Grapevine January 22, 2020: Holocaust remembrance in focus

Despite the cold and heavy rain in Jerusalem, all the chairs that had been set out between the bookcases and the display counters were filled.

HAREL TUBI, director-general of the President’s Residence, briefs Foreign Ministry staff.  (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
HAREL TUBI, director-general of the President’s Residence, briefs Foreign Ministry staff.
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
It will be difficult for Israelis to turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to Holocaust survivors or to Holocaust history during the month of January. An unprecedented number of high-ranking dignitaries will be in Jerusalem this week for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, which will be held at Yad Vashem, and almost immediately afterward there will be events all over Israel marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in tandem with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is on January 27.
Some organizations and institutions that wanted to have their own specific events before joining in ceremonial events have already started or will start earlier.
On Sunday of this week, for instance, Telfed and Wits University alumni organized a meeting with Zurich-based child Holocaust survivor Feivel Wolgelernter, whose book, The Unfinished Diary – A Chronicle of Tears, is a memoir originally written by his late father, Chaim Yitzchok Wolgelernter, who was a brilliant Talmudic scholar and gifted writer, who did not survive the war, but kept a meticulous diary until the time of his death.
Feivel Wolgelernter, with the help of his son Nafti, had the diary translated from Yiddish to English, and turned it into a book. It took nearly half a century from the time that he received it as a wedding gift from his uncle David, who survived the war and moved to Canada, until it became a book.
The Telfed Wits alumni meeting took place at the Pomeranz Judaica bookstore in Jerusalem. The venue was perfect in that so many of the books on display were on religious or Holocaust topics as well as other aspects of Judaica.
Despite the cold and heavy rain in Jerusalem, all the chairs that had been set out between the bookcases and the display counters were filled, although the event started only in accordance with Jewish mean time. This meant that it began approximately half an hour beyond the advertised starting time, which gave those people who were punctual arrivals the opportunity to browse among the books to their hearts’ content.
Feivel Wolgelernter told this own story and that of the book in a matter-of-fact tone, almost devoid of emotion, and yet his story was very emotional.
He was born in Dzialoszyce, a small town some 45 kilometers north of Krakow with a population of 10,000. His family was affluent and as such could take certain precautions after Hitler came to power. His father hid and sold valuables and prepared hideouts, in the event that they would be needed. He also purchased a gun and arranged that everyone in the family should have false papers.
Feivel was born in 1941, so he has no painful recollections, but he grew up among refugees who were constantly talking about the various hardships they had witnessed and experienced during the war, so it was almost as if he remembered. Some of his close relatives were sent to death camps.
Some of the town’s Jews were betrayed by their non-Jewish neighbors. Others hid in nearby hamlets. In September 1942, 1,500 Jews were rounded up and sent to the Belzec death camp. Among them were Feivel’s aunt and three-year-old sister.
His father and a small group of other people went into hiding, and his mother took him to Warsaw, where nobody knew them. It was easier for a woman to pretend to be a gentile than it was for a man. It was very difficult for religious men, not only because they were circumcised, but also because they knew that if they had any chance for survival, they would have to shave off their beards and sidelocks.
When Feivel and his mother, Chaya, arrived in Warsaw, they were promptly arrested by the Gestapo, even though they were carrying false papers that identified them as non-Jews. His mother denied she was Jewish, but the Gestapo officer who interrogated her did not believe her. He may have had a humane spark in him, because he abruptly asked her if she wanted to live. Even though it was not stated, the message was loud and clear. He would let them go if the price was right. Feivel’s mother gave him what was then an exorbitant sum in zlotys, and he let them go. Wherever they went, it seemed that people understood that they were Jewish, and took money not to report them.
Eventually, they found an elderly woman and her daughter, who gave them shelter for a sum far in excess of her husband’s army pension. Mrs. Stefanova was actually quite decent and treated them well. The only problem was she kept trying to convert them to Catholicism. The local priest also knew they were Jewish and in his church sermons made a point of saying positive things about the Jews.
Blissfully unaware of the turmoil around him, Feivel had a fairly happy and carefree childhood, with food in his belly and the possibility to play outside. It was only after the war, when he came into contact with refugee children who were older than him, but who had been hidden beneath the ground, fed sparsely on food that was far from nutritious, that he began to wonder why these emaciated youngsters who were older than him were shorter and thinner.
