Telling and Retelling the Story of Resistance, Survival, and Resistance

Last night I received an email from my friend Viola in Germany.  I met Viola ten years ago when she was sent by Project Reconciliation for Peace.  Under this program young Germans were sent to areas that were formerly under German occupation, introducing themselves as a new generation who in many instances were the grandchildren of SS members.  Viola came to Pittsburgh to work in the Holocaust Center with survivors, participating in presentations to high schools and colleges to raise awareness and understanding of the Holocaust beyond the edges of the Jewish community.

Recently Viola was in Italy and met some of the local people who told her what had happened during the German occupation.  With the help of Italian fascists, the Germans would punish an entire village for any anti-German activity that happened nearby. That draconian policy forced many of the villagers, especially the young, to join the resistance to fight against the Germans.  This is similar to what happened in towns and villages in Belarus where I am from. Jews were herded into ghettos and starved and exterminated, but even non-Jews were subject to punishment if an anti-German incident occurred near their villages.

Viola wrote:
“Do you still identify with being a partisan today or does it feel like a far-away-piece of your [biography], and you rather identify as a Holocaust-survivor in a more general term…?” I would answer her “It is both.”  I survived the Holocaust because I was a resistance fighter.  Had I not joined the resistance, I would have been liquidated like the rest of my family and friends.

Before I was a resistance fighter I too was a prisoner in my hometown and then in a forced labor camp along with my whole family. I knew that if I did not escape I would be killed, so staying was not an option. In the camp we knew that there was the beginning of the resistance movement in the area, but I also knew that even if I escaped the resistance would not accept me unless I had weapons.  Two of my friends worked in a warehouse where the Germans stored captured Russian weapons.  They stole parts of weapons, wrapped them up and stored them in a junkyard outside the warehouse. There was one guard, Lieutenant Miller, who was assigned to guard us as we went to and from work and who showed some humanity towards us.  As we passed the junkyard he allowed me to take one item with us back to the barracks.  I picked up the weapon parts and we hid them inside the barracks until the day when we could escape.

A woman in the ghetto knew where local Jews who had escaped from the villages had set up a camp in the forest.  It was decided that she would lead my friends and I to the place.  One moonless night the woman and her two children and I crawled under the fence and walked sixteen miles until we reached the camp, but we were without weapons.  A few days later two Jewish Russian officers came to the camp, and I told them I would like to join the resistance, that I had access to weapons.  Eventually they sent me to a local farmer who was going back and forth on business to the town.  He found my family, brought out my brother and sister on his first trip, the weapons on the second trip, and my mother on the third trip.  Two days later on March 19, 1943 the ghetto was destroyed by the Germans.  There is a monument there now, and a few years ago I stood there with my daughter and grandchildren, right in front of the rail line that I helped to build as a slave laborer more than 65 years ago.

I have great admiration for the young Germans who have volunteered over the years for this project of reconciliation.  In some cases they have to share with us that their grandparents were members of the Nazi Party, or even the SS.  In appearances at the schools they have shared with students what they knew about their grandparents involvement in Nazi actions.  The impact on the students of hearing this from a young German is profound, and more so because I am also standing there and telling my story of being on the receiving end.  This perspective is hardly known to the wider public, and that is why I am still out there helping to tell my story to young people.  This is particularly important in this moment of our presidential elections where it seems that a demagogue can attract people with populist rhetoric and vague promises that he has no possibility of delivering. I know from letters I have received that the lessons that I try to convey change the outlook on life of the students, and one day pass it on to their children and grandchildren. Some have written to thank me and tell me that they will be telling my story for the rest of their lives.  These statements by students give me hope that my message is not lost, and that the lessons learned will be carried on for another generation.

On Words and Bullets

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year.  It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”  (From the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific”)

I recently had the experience of being invited  to a meeting at Oakland Catholic High School.  A group of girls attending a party had worn t-shirts displaying swastikas and shared photos of themselves on social media.  Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai who has been teaching Judaism at the school for the last eleven years asked me to meet with the girls involved and with faculty members.

