Thursday, November 19, 2015

Rywka's Diary to be restored and preserved at Yad Vashem

It was a very emotional meeting today at the Yad Vashem Archives as Yad Vashem staff met with relatives, friends, researchers and historians who have been investigating the fate of 14-year-old Rywka Lipszyc.

Born in 1929 to a rabbinical family, Rwyka, kept a diary while she was incarcerated in the Lodz ghetto. When her parents and siblings were murdered, Rywka spent the remainder of the war with her cousins, Mina and Esther Lipszyc. After surviving the hunger of the Lodz ghetto, the horrors of Auschwitz and a grueling death march, the three cousins arrived at Bergen Belsen, weak and very sick. Esther last saw Rywka on her deathbed in the hospital ward. She and Mina slowly recuperated in Sweden, but never heard from their cousin again.

Meanwhile, Rywka's diary had been eventually discovered in the ashes of the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau in early 1945 by Zinaida Berezovskaya, a doctor who arrived at the camp with the liberating Red Army. The diary (in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew) documented Rywka's daily life, along with her hopes, dreams and deepest emotions. Berezovskaya stored it in an envelope, along with a newspaper clipping about the liberation of Auschwitz. For over half a century it remained untouched, until Berezovskaya's granddaughter discovered it among her father's effects in June 1995 and was deposited in the archives of Holocaust Center of Northern California, (relocated in 2010 to Jewish Family and Children's Services (JFCS) to form the Holocaust Center in San Francisco)

Varda Gross, Conservation Laboratory Director showing an
example of how Rywka's diary will be conserved 
Judy Janec, archivist at the center immediately began to investigate the identity and fate of the diary's author, which ultimately led to the discovery the Page of Testimony commemorating Rywka submitted by Mina Boyer in 1955 (updated in 2000). Yad Vashem staff assisted by contacting Hadassah Halamish, Minsa's daughter. The family was deeply moved to learn of the diary's discovery so many years later.

Recently (Sept 3, 2015), the family donated the diary to Yad Vashem for preservation. This week, Rywka's cousin, Hadassah Halamish, visited Yad Vashem together with researcher Judy Janec, Anastasia Berezovskaya, the granddaughter of Zinaida Berezovskaya; Dr. Ewa Wiatr, an historian from Poland who specializes in research on the Lodz ghetto and who assisted in the translation and annotation of the diary from Polish to English, her 14 year old daughter Tosia; and friends hosting them in Israel.

Yad Vashem Archives Director Dr. Haim Gertner hosted a behind-the-scenes tour of the archival facilities and explained the process of how Rywka's diary will be repaired, carefully preserved, protected, and then digitized – in order to make it accessible to interested parties all over the world. It was a meaningful experience for everyone. Hadassah, who has a deep emotional and personal connection to the diary said, "I know that the diary is in the right place." 

Dr. Haim Gertner presenting Hadassah Halamish
with a digital copy of her cousin's diary

Judy Janec agreed. "It feels redemptive to have the diary at Yad Vashem. It belongs in a repository that has the resources to preserve and make it accessible to the public. Now I know that it's safe. It is where it should be." According to a Displaced Persons registration card discovered through Judy Janec's research Rywka indicated that she would like to relocate/emigrate to "Eretz Israel" after she recuperated. "So now at least her diary is in Israel even if she couldn't be."

Yad Vashem’s Gathering the Fragments national campaign to rescue personal items from the Holocaust era is now continuing into its fifth year. The campaign encourages people with Holocaust related material in their possession to bring them to Yad Vashem, where they will be protected for posterity, along with the stories behind the items. Since the beginning of the program in 2011, some 165,000 items have been brought to Yad Vashem, including photos, documents and artifacts. People who want to donate material should email or call 02-644 3888. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Discovering New Family

This is yet another incredible and unexpected story of a family reunited as a result of documentation found in Yad Vashem's Archives. Pages of Testimony are an excellent tool in filling in the missing pieces of family histories and uniting a family that was dispersed because of the Holocaust.