While in hiding during 1942-1944, his father kept a Yiddish diary, vividly recording everything he saw and heard as well as his own fears and feelings. The diary was written in pencil on very thin paper. Chaim Yitzchok was murdered together with other Jews. His brother David escaped and took the diary with him. When he gave it to Feivel, it was because he thought that Feivel might do something with it.
But Feivel did nothing. He had no real emotional connection with his father, having been separated from him since before his second birthday, so the diary lay in a drawer for years. Even though he had not developed emotional ties, over the years Feivel met many people who had known his father and had spoken highly of him.
In the interim his mother remarried, and his stepfather was a wonderful man who treated him in every way as if he were his own flesh and blood, except for one thing. He would not allow Feivel to change his surname. It was important, he said, to keep the Wolgelernter name going. Indeed, when people heard his name, they often asked whether he was the son of....
Feivel’s son Nafti, who was born in 1970, began to take an interest in the diary when he was 18; and when he went to study at a yeshiva in the United States, he took the diary with him and showed it to one of his teachers, Rabbi Yitchok Perman, who as it turned out was also a descendant of the Wolgelernter family.
He said he would put Nafti in touch with expert translators of Yiddish documents. But the translators were not able to understand everything that was written, so, before returning to Switzerland, Nafti went to Canada to speak to his great-uncle, who helped fill in the gaps.
It still took several years before Feivel decided to do something with the text. Initially, he played with the idea of just telling the story, but he realized that it would be much more effective in his father’s own words. Thus the diary was published.
Feivel had intended for it to simply be part of his family’s history, but it aroused so much interest that it is not only a chapter in the history of the Wolgelernter family but also in the history of the Jewish people. It has also drawn him closer to the father he barely knew, and whose burial place he learned of late in life.
■ AS FOR the actual date of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Auschwitz survivor Miriam Liniel, 98, will be among the speakers at the Yad Ezer La-Haver ceremony in Haifa in the afternoon of January 27. Another speaker will be Shalom Stemberg, 96, who survived five camps.
They are among the residents of an assisted housing facility in Haifa known as Warm Home, which was purchased and renovated in 2010 by Yad Ezer La-Haver with the assistance of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem and philanthropist Yardena Ovadia. The aim behind the project was to enable Holocaust survivors in the twilight of their lives to live in dignity and comfort. Both ICEJ and Ovadia will be honored at the event, in recognition of their commitment to social justice.
Liniel is by no means the oldest Auschwitz survivor in Israel. That distinction could belong to one of her neighbors, as there are several Warm Home residents over the age of 100, or it may belong to Jerusalemite Mirjam Bolle, who at age 102 is still lively and independent, does her own shopping and is a regular synagogue congregant. She was among the early birds at her synagogue last Saturday. Letters and postcards that she wrote in Auschwitz but never sent were turned into a book.
■ WHILE COMMEMORATIVE events will be held in many parts of Israel on January 27, the main ceremony will be held in the morning at the Massuah Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, which is located on Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak. This event, organized in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry, will be attended by some 60 heads of foreign missions stationed in Israel.
Speakers will include Blue and White leader and former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, whose mother was a survivor of Bergen-Belsen; and Sir Frank Lowy, a Holocaust survivor who came to Israel soon after the war, fought in the War of Independence and later emigrated to Australia, where he became an extremely wealthy and influential citizen, and a philanthropist who donated to many causes. Although he visited Israel frequently over the years, it was only a little over a year ago that he returned permanently. Lowy’s father was murdered in Auschwitz.
Other speakers will include filmmaker Avi Nesher, who will talk about being a second-generation survivor, and what it was like to grow up with parents who have post-traumatic nightmares; and Australian Ambassador Chris Cannan. After Israel and the US, Australia absorbed the largest number of Holocaust survivors, many of whom carved out very successful careers in various fields and who made significant contributions to Australian culture and social welfare.