The school was in an uproar because of this incident.  The girls were suspended for three days.  They explained that when they wore those shirts, they had been under the influence of alcohol.  Each one of them wrote a statement expressing their remorse for such unthinking behavior. Rabbi Gibson asked me to share with the girls what it meant to me, as a Holocaust survivor, to see the swastika.  I gave them a short and vivid review of my experience since I first encountered the swastika in my hometown at the age of twenty-one when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. One of the first things they did was decree that Jews must wear the Star of David.  We could not walk on the sidewalks.  The local rabbi and some of his associates were made to drag a cart with flour from the local mill as if they were horses.  On a rainy day the Germans ordered all of the men to assemble in the marketplace, sit on the ground, and pull weeds from between the cobblestones. All of these acts were intended to deprive us of our identity as a person and instill the idea that any resistance would be futile. Jews were forcefully isolated in a ghetto, and eventually the entire community was annihilated.

When the girls realized what the swastika really meant for someone who had experienced it, they expressed verbally how sorry they were.  Each of them turned to me and apologized individually and personally for their behavior.  My final words to them were “Now that you have learned this lesson, you have a mission.  The mission is to share your experience with others.”

What is important about this is that the girls were probably pre-disposed to use this symbol.  They didn’t just invent it, and the alcohol didn’t just bring it into their minds.  It had to be there already as a powerful symbol that they had been taught.

Two years ago when I started this blog, I did not realize that eventually words would become bullets.  Atrocities in San Bernardino, Charleston, and more recently the massacre in Orlando prove that I was not pessimistic enough. Messages of hate permeate our media.  The internet has enabled instantaneous and world-wide delivery of the words that become bullets.  Our young people are absorbing these messages, and some of them are moved to translate the words into violent acts.

The voices of hate amplified online and delivered directly to young people have the potential to override the messages and influences of parents and teachers.  The teachers at Oakland Catholic are saying “This is the opposite of what we teach!” Yet these children, in an unguarded moment, exposed what had implanted itself in the deepest recesses of their souls.

I often go out speak with students and tell my story under less stressful circumstances.  And these children and young adults respond by writing to me.  Here are some of their letters. Reading them gives me hope that words can heal as well as kill.

“Your story inspired me to reflect upon my life and reconsider things I take for granted. Never in my life have I experienced anything emotionally traumatizing. I really respect and admire your courage to speak publicly about dark times. You have taught me valuable lessons and have given me a new perspective on the most despicable acts in modern human history. Thank you for sharing your time with us.” – J. W.

“Thank you for coming to speak for our high school. I really appreciate that you can speak about your experiences in such detail for us. I find it very admirable that you speak about it, even though you’ve been through such hard times. Your presentation has changed my outlook on the world. I will stop taking life for granted so much. Something like the Holocaust really opens your eyes and makes you appreciate life. Thank you once again.” – E. S.

“You taught me very good life choices toward living and what to do in life. I learned to treat life with care because you only get one. I think its amazing that we got to meet you and I think God blessed you so you could escape that hellish place. I am sorry to hear about your wife and your family. You are a teacher and your lesson is your life and I appreciate that. Thank you for teaching me.” – J. D.

Deeds That Heal and Deeds That Kill

A number of Syrian families have settled in Toledo, Ohio.  An NPR reporter went to visit one of them.  He found that when the family arrived, they discovered a furnished apartment and neighbors who volunteered to help them with their needs:  shopping, caring for the children and so on.  How ironic!  The family arrived from a refugee camp in Jordan facilitated by Hayas, a Jewish organization, and the apartment was furnished and the volunteering initiated by local Christians.  And the family is Muslim.

This is the nature of America.

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The Make A Wish Foundation has been granting the wishes of seriously ill children for 35 years.  They ask “If you could be anything, go anywhere, or meet anyone, what would you wish for?” Last year they granted over 14,000 of these wishes.

