Kol hacavod

I want to wish a heartfelt “Mazal Tov” to Centropa, which earlier this month received a $200,000 grant from the U.S. State Department to implement its innovative Holocaust education programs in Hungary, Lithuania, and Poland.

According to the State Department, “Using technology, including web-based personal stories and traveling exhibitions, and teacher seminars, Centropa will prepare educators to teach and engage students with 20th century Jewish history and the Holocaust. Interactive social media will enable teachers and students in different countries to share stories and best practices.”

Based in Vienna and Budapest, the Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation (Centropa) uses technology to preserve the legacy of the Shoah in Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the Balkans, and make Holocaust history accessible to future generations. Centropa has spoken with more than 1,250 elderly Jews about their lives before and after the Shoah for multimedia interviews, short films, and photo galleries on the organization’s website.  

Centropa is one of many educational programs that the Claims Conference funds to help keep the legacy of the Shoah alive, and we are delighted to see that our funding has helped the organization grow to the point where it can attract attention from the U.S. government. We are confident that this award will help Centropa on its mission to pass on the lessons of the Shoah to future generations in ways that are engaging and accessible.  

For more on Centropa, visit www.centropa.org.

Remembering the heroes

We join in mourning the passing this week of Nancy Wake, a freelance journalist and member of the French Resistance who in 1944 helped establish communication lines between the British military and the French Resistance ahead of the Allied invasion, according to The New York Times. As a freelance journalist in Vienna in the 1930s, according to the Times, Ms. Wake witnessed Nazis randomly beating Jews in the streets. Her hatred of the Nazis grew, and after she moved to France she joined the Resistance. For her anti-Nazi activities Ms. Wake received commendations from the United States, Britain, and France.

The Charlotte Observer had a wonderful story this week about Jerry Lieberman, one of the famed Ritchie Boys – a group of German-Jewish immigrants who collected intelligence in Germany for the U.S. Army. Like Mr. Lieberman, many of these immigrants escaped Germany early on in the war and enlisted in gratitude to the country that took them in. Their bravery and character are truly awe-inspiring. MSNBC this week also had a beautiful and informative segment on the Ritchie Boys.

Unfortunately, despite the efforts of heroic people like Ms. Wake and Mr. Lieberman, reminders of the Nazi ideology can still be seen today in far-right political parties like the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), which was in hot water this week for a controversial campaign poster that depicted party head Udo Voigt dressed in black leather, revving a motorcycle, with the slogan “Step on the Gas.” Detractors argue that because the party has been linked to Germany’s neo-Nazi movement, the slogan is actually an allusion to Nazi gas chambers.

So many people courageously fought and gave their lives to end the Nazi menace that devastated the world and, specifically, the Jewish people. The heroes of World War II deserve all the honor that we can afford them and more. While some may continue to cling to the Nazi ideology of hate, people like Ms. Wake and Mr. Lieberman inspire us to continue to fight back against this terrible darkness in our own ways.

Shabbat shalom.

Nuremberg library searching for original owners of stolen books

The Municipal Library of Nuremberg is searching for the original owners or legal heirs of books in its IKG or Sammlung Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Nurnberg (Jewish Community of Nuremberg) collection. Previously known as the Streichler Library, the collection is an assortment of 8,000 to 9,000 books seized from Jewish families by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.

The library has identified almost 2,200 names of original owners of books from the IKG collection, and it has put together a list of 390 people from 107 towns in formerly German-speaking parts of Europe in order to alert the original owners and heirs about how to reclaim their property. This list is available on the library’s website. More lists will be published in the near future. The IKG collection is on permanent loan to the city from the Jewish Community of Nuremberg. The Library represents the IKG in examining and processing of restitution claims by original owners or their legal heirs.

For more information, contact Leibl Rosenberg at leible.rosenberg@stadt.nuernberg.de or 0049-(0)911-231-2721.

Still so much to learn

Almost 70 years after the Holocaust there is still much to learn about history’s darkest chapter. Earlier this week, The New York Times ran “Belatedly Recognizing Heroes of the Holocaust,” about the Bergson Group, a militant group of Jewish activists who in the early 1940s pressured the American government to do more to aid Jews escaping war-torn Europe and later smuggled weapons into Israel for the Irgun.

To say that the Bergson Group disagreed with the American Jewish establishment and the early Israeli government would be an understatement. Indeed, until recently the Bergson Group and its contributions went largely unrecognized because of this falling out. As the Times reported, the Bergson Group and its contributions have now been recognized by Yad Vashem and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Exploring family histories can also lead to valuable lessons about their war-time experiences, as Israeli doctoral student Mordechai Twersky discovered on a trip to his family’s ancestral home in Ukraine, which he elaborated on in a Times op-ed, “A Mass Grave, 70 Years Later.”

Beyond the victims, there is also still much to learn about other eyewitnesses to the tragedies of the Holocaust.  Perhaps one of the best known histories of the Holocaust is William L. Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” The Times this week reviewed Steve Wick’s “The Long Night: William L. Shirer and ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,’” in which Wick explores how Shirer’s role as a war correspondent in Berlin played a large role in shaping his point of view.

We owe a debt of gratitude to all the scholars who continue to delve into history’s darkest hour so that we never forget and so that humanity can learn from it.

Shabbat shalom.



YIVO screening of “The Portraitist” recounts “the Photographer of Auschwitz”

Imagine being captured by an invading army and then forced to watch as your captors torture and murder people you know as friends, neighbors, and countrymen. You are not only forced to witness these horrors, but to photograph them for your tormentors’ perverse records – knowing that yours will likely be the last photographs ever taken of these poor souls. Would you protest, knowing that you would be killed instantly and the atrocities would only continue? Or would you force yourself to snap photo after photo in order to create a record of the brutality for future generations?

This was the dilemma of Wilhelm Brasse, a 23-year-old Polish photographer who was sent to Auschwitz as a political prisoner in 1940. For five years, the Nazis forced Brasse, later nicknamed “the photographer of Auschwitz,” to photograph more than 40,000 prisoners in Auschwitz for “identity pictures” and to document such Nazi brutality as medical experiments on children. Brasse’s account of Auschwitz is presented in the Polish documentary “The Portraitist,” which was shown recently at New York City’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Lori Schuldiner Schor, our fellowships administrator, and program officer Tony Rodriguez attended the screening and were amazed by the photography and story of Wilhelm Brasse, who recounted his story and feelings about what he did in the film.

“He recognized that generally he’d be photographing people and then they’d be killed,” Lori said, as she recalled the “haunting” film. “In some sense, this is what survived of them.”

In early January 1945, aware that the Russians were closing in on the camp the Nazis ordered Brasse to burn his photo lab and all the pictures he had taken during his time there. Brasse quickly extinguished the fire that had been set in the lab, saving what has become a definitive account of the horrors of Auschwitz. Some 40,000 pictures survived and are now archived at Yad Vashem in Israel and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland.

As Lori watched and listened to Brasse’s testimony, she couldn’t help thinking how he could have continued photographing all of those atrocities. It was a survival technique for him to play that role, she said, and because of it he created part of the record, the testimonial of Auschwitz. But Brasse was so tortured by what he had done in the camps, Lori said, that he never went back to photography. “It was horrifying for him to do it, but in the end at least there was a record,” she said.

The Nazis wanted to document their horrific deeds in order to show their triumph, Tony explained, but in the end they sealed their own fates by providing evidence to war tribunals. Some, according to Tony, may question whether this photographic evidence should remain the domain of those bringing Nazi criminals to justice, or be released to the public – academics, museums, authors, and filmmakers. And what about concerns of privacy for the victims and the survivors depicted in these gruesome images?

Sensitivity should be balanced with the need for advancing education, according to Tony, and one should not be sacrificed for the other. “We have a responsibility to survivors, but we have a responsibility to the greater public as well,” he said. “And not exposing these things is of no help to anyone.”

The Holocaust is an extreme example of how a government can impose on the rights of its people, according to Tony, but there are varying levels of how this can happen and we need to be able to recognize them. Images like the ones Wilhelm captured are warnings to be mindful of current events and what government abuses of personal rights can lead to.  “We probably won’t see the Holocaust again in the form it took in the 1940s, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t see variations of it – and we are now,” Tony said. “These kinds of films just make us aware of the possibilities.”

 “The Portraitist” was written, directed, and edited by Irek Dobrowolski, and produced by Anna Dobrowolska for TVP1, Poland. It first aired in January 2006 and went on to win the Grand Prix “Golden Phoenix of Warsaw” award in the Warsaw International Film Festival’s “Jewish Motives” division, and the National Competition Silver “Lajkonik” at the 46th Krakow Film Festival. It has since been shown at film festivals across Europe and North America. To purchase a copy, visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum website.