Massuah director-general Aya Ben-Naftali says that with regard to Holocaust Remembrance, “we are at a critical crossroads, in which we still hold the hands of parents who survived the Holocaust, while simultaneously preparing the educational infrastructure to transfer the voices of the survivors for generations to come.” Massuah has a large archive of testimony and artifacts, and has prepared a new exhibition based on the immediate aftermath of the war and its effect on survivors.
■ ON THE evening of January 27, the Philippine Embassy, in partnership with the B’nai B’rith World Center, and in tandem with the Philippine Mission to the United Nations, B’nai B’rith International and the US-Philippines Society, will hold an event titled “Safe Haven: Jewish refugees in the Philippines.” The Israel event will take place at Balai Quezon in the Philippines Embassy on Bnei Dan Street, Tel Aviv.
While so many countries refused to accept Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis, and some countries even collaborated with the Nazis, the Philippines prides itself on having opened its doors in welcoming refugees and offering them not only a safe haven but also a means of livelihood.
The event will feature a panel discussion with Prof. Robert Rockaway of Tel Aviv University, as well as screenings of excerpts from ABS-CBN iWANT documentary The Last Manilaners, and Star Cinema’s feature film on president Manuel L. Quezon’s decision to accept Jewish refugees, Quezon’s Game. Max Weissler and Margot Pins Kestenbaum, two “Manilaners” living in Israel who were among the beneficiaries of Quezon’s open-door policy, will attend as special guests.
■ IN AN address last week to the European Parliament, Vera Jourová, the vice president of the European Commission, said: “The European Commission fully rejects any false claims that attempt to distort the history of the Second World War or paint the victims like Poland as perpetrators. Distortion of historical facts is a threat to our democratic societies and must be challenged wherever possible.”
While defending Poland with regard to World War II history, she did not let Warsaw off the hook regarding the radical reforms in Poland’s justice system, which she cautioned also pose a danger to democracy because they undermine the rule of law.
■ AFTER HOSTING royalty, heads of state and other dignitaries this week, especially Wednesday at what will be an unprecedented dinner at the President’s Residence for some 40 world leaders participating in the forum at Yad Vashem, where they will commit themselves separately and together to fighting antisemitism, President Reuven Rivlin will fly to Poland at the beginning of next week to participate in the ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, after which he will proceed to Germany, where he will deliver an address in Hebrew to the Bundestag.
On his return to Israel, he will continue to try to resolve the problem of the political stalemate, while simultaneously preparing for his state visit to Australia. Rivlin is scheduled to speak at gala events in New South Wales and Victoria to kick off the 2020 United Israel Appeal campaign. He will be in Sydney on Sunday, February 23, and in Melbourne on Monday, February 24.
He will be the third president of Israel to pay a state visit to the island continent. The first was Chaim Herzog in November 1986, and the second Moshe Katsav in February-March 2005. Rivlin was scheduled to visit Australia in March 2016, but canceled and went instead to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Australian Governor-General David Hurley will be among the world leaders sitting around Rivlin’s horseshoe-shaped table Wednesday evening. The President’s Residence over the years has hosted some of the royal personages of Europe, presidents of the United States, Russia, France, Germany and many other countries – but never as a group, which makes Wednesday’s dinner not only unique but historic.
■ MEANWHILE, THE President’s Residence was a flurry of activity over the past week or two with equipment deliveries, repairs, press tours, installations and rehearsals. Due to the added prestige of Wednesday’s dinner and everything else associated with the presence in Israel of so many world leaders, past and present Foreign Ministry staff members have been recruited to work with all the delegations and their leaders. The logistics are mind-boggling, but the successful outcome will prove the professionalism and the underappreciated value of the ministry.
On Monday, those assigned to the dignitaries who will be meeting with Rivlin held a dress rehearsal, and were briefed by Harel Tubi, director-general of the President’s Residence, on the importance of attention to every detail, while Oren Avraham, who is in charge of events and ceremonies at the President’s Residence, directed the rehearsal, which was also attended by technical staff, made sure that the grand piano was properly tuned, supervised the construction of stages, made sure that all the correct flags were in place, and more. Even K-9 dogs were brought in and went through a rehearsal to sniff out possible explosives. It is to be hoped that the event will proceed without a hitch.
