Grapevine April 7, 2021: Torch of memory

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN, flanked by Prof. Aharon Barak and his wife, Elisheva. (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN, flanked by Prof. Aharon Barak and his wife, Elisheva.
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
 Legal and political struggles notwithstanding, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is somehow continuing to carry on with his duties and will attend the opening ceremony of Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem, where both he and President Reuven Rivlin will deliver addresses. Acting Yad Vashem chairman Ronen Plot will kindle the memorial torch.
Plot, the mayor of Nof Hagalil and a former director-general of the Knesset, was appointed to the position of acting Yad Vashem chairman in December 2020 because Effi Eitam, the person originally chosen to succeed Avner Shalev, was considered to be too controversial, and the spate of social media attacks against him did not augur well for anyone who was a potential head of Yad Vashem. Meanwhile, until there is a new government, there is little likelihood that a permanent chairman will be appointed.
■ NOW THAT the new Knesset has been sworn in, new and veteran MKs can turn their attention to elections for Israel’s 11th president. Declared candidates till now are former MKs Shimon Shetreet, Amir Peretz and Yehudah Glick. Now there’s a fourth by way of child Holocaust survivor, academic, former MK and Ben-Gurion’s official biographer Michael Bar-Zohar, who had as a neighbor in his apartment block in Tel Aviv a politician destined to become Israel’s ninth president – namely, Shimon Peres.
At 83 years of age Bar-Zohar is confident that he can handle the job. After all, Peres was less than a month shy of his 84th birthday when he took on the presidency, and he lasted the whole of the seven-year distance, after which he continued to receive foreign dignitaries at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Jaffa. World leaders and former world leaders, when they came to Israel, usually made it their business to visit Peres and seek his input and advice.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, who as speaker of the Knesset was acting president when Rivlin was out of the country, had hoped to succeed him, but then gave up on the idea, and now says that he would like to continue as health minister.
Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog was also regarded as a potential candidate, but refused to make a commitment until he saw which way the wind was blowing in the Knesset, given that it’s the legislators who elect the president.
The name of Israel Prize laureate Miriam Peretz has also been put forward by her admirers, but Peretz said in various interviews that she was not a candidate. Pharmacist Elham Khazen has expressed an interest, but has done little since then. Both she and Peretz still have time to make a firm decision, and if one of them is elected, she would be the country’s first female president, though Dalia Itzik, when speaker of the Knesset, was acting president.
■ WHEN SOCIAL entrepreneur Adi Altschuler founded Zikaron Basalon (Remembrance in the Living Room) in 2010, she probably did not realize how relevant it would become. For several years previously, Holocaust survivors were recounting their experiences in schools, community centers and in Holocaust museums. There did not seem to be a need for yet another means of imparting this painful chapter in the history of the Jewish people.
But as things turned out, Zikaron Basalon, which is a much more intimate encounter than a classroom or an auditorium, is increasingly in demand, as the generation of the Holocaust fades out. More and more people, especially younger people, want to hear survivors tell of what their childhoods were like before the war, how their lives changed, how they managed to survive, and what they were able to achieve during and immediately after the war and in the ensuing years.
Just as Jews are commanded to celebrate Passover as if they themselves had been liberated from Egypt, so, too, must they commemorate the Holocaust as if they, too, had experienced the Nazi atrocities. It’s bad enough for people who were orphaned by the Holocaust, such as Warsaw-born historian and Israel Prize laureate Prof. Anita Shapira, who was seven years old when she arrived in Tel Aviv with her adoptive parents in 1947. She prefers not to talk about her biological parents, who were among the victims of the Holocaust. On the other hand, for biological children of Holocaust survivors whose growing-up years were spent in being woken in the night by parents screaming in their sleep as they relived the nightmares of torture, fear and loss, imagining themselves in those dark places that their parents could never put out of their minds was not at all difficult. In fact, it was too easy.
But even for people like them, there is some magnetic pull to hearing the saga of yet another survivor, and they, too, can be found in living rooms around the country, listening intently as a survivor tells his or her story.
