Thursday, December 29, 2011

Abdelwahab: the full picture

An opinion piece that ran in the New York Times accuses Yad Vashem of having different standards for recognizing rescuers of Jews as Righteous Among the Nations, because a Tunisian man, Khaled Abdelwahab was not recognized as a Righteous.  Nothing could be further from the truth.   

From Irena Steinfeldt, Director, Dept. for the Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem:

When Yad Vashem was established to commemorate the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, it was tasked with another mission: to honor the Righteous Among the Nations - those non-Jews who had taken great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust. The Righteous program is an unprecedented attempt by the victims of an unparalleled crime to search within the nations of perpetrators, collaborators and bystanders for persons who bucked the general trend of indifference, acquiescence and collaboration. 

For five decades, Yad Vashem has worked toward this goal, in the process identifying some 24,000 Righteous Among the Nations, without regard to their countries of origin, age, religious denomination, sex, or ethnicity.   The Righteous include Christians of all denominations from around the world, as well as Muslims from Turkey, Bosnia and Albania and other countries.  The Commission for the Designation of the Righteous, an independent body comprised of Holocaust survivors and historians, examines whether the rescue story can be substantiated by primary sources and if the person in question took risks in order to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. 

Holocaust survivors describe myriad forms of help, encouragement and assistance provided by non-Jews, which helped them survive.   However, the Yad Vashem law uses a more restrictive characterization when designating the Righteous Among the Nations, delineating a small group within these wider circles of men and women who supported Jews in the darkest hour of Jewish history.  The Righteous, according to this definition, were people who not only helped the Jews, but were prepared to pay a price for their stand and even share the victims' fate. 

From its inception, the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous noted that the risk in helping Jews during the Holocaust differed from one country to another and from one period to another. In the case of diplomats, who enjoyed diplomatic immunity and only in exceptional circumstances were in physical danger, the Commission decided they would be recognized if they risked their positions In all cases, however, there must be demonstrated risk for actions to rescue Jews, before someone can be recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations.

As in each case, the file of Khaled Abdelwahhab from Tunisia was meticulously researched and carefully evaluated by the Commission. 

According to the testimonies, Abdelwahhab hosted the extended families of Boukris and Ouzzan on his estate during the period of German occupation in Tunisia after their house in Mahdia had been billeted by the Germans.  The testimonies describe his kindness and protectiveness during this time. 

A close examination, however, revealed that as much as his deeds were admirable, in doing so he broke no law and the Jews stayed on his farm with the full knowledge of the Germans. According to Annie Boukris, the men continued their forced labor service under German supervision, and had contacts with other Jews of Mahdia who had been evicted from the town and concentrated on a Jewish-owned farm nearby.

Edmee Masliah (Ouzzan) explained that the Germans would come from time to time to Abdelwahhab's estate and check if they were all present; she describes how when seeing the Germans approach, they would put on their yellow badges and wait for the Germans to count them. Eva Weisel said that her father would go back and forth to Mahdia to bring food and that when they needed medicines, they would get them from the German medical facility that was across the road from the farm.

The picture we gain from these testimonies matches the historical facts and the evaluation of historians that were consulted in the course of the investigation of this file
Because the German occupation of Tunisia lasted only six months, the plans to implement the final solution there never came to fruition.  There were also no laws or regulations preventing Abdelwahab from hosting Jews, and he therefore never had to face the ultimate test. Thus, the Commission concluded that in the absence of risk, he was not eligible for the Righteous Among the Nations designation.

The commission's decision in this case reflects its commitment to evaluating cases without prejudice and without ceding to other considerations, even if there are those who believe that recognizing Abdelwahab could somehow help in the fight against Holocaust denial. 

The account of this honorable Tunisian's solidarity with the Jewish victims commands our deep appreciation. It should be remembered and will certainly inspire people worldwide. Indeed, Yad Vashem's publications department has published his story in Hebrew. Yad Vashem is committed to preserving and imparting this and other stories, and to continue its search for the rare moments of humanity in the darkness of the Holocaust.

You can find out more about the Righteous here

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hanukkah during the Holocaust

Yad Vashem wishes everyone a Happy Hanukkah. 

Here's testimony of Holocaust survivors describing Hanukkah during the Holocaust (English subtitles)  

Also check out the online exhibition "Hanukkah - The Festival of Lights: Before, During and After the Holocaust"  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

President of South Sudan Visits Yad Vashem

Photos:  Isaac Harari / Yad Vashem

The President of South Sudan Salva Kiir visited Yad Vashem this morning, accompanied by four of his government ministers.  He was greeted by Avner Shalev, Chairman of Yad Vashem, and toured the Holocaust History Museum and Hall of Names, guided by Dr. Robert Rozett, Director of the Yad Vashem Libraries.  He participated in a Memorial Ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance and visited the Children's Memorial. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Keep the Light of Holocaust Remembrance Burning This Hannukah


Westerbork transit camp, the Netherlands, Hannukah 1943.
Children crowd around the lighting of Hannukah candles. The very next day most were deported to Auschwitz.

Hannukah is a time of joy and hope, celebrated by Jewish parents and their children around the world. The brightly lit candles symbolize the triumph of good over evil, weak over strong, and light over dark.

To this day that same message of hope holds true.  Yet there are still those who are intent on spreading a message of hate.

Each year, drawing upon the stories of the Jewish victims and survivors of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem’s educational programs connect more than one million visitors, Jewish educators and students to their heritage, giving them a renewed and strengthened sense of identity, as well as the tools to deal with the challenges of Holocaust denial and antisemitism.

On Hannukah 1943, even in the darkness of the Holocaust, these children sought to maintain their connection to their Jewish heritage. You can help us pass their legacy on to future generations.

Only with your help will we be able to reach our year end goal of $450,000.
Click here to make your donation.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Day of Infamy

First published in the Jerusalem Post, December 7, 2011

On December 8, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – (is) a date which will live in infamy.” Of course he was talking about the Japanese surprise attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, the attack that catapulted the United States into the Second World War 70 years ago.

Catapulted is right, because beforehand, the clear majority of Americans did not want to see their husbands, fathers and sons embroiled in another war on a distant continent. Only after war reached America’s farthest shore, did American begin a concerted effort to fight not only the Japanese, but the Nazis and their European partners, as well.

As momentous as the attack on Pearl Harbor was, December 7, 1941 was also the date of another event of no less consequence for mankind. The first transports set out for the first extermination camp, Chelmno, which began its murderous operations the following day, December 8.

Over the course of the next three-and- a-half years, the Nazis would murder some three million Jews in a handful of extermination camps, most infamous among them Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Another three million Jews were murdered in a wide variety of venues, first and foremost in the killing fields of Eastern Europe by shooting – a process that had actually begun several months before Chelmno went into operation. December 7, however, marks the start of the unprecedented industrialized mass murder of innocent human beings at a complex designed solely for that purpose.

The American entry into the war, as students of history and political science know, is really the beginning of America embracing its role as a great world power. It is true that Nazi Germany was defeated primarily on the ground by Soviet forces in a long, drawn out and extremely deadly war. Indeed in retrospect, it may be argued that the downfall of Nazi Germany was already sealed when the German military failed to defeat the Soviet Union decisively before the onset of the Russian winter in 1941. Germany simply did not have the wherewithal for a long protracted war, especially in the face of Russian winters.

Nevertheless, America's role in the defeat of Nazi Germany was crucial. To a very large degree, it was American supplies that allowed the Soviets to fight for four long years, and certainly after the D-Day invasion of June 1944, the American fighting man made a considerable contribution to the fall of Nazi Germany. The reluctant entry of the Americans into the war on December 7, 1941, to say the least, greatly hastened the destruction of Hitler’s regime.

Significantly, another outcome of the attack at Pearl Harbor was the dawn of the age of nuclear weapons. The first nuclear weapon was not deployed against Nazi Germany, rather the Americans deployed it against Japan in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after Hitler’s regime had already crumbled.

The use of the most devastating weapon in history brought about a swift end to the other half of the bloodiest conflict ever, the war in the Pacific. In its wake, the world now would face issues of nuclear arms proliferation and escalation, nuclear arms deterrence, and still true today, the very real fear that such weapons in the wrong hands could wreak new and unimaginable destruction.

In the immediate postwar period, American power, bolstered with nuclear might, gained additional ground. Whereas Europe was devastated by the fighting America was strengthened, overcoming the Great Depressionand coming out of the war with vastly increased industrial capabilities.

While Europe embarked on a painful process of recovery after 1945 (made easier by American aid) America embarked on an extraordinary period of prosperity.

So December 7, 1941 lives in infamy for the surprise attack of the Japanese on the United States, but it also marks as a watershed event in modern history.

The start of systematic industrialized mass murder in Chelmno is less well known, but has no less importance for mankind. In the Chelmno extermination camp the Nazis murdered over 150,000 people, almost all of them Jews. The murder method was asphyxiation in gas vans – group after group, after group.

As is now well known, before being murdered in the extermination camps, Jews were shorn of their hair, fleeced of their valuables and robbed of their clothing and any other possessions they had brought with them. None of this material was meant to go to waste, and much of its found its way back into Nazi Germany where many ordinary citizens benefited from it.

The idea that in the name of an ideology a regime could plan and carry out the despoliation and murder of an entire people, using the most modern means available and doing so in a “rational,” “dispassionate” way, continues to reverberate profoundly.

The murder of the Jews, and especially the use of modern means to do so, may well mark the beginning of a retreat (now well advanced) from the notion that technological progress is always by definition for the greater good. It certainly underscores the idea that advances in science and technology should not occur in a moral vacuum.

Especially when technological know-how outstrips our ability to understand its implications or when people willfully ignore those implications, the door to nefarious acts and even radical evil opens.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the advent of murder in the first extermination camp, Chelmno, are historical signposts that need to be marked and remembered. The first for its great impact on the course of human affairs and role in the ultimate defeat of the consummate evil embodied by the Nazis, and the latter as a ghastly warning of what can happen when technologically advanced barbarians, imbued with an ideology of hate, have the unfettered freedom to act.

After 70 years, the significance and caveat of December 7 remain as compelling as ever.

The writer is director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, author of Approaching the Holocaust, Texts and Contexts, (Vallentine Mitchell, 2005). His study on Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front will soon be published by Yad Vashem and University of Nebraska Press. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Jerusalem of Lithuania – New Online Exhibition

On the eve of the Holocaust, the Jewish community of Vilna was the spiritual center of Eastern European Jewry, the center of enlightenment and Jewish political life, of Jewish creativity and the experience of daily Jewish life. It was a community bursting with cultural and religious life, movements and parties, educational institutions, libraries and theaters; a community of rabbis and gifted Talmudic scholars, intellectuals, poets, authors, artists, craftspeople and educators. Known as "The Jerusalem of Lithuania," some 60,000 Jews lived in Vilna where they constituted 30% of the total population. The Jewish community of Vilna which had flourished for hundreds of years was decimated during WWII. This exhibition utilizes texts, video testimonies, photos and more to present episodes  from Vilna's illustrious history.