Tag Archives: Holocaust

Denmark’s Jewish Heritage

by Kayla Green

Many experiences come to mind when one imagines a trip to Copenhagen, including seeing the famous statue of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, visiting ornate castles and indulging in decadent smorgasbords. However, what is not as well known is the rich Jewish history and multitude of Jewish sights at the fingertips of any tourist visiting Denmark’s capital.

The Danish-Jewish community has been thriving for 400 years and is the oldest in Scandinavia. Today there are about 7,000 Jews in Denmark, the majority of whom  live in Copenhagen. Denmark’s Jews range in origin from Spain and Poland to Germany and Russia.

The Danish Jewish Museum gives a good first taste of Jewish Copenhagen. The building was designed by Daniel Libeskind, whose Studio design study was selected in February 2003 as the master site plan for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center Site, and who also designed Berlin’s Jewish Museum. The museum itself is truly a sight to behold—in true Libeskind style, the architecture and décor are ultra-modern, from the sloped blond-wood walls to the interactive screens that provide visitors with additional information and videos. At the entrance of the museum, there is a video describing the Jewish community in Denmark in which Libeskind, who is of Polish-Jewish descent, discusses the flourishing community. Libeskind based the museum’s architectural design on the idea of mitzvah to symbolize the rescue of Danish Jews in 1943 and the peaceful coexistence of Jews in Denmark.

The rescue on which the museum is based truly exemplifies the relationship between Denmark and its Jewish community. In October 1943, when Hitler ordered that Danish Jews be arrested and deported, many Danes took part in a collective effort to evacuate their country’s Jews to nearby neutral Sweden. The rescue allowed 7,000 members of Denmark’s Jewish population to avoid capture by the Nazis while 481 were sent to Thresienstadt. The rescue, or “Mitzvah,” is considered to be one of the largest actions of collective resistance in the countries occupied by Nazi Germany. Over 99% of Denmark’s Jewish population survived the Holocaust.

The memory of this astonishing resistance, as well as the thankfulness of the global Jewish community, is represented by Israeli artist Bernard Reder’s sculpture, “Wounded Woman,” located in Churchill Park behind the Museum of Danish Resistance. Reder’s passion for the subject is obvious in the piece, which depicts a group of intertwined stone nude female figures twisted together in strong support. The sculpture, unveiled in 1969, was presented by the State of Israel to the Danish people in appreciation of their support.

Aside from the Danish Jewish Museum and the “Wounded Woman,” Copenhagen boasts several other symbols of the positive relationship between Denmark and its Jewish community. The Copenhagen synagogue is situated in the oldest part of the city, in a building constructed in 1830-1833 based on drawings by Professor G.H. Hetsch, who was also responsible for the design of  St. Ansgar’s, Copenhagen’s Catholic cathedral. The synagogue sits behind a high gate—its brown façade blends well with its neighbors, but the gold Hebrew lettering notifies passersby of its Jewish heritage.

One of the most exceptional sights in Copenhagen is Israel’s Square. The small, centrally located park contains a large memorial stone, erected in 1975 with the following inscription: “This stone from the Holy Land is a gift to the Danish People from friends of Denmark in Israel 1975 – And night fell and morning came”. More than anything, this memorial displays that the positive sentiment that characterized the relationship between Jews and Denmark in the past still exists, and will continue to do so.

Keeping Up With the Times: Digitizing Holocaust Archives

By Amanda Walgrove

The rapid growth of technology, characteristic of the twenty-first century, has altered methods of human relation. Communicating through Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and email correspondence can make interpersonal connections seem trivial and dispassionate, but technological advancements can also produce meaningful intimacy. For example, we can video chat with estranged loved ones on the iPhone and reconnect with old friends through social media networks. The resources of cyberspace not only affect how we communicate, but also how we access, preserve, and retain information.

