GRAPEVINE: A time to remember

Yiddishpiel, Primo Levi and young diplomats.

Primo Levi (photo credit: Courtesy)
Primo Levi
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘The man who tried to stop the Holocaust” is the title of an evening seminar that will be held at Beit Lohamei Hagetaot in conjunction with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung on Sunday, January 27.
The man in question was Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski, who reported to the Polish government-in-exile and to the Western Allies on German atrocities in Poland. His report on the Warsaw Ghetto, where he had been smuggled in and out, was particularly detailed. A great Polish hero, who had personally suffered under the Nazi occupation of his country, Karski survived the war, and was made an honorary citizen of Israel.
The keynote address, under the title of “In the image of God – in the image of Man,” will be delivered by Bible scholar and television personality Dov Elboim. Excerpts of testimony given by Karski in the film Shoah will be screened during the evening, and there will also be readings from the dramatic book Underground State.
■ AS IT does every year, the Italian Cultural Institute, together with the Italian Embassy, will hold a memorial conference at Yad Vashem this coming Sunday, January 27, to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
This year is also the 100th anniversary of the birth of celebrated Italian Jewish writer, poet and chemist Primo Levi, whose memoir If This is a Man tells of his experiences as prisoner 174517 in Auschwitz. The memoir led to his career as a writer, but he is best known for his most famous work in the realm of Holocaust personal fiction, The Periodic Table.
Speakers at the memorial event will include Italian Foreign Minister Prof. Enzo Moavero Milanesi, Stefano Bartezzaghi and Manuela Consonni, who will present their own perspectives on Levi. The conference will be preceded by a memorial service. There will be simultaneous translation from Italian to Hebrew.
■ THE RUSSIAN Cultural Institute in Tel Aviv commemorated the Holocaust, ahead of the official date of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, by hosting a memorial meeting for survivors of the 900-day Siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), which on September 8, 1941, had been imposed by Nazi troops aided by Finnish collaborators. The siege was lifted on January 27, 1945, which coincidentally is also the date of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet soldiers. In fact, at the crowded memorial event, there were several elderly participants wearing the medals that they earned in the Red Army during the Second World War.
According to the Russian Embassy, more than 1,300 survivors of the siege live in Israel.
The unprecedented famine in Leningrad during the siege was aggravated by the disruption of utilities, water and energy supplies. The entire public transport system stopped working due to a shortage of fuel. Starting in November 1941, food vouchers were introduced. The lowest quantity of food supplies was registered in the unusually severe winter of 1942 – only 125 grams of bread per person.
Two winter months in 1942 alone saw the deaths of 200,000 residents of Leningrad who succumbed to cold and starvation. However, most of the factory plants kept working, and people, despite their starvation and intolerable circumstances, refused to give up. Regardless of the unbearable conditions, adults still went to work every day, and, though suffering from dystrophy, contributed blood donations to the front in exchange for larger portions of bread for their families.
Children went to school even in the winter, when the weather was so cold they had to sit in their overcoats and break ice on their ink pots. Both adults and children, even as young as 11 year olds, had to take turns digging trenches or standing on the roofs during bombings, cleaning them from the fire bombs which, if they stayed there longer, could burn down houses. Notwithstanding the hardships imposed on the population, scientists resumed their research, and the great Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich completed and performed his Symphony No. 7.
Earlier in the day, Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov called on President Reuven Rivlin, not so much to discuss the past as the present and the future. They spoke of the value of the political dialogue between Russia and Israel and agreed on the need to intensify areas of cooperation that would be mutually beneficial. They also had an in-depth exchange of views on the state of affairs in the Middle East, with an emphasis on the situation in Syria and problems related to the Palestinians.
■ TWO DAYS after Viktorov’s visit, Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, invited David (Dugo) Leitner to join them in a falafel feast. The background to the invitation is poignant. Along with 60,000 other Jews, Dugo, at the age of 14, was on the death march from Auschwitz. Exhausted and starving, he marched for miles dreaming of bilkelach – the bread rolls he would eat if he survived. When he arrived in Jerusalem and paid his first visit to the capital’s colorful Mahaneh Yehuda market, he saw falafel for the first time, and for some reason the fried balls of chickpeas reminded him of the rolls that he had dreamed of during the bitter period of his internment in the notorious death camp. Since then, every January 18, Dugo celebrates the fact that he is alive by eating falafel. The Testimony House at Nir Galim brought his story to the attention of the president, who promptly decided to get in a day early, so that Dugo could eat falafel on two consecutive days.
