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Untangling the knot

Recovering ‘dislocated’ art

If someone steals your car, everyone will agree that your car was stolen. If you were a Jew in Europe during the Nazi era and someone took your artworks, whether they are considered stolen property depends on who took them, how many times they changed hands in the last seven decades, and who has them now, according to Marilyn Henry, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.

Henry, a Teaneck resident, spoke about the recovery of Nazi-looted art on Tuesday at the JCC in Manhattan and is scheduled to deliver a second lecture there on Oct. 13.

The author of “Confronting the Perpetrators: A History of The Claims Conference,” Henry spent many years as a reporter for the Jerusalem Post and was a contributing editor to ARTnews, “covering the whole question of looted and displaced art.”

Her forthcoming book is “Twice Stolen: Recovering Nazi-Looted Jewish Art.”

According to Henry, the issue of untangling Holocaust-era art claims is very problematic.

“Many people involved in the field are exhausted, frustrated, and financially tapped out,” she said. “Claimants feel they will not get justice and museums are terrified. They fear that claims for [this] art would strip museum walls bare.”

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Museums were in an uproar when New York’s Robert Morgenthau seized Egon Schiele’s painting “Portrait of Wally,” above.

The case of Egon Schiele’s painting “Portrait of Wally” instigated what Henry calls the “Nazi-era looted art craze.” Detained in January 1998 by Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau while on loan from the Leopold Museum in Vienna to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, “Wally’s” fate has yet to be resolved after 10 years in federal court.

“It really was a craze,” she said. “The fear was, if the New York district attorney was going to impound art, no one would lend to [N.Y. museums] and they would lose their ‘pre-eminent position’ in the cultural universe.” They also worried about losing other assets.

Neither scenario materialized, said Henry, labeling the outcry “pure overreaction.”

Henry explained that the word “loot” is misleading.

“It’s a shorthand,” she said. “While the terminology we have come to use is ‘Nazi-looted art,’ there’s a problem with that.”

Some of the art, she said, was not looted but went missing, was stolen by neighbors, or was sold under duress during the Nazi era, from 1933 to 1945. “The owners themselves may have sold art like other possessions, at fire sale prices for food or flight,” she said.

In these cases — while it was Nazi terror that caused the sale — the Nazis never had access to the art itself or to the income from the sale. The art may also have been abandoned, because many deportees were compelled to leave everything behind.

Dealing with this art now is “interesting, irritating, and complicated,” said Henry, “depending heavily on where the art surfaces these many years later.”

While scholars agree that the Nazi era brought about the greatest displacement of art in history, “after the war, the Allies were able to locate and create collecting points where they amassed all the art that they could find and returned it to their country of origin,” said Henry.

However, she stressed, while it represented a “huge restitution effort, it was not to individuals.” Of great importance is how well these countries went about finding the owners and heirs.

Under international and legal pressure, nations in 1998 agreed to non-binding “Washington Principles.” These called for “just and fair solutions” to ownership disputes and for “alternative dispute resolution mechanisms for resolving ownership issues.”

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Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, inspects art treasures looted by the Germans and stored away in the Merkers salt mine. Behind Eisenhower are Gen. Omar N. Bradley, left, Commander General of the 12th Army Group, and, right, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., Commander General, 3rd U.S. Army. 4/12/45. National Archives, Holocaust-Era Assets

The Netherlands and Germany have done fairly well in following the principles, said Henry. “The British do a little, the French claim to, and the Austrians have an odd system, kicking and screaming the entire way.”

Different countries use different criteria to determine whether something qualifies as Nazi-looted art, she said.

“I use the term ‘restitution roulette,’” said Henry. “The idea is that if you are a claimant, original owner, or heir, your ability to recover [art] depends on where it ends up all these years later. It’s random. It might end up in a restitution-friendly location that has broad definitions of what constitutes looted art to which you are entitled, or it might end up in an area or institution that is much more strict as to what constitutes loot.”

In that case, she said, the country in question might require proof that a Nazi agent took it — something not easy to come by.

Henry pointed out that there is no entity monitoring how nations and institutions are resolving these claims.

“There’s no ‘policing’ agency,” she said, noting that the Claims Conference does not advocate for individuals. “It’s frustrating, because customary law is not designed to deal with this. No one wants to come up with an alternative mechanism.”

There have been instances, she said, “where it looks like a fairly clear case but as it racks up expenses and drags on, people feel compelled to abandon the claims.”

In addition, she said, with the passage of time, “we have the phenomenon of heirs totally unaware of what their families may have owned, and what they are entitled to.”

Some museums, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, for example, have returned art “without question,” giving back a painting to heirs without litigation, “even though it left a hole in the heart of the museum. They’re good guys,” said Henry.

Still, said Henry, some museums raise fair questions, such as how the pre-war owner came to lose possession and whether the Nazis sold looted art on the open market.

“If the Nazis were selling artwork to raise cash and someone goes and buys this, have [the buyers] done anything wrong?” asked Henry, noting that the issue raises “lots of moral questions.”

“The Nazis should not have been taking these [artworks]. But when other people happen to acquire them, the result is that a lot of art is moving and there is a lot for sale. A lot of buyers and current possessors … are not the thieves. Should they give it back? Who will compensate them? Should they be compensated?”

The recourse for the original owner depends on the country he or she is in, Henry said, adding that one problem with establishing an international system is national sovereignty.

“Even with the world’s greatest system for mediating disputes, there would be no incentive for France, say, to accept an American system. It has nothing to do with art. It’s about national sovereignty. That becomes a tremendous issue.”

Henry said the idea behind her new book is that while the Nazis stole or created the conditions under which people lost art, a second problem occurred after the war, when paintings were returned by the Allies to countries of origin that did not look for the victims and return the art. Nor — using devices such as confiscatory fees, export bans, or impossible demands for proof of ownership — did they offer victims the ability to recover the art.

“It does [the victims] a disservice when the focus is on looting but not on how victims and their heirs struggled after the war to recover artwork that was located,” she said.

The trauma and emotional scars of the Shoah and people’s passions about art are a combustible mix.

“Art makes people nuts,” said Henry. “I’m confident after 15 years of writing [about this] that resistance to restitution is not about anti-Semitism. Something about art makes people lose all common sense.”

 
 

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?”

 
 

Controversy erupts over Holocaust revisionism in E. Europe

BERLIN – Was the Soviet Union a force for good or ill during the Nazi years?

That question is at the core of a controversy among some Jewish groups and former Soviet republics over the issue of Holocaust revisionism, and it erupted last month at a conference in Berlin organized by the World Congress of Russian-Speaking Jews on “The Legacy of World War II and the Holocaust.”

Some former Soviet republics view Stalin’s Soviet regime as evil and laud those who fought it as nationalist heroes. The problem, many Jewish groups say, is that some of those nationalists were Nazi collaborators and vicious anti-Semites.

In their bid to condemn these nationalists and their murder of Jews, some Jewish groups are trying to promote the image of Stalin’s Red Army as liberator, not occupier, of Eastern Europe. It’s a hard sell in countries such as Ukraine and Moldova and in the Baltic states, where many say glorification of the nationalists is on the rise.

Others say, however, that the problem of nationalist extremism is exaggerated, and a Ukrainian diplomat and some Ukrainian Jewish leaders denounced the conference as an exercise in propaganda.

“From the very beginning it was obvious that the conference was not aimed at a constructive approach but at politicizing this issue and extremely over-exaggerating,” charged Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Natalia Zarudna, who spoke at the conference.

“Russia never misses an opportunity to bash Ukraine,” concurred Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, a chief rabbi of Ukraine. Bleich said he was invited to the conference but “did not come because I think it was orchestrated by a Russian propaganda machine.”

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Boris Burle of the Veterans Union of World War II Fighters Against Nazism examines an Estonian ultranationalist calendar at a Berlin conference Dec. 16 on Holocaust revisionism in the former Soviet Union. Toby Axelrod

Boris Shpigel, president of the World Congress of Russian-Speaking Jewry, insisted that his concerns about nationalism in Ukraine and elsewhere were genuine, and that he wants to spur a new movement to combat revisionism in former Soviet bloc countries.

