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Wandering Jews

The true ‘voyage of the damned’

Because most countries turned their backs on Jews fleeing Germany, Germany’s rulers (like Josef Goebbels) felt that this justified their argument that murder was the only way to deal with the “Jewish problem.”

In 1938, only the Dominican Republic — out of 32 nations — agreed to accept Jewish refugees after an international conference on the subject in Evian, France. The reason: Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the island, supposedly wanted to “whiten” the indigenous race. But although 100,000 Jews were allowed admission, only 645 Jews immigrated. They set up a prosperous agricultural cooperative in a former jungle area, Sosua. (Today, few Jews live there.)

The St. Louis, a German ocean-liner, had seven decks that held 400 first-class passengers and 500 tourist class passengers. The cost was high, and first-class passengers had to pay 33 percent more.

Of the 937 passengers on the St. Louis, the majority were women. All were Jewish, with just one exception.

The St. Louis set sail on May 13, 1939. The trip to Cuba and back to Europe, to Belgium, took 40 days — to June 17. It was the November 1938 pogrom, which the Nazis called Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” that persuaded Jews like Buff that Germany was no longer a place for Jews to live.

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Captain Gustav Schroeder was posthumously named a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Herbert & Vera Karliner

Gustav Schroeder, captain of the St. Louis, made sure the crew treated the passengers with respect. In 1993, Yad Vashem recognized him, posthumously, as Righteous Among the Nations. (He died in 1959.)

U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull was against letting the Jews enter the United States, apparently because Southern Democrats — anti-immigrants — threatened to stop supporting Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election.

While the St. Louis passengers were awaiting their fate, the Wagner-Rogers bill died in committee. It would have let 20,000 Jewish children from Germany come to the United States. Asked for her opinion of the bill, Laura Delano Houghteling, wife of the commissioner of immigration and a cousin of Roosevelt’s, said that “20,000 ugly children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.”

Some passengers with visas were able to debark in Cuba or the United States. When the 620 remaining passengers returned and debarked at Antwerp, Belgium, some went to the United Kingdom, some to France, some remained in Belgium, some went to the Netherlands. Of the 620 remaining passengers, 254 who debarked in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France were eventually killed by the Nazis. Some 364 survived the war.

Joseph P. Kennedy, U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, helped passengers on the St. Louis find refuge in Britain. Although he would sometimes make anti-Semitic remarks, his efforts to help Jews led the Arab National League to call him a “Zionist Charlie McCarthy.”

The St. Louis itself was badly damaged by Allied planes and was scrapped in 1952.

“Riding the Storm Waves” was edited by Maryann McLoughlin of The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey’s Holocaust Resource Center. Of the 160 pages, 37 are devoted to the diary. With its plentiful notes, the book is meant to be used in schools, from grades five through college. Paul Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Holocaust Education Commission, was instrumental in seeing that the book was published. It can be purchased online at www.ComteQpublishing.com, or by calling (609) 487-9000.

 
 

Wandering Jews

The story of the St. Louis

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Many of the passengers were children, and there was much happiness on the trip to Cuba, whence many of them planned to immigrate to the United States. Many passengers wound up back in Europe, and many died. Some 32 of the surviving passengers will attend a reunion in Miami on Dec. 13. The United States Holocaust Museum

It was another dispiriting instance of man’s inhumanity to man, and it contributed to the Holocaust that followed: the refusal of almost all of the world’s nations to admit the 937 Jews on board the German ship St. Louis in 1939, 70 years ago.

The Jews were fugitives from Nazi Germany, sailing hopefully to Cuba, then despondently around the world. Some passengers — once they learned they were headed back to anti-Semitic Germany — decided to set up nightly suicide patrols.

Even the United States refused them admittance, although the St. Louis — rebuffed by Cuba — sailed so close to Miami that passengers could see hotel lights and pleasure boats.