■ THE TRIALS and tribulations experienced during the past year by Israeli students from kindergarten to 12th grade have received wide and frequent publicity. Educators and psychologists have spoken long and loud about the harm caused by isolation and long-term long-distance learning.
Few would deny that students suffered during this period, but this was relatively mild compared to the educational deprivations and the psychological damage done to child survivors of the Holocaust. And yet so many of them went on to become great achievers, regardless of the long gaps in their studies and the conditions under which they lived.
One such person was former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak, born Erik Brick, who is a survivor of the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania. Barak, who early in his law career had among his students a young man by the name of Reuven Rivlin, came to the President’s Residence this week as part of the Zikaron Basalon project.
He was five years old when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and occupied Lithuania. Five is a very important age in a child’s education, but when the Jews were forced into the Kovno Ghetto, schools were closed, and any education that was imparted was done so in a clandestine manner. Almost 80 years later, Barak can still remember arriving in the overcrowded ghetto in a horse-drawn wagon.
There were some 30,000 people confined to the ghetto. Two weeks after Barak’s arrival they were all told to assemble in the center of the ghetto, which was known as Democracy Square and still bears that name. This assembly was the beginning of a cycle of death. Nazi officers selected 10,000 Jews, for hard labor in concentration camps or for dispatch to death camps. Most of those who were not shot perished from hunger, cold and disease.
Barak and his mother, Leah, a teacher, somehow managed to survive the conditions in the ghetto, despite the fact that the Germans at the beginning of 1944 ordered everyone to remain in their homes and then went and selected children and old people, who were destined to be killed. To this day, Barak does not know how come he was not among those children and ascribes it simply to luck. Indeed, when Jews were first ordered to go to the ghetto, Barak’s mother had begged teachers with whom she had worked before the war to take in her son, but they all refused.
Soon after Barak’s having been overlooked in the selection of children, he and his mother managed to escape. Supplies for soldiers on duty in the ghetto were delivered regularly in huge sacks. The young boy was smuggled out in a sack of potatoes, and somehow his mother was able to get out and ride in the same wagon, A German soldier was sitting on top of the sack which concealed the boy, but didn’t seem to be aware of the fact. His mother succeeded in getting away and took the sack with her.
The two were subsequently sheltered by farmers. They stayed with the first family for two weeks, till the Germans became suspicious, and then moved on to another family, with whom they stayed for a little over half a year until Lithuania was liberated by the Red Army.
After the war, they were reunited with Barak’s father, Zvi, a lawyer, who had been sent to a concentration camp in Germany.
For all the fear, suffering and deprivation, that young boy, after arriving in Israel, grew up to be a brilliant law student, dean of the Faculty of Law at the Hebrew University, attorney-general, a judge in the Supreme Court, President of the Supreme Court and an Israel Prize laureate.
Israeli students did indeed have a hard time during the COVID-19 restrictions – and it still isn’t completely over.
But if they listen to the experiences of some well-known personalities who were child Holocaust survivors, and realize that 2020 was a challenge that was not insurmountable, most youngsters will be fine, and many will go on to chalk up outstanding accomplishments.
■ FOR HOLOCAUST survivors, some of the proudest moments of their lives were to see their sons, daughters and grandchildren in IDF uniforms. Many say that if the State of Israel had been founded 10 years earlier, the calamity that befell the Jewish people might not have happened, or if it had, the casualties would have been far fewer.
Both parents of MK Avi Dichter were Holocaust survivors. In the IDF he served in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit under Ehud Barak, and was later commander of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). After entering politics, he was public security minister and later home front defense minister.
Now, 76 years after the Second World War, there are still legislators and government ministers who are the offspring of Holocaust survivors. Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who each held the position of IDF chief of staff, are sons of Holocaust survivors, and each, like Dichter, has dedicated a large portion of his life to national defense.
Like other second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors, they carry the torch of memory.
Within the framework of Zikaron Basalon, Dichter will share some of his experiences with members of the ALL Club for small- and medium-sized businesses on Wednesday, April 7, at 5 p.m.
Registration for the free-of-charge Zoom lecture is: https://did.li/ac-avi/. A link will be sent via email when registration has been completed.
■ WHEN THERE are no survivors left to pass on the legacy of remembrance, future generations of Jews will be grateful to influential filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who is this year’s Genesis Prize laureate.
The Genesis Prize, established in 2013 and first awarded in 2014, is a $1 million prize which the recipient does not keep but allocates to specific social welfare endeavors. Spielberg, who was chosen by the public from a short list of exceptional individuals, said that he and his wife, actress Kate Capshaw, will match the prize money with $1 million of their own to go to 10 nonprofit organizations and institutions working for racial and economic justice.
The Genesis Prize fosters Jewish identity, inspires Jewish pride and strengthens the bond between Israel and the Diaspora.
In announcing Spielberg’s win, Stan Polovets, Genesis Prize Foundation co-founder and chairman, said: “The Genesis Prize celebrates Steven Spielberg’s unique talent, his commitment to making the world a better place and his unparalleled contribution to teaching the postwar generations about the horrors of the Holocaust.”
The Spielberg Jewish Film Archives, which are housed at the Hebrew University Jerusalem, have 400 feature films, documentaries and witness testimonies, related mainly to the Holocaust. Other videotaped testimonies, documentaries and feature films can be found at Yad Vashem, Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, Massuah, Yad Mordechai and various other Holocaust museums in Israel and around the world.
Aside from preserving the memory of the Holocaust per se, the witness testimonies, in addition to promoting a universal commitment to prevent such horrors from being repeated, also spell out personal messages to descendants of survivors, giving future generations a permanent connection with the past.
■ ON APRIL 11, 1961, the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who had committed war crimes against Jews, opened in Jerusalem. The presiding judges were Moshe Landau, Benjamin Halevi and Yitzhak Raveh.
Coincidentally, six years earlier, Halevi had been the lone judge in a libel suit in which hotelier Malchiel Gruenwald accused Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor Rudolf Kastner of collaborating with the Nazis – specifically Eichmann. At the time of the trial, Kastner, who was the grandfather of Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli, was a highly respected civil servant on whose behalf the government sued Gruenwald.
But Gruenwald and his lawyer Shmuel Tamir, who later was appointed justice minister, argued that even though he was aware of what awaited people deported to Auschwitz, Kastner failed to warn Hungarian Jewry. They claimed that his motive in remaining silent was because he wanted to save a small number of people, most of whom were his relatives and family friends.
Despite many witnesses who spoke on Kastner’s behalf, Gruenwald was acquitted, and Halevi wrote in his decision when summing up: “Kastner sold his soul to the devil.”
Kastner filed an appeal, but did not live to see himself acquitted of most of the charges against him. In early March 1957, he was shot as he arrived at his home in Tel Aviv, soon after midnight, and died less than two weeks later.
However, before his death, despite being in critical condition, he was able to describe his assailant, which led to the arrests of several people who had been involved in the assassination plot against him. The main culprits eventually confessed, but much of the material remained classified and still is after the elapse of well over half a century.
As far as is known, the documents were sealed on the orders of prime minister David Ben-Gurion, though if anyone knows why, they’re not talking – certainly not the Shin Bet, which is fiercely opposed to having the documents declassified.
Ofer Aderet, the Haaretz journalist who usually writes on historical subjects and wants to unseal the documents, is battling, with the backing of the newspaper, to have the documents unsealed, though other publications do not seem to have taken up the cause. It should be remembered that Michaeli was a journalist before she became a politician, and that she worked for Haaretz, which apparently respects her sufficiently to take over the battle that her family has been fighting for years.
The trial and its aftermath were very difficult for Michaeli’s mother, Zsuzsi, who was still a schoolgirl at the time, and was either ostracized or attacked. She suffered the worst kind of humiliations that children can inflict on each other.
Even though Kastner was exonerated after his demise, the thrust of Halevi’s words continues to haunt Kastner’s family.
His three ultra-right-wing killers served only seven years in prison before their release. Even though he saved the lives of thousands of people, most notably 1,684 on a train to freedom traveling from Hungary to Switzerland, the stigma placed on him by Halevi continued to stick.