“At a time when a new generation doesn’t know about the history of World War II, about the Holocaust, we will be a foundation for consolidating all civilizations to fight against new forms of revisionism,” said Shpigel, who is also a senator in the Russian parliament. “We are not going to fight with these countries. Ninety percent of the people in these countries are good. It is the other 10 percent who are lying, and it is our goal” to reach them.

The conference passed resolutions to establish an international, anti-fascist umbrella organization to monitor historical revisionism and resurgent neo-fascism, called on the people of Ukraine not to cooperate with fascist and Nazi groups and to stop glorifying wartime nationalists such as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, who helped Nazis kill Jews; and demanded that the international community decry the Iranian regime’s Holocaust denial and verbal threats against Israel.

Among some 500 people from 28 countries attending the conference were many Soviet World War II veterans, who came with medals pinned to their jackets.

Zarudna said groups like Shpigel’s exaggerate the degree of neo-fascism in Ukraine, and the envoy condemned what she described as attempts by conference organizers to interfere in the country’s presidential elections this month.

Joseph Zissels, the head of Ukraine’s Jewish umbrella group, the Vaad, said the conference “can be seen as an indirect attempt to have an impact on the election.”

In a telephone interview from Ukraine, Zissels also said ultranationalists were not as big a problem in Ukraine as described, and that it is Russia that is attempting to portray Ukraine as extremist in order to weaken Ukraine’s ties with the West.

“Ultranationalists in Ukraine have the support of less than one percent of the population,” Zissels said. “Russia’s concern is European integration of Ukraine, and that is why they play with the impression that Ukraine is very nationalistic, which it is not.”

Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, told JTA that any country that ignores the war crimes of nationalist figures encourages extremists.

“There is a need for an organization that will monitor these issues,” Zuroff said.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to send representatives to the conference because “[w]e don’t want to get into internal politics in this regard,” said Aviva Raz Schechter, head of the ministry’s Department for Anti-Semitism and Holocaust Issues.

Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said there has been “genuine progress” on issues of anti-Semitism in the former Soviet bloc countries.

JTA

 
 

Speaker tells ‘human stories’ behind the Holocaust

Sara Losch, director of lifelong learning at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, recently wrote to congregants that “for years, I’ve heard from adults that they don’t have a legitimate education about the Shoah.”

“Many of us did not learn about it in school,” she added. “Some of us only know what we know from movies or novels.”

To address this need, the synagogue’s Elsie and Howard Kahane Holocaust Education Fund is sponsoring a three-part lecture series, “Why they did what they did: Understanding the human behavior behind the Holocaust,” led by educator Sharon Halper.

The program, employing personal narratives to explore human behavior, community dynamics, and social context, began on Jan. 13 and continues on Jan. 20 and 27.

Halper — who teaches both children and adults and has been a synagogue school director, teacher trainer, writer, and consultant — pointed out that her lecture series derives from her studies with Facing History and Ourselves, a group that “delivers classroom strategies, resources, and lessons that inspire young people to take responsibility for their world,” according to its Website, Facing.org.

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Sharon Halper

At the heart of its work is the resource book “Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior,” from which Halper has drawn her series title.

A child of refugees and survivors, the educator said the topic of the Shoah has always presented “both a particular challenge and a particular desire to convey those aspects of the Holocaust that I find compelling.”

In her talks, which she said “are not linear history and are not devoted just to the Holocaust,” she will review with attendees what the world was like “before, during, and since” the Shoah.

“It’s important to understand what early 20th-century Europe, and the U.S., looked like,” she said. “Why was Hitler elected? We need to understand not just what it was like in the 1920s but in the 1890s. Why was the turf right?”

It is also important to understand how the Jews lived, she said.

“We think of it only as a time of death. But what did it mean to live and to resist?”

Halper pointed out that, in 21st-century terms, “resistance means winning, walking away. What does that mean with respect to those who perished?”

She said she finds it compelling to look at the documents and artifacts that survived the Warsaw Ghetto, where they had “soup kitchens, gardens, and handed out recipes saying what to do with frozen cabbages.”

