Grapevine December 24, 2019: Light in a historically dark place

For a long time, Holocaust survivors from Arab lands were all but ignored because people mistakenly believed that the Holocaust had taken place solely in Europe.

ACTRESS LEAH Koenig with President Reuven Rivlin.  (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
ACTRESS LEAH Koenig with President Reuven Rivlin.
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
On the first night of Hanukkah, Laura Kam, who is married to Jeremy Issacharoff, Israel’s ambassador to Germany, posted a photograph of what is believed to be the largest menorah in Europe. It lit up the area around the Brandenburg Gate just a month and a couple of days ahead of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. For Kam, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, the sight was in the nature of a miracle, though Rabbi David Rosen, with whom Kam used to work many years ago, would have preferred a more aesthetic menorah than the style of the one traditionally used by Chabad in public places around the world.
■ MOST PEOPLE who grow up with Holocaust-survivor parents or grandparents have a somewhat different attitude to Holocaust survivors in general than anyone who has absolutely no personal connection to the Holocaust. One such person is Jay Shultz, who moved to Israel from New York City in 2006. He is the grandson of Holocaust survivors David and Kathe Friedman.
Sensitive to the emotional needs of Holocaust survivors, especially those who live alone and have no families, Shultz established Adopt-a-Safta, whereby young adult volunteers become surrogate grandchildren to Holocaust survivors, visiting them in their homes, taking them shopping or for walks, playing board games with them or musical instruments for them, plus a lot more, and constantly giving them the companionship that adds brightness to their lives.
Following the death of his grandmother in July 2010, Shultz named the Adopt-a-Safta project in her memory, even though she was fortunate enough to have built a new life for herself, had raised a loving family, had been a philanthropist, had been active in community life and was a lifelong member of Hadassah. But Shultz knew that in Israel there were Holocaust survivors living alone and on the brink of poverty. He wanted to bring them some joy in the twilight of their lives. Aside from bringing out the best in young people who have adopted them, these Holocaust survivors are now having a chance – some for the first time – to tell their own personal stories to willing ears. This is a guarantee that the individual experiences of Holocaust survivors will be preserved in memory and passed on to future generations.
For a long time, Holocaust survivors from Arab lands were all but ignored because people mistakenly believed that the Holocaust had taken place solely in Europe. Only in recent years has this serious gap in the knowledge of contemporary Jewish history been rectified.
A Hanukkah celebration and dinner for Sephardi Holocaust survivors will be held under the aegis of the Adopt-a-Safta program on Monday, December 30, at 7 p.m. at Daniel Hall, 14 Hamifal Street, Or Yehuda. There is no charge for either survivors or the volunteers who visit them, but volunteers who want to attend must register at
■ IT’S INTERESTING that among all the political leaders – including some regarded as antisemites – who broadcast or sent Hanukkah greetings to their constituents or their Jewish citizens, the only one who really did his homework was British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was not only familiar with the Hanukkah fare of latkes and donuts, but also with the whole history of Hanukkah and the valiant fight of the ill-equipped Maccabees. He knew all about putting a Hanukkiah in the window, and he was well aware of the antisemitic slurs that had been levelled at British Jews in the streets, in the media and online.
In comparing the position of the Maccabees with that of British Jews today, Johnson pledged that Britain would stand with its Jewish citizens in driving out the darkness. It was another case of blood will tell. Johnson, though a Christian, is of Jewish descent on his mother’s side, and the DNA was definitely in evidence. Small wonder that his message, delivered with sincerity and determination, went viral on Israeli and Jewish websites around the globe. Everyone else just delivered a noblesse oblige Happy Hanukkah message, but Johnson went all the way to penetrate the Jewish heart and the soul.
■ SOME OF the holier-than-thou readers of this publication and its sister publication, Maariv, have bristled over the inclusion last Friday of former prime minister Ehud Olmert as a regular columnist. It should be remembered that Olmert has paid his debt to society in more ways than one. He stepped down from the role of prime minister, and some of the best lawyers in the country could not prevent his going to prison. He could have simply sat there and felt sorry for himself, but he didn’t. He wrote his autobiography, which contains information that will be of great value to future generations of historians.