■ ON SUNDAY morning, veteran Israel Radio Reshet Bet current affairs anchor Aryeh Golan interviewed Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, to ask why Polish President Andrzej Duda was not included among the speakers at the mega event on antisemitism and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, when Putin and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier were included. Aside from his professional interest, the Polish-born Golan, who is the son of Holocaust survivors, could not understand how a president of Poland could be excluded from the list of speakers, and pointedly asked whether any pressure had been applied on Shalev to make such a serious omission.
Shalev said that every effort had been made to persuade Duda to join the other heads of state. “We wanted him to come,” he said. Had he been given the opportunity to speak, he probably would have, a factor Shalev preferred to evade.
■ ON THE premise that one man’s meat is another man’s poison, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, and one man’s fight for justice, freedom and equality for minorities is another man’s definition of treason, a delegation of Israeli, Palestinian and international peace activists, on Martin Luther King Day, visited the Irish Embassy and presented Ambassador Kyle O’Sullivan with a letter, written in Arabic, Hebrew and English, calling on the government of Ireland and all other governments to act upon verbal declarations of intent to recognize the State of Palestine.
Part of the letter states that there is no basis for the claim that peace will be achieved only through negotiation, and insists that peace will be achieved only by founding a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and by implementing the right of Palestinians to return to their lands and property.
Ireland, by the way, had confirmed its attendance at the forum on the Holocaust and antisemitism, but later backed out.
■ THE LONKA Project, which will go on display at Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations next Monday, and will remain on view till February 7, is a traveling exhibition similar to that of Beyond Duty – Diplomats who Saved Jews During the Holocaust, in that it will serve to create greater Holocaust awareness. The brainchild of husband and wife, internationally known, prizewinning photojournalists Jim Hollander and Rina Castelnuovo, the project is named for Castelnuovo’s late mother, Dr. Elenora Nass, who was a Holocaust survivor who was known as Lonka.
The project was inspired by a CNN report to the effect that between 13% and 17% of French citizens know nothing about the Holocaust. The Lonka Project is a tribute to the last survivors and a means of showing their resilience and telling their stories in accompanying texts. It is an extremely important project, as most Holocaust survivors are aged from their mid-eighties to 100-plus. In fact, the oldest survivor who was photographed is aged 105.
Hollander and Castelnuovo didn’t want the exhibition to focus solely on Holocaust survivors living in Israel. So they contacted some 250 photographers in 24 countries and asked if they would be willing to join the project on a voluntary basis. The response was overwhelmingly positive, even though not all the photographers are Jewish or even Christian.
The purpose was to photograph survivors as they are today – in other words, to capture the present while simultaneously preserving history. Although the Nazis tried to dehumanize prisoners in the camps, the survivors represent the resilience of the human spirit. Despite what they witnessed and what they suffered in the camps, the survivors found the strength to help build up the nascent State of Israel, despite the primitive conditions to which so many of them were subjected when they arrived.
Naturally, Hollander and Castelnuovo are included among the photographers. Some of the other photographers whose names are well known in Israel are Debbie Hill, Moshe Milner, Eli Hershkowitz, Sivan Farag, Yossi Zamir, Uzi Keren, Micha-Bar Am, Nati Harnik and Ziv Koren, whose powerful photograph of four survivors with numbers on their arms conveys more than words. He was not the only photographer to whom numbers on the arms had special significance. Another photograph with a number was taken by Gideon Markowicz of Motek Mordechai Szymonowicz and his wife, Yaffa, as Szymonowicz, wearing a gold hai (life) around his neck, shows his gun-toting soldier grandson his number.
A special album containing the photos has been produced in conjunction with the inaugural exhibition in time for International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
■ JERUSALEM HOTELS and many in other parts of the country will be full again in February when the annual OurCrowd Investment Summit gets under way on February 13. Initiated by venture capitalist Jon Medved, the summit grows from year to year and brings thousands of investors to Jerusalem. Among them are many whose countries do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
For this year’s summit, OurCrowd already has 17,000 investors, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists registered, including 141 foreign delegations. This investor summit is the largest of its kind in Israel and has become the main showcase for Israel’s hi-tech industry in general and for start-ups in particular. Although the presence of so many people may cause considerable traffic chaos, Jerusalemites can at least be thankful that roads will not be closed as they are this week.