“What did it mean to live?” she asked, noting that she will look at “human stories.”

Halper said she would begin her first session with a discussion of the eugenics movement and the movement called Social Darwinism.

“Why was the language Hitler spoke not a foreign tongue, even in America?” she asked, noting that the United States at the time was concerned about immigration, “people who didn’t look and sound like us.”

She will move on to discuss issues such as the Armenian genocide, World War I, and Versailles, tackling questions such as “What did Hitler learn from the world around him?”

In addition, she will explore the motivation of rescuers, people who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis.

In discussing the Warsaw Ghetto, she said, she will make use of the archives of the Oneg Shabbos group of scholars and others, compiled by a social scientist in the ghetto first as resource material and later — when he realized that survival was not possible — as a historical record.

Halper said three boxes, containing thousands of artifacts such as diaries and letters but also things like Purim candy and children’s school schedules, were buried around the ghetto. Two have been unearthed.

The educator, who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and has written curricular materials for the Union of Reform Judaism, said that her parents came to the United States in the late 1930s from Berlin and Vienna, and her stepfather from Russia.

“There are two kinds of families,” she said of Holocaust survivors, “those who spoke and those who were silent. My family was silent. You knew you could not ask.”

The Barnert lecture series is free and open to the public. For further information, call (201) 848-1800 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Pope seeks to mend ties in synagogue visit

ROME – When Pope Benedict XVI visited this city’s main synagogue, sparring between the pope and Jewish leaders over Pope Pius XII’s role in the Holocaust grabbed headlines.

But the emotion-charged visit Sunday held broader significance, as Jewish leaders and the German-born pontiff sought to mend strained relations and reaffirm a commitment to Christian-Jewish dialogue.

News Analysis

“Despite a dramatic history, the unresolved problems, and the misunderstandings, it is our shared visions and common goals that should be given pride of place,” said Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, speaking to packed sanctuary from in front of the ornate ark. “The image of respect and friendship that emanates from this encounter must be an example for all those who are watching.”

Benedict’s visit came in the wake of tensions sparked most recently by his decision last month to move Pius XII closer to sainthood. A year ago, the pope triggered an outcry by revoking the excommunication order on a traditionalist bishop who denied the Holocaust.

Critics accuse Pius of having turned a blind eye to Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. Rabbi Giuseppe Laras, the president of the Italian Rabbinical Assembly, boycotted the synagogue ceremony to protest Pope Benedict’s move on Pius.

Rome Jewish Community President Riccardo Pacifici, whose grandparents died in Auschwitz, acknowledged the concern over Pius in his welcoming address to the pope and repeated calls for the Vatican to open its secret archives to resolve the issue.

But he also paid tribute to individual Catholics and Catholic institutions that had helped Jews — and choked back tears describing how his father and uncle had been saved in a Catholic convent.

“Because of this, the silence of Pius XII in the face of the Shoah still hurts like a missed opportunity,” Pacifici said. “Maybe he could not have stopped the death trains, but he could have sent a signal, a word of extreme comfort, of human solidarity, for our brothers who were transported to the ovens of Auschwitz.”

Benedict in his speech minutes later did not mention Pius by name but implicitly defended him, repeating the stance that the Vatican had “provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way.”

The main focus of Benedict’s speech, however, was a reaffirmation of commitment to the Jewish-Catholic dialogue launched by the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate declaration of 1965 and fostered by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

The visit took place on the day marked by the Catholic Church as an annual Day of Dialogue with Judaism.

Memory of the Holocaust, the 82-year-old pope said, “compels us to strengthen the bonds that unite us so that our mutual understanding, respect, and acceptance may always increase.”

Benedict repeated John Paul’s prayers for forgiveness for Catholic anti-Semitism.

“The Church has not failed to deplore the failings of her sons and daughters, begging forgiveness for all that could in any way have contributed to the scourge of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism,” he said. “May these wounds be healed forever!”

