Grapevine April 14, 2021: Reconstructing the life of a single victim

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN and Prof. Eli Feinerman, head of the Volcani Institute, plant olive saplings in the grounds of the President’s Residence to mark the 100th anniversary of the Volcani Institute. (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN and Prof. Eli Feinerman, head of the Volcani Institute, plant olive saplings in the grounds of the President’s Residence to mark the 100th anniversary of the Volcani Institute.
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
 Six million is a number that even a professional mathematician has difficulty in conceiving. Thus, when we speak of six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, it is often done without the sensitivity that would be reserved for just one victim. Soviet despot Joseph Stalin has been quoted as saying: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.”
A similar philosophy is at the root of the Convoy 77 project, launched six years ago at the residence in Jaffa of then-French ambassador Patrick Maisonnave.
Convoy 77 was the last to leave Drancy for Auschwitz on July 31, 1944. Although it was already obvious that Germany was losing the war, Alois Brunner, the depraved Drancy camp commander, saw no reason to stop murdering Jews.
He ordered a large final convoy of deportees – 986 men and women, and 324 children. Of the 1,310 prisoners on Convoy 77, 836 were sent to the gas chambers immediately after arriving in Auschwitz. Of the remainder 250 survived forced labor, abuse, pseudo-medical experiments and deprivation. Some were liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.
With the passing of the years, survivors, children and grandchildren as well as other relatives and close friends of victims of the Holocaust began to worry about the Holocaust and its victims being remembered.
Georges Mayer, the son of deportee Alex Mayer, conceived the idea that if high school children in the various countries that had been impacted by the Holocaust were to select one person from the deportees on Convoy 77 and reconstruct that person’s biography by researching that person’s life, interviewing family members, friends, acquaintances, and so forth, the numbers would begin to take on human faces to which the researchers could relate. He contacted other sons, daughters and grandchildren of deportees on Convoy 77, and together they formed Convoi77 Auschwitz – Projet européen.
Six years ago, in the presence of 19 ambassadors and foreign embassy representatives in Israel, the project was officially launched. Among those present at the time was Lars Faaborg-Andersen, who was then the head of the delegation of the European Union in Israel. Last Thursday, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, French Ambassador Eric Danon hosted a similar event, attended by ambassadors and other representatives of several European countries as well as Emanuele Giaufret, current head of the delegation of the EU, and, of course, Georges Mayer. It was the first event at the French Residence since the start of the pandemic.
In addition to the various speeches, there was a riveting video of a reconstructed biography of a Convoy 77 deportee prepared by a French high school student, who will soon meet with French President Emmanuel Macron. Mayer said there was another excellent biography prepared by a German high school student, who will meet with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Danon stated that the work and duty of remembrance is of the utmost importance. “Transmission of memory of the Shoah is painful in speaking of the unspeakable,” he said, noting that survivors who had remained silent for many years are now breaking the silence and speaking more to their grandchildren about their experiences than they ever spoke to their children.
They are also speaking in schools and museums, he said, adding that in some places it is now mandatory to include teaching of the Shoah in school curricula. This is essential, he said, because the direct voices of those who were caught up in the Holocaust are becoming fewer and fewer.
Danon also stressed the significance of meaningful discussions about the Shoah, because minimizing it has become commonplace, and this leads to antisemitism. There must be more outreach to the younger generation, he insisted, and the best way to do so is to give the casualties a human face.
Giaufret underscored the importance of transmitting memory. “Antisemitism is nourished by lack of knowledge and distortion of facts,” he said. “We try to protect Jewish heritage in Europe.”
For Mayer, for whom the Shoah is more than history, it is very troubling that more than 20% of 18-year-olds in Europe say they have never heard of the Holocaust. This is why he came up with the alternative education approach of focusing on only one specific person instead of six million.
Of 32 countries that were impacted by the Holocaust, said Mayer, 20 are now involved in the Convoy 77 project – including Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, in addition to European countries. The project is not only against antisemitism, he said, but against racism in general.
■ IT IS only in recent years that Yad Vashem has given recognition to Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust. For a long time, relatives of such heroes were frustrated by the fact that parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, had risked their lives to save other Jews, and sometimes lost their lives in the process, and yet Israel’s citadel of Holocaust remembrance refused to give them the honor and respect given to non-Jews who were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.
