Grapevine: Conspicuously absent

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

POLISH PRESIDENT Andrzej Duda (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When Yad Vashem this week released the names of leaders of nations and heads of delegations who have confirmed their attendance at the fifth World Holocaust Forum, conspicuously absent from the list which was diplomatically assembled in alphabetical fashion in accordance with the names of the participating countries, Prince Charles who is heading the delegation from the United Kingdom is right at the bottom, even though he is the future king of England. He is one of four blue bloods who have so far confirmed their attendance, though organizers of the conference believe that there will be more royal confirmations over the next week.
Conspicuously absent from the list of dignitaries are President Andrzej Duda of Poland and US Vice President Mike Pence. This year’s forum also coincides with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz Birkenau. Although Duda’s confirmation had previously been announced, he is now in a funk because he is not included among the speakers, whereas Russian President Vladimir Putin has been included
Russia and Poland are in sharp disagreement over the history of the Second World War.
Duda wants to speak because Poland suffered more in the war than any other country. More Polish citizens were killed than those of any other country in Europe or North Africa, and the Nazis set up their death camps on Polish soil. But Yad Vashem’s argument is that at least half of the number of Poles murdered by the Nazis were not killed because they were Poles; they were killed because they were Jews.
Nonetheless, as Poland was the first country to be invaded by Germany at the start of the war, and Jews and non-Jews fought shoulder-to-shoulder in Polish resistance movements, Duda feels he has a right to speak. It also rankles that the president of the country which perpetrated the atrocities against humanity will be speaking, even though official German policy today is opposed to all forms of racism. While Duda hasn’t mentioned personal issues, his grandfather fought against the Germans in 1939, and his daughter Kinga has Jewish blood in her veins. His wife, Agata Kornhauser, is the daughter of writer-translator and literary critic Julian Kornhauser, whose father Jakub was Jewish and mother, Malgorzata, was Catholic.
As for American representation at the conference, in very small type at the bottom of the list there is a line that states, “Senior officials from the United States are also expected.” It doesn’t say who they are. With election campaigns underway, it’s not easy for President Donald Trump or Vice President Pence to get away. But Trump could send his son-in-law Jared Kushner whose paternal grandparents were both Holocaust survivors. Even more suitable would be former President Jimmy Carter, who is one of six American presidents who served in the US armed forces during World War Two and signed off as commissioned officers.
Carter is the only such president still living – but given his age and his health, it is highly unlikely that he would be considered as a possible American representative at the conference. Rumor has it that in the final analysis the US delegation will be led by Nancy Pelosi, who as speaker of the House of Representatives is possibly next in the pecking order of high-ranking American dignitaries. However, that rumor is still awaiting confirmation or denial.
■ VISITORS TO the President’s Residence this week were surprised to see heavy construction equipment in the main hall as workers spruced up the place for the dinner on January 22 that President Reuven Rivlin will host for leaders of delegations coming to the Holocaust Remembrance Forum. What was painful to those who might be art lovers was to see a workman standing on a ladder suspended from a crane as he drilled a hole in the ceiling, a masterpiece by Naftali Bezem, one of Israel’s leading artists, who came from his native Germany through the good graces of Youth Aliyah. His parents were murdered in Auschwitz.
Many of his paintings, murals and sculptures were based on Jewish history and tradition as is the case with the ceiling at the President’s Residence.
■ GENERALLY SPEAKING, visiting heads of state and government as well as other high-ranking dignitaries stay at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel whose senior staff coordinate with Israel’s Foreign Ministry, the Israel Security Agency and the embassy representing the country of the visiting dignitary. However, given the number of royals, presidents and prime ministers coming to the forum, the King David could not accommodate them all as the hotel has only three super-luxury suites and a sum total of 29 suites, including junior suites which are considerably smaller than the super luxury. The suites range in size from 170 square meters to 120 sq.m. in the super-luxury category and 55 sq.m. in the junior suites.
All of the luxury hotels in central Jerusalem are being utilized by dignitaries and their delegations. It is customary for advance delegations to come ahead of state or government leaders to coordinate and ensure all the arrangements in relation to accommodation, food preferences and allergies, transportation and the overall itinerary for the dignitary in question. This week, Sheldon Ritz, the Dan Hotels chain’s director of sales for embassies and government ministries was dealing with advance teams from Germany, Italy and Spain, and expects to deal with several more in the week ahead.
■ AMONG THE Israelis participating in the Holocaust Forum is former diplomat and Knesset member Colette Avital, who was a child Holocaust survivor in her native Romania, and is today chairperson of the Central Organization of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. While serving as an MK, she was largely responsible for creating public awareness of pre-war assets deposited by Jews in Swiss banks. Many of those who opened such accounts did not survive, and the banks made no effort to learn their fate or to find their heirs.
In a subsequent settlement following an international hue and cry about this moral corruption, the banks paid out an amount in excess of $1.287 billion to more than 458,000 Holocaust victims or their heirs in more than 80 countries. As a long-retired diplomat, Avital, on December 25, 2019, attended the annual gathering of retired Foreign Ministry staffers. Those who had celebrated their 80th birthdays over the past year received a watch, as did Avital. Unlike some of her colleagues, she has maintained so youthful a face and figure as to prompt some former Foreign Ministry personnel to check out her details on Google.
Not that there was much difference. According to Google she was 79. But when people want to prove that other people are wrong, they really dig in. This week, some of them encountered Avital at the screening in Tel Aviv of a documentary called Nelson. Produced with the help of the Claims Conference, it traces the little-known story of a young Romanian who in 1941, at the age of 10, saw his father slaughtered in the Bucharest pogrom by a member of the Romanian Guard who happened to be a neighbor. The murderer subsequently threw the Jewish family out of their apartment.
After the war, the young boy who had witnessed his father’s murder, managed to arrive in Israel, and learned that his father’s killer had joined the French Foreign Legion. Although already enlisted in the nascent Israel Defense Forces, the boy deserted, made his way to France, joined the Foreign Legion and was sent with his regiment to Vietnam where he fought bravely and with distinction, before finding his father’s murderer and avenging his father’s death. He returned to Israel where he faced a court martial as an army deserter, but he received a lenient sentence in view of the reason for his having deserted. Avital was at the screening both as head of the umbrella organization of Holocaust survivor organizations and institutions, and also as a Romanian Holocaust survivor.
She was not the only former diplomat in attendance, and was asked point blank by former colleagues whether the Foreign Ministry had erred with regard to her age, or whether the fault lay with Google. Avital had no problem in revealing her true age. The mistake was that of Google.
■ REGULARS WHO attend the lunchtime gatherings at Beit Yehudit, one of the Jerusalem branches of Café Europa, a club for English-speaking Holocaust survivors at 12 Emek Refa’im St., will in all probability be familiar with Marilyn Lyons, who worked for the British Embassy for 37 years and was a senior member of the consular team until her retirement in 2011. Blessed with a beautiful singing voice, Lyons frequently sang at British Embassy receptions, and even after her retirement was invited to come back for the Queen’s Birthday reception to sing the national anthems of Britain and Israel. Since her retirement, she is in frequent demand by various organizations that are largely populated by English speakers. Her repertoire is vast and includes lots of golden oldies as well as jazz and light opera.
She has previously sung for Café Europa and will do so again with a jazz concert on Sunday, January 12, at 1:30 p.m.