner, Federal Minister of the Interior and Community Nancy Faeser and leader of the opposition Joachim-Friedrich Martin Josef Merz, as well as German-Jewish community leaders.
The exhibition will remain in Germany for approximately a month and a half before returning to Israel.
Yad Vashem unveils Book of Names
■ IN NEW YORK, on Thursday, Yad Vashem will unveil the Book of Names of Holocaust victims at a special ceremony at United Nations headquarters.
Among those attending the ceremony will be UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Dayan and Gilad Erdan, Israel’s Permanent Representative to the UN. The book comprises the alphabetically arranged names of 4.8 million victims of the Holocaust and, where known, their dates and places of birth and places of death. The book stands as a significant memorial to victims who have no graves and no tombstones, and who, without the book, would be remembered only for a generation or two by close relatives and friends. Through the book, their names will live on in perpetuity, and will also counter claims by Holocaust deniers.
Japanese ambassador hosts talk on Holocaust heroes
■ AT THE end of this month, Japanese Ambassador Mizushima Koichi will host two Japanese scholars who will be in Israel to lecture on Japanese Holocaust heroes, in addition to Chiune Sugihara, best known of Japanese diplomats who saved Jews during the Second World War.
Chinese New Year
■ IN THE United States, Chinese New Year celebrations were marred by two shooting attacks in California within two days of each other, in which several people were killed and others wounded. But in Israel, Chinese students celebrating the inauguration of the Year of the Rabbit had nothing to fear. In a festive celebration of the Chinese New Year, students, faculty, and professors gathered for an authentic Chinese luncheon on the campus of Reichman University, which is home to dozens of Chinese students who have opted to pursue academic degrees in Israel.
The university provides them with multiple opportunities to immerse themselves in Israeli academia and entrepreneurship, as well as opening doors to personal connections and partnerships that help to deepen relations between Israel and China.
“The Chinese New Year is about bringing families together, and we want our Chinese students to know that Reichman is their second family,” said Jonathan Davis, vice president for external relations and head of the Raphael Recanati International School. “We see how the Chinese students are thriving academically here – they succeed in all the fields, specifically in technology, machine learning and computer science.”
Leo Song, a second-year global MBA student, explained that “in China we see Israel as the Start-Up Nation; that is why I am here. I hope to be the bridge that connects China and Chinese students with Israel and Reichman University.”
The university provides all students with a diverse range of opportunities to learn about Chinese history, business culture, politics and relations with nations around the world, whether it be in the China Business Center Club or through lectures and course material. The university also provides Chinese students with an inside look into Israeli culture, business practices and entrepreneurship.
Veteran filmmaker presents a prize
■ VETERAN FILMMAKER Shish Koller has established a prize recognizing excellence in film and television on the part of people less known to the public than actors, directors and producers. These are actually the people who make the project work. Koller refers to them as “seven wonderful people.”
The adjudicating panel is chaired by distinguished actress Gila Almagor, and the award ceremony will take place on Friday, February 3, at 12 noon at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
The Feast of Jethro: A Tunisian Jewish tradition
■ THE MOROCCAN Mimouna, marking the end of Passover, has become an official national open house festival. The Kurdish community celebrates the Saharana, which is associated with Sukkot, and now comes the turn of the Tunisian community to make one of its festivals more widely known.
The Feast of Jethro, an ancient Tunisian tradition, is essentially a feast for boys. The story of Jethro is read in the synagogue, followed by a hearty Tunisian meal. The food may not be forthcoming at the Feast of Jethro presentation at Jerusalem’s Heichal Shlomo auditorium on Tuesday, February 7, at 8 pm, but there will be traditional Tunisian songs and music performed by Adal Amir and Ramzi Mabruk. Admission is free of charge, but reservations should be made in advance at tickchack.co.il
A multicultural event in London
■ VISITORS TO London during the last week of February or first week of March, may care to visit the 72nd Jewish Book Week at King’s Palace, London. A multicultural event, Book Week includes conversations, debates, musical performances, play readings, and talks by a variety of speakers.
