Tag Archives: Holocaust

Miss Holocaust 2012?

by Rebecca Borison

As the number of remaining Holocaust survivors inevitably diminishes, many have attempted to record the survivors’ stories, through books, videos or other means. Taking a new—and somewhat bizarre—approach to commemorating the survivors, Israeli aid organization Yad Ezer L’Haver has announced that they will be hosting a beauty pageant for female Holocaust survivors. The 65 original contestants, ages 78-92, have been narrowed down to the top 14, and they will now compete for the titles of Pageant Winner, Miss Congeniality and Audience Favorite.

The pageant is set to take place tomorrow. Not surprisingly, it has drawn much criticism and questioning.

In my middle school Hebrew class we were each paired up with a Holocaust survivor to interview. I sat in awe as I listened to this strong woman recall her life story. She looked like your typical bubbie, but she had gone through travails that few others could understand.

To this day, that is the picture I have in my mind: sitting in her living room, listening to her stories. And that, in my opinion, is the most appropriate way to honor Holocaust survivors.

Having Holocaust survivors strut down a runway just seems incredibly inappropriate. How is that honoring their heroic lives? How is that remembering the atrocities they went through? It seems like the beginning of a crude joke.

And to make things even worse, people have been writing the most distasteful comments on the Facebook event for the pageant. Nir Gilboa commented (in Hebrew), “And the 2012 beauty queen of the camp is… number 2434326523.” Alex Polonsky followed in suit with, “They’re always so thin in these competitions.” Others commented that the refreshments would be potato peels and that the winner would be called “Miss Block 6.”

I know that many argue that humor is the only way to deal with such horrifying issues, but I can’t help but feel disheartened by the whole conversation. This is no way to honor our predecessors.

And yet the event director seems unaffected by the responses. He told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot that they decided to have the pageant “to show that the Holocaust survivors, with all the history they have experienced, are still women who want to celebrate themselves, have fun, and live…If someone raises an eyebrow, let them. We are doing this with a good attitude and pride.”

It just doesn’t feel right to me. If you wanted to celebrate these Holocaust survivors, why not honor them all with a banquet and give them each an award? A beauty pageant though…?

Auslander in the Attic

by Sala Levin

The Holocaust, as Michael Scott so wisely taught us, is one thing we just can’t joke about. (Scott’s other taboos? JFK and AIDS, though the Lincoln assassination was only recently crossed off that list.) But Shalom Auslander, well, bless him, he’s trying. The angry writer behind Foreskin’s Lament recently released a series of book trailers (entitled “The Attic Calls”) for his forthcoming novel, Hope: A Tragedy. In the trailers, Auslander pleads with fellow Semite Ira Glass and friends-of-the-Jews Sarah Vowell and John Hodgman to shelter him and his family if–let’s be real, in Auslander’s mind  it’s when–there’s another Holocaust.

Auslander isn’t the first Jewish writer to wade into the world of book trailers: Last year, Gary Shteyngart released a hilarious trailer featuring everyone’s favorite post-graduate-degree-collecting Jewish dreamboat James Franco and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jeffrey Eugenides. But Shteyngart only mocked himself; Auslander goes a step further, probing the perceived Jewish proclivity for pathos and pessimism. Another Holocaust is on its way, Auslander says–so make plans now.

So can the Holocaust be funny? Well, the trailers are. (In one notably absurd moment, Glass suggests that, should the need arise, his family and Auslander’s can buy a house boat and “moor somewhere off of the Florida Keys for a few years.”) Jews, after all, have a long tradition of turning tragedy into comedy, of finding levity in a seemingly endless line of sorrows. And the target of Auslander’s biting humor in these trailers isn’t really the Holocaust. In one scene that perhaps perfectly encapsulates much of the Jewish experience, Auslander and his family play in the woods during a rainstorm; he pushes his children on a tire swing and his dogs frolic as drops of water pound down on them. This is the point: It rains, and we play. What alternative is there?