Based on his political experience, he is in a unique position to assess developments or lack of them. The fact that other people could reach many of the same conclusions doesn’t mean a thing, because with the exception of Ehud Barak, there is no one else who is a former prime minister of Israel. Criticism of any publication that might care to use the experience and knowledge of a former prime minister, regardless of whether or not he sat in prison, is tantamount to killing the messenger. As today is Christmas, it might be appropriate to cite the New Testament, namely John 8:7, where Jesus is quoted as saying, “He that is without sin amongst you, let him cast the first stone.”
■ MODERNIZED AND gentrified Jaffa is truly something to behold. It is one of the oldest port cities in the world and is mentioned four times in the Hebrew Bible. This is the port through which the cedars of Lebanon were brought to build the First Temple. Today, Jaffa has some glorious residential premises that would do justice to Hollywood. One such structure is a multi-story building in Jaffa Port that belongs to lawyer Erez Na’ana and was designed by Giorgio Armani. Na’ana acquired the property some 15 years ago, and it is now up for sale for well in excess of $10 million, though heaven knows why anyone would want to get rid of something so stunningly beautiful and exquisitely furnished and decorated. The built-up area is 350 sq.m. plus 200 sq.m. of terraces and a private elevator. There’s also a roof-top swimming pool with built-in music and a wonderful rock garden.
Na’ana is a genial host who likes to entertain, as was evident from one of the large television screens built into a wall showing inter alia, some of his past parties. This week, for the second time in less than a month, he made his home available to the Ambassadors’ Club of Israel for a Hanukkah party attended by recently arrived ambassadors Suddha Waruna Wilipatha of Sri Lanka, Dr. Hannnah Liko of Austria, Anjin Shakya of Nepal, and Satybaldy Burshakov of Kazakhstan, honorary consuls, prominent business people and healthcare activist Dr. Gil Mileikowsky who is president and founder of the Alliance for Patient Safety USA and the Alliance for Patient Safety IL.
An obstetrics gynecologist who specializes in fertility treatment, in-vitro fertilization, reproductive endocrinology and laser surgery, Mileikowsky was born in New York and raised in Belgium and Israel. Because so many doctors do not look at the whole picture, and therefore misdiagnose, and as a result prescribe the wrong treatment which can produce painful side effects and can sometimes be fatal, Mileikowsky has become an advocate for patients. His presence was symbolic in that he is a light in the darkness of medical bureaucracy.
The kosher supper consisted of a lot more than donuts and potato pancakes, although the donuts, due to the large assortment that included chocolate, jam, nuts, citrus, vanilla custard, cookies and other fillings and toppings, proved to be very tempting.
In welcoming the guests, Na’ana spoke of how Jaffa is being developed. He had seen the plans which include floating restaurants, he said. He also gave guests a chance to see the house at different levels. They came in from the ground floor via the stairs or the elevator. They then entered an open space that included a partially obscured kitchen, a living loom and a dining area from which they went out onto the rooftop terrace. Later, for the candle lighting, they descended two floors down via an internal staircase, and were able to see the bedrooms and bathrooms on one floor and then a living room looking out onto a rock garden on the next floor, where everyone gathered for the candle lighting. Ambassadors’ Club founder and president Yitzhak Eldan explained the background to Hanukkah as well as the purpose of the club, which is to draw people closer to Israel.
■ PEOPLE TRAVELING during holiday periods are sometimes concerned that they may be missing out on festivities due to delays at airports, bus terminals, etc. But passengers traveling on El Al’s LY325 flight from Tel Aviv to Paris during Hanukkah were pleasantly surprised when cabin crew members presented them with personal doughnut kits with assorted fillings and decorative candies. The guys in the cockpit did not miss out either. Mira Fizitski, the company’s director of in-flight services, says that every year people in her department try to dream up a pleasant Hanukkah surprise for El Al passengers – and this year was no exception.
■ IN MAY 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who attended the opening ceremony of the new wing at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, was presented with a family tree. He said that although several generations of his family came from Eastern Europe prior to immigrating to Israel long before the establishment of the state, he is in fact part Sephardi, with proof that his family goes back to Jews from Spain.
He explained that his brother Ido had undergone a DNA test which indicated that although his direct forebears were descended from relatives of the Gaon of Vilna, there is also a strong indication of family roots in Spain.