Eventually four nations, perhaps because of the international publicity, relented and, after the Jews’ five-week journey, allowed them asylum — Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. But apart from those heading to Great Britain, many of the rest wound up dying before the war’s end, some in concentration camps.

Of the surviving passengers, 32 — now ages 71 to 91— will attend a reunion on Dec. 13, in (naturally) Miami. (They were ages 1 to 21 in 1939.) They will sign U.S. Senate Resolution 111, which honors the survivors, and see the first performance of a play by Robert Krakow, “The Trial of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Dignitaries from around the world will be present, including Rep. Ron Klein (D., Fla.) and the Rev. Rosemary Schindler, a cousin of Oskar Schindler. Sponsoring the reunion is the National Fund for Jewish Continuity, based in Boca Raton.

Among those attending will be Fred (originally Fritz) and Lotte Buff of Paramus, both 88. Fred Buff is the author of a short diary of the voyage, written when he was 17 and published earlier this year by ComteQ Publishing in Margate. It’s called “Riding the Storm Waves: The St. Louis Diary of Fritz Buff.”

Buff will autograph copies of his book at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus at 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 6.

The Jewish Standard interviewed the Buffs recently in their one-story, comfortable home in a hilly section of Paramus. Fred Buff answered my questions — thoughtfully, intelligently — while his wife sometimes corrected him or added key details. Both seemed remarkably healthy and mentally sharp.

First question: Where is the actual diary now?

Buff: The paper disintegrated. It was thin paper, and it was handwritten. I only translated it from the German five years ago.

J.S.: What did you think of the film made of the St. Louis episode, in 1978, “Voyage of the Damned”? (It featured Julie Harris, Lee Grant, Faye Dunaway, and Max von Sydow.)

Buff: It was a Hollywood production. It had a lot of good things, but some things were exaggerated.
I wasn’t aware of the love scenes.

J.S.: Will you recognize the people you will see at the reunion in Miami?

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Buff on the deck of the St. Louis. On the trip to Cuba, spirits were high. On the trip back, there was a suicide patrol. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Fred Buff

Buff: I know several of them from earlier meetings. They probably were children when we were on the St. Louis, and I didn’t know many of them even then. We did socialize aboard the ship, and almost every evening we would get together. On the way to Cuba, there was always something on the program. Dancing, movies, a beer fest.

J.S.: Did your experience aboard the St. Louis change your life in any way?

Buff: I don’t think so. But I was lucky to get out of Germany in 1939. If I hadn’t gotten out before Germany invaded the Low Countries and France, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.

J.S.: There were attempted suicides on the St. Louis?

Buff: There was one suicide — he cut his veins, but he was saved. Someone else jumped into the ocean, but he was rescued by a crew member and survived. We set up a suicide watch.

J.S.: Passengers became depressed when Cuba refused to admit you?

Buff: When we knew that we were not getting off, it changed our thinking. Dramatically and quickly. There was despair. The sickbay was full of depressed people. We hoped that we would not go back to Germany — that would have been catastrophic — we knew what to expect there.

J.S.: Captain Gustav Schroeder — what was he like?

Buff: Terrific. He was determined to keep us from going back to Germany. He even talked about beaching the ship on a sandbar off the English coast and having us get into lifeboats to land. When he returned to Germany, he never got another commission.

J.S.: Secretary of State Cordell Hull urged Roosevelt not to admit the Jews. What are your thoughts about him and FDR?

Buff: There were other considerations. There was high unemployment. There was anti-Semitism, the German bund, pressure from Congress. FDR couldn’t be a saint. We shouldn’t be too critical.

J.S.: When did you begin speaking in public schools about your experiences? And how do the students respond?

Buff: Ten years ago I started. Students are attentive. In Paterson, 50 of them raised their hands to ask questions after my talk. I read my speeches. One reason is that my memory is not so good, and since I have only 40 minutes to talk, I don’t want to skip something that should have been said.

J.S.: When did you first come to Paramus?