Benedict’s words were interrupted by applause several times and drew a standing ovation from an audience that included Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim representatives, Holocaust survivors, political leaders, and the 100-year-old Nobel Prize-winning scientist Rita Levi Montalcini, who was persecuted under fascist Italy’s World War II-era anti-Semitic laws.

Before entering the synagogue Benedict, an unwilling member of the Hitler youth organization as a teenager, placed a wreath at a memorial plaque honoring the more than 1,000 Roman Jews who were deported to Auschwitz in 1943. He also placed a wreath at a plaque honoring a toddler killed in a 1982 Palestinian terrorist attack on the synagogue that wounded scores of worshipers.

“We live in world of symbolism, and his going to synagogue was a very symbolic statement,” said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, the founder and president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation.

Schneier said the pope was attempting to bolster a template for a world in which the Holocaust generation was passing and the epicenter of Catholicism was shifting to Latin America, Asia, and Africa — global regions where few Jews live.

“A picture is worth 1,000 words,” said Schneier, a Holocaust survivor who hosted Benedict in 2008 at his Park East Synagogue in New York. “Think what it means to a priest in, say, a village in Bolivia to see the pope during this visit to the synagogue. It is a message that dialogue with Judaism is on. The tracks were laid by the Second Vatican Council and the trains are running.”

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom also attended Sunday, and he called the papal meeting “a historic moment.” At a news conference afterward, Shalom said he also had asked the pope to open the Vatican’s secret World War II archives.

JTA

 
 

A virtual ‘Wall of Remembrance’

Many synagogues have a “yahrzeit wall” where families can dedicate plaques in memory of loved ones. A South Jersey synagogue extended the concept to memorialize Holocaust victims. And that inspired the New Jersey Holocaust Education Commission to develop a virtual statewide Wall of Remembrance.

“The commission members thought the synagogue’s wall was a wonderful idea for survivors, and we started to talk about building such walls around New Jersey,” said Paul B. Winkler, executive director of the NJHEC. “But we realized that was impossible. So we decided to do it on the Internet.”

The online format allows this virtual wall to list not only names, photographs, and personal details of Jews who perished during the Holocaust but also those who survived, those who were forced to flee before the war, and those who liberated the concentration camps as part of their military service.

“People may connect and say, ‘That was my town.’ The idea was to honor victims and give survivors the opportunity to share information about their families,” said Winkler.

Because NJHEC’s mandate is education, however, a major goal is to facilitate meetings between New Jersey’s survivors and public school students. Winkler said many teachers request survivor speakers for their classrooms as a complement to the state’s Holocaust and genocide education curriculum.

“Classes will be able to go to the site and choose a survivor they’d like to meet, and we will make the contact for them,” said Winkler. “We have a list of about 2,000 survivors, but we think there may be as many as 3,000 in New Jersey.”

The NJHEC provides support for college centers of Holocaust and genocide studies and it offers community programming and teacher training in addition to curricula.

One popular “extra” program is Adopt a Survivor, where students pledge that in 2045 — 100 years after the end of World War II — they will tell their families, friends, and colleagues about the survivor they met as schoolchildren.

“We’re emphasizing this because now we have the last group of kindergartners who will ever have a chance to meet a Holocaust survivor [when they are older],” said Winkler.

One class in New Millburn was particularly moved by a survivor’s account of missing her high school’s annual dance because Jews had been expelled earlier that year. In donated space at Livingston’s Crystal Plaza, the students held a black-tie prom for the survivor and 300 guests.

Winkler said the state’s Holocaust study centers and Second Generation groups are getting word out about the project, as is the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, based in Union.

Executive Director Jacob Toporek said the association recognizes “the need to recall those who were the victims of the Shoah, [and] to support the great work done by the Commission.”

A contribution of $18 per entry, or $200 for 15 or more names, is suggested. Submission forms are available online at http://www.state.nj.us/education/holocaust/wall/. The NJHEC can be reached at (609) 292-9274.

 
 

Program honors little-known hero of Holocaust

The Holocaust Resource Center of Greater Clifton-Passaic will hold its annual Yom HaShoah observance on April 11 at the Jewish Community Center, 199 Scoles Ave., in Clifton. The program will include a special tribute to a former New York University dean responsible for saving the lives of Jewish doctors and scientists.