On the eve of International Holocaust Day, Yad Vashem announced that the world’s largest collection of Holocaust archives would be incorporated into Google’s overwhelmingly vast pool of virtual documents. Yad Vashem began digitizing their collection in the 1990’s but collaboration with Google is a vast leap for any remote assemblage of archives. What was once only accessible to those who visited the museum on a hilltop in Jerusalem is now available at the fingertips of anyone with Internet access. Now 130,000 photographs from the Holocaust archives can be sifted through with the aid of the world’s largest search engine.  Adding to the ease of the search process, the photographs have been scanned using optical character recognition. This means that during a search a photograph can be identified using any text in the picture, even if it is inscribed or written in another language. After locating an image on Google, the picture will then link to Yad Vashem’s website where users are encouraged to add their own text in the “Share Your Thoughts” section. To allow for immediate circulation, there are options to link the page to Facebook, Twitter, and Google Buzz. Family history can be published and distributed in cyber space instantaneously, but this isn’t the first time Google has teamed up with Yad Vashem for these purposes. Due to their first cyber collaboration in 2009, Holocaust survivors were able to post testimonials on their own YouTube Channel. Still, this recent project marks only a stepping-stone in Google’s plans to annex Yad Vashem’s collection of millions of documents, survivor testimonials, diaries, letters and manuscripts.

For Google employee, Doron Avni, this technological merger meant a chance to search for an image of his grandfather with the click of a button. Avni is a policy manager at Google’s research and development center in Israel and once the project was finished, he immediately took advantage of the opportunity. A recent New York Times article featured his search as a prime example of how history can be unearthed from Yad Vashem’s recent circulation project. Avni’s grandfather, Yecheskel Fleischer, was taken in 1941 after he was released from a Nazi-run prison in Lithuania. After locating the photograph of his twenty-seven year old grandfather, Avni was then able to type in the details of his family’s story.

While historical and familial bridges may be gapped, there are always risk factors that accompany the widespread digital circulation of vital information. John Palfrey, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, said that there are concerns about “the central role a company is playing in the preservation of the world’s cultural information.” Although these photographs are not physically tangible in cyberspace, the opportunity for a broad audience to access these documents will have a profound educational impact as well as a sentimental one. “What my grandfather wanted was for the next generation to know about the Holocaust,” Mr. Avni said. “He would have been inspired by this, to know his message is now being communicated to so many people around the world.” The easiest way to access the next generation is through the twenty-first century’s social, educational, and political playground: the World Wide Web. Google’s gradual acquisition of Yad Vashem’s primary sources will enhance the way in which the memory of the Holocaust can be shared and passed on by those who survived and those who left documents behind.

The South Sudanese Are ‘The Jews of Our Time’

By Charles Jacobs

The stars in Wanyjok’s sky blazed so bright it seemed as though God himself had switched on the lights in the vast blackness. I hadn’t seen a sky like this since I was a boy in the New Jersey countryside. It helped me understand how men from time immemorial have sought patterns in the stars—signs from the Creator of what was to come. I felt that here, in southern Sudan, God was signaling a miracle.

I flew to Sudan on January 6 to witness the birth of a nation. Historically, the Arabs have dominated Sudan. In 1983 the Khartoum’s Islamists imposed Shariah throughout the country provoking southern rebellion. For decades, the north assaulted the African Christian/animist south. Over 2 million have been killed and tens of thousands enslaved.

To break the resistance, the regime sent Arab militias to enslave southern women and children. Girls were used as domestics, boys as cattle herders, women as concubines and sex slaves. The right not to be owned by another human is second only to the right to life. Yet none of the establishment human rights groups screamed out about these slaves.

With an op-ed in the New York Times, and help from Muslim and Christian Africans, I launched an anti-slavery movement. (www.iabolish.org) We built an unlikely left/right coalition – from Pat Robertson to Barney Frank to the Congressional Black Caucus.

I always viewed the Southern Sudanese as “the Jews of our time”—murdered and enslaved—while the so-called civilized world stood by. At a meeting once with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, I asked why America refused to use the word genocide when describing Sudan. Did we not make the same mistake 60 years ago when we ignored the annihilation of Europe’s Jews?  The answer: By law, if we call it genocide we have to act. We were not going to act, so we couldn’t call it genocide.