Among them will be representatives of the National Library of Israel, including humanities curator Dr. Steffan Litt, reference librarian Daniel Lipson, comics writer, illustrator and artistic director of the NLI’s Sadeh Fellowship Rutu Modan, and author Matti Friedman, who will discuss his book about poet-singer Leonard Cohen and the Yom Kippur War. The NLI is happy to make speakers available for cultural events.
Dry Bones cartoonist needs a new home
■ TIME MARCHES on; the cost of living becomes increasingly expensive; income remains static and can no longer stretch to cover rent and basic utilities. It is impossible to estimate how many Israelis are affected in this way, because some are too proud to admit that they can’t make ends meet. There is no shame in being poor, and there is help available for people in need, so long as they don’t try to hide the fact.
Popular Dry Bones cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen and his artist wife, Sali Ariel, are not asking for handouts. What they want is affordable accommodation. The couple has been living and working out of a large, rented house in Herzliya Pituah for the past 22 years. It’s in a prime position with easy access to the main road to Haifa in one direction and Tel Aviv in the other. The landlord has decided to increase the rent to the point where Kirschen and his wife can no longer afford it. They are now looking for a five-room house or apartment in central Israel with wheelchair access, and preferably a garden.
In addition to being adept with a paintbrush, Ariel has been gifted with green fingers, and the house they have been living in has beautiful gardens, front and back. Kirschen, who is now 84 and confined to a wheelchair, wants a place that is not only affordable but one where he can live comfortably and continue to create and disseminate Dry Bones cartoons. At the present time, the bulk of their income is from social security, plus a few appreciative donors to whom Kirschen is immensely grateful.
There are probably lots of properties in Israel that would meet his needs and those of his wife. Each needs a room in which to work, plus a bedroom for the caregiver. Anyone who has such a property and is willing to rent it out at an affordable price should contact [email protected]
The distinguished citizens of Ra'anana
■ BEING CHOSEN as recipients of prestige awards or being conferred with titles such as distinguished citizen is always a great honor for the recipients, but Judy and Danny Hillman would have gladly forfeited the honor of being named distinguished citizens of Ra’anana, given the reason that they were recognized.
The Hillmans have been in the forefront of building Habayit shel Benji, or Benji’s House, as it is called English, in memory of their son Benji who fell in the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Habayit shel Benji is a home away from home for lone soldiers serving in the Israel Defense Forces. It currently accommodates 87 soldiers, and anticipates hosting another 500 before they return to civilian life.
The Hillmans have a lot of friends and supporters in Ra’anana, many of whom were in the audience at the Ra’anana Music and Arts Center during the emotional award ceremony, and there was hardly a dry eye in the house.
Israeli intelligence agents share spy stories
■ IT’S NOT unusual for meetings involving government officials to be closed to the press, but NGOs are usually interested in publicity and delighted when media personnel show up.
The same usually goes for the Tel Aviv International Salon, but not entirely for the event scheduled for February 21 under the title of Spycraft Uncovered. Two of Israel’s former intelligence agents, a man and a woman, who are still referred to by their initials and not their full names, will share some of their recollections about espionage operations in which they were engaged.
Journalists will be permitted to attend, but the event is off the record. That may mean that all who are present will be required to deposit their mobile phones, as it is so easy these days to secretly record people as they speak. The event, which is free of charge, will be held at Seatano Beach Lounge, Herbert Samuel Boulevard, at 7 p.m. It is geared to young people in their 20s and 30s.
Organizers have supplied brief biographies of the speakers.
Agent J. was born in Paris, and spent most of her life traveling between France and the US before making aliyah in her twenties. Prior to joining “The Office,” she managed a philanthropic fund and worked as a backup dancer. She holds two degrees that are completely irrelevant to her career. To spice up her story, she got married on the same day that she joined “The Office,” and has been on a honeymoon with both her husband and her job for the past 10 years. She loves being a mother, has recruited foreign assets while pregnant with twins, has worn bulletproof vests in more than 14 different countries, and has dyed her hair 22 times for the job.
Agent K. was born in Israel, and grew up with one foot in Rome and the other in Tel Aviv. He joined “The Office” after a short but brilliant career in the fashion industry, of which his only reminder is his model wife. The couple has four children, each born in a different country. Agent K. speaks five languages, including Swahili, and mastered the art of tai chi in order to recruit one of his most valuable assets. He has served in his intelligence career for more than 15 years.