Editor’s Note: Want a chance for Shalom Auslander to read your writing? Send in your submissions for Moment’s 2011 Memoir Contest, to be judged by, well, you guessed it, Shalom Auslander. Deadline is December 31st; find out more here.

Yizkor Education

By Adina Rosenthal

British historian Sir Ian Kershaw famously wrote: “The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference,” a sentiment that provides much rationale for solid Holocaust education today.

However, despite its clear importance, Holocaust education is not always the norm in schools. In 2007, a controversy erupted over Britain dropping required subjects such as the Holocaust and the Crusades from History curriculums due to fear of Muslim discontent. But the study citing Muslim opposition was debunked—only a small number of teachers at two schools involved in the study reported incidents—and the British have rebounded since the incident.

In a recent article, the Jerusalem Post reported that British teachers have been brought to Israel as part of a three-week course on making the Holocaust more accessible to students. Funded by the Holocaust Education Trust, a UK-based organization that aims “to educate young people from every background about the Holocaust and the important lessons to be learned for today,” twenty teachers from across the UK participated in this ten-day course at Yad Vashem that include seminars and workshops on anti-Semitism in Europe, Jewish life between the World Wars, and the Final Solution. Speaking on the importance of Holocaust education, one participant stated, “Historical truth has to be the foundation of what we do and facing up to the truth is the best defense against those who would deny it or passively accept that it happened without learning anything from it.”

Not all countries require Holocaust education as part of the curriculum. In the United States, the states, not the federal government, determine what is taught in public schools. According to a 2004 Holocaust Task Force report, while most states have created social studies standards for the classroom and about half the states have explicitly mentioned the Holocaust in these standards, only ten percent of states have a legislative mandate to teach the Holocaust in the classroom.  Though there have been some improvements, including Virginia calling for teacher manuals on the Holocaust and Maryland establishing “a Task Force to Implement Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights, and Tolerance Education in the state,” few states have updated their legislation since the report was issued. Even if imperfect, in the West, education on the Holocaust, genocide in places like Rwanda and Darfur, and other worrisome situations evolving around the world, has been largely admirable.  Not so in the Middle East.

According to Hannah Rosenthal, the United States’ Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, “One of my primary goals this year is to address the issue of intolerance in textbooks and in the media in the Middle East,” which included meeting with Saudi religious and education scholars about the importance of teaching the Holocaust. Most Middle Eastern countries do not teach the Holocaust, and, according to one article, “Some even include verses from the Quran that they use to justify intolerance and violence against non-Muslims, primarily Jews and Christians.”

In Gaza, the tension concerning Holocaust education has also been mounting. According to an Associated Press article, the United Nations is launching a plan to teach Holocaust education in Gazan schools this September, despite promises by Hamas to block such an initiative and the West Bank and PLO’s disapproval. According to the article, many Palestinians are loath to recognize the Jewish tragedy because they fear it will minimize their own suffering. “Views range from outright denial to challenging the scope of the Holocaust.” Schoolteachers also expressed hostility toward teaching about the Holocaust, with one teacher warning, “The [United Nations] will open the gates of hell with this step. This will not work.”

But proponents of such an initiative see the lessons from the Holocaust as an especially important educational experience for the Arab world. “Instead of pre-emptive accusations, it is important for Palestinians…to fully understand the tragedies and suffering that happened to all people through generations, without divvying up facts and taking things out of context.” Moreover, in a recent New York Times piece, the authors write, “If Arabs knew more about the Holocaust in particular and genocide in general, perhaps Arab voices would be more forceful in trying to stop similar atrocities.”

As Holocaust survivor Estelle Laughlin best stated, “Memory is what shapes us. Memory is what teaches us. We must understand that’s where our redemption is.”