Buff: In 1950. Paramus had 3,000 people then, now almost 30,000. There were no overpasses on Route 17 then. There was no mail delivery — just a little post office, where you picked up mail. There were no telephones in the homes, just outside some of homes. I was paid $2 a month to notify people if they had a phone call. There was no synagogue — I was one of the founders of the Jewish Community Center.

J.S.: How did you meet your wife?

Buff: My sister introduced her to me, here in the United States.

J.S.: Have you ever returned to Germany?

Buff: I had terribly hard feelings, but I’ve returned there many times, on business. I was in the synthetic-foam business. For a time I refused to speak German. I made them talk English. But after a while I saw that they were intelligent people, and like me in business to do business. And in Nazi Germany, you were not allowed to be a good German. If the Nazis found out, you would be arrested.

J.S.: Why has there been so much anti-Semitism throughout history?

Buff: I don’t know. Maybe because we’ve always been different.

J.S.: What do you think of Anne Frank’s statement, that she believes that “people are truly good at heart”?

Buff: [pauses] That was an immature assumption. She was a very young lady.

J.S.: Some Jews in concentration camps were angry at God….

Buff: [pauses] Religion provides a lot of benefits and does a lot of good. But not everyone believes in God.

Buff was born in 1921, in Krumbach, Germany. His parents and sister reached the United States a few months before he did. When the St. Louis returned to Europe, in 1939, he was accepted into Belgium. Later he sailed to England, then to the United States, arriving at Ellis Island in 1940 and later meeting up with his parents.

In 1944, despite his deferment for working in the defense industry, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. In 1945, in Okinawa, he took part in the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific, which lasted 82 days.

After the war he attended City College of New York at night and the Advanced Management Program of Harvard Business School. He worked for Tenneco Chemical Company, becoming president of his division. Later, he started Tekpak, which manufactured foam products.

In 1952, he became a charter member of the JCC of Paramus, and from 1974 to 1976 he was president.

His diary is an electrifying document — you feel you are there, on board the St. Louis as it makes its horrifying voyage. Sometimes it’s funny: Because the ship has seven decks, at times Buff gets lost and must ask directions back to his cabin. Sometimes it’s heartening: Sailing on a German ship during the Nazi era, he never expected to be served kosher meals. And poignant: The passengers, approaching Havana, could only wave to any of their relatives on shore or in small boats. As for the United States, “We could not understand why this land of our dreams and also of our likely final destination would not liberate us from our agony and uncertainty…. Are we destined to become another ship like the Flying Dutchman in Wagner’s opera?”

 
 

Evolution of International Holocaust Day reflects changing times

ROME – On the same day next week, Israeli President Shimon Peres will address the German Parliament and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel will appear before a special session of the Italian Chamber of Deputies in Rome.

The timing is not coincidental.

The events are focal points of international Holocaust Memorial Day, an annual observance on the anniversary of the Soviet army’s Jan. 27, 1945, liberation of Auschwitz, which is marked by the United Nations and more than two dozen individual countries.

Each year, hundreds of events take place on or near that date. Britain, Italy, and Germany have particularly extensive programs.

“There is a great sensitivity to this theme on both the local and institutional levels,” said Alessandro Ruben, a Jewish Italian member of parliament in Italy, where Holocaust Memorial Day has been marked since 2001. “Every year there are more and more events connected with it, including many, many educational initiatives in schools.”

The nature of the commemorations is a reflection of the times, too.

While most Holocaust Memorial Day initiatives are linked directly to the memory and impact of the Nazi genocide against the Jews, there is increasing emphasis on what the experience of the Holocaust can teach in the face of other genocides and persecution, such as those in Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, and Darfur. World War II-era persecution of Roma (Gypsies) and gays also is examined.

Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish affairs, said the shift in focus is to be expected.

“For Jews,” he said, the Holocaust “was a unique and unprecedented tragedy. But national and international commemoration events by their nature also stress the universal lessons that should be drawn from the event. As survivors and other eyewitnesses pass from our midst, those universal expressions naturally grow larger.”

