Monday, July 21, 2014

Abusing the Language of the Holocaust - Not Just Semantics

During the past few weeks, anti-Israel rhetoric, focused on Israel’s actions in the current battle with Hamas, has become, in many cases, synonymous with virulent antisemitism. 
This antisemitism, in the form of accusing Israel of perpetrating a “Holocaust” or “genocide” in Gaza, or of acting like Nazis, has also contributed to inciting physical antisemitism against Jews in Europe and elsewhere.  
The gratuitous use of Holocaust imagery in the propaganda efforts of Hamas and others is demagogic and dangerous. Such toxic imagery is frequently invoked in combination with elements of classic antisemitism, and venomous anti-Israel invective. It has become the language of discourse not only of Hamas and its supporters, but also of fellow travelers in the Arab world and the West.  
Language has power. The words we choose to use carry weight, and are meaningful. If we choose to label every event a Genocide or equate every event with the Holocaust, then we detract from the real meaning of those words and reduce their ability to represent true horror. As terrible as war is, and as painful as is the loss of civilian life, there is no factual or coherent parallel that can be drawn between contemporary events in Gaza and the historic events of the Holocaust.   
Shockingly, these facts must be repeated and repeated: 
The Nazis’ goal was to murder every single Jewish person in Europe, and ultimately in the world, a policy of systematic, mass murder of all Jews – men, women and children - simply because they were Jews. Based on their racial ideology, the Nazis established ghettos as part of a continuum of anti-Jewish persecution that culminated with mass murder in death factories in the heart of Europe.   
The conflict between the Palestinians and Israel is fundamentally about land and sovereignty, with tangible issues and a long convoluted history.  (Although the Hamas charter does contain genocidal antisemitic language).   
This is far beyond a simple question of semantics. Language is the currency in which we trade, and upon which our civilization rests. It is how we make ourselves understood, it is how we understand our world and reality.   We are already seeing the effects of the abuse of the language of the Holocaust in relation to current events.  It is obvious why Hamas would choose to use these terms, but when leaders of countries, communities, and of public opinion make similar claims, they must take into consideration the direct incitement to violence their words carry.  

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Facebook Post Connects Dots on Mystery of Holocaust-era Postcards

One of the many postcards illustrated by Prof. Grotte 

A rare encounter between descendants of family friends during the Holocaust era occurred at Yad Vashem this week. Recently, Marcel Calef, a resident of Miami, Florida originally from Colombia, was notified by his cousin, Daniel Camhi, of a Yad Vashem facebook post detailing illustrated postcards they had never seen before but which contained a familiar name. As it turned out, the postcards were drawn by their great-grandfather, Professor Alfred Grotte in Germany between 1936 and 1941.

A photograph of Hugo and Gretel Lewin 

Calef contacted Yad Vashem and was informed that the postcards, which are part of the Yad Vashem art collection, were part of a wider donation of dozens of illustrated postcards, letters and photographs, given by Moshe Posener to Yad Vashem through its "Gathering the Fragments" campaign. Posener had inherited the illustrated postcards from his parents, Franz and Ellen. They were used by Ellen's parents, Hugo and Gretel Lewin, after the Poseners left their hometown of Breslau (then Germany, today Wroclaw, Poland) in 1936 and moved to Liechtenstein.
A picture of Prof. Alfred Grotte who illustrated the postcards for his friends 

The postcards were illustrated by Grotte, a family friend of the Lewins, with personal and elaborate drawings in the style of a children's book. The colorful postcards were used by the Lewin family to correspond from Nazi Germany and keep in touch with their children and grandson in Liechtenstein.

Prof. Grotte was deported from Breslau to the Grüssau transit camp in Silesia in 1942 and from there to Theresienstadt, where he died on June 17, 1943. His wife, Klara, was murdered in Auschwitz. Hugo and Gretel Lewin were deported from Breslau in 1942 to Izbica, Poland, where they were also murdered.
Left to right: Marcel Calef, Yona Kobo, Coordinator in Yad Vashem's Internet
Department and Moshe Posener at the friendly meeting between the two
For decades, Posener, who immigrated to Israel in 1961 from Liechtenstein, never knew the full story of Prof. Grotte until now when descendants of Grotte, living in the U.S., chanced upon a particular social networking post that translated into a meaningful correspondence and eventually a personal meeting at Yad Vashem this week. During the visit, Posener and Calef traded family stories and looked together at documents and pictures from the Holocaust period that Calef had brought to donate to Yad Vashem so that they may be preserved and provide additional information to this fascinating story.  
The many postcards illustrated by Prof. Grotte were done in an
artistic style reminiscent of children's books 