When Netanyahu was in Lithuania in August 2018 to attend a Baltic summit meeting, the Lithuanians made much of the fact that he was descended from the family of the Gaon of Vilna. He’s been invited to come back in April for the celebration’s marking the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Vilna Gaon
President Reuven Rivlin has also been invited. He has been to Lithuania before and has even addressed the Lithuanian Parliament.
Rivlin is a descendant of disciples of the teachings of the Vilna Gaon who came to Jerusalem in 1809
Meanwhile Rivlin, together with Education Minister Rafi Peretz, and several academic experts on a variety of subjects related to the Vilna Gaon, will participate in an international conference on the Vilna Gaon to be held on Monday, January 6, at Bar-Ilan University.
Sitting in the audience will be Chaim Freedman, an eighth-generation direct descendant of the Gaon, who is the author of a book Eliyahu’s Branches: The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and His Family, which was published in 1997 in commemoration of the second century since death of the Vilna Gaon, who was born in April 1720 and died in October 1797.
■ MOST OF us are intrigued by mystery, and there is more than a shade of mystery surrounding the photographic exhibition currently on view at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem. Under the title of Emerging from the Shadows, it is culled from thousands of photographs and negatives taken by the late Sarah Ayal, who worked in different capacities for the Mossad, but primarily as a clandestine photographer who developed techniques for photographing people and places that would not betray the presence of the camera.
Like many Mossad agents, she remained largely anonymous, and it was not until after her death that her family was made aware of the significant contribution she made to Israel’s security.
In addition to the photographs that she took for the Mossad, Ayal also photographed many people and places for her own private pleasure as a photographer. She kept these photographs and negatives in boxes, which ended up in the basement storage area of her granddaughter attorney Dafna Rosenne-Singer.
Although Ayal, who died in 2004 at the age of 89, had continued to work for Israel’s security establishment until she was 72, her family didn’t really know what she did. It was only at the funeral and after, when people came to pay their respects during the shiva mourning period, that they became aware that her modesty was not only a characteristic but a professional safeguard. Much of what she did still remains secret.
It took many years for Rosenne-Singer to do anything about the boxes of photographs and negatives, and it took curator Amichai Hasson many weeks to go through the thousands of items of untitled material to decide what to use for an exhibition. Ayal’s classified photos remain in closed archives, and if they are ever revealed to the public, it will not be in the foreseeable future, certainly not before 2040. But her artistic photos are interesting, not only from the perspective of how they were shot, but also with regard to the subject matter, which adds to the visual history of the renewed State of Israel.
In addition to being the granddaughter of Ayal, Rosenne-Singer is also the daughter of the late Meir Rosenne, who was both a lawyer and a diplomat, serving as legal adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Meir was also ambassador to France and to the United States. He was involved in the drafting of the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt and was also engaged in coordinating efforts to enable Jews to leave Soviet Russia. He had many other significant achievements to his credit. Both Rosenne and Ayal were Holocaust survivors. Their combined achievements defy anything that any fiction writer of mystery thrillers could dream up.
Many people arrived at the exhibition more than an hour ahead of the actual opening, knowing that once the place got crowded they would not be able to properly see the photographs which provoked much curiosity and discussion.
■ WHAT IS a suitable birthday gift for a nonagenarian? It’s tough, because most people of an advanced age tend to discard possessions rather than accumulate them. But essentially, nonagenarians like what people of any age like – recognition and honor. When you get to be 90-plus, chances are high that you’ve done enough in your life to merit both. That’s certainly the case with radio talk show host Walter Bingham, who is due to celebrate his 96th birthday on January 5, and as far as anyone knows, is the oldest working journalist in the world.
There may be journalists who are older who write the occasional article or do the occasional interview, but it’s doubtful that there’s anyone older than Bingham working on a regular grind. Bingham, whose Arutz Sheva program Walter’s World is heard around the world, works on a daily basis, runs around to press conferences and other events – and doesn’t use a cane or a walker. Over the last couple of years Bingham has received the medal of the French Legion of Honor and has been recognized by the Guinness Book of Records. Now, just a few days ahead of his birthday, Israel’s Government Press Office will, on Sunday, December 29, present him with a citation attesting to his being the oldest active news correspondent in the world.