At the same time, pro-Palestinian groups are trying to transform the international day of remembrance into an opportunity to criticize Israel.

Last year, for example, to protest Israel’s military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, a British Muslim organization boycotted events in Britain, and the local government in Barcelona canceled a public candlelighting as part of the Holocaust Day commemoration.

“Marking the Jewish Holocaust while a Palestinian Holocaust is taking place is not right,” said a statement by an official, described as a representative of Barcelona City Hall, quoted in the La Vanguardia newspaper.

The move drew an outraged response from Britain’s Board of Deputies, the body that represents British Jews.

“The conflict between Israel and Hamas should have absolutely no bearing on a day which represents the global fight against hatred,” board spokesman Mark Frazer said.

“Apart from the obvious flawed logic in making the decision, this is an affront to all Holocaust survivors and to the memory of the millions of victims. This move should draw criticism in the strongest terms from all parts of the Spanish government.”

Though Germany has marked a Holocaust memorial day on Jan. 27 since 1996, the impetus for the observance in most countries came from a landmark Holocaust education forum that took place in Stockholm in 2000, a decade after the fall of communism enabled an uncensored exploration of history. In most communist states, Jewish issues had been suppressed and study or commemoration of the Shoah had been limited.

At the Stockholm Forum, leaders from 46 countries pledged to promote education and research about the Holocaust, and to “encourage appropriate forms of Holocaust remembrance, including an annual Day of Holocaust Remembrance.”

Most participating countries chose Jan. 27, given the importance of Auschwitz as a symbol of the Holocaust, and the U.N. General Assembly in 2005 designated the date as an International Day of Commemoration to honor the victims of the Holocaust.

But a number of countries chose dates that reflected Holocaust events on their own territory.

In Poland, for example, it is April 19, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Romania chose Oct. 9, the date when deportations of Jews by the Nazi-allied Romanian government began in 1941.

The institution of Holocaust Memorial Day has not been without its critics. Some have voiced concern that institutionalizing Holocaust memory as an official date in a calendar risked turning commemoration into a cliché.

By and large, however, this does not seem to be the case.

“Consider how other historical events are remembered,” said Baker, who is also the representative for combating anti-Semitism of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “Veterans Day in the United States seems primarily marked by department store sales, for example. In contrast, the Holocaust is recalled seriously and soberly.”

He added, “While I do not want to sound overly sanguine, I don’t think we should fear that the memory of the Holocaust will disappear or that Holocaust deniers will find new adherents.

“These last 20 years have witnessed a steady increase in educational and commemorative activities. And Holocaust denial is primarily a cudgel wielded by anti-Semites and haters of Israel, not something that is genuinely debated in any legitimate forum.”

Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory University historian who has written widely about the phenomenon of Holocaust denial, said she was “gratified as a historian that there is this attention to this event that is now in the past, especially as the survivor generation is passing.”

But, she said, “One hopes that there is attention in a deeper way: to examine how this emerged and happened, while the world stood silently by.”

JTA

 
 

Israel seeks action from Germany

Leslie SusserWorld
Published: 29 January 2010
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Israeli officials say German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Holocaust Museum in Berlin on Jan. 18, 2010, has been lagging in acting against Iran despite some outspoken declarations. Moshe Milner / GPO / Flash90 / JTA

On the face of it, Israel-Germany relations have never been better.

Last week, Israeli and German government ministers held a symbolic first-ever joint Cabinet meeting in Berlin — they had held a similar joint meeting in Jerusalem in 2008. And this week, President Shimon Peres was due to address the German Bundestag in Hebrew on International Holocaust Memorial Day.

News Analysis

Israeli officials say that Angela Merkel — who declared during a 2008 visit to Israel that “Threatening Israel is akin to threatening Germany” — has been Israel’s most supportive German chancellor ever.

But although there are huge benefits in the relationship for both sides, Israel has a number of nagging concerns.