Physicist Albert Einstein, who left Germany in 1933, had been trying, in cooperation with Jewish organizations, to get Jews out of Germany and Austria and into the United States. He asked leaders of scientific and academic institutions to hire Jewish professionals for teaching positions, which would allow them to get visas quickly, thus getting around the waiting periods imposed by the State Department.

One of the leaders who responded to Einstein’s plea and helped him to persuade others to do likewise was Dr. Currier McEwen, the dean of NYU Medical School. As a result of McEwen’s efforts, NYU made faculty appointments to approximately 20 German and Austrian Jewish physicians and professors. As McEwen told a friend many years later, no one school could afford to keep all the Jewish scientists and physicians on its faculty permanently, but NYU gave them two-year appointments to satisfy the State Department and get them away from the Nazis quickly. This gave them time to establish a private practice here or get themselves onto other faculties.

McEwen’s hobby was horticulture. He hybridized over 160 new types of irises and 43 new types of daylilies. Some of his irises are grown at the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens in Upper Montclair. At the Yom HaShoah observance, the Holocaust Resource Center and the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens will honor McEwen for his humanitarian efforts. Between 6 and 7 p.m., Dr. Robert and Bernice Moskowitz will host a reception for McEwen’s family, members of the Presby Memorial Gardens, and faculty and alumni of NYU Medical School. A video about his life will be shown. Members of the public may also attend this reception, but reservations are required. For information, call (973) 777-7031, ext. 147 and ask for Nancy or (973) 779-2980 and ask for Maria.

The Holocaust Memorial Observance will take place in the JCC auditorium from 7 to 8 p.m. It will be presided over by Stuart Rabner, chairman of the Holocaust Resource Center, and Max Birnbaum, chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Observance Committee. Dr. Anthony Grieco, associate dean of the NYU Medical School, will speak about McEwen and Prof. Fred Einstein, a grand-nephew of Albert Einstein, will read a letter from his great-uncle to McEwen. The Presby Gardens will plant irises developed by McEwen in the raised planters in the circular front driveway of the JCC as a memorial to him, and a presentation will be made to his family.

The keynote speaker will be Ernest Michel, a Holocaust survivor who, until his retirement in 1989, was executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York. Michel spent five and a half years in Auschwitz and several other Nazi concentration camps. He later covered the Nuremburg war crimes trials as a correspondent for a German news agency. Michel was also the initiator and chairman of the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Jerusalem in 1981, which was attended by 6,000 survivors and their families from all over the world.

Other participants in the program will be YBH Hillel School of Passaic, survivors and their children, who will light candles in memory of the 6 million, Cantor Richard Starashevsky of Young Israel of Passaic Park, and Rabbi Dovid Hirsch, a rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Yeshiva of Yeshiva University and religious leader of Kehilas Bais Yosef in Passaic.

A separate program for children from nursery school age to fifth grade will be held from 7 to 8 p.m.

 
 

Why we wrote ‘Why Should I Care?’

 

Reaction to tragedy showcases changes in Polish-Jewish relations

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Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, were buried after funeral services at St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw on Sunday. Andrzej Rybczynski/AFP/Getty Images</td>

ROME – The Jewish reaction to the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of other senior Polish officials in an air tragedy highlights a remarkable change in how the Jewish world views Poland.

The prayers, public statements, and personal tributes, including a special remembrance during the March of the Living, were normal expressions of grief and solidarity for a close friend and ally — in short, heartfelt sentiments that probably could not have been made 20 or even 15 years ago.

First Person

Poland looms large in the collective Jewish consciousness. Huge numbers of North American Jews trace their ancestry to Poland, and before World War II Poland was Europe’s Jewish heartland. Some 3 million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

Until fairly recently, however, much of the Jewish world regarded Poland as little more than a vast, anti-Semitic Jewish graveyard. These attitudes were exemplified in 1989 by Israel’s then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who famously declared that Poles “suck in” anti-Semitism “with their mother’s milk.”

Today, however, Poland is one of Israel’s best friends, and Jewish leaders hailed Kaczynski and others on the doomed plane for their dedication in helping write a new chapter in Polish-Jewish relations. Kaczynski was buried on Sunday.

This change in Jewish attitudes by no means came overnight. It was the fruit of a deliberate, sometime rocky post-communism Polish policy aimed at convincing the Jewish world that Poland — and Poles — could be trusted partners.

This included organized outreach, Poland’s emergence as an ally of Israel, and extensive Polish interaction with international Jewish organizations on both a formal and informal basis. In 1995, the Polish government even established the unprecedented post of roving ambassador to the Jewish diaspora to foster contacts and provide a conduit for communications.

Meanwhile, lacerating public debates in Poland over anti-Semitism and the Polish role in the Holocaust, sparked by several books and films, also demonstrated to the Jewish world a willingness in Poland to tackle these troubling issues.

“Jewish attitudes became more positive as the world began to recognize Poland as a modern democratic nation rather than the apocryphal place of our ancient sufferings,” says Michael Traison, a Jewish American lawyer who has maintained an office in Poland since the mid-1990s. “And attitudes were impacted by the growth of information flowing out of Poland to the Jewish world as people learn that ‘Am Yisrael chai’ [the Jewish people lives], even in Poland.”

Jewish figures themselves played key roles by demonstrating their own openness to Poland and highlighting the revival of contemporary Jewish life in the country.

Shevach Weiss, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor and former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, became a popular and even beloved figure among locals as the Israeli ambassador to Poland from 2000 to 2004.

I’ll never forget seeing him plunge into a crowd of 10,000 frenzied fans, most of them Catholic Poles, who crammed into the main square of Krakow’s old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, for the final concert of the annual Festival of Jewish Culture in 2002.

The Krakow Festival and the new Museum of the History of Polish Jewry under construction in Warsaw also have won enthusiastic American supporters. Poland’s American-born chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, has been tireless in spreading the word that a small but living Jewish community exists in Poland.

Organizations such as the San Francisco-based Taube Foundation and the American Jewish Committee make it a point to bring Jewish groups to Poland not just to commemorate the Holocaust but to take part in Jewish cultural events and meet local Jews and Catholic Poles.

“The story of Judaism in Poland did not end with the Holocaust,” promotional material for Taube-led tours says.

What all this means is that after decades of looking at Poland through a lens tinged darkly with tragedy and distrust, Jewish leaders increasingly are willing to demonstrate belief that Poland has changed. Or at least is changing.

To be sure, this does not mean that Polish anti-Semitism has vanished; on the contrary. It does recognize, however, that other forces are in play, too.

To someone like me, whose relationship with the Jewish experience in post-Holocaust Poland goes back nearly 30 years, this change of attitude is as dramatic as it is welcome. It remains to be seen, though, how far it has trickled down.

An American Jewish friend here in Italy, who first told me the news about Kaczynski’s death in the plane crash, was surprised when I expressed dismay.

“I don’t know anything about him except that he’s an anti-Semite,” my friend said.

An Israeli Facebook friend wrote: “I wish that Poles — who indeed suffered a grievous loss in the plane crash that killed its leadership — felt the same sense of loss over the 3 million Polish Jews murdered in their country, often at the hands of the Polish people.”

Still, I was moved and encouraged by the homage paid to Kaczynski by the 10,000 participants of this year’s March of the Living, the annual youth gathering that commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day with a ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Back in 1994, when I was the cultural guide for a March of the Living group, the youngsters I was with spent their last evening in Poland acting out anti-Polish skits. Their handbook took for granted that the youngsters would feel nothing positive toward local Poles.

“We will hate them for having participated in atrocities, but we will also pity them for their woeful living conditions today,” it read.

But at this year’s March of the Living, young participants wore black armbands to honor Kaczynski and the other crash victims.

“We join our Polish brothers and sisters in their time of sorrow, and express our deepest sympathies for their loss,” a statement from the March of the Living said. “Our thoughts, hopes, and prayers are with them during this difficult time.”

JTA

 
 
 
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