Chagall’s Crucifixions

By Kayla Green

For the first time in history, Marc Chagall’s Bible-themed engravings, originally intended as a gift for his second wife, are on display to the public. The engravings are part of the “Chagall and the Bible” exhibit in Paris’s Museum of Jewish Art and History which contains 105 of Chagall’s engravings illustrating the 1956 edition of the Bible. The full exhibit consists of half of Chagall’s preliminary sketches for the book’s engravings, 25 oil paintings of Biblical scenes and watercolor and gouache mock-ups of Chagall’s glass work.  These intimate and historically rich pieces lend insight into the deep complexity of Chagall’s Jewish legacy, from his identity as a Jew in exile to his reawakening upon his first visit to Israel. Most importantly, they are able to convey Chagall’s interesting perspective of what it means to be a Jew in a Christian world, as well as the Jewish aspects of Christian life.

The three-story exhibition is filled with bright colors and dramatic artistic touches. The whimsical Biblical scenes are accompanied by multi-lingual Biblical verses, ensuring comprehension for each viewer, while the gouache mock-ups of stained glass windows are eye-catching with their vivid orange and purple hues. More amazing than the splendor and beauty of Chagall’s work is the symbolism and meaning that underlies it.

Chagall’s art attempts to reconcile Jews and Christians, usually by depicting Christian beliefs and history through a Jewish lens, creating the effect that Jews and Jewish history are integral to Christian survival and legacy. In one painting, entitled White Crucifixion, Jews flee their Nazi persecutors while Jesus hangs above them on the cross, trying to protect them. This heartbreaking image exposes Chagall’s perception that gentile society could only understand the plight of the Jews in Christian terms. In fact, Chagall painted more than 100 scenes of Jesus and the crucifixion in his life. The connection between Judaism and the New Testament was a common theme in Chagall’s art, says Susan Goodman, senior curator of New York’s Jewish Museum. “It was a way of asserting an ideological challenge to the dominant Christian culture. He was asserting the Jewishness of Christ.” Here, moreover, we can see Chagall trying to downplay the “otherness” of the Jews by reasserting the original connection between Christ and Judaism.

Chagall’s worldview represents the difficulties he faced as a Jew, from his exile from Russia to France and his eventual move to the United States during the time of World War II. The inspiration he found in his trip to Israel, where he visited Jerusalem and the Western Wall is also palpable from the exhibit. What it best describes though, is the complexity of Jewish-Gentile relations. In the middle of Paris, a city known for both philo-Semitism, and xenophobia, art-lovers are introduced to one man’s attempt to explain the plight of the Jews by emerging them in familiar Christian settings as well as his ability to demonstrate the Jewish roots of Christianity. The overall effect is both unifying and eye-opening, as it conveys that peace and understanding art can convey.

Auschwitz, in 2011

by Kayla Green

Today marks Yom HaShoah, the day we commemorate those killed during the Holocaust. Across the world, people share stories of those who survived and those who didn’t, of yellow stars and barbed wire, of a terrifying life lived in ghettos and camps. Among the camps, Auschwitz is often pointed to as the pinnacle of the Nazis’ brutal science. The horror that occurred at the three death camps that comprise Auschwitz should be memorialized as, in the words of a plaque at the camp, “a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.” However, to some people, Auschwitz, or rather, Oświęcim (the Polish pronunciation of the word, which was used before Nazi occupation) is more than the site of the world’s most terrible genocide: To this day, Oświęcim still exists as a town.

More specifically, Oświęcim, (the place which once housed death camps Auschwitz, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Monowitz,) is now a small town, with a population of about 43,000 inhabitants and an area of 30.3 square kilometers. Every day, these 43,000 people go on living their lives, moving forward in a place so deeply tied to the past. To many, it must seem backwards to go on living this way, establishing a life in a graveyard. Even Oświęcim’s town square, filled with stores and businesses, is built on a bunker. The once-proud castle is now a coffee shop. The street that comprised the “Jewish quarter” is desolate.

