Grapevine: Quick change act

A FLAG and flowers are left at a monument in Warsaw, Poland that commemorates the uprising in the city’s Jewish ghetto in 1944. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A FLAG and flowers are left at a monument in Warsaw, Poland that commemorates the uprising in the city’s Jewish ghetto in 1944.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Monday of this week, former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who continues to reside here, tweeted: “Credit to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for doing the right thing – legally, morally, and for Israel’s international standing – by canceling the plan to expel African asylum-seekers.
Many activists on behalf of this community, in Israel and abroad, played a part in this good result.” On Tuesday, Shapiro, through no fault of his own, was forced to retract and tweeted: “This tweet did not age well.
I guess I have to eat my words. Advocates for Israel like me will have a hard time explaining reneging on a signed international agreement. And the crisis facing Israel and its asylum- seekers remains unaddressed, helping no one.” Although she has refrained from joining demonstrations, Shapiro’s wife, Julie Fisher, has been involved with the asylum- seekers in South Tel Aviv for seven years, initially by collecting unused medications from the diplomatic community and then by volunteering on a weekly basis at a day care center for the children of asylum-seekers. The wives of some other diplomats followed her example, and those who were afraid to go to south Tel Aviv, dropped off clothing at the ambassador’s residence.
Fisher also held fund-raising events on behalf of the asylum-seekers and their children, and remains a hands-on humane activist.
■ DESPITE THE deterioration in relations between Poland and Israel in recent months as an outcome of Poland’s decision to ban circumcision and ritual slaughter, and to prosecute anyone who refers to complicity by Poles in the atrocities of the Holocaust, President Reuven Rivlin together with senior members of his staff will travel to Poland next week to head the 30th annual March of the Living together with Polish President Andrzej Duda. Thousands of participants – most of them Jewish – from 52 countries are expected to attend.
Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council and former chief rabbi of Israel and of Tel Aviv Yisrael Meir Lau, has been at every march since the beginning.
Among other regular Israeli attendees is internationally celebrated soccer coach Avram Grant, whose father, Meir Granat, a Holocaust survivor, lost his parents and five of his six siblings.
Also participating this year will be singer and song writer Shlomo Artzi whose parents were Holocaust survivors, and whose mother, Mimi Margalit, and sister, prizewinning writer and translator Nava Semel, who was active in second-generation survivor circles, died within a few days of each other toward the end of last year.
As always, in the face of rising antisemitism, Jews close ranks, and put their disputes on the back burner.
The sharp move toward the political Right and a large increase in the number of antisemitic incidents across Europe add significance to the pledge of “Never again!” The March of the Living will take place a week before the 75th anniversary, according to the Gregorian calendar, of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which is commemorated in Poland by Jews and non-Jews alike, including government and municipal officials.
Few things if any break through the barriers of different Jewish approaches to Judaism than the March of the Living – which even more than Hatikva, the national anthem not only of Israel but of Jews around the world – as a unifying factor. Jews who politically and ideologically do not identify with Zionism, do identify with the tragedy of the Holocaust. The Nazis did not differentiate between Orthodox, Reform and totally assimilated Jews, nor between those who were rich or poor or between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. They all figured equally in the Nazi solution to the “Jewish problem.”
Anyone who visits Auschwitz and has no time restrictions and does not have to keep pace with a large delegation, can see in two of the glassed-in exhibits the veracity of this equality.
One of the glass cases contains shoes and boots. A beautiful hand-crafted boot stands alongside a cardboard “shoe” held together by bits of string.
The owners of these two items of footwear might never have come into each other’s social orbits due to their differences in status, but the Nazis obliterated these differences.
In another glass case, there are valises with people’s names written on them. Some of the valises are worn and shabby. Others are elegant and obviously expensive. The owners of each experienced the same cruel fate in the Nazi gas chambers. With regard to the names on the valises, many are very common Jewish names with which visitors can personally identify and realize that there but for the grace of God go they.
■ MOST PEOPLE, after making a roots trip to Poland or to some other part of Europe from which their families may have originated, tend to say that once is enough, particularly if the itinerary includes a visit to a death camp in which close relatives met a cruel fate. But some people, by virtue of the positions they hold in their respective communities, have to return again and again Alon Goldman, chairman of The Association of Czestochowa Jews in Israel and vice president of The World Society of Czestochowa Jews and their Descendants is one such person.