Reminiscing about the worst period in his life Dugo told the Rivlins: “I was walking with my eyes shut. I couldn’t open them because of the heavy snow. During the march I fell asleep and dreamed of my mother. She always told me that we would go to live in the Land of Israel, and that in Israel bilkelach grew on the trees.”
“Your custom of eating falafel each year really touched us,” the president told him. “Ever since I heard your story, I have been hoping to sit down with you and eat falafel together.”
■ IT WAS not exactly music to the ears of Tony Kay, the deputy chief of mission at the British Embassy, to spend more than an hour listening to people extolling the virtues of the European Union, especially when so many Brits who voted for Brexit have indicated a change of heart at a time when a U-turn in British policy on this issue may not be feasible. Still, Kay, who is usually in good spirits, and has a well developed sense of humor, could not help but be present at the Ambassadors’ Club third annual Diplomat of the Year event at the Herzliya Marina, where honorees included not only the head of the Delegation of the European Union, Emanuele Giaufret, but also honorary consul for Lithuania Amnon Dotan, who is a former chairman of the Israel-Britain Chamber of Commerce, and who in 2003 was awarded an OBE; and Israeli-born Teddy Sagi, who was the founder of Playtech, the world’s leading online gaming software company, and who more recently became a major investor in the London property market.
This is the first year in which the Ambassadors’ Club, which also celebrated its own eighth anniversary, has introduced a prize category for excellence in international business.
According to Uriel Lynn, president of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce, in a changing world, diplomacy and international business go hand in hand. “If you want to have a strong country, you have to have a strong economy,” he said.
In addition to the honorees, Kay and Lynn, the event was attended by numerous diplomats, honorary consuls and business leaders.
The Ambassadors’ Club was founded by retired ambassador Yitzhak Eldan, who is a former chief of protocol at the Foreign Ministry. Although various ministries and organizations hold events to which they invite members of the diplomatic corps, Eldan felt that there was insufficient people-to-people contact between diplomats representing their home countries and regular Israelis of all faiths living in urban, rural and maritime environments.
Eldan also heads a school for young diplomats in which he takes groups of high school students abroad to meet with foreign ministers and parliamentarians as well as members of their peer generation to dialogue on commonalities and to argue about differences and misunderstandings. Some of Eldan’s students were present and enjoyed meeting the ambassadors. Various ambassadors stationed in Israel cooperate in the young diplomats endeavor.
In his acceptance speech, Giaufret said there are times when he looks in desperation at some Israeli attitudes to the EU, and was therefore glad that there are those “who recognize what we’re doing.” He commended the Ambassadors’ Club “for making us diplomats feel at home in Israel and for their work as goodwill ambassadors for their country.
“This award is meaningful to me,” he continued, “as it reflects the reality of the deep and important relations between the EU and Israel. Disagreements we have on certain issues cannot and must not overshadow our entire relations, which are much wider and greatly beneficial for both. In my daily work I see how much interest, appreciation and cooperation there is, and an aspiration amongst Israelis to get even closer to the EU and Europe. This award is an encouragement to all those who wish to see close and warm relations between us.”
Even though he was busy preparing for the visit this week of President Petro Poroshenko, Ukrainian Ambassador Hennadii Nadolenko, who is dean of the diplomatic corps, took time out to attend because Eldan had been one of the first people to greet him when he arrived in Israel and had escorted him when he presented his credentials to president Shimon Peres. Nadolenko also took the opportunity to congratulate the honorees and to deliver an apology on behalf of Lithuanian Ambassador Edminas Bagdonas, who had been called home to meetings related to the upcoming visit to Israel at the end of January by Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis. Also representing Bagdonas was Gita Blinstrubaite, a counselor at the Lithuanian Embassy.
Gad Propper, the dean of the honorary consuls and the longtime honorary consul for New Zealand, whose ambassador to Israel resides in Turkey, commented that Dotan had succeeded him in most of the public roles that he had filled, and a little over a decade ago, Dotan, noting that Propper was an honorary consul, decided, after being approached by the Lithuanian Embassy, that he wanted to be one too.