When I saw the “60 Minutes” article on this organization, I was impressed and elated to see so many people volunteering their time and money to meet the wishes of many sick children who would otherwise never have a chance to live their wish. This is the essence of a deed that heals.

This, too, is the nature of America.

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After the Second World War there were many trials of former members of the Nazi party and SS troops.  At one of the trials, three SS men were questioned about why they did what they did.  The first one said that he had orders and had to follow the orders.  The second said that if he didn’t follow the orders, his comrades would kill him.  The third one said that from his early childhood, he was taught that the Jews are the enemies of the German people, enemies of humanity, they are polluting German culture and exploiting Germany for their own purposes, that they were a lower race and they should be separated from the German population. And he said that this motivated him to do what he did without hesitation.

Something similar is happening in our generation.  Children in some parts of the Muslim world are taught that Israelis and the Jews who support them are threatening the rights of Palestinians by depriving them of their land.  A vivid example of this shows a preschool child with a knife in her hands saying that she would like to stab a Jew with a knife “because he stole our land.”  And the adult who is filming her praises her strength and says “God willing, my dear.”

This frightens me.  When the minds of children are poisoned like this, those who teach children to hate an entire people and to kill them in the name of their god should be charged with crimes against humanity. If we continue to allow this to happen, I fear for the future.  If hatred towards “the other” is the prevailing lesson taught to children, they are robbed of their childhoods, they are robbed of their futures, and then the entire future of humanity is uncertain.

Let us not be complacent. Let us keep ourselves informed and make everyone in our circles aware.  And let us all speak our wishes for peace at every opportunity.

This, too, is the nature of America.

Words That Heal and Words That Chill

The ongoing fighting between the Sunnis and Shiites has revealed to those of us in the West a deep rift in the Muslim world that has existed for centuries and has become more violent in recent years.  Who would have predicted only a short time ago that Egypt would emerge as a force for change in the thinking of the Muslim world? President Al Sisi recently stated that America and the West are Egypt’s allies and lectured the Imams to change their sermons which advocate hate and violence. Now comes another voice from an Egyptian historian interviewed on state television. In the interview with an Egyptian journalist who was hostile to the idea of collaboration with Israel, Egyptian historian Maged Farag says “The people were raised on a certain ideology and they refuse to change it. Reality has changed. My enemy today is Gaza, not Israel. That is our enemy.”

Here are some more words that heal:

Iranian professor questions the wisdom of seeking to annihilate Israel:  Outspoken Iranian professor Sadegh Zibakalam proclaimed that due to Iran’s insisting upon annihilating Israel and chanting “death to America”, the country has lost out on good business and economic opportunities. In a speech in the parliament he said, “Who on earth has given Iran this responsibility to annihilate Israel?” When a member of the audience shouted “death to Israel”, the audience booed the unruly audience member.

Now some news items that “chill”:

The following quotes are from an article titled “The Electronic Intifada”, by professor of modern Arab politics Joseph Massad. 

“The Jewish and protestant fight for Zionism has been and remains a fight to grant European Jews more rights than non Jews on a religious, racial and ethnic basis. The superiority would be granted especially vis a vis Palestinian citizens of the Jewish settler colony as well as limiting the rights of the Palestinians in the territories Israel occupied and colonized since 1967 and those it expelled and exiled since 1948outside the borders of their homeland.”

What he writes may sound bizzare, and to most historians, it is. To this “history professor”, the whole history of Palestine prior to 1948 simply does not exist, and reading it you would think the Jews came over with weapons and conquered the territory, ignoring the fact that after the first World War, when the Ottoman Empire lost the war, the League of Nations gave the British government a mandate to create a national home for Jews in their ancestral land without encroaching on the rights of the local population. Subsequently, the United Nations in 1947, recognizing the fact that there are two peoples living on that land, passed a resolution to divide the land between the two populations. The Jews accepted a partition and the neighboring Arab countries rejected it and attacked Israel.