"It's so very exciting and interesting," said Moshe Posener following his meeting with Marcel Calef and his family for the first time. "Now we have the full story behind Prof. Grotte, which for so many years was just a mystery. Here is a person with flesh and blood, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even great-great-grandchildren!"
Yad Vashem's "Gathering the Fragments" 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 unique stories behind the items. Each of these items joins all the other material in the Yad Vashem collections, so that together all these fragments of information can tell the fuller story of the Shoah.
The original Yad Vashem facebook
post which led to the meeting of Calef
and Posener
Since the beginning of this program in 2011, some 120,000 items have been brought to Yad Vashem, including photos, documents and artifacts. People wishing to donate material should email or call +972-2-644-3888.
From left to right: Orly Nachmani-Ohana, Associate Curator of the YV Art
Department, Moshe Posener, Yona Kobo, YV Internet Department, Hannah
Kaye, Web Content and Social Media Coordinator at YV, Natalia Kolbar, YV Art
Department staff, Liat Shiber, Yad Vashem Art Department Staff, Eliad
Moreh-Rosenberg, Curator and Art Department Director, Niv Goldberg,
Art Department Collection Manager, Marcel Calef and Claudia Calef 

Tombstones Tell the Stories of the Shoah

Mass Gravestone in Jerusalem cemetery
When visiting a Jewish cemetery it is usually on specific occasions or dates, for example the annual yahrtzeit (anniversary of the date of death) of a relative or friend. One is not likely to pay much attention to the words imprinted on the various tombstones surrounding him. But if one pauses and scans the "small print" engraved into the tombstones in the labyrinth of the cemetery he may reveal many fascinating stories, shedding light onto details regarding the fate of the buried person as well as his or her extended family during the Holocaust period. This phenomenon is commonly found in Jewish cemeteries in Israel and around the world, providing testimony and telling stories that have been carved for eternity onto the stone monuments.
Esther Erlich, z"l 
Many such stories and other invaluable information are collected and documented by the dedicated staff of Yad Vashem’s Shoah Victims’ Names Recovery Project from among the ultra-Orthodox world.  Working since 2007, the staff is specially trained to photograph the names of Holocaust victims from Memorial Plaques and Judaic artifacts in Synagogues, from gravestones in cemeteries and from names in the dedications found in books of Torah and Judaic literature.
In the Har Hamenuchot cemetery in Jerusalem, one large mass gravestone stands out: a tombstone of a mass grave of eight Jews who were brutally murdered in the Holocaust while hiding in a bunker in Poland. Their remains were brought to Israel for burial and they were re-interred in Jerusalem. The stones of the monument tell the story of the eight individual victims and highlight the devotion of the Jewish people, and their acts of communal kindness and their efforts to save their brethren even during the most difficult times. Among the eight were Esther Erlich, her mother, father and brother. Esther was born in 1928 and was only 15 years old when she was murdered. Inscribed next to her name is a short epitaph giving a glimpse of her actions.
Page of Testimony in memory of Esther Erlich

"Such was her noble essence. During the hardest of days she endangered her own life to save others." 

Since 2004, over 1.5 million names have been collected through The Shoah Victims' Names Recovery Project. Of these, over 700,000 names of Shoah victims have been collected from Torah world sources and commemoration projects as well as from Pages of Testimony within the ultra-Orthodox sector.  To date, the online Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names now includes 4.3 million names of Jewish men, women and children murdered in the Holocaust.

For more information about submitting names or volunteer opportunities, please contact:

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Hundreds of Educators from 50 Countries Gather at Yad Vashem

Despite the deteriorating security situation in Israel, hundreds of educators from across the world attended the 9th International Conference on Holocaust Education at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies from July 7-10, 2014.
Shawntelle Nesbitte, a teacher and curriculum developer from Canada was very impressed by the level and depth of information presented at the conference. She described it as "successfully building on the previous conference which I attended in 2010. I really appreciated the generational distinctions made regarding Holocaust education and the presentation of the different educational approaches throughout the years, especially the focus placed on the third and fourth generations so that we as teachers can better understand the challenges we face in providing quality education."
Dr. Eyal Kaminka, Lily Safra Chair of Holocaust Education, Director of the
International School for Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem addresses participants
The conference entitled "Through Our Own Lens: Reflecting on the Holocaust from Generation to Generation" included some 450 participants from 50 countries across the globe including China, Poland, Argentina, Canada, Namibia, Venezuela, Greece, and Spain and was split into three sections: the purpose of Holocaust documentation on the part of the first and second generations; how the events of the Shoah continue to find significance in the lives of those born afterwards; and the future of Holocaust education and remembrance among the youth of today – and tomorrow. The conference's panels, discussions and lectures were presented by prominent guest speakers including internationally renowned authors, filmmakers, theologians, world-class historians and technology experts which primarily focused on this central theme of generational responsibility in the perpetuation of Holocaust remembrance and education.
Interview with Serge Klarsfeld, who led prosecutions against Nazis and their
collaborators, conducted by his son Arno Klarsfeld

Opening remarks were given by Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council. During the course of the conference participants also had the opportunity to hear from many lecturers and moderators including Justice Gavriel Bach, former deputy prosecutor in the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, Professor Yehuda Bauer, Academic Advisor to Yad Vashem, Holocaust survivor and author Professor Rabbi David Halivni, historian and author Professor Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, and an interview with Serge Klarsfeld, who led prosecutions against Nazis and their collaborators, conducted by his son Arno Klarsfeld.
Ephraim Kaye, Director of the International Seminars for Educators
Department at Yad Vashem's International School for Holocaust Studies
Participants included hundreds of educators from 50 countries
In order to make the conference more accessible for educators who were unable to attend in person, a live stream was available for people from around the world to view the plenary sessions on the International School's website. A recording of many of the conference's sessions can be viewed here.
Each part of the conference was designed to examine the unique role of Holocaust survivors, and the second, third and fourth generations, in sustaining effective and meaningful Holocaust education for various age groups as well as meet the many challenges currently faced and those anticipated in the future.
Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate Avner Shalev shares his remarks
"As the events of the Shoah are rapidly receding into history, it is incumbent upon us to explore how each generation has grappled with, and continues to find significance in, the implications of the Holocaust,” said Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate Avner Shalev. "As our documentation efforts continue to evolve with the many technological advances that have made the presentation of information more accessible to a wide array of audiences, our responsibility in continuing to shape and inform the future of Holocaust commemoration and education remains as vital and relevant as ever."
The Opening Ceremony was held in the Valley of the Communities
The conference was made possible by the generous support of the Asper Foundation, Adelson Family Fund and Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies conducts dozens of seminars annually for educators from around the world, and produces educational material in over 20 different languages. Established in 1993, the International School is a world leader in Shoah education; working to implement educational activities for different target populations and age groups in Israel and abroad. 

For more information:

Monday, July 7, 2014

New Books in English Offer Varied Perspectives

Yad Vashem's International Institute for Holocaust Research has recently published a number of new books in English which reveal new insights from unique perspectives into various aspects of the Shoah.  

Gates of Tears: The Holocaust in the Lublin District
David Silberklang
NIS 174 NIS 128
The book examines the Shoah in the Lublin District, an area central to Nazi anti-Jewish policy. Its analysis traces forced population movements and forced labor, constants in German policy, the bitter early memory of which influenced Jews’ later actions. Many hid or fled the deportations to death camps and forced labor, fearing an extreme return of earlier experience, unable to grasp the “Final Solution”. Lublin was a contradictory district – few ghettos yet little survival; Jews could not affect their collective fate. As Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Talmud wrote in a last letter, no hope remained “only the gates of tears have not been locked before us”.

Prelude to Mass Murder: The Pogrom in Iaşi, Romania, June 29, 1941 and Thereafter
Jean Ancel
NIS 174 NIS 128
June 29, 1941. The beginning of the murder of about 15,000 Jews in Iaşi in riots instigated by the fascist Romanian regime of Ion Antonescu. This was but a prelude to the genocide of the Jews of Romania. The thousands of Jews who remained alive in the city were crowded into two “death trains” and deported, with most dying of hunger and thirst. Based on rich documentation, the book recreates the events from the Jewish viewpoint.

Europe in the Eyes of Survivors of the Holocaust

Editors: Zeev Mankowitz, David Weinberg, Sharon Kangisser Cohen
NIS 174 NIS 128
In what sense was the European heritage responsible for Jewish cultural and intellectual development? How could one describe the events of the Holocaust? Was there a future for Jews in a reconstructed Europe? A group of scholars suggests a more nuanced view by examining the perspectives of ten survivors – philosophers, activists, and memoirists – whose attitudes towards the European past were characterized by conflicting feelings of alienation and attraction.

For more information about these publications and others please contact: or visit the Yad Vashem online store.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Jewish Girl was "Poster Baby" in Nazi Propaganda

The Nazi family magazine "Sonnie ins Hous"
with Hessy's baby picture on the cover
In June 2014 Hessy Taft (nee Levinson) visited Yad Vashem with her husband to present a unique gift to the Archives. While recounting a rare story that occurred to her as a baby, Hessy handed an original issue of the Nazi family magazine "Sonne ins Haus" (Sunshine in the House) with her baby picture on the front cover to Yad Vashem's "Gathering the Fragments" campaign. The following summarizes her remarkable story:
Hessy Taft (nee Levinson) was born in Berlin in 1934 to Jewish parents Jacob and Polin Levinson who were originally from Latvia. After studying music the two married in 1928 and later immigrated to Germany.
Hessy explained how her father became a representative for a farm-based firm after being discriminated against due to antisemitism: "Living in Berlin, both my parents were going to be opera singers. However, when they found out that my father was Jewish they canceled his contract."
In 1935, Hessy's mother and aunt took six-month-old Hessy to be photographed in a professional studio by Hans Ballin, a well-known German photographer in Berlin. Seven months later the Levinson family housekeeper told Polin that she saw Hessy's picture on the cover of a popular Nazi family magazine "Sonne ins Haus" (Sunshine in the House). The photograph had been selected in a contest from an assortment of a hundred pictures of babies in Germany by ten well-known German photographers. The contest had been arranged by the Nazi propaganda department headed by Joseph Goebbels in which entries for the winning picture would depict the ideal beautiful German Aryan baby that would appear on the cover of the magazine. 
It turned out that the photographer, unbeknownst to the Levinson family, along with his submission of 10 other pictures, had thrown in Hessy's baby photo as well which ended up winning the contest. The irony of the fact that a Jewish baby had won a Nazi propaganda contest designed to showcase the ideal Aryan child set up by the office of Goebbels was not lost on Hessy's mother who later said: "I wanted to allow myself the pleasure of the joke." Hessy's photo was also later redistributed on postcards throughout Germany and even made it as far as present day Lithuania.
When confronted with the question regarding what she would say today to the photographer who entered her picture in the contest Hessy responded: "I would tell him, good for you for having the courage."
After fleeing Germany to Paris in 1938, the family later escaped France in 1941 and fled from the Nazi occupied north to Vichy France and from there through Spain and Portugal before boarding a ship to Cuba. After years in Cuba, in 1949 the family immigrated to the United States despite being committed Zionists. "My strongest memory from childhood was running away. My father told me once that when there would be a Jewish state there would be no more running away."
Hessy studied chemistry at Barnard College and Columbia University and in 1959 married Earl Taft with whom she has two children and four grandchildren. After a long career in the field of standardized testing, today she is a professor of chemistry at St. John's University.
While her immediate family survived the Shoah, most of her family members in Latvia were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. Upon being asked how she felt about being a Jewish poster child in a Nazi propaganda magazine she said: "I feel a sense of revenge, good revenge."
The magazine was donated as part of Yad Vashem’s Gathering the Fragments campaign, which encourages people with Holocaust related material in their possession to bring them here to Yad Vashem, where they will be protected for posterity, along with the stories behind the items, and also join all the other material in the Yad Vashem collections, so that together all these fragments of information can tell a fuller story.
"Personal stories, told through items such as letters, artwork, diaries and more add a critical dimension to Holocaust commemoration and education," said Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev. "That is why we are urging people who may have Holocaust-related material in their possession to bring them to Yad Vashem, where they will be preserved for generations to come."
Since the beginning of this program in 2011, some 120,000 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.