When UNICEF blasted our partners Christian Solidarity International for redeeming slaves, I argued the group was following Jewish law. When it suggested the slaves must wait for liberation until hostilities ended, I responded: “That’s exactly what the West told the Jews about Auschwitz.”

CSI freed slaves through an existing Dinka-Arab peace treaty. Arabs who needed Dinka wetlands for grazing would travel north and retrieve the slaves. CSI supported the treaty by providing cash to the retrievers.

In 2005 President Bush stopped Khartoum’s war by imposing a peace treaty. The south was granted autonomy and an opportunity to vote for self-determination in 2011. The Southerners I interviewed unanimously planned to vote for secession. The results, just in—confirmed by Jimmy Carter no less—had it at 98% for separation. Why? “They stole our children and our wives. They stole our cattle. They murdered us.”

The north recognized the results and the south likely will be free. But what of the slaves?

An estimated 35,000 remain in the North. We trekked to the liberation sites freeing 397 slaves. We wrote about the liberation in The Wall Street Journal and posted slaves’ photographs at www.iabolish.org.

Their stories are heart-wrenching. Many report hard labor, daily death threats, beatings, racial insults and forcible conversion to Islam.  Women are ganged raped and genitally mutilated; their children sold off or given away as a gift.

Who would we be if we left these people in bondage?

It was good to be a Jew in southern Sudan. An airport guard, upon learning I was Jewish, brightened with a smile and a hug: “Welcome, you are one of God’s chosen people,” he said. And several Dinka men marveled at Israel’s defeat of Arab armies.

We’ve come a long way. Years ago, when an escaped Sudanese slave Francis Bok watched The Ten Commandments, he grew tearful.  “God opened the Sea for the Hebrew slaves, but He’s not yet redeemed my people,” he said.

Go look now, dear Francis, at the stars in Wanyjok.

Charles Jacobs is President of the American Anti-Slavery Group

People of the Book: Interview with Julie Orringer

By Symi Rom-Rymer

Sitting on a faux cowhide bench with rock music blaring at full volume in a small coffee shop in one of Brooklyn’s hipper neighborhoods, it would be hard to feel further away from the turbulence and romanticism of 1930s Paris.  But I was swept back to that era as I spoke with Julie Orringer, whose debut epic novel—The Invisible Bridge, among the New York Times’ 100 best books of 2010—I wrote about in a recent post.   Inspired by her grandparents’ experiences before and during the Holocaust, Invisible Bridge follows the fate of Andras Lévi, a young Jewish Hungarian architectural student on the cusp of a new life in interwar Paris.  Refreshingly, unlike many Holocaust novel protagonists, Lévi is not from the East European shtetl.  He is urban, ambitious and, like many of his peers, seeking a better life for himself in Western Europe.  Yet, just as he is establishing that life, he is forced to return to Hungary and becomes quickly subsumed by the onslaught of the Second World War.  Though her tale is ultimately tragic, Orringer populates her story with such vivid personalities and so evocatively recreates the atmosphere of interwar and wartime Paris and Budapest that it’s difficult to put the book down for long.  I know. I tried.

In between researching her next book and playing with her new baby,  Julie Orringer took time to talk with me about her inspiration for the book, her research process and how people never ask her about humor during the Holocaust.

Why did you choose the Holocaust as the subject of your first novel? What drew me to the story was hearing about my grandfather’s experiences when he was younger.  Despite the fact that I grew up in a Hungarian family, I just didn’t know much about what had happened to Hungarian Jews during the war.  Like a lot of families with Holocaust survivors, those years just weren’t discussed in my family.  My grandparents certainly alluded to them and I heard bits and pieces about their survival, but I didn’t really have a sense of the whole picture because my grandparents didn’t talk about it.  Once I started asking them questions about what had happened, they really wanted to tell their story.  They wanted the novel to be written.  But initially, I didn’t think I was going to write a book about the Holocaust.  I wanted to write about a young man who moved to Paris who tries to study architecture and loses his scholarship, which is what happened to my grandfather.  I thought his life was so fascinating and wanted to learn everything I could about how he got by and what he studied and how he managed to live. That was the initial impetus for the book.  Of course I knew that there was the weight of history behind the beginnings of that story.  Because I’m a fiction writer, once I started telling that story, the experiences of my characters became different from those of my grandfather.  That was when I really had to start thinking about how the war was going to affect my characters and change the course of their lives.