Goldman, who has been closely engaged with the restoration of the Jewish cemetery in Czestochowa and with Jewish cultural and memorial events in Czestochowa, travels to Poland at least twice a year.
He had long been intrigued by the mystery of what happened to the artifacts of the old synagogue on Mirowska Street after it had been destroyed by uniformed Nazis aided by Polish rabble on September 25, 1939. The Nazi invasion of Poland took place on September 1, 1939, and Czestochowa was one of the first cities to suffer the bestial Nazi atrocities.
The Nazis took over Czestochowa on September 3, and between September 4 and 6, Wehrmacht forces began shooting, killing, beating and looting in a massacre that historians have called Bloody Monday. Of the 1,140 Polish civilians who were murdered, 150 were Jewish. Many thousands of Jews were killed in the months and years that followed, including Jews who had been transported to Czestochowa from elsewhere in Poland and other parts of Europe.
Reference to the destruction of the synagogue is contained in Vila Orbach’s book, The History of the Jews of Czestochowa (Hebrew).
“After three days of pillage and destruction, only the walls remained,” she wrote. The synagogue was blown up by the Nazis in 1943, immediately after the liquidation of the Czestochowa ghetto.
Goldman’s interest was enhanced in early 2016 when he met Malka Silver from Melbourne, Australia, whose late father, Haim Stajer, one of the few Jews who survived the Treblinka uprising, had built a model of the Mirowska Street synagogue, which is now housed in the Jewish Museum in Melbourne.
A few days later, Goldman had met with Dr. Barbara Rafaeli Kushnir, whose father, the late Leib (Lew) Kusznir, was a photographer in Czestochowa who had managed to save the photographs he had taken of the Mirowska Street synagogue, the ghetto and the Hasag forced-labor plant.
The synagogue was known for the magnificent paintings on the ceiling by Prof. Peretz Willenberg, whose son Samuel, who was also an artist, had been one of the leaders and last survivors of the Treblinka revolt. The younger Willenberg, who designed the monument in Czestochowa to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, died in February 2016 in Tel Aviv. Many of his sculptures were in memory of victims of the Holocaust. One of them stands in the garden of the President’s Residence, and President Rivlin was among those who eulogized him at the funeral, as did Polish Ambassador Jacek Chodorowicz, among others.
The red damask silk curtain covering the Ark in the synagogue featured the symbol of independent Poland – an eagle with a crown.
The curtain disappeared in the rubble of the destroyed synagogue, but was seen in a photograph of a parade that took place in 1945 or 1946 on the streets of Czestochowa. It was carried as a flag by one of the people in the forefront of the parade.
Goldman had always been curious as what had happened to the flag afterward, and how it had been integrated into Polish military nationalism.
There are no synagogues in Czestochowa today, and very few Jews. In researching the fate of the curtain, Goldman could only find some old black and white photographs. But eventually his research and cross referencing led him to the Israel Museum, where it transpired that the curtain had been on open display many years ago. It is now stored in the museum’s warehouses. Very recently, following an exchange of several emails, Goldman went to the Israel Museum, where after donning gloves at the request of museum staff, he had his first encounter with the precious curtain in its natural colors and held it in his hands.
So how did the flags of the Polish Army that fought alongside Napoleon against the Russians roll into the heart of a synagogue in a curtain covering the Ark? An article published in Czestochowa in May 2016 speculated that the curtain came to Israel during the deportation of Jews from Poland in 1968.
The article also states that during the retreat of Napoleon from Moscow, the troops arrived in Czestochowa, and the officers rested at Blum’s Inn, known as the Red House, in the Old Market Square. The sudden sound of a siren warned of the approach of the Russian enemy. The French, followed by Poles, hastily fled the city and left two flags that the innkeeper Meir Blum had managed to conceal from the newly arrived Russian troops.
After the failure of the Polish uprising of 1863, the Jewish family hid the flags for many years for fear of looting by the Russian occupier. The flags were next seen on May 3, 1916, at the center of the curtains over the ark in the old Mirowska Street synagogue.