New Documentary Reveals Rich Community Life of Trochenbrod

Claims Conference Provides Grant to Filmmakers

Lost Town

“Lost Town” is about the Jewish town of Trochenbrod that was decimated by the Nazis. Visit the movie’s website to learn more and scroll down to see a trailer. Learn more about Claims Conference grants for Holocaust-related films. 

When the Nazis destroyed the shtetl of Trochenbrod in August 1942, they obliterated the only all-Jewish town in the world outside of Palestine. Trochenbrod was established by Jews in 1835, on a piece of land given by a Russian princess, as a legal loophole allowing them not to be drafted into the Russian army. The villagers were primarily farmers, raising crops and livestock; over the years, they established small businesses that served surrounding communities.

The Nazis gathered together all the townspeople in the forest – about 5,000 people – and massacred them, throwing them into a mass grave. Two hundred people managed to flee during the mayhem and hide in the nearby forest. Then the town was burned. But just 33 survived the Holocaust.

Six decades later, author Avrom Bendavid-Val, whose late father had emigrated from Trochenbrod prior to the Shoah, went in search of the town, which had been literally wiped off the map. On a yearslong search to find his father’s hometown and honor his memory, Bendavid-Val met and connected with other survivors, many of whom hadn’t seen each other in 60 years. His efforts have renewed popular interest in Trochenbrod, first made famous by author Jonathan Safran Foer in his novel “Everything is Illuminated.”

Bendavid-Val’s search for Trochenbrod, in what is today northwestern Ukraine, resulted in a 2010 book and now, a new feature film called “Lost Town,” which received funding from the Claims Conference during its production stage. Director and producer Jeremy Goldscheider thanked the Claims Conference, saying, “It takes a certain organization to see the vision early on.”

“Lost Town” is now making the rounds of Jewish and secular film festivals worldwide. The hope of the filmmakers is to have the movie distributed in Ukraine so that young people can learn this piece of their country’s history.

Jeremy and Avrom, the film’s historical consultant, recently answered some questions about “Lost Town” after a screening of the film, which they attended, for Claims Conference staff in New York.

Q: Why did you make a film of the story of Trochenbrod and your efforts to connect with survivors?

Avrom: I’m interested in memorializing Trochenbrod, and bringing its significance to everyone, Jews and non-Jews. I’m trying to help Ukrainians learn about their own history, and let the Jewish community know there was such a very special place where being a Jew was the norm.

Q: During filming, how were relations with the Ukrainians you met?

Avrom: We met with mostly young people who had been exposed to the Western world. I witnessed many anti-Semitic events in Ukraine. But among the people I worked with, even in one of the villages that was nationalist [anti-Semitic] during the war, things have changed. They accept times have changed. And they are very hospitable.

Q: The film includes animated re-creations when portraying Trochenbrod before its destruction. What made you decide to use that way of storytelling?

Jeremy: Because there’s no movie footage, and there are very few photographs of Trochenbrod which have survived. It was the best way of telling the story, and also to appeal to young people.

Q: What was the religious life like in Trochenbrod?

Avrom: The Hasidic influence began to diminish around 1880-1890, but the town was still religious, and by World War I was what we call Orthodox. After World War I, residents had been exposed to non-Jewish things, and Zionism began to take hold. Also, there was a generational difference. And once it shifted from agriculture to commerce, there was more work for young people.

In Israel, in the Beit-Tal organization [organization of the descendants of Trochenbrod], most are not religious, but they respect, and encourage their children to relate to, Jewish practices, even though many are not religious.

Q: Why doesn’t the film go into more detail about the death of the community during the Holocaust?

Jeremy: I didn’t want to have the Holocaust in the film at all. I really wanted to make a film about the life there, not the death. But the Holocaust is part of the story.

Avrom: When I first stumbled on the story of Trochenbrod, I wanted to know what the life was like. By knowing what was there, its vibrancy and significance, then you know what was lost.

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“Lost Town” was shown last week at the Bucharest (Romania) Jewish Film Festival, and will next be shown at:

  • Columbus Jewish Film Festival, Drexel Theater, Columbus, Ohio: Nov. 10
  • Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, California: Dec. 5

And in 2014, the film returns to the New York City area at:

  • The Bellmore Theater, Bellmore, Long Island: March 2

If you are interested in screening the film for your community, synagogue, high school or university please contact Seventh Arts Releasing at (323) 259-8259 or info@7thart.com.

Sobibor Uprising

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Train tracks leading to the Sobibor death camp in Poland. Photo courtesy Yad Vashem.

Seventy years ago, on October 14, 1943, a group of prisoners at the Sobibor extermination camp led a carefully planned revolt and mass escape, including killing a number of German, Polish and Ukrainian guards. Of the 600 prisoners in the camp at the time, 200 ultimately escaped without being re-captured; 53 of them survived the war. The remaining prisoners were shot and the camp received no more transports following the uprising. Between May 1942 and October 1943, at least 167,000 Jews were gassed at Sobibor.