Dotan said that for him, it had been the closing of a circle because he comes from Lithuanian stock on both sides of his family, and he was pleased to have been able to contribute to Israeli-Lithuanian relations. He also congratulated Sagi for doing so much business for Israel and contributing to international relations.
Sagi said that he believes that good international business is based on good diplomatic relations and fosters good ties between individuals from different countries.
Kazakhstan Ambassador Doulat Kuanyshev likes to keep a photographic record of events that he has attended, and of course that means that he photographs and videotapes friends and colleagues. At the reception prior to the awards ceremony, he was busy showing colleagues photos of themselves. He also had a video of the 95th birthday party earlier in the month of radio journalist Walter Bingham dressed in the Kazakh national costume, which Kuanyshev had brought as a gift, dancing with Chabad of Rehavia director Rabbi Yisroel Goldberg.
As mentioned previously in this column, Bingham holds the record for being the oldest working radio journalist. California-based fellow Jewish journalist Tom Tugend, 92, who is widely syndicated in both the Jewish and the general print media, may well be the oldest print media journalist. What both men have in common, other than their profession and the fact that they are nonagenarians, is that both were born in Germany and both, while still teenagers, fought in the Allied armies during World War II – Bingham in the British Army and Tugend in the American army. Both also saw service in France, and each has been awarded the Legion of Honor.
Tugend also fought in Israel’s War of Independence, and his recruitment officer was another great journalist, Michael Elkins, who died 18 years ago in Jerusalem. Elkins, who worked for CBS, the BBC and Newsweek, was the first foreign media journalist to report the Six Day War. When he called CBS, they doubted the veracity of the story, so he gave it to the BBC, which broadcast it, assuring his place in the history of journalism. Had Elkins still been living, he would have celebrated his 102nd birthday on January 22. Elkins and his wife actually came to Israel to avoid arrest in America. After meeting Teddy Kollek, Elkins became involved in organizing illegal shipments of arms to the Hagana. The FBI got wind of what he was doing, and Elkins, who was one step ahead, fled to Israel. In the latter part of his life, he was ombudsman and letters editor for The Jerusalem Report. In addition to journalism, he authored a book, Forged in Fury, which tells the story of Jewish avengers against the Nazis after the war.
■ TEL AVIV’s ZOA House is the traditional home of gala Yiddishpiel productions. Every show goes on tour to other cities for a month to six weeks before hitting the ZOA stage and then continues to perform around the country.
For many years, the bulk of Yiddishpiel audiences were Holocaust survivors who wanted to recapture the nostalgia of yesteryear – the remnants of a culture that once flourished in Europe. There were also American and British expatriates who had grown up in households in which the parents and grandparents conversed in Yiddish, and they, too, felt the tug of nostalgia. And then came the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Some were fluent in Yiddish, and others from the younger generation were eager to learn Yiddish, because it gave them a connection to a heritage that for decades had been put on hold.
Last week, the new production of Menahem Mendl in Israel had a traditional Yiddishpiel gala evening at ZOA, with people in all the above categories in the audience. Menahem Mendl is one of the best-known legendary characters in Yiddish literature and drama, a product of the fertile imagination of Solomon Rabinovich, better known as Sholem Aleichem. Rabinovich’s son-in-law Isaac Dov Berkowitz adopted Menahem Mendl and gave him a home in his own writings. Hence, Menahem Mendl in Israel, a musical comedy performed partially in Yiddish and partially in Hebrew, is based on Berkowitz’s book.
Yiddishpiel CEO Zelig Rabinovich, together with artistic director Sassi Keshet, chairman of the Yiddishpiel executive committee Gabi Last, the Yitzhak Tshuva Group and Yaffa Vigodsky, who chairs the Friends of Yiddishpiel Association, hosted all the invitees.
The plot revolves around a naive wheeler-dealer who comes to the Land of Israel to seek his fortune and to look for his rebel son who had been bitten by the pioneer spirit and lives on a kibbutz. The cast includes Alon Ophir, Lior Ben Yehuda, Natan Hecht, Yisrael Traistman, Alexa Lerner, Or Matza, Andre Kashler, Yonatan Rosen, Miri Ragendorfer and Nir Shafir.