Happily, that has changed, but long before it did, the B’nai’ B’rith World Center (BBWC), together with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, was honoring Jews who saved Jews, with the heroes or their offspring present, as well as the ambassadors of countries in which those heroes were born.
This year, the two organizations again came together in the Martyrs’ Forest for the 20th annual event of its kind. Key honorees were Wilhelm Filderman and Yitzhak Artzi (Romania), Jose Abulkar (Algeria) and 10 other rescuers who worked in Poland, France, Hungary, Austria and Belgium.
Few if any ambassadors were more suited to attend the event than Romanian Ambassador Radu Ioanid, who for several years, beginning in 1989, was a researcher at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Then, between 2000 and 2020, he was the director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s International Archival Programs Division. In addition, from 2003 to 2004 he served as the vice president of the International Commission for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania. The commission was chaired by Elie Wiesel.
BBWC director Alan Schneider commented that this was the first time that recipients (albeit posthumously) included people who had been residents of the Land of Israel. Among them were Hanna Szenes, who was parachuted into Yugoslavia to help local forces in their resistance against the Nazis, and Haim-Moshe Shapira, the head of the Jewish Agency’s Aliyah Department, who in 1938, following the Anschluss, went on a special mission to Austria to rescue Jews.
Speakers at the ceremony, in addition to Ioanid, included: KKL-JNF global chairman Avraham Duvdevani; Dr. Haim Katz, chairman of the B’nai B’rith World Center; Dep.-Ch. Yehuda Yehoshua, commander of the Border Police’s military school; Aryeh Barnea; and Habimah Theater director Noam Semel, who is the son-in-law of the late Yitzhak Artzi, who was part of the Zionist underground leadership in Romania, and was active in saving children from the Nazis. In Israel he was head of the Youth Department of the Jewish Agency, deputy mayor of Tel Aviv and a member of Knesset. He was the father of singer Shlomo Artzi and of novelist, short story writer and playwright Nava Semel, who was active in perpetuating Holocaust memory, and who died in December 2017.
During the ceremony, Jewish saviors’ citations were awarded by BBWC’s committee for the cherishing of the heroism of Jewish saviors during the Holocaust to 13 saviors from Syria, Romania, Hungary, France, Poland, Austria and Belgium, whose relatives accepted them on their behalf.
Duvdevani, dwelt on how different the Jewish world would be had the murder of six million Jews not taken place. He reflected on the loss not only of human life but to culture and science. Each of those whose lives were taken from them was an entire world, he said.
Katz pledged to come up with new initiatives to commemorate the important and heroic enterprise of Jews who saved Jews in the Holocaust, and who were involved in rescuing Jews on European and North African soil.
Ioanid spoke of what the leaders of the Romanian government and parliament are doing to safeguard the memory of the Holocaust and to fight against antisemitism. In this context he also mentioned plans for the establishment of a Holocaust Museum in Bucharest.
■ TIMING BEING everything, there could not have been a better date this year for the Guinness World Records management team to inform Jerusalem-based journalist Walter Bingham that he is now the official record holder for being the oldest working journalist in the world. Bingham, 97, who occasionally writes for The Jerusalem Post and its sister publication The Jerusalem Report, has a regular radio program called Walter’s World on Israel National Radio and The Walter Bingham File on Israel News Talk Radio. Bingham still gets around without the aid of a cane or a walker – and he is very much a field reporter.
Born in Germany, he was fortunate to be able to migrate to Britain within the framework of the Kindertransport. He had planned to continue from there to what was then Palestine, to join a kibbutz. But the war intervened, and as soon as he was old enough, Bingham enlisted in the British Army, in which he served for four years. Afterward, he remained in England, went to university, earned degrees in politics and philosophy and embarked on a career in journalism. He also worked as an actor and male model.
Kindertransport youngsters were separated from their parents, and often never saw them again, because the parents were either murdered by the Nazis or died of malnutrition and disease. Bingham’s father was deported to Poland and died in the Warsaw Ghetto. His mother survived several camps, and they were reunited after the war.
It was also after the war that Bingham was transferred to military intelligence to help translate documents required for the Nuremberg trials. He personally interrogated Joachim von Ribbentrop, who had been German foreign minister during the Nazi regime.