Incidentally, the name Palestinians applied to all those who lived in the land of Palestine (Jews and Arabs included). The fact is that the Jews had no army and those who volunteered came to settle on uninhabitable desert land, land bought from owners who resided outside of the land, and by converting swamps they transformed it into inhabitable land.

In another paragraph titled “Recruiting Jews to kill Palestinians”, Professor Massad claims, “Israel has created a hegemonic racist Jewish culture that has not only dominated Israeli Jewish communities but also Jewish communities in Europe and its settler colonial extensions (In America, Australia, and South Africa)” “The Israeli Colonial Army advertises several programs to accommodate international Jewish volunteers to the oppression of the Palestinians.”

Clearly there are some restrictions because of security concerns, but the fact is that Israeli Arabs are represented in the Israeli parliament and can be found in high positions in the judicial system.

The Israeli population consists of people from over 100 different countries who left by force or by choice and who are now citizens of Israel.  Joseph Massad, professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in 2009 compared what he called “the Gaza ghetto uprising” to the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising and in 2014 described Israel as “the European Jewish-supremacist settler colony” and the Israeli Defense Forces as “international Zionist Jewish brigades of baby killers”.

Another example of “words that chill” comes in an article published by American Thinker titled “Bonfire of the Vulgarians: Middle East Studies in Decline“. In that 2014 article, another Columbia University Iranian Studies professor Hamid Dabashi proclaims that, “From now on, every time any Israeli, every time any Jew, anywhere in the world, utters the word ‘Auschwitz,’ or the word ‘Holocaust,’ the world will hear ‘Gaza’.”

That such statements are accepted as scholarship demonstrates the decadence of the contemporary academic culture. It is the duty of the readers to share this information with friends and neighbors, with elected officials, state and federal, expressing your displeasure and concern that this information is being passed down to our students out of context. Be not complacent. Complacency leads to complicity.

A Time for Reflection

Being swamped daily with negative news from various areas of this world, I felt like it was time to take a deep breath and inhale some language that heals.

Last week, Rabbi Amy Levin of Congregation Beth Shalom shared with us a meditation from Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins’ book “Rosh Hashanah Readings.” The reading included comments made by Maya Angelou during an interview with Oprah Winfrey on Angelou’s 70’th birthday. I was particularly inspired by this:

“I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn. I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

This is only one of many wonderful quotes from Rabbi Elkins’ book and the interview with Oprah. They are full of lessons from life which I find inspiring and healing. I highly recommend them to you.

“J’Accuse”

“Adam, where are you?” (cf. Gen 3:9). Where are you, o man? What have you come to? …Who corrupted you? Who disfigured you? Who led you to presume that you are the master of good and evil? Who convinced you that you were god? Not only did you torture and kill your brothers and sisters, but you sacrificed them to yourself, because you made yourself a god.Pope Francis, 26 May 2014

Germany, 1945. I am with the triumphant Russian Army in the province of Mecklenburg on the Baltic Sea. I was lodged in a private German house where the owner was a woman still living there. Inadvertently, she asked me where I was from and about my experience during the war. I told her my experience, that my family was killed, my town wiped out, thousands of others murdered. And then she looked at me with a straight face and said “But you bombed our cities!”

This episode comes to my mind when we talk about the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Only the moments that the reporter sees are delivered to the view, without context, without perspective, as if the conflict had just begun at the moment when this particular bomb was dropped. And this is occurring in Gaza, where strangely, after three or sometimes four generations, a majority of the inhabitants are classified as refugees under the supervision and with the support of the United Nations.

When we talk about refugees, we have to ask “Why are there still refugees in camps in Gaza when refugees from other wars have been more quickly resettled or absorbed into the countries in which they were refugees?” How is it that under the auspices of the United Nations these camps have spawned terrorist groups who export their violence to many corners of the world? In Europe, in the United States, and even in some Arab countries like Jordan, refugees were absorbed, and their children were educated and became successful professionals, businesses people, politicians and educators. Why were refugees in Gaza not treated in the same way?

We should consider this a violation of basic human rights: the United Nations by facilitating and financing such a state of affairs has violated the human rights of those who are in the camps. People are not supposed to be in camps for so many years. By sponsoring those camps, by allowing them to exist, by not making a greater effort to resettle those refugees, and by failing to support and facilitate efforts made by others to disband the camps, the UN has failed in its mission and become a violator of the very human rights principles that it proclaims.

There have been refugees after every war, and none of them have been allowed to live in camps supported by the UN for more than a few years. Why is it that in Gaza those who found themselves unable or unwilling to return to their homes have been allowed to remain for as long as 66 years, the better part of a century, with no attempt to settle them permanently? Israeli prime ministers tried during the peace process to suggest disbandment of the camps, but by that time the idea of resettlement was in direct conflict with the idea of the so-called “right of return,” and Yasser Arafat refused to consider negotiating that right.

I believe that the answer has less to do with historical enmities in the Middle East and much more to do with global politics. As time went on, the UN became a hotbed of Cold War politics, a place of contention for support of third world countries. Israel was ground zero in this battle: dozens of resolutions were passed by third-world countries opposing support of Israel simply because the US was in support of Israel.

As I surfed the internet, I came across the story of the visit of the Pope to Jerusalem this past May. And I read the words of his speech “Adam, where are you?”, the words that God said to Adam in the Garden of Eden. So I say to this dis-United Nations “Where are you? Your function is to secure peace among the nations of the world, and instead you have become a tool of the enemies of Israel who waged wars, boycotts, assassinations, and massacres without any consequences. Where have you been, you dis-United Nations?”

As I finished the last line of this blog, the news came that an indefinite truce has been  announced. In the rubble-filled streets of Gaza, people burst into shouts of  joy. “WE WON!” Thousands  killed and many wounded. “We WON!”  MIllions spent on building tunnels, obtaining and constructing rockets. Millions more will now be spent on rebuilding. “We won!” I will leave to the mathematicians what could have been done with those millions if they were spent for the benefit of the people of Gaza by helping them find permanent homes. But as it stands now the U.N. and those who provide the funds will “GENEROUSLY” keep the residents of Gaza in misery and despair as Eternal Refugees.

I hope you will all join me in raising this question with your friends as we continue to focus our thoughts and prayers towards a permanent resolution of the conflict in the Middle East. Do not be complacent: Israel may be the current target, but if we do not confront this campaign of hate, vilification, and slander, Israel will not be the last.

The essence of the matter

In a recent radio interview on NPR’s “Here and Now,” David Folkenflik, NPR’s media correspondent based in New York, discussed the difficulties of reporting the news from the Middle East. He points out that coverage is “incredibly fraught…It goes back decades…on back to the Bible for many people. I think it is also essentially seemingly insoluble…Israel doesn’t want to deal with Hamas…and Hamas has stated that it wants to, you know, wipe Israel off the face of the earth. You’ve got two enemies which seem inclined not only to not want to strike a decent bargain, but not want to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other in doing so. So the coverage of this means that….the idea of fairness…kind of goes out the window: it’s two competing narratives which are irreconcilable and therefore a strict adherence to what you can prove and show and facts on the ground is probably the safest bet for reporters there.”

In describing problems that reporters face in covering the news, Folkenflik may have unwittingly brought to light the words that highlight the existential essence of the conflict: “Israel doesn’t want to deal with Hamas…and Hamas has stated that it wants to, you know, wipe Israel off the face of the earth.” I wonder, when the cry is raised for Israel to “negotiate a truce,” what exactly is it that they might be negotiating about? Funeral arrangements?

My blog is dedicated to the idea that words are important, that words can heal and words can kill. Folkenflik emphasizes that reporters should report only what they see. But often this is not so simple. If a reporter is on the street and sees two people wrestling, one on top beating one on bottom, what does he report? When bystanders rush in to intervene, the reporter watches and later interviews them. One of the interveners says “Oh, the guy on the top, he was brutal, beating the guy on bottom! So unfair, that man was clearly weaker than he!” Another says “The guy on the bottom — I saw the whole thing, he started it when he attacked the other guy with a knife! It was just out of the blue, he was walking by and pulled a knife on him. It was a miracle that he didn’t kill him!” The words the reporter uses to tell this story can leave the reader clueless as to the context, and helpless to resolve the conflict.

Often reporters in war zones are young, and have never focused intensively on the background of the conflicts they are covering. They go in “tabula rasa,” clean slate, with the intention of being impartial, reporting only facts. But facts do not make good radio or television or even good print stories. And without the understanding that a deep knowledge of history of a conflict conveys, the “human element” that every reporter adds to his or her stories strikes the reader “context free,” leading them to believe that a story rich in detail is also rich in context.

So this all leaves me wondering: does Hamas really represent the average Gazan? Dr. David Pollock, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, recently commissioned a poll of Gazan residents. To his surprise, the poll reported that the average Palestinian family man was interested in peace and a steady job in Israel. This is some solid context demonstrating that extremists who manage to grab power and headlines are not necessarily representative of the people they purport to represent and defend. And often those average people are the ones who pay the price of extremism.

(This posting received special assistance from my executive editor, Cindy Harris)

What a World!

The sound that broke the barrier of segregation: Today is the anniversary of Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939. From the day that the DAR refused to allow her to sing at Constitution Hall until this day much progress has been made, and much still needs to be done. There is always tension between the forces of progress and those who would try to retard progress by any means.

Because bad news about Israel reaches the world media so quickly and good news comes out so slowly (and sometimes not at all), I would like to introduce you to a source of good news from Israel: Michael Ordman’s “Good News From Israel” blog. Here are some recent examples from his site:

Freedom of education is the norm: Dr. Qanta Ahmed, an Arab physician visiting Technion University where Muslim students study alongside Jews, speaks out against those who would say that Israel discriminates against Arabs.

The University of Ariel in the West Bank, not recognized by the outside world and by some Israelis, has 600 Arab students, about 20% of the student body. And they are in the process of setting up a Muslim prayer room to accommodate those students.

A former Egyptian diplomat, Gamal Bayoumi, recently spoke out in favor of normalizing relations between Egypt and Israel. And a Syrian opposition activist, Kamal Al-Labwani, is also making the case for peace with Israel.

In the same world, a British MP recently stated that “Zionist gunmen and Ukrainian Nazis are intimidating Jews into settling in Palestine.”

An Egyptian actor recently recommended that people read “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (an anti-Semitic hoax from the Czarist era purportedly describing how Jews rule the world) and stated that Benjamin Franklin warned that Jews should not be admitted to the US, citing the oft-debunked “Franklin Prophecy,” a speech attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but almost certainly written in the early 20th century.

Mighty lies ride high in the world of hate. And so we must work to seek out the sources that provide facts to highlight the real world, where truth drives out the darkness of hate.

Mandela Stands Alone

Note from the editor: This posting was originally intended to be published in response to Nelson Mandela’s death, but has been delayed due to some health issues. Moshe is now back in front of his writer’s desk and says “It’s never too late to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela because his contributions transcend time.”
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“Hate clouds the mind.”

Nelson Mandela lived an entire lifetime based on those words. Condemned to prison for years, he became a lifetime friend with the prison warden. After his release, he did not allow members of his own party to sway him from his policy of nonviolence in achieving his goals. As president of his nation, he created a process of healing and reconciliation that enabled him to leave after a single term, demonstrating to the world how a democracy should work.

But the real test of Nelson Mandela’s greatness will be now that he is gone. His associates had many questions about his philosophy of non-violence. While he was alive, they went along with it. But there are still many problems in South Africa, much disparity between rich and poor. Only time will tell if Mandela’s successors will have the fortitude to hold to those principles of non-violence that Mandela lived. If they do, then Mandela’s legacy will stand as an example for generations, perhaps ensuring the eventual establishment of a world truly at peace