■ THE INAUGURAL Global Impact Awards were presented last week at a gala event at the Tel Aviv Museum, in the presence of Rivlin, to humanitarians who have excelled in making a positive impact in the developing world. Six Israelis and two non-Israelis who have contributed individually or as part of a group toward meaningful global volunteering, international development and humanitarian aid, while forging partnerships between Israel and world Jewry, were among the honorees.
Global Impact Awards is a joint initiative of the Society for International Development (SID) Israel, Walla News and Olam, an organization dedicated to promoting, enhancing and showcasing the impact of Jewish organizations and individuals in the field of global volunteering, aid and development, alongside various partners.
The men and the women chosen for awards are in the forefront of academic research and Israeli innovation, said Rivlin, who emphasized that they also represent civil society, where the depth of specialization and the level of passion have led to groundbreaking results. In this context he also underscored the cooperation between Israel and Jewish communities around the world.
Among the award recipients were Dr. Georgette Bennett, founder of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees (MFA), and Jean-Claude Nkulikiyimfura, executive director of Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV).
Bennett, a child of Holocaust survivors and a refugee, was recognized for her groundbreaking work at MFA, the US’s leading interfaith response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Over the past two years, MFA has shipped $120 million of relief items to Israeli ports, where they were then transported by the IDF to the Golan Heights and turned over to NGOs in southwest Syria. This effort sustained hospitals and family clinics, equipped a maternity ward, and established a baking facility.
“Dr. Bennett is the embodiment of why we created this award in the first place. Not only has she transformed the lives of vulnerable Syrian refugees, but she has done so in deep partnership with Israel and the global Jewish community,” said Dyonna Ginsburg, executive director of Olam.
Nkulikiyimfura, was recognized for his groundbreaking work at ASYV, a holistic living and learning community in Rwanda modeled after the Israeli youth village Yemin Orde. ASYV provides an education and a home to more than 500 vulnerable Rwandan youth a year. As of 2018, 80% of alumni were enrolled in, or had graduated from, higher education programs. ASYV partners with numerous Jewish organizations, including American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; hosts Jewish volunteers from around the world; and houses a solar field built by the Israeli company Energiya Global.
Other awardees were GivingWay, IsraAID, Tahal, Soapy Care, SSF-Rescuers without Borders; and Prof. Samuel Pohoryles, who was special adviser on international agricultural development to several Israeli ministries, received a lifetime achievement award.
Alon Bar, CEO of SID Israel, said: “In a time when the divisions between parts of the Jewish world are growing, the field of international development is one of the only areas where we are in agreement. We believe that the president is the only person who can lead a process of creating a shared agenda between Israel and the Diaspora at this point in time. The last year was significant in the field of international development mainly because the president put the issue on the agenda, set strategic targets for us and mostly reminded us that alongside discussion of economic and diplomatic value of this kind of activity, we should also remember the ethical moral and Jewish dimension of this kind of work.”
■ SEVERAL STREETS and monuments in Israel are named 23 Yordei Hasira. The closest translation would be the 23 who went down with the boat. The boat in question was the Sea Lion, and the 23 were Palmah volunteers who, together with a British officer, Maj. Sir Anthony Palmer, left Haifa on May 18, 1941, on a mission to sabotage the oil refineries in Tripoli.
Although the Palmah engaged in fighting the British Mandate authorities in different ways, they cooperated with the British in fighting the Nazis. Such cooperation was coordinated between the Jewish Agency and Britain’s Special Operations Executive, which is the reason that Palmer was on the ship, which mysteriously disappeared. Many efforts have been made over the years to discover the fate of those on board. None, nor the ship itself, were ever found, and thus the mystery was never solved.
The board of directors of the Council for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel, together with the Dekel family, organized an event marking the 11th anniversary of the death of Yehuda Dekel, who had been the founder of the council, to launch the book The Unknown Mission by Dr. Mordechai Naor.
The event at the Palmah Museum was attended by approximately 200 navy veterans, and families of veterans of the Palmah.
Among those present at the event were former Navy heads Ze’ev Almog and David Ben-Besht, Shai Elbaz, Israel’s Naval Intelligence Division head, and Boaz Dekel, along with members of the Dekel family.