Valery Simonov, who lives in Pinsk, Belarus, recently began looking for information about the father he never knew.  What he discovered was so much more, including a half-sister living here in Israel.

Valery and Dalia holding family pictures
Growing up, Valery's mother, Olga Simonov, never spoke about who his father was or that he left her when she was pregnant. When Valery was born his mother named him Valery Volfovich Simonov - a combination of her name and his father's name, Wolf.  Around a year and a half ago Valery discovered from Svetlana, a family friend who helped raise him, that his father's surname was Sternik. Valery proceeded to reach out to Yad Vashem and requested information about his father, Wolf Sternik. Rita Margolin a researcher in Yad Vashem's Reference and Information Services Department, searched for Wolf's name in the Yad Vashem archival documents from Pinsk. With the help of Pages of Testimony and other documentation Rita was able to find out what had happened to Wolf Sternik during the war, and later discovered from Svetlana's friend, Rima that Wolf had remarried and had a daughter, Dalia, who currently lives in Jerusalem. Neither Dalia nor Valery knew about the other.

Wolf Sternik, a journalist, was born in Dabrowa Gornicza. He fled with his family from Warsaw to Pinsk in 1939 and later in 1941, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, escaped to Kazakhstan. His first wife, Rachel, and son, Pawel, were murdered in Pinsk; his mother and sister were murdered in Western Ukraine.  Wolf returned to Pinsk in 1945 with Olga Simonov and her two children. Later that year, Wolf left for Poland while Simonov, who was pregnant at the time stayed in Pinsk where Valery was born in 1946. 

Dr. Haim Gertner and Rita Margolin reading archival documents
with information about the siblings
Once in Poland, Wolf married and had a daughter Dalia. Dalia and her mother moved to Israel in 1957 leaving Wolf behind in Poland where he lived until his death in 1993.

Upon discovering that Valery has a half-sister, Rita contacted Dalia immediately to tell her the exciting news. The next day Dalia visited Yad Vashem and Rita showed her all the documentation she had uncovered about Dalia's father. Dalia also had numerous documents left to her by her father.  After receiving additional information from Dalia, Rita found in the Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names Pages of Testimony filled out by Wolf Sternik in 1980. Rita also found relevant documents about other family members.
Rita, Dalia, Valery and Tamara at Yad Vashem Archives

As for the news about her half-brother, Dalia was skeptical at first. However, after an initial meeting on Skype, Dalia saw an unmisktable familial resemblance and realized that they were relatives. Both siblings even had the same photo of their father that they had both saved over the years.

Shortly after their Skype meeting, Dalia travelled to Pinsk to meet Valery for the first time in person.  At the end of their week together, she invited him to come visit her in Israel. During their emotional meeting at Yad Vashem, an overjoyed Valery exclaimed that he was "so excited to be here with Dalia and still can't believe that something like this could happen."


Monday, November 9, 2015

Check out the New York Times article featuring a photo from the Yad Vashem Archives

Among the pictures in Yad Vashem's extensive Photo Archive is one dated July 1945. Alan Golub, donated the photo of a group of young Hungarian women, whom he helped clothe, to Yad Vashem in 1999 with the women's names carefully written on the back.  He also donated a thank-you note he received from the women. Read their story in today's New York Times.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

"My Mission: To Film and to Record"

Interview with Rex Bloomstein

"Just before his execution in 1941, the famous Jewish historian Simon Dubnow told his fellow inmates in the Riga ghetto 'Yidn, shraybt un farshraybt (Jews, write and record).' My life's mission has been 'Film and Record.'"
So explained acclaimed British documentary film-maker Rex Bloomstein at a fascinating lecture yesterday in Yad Vashem's Visual Center as he took the audience through a journey of his epic career spanning over three decades. Beginning his profession with the BBC, Bloomstein has to date created over 150 films, TV documentaries and series, including the trilogy The Longest Hatred (1989) charting the unique history of antisemitism and its manifestation in modern society; Auschwitz and the Allies (1982), investigating how much the Allies knew of the greatest death camp in history; and KZan award-winning film described as 'the first post-modern Holocaust documentary,' and nominee for the first Yad Vashem Chairman's Award in Holocaust-related film ten years ago.
Bloomstein has been at Yad Vashem for the past week, hard at work in the Visual Center and Archives, undertaking painstaking research for his upcoming film about the Second World War ("I can't tell you more than that at this point. I don't want to risk sabotaging the project"). Calling Yad Vashem "an institute of immense importance," Bloomstein emphasized the "vital role" played by the Visual Center – the world's largest repository of Holocaust-related films in all genres. "Film plays a crucial role in examining, exploring and confronting the Holocaust," Bloomstein stated. "Over 5,500 films have been made about the event since the Eichmann Trials in the early 1960s, and the explosion of interest in the Holocaust continues to the present day."