Bingham eventually came on aliyah in 2004 when he was 80 years old. He was not interested in retiring, and that’s one of the reasons that he’s still working. But back to timing. Holocaust Remembrance Day this year happened to fall on April 8, the day that Bingham received notification from the Guinness World Records organization that he has been recognized as the world’s oldest working journalist. What a triumph over the Nazis by a German-born Jew.
■ BLOOD BEING thicker than water, at least one of Gideon Sa’ar’s two daughters from his first marriage voted for him. In an interview with Itay Segal that was published in Yediot Aharonot, ahead of the launch of the new television series The Commander on KAN 11 in which she stars, Alona Sa’ar said that chances were high that if Gideon Sa’ar were not her father, she would have voted for Labor, because she has great admiration for Merav Michaeli. Her sister, Daniela, is a longtime Meretz supporter. Love and loyalty do not always go hand in hand.
■ FANS OF Itai Hermann may wish to send him greetings on his milestone birthday. Although he doesn’t look it, he turns 50 on April 14, though he actually celebrated on his Hebrew birthday, which was during the intermediate days of Passover. The walking encyclopedia is also known as the chaser, in accordance with the quiz show The Chase in which he pits his astounding fund of general knowledge against four contestants, and almost always comes out the winner, not only because he knows more, but often because he answers quickly. The quiz is not based on knowledge alone but on time, and Hermann seems to be able to answer more questions correctly in two minutes than most of his competitors.
Hermann received an early birthday present this week, when he was named as one of the prizewinners in the Israeli Academy Film and Television awards.
Unlike Education Minister Yoav Gallant, who refused on political grounds to award the Israel Prize to Weizmann Institute of Science mathematician Prof. Oded Goldreich, who is in favor of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, the academy separated the charges of sexual harassment against Erez Drigues from his professional abilities and awarded him the prize for Rehearsals in the best screenplay category. Gallant ignored protests by the academic jury that had selected Goldreich, most of this year’s Israel Prize recipients, former Israel Prize laureates, heads of universities and the Israel Arts and Science Academy, who were unanimous in their support of Goldreich, saying that he was among the best mathematicians in the world, which was the reason that he was considered worthy of the Israel Prize. The academics, including those who don’t see eye to eye politically with Goldreich, objected to the intrusion of politics into the Israel Prize awards.
In an alternative Israel Prize ceremony on Sunday, computer scientist Prof. David Harel, who was an Israel Prize laureate in 2004, presented his Israel Prize statuette to Goldreich in the presence of other academic luminaries.
■ MOVEMENT FOR Quality Government in Israel chairman Eliad Shraga is a serial protest demonstrator, and has been for more than 20 years. In the days when it was still permissible for protesters to gather literally outside the homes of the president, the prime minister and other public figures, Shraga used to stage one-man demonstrations by the fence of the President’s Residence as far back as the days when Chaim Herzog was president.
In an interview last Saturday with Israel Radio Reshet Bet’s Ronen Polak, Shraga refused to accept the fact that because the Likud had scored the most mandates in the democratically conducted Knesset elections, President Reuven Rivlin had tasked its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, to form the next government. Unwilling to wait the 28 days set down in the Basic Law for Netanyahu to either succeed or fail, Shraga, who is a lawyer by profession, ignored the polite attempts by Polak to cut short the interview, and incited listeners to join him in yet another mass anti-Netanyahu demonstration.
It was not the first since the elections. Last Thursday a small group of singing protesters with bad voices, made even worse by the use of bull horns, assembled in Smolenskin Street, just a few meters from the Prime Minister’s Residence, and began to chant for Netanyahu to go.
Tens of thousands of other people who did not vote for the Likud, and who would prefer to have someone other than Netanyahu as their prime minister, have nonetheless accepted the vote, because that’s a significant part of the democratic process. From this it can be deduced that the postelection demonstrators are antidemocratic.
■ THIS YEAR is the centenary of the Volcani Institute, the central government agricultural research institute. Originally called the Agricultural Research Station of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, it was founded by agronomist Yitzhak Elazari Volcani, who stood at its helm almost until his death in 1951, after which it was renamed in his memory. Initially located at Ben-Shemen, it was moved to Rehovot, where it stands to this day.
On Sunday, Rivlin hosted a modest reception in honor of what the institute has achieved over the past 100 years, and together with Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Alon Schuster and head of the Volcani Institute Prof. Eli Feinerman planted two olive tree saplings, one from the area of Shivta in the South and one from the Jerusalem area, in the gardens of the President’s Residence.
Rivlin also gave Feinerman a letter to future generations, to be buried in the Israeli gene bank at the Volcani Institute. The letter will remain in the gene bank’s refrigerators, where seeds that represent the biological range of Israel’s flora are preserved for future generations, at a temperature of -20° Celsius.
“Thanks to you, we remember that although Israel is not a country that has been blessed with many natural resources, it has talented and smart scientists who have learned to turn challenges into opportunities,” Rivlin told his guests. “Thanks to you, we have learned how good our land is and how important it is to continue taking care of it, researching it and making use of it for future generations.”
Schuster termed the Volcani Institute as “the jewel in the crown of Israeli agricultural research.”
Feinerman proudly noted: “Over the one hundred years of its existence, the Volcani Institute has registered enormous achievements that have become part of the daily lives of farmers in Israel and around the world.”
■ THERE WERE at least two important anniversaries on Sunday, April 11, which most of the media failed to mention. One was the 112th anniversary of the establishment of Tel Aviv as the first modern Hebrew city, and the other was the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald by US forces.
While neither was a milestone anniversary, there was a connection between the two. As far as is known, the youngest prisoner to be released from Buchenwald was a seven-year-old boy by the name of Yisrael Meir Lau, who arrived in Haifa a month and a half after his eighth birthday. Taken in by relatives and given a good yeshiva education, he later married the daughter of the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. After various rabbinical positions, he went on to become the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, a post that he held for 10 years, and then accepted the role of chief rabbi of Tel Aviv.
Incidentally, in May, Tel Aviv will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its being recognized as a township, before it became a city. After the May 1921 riots in Jaffa, which were started by the Jewish Communist Party and resulted in many Jewish and Arab deaths and injuries, Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv, applied to the British authorities for Tel Aviv to be totally separated from Jaffa, and as a result of this separation for Tel Aviv to be recognized as a township.
Between Meir Dizengoff and the present incumbent, Ron Huldai, who is the city’s longest-serving mayor, holding office since 1998, eight other men have held the title of mayor. Dizengoff served twice, initially from 1921 to 1925, and again from 1928 to 1936. Only one other mayor, Roni Milo, who was Huldai’s immediate predecessor, serving from 1993-1998, is still living.
There is a common misconception that Dizengoff was the founder of Tel Aviv, when in fact it was architect Akiva Arieh Weiss. Before it was called Tel Aviv, what has evolved into the city that never stops was in its founding stage, a neighborhood adjacent to Jaffa that was known as Ahuzat Bayit.
■ APRIL 15 will mark the 76th anniversary of the liberation by British forces of Bergen-Belsen, where Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, died a month earlier.
Fighting with the British forces was a young man who was destined to become the sixth president of Israel. Forty-eight years later, on April 22, 1993, president Herzog, at the dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, recalled that period in his address, when he said: “I speak here not only as the president of Israel just arrived from Jerusalem, but as one whose own life was touched marginally but deeply by the Holocaust. Many of my family, men, women and children, were destroyed in the Nazi gas chambers. As a young officer from Palestine, as it was then, serving in the British Army, one of a million and a half Jewish soldiers serving in the Allied Forces, I was a member of the first Allied division to cross the German border in the West....
“When we reached Bergen-Belsen, we were shattered by the horrifying evidence of starvation, torture and disease, and by the final epidemic of typhus raging there. To one who has seen anything of the Holocaust even marginally, it ceases to be an abstract concept and becomes a searing actuality never to be forgotten.
“In this audience are many who survived the ghastly horrors of the concentration camps after having seen their near ones and dear ones annihilated, including some of the one-and-a-half million innocent Jewish children who were exterminated.
“A few years ago, on the occasion of the first historic state visit to the Federal Republic of Germany by the president of Israel, president von Weizsäcker escorted me to the same camp, Bergen-Belsen, and shared the agony of remembrance. Indeed, my state visits as president of Israel took me to a number of concentration camps in Germany, in Czechoslovakia, in Poland and in Holland. In each of these camps we dedicated a rock from the hills of Jerusalem, bearing the words of the psalm, “and my sorrow is forever before me,” and I swore on behalf of my people never to forget, never to forgive.”