Despite tough talk against the Iranian nuclear weapons drive, Germany remains one of Iran’s biggest and most important trading partners. Israelis are worried, too, about the huge disparity between German government support for Israel and the virulent criticism of Israel coming from many public opinion leaders in Germany.

There are also signs of growing anti-Semitism in the country.

Despite her outspoken declarations, Merkel’s actions are lagging — particularly on Iran. She is categorically against the use of force against the Islamic republic. And on sanctions, Merkel says Germany is obliged only to abide by those authorized by the United Nations. Tougher U.N. sanctions backed by the United States are facing Chinese and possibly Russian opposition in the Security Council.

In 2006, after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made statements questioning the Holocaust, Merkel declared that “a president who questions Israel’s right to exist, a president who denies the Holocaust, cannot expect to receive any tolerance from Germany.” But she did not recall her ambassador from Tehran.

The gap between German word and deed on Iran is not the only discrepancy that has Israeli officials worried. They are concerned as well about the disparity between government support and popular criticism of Israel in Germany.

“This worries me because in democracies, political parties seek public approval for their policies,” Shimon Stein, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany, told JTA. “In the long run, the discrepancy is not good for us or for our friends in Germany.”

German popular support for Israel has eroded steadily since the 1982 Lebanon war, according to Stein. In a poll taken after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, 50 percent of Germans surveyed identified Israel as the biggest threat to world peace. In a 2002 Der Spiegel poll, 25 percent of Germans agreed with the statement that what Israel does to the Palestinians is no different from what Germans did to the Jews in the Holocaust.

In testimony to the Bundestag in June 2008, journalist and author Henryk Broder warned of a new kind of anti-Semitism in Germany among the genteel classes, academics, and politicians of all stripes that takes the form of virulent anti-Zionism.

“The modern anti-Semite pays tribute to Jews who have been dead for 60 years, but he resents it when living Jews take measures to defend themselves,” Broder said.

Germans and Europeans in general — prosperous, at peace, not threatened by outside foes and human rights-oriented — find it difficult to empathize with an Israel fighting for its life, Stein said.

“When Germans say never again, they mean never again war emanating from German soil. When Israelis say never again, they mean never again being passive victims of their enemies,” he said.

On the positive side of the balance sheet, Germany is Israel’s third-largest trading partner after the United States and China, with an annual trade volume of more than $6 billion. The Federal Republic is Israel’s strongest and most reliable supporter in European Union forums, recently helping to moderate a perceived anti-Israel move by Sweden on eastern Jerusalem.

Perhaps most significantly, Germany has made a major contribution to Israeli security through the supply and partial financing of five state-of the-art Dolphin submarines, which, according to foreign reports, give Israel a nuclear second-strike option. German mediators have helped arrange prisoner and body-parts exchanges with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and a German mediator is involved in the efforts now to secure the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Israel and Germany also are enjoying significant scientific cooperation; Ada Yonath, the 2009 Israeli Nobel laureate in chemistry, did much of her research in Germany.

Given all this, many Israelis are bewildered that Germany hasn’t done more to curb its extensive trade and technology ties with Iran.

In 2008, German trade with Iran actually increased by 14 percent, to more than $5 billion. The German appliance and technology giant Siemens alone accounted for $600 million. It has nearly 300 Iran-based employees, and with its Finnish partner Nokia provides state-of-the-art surveillance technology. In the mid-1970s, Siemens began construction of the reactors at the Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran.

About 100 dummy German companies are suspected of involvement in the sale of missile and aircraft technology to Iran, some rerouted through the United Arab Republic in the UAE. There also have been dozens of cases of “dual use” contracts between Germany and Iran: the sale for civilian use of technology that could be used for military purposes.

For Iranians, German brands long have been the products of choice. According to unofficial German estimates, 75 percent of small- and medium-sized Iranian factories use German equipment and technology. While this is a good indicator of the amount of trade between the two countries, it also shows just how much leverage Germany could have on Iran.

In early 2009, after pressure from then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Merkel moved to limit export guarantees, known as “Hermes Cover,” to firms doing business with Iran. This seems to have had some effect after the unrest that followed the disputed June election in Iran, when some German firms froze activities in Iran because of the perceived risk.

Israeli pressure also forced the cancellation last week of a huge contract for Hamburg Port Consulting to run Bandar Abbas, the Iranian port from which a ship called the Francop set out carrying roughly 500 tons of weapons for Iran’s Hezbollah and Hamas proxies. It was intercepted on the high seas by the Israeli navy last November.

Israel reportedly is working behind the scenes to get a huge gas deal with an unnamed German firm canceled — a $1.44 billion contract reportedly signed last week to supply Iran with 100 gas turbo compressors for the production of liquefied natural gas.

Whether or not Israel’s efforts will bear fruit remains to be seen.

JTA

 
 

And her little dog, too

 

Komen Race for the Cure to be run in Israel

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From left, Hadassah President Nancy Falchuk, Susan G. Komen lay leader Hadassah Lieberman, and Komen CEO Nancy Brinker speak with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Birkat at a press conference in Washington on April 28. Courtesy of Susan G. Komen for the Cure

The world’s largest breast cancer organization, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, is partnering with Jerusalem, Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, health advocates, and scientists for a week of breast cancer-related events.

The Komen organization is launching the Israel Breast Cancer Collaborative, a partnership with nongovernmental organizations in Israel, to enhance advocacy, awareness, screening, and treatment of breast cancer in Israel during the week of Oct. 25 to 29.

A series of events will include a think tank on breast cancer, a mission to Israel, and Komen’s famed Race for the Cure, which will be held just outside Jerusalem’s Old City.

While not an overtly Jewish charity, Komen has deep Jewish roots. Nancy Brinker started the organization in 1982 after her sister, Susan Komen, died of breast cancer. Brinker is Jewish, as was Komen.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure has invested more than $27 million in funding for international breast cancer research and more than $17 million in international community education and outreach programs. Komen has partnered or funded programs in more than 50 countries.

While most of the money raised by Komen goes to general breast cancer causes, the organization has given $2 million for research in Israel through the Weizmann Institute of Science, Hebrew University-Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, Beit Natan, and Life’s Door. In the United States it has ties to Hadassah, Sharsheret, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

This will be the first time, however, that Komen has held the 5K Race for the Cure in Israel.

“This is exciting. For me it is very exciting,” said Hadassah Lieberman, who joined Komen as its global ambassador several years ago when the organization ran its first international race in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The race has since been held in countries such as Germany, Italy, and Egypt.

“We have been thinking about Jerusalem for a while,” said Lieberman, the wife of Connecticut U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman. “It has been one of the places where these things take a while to coordinate.”

According to Komen officials, breast cancer is the most common form of women’s cancer in Israel, accounting for nearly 30 percent of new cancer cases in the country. About 4,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer in Israel each year.

In bringing the race to Israel, Susan G. Komen for the Cure hopes to spark new collaborations with organizations such as the Israel Cancer Association and to raise awareness of breast cancer in Israel.

“Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s very first international research grant went to Israel 16 years ago, and we have enjoyed longstanding friendships and productive collaborations in Israel ever since,” Brinker said in a statement announcing the Israel project. “The new Israel Breast Cancer Collaborative takes our relationships to the next level — in partnership with the city of Jerusalem, Hadassah, government leaders, advocates, and our global partners — as we work to address the critical issues in breast cancer for the women of Israel and the world.”

This might seem a precarious time for an international fund-raising organization to broaden its ties with Israel, with the country feeling the fallout of the flotilla incident in terms of public opinion, but Lieberman says she does not believe it will be an issue for Komen’s fund-raising.

“Everyone, whether it is Jewish organizations or Christian populations, is really excited about this race because we never have had a chance to do it in Jerusalem,” she said. “It’s very been exciting and positive, particularly at times like this, when you have to understand that this illness has no border and boundary and you understand the cure has no border and boundary.”