What do you think fiction can tell us about the Holocaust that non-fiction can’t? I would like to answer the question without the qualifier of ‘Holocaust.’ The reason I chose to write the book as a novel rather than as a book about my grandfather’s experience, is that fiction has the ability more than any other art form to really place the reader inside the character’s experience.  E.M. Forster writes beautifully about this in his book, Aspects of the Novel in which he writes that fiction is unique among other forms in its ability to inhabit the human psyche and do to so from within, instead of in a more distant way.  I wanted to suggest something of what it would be like to be a young man, building a life at that time, falling in love, studying architecture, making close friendships, and then to have all that fall apart when historical circumstances got in the way.  It would certainly be possible to do something similar in non-fiction, but when we read a piece of historical non-fiction, there’s a sense of foreknowledge of what comes later.  In this case, even though the reader knows what comes later, the character doesn’t know and he’s able to inhabit a more innocent space then I would have been able to communicate otherwise. Continue reading

The Holocaust Today

By Symi Rom-Rymer

January 27th marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by Soviet troops.  In 2005, 60 years after the liberation, the United Nations General Assembly designated that date International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  As many have said before, the Holocaust is almost impossible to comprehend, let alone recreate in such a way so that others might understand.  Nevertheless, every year a new crop of novelists, memoirists, and academics pour their emotions, research and analysis into works that aim to shed new light on the well-worn subject.

In commemoration of this day, I have compiled a short list of recent books about the Holocaust that I have found particularly compelling.  These works, both fiction and nonfiction, successfully face the daunting task of retelling or challenging our views on the history that seems so familiar and yet, for most of us, so alien.  This is not meant to be a comprehensive catalog, but rather the spark for a longer list and deeper discussion.  I encourage each of you to add your own thoughts and suggestions of additional books in the comments section.

Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940-1945, by Gunnar S. Paulsson
In Secret City, Gunnar Paulsson, former Fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, takes his readers into a subject beset by myths and often left unexplored by most historians: The underground life of Jewish Poles in Warsaw during the war.  Using diaries, memoirs, records of Jewish and Polish organizations that helped fugitives, and testimonies, he demonstrates how 28,000 Polish Jews, out of roughly 380,000, were able to escape the ghetto and hide in Warsaw itself with the help of converted Jewish and Polish families.   In contrast to traditional assumptions, he argues that many more Poles helped rather than hindered Jews to escape and how many Jews with even just one Polish friend had an avenue for escape.  According to his calculations, more than 11,000 Jews survived the war in Warsaw.  Written academically, Secret City is not a quick read.  But its careful use of sources, statistics, and strong narrative voice makes a compelling argument for this new understanding of the Jewish experience in wartime Warsaw.

The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer
Named one of the New York Times’ best 100 books of 2010, Julie Orringer’s epic novel sweeps readers into her world and refuses to let go.  Andras Lévi, a brilliant architectural student whose departure for architecture school in Paris in the late 1930s unleashes the plot.  Unlike most Holocaust novel protagonists, Lévi is neither from Western Europe nor from an East European shtetl.  He is an educated, cosmopolitan Hungarian Jew who, like many of his era, sought a better life for himself elsewhere in Europe.  Orringer refreshingly breaks with convention further by choosing Hungary as Lévi’s point of origin.  The story of Hungary’s Jews is a less familiar one to the American and Western European  public (see our post Jewish Ghosts of Budapest) and by placing the novel in Hungary, she avoids the traditional Holocaust progression: home, ghetto, concentration camp.  While no less cataclysmic, readers are offered an opportunity to revisit the era through Lévi, through a more unusual lens.  The Invisible Bridge may be 600 pages long and ultimately tragic but Orringer populates her story with such vivid personalities and so evocatively recreates the atmosphere of interwar and wartime Paris and Budapest that the characters haunt you long after the book is closed.

The Pages In Between, by Erin Einhorn
“I was always loved,” was Erin Einhorn’s mother’s standard response about her experience during the Holocaust.  Left in the care of a Polish couple as a baby, she grew up never knowing stability and peace.  Whisked away to the United States after the war by a father she barely knew, she clung to her rose-tinted vision of her childhood through most of her life.  Einhorn’s narrative tries to break through that vision and discover what really happened to her mother, and to her mother’s protectors, during the war.  In an attempt to reconnect with the family who saved her mother from the Holocaust, Einhorn travels to Poland only to find the situation much more complicated than she anticipated.  She gets sucked into to a protracted legal battle over the ownership of the apartment building where the elderly son of the family who saved her mother still lives.  But this is not only a memoir about retracing the steps of a Holocaust survivor.  This is also about how each generation tries to make sense of its family’s Holocaust legacy on their own terms. While Einhorn confronts the anti-Semitic attitudes she was brought up to expect, she also discovers, and becomes friends with, young Poles who are deeply interested in Judaism and Jewish culture.  One of them even ends up converting to Judaism.  Einhorn is respectful of her mother’s experiences, but at the same time she insists on confronting the country, and its personally difficult legacy, from her own perspective.  For many American Jews, Poland and Polish attitudes towards Jews remain frozen in time.  This engaging and thought-provoking memoir brings us up to date and shows just how multi-layered the story truly is.

Learning the Right Lessons?

By Symi Rom-Rymer

In a recent poll, 30% of Israeli Arabs, out of 700 questioned, don’t believe the Holocaust happened.  As the Associated Press reported earlier this week, Yad Vashem is trying to change that.  The poll’s creator, Sammy Smooha, insists that the high rate of denial has more to do with a repudiation of Israel’s policies than with true Holocaust negation.  But as the article points out, for many Israeli Arabs, accepting the Holocaust is equivalent to acknowledging Jewish claims to Israel.  In an effort to place the issue of the Holocaust within its proper historical framework, rather than within the flashpoint of Middle East politics, the museum is launching a new initiative aimed at Israeli Arabs educators.

This is not the first time that the museum has tried to engage the Israeli Arab community over the Holocaust, but previous efforts suffered from bad timing.  Just as Yad Vashem opened an exhibit on the Muslim rescue of Jews in Bosnia, Israel began its three-week offensive in Gaza.  Anger over the conflict led most potential visitors to boycott the museum and its exhibit.  They are hoping this attempt will be more successful.

There are several aspects about this initiative, however, that are troubling.  First of all, by emphasizing the Holocaust, Yad Vashem’s project plays into the erroneous belief held by many Arabs that Israel exists only because of the Holocaust; that the ties Jews feel to the land of Israel does not go back thousands of years, but rather only 60 years: to the destruction of European Jewry.  Instead, the museum should seek to create a more comprehensive curriculum that places the Holocaust in a larger context that addresses not only the role it played in the establishment of Israel but that also discusses the deeper historical bonds between Jews and Israel.   Moreover, it is not enough to teach the history of the Holocaust and with it, hope that through those lessons Arabs will see their fellow citizens in a different light.   It is unclear how stories of Jewish discrimination and persecution in Europe will engender feelings of sympathy towards Israeli Jews when many Arabs feel discriminated against by the very people with whom they are meant to sympathize.

There is certainly an argument to be made for why Arab students should know about the Holocaust.  To teach them about that era is not only important to understand a crucial era that continues to deeply influence Jews in Israel and around the world but also to allow Arabs to get insight into the Jewish Israeli mindset; to help contextualize their outlook.   It is not enough, however, to insist that Arabs learn about the Holocaust.  In order to foster better relations between Jewish and Arab Israelis, it is similarly critical that Jews learn about the history of their Arab neighbors and gain better insight into their mindset.  One way to do this would be to teach the Nakba, the so-called disaster Arabs associate with the foundation of Israel, which the majority of Jewish schools do not cover.  This should not be presented as an equivalent to the Holocaust, but rather as an acknowledgment of the traumatic Arab experience from the Jewish population and a genuine desire to understand that history and its impact on the current situation.

A few efforts already exist to try and bridge the gap through education but they are small and isolated.  At Kibbutz Lohamei HaGhetaot, a settlement founded by Holocaust survivors and home to the Ghetto Fighter’s Museum, for instance, they’ve launched a course for Jewish and Arab students, a rarity in a country where most education is segregated at an early age (see Moment‘s in-depth feature on Arab Israeli education).  The course involves a year-long study of the Holocaust as well as an additional second year that focuses on the Israeli-Arab experience.  A tandem curriculum such as this would allow students to explore and better understand the other point of view, within the safety of the classroom environment.

Despite the problems outlined above, Yad Vashem’s effort to reach out to Israeli Arabs is a step in the right direction.  The issues it seeks to address are pressing, especially in the wake of reports this week of a swell of support by Israeli Municipal Rabbis for the proposal to ban Jews from renting apartments to gentiles (seen by many as directed specifically at Arabs).   The ban and its supporters only further highlight the obstacles the museum faces as it seeks to overcome the distrust that often seems insurmountable.   While Yad Vashem’s latest undertaking is not perfect, at least it is seeking to build a bridge between two communities that live side-by-side, yet in vastly different worlds. Perhaps with the right approach and care, this project can begin to make those vastly different worlds feel ever so slightly closer together.

Israel’s Other Refugee Problem

by Daniel Kieval

On Monday night, a few days after thousands marched for human rights in Tel Aviv, Israel deported about 150 refugees back to their country of origin, Sudan. Israel has said that all of the people involved are leaving voluntarily, that it has ensured they will be returning to a safe environment, and that it is providing each family with $500 to help them readjust to life in Sudan. Still, the action is likely to draw criticism from human rights advocates, especially coming just two weeks after the government announced plans for a new detention center for illegal border-crossers in southern Israel. It is the latest event in a saga that is now several years old, in which Israel has struggled with the economic and social consequences of accepting Sudanese refugees and the ethical consequences of not accepting them.

Over 2 million Sudanese have fled north to Egypt since the genocide in Darfur began in 2003. Even there, however, many have faced harsh conditions, discrimination, and violence from Egyptian citizens and authorities, leading thousands to seek asylum a second time in Israel. While Israel has accepted some refugees (about 1,200 Darfuris currently live in Israel, according to the Jewish Virtual Library), many others have been deported, detained, or chased back across the border where they are shot or arrested by Egyptian border police.

Israel has many good reasons to be strict about whom it allows over its borders. The Darfur refugees are only a portion of the thousands of African migrants who try to enter Israel, many for economic reasons. As in any country, and especially in such a small one already full of demographic tensions, immigration can put stress on economic, social, and political systems if not handled carefully and systematically.  Moreover, Israel certainly seems justified in arguing that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which is officially responsible for supporting refugees and finding them a permanent home, should do more to resolve the issue rather than leaving it to Israel, especially since other countries have repeatedly rejected Israel’s requests to take in some of the refugees. Add to this list the importance of Israel’s borders for national security and the fact that Sudan is officially classified as an “enemy state” because it harbors terrorists, and Israel seems to have plenty of reasonable justification for its strictness toward the refugees.

Yet for many, these justifications do not override the moral imperative to help Darfur’s victims. A country whose very founding was meant, in part, to provide a safe haven for victims of genocide and whose Law of Return permanently engraves its status as such a haven for anyone with a Jewish ancestor might do well to remember its foundational principles in a situation like this one. It is true that Israel only finds itself in this situation because several other parties have not tried hard enough to mitigate it—the UNHCR, Egypt, and other nearby countries, to say nothing of Sudan itself. It may also be true that managing the refugees would be very difficult for Israel (when is a refugee situation easy?).

Perhaps, though, it is precisely because no one else seems willing to that Israel should step into the role of safe haven for Darfur’s victims. To truly be a Jewish state, Israel must embody Jewish values even when they run counter to international trends. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) it is written, “In a place with no worthy persons, strive to be a worthy person.” As the state of a people who have spent more than their fair share of time as refugees in search of a haven, Israel has even more reason to be that “worthy person.”