Rex Bloomstein in the Yad Vashem Visual Center
During his stay, Bloomstein "took advantage of the level of scholarship at Yad Vashem, conversing with a number of experts in their fields, such as Liat [Benhabib, Director of the Visual Center] and Efrat [Komisar, Head of the Footage Section in the Archives Division], who have dedicated their lives to furthering our knowledge of the Shoah."
The presentation, part of an enrichment program for Yad Vashem guides, took the audience through Bloomstein's changing perspectives and styles of Holocaust film-making over the years. From the "traditional elements" of interviews, music, footage and images, such as in The Longest Hatred and Auschwitz and the Allies, in the 1990s Bloomstein endeavored to "pare down his technique" when he and the late Robert Wistrich created "Lessons of the Holocaust" – a 60 minute video as part of an educational pack for UK secondary schools – as well as in Liberation, a documentary he produced to mark 50 years since the end of WWII. Liberation features one particular interview with a former American GI, who was extremely distressed as he recounted his first impressions on entering the Ordruf concentration camp. "I was not interested in manipulating feelings with music and images," Bloomstein explained. "I continued to try to remove as many barriers as possible between the viewer and the event."
Indeed, it is the belief in this vital component of witness testimonies that had led Bloomstein at the beginning of the previous decade to film Gathering, a seemingly haphazard and dizzying recording of the first world assembly of Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem and the media frenzy that surrounded it. "These were witnesses to a universe almost beyond belief and understanding," said Bloomstein. "They needed no narration to tell their story. I let them speak for themselves."
In 2005, Bloomstein released KZ, a feature-length film exploring the legacy of Austria’s Mauthausen concentration camp and its impact on visitors and residents today. Guides take tourists through the appalling history of the camp, while mere kilometers away the locals enjoy a few pints at the local beer garden. Noticeably absent are any survivor testimonies. "This film is about the interface between then and now," explained Bloomstein. "It is set in the landscape of the concentration camp but it is a film about today, and the task we face of continuing to find new ways to inform the next generation about what happened when the survivors will not be around to tell their story."

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

David Cesarani (1956-2015)

"A Scholar of Tremendous Depth and Breadth"
Dr. Robert Rozett
Director of the Libraries, Yad Vashem

Yesterday evening, I heard the sad news that my dear friend and colleague Professor David Cesarani of Royal Holloway in London had passed away unexpectedly. David was a scholar of tremendous depth and breadth, great brilliance and remarkable eloquence. It often seemed to me that having had the privilege to study with the great George Mosse (as I had), David had learned one of the most important tasks of the historian: to deflate myths and replace them with well-grounded and well-stated historical narrative and analysis.

It is not by chance that his two most important scholarly projects about the Holocaust reflected all of those qualities. His book Eichmann: His Life and His Crimes, published in 2004 presented a more historically accurate portrait of Eichmann, removing him from the clouds of partial truth and contradictory images that had emerged from his trial in Israel in the early 1960s. Eichmann was neither the master mind of the Holocaust nor a mundane desk bureaucrat only following orders. David drew a more complex portrait of the man, and no less important, he set him in the context of events that led to the unfolding and carrying out of the "Final Solution" against the Jews. He showed that Eichmann was not a decision maker, but certainly had initiative. He revealed that the man changed over the course of the war, from a gung-ho young officer to a rather jaded murderer. Throughout the book, David provided the historical envelope, harnessing the most up-to-date understanding of the events of the Holocaust available at the time he wrote.
Professor Cesarani at a Yad Vashem workshop in 2010