In October 2009 the New York-based YIVO Institute for Jewish Research screened the two-hour film Killing Kastner – the Jew who Dealt with Nazis. It was a film that had taken eight years to make. Hungarian Holocaust survivors had been invited to the screening, as had Michaeli, her sister and their mother, as well as Gabriela Shalev, who was then Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. The film was extremely well received, with survivors telling Kastner’s daughter and granddaughters how much they cherished his memory because they owed their lives to him.
Michaeli spoke of her grandfather in her maiden speech in the Knesset, and said that if there was something that she had learned from him, it was not to be a victim.
■ ONE OF the foremost researchers of the Holocaust, polyglot, erudite, Czech-born Prof. Yehuda Bauer, this week celebrated his 95th birthday. He and his parents got out of Prague just in time. Traveling a roundabout route through different parts of Europe, they were permitted to land in British Mandate Palestine.
Bauer, incidentally, is known for defending Kastner and the Aid and Rescue Committee of which Kastner was a leading member.
Knowing so much about the Holocaust and the countries invaded and occupied by the Nazis, Bauer does not go along with the mistaken belief that Jews went like lambs to the slaughter. Undoubtedly, some did, but there were so many acts of defiance, courage and heroism that he can instantly talk about, without having to search his mind, that it would be correct to say that the lambs to the slaughter characterization is erroneous.
■ SEVERAL FILM directors in different countries have made documentaries and docudramas under the title of The Last Partisan. Research over the years failed to produce the actual last partisan because there was always someone else who came out of the woodwork and was able to prove his or her claim. But if Leonid Bernstein – who at 98 died during the production of The Last Partisan which will be shown Wednesday at 9:15 p.m. on KAN 11 – was not the last of the partisans, he was certainly among the last of these heroes.
Born in Ukraine in 1921, he was a highly decorated soldier in the Red Army as well as a partisan. For some odd reason, the heroism of Jewish soldiers in the Red Army and in the partisan forces is not sufficiently recognized, which may be one of the reasons that they wear their medals at national days, Remembrance Day and VE Day ceremonies. Bernstein had so many medals and ribbons that they took up the width and length of both the right and the left sides of his suit jacket.
He lived in a modest apartment in Kiryat Ata in a building that had no elevator. In his declining years, he was confined to a wheelchair. None of his neighbors knew that the elderly, heavily built man in their midst was an extraordinary war hero who had discovered the hidden location for the development and manufacture of German V-2 long-range artillery weapons used for strategic bombing.
Speaking directly to the camera, Bernstein told his story, and spoke of the images that continued to haunt him of people on the brink of death, and women with children murdered before his eyes. Director of the production was Roman Shumunov and producers Ronen Machlis Balzam, Hila Guy and Lior Sasson.
■ AUSTRALIA, POPULARLY known as “the lucky country,” which indeed it has been for a lot of people, is not as lucky as it used to be, judging by reports emanating from Dvir Abramovich, chairman of the Anti-defamation Commission, which consistently tracks neo-Nazi activities and other forms of antisemitism in Melbourne.
Far-right extremism and neo-Nazi campaigns are quite commonplace, with white supremacists making life difficult not only for Jews but for all nonwhites, including members of the indigenous population.
As a migrant island continent, Australia has citizens from all over Asia. Some initially came as long ago as the 1850s and 1860s, when the Ballarat goldfields in the State of Victoria were the source of great prosperity. But while the progeny of these Asians may have adopted Western customs and made tremendous contributions to Australia’s development, their racial features make them targets for white supremacists, who are also negatively disposed to Jews.
Percentage-wise, Melbourne has one of the highest ratios of first-, second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors in the world. Not only that, but many of the first generation did extremely well in business and gave back in many ways to the country that gave them what was then a relatively safe haven. Their children and grandchildren have in many instances become great achievers in almost every possible field, and the percentage of Jews in different categories in Australia Day honors is quite amazing.
Yet for all that, neo-Nazis in Melbourne tell their followers to go out and club Jews, attack and rape Jewish women, accuse Jews of killing Jesus, fill school textbooks with libelous material and circulate photoshopped images of Abramovich in front of the gas chambers. They also leave swastika graffiti all over the place, particularly in neighborhoods with large Jewish populations.