The presentation ceremony will be part of a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony with remarks by Nitzan Chen, the director of the GPO, and Evan Cohen, the foreign media adviser to Prime Minister Netanyahu. It would seem that this event may be replacing the prime minister’s annual New Year reception for diplomats and the foreign press. The PM has a little too much on his plate right now to make time for a reception with the media. On the other hand, if he wins his two immediate battles, he may very much want to make time for the media.
■ ANOTHER ACTIVE nonagenarian is long- time stage and screen actress Leah Koenig, who has been going through a round of 90th birthday celebrations beginning earlier this month at Habimah Theater, and then in the North of the country, and this week at the President’s Residence. The latter is interesting because President Rivlin was at the Habimah bash where Koenig proved to fellow thespians that she can still touch her toes without bending her knees. Koenig, who still manages to perform in four productions in one week, and remembers all the texts, brought a gift for the president – a book of poems by Japanese poet Toyo Shibata who, Koenig said with a grin, began writing poetry at the age of 94. “She’s an artist who’s just starting out,” said Koenig.
Rivlin, one of Koenig’s many admirers, called her “the first lady of the Israeli theater,” adding that it was impossible to imagine Israeli culture without her.
■ APROPOS HABIMAH, a farewell party that was planned for Odelia Friedman, who for 14 years was general manager of the sorely debt-ridden national theater, and has been relieved of her position by the Tel Aviv District Court, which appointed trustees in her stead, was canceled on the eve of the scheduled date.
Many of the actors who were designated to organize and appear in a semi-festive send-off bowed out, saying that Friedman was largely responsible for Habimah’s financial woes. There are actors, dressers, translators, et al, who have not been paid in more than a year, or who have received checks for which there is no coverage in the bank. Under the circumstances, all they wanted to say to Friedman was “Good riddance!”
■ GETTING BACK to active nonagenarians, Kurt Rothschild, the president of World Mizrachi, who at age 91 made aliyah from Canada together with his wife, this week celebrated his 99th birthday. Though mobility poses a challenge for him, Rothschild regularly shows up at the Mizrachi offices and keeps staff on their toes. He is a generous philanthropist helping both individuals and organizations. He is sharply aware of what is going on around him and makes his decisions accordingly.
■ DESPITE ALL the troubles with the health system and some of the foul-ups that occur in hospitals due to misdiagnosis or tardiness in responding to patients’ needs, there are medical miracles performed in Israel every day, including at Hadassah Medical Center which, regardless of internal wrangling and budgetary problems, has some extraordinary life-saving miracles to its credit. A particular case in point is that of Aluma Gerzenshtein who, on November 21, 2002, was on a Jerusalem bus on her way to school. She was 17 years old. The bus was boarded by a Palestinian suicide bomber Na’el Abu Hilail who was wearing a belt packed with five kilograms of explosives. When he blew himself up, he also caused the deaths of 11 passengers, including four minors.
Aluma, who was critically injured, for a long period hovered between life and death. Her body was full of shrapnel, she lost the use of her right arm, and there was a danger that she might also lose the use of her left arm. It was essential that one of her kidneys be removed. The physician who initially treated her was Dr. Jose Cohen, a young immigrant from Argentina who had been in the country for only a few months. He had never encountered anyone so seriously injured.
New innovative techniques were used to aid Aluma’s recovery, which was a very long process. She had to learn how to walk again and how to speak again and how to use her left hand, because her right hand was paralyzed. Nonetheless, she completed her schooling while going through six arduous years of rehabilitation, and she also earned a degree in engineering. She was supported throughout by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
A little under a year ago, she married her husband, Michael, and following the birth of their son, she decided that the circumcision ceremony must be in the synagogue at the Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem where her life had not only been saved, but had begun anew. Needless to say, her physician, Prof. Jose Cohen, now head of the Endovascular Neurosurgery Unit at Hadassah, was the guest of honor and handed the baby to the infant’s godfather.
As a member of the priestly tribe, Prof. Cohen also gave the baby his blessing. A year ago, Prof. Cohen received the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration award for his pioneering achievements in medicine and his contribution to the State of Israel and its citizens. The award is presented annually to immigrants from different countries.