Over the last two years or so, David was engaged in another project that demanded depth and breadth of knowledge. He wrote a one-volume history of the Holocaust that remained unpublished at the time of his passing. Last year David asked me to read the manuscript and comment on it. What I read revealed an encyclopedic knowledge of the Holocaust and the most recent writing about it.  Moreover, David tried to ensure that his narrative closely followed the events of WWII. To do so, he read scores of diaries and memoirs of leading figures and less well-known figures of the time, as well as monographs on the war. One of the rooms on the second floor of his home is lined with them; they literally fill an entire book case. David also tried to bring balance back to the history of the Holocaust, especially when he wrote about Jewish behavior. In much of the literature over the decades since the end of the war, the image of the Jews in the Holocaust has moved from being portrayed as one-dimensional victims, to being nearly lionized for having gone through the Holocaust. David sought to show that first and foremost the Jews were human beings, and as such had many diverse qualities, strengths and foibles, and displayed a great range of behaviors.
Professor Cesarani addressing the public at the
inaugurtaion of the Oppenheim Chair, 1998

David was an excellent speaker. His public lectures were not only well grounded in history, lucid and interesting, but they almost invariably contained some sort of punch line that not only made a good point, but engendered laughter. David was a frequent guest of Yad Vashem at international research conferences and symposia, and in 1998-1999 he was a fellow of the International Institute for Holocaust Research as the Baron Friedrich Carl von Oppenheim Chair for the study of Racism, Antisemitism and the Holocaust. In private, David was a great story teller, and it was always a pleasure to sit and talk with him over a meal or glass of wine, and hear about some arcane but amusing piece of history or something from his personal experience.

An important role David played was that of public historian. He was involved in films, such as about the last survivor from Treblinka, as well as in establishing the Holocaust exhibit at London's Imperial War Museum. David was frequently interviewed in the British media on subjects relating to the Holocaust and antisemitism, and indeed was a well-known figure in the UK. For his work in advancing Holocaust commemoration in Britain he was awarded an OBE by the Queen. Most recently during the British chairmanship of IHRA, David returned to that body, lending the British delegation his prestige, experience and vast knowledge.

Over more than twenty years of our friendship I spent many hours with David. I learned many things from him and although I'm the Yad Vashem Library Director, I even received more than one good suggestion for a book to read. But mostly, I just enjoyed his company: sitting in his backyard on a cool April evening; taking our children on a hike in Israel followed by a barbeque in "Little Switzerland"; meeting for coffee when we both happened to be in Budapest; driving back and forth to Yad Vashem when he was here for research and bunking at my home; enjoying a Shabbat meal with our families and other friends – and all the while moving from talking about our work, to current events, to subjects more personal.

It is hard to believe that David is no longer here and that we will no longer benefit from his knowledge, his critical thinking, his wisdom, his eloquence, his wit and his warmth.

May his memory be blessed.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Setting the Record Straight

Yad Vashem Chief Historian Professor Dina Porat:
It is a well-documented and undisputable fact that many years before his rise to power, Adolf Hitler was already obsessed by the notion that the Jews constituted an existential danger to the humankind, and thus world Jewry needed to be eliminated at all costs. 

This ideology began to be formed by Hilter when he was a solider during World War I.  Hitler believed that the war had not only been caused by the Jews, but also that the Jews had stabbed Germany in the back.  Hitler went on to develop his obsession with the Jewish problem in his infamous manifest, Mein Kampf, and later in other central documents of the Nazi Party that began to establish itself in the 1920s.  Finally, in a speech at the Reichstag on January 30, 1939, Hitler stated outright that if world Jewry would ‘once again drag the entire world into a World War’ then the only possible outcome would be the extermination of the Jewish people. 

All of these facts clearly show that Adolf Hitler was determined to annihilate the Jews, and subsequent historical events demonstrate how this mania developed them into official Nazi policies.  Hitler didn't need anyone else, including the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseni, to come up with the idea to implement the "Final Solution." 