Surprisingly, considering that Oświęcim does not have a single Jewish resident, the town does still have a synagogue, which serves as a Jewish museum, synagogue and education center.

The museum is built from the home of the Kornreich family, former residents of Oswiecim. The main exhibition is dedicated to displaying the nearly 500 years of Jewish history, tradition, and culture that once existed in Oswiecim, giving visitors a sense of what Jewish life once was in a place where such a thing seems incomprehensible. The museum is filled with photographs of individuals and families, documents and artifacts from local Jewish organizations and businesses, and Judaica excavated in 2004 from beneath the site of the Great Synagogue of Oswiecim. Personal stories of the Holocaust survivors from Oswiecim, who live in Israel today, are featured in a special exhibition.

The Temple component, known as the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, is the only surviving Jewish house of prayer in Oswiecim. Built in 1913, it survived a transformation into a munitions warehouse during the war and then a carpet warehouse during communism. In 1998, the synagogue became the first Jewish communal property to be returned to a Jewish community in Poland and the recipients of the property, the Bielsko-Biala Jewish Community, donated the synagogue to the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation. The building was completely restored to the pre-war condition described in testimonies and the recollections of survivors, and was re-opened in September 2000. Despite being the only Jewish house of worship within 3 kilometers of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the synagogue currently has neither Rabbi nor congregation.

Finally, the Auschwitz Jewish Center has an Education Center, dedicated to public education about the richness of pre-war life, the Holocaust, and the dangers of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. A wide range of programs, including workshops, lectures, seminars, meetings, tours, and cultural events, are available for visitors. The Center also organizes tours of the synagogue, cemetery, and town for family, school, and adult groups.

More than anything, it is the Education Center that gives the town of Oświęcim a sense of progress. Right in the center of a town that will forever be associated with genocide and hatred, there is movement toward a peaceful future.

The First and Final Nightmare

By Symi Rom-Rymer

When 69 year-old Sonia Reich ran out of her Skokie home late one February evening in 2001, no one knew why.  Insisting that a man was trying to “put a bullet in my head,” she refused to go home. This anecdote opens the haunting book, “The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich” by Chicago Tribune Jazz critic Howard Reich.

Holocaust memoirs have conventionally ended in 1945 with survivors emerging from the years of darkness and terror, hardened but resolute. Reich’s hybrid memoir/biography, however, is part of a growing trend of books by children of Holocaust survivors who explore what happens next.  The end of the war seemed to give his mother a sense freedom and even allow her to achieve modest prosperity.  She arrived in the United States in 1947 at 16 years old and built a comfortable American middle class life for herself: a husband, two children, and a house in Skokie, a predominantly Jewish, middle-class suburb of Chicago.

But behind the veneer of normality, a different life was playing out.  It was the life of a woman still on the run from those who threatened her as a child.  Reich tells how his mother would triple lock the doors to their house and unconvinced of their strength, would check them over and over again.  She would keep a vigilant watch at the living room window at night, afraid of who might come to threaten her family.

Growing up, Reich knew little of his mother’s Holocaust experience except that she was on the run for three years.  Like many children of survivors, his childhood was deeply informed by his mother’s experiences without really knowing her stories.  Family get-togethers would often devolve into shouting matches and contests over whose Holocaust experience was the worst, but Reich simply assumed that was normal. He never drew the connection between their experiences during the war and their current psychological states.   But his father’s death put an end to his ignorance.

In the years following her husband’s death, Sonia’s world slowly contracted. She no longer ventured out for the small excursions she used to enjoy: going to the local Jewish deli for matzoh ball soup or going shopping. She instead started to spend most of the time seeking refuge behind the walls of her house, until the fateful day the anonymous man in her head chased her out of her house, insisting he would kill her.