One of the two main leaders of the uprising was Sascha Pecherski, a Soviet Jewish POW. Although Pecherski organized the most successful uprising and escape from a Nazi death camp, no biography exists of this hero. The Claims Conference has contributed funding toward research which will result in a book about his life, and which will also bring renewed attention to the Sobibor camp and uprising.

The biography is being researched and written by Professor Selma Leydesdorff through the Sobibor Foundation, based in the Netherlands. One-third of Dutch Holocaust victims were murdered in Sobibor’s gas chambers, making the camp of particular interest in that country.

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Sasha Pecherski, a leader of the Sobibor uprising, above in an undated photo around World War II. The Claims Conference is funding research for a biography of him, which will be the first ever written.
Photo courtesy Yad Vashem.

With this biography, Prof. Leydesdorff not only intends to write about Sobibor, but also about Jewish life in the part of Russia where Pecherski ended his life, and about the persecution of Jews after the war and the particular case of this once-celebrated war hero.

“It is time to recognize the ingenuity, resistance and resilience of this Jewish hero, whose life until 1943, the uprising, has been portrayed in movies and books but about whose later life there is silence. Also his background leading to his endeavor to free as many prisoners as possible has not systematically been studied,” wrote the Sobibor Foundation in its application to the Claims Conference for funding.

“The challenge and the uncertainty about this project is that no one knows how much material can be found. With more and more Russian archives opening, she [Prof. Leydesdorff] expects to be able to find new material and she is in contact with the Committee for Rehabilitation of Pecherski which will help with those striving towards recognition of his heroism and suffering,” the application stated.

After escaping from Sobibor, Pecherski was permitted by the Soviet army to speak in Moscow to the Commission of Inquiry of the Crimes of Fascist-German Aggressors and their Accomplices. Based on Pecherski’s description of the camp, the commission published the report entitled “Uprising in Sobibor.” In 1948, Soviet anti-Semitism led to his imprisonment until 1953.

We hope by supporting this project to uncover and preserve information about the life of a man whose bravery ultimately helped 53 Jews survive the war and shut down one of the main killing centers of the Shoah. Seventy years after the escape from Sobibor, it is not too late to bring new information to light.

“Defiant Requiem” at Lincoln Center

In the cultural heart of New York City, at Lincoln Center, I attended an unforgettable performance on Monday night that was much more than art. It was a living monument to the resistance mounted by the Jewish prisoners of Terezin who fought back against the Nazis through music and song.

defiant requiem“Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín” is a multi-media presentation commemorating the 16 performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem” in 1943 and 1944 by 150 Jews at Terezin who formed a chorus under the leadership of fellow prisoner Rafael Schächter, a graduate of the Prague Conservatory, and performed the piece as an act of defiance and resistance to their Nazi captors. With a smuggled score and a piano in a dank, cold cellar, the starving, terrorized Jews maintained their humanity by rehearsing a piece taken from Catholic liturgy. Imagine how empowering it must have felt for them to sing to their Nazi captors the section called Day of Wrath: “Nothing shall remain unavenged.” Schächter told his performers, “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.”

The unique and stirring performance at Lincoln Center – which I had seen previously in Prague and Washington, D.C. but which moved me no less this time – came to the U.S. through the indefatigable efforts of Fran Eizenstat z”l, who was so moved by seeing it in Prague in 2009 that she and Stuart – the Chairman of the Defiant Requiem Foundation – instantly joined with the show’s creator, Murry Sidlin, to bring it to wider audiences and create accompanying educational materials. Fran conceived of Monday’s performance as a benefit to assist the tens of thousands of needy Holocaust survivors in New York. Her untimely death earlier this year meant that the evening became a tribute to Fran, who would have been so pleased to see this performance simultaneously perpetuate the memory of the Shoah and aid its survivors.

The Lincoln Center performance, produced through the partnership of UJA-Federation of New York, Selfhelp Community Services and the Defiant Requiem Foundation raised $4.3 million, with all proceeds going to the UJA-Federation of New York Community Initiative for Holocaust Survivors. This program provides funding to 15 organizations that assist survivors with homecare, medical aid, food programs and other needed aid. In addition, Selfhelp was able to bring 80 survivors who receive its services to the performance.

The “Defiant Requiem” performance combines a visual presentation of film footage (from the original propaganda film created by the Nazis, “The Führer Gives a City to the Jews”), survivor interviews, and on-stage actors with an orchestra and a 150-person choir to create a memorable concert-drama. On Monday, the piece was performed by the City Choir of Washington and the Orchestra of Terezin Remembrance with Bebe Neuwirth as an on-stage narrator. “Here they were surrounded by man’s worst, and these Jewish prisoners were determined to remind everyone of man’s best,” said Sidlin.

When the International Red Cross and members of the Nazi command came to Terezin for an inspection, Schächter and his choir were ordered to perform to maintain the façade the Nazis had fabricated of Terezin as a model settlement for the Jews. It was their final performance. On October 16, 1944, Schächter and most of the choir were deported to Auschwitz. The majority were immediately murdered. Schächter survived Auschwitz, but in the spring of 1945, at age 39, it is believed that he perished on a death march. A month later Czechoslovakia was liberated.

defiant requiem

Click the photo to watch the documentary.

Claims Conference funding in 2010 for the Foundation’s educational components has enabled the production of the documentary, “Defiant Requiem: Voices of Resistance,” which describes the creation of the multi-media performance and includes survivor interviews and dramatic re-enactments of the rehearsals and performances in Terezin. It recently aired on PBS and the DVD will be available for purchase later in May.

defiant requiem

Rafael Schächter conducted the Requiem performances in Terezin during his imprisonment in 1943-1944. The Defiant Requiem Foundation’s Rafael Schächter Institute hosts performances and lectures to commemorate Terezin prisoners’ cultural events.

All funds received from the sale of the film will in turn support the Rafael Schächter Institute for Arts and Humanities at Terezín, which is dedicated to recreating the intellectual and creative environment the prisoners established for themselves at Terezín between 1941 and 1945. Distribution of the DVD and related educational materials will be done through sponsoring institutions and provided to the Task Force for International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance to reach an even larger international audience.

It was a great evening capped off by the fact that so many from the Claims Conference family were there, including Julius Berman, Roman Kent, Rabbi Bleich, Harriet Schleifer, Raymond Schrag, Gus Jacobs, and several people who are new committee members including Amy Bressman, Sandra Cahn, Judy Kaufthal, and Diane Wohl. Avery Fisher Hall was sold out for this performance and, given the crowd, I am sure that there were many that I did not see.

We often say, “May her memory be for a blessing.” Never has this notion been more true than that evening which educated us about the Shoah, fortified us with a profound reminder of the strength of the human spirit, and raised significant funds for needy Holocaust survivors – all the culmination of the efforts of so many under the leadership of the late Fran Eizenstat.

Shabbat Shalom,

Greg

Polish Jewish Museum Opening

Last Friday, on the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, a world that had ignored the plight of its fighters and the rest of Polish Jewry came to the site of the battle to pay tribute and to participate in the opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The museum is a beautifully and thoughtfully constructed landmark, and the Claims Conference has contributed funding toward the Shoah component of the forthcoming permanent exhibit. Visitors to Poland now and in the future will learn of the thousand-year history of a Jewish population that had grown to 3.3 million by 1939 before it was destroyed in less than six years.

Marian Turski

Marian Turski, center, chairman of the council of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, laid a wreath in front of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters’ monument across from the museum, at the ceremony last Friday to mark the 70th anniversary of the uprising and the opening of the museum. Photo: Magda Starowieyska

Nearly 2,000 people attended the ceremony on April 19, held at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes opposite the new museum, including Polish President Bronisław Komorowski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Also present were the President of the European Parliament and the Mayor of the City of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz. Delegations from several countries as well as members of the Jewish community and representatives of European capitals also gathered at the monument. Guests of honor included Simcha Rotem, a participant in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, who was decorated with the Great Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta by President Komorowski.

Although the permanent exhibition has not yet been installed, the museum opened to visitors on Saturday, April 20. Hundreds of people came to see the building designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki, which includes a full replica of the wooden ceiling and roof of a 17th-century synagogue from the town of Gwozdziec, richly decorated with murals. None of Poland’s many wooden synagogues survived the war so this painstaking recreation is all the more poignant.

synagogue cupola

The museum includes a stunning recreation of the wooden cupola roof of the 17th century synagogue in Gwozdziec. Photo: Franciszek Mazur

The museum’s eight galleries will show in chronological order the 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland. Marian Turski, a member of our negotiating delegation, is the museum’s Chairman of the Council. Marian was born Moshe Turbowicz in Druskieniki, now in modern-day Lithuania, in June 1926. A teenaged Moshe was forced, with his parents and younger brother, into the Lodz Ghetto in 1942, and then deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in August 1944. He survived a death march to Buchenwald in January 1945, and was then sent on a second death march to Theresienstadt where, sick with typhus, he was liberated by the Soviet Army. Marian endured the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz with his boyhood friends Roman Kent and Noach Flug z”l.

Roman and fellow Polish survivor Ben Helfgott represented  the Claims Conference at the ceremony last Friday, which Roman called “of the highest standard.” He shared with me some personal reflections as a Polish survivor to be there, so many decades later, at such an historic event. “After all, for us as Jews to be now recognized by the Polish government and the Polish people and give us credit for the heroic fight of the ghetto uprising – this meant a great deal to me as a Jew and as a Pole,” Roman said. “To have in Poland right now one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe as a museum depicting the thousand-year history of Polish Jews and giving them full credit for what they achieved is something outstanding.”

Hearing Roman’s thoughts and reading of the homage paid to this rich history and to the incredibly courageous ghetto fighters, I found myself thinking that if the world had paid as much attention to Polish Jews while the Nazis were exterminating them as it did last Friday that we might not need this museum today. As beautiful and educational and moving as this museum will be, it cannot ever bring back the world that was and the world that was destroyed. And we must ensure that this monument to a unique community and history continues to remind all its visitors of that.

Warsaw Ghetto uprising survivor Simcha Rotem spoke in front of the city’s monument to his fellow fighters. Photo: Magda Starowieyska

officials

Deputy museum director Zygmunt Stępiński shows the museum to Polish officials. From left, Secretary of State Władysław Bartoszewski, speaker of the Senate Bogdan Borus, Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, President Bronisław Bartoszewski and Minister of Culture Bohdan Zdrojewski. Photo: Franciszek Mazur

museum opening

Although the permanent exhibitions are not yet in place, hundreds of visitors came to see the new museum on the first day it was open to the public. Photo: Magda Starowieyska

More photos.

Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettoes: Volume II

Brzeziny, Poland is 12 miles east of Lodz, and its prewar Jewish population stood at 6,850. The Jews were herded into a ghetto in April 1940, where they suffered starvation, cold, disease, selections for forced labor, and punishment and torture by the Nazis. On Purim 1942, the Nazis ordered that 10 Jews were to be hanged publicly as punishment for the continuous smuggling that was needed to keep people alive.

Brzeziny

Deportation of Jews from the Brzeziny ghetto to Chelmno, May 1942.

When the ghetto was liquidated May 14-15, 1942, screaming mothers were separated from their children, who were among the 1,700 residents deported to the Chelmno extermination camp. Most of the remaining Jews were sent to the larger Lodz Ghetto and some were selected for forced labor elsewhere.

Brzeziny is just one of more than 1,150 Eastern European ghettos described in painstaking detail in Volume II of the “Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945,” published by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) with significant funding from the Claims Conference. Volume I examined 110 early camps and 24 main concentration camps. The remaining planned five volumes of the Encyclopedia will be published over the next decade.
Originating from a recent New York Times story, the Encyclopedia has received considerable media attention this week in many countries, including in Germany. Informing the public of this unparalleled historic project has in and of itself been an educational tool. The Claims Conference, working closely with the USHMM, has known of its contents for several years. The project, in total and through the eventual publication of 7 volumes,  has revealed more than 42,000 camps and ghettos throughout Nazi-occupied and Nazi-allied Europe and North Africa, more than twice the number that researchers believed they would document when the USHMM first approached the Claims Conference in 2007 for funding to publish the findings in encyclopedia form. The Claims Conference is proud to have been an early supporter of this landmark project.

We have helped bring about the restitution of history, attempting to ensure that every site of Nazi incarceration and extermination will be documented for all time. Without this project, public knowledge of the extent of the Nazi system would be vastly incomplete. With the Encyclopedia, all sites of imprisonment and extermination will now be recorded; their victims deserve no less.

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“The Museum’s multi-volume ‘Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos,’ which brings together the efforts of over 400 researchers from around the world, is a massive undertaking. It is bringing to light new understanding of the Holocaust and provides survivors with renewed assurance that their experiences will never be forgotten. The project would not be possible without the extraordinary support of the Claims Conference, which shares our dedication to ensuring the permanence of Holocaust memory and achieving dignity and justice for Holocaust survivors,” said Sara J. Bloomfield, Director of the USHMM.

Equally as significant as the number of entries is the level of detail in which each one is described and the accompanying heartbreaking photos, turning what could have been a very academic project into a catalog of every human horror beyond imagination.

The research undertaken over the past years in order to be able to publish the Encyclopedia also served as a resource to the Claims Conference in discussions with the German government. Proving incarceration in camps, sub-camps, satellite camps and ghettos that were smaller, lesser-known, or documented only in long-ignored archives can be extremely challenging, especially for elderly survivors or even their families. Over the years, the research has helped in our ongoing negotiations with the German government regarding survivor eligibility for compensation payments.

For the first time, the Encyclopedia brings together, for the public at large, information that until now has been scattered through millions of pages of published and archival material in numerous languages. More than 400 contributors are involved in the project, in addition to the small USHMM staff that oversees it.

Read about the Encyclopedia in the New York Times.