Thursday, December 24, 2015

Remembering the 1+1+1

By: Adina Schreiber

Growing up I was very fortunate to come to Israel on many occasions.  Every trip was full of museums, hikes, fun activities and, without fail, a trip up to Haifa to visit my grandfather's cousin, Dudu, as well as a visit to the cemetery where my grandfather's family is buried. As you can imagine this was not always the highlight of my trip. I mean – who wants to go to a cemetery while on vacation? One time, while we were standing next to the grave of my great-grandmother, whom I am named for, I noticed she had additional names written on her headstone. When I pointed out this oddity, I was explained that those were the names of her siblings who had been murdered in the Holocaust.  Since we do not know where they were killed, or what had happened to them, my family added the names on this headstone in order to remember them. This was the first time the importance of remembrance was called to my attention.  

A few years later, while studying in seminary in Jerusalem, I went on a trip to Poland with a group of girls from my school. Not only would I be going with my teachers and friends, but my mother had decided to join us as well. My trip to Poland was a rollercoaster of emotions, thoughts, and ideas. I saw with my own eyes mass graves, ghettos, and death camps. During my week-long trip there was one moment that really stuck with me. I was sitting in a synagogue in Krakow and my teacher stood up and explained to us the immense importance of remembrance.  We are always taught to remember the atrocities that were committed against us, but most emphasized is that we must remember the six million innocent lives that were brutally taken from this world by the Nazi Germans and their collaborators. Six million. An unfathomable amount. He then continued to explain that just hearing the number six million was not enough; in order to understand the scope of the tragedy we need to think about the individual person. We need to remember the 1+1+1, the one mother, the one father, the one baby.  We need to remember the individual, the person, and not the number. We need to remember that there was someone named Ahava, someone named Sandor, someone named Avraham. Each one of them had a family, friends, hobbies. Each one of them had dreams.  All of a sudden I understood exactly why those names were inscribed onto my great-grandmother's grave, and I understood that I was also responsible for remembering.
I came back to Israel emotionally distraught and felt incredibly lost. And that is when I discovered Yad Vashem. Sure, I always knew it was there and had in fact visited more than once. But this time I discovered that Yad Vashem is not just a museum to go and visit, but also a place that focuses all of its energy on remembering the individual. Remembering the 1+1+1. With the help of the Yad Vashem Archives I began researching my family, and each time I learned a different name, saw a picture of someone else, learned a little about their lives – and just like that I became a partner