It turns out, however, that the man was not so anonymous, nor was he truly a figment of Sonia’s imagination, conjured up by a delusional mind.  He did exist, albeit 59 years ago, in the form of a Nazi soldier who threatened to kill 10 year-old Sonia by putting a bullet through her head in her hometown of Dubno, Poland. Reich eventually realizes his mother is suffering from late-onset Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the psychological condition now most commonly associated with recently returning war veterans.   As Reich digs deeper into the illness and its causes, he comes to understand that it afflicts not only soldiers but civilians exposed to the traumas of war as well.   Moreover, the extent of his mother’s PTSD is so great that not only is she suffering from the usual symptoms (sleeplessness and hypervigilance among others) but that she also, as Reich writes, “had so deeply absorbed her childhood traumas into the fabric of her being that there simply was no way she could ever escape them…they were replaying themselves in an endless loop in her traumatized psyche.”

The book’s greatest strength is the powerful and personal way Reich brings to light this little-discussed form of PTSD.  As difficult as it was for many the post-war era to come to terms with the Holocaust, it is similarly difficult to accept that there was often no happy ending for its survivors.  This not a simple case of denial by loved ones, or indeed by the survivors themselves.  According to Reich, even the medical community does not fully understand or recognize the causes of late onset PTSD.  By opening up a painful part of his life to readers, however, he offers an invaluable opportunity to better understand the life-long toll that such a trauma can have.

Editor’s Note: Read a review of Howard Reich’s book, written by Moment editor and publisher Nadine Epstein, here. And learn about the film Prisoner of Her Past, based on Reich’s book, here.

The Lost Diary of Margot Frank

By Kayla Green

Every day, countless tourists flock to the Anne Frank House to visit the hiding place of young Anne, her family and acquaintances. The widespread popularity of her diary, which is one of the world’s most widely read books and the basis for several plays and films, has made Anne Frank one of the most well-known Jewish victims of the Holocaust. While the Diary of Anne Frank is an undeniable historical gem, as well as an extraordinary source of first hand emotion, one story remains relatively overlooked: that of her sister Margot, The Other Frank. Though a temporary exhibit running at the Anne Frank House is dedicated to shining some light on Margot, its title, “Anne’s Sister,” still casts her as a secondary character.

Notwithstanding, Margot is referenced many times in the diary. Through Anne’s narrative, one is able to get a general sense of Margot’s personality, background, and living conditions. We learn that Margot spoke Dutch, made friends and continued to do her Latin homework, even when in hiding. We know that she was born in 1926 and aspired to be a maternity nurse in Palestine. She played sports such as tennis and skating and participated in rowing races until 1941, when she was forced to leave the rowing club because she was Jewish. Along with the rest of the family, Margot spent the months between July 1942 and August 1944 hiding in the secret annex. In March, 1945, she died in the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, just weeks before its liberation.

Of, course, her sister’s diary cannot provide a very profound and sensitive understanding of Margot’s thoughts and emotions. Margot also kept a diary, however, unlike her sister’s, it was never found. The world will never know what kind of effect her words might have had.  The girls’ father, Otto Franks, the sole survivor of the family, expressed his astonishment that Anne’s diary that became renowned; the depth Anne displayed in her diary was a quality he usually attributed to Margot.

The exhibit also includes insight from Margot’s best friend who resents the lack of attention paid to Margot’s story. “After the war Otto Frank was so busy with Anne Frank’s diary. He was very impressed with what readers of the diary had written to him. I told him then. ‘I think it’s wonderful what you are doing for Anne, but I think it’s a pity that nothing is mentioned anymore about Margot. She is also worthy of being mentioned.’”

One of the many reasons The Diary of Anne Frank is so popular is that readers can relate to it.  The personal journey of a young girl allows readers to empathize with Anne, reminding them that every Holocaust victim was a real person, just like them. Furthermore, the relatable nature of the book allows Anne to speak for countless young victims whose words were lost and voices were silenced.  It is all too easy to forget that Margot Frank was among those silenced voices.