Lieberman added, “It is very special to be able to go to the Kotel to put a note in the [Western Wall], and for some of these women to go there and have a prayer for themselves or for their sisters’ or aunts’ health, and spread awareness around Israel.”

JTA

 
 

Kristallnacht and tales of survival

A tribute: On the 70th anniversary of my father’s deportation

_JStandardCover Story
Published: 05 November 2010

Seventy years ago last month my father, grandparents, and some 6,000 other Jews were deported from the border region of southwest Germany to internment camps in southern France.

For the next 18 months my father, Kurt Lion, now 84, endured lice, hunger, and deprivation as he nursed his ailing parents first in the Gurs and later in the Rivesaltes camps.

“There was little food, no medicines, and the suffering was terrible,” my father remembered, his voice hoarse with emotion. “It was especially hard on the elderly and sick, death was everywhere.”

His father Philip, 69, died from the horrible conditions; his mother Rosa, 59, was eventually transported to Auschwitz, where she was gassed.

Both had reiterated to him the same burning wish — that someday he make it to America for a new life and a reunion with his two elder sisters, living there since 1937. My father, just 16 then, vowed to survive and avenge his parents’ suffering.

At Rivesaltes he had been forced to hide in crawlspaces to evade the Nazi SS squads that increasingly sought young Jews for lethal work details. Certain he must flee to live, he slipped away, was later arrested, and was taken to a holding depot for shipment to another camp. But that night he managed to escape by squirming through a sewage pipe, then jumping into a nearby river.

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Kurt Lion attended gunnery school to become able to “punish the Germans.” Courtesy Ed Lion

He lived on foraged food and eventually was able to get I.D. papers for himself under a gentile name. With this alias, he found work as a farmhand for a landowner in a village in east-central France. There he managed to replenish his strength from the camp deprivations.

But with his increased strength, something else within him grew stronger — his desire to strike back against the Germans. “I saw how my parents, all the others had suffered because they were Jews,” my father recalled. “I wanted vengeance, to punish the Germans for what they were doing. I wanted to get them back.”

And strike back my father did, first by attacking German troops and supply lines in the French underground. Later, he served as an aerial gunner in a U.S.-supplied “Free French” B-17 bomber that rained explosives on Germany during raids coordinated by the American Air Force.

After a dozen successful bomber missions, my father’s plane was shot down and he ended the war performing other duties for the French military. His status gave him access to trucks and, with these, he secretly helped in the clandestine smuggling of Jewish refugees out of Germany and en route to Palestine.

Today my father is retired in central New Jersey after a career in textile designing. He lived for 40 years in Dumont, where he raised my two sisters and myself. Age, my mother’s death, and the passing of so many he knew have given my father a philosophical outlook on life.

But when we, his children, ask about his early life, the years seem to melt away for him. He sounds not like an old man but like the teenager he was on Oct. 22, 1940, when he was deported from Ihringen, his birthplace village near the French border. His voice resonates with a gamut of emotions — nostalgia for his childhood, then sadness and anger for the people deported via packed trains to the filthy, flea-ridden Vichy-run camps.

But usually when he is done recounting his wartime experiences, a measure of satisfaction comes to his voice. It is satisfaction derived from the facts that yes, he fought back, and yes, he fulfilled his parents’ wish, reuniting with his sisters and building a successful and happy life in America.

“When I look back on it now, it seems unbelievable,” my father said, commenting on his time in the war. “The chances of getting through the camps and the fighting were so slim.”

My father paused to smile, then added ruefully, “I wouldn’t have bet a dime on my chances of making it.”

But my father indeed made it and, with my mother Giselle, herself a Holocaust survivor, went on raise his family as active members of the old Bergenfield-Dumont Jewish Center.

“I think the fact that we Jews are still here and doing well,” my father said, “is the best revenge against the Germans. It’s a victory for us.”

 
 
 
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