The Grand Mufti's visit, over two years after the outbreak of WWII, came once many "Final Solution policies were already in full swing.  Almost immediately following the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Reinhard Heydrich received instructions from Berlin giving the orders to establish ghettos and Jewish Councils in the occupied Polish territories.  It was widely understood amongst the SS that the ghettoization process of the Jews in Europe was a stepping stone for the implementation of the "Final Solution."  In addition, after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 the SS Einsatzgruppen began the mass murders of the 1.5 million Jews in Lithuania, Russia, and the Ukraine.  The first extermination camp, Chelmno, began operations at the beginning of December 1941 just days after the meeting with the Grand Mufti.  The building of the death camp had already been underway for several months when these two leaders met. 

Therefore, the way Prime Minister Netanyahu worded his comments was historically inaccurate from the perspective of the "Final Solution" of European Jewry, but was on point for plans to expand this policy to Jews living in Mandatory Palestine. The Mufti had a specific agenda in meeting Hitler in 1941. The Protocol from this fateful meeting specifically states that "The Fuehrer replied that Germany stood for uncompromising war against the Jews and that naturally included active opposition to the Jewish national home in Palestine."  Hitler promised that he would carry on the battle to the total destruction of the "Judeo-Communistic Empire" in Europe.  The Mufti of Jerusalem was no lover of the Jewish people.  He was an ardent antisemite, but the idea of the "Final Solution" was Hitler's alone, as was the implementation of its appalling policies and actions.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Courage, Strength and Humanity

"I look at my family and I see a miracle!" exclaimed Tova at the ceremony at Yad Vashem on Monday. "It's marvelous to be here" she said with a big smile on her face.  Tova was attending a special ceremony honoring the late Angele Larose. Angele saved Tova's life during the war by hiding her from the Nazis. During an emotional speech, Tova expressed her gratitude to AndrĂ© and his family who were attending the ceremony honoring their late grandmother for her wartime heroism. Tova reminisced about many happy memories she had from living on the farm and came to personally thank Angele's grandson for rescuing her. "Angele saved my life by her actions…my parents understood what they owed her. I did not because I was too young. Now, however I fully understand and appreciate her courage, strength and humanity."
Before the war, Hersch and Esther Lowenbraun emigrated from Poland to Charlerio, Belgium together with their two daughters; Sala (born 1925) and Matylda (born 1929). Their third daughter, Theresa-Tova, was born in Belgium in 1938.  Sala was arrested and deported with the first transport from Belgium to Poland in 1942.  In an attempt to save their two remaining daughters, Esther brought both Matylda and Theresa-Tova to the Saint Joseph Hospital and Convent. There, she asked the Mother Superior, Sister Julienne Aneuse, to hide the girls. Before leaving Esther instructed Matylda to recite the "Shema" prayer with her younger sister Tova in order not to forget their Jewish heritage. 

In 1943, Esther decided to move the girls to a safer location. Tova was taken to the farm of Angele Larose in the village of Villers-Poterie. The Larose family treated Tova well, and Tova benefited from the quiet life of the village, enjoying the animals. Occasionally, Esther would visit but, as Tova told Yad Vashem, "I didn't remember her as my mother, just a woman who visited and brought me a doll." Tova would accompany the Larose family to church every week, and at a certain stage asked the Priest to convert to Christianity. The Priest told her she would be able to do so when she was older. At the end of the war, Esther came to get her daughter and along with Hersch and Matylda, they immigrated to the United States. 

AndrĂ© was also very moved by the experience. "Who would've thought I would be talking about my grandmother here in Jerusalem. Her name will forever be remembered at Yad Vashem. It's wonderful to see Tova and all of her family."  

On March 16, 2015, Yad Vashem recognized Angele Larose and Sister Julienne Aneuse as Righteous Among the Nations.

Irena Steinfeldt, Director of the Department of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem concluded the ceremony by noting that "not only were the Righteous extremely courageous for risking their lives to save others, but also the survivors themselves are remarkable as hiding is an enormous challenge. We can only admire them."

For more information about the Righteous Among the Nations: