Wednesday, June 30, 2010

“Because they had a heart”: Yad Vashem Honors Bulgarian and Polish Righteous of the Nations

As a granddaughter of a survivor, I grew up with the horror stories of what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust. I have walked hand in hand with my grandfather through Auschwitz, listening to his real-life nightmares. After each story I am always left with the same question: how could people stand by and allow such atrocities to happen to a fellow human being?

The families of Reiber and Lisieczynski
in the Garden of the Righteous of the Nations

This past week, however, I heard the stories of three unique individuals who did speak out and fight for those who were victimized and persecuted by the Nazis. In fact they put their own lives on the line to help others. On Monday and Wednesday, ceremonies were held to honor Bulgarian Vladimir Kurtev and Polish Jan and Julia Lisieczynski as Righteous Among the Nations.

On Monday, Kurtev’s grandchildren, Jasmin and Vladimir Kurtev received the award on their grandfather’s behalf. Kurtev was a teacher in Kyustendil who maintained strong ties with the leaders of the city’s Jewish community. In February 1943 Kurtev and other fellow Bulgarians found out about a decree to deport 20, 000 Bulgarian Jews and decided to act. Kurtev was one of four delegates who set out for Sofia to stop the deportation. The four delegates met with the Minister of Interior, Gabrovski and insisted that the edict be revoked. With the help of the other three delegates, Kurtev’s courageous and determined actions succeeded in releasing all arrested Jews from old Bulgaria.

Avner Shalev, Chairman of Yad Vashem, perfectly described Kurtev as a truly unique individual who was “a Bulgarian patriot, courageous fighter and loyal friend to the Jewish community.”

From left to right: Avner Shalev (Chairman of Yad Vashem), Jasmin Kurtev, Foreign Minister of Bulgaria, Nikolai Mladenov and Vladimir Kurtev

“Kurtev understood that he is a part of a civic society and, therefore, it was his civic duty to put a stop to what the Germans wanted,” said Shalev. “Kurtev was a unique man who changed the course of history.”

Like Kurtev, the Lisieczynskis also changed the lives of Ben Zion and Yehezkel Reiber. The family repeatedly took both boys and their father into their home. After the boys’ father, Yitzchak was shot on his way to work; the Lisieczynski rescued the boys by hiding them under a pit inside their home.

“They saved us,” said Reiber. “They hid us. They guarded our lives while risking their own.”

I find bravery, such as Kurtev’s or the Lisieczynskis’ perplexing. When the majority of Europe ignored the murder of millions of Jews, how were these few willing to risk their own lives to save the lives of others? Reiber responded simply, “Because they had a full heart.”

Today, at the end of ceremony, all of Ben Zion’s children and grandchildren stood around their grandfather and the Lisieczynskis’ granddaughter, Krystyna Kudiuk, arm in arm, smiling at the camera. It is no small significance that in saving the Reiber brothers, Kudiuk’s grandparents also saved many future children and grandchildren.

“The [Lisieczynskis] are a special family,” said Reiber with tears in his eyes. “Jan, Julia, Krystyna – I love you.”

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On Holocaust Education

Here's a piece in today's International Herald Tribune by the former president of Poland reflecting on the role of Holocaust education today. Interesting read!

On Holocaust Education by Aleksander Kwasniewski

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"Her family was my only light in vast darkness"

Righteous Among the Nations From Belarus Visit Yad Vashem

An emotional meeting took place yesterday at Yad Vashem between Holocaust survivor, Rachel Shmielowitch (née Davidson) and her rescuer, Aysha Trofimova (née Kapatansky) from Belarus. Both women were accompanied by their families while they toured the Holocaust History Museum and then gathered at the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, to view Trofimova’s name, which is engraved on the Wall of Honor.

The Davidson family, Israel, Proma, and their children, Rachel, Vladimir and Mira lived in Minsk. In August of 1942, the Davidsons were forced with the rest of Minsk’s Jews to move to the Ghetto. The Davidson family had always been friendly with the Kanapatskys, a Muslim family from Minsk and turned to them for help during their time in the ghetto. Unlike many Belarusians who were indifferent to the atrocities committed against the Jews, the Kanapatskys immediately helped the Davidsons.

The Kanapatskys first hid Shmielowitch’s father, Israel Davidson, after he was ordered to the work camp, Camp Drodzy. Israel spent most of his time in a deep pit he had dug under a pile of firewood. He then returned to the Kanapatsky house for a second time after a mass killing occurred in March 1942, in which 5,000 people were killed at once in the heart of the ghetto.

“They made people stand in a line and would shoot each person: mothers, fathers, children,” recalls Shmielowitch. “The dead fell into a pit that was in the middle of the ghetto. I can still hear the screaming and crying.”

In June 1943, the ghetto began to be liquidated and Rachel’s mother and her two siblings escaped to the Kanapatsky’s house.

“The Kanapatskys hid my family even though they were risking their lives. If they would have been caught they would’ve been killed with us,” said Shmielowitch.

The Kanapatskys provided the Davidsons with clothes, food and shelter. After a few weeks they were taken to the forest in hopes of joining the Jewish Partisans. For a year Shmielowitch’s father fought with the Partisans while the rest of the family stayed in the civilian camp. After the war the Davidsons returned to Minsk and lived next door to the Kanapatskys who provided them with endless amounts of help. In 1958, the Davidsons moved to Poland where they then made aliyah. Shmielowitch promises to never forget what the Kanapatskys did for her and her family.

“The Kanapatsky family is a part of my family,” said Shmielowitch. “It was only because of their help - their humanity - that I stayed alive. They acted with courage even though they knew death was awaiting them. Aysha is a true ‘Righteous Among the Nations’. Her family was my only light in vast darkness.”

Trofimova is one of 600 people from Belarus who are currently recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

37,500 Names Deposited at Yad Vashem

Heinz Kounio, is one of only 1,950 Jews from Salonica who survived the Holocaust. Deported from Greece in 1943, he survived Auschwitz, and at the conclusion of the war returned to his hometown. Kounio, the former head of the Jewish community in Salonica, has spent years gathering and documenting the names of 37,500 victims of the Holocaust in order to commemorate the memory of his fellow Salonicans who did not survive. This week, he presented these names to Yad Vashem to be preserved in the Hall of Names.

Sixty-seven years ago, the deportation of the Jews of Salonica and other Jewish communities in Greece began – most of whom never returned. They were deported to a destination previously unknown to them – Auschwitz-Birkenau. More than 53,000 members of the Salonica Jewish community - out of a total of 56,000 - were murdered there. The deportations of the Jews of Salonica to Auschwitz began in March 1943, and lasted until August 1943. Most were murdered on arrival at the camp. At the end of the war in 1945, only 1,950 Jews remained from the extraordinary community of Salonica. A city with an illustrious Jewish culture, rich in spirituality and creativity was cut off and lost from the world.

The addition of some 40,000 names will double the number of the names of Holocaust victims from Salonica, Greece that are recorded in the Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names. (The Database previously included some 22,000 Salonican names, but some of the names just received are duplicates of ones already recorded in the database.) The new names will be digitized and available online within a few short months at . At the present time, the database currently contains some 3.8 million names of victims of the Holocaust, and efforts are actively being made to gather as many names as possible before it is too late.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Bette Midler at Yad Vashem

The actress Bette Midler has just left Yad Vashem after an emotional visit to the Holocaust History Museum. Here she is visiting the Hall of Names.

Discovering Lost Family via the Yad Vashem Database

In a tale spanning across Poland, Belaraus, Israel and the US, Avner Yonai (38) a native Israeli businessman living in California, recently connected with a lost relative after discovering Pages of Testimony submitted by his grandfather in memory of family members who were murdered in the Shoah.

Since 2008, Avner has served as a volunteer through the JFSF of San Francisco for the Shoah Victims' Names Recovery Project where he meets with Holocaust survivors to assist them in filling out Pages of Testimony in memory of their loved ones. As part of his volunteer work Avner also learned to conduct searches on the Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names database, which ultimately led him to discover a living connection with a descendant of his great aunt Bluma, who was brutally murdered in the Shoah.

Avner's maternal grandfather, David Rybak, was born in Poland in the town of Gora Kalwaria (aslo known as Ger). Yonai recently unearthed his grandfather’s travel and aliyah documents, which show that David Rybak emigrated from Poland to Mandatory Palestine in 1935, before the Nazi conquest of Poland. One of his brothers, Beryl Rybak remained in Poland and was murdered with his wife Bluma (née Goldhecht) in Treblinka in 1942. Bluma’s brother, Yaacov Goldhecht survived and filled out a Page of Testimony in her memory in Israel in the 1950's. Avner then discovered that his grandfather, David Rybak, had also filled out Page of Testimony commemorating his sister-in-law, Bluma.

Avner’s research also revealed that Yaacov Goldhecht was from the same town as his grandfather, where they were neighbors and friends, and played together as members of The Mandolin Orchestra of Ger. Beryl Rybak served as the conductor of the orchestra which was active during the 1920’s and 1930’s; most of its members were killed in the Shoah. Goldhecht explained in an excerpt from the Gora Kalwaria Yizkor book that it was: “A unique orchestra directed by Beryl Ryback …who knows? Under different circumstances Beryl could well have gone on to become a world-renowned conductor.

This all exists only in the memories of the survivors of Ger, in all the countries of the world where they have been scattered…from time to time they feel a longing for this beautiful romantic past, that belongs to a past that is dead and buried… The Jews of Ger died the deaths of martyrs by the hands of the vile Nazi murders!”

Using the contact information on the Page of Testimony submitted by Yaacov Goldhecht, Avner succeeded in tracing the Goldhecht family. He immediately contacted his newly found cousin Giora Goldhecht (Yaacov’s grandson) and members of the two branches of the family came together for an emotional reunion in the Goldhecht family home in Israel.

Avner’s mother Lea and his uncle Yitzhak were both named after members of the family that perished in the Shoah, yet until Avner’s recent discovery, neither of them was aware of the fact that their father had submitted Pages of Testimony to Yad Vashem.

Avner says he used the Internet to plan his travels to Poland and Belarus where he painstakingly traced his family roots in a journey that has knit together the past and present in a way that sheds light on his Israeli American family and the intertwined drama of Jews and non-Jews in four countries. In addition to launching a Facebook page dedicated to the orchestra that was once so pivotal to his family, Yonai is also spearheading an effort to stage a revival concert of the mandolin orchestra of Ger.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Three R’s: Remembrance, Resentment and Responsibility

by Richelle Budd Caplan

Remembrance ceremonies and events paying respect to the victims of the Holocaust began to be organized even before the Second World War ended. Official Commemoration ceremonies of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day, beginning at sunset on the twenty-seventh day of the Jewish month of Nisan, became institutionalized in the State of Israel in the 1950s.

On November 1, 2005, the General Assembly of the United Nations designated January 27 as an annual International Day of Commemoration to honor the victims of the Holocaust. Approximately sixty years earlier, on January 27, 1945, Soviet forces liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi extermination camp complex.

Approximately three-and-a-half years later, on April 2, 2009, the European Parliament in Brussels passed the “European Conscience and Totalitarianism” resolution, leading to the annual marking of August 23 as a day recalling the millions of victims that were deported, imprisoned, tortured and murdered by totalitarian and authoritarian regimes during the twentieth century in Europe. According to the text of this European Union resolution, “ …from the outset European integration has been a response to the suffering inflicted by two world wars and the Nazi tyranny that led to the Holocaust and to the expansion of totalitarian and undemocratic Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as a way of overcoming deep divisions and hostility in Europe through cooperation and integration and of ending war and securing democracy in Europe…”

Clearly, European policy makers did not randomly choose August 23, but rather purposefully sought to commemorate the secretly signed Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement in Summer 1939.

The “European Conscience and Totalitarianism” remembrance day does not implicitly equate the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Nazi Germany and the Communist USSR. However, the crimes of Nazism and Stalinism essentially become blurred even though the uniqueness of the Holocaust is specifically noted. Overall, it appears that this August 23 remembrance day is rooted in deep historical resentment toward the Soviet regime.

In light of recent debates, reports and statements within international circles that have sparked many questions surrounding historical narratives, the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem is organizing its seventh international conference on the Holocaust and Education focusing on “Shoah Education and Remembrance in Hindsight and in Foresight: Text and Context,” June 12-13, 2010. More than 200 participants representing approximately 40 countries are taking part in sessions focusing on the current challenges of historical memory.

This international conference, organized under the auspices of the Israeli Chairmanship of the Task Force for Internation Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research is geared for decision makers in the field of education and culture. During these proceedings, world renowned scholars such as Alain Finkielkraut, Samuel Pisar, Yehuda Bauer and others will focus on a number of questions, such as: How is educating about and remembering the Holocaust relevant to young people today who seek to accurately understand what occurred as well as to take responsibility for the truth about the past? Do the many memorial days throughout the year diminish or hightlight the meaning of the Holocaust? How do we authorize the teaching about different historical contexts without a competition between the suffering of victims of totalitarianism?

Although crimes under Soviet rule should be annually commemorated, they should not be linked to the Nazi regime. After all, what is our responsibility toward educating the future leaders of tomorrow about European history? Should different historical contexts be merged into one over-arching text about totalitarianism? Does such a merging blur all meaning out of the events?

All remembrance days provide educators with an opportunity to grapple with the complexity of history. Nevertheless, commemorative events should not come in place of educators creating an active learning process together with their students in their classrooms. Unquestionably, teaching about difficult and complex subject matter is a major challenge. However, on the basis of our professional experience at our School with educators from all over the world, we know that studying about the Holocaust, like all events in history, should not be oversimplified or taught out of context.

Ultimately, it is hoped that this conference will highlight the axiom of remembrance leading to promoting educational responsibility rather than festering resentment among today’s youth.

Richelle Budd Caplan is Director of the European Department, International School for Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Yad Vashem honors Belgian Baroness as Righteous Among the Nations

Holocaust survivor Joseph Fruhauf, joined by his family and friends, and the family of Baroness Gisele Van der Staten Waillet from Belgium gathered together at Yad Vashem today, Thursday June 10, 2010, for an emotional ceremony where the Baroness was posthumously recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. The Righteous’ daughter Baroness Gaëtane van der Stegen of Belgium, daughter-in-law of the Righteous Baroness Eliane van der Straten, and several of their children came to Israel especially for the event were they received a medal and certificate of honor on her behalf and unveiled her name on a wall in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations. Belgian Ambassador to Israel H.E. Bénédicte Frankinet participated in the event.

"Even though you did not have the privilege to know your grandmother, you have every reason in the world to be proud of her." -- Nadine Hollander Fruhauf and Frederick Fruhauf speaking on behalf of their father Holocaust survivor Jospeh Fruhauf.

The Fruhauf family, Feiwel, Lily (née Rapaport), and their children, 25-year-old Lea and 21-year-old Joseph, lived in Antwerp, Belgium. On September 26, 1942, Feiwel was arrested by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz and, soon after, Lea’s husband of only six weeks was deported to Auschwitz as well. Lily, Lea and Joseph succeeding in escaping and found various hiding places in Brussels. With the aid of a Catholic organization that helped women find employment, the Fruhaufs were put in touch with Baroness Gisele Van der Staten Waillet, a devout Catholic widow with nine children of her own - eight daughters and a son. Although the pious Baroness initially did not want men to stay in her home, in light of the desperate plight of the Fruhaufs, she permitted Lily to hide with both her son and daughter on her estate in Southern Belgium. There the Fruhaufs posed as household staff: Lily worked in the kitchen as a cook, Lea as a chambermaid and Joseph as a servant – serving meals and taking care of the chapel on the estate. In order to further disguise their identity, the Fruhaufs attended weekly mass and the other servants were strictly forbidden to speak of the Fruhaufs before strangers.

Despite the isolation of the estate, the family was often in danger of discovery. Several times throughout the war, the Nazis searched the estate, looking for members of the underground. On these occasions the Baroness quickly hid Joseph in the cellar or under a bed, and the Germans failed to discover the family hiding on the grounds.

Lily, Lea and Joseph remained at the Baroness’ home from the end of 1942 until September 1944. After liberation, the family returned to Antwerp where they learned that both Fiewel and Lea’s husband had been murdered. Baroness Gisele Van der Staten Waillet passed away in April 1950. The Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations decided to award Gisele Van der Staten Waillet the title of Righteous Among the Nations on November 30, 2009 .

30 Survivors Pay Tribute to Rescuer - Major Karl Plagge, Officer in the Wermacht

Some 30 Holocaust survivors from Israel, Germany, the United States, France and Canada who survived the Holocaust thanks to Righteous Among the Nations Maj. Karl Plagge visited Yad Vashem yesterday. The group toured the Holocaust History Museum before participating in a memorial ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance and an event in the Yad Vashem Synagogue. Also this week, Yad Vashem videoed their group testimony, as part of Yad Vashem project to record survivors' testimony.

Major Karl Plagge served as an officer of the Wermacht in Vilna (Vilnius) from June 1941 to June 1944. While stationed in Vilnius he was in charge of a repair facility for military vehicles (HKP 562), where hundreds of Jews worked. According to the brutal decimation policy adopted by the SS in occupied Lithuania, the first to be slated for extermination were the “unproductive” Jews. Employment at Plagge’s HKP unit thus offered a chance for survival. Plagge treated his workers well, and included many people who were not qualified as mechanics to work there in order to save them from deportation; among the Jews of Vilna it was known that if one wanted a chance to survive, the only option was to work in Plagge’s plant. In the last days of June 1944, on the eve of the German evacuation of Vilnius, Plagge assembled his Jewish workers and warned them in thinly veiled language that they were going to be handed over to the care of the SS. Some managed to escape and/or hide and some 200 survived. Karl Plagge died in 1957 and was posthumously recognized by the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous on July 22, 2004.
Holocaust survivor Michael Shimeyvitz, noted that Plagge not only saved Jews, but "he treated all his workers humanely. This was extremely rare, and for this, justifiably, he received the greatest recognition that the Jewish people can give."
Dr. Michael Good, the son of a Holocaust survivor who was rescued by Maj. Plagge, noted that while Maj. Plagge was exonerated after the war due to the intervention of the Jews he rescued, he always felt that he was guilty. He quoted a letter from Maj. Plagge, in which the Major wrote: "I am no kind of hero; I am actually a very nervous person."
Dr Harald Kindermann, Ambassador to Israel of Germany spoke emotionally about his personal family history, and said that there are two obligations -- to understand what happened -- "Only through understanding, knowing the facts, can we build a firewall to ensure it won't happen again. That is why the Yad Vashem research institute is so important." -- and to recall the Righteous Among the Nations. "They are so important for education. They show us that there is an alternative. Because too many people say, I had to do it. And when young people ask, is that true, the Righteous show us it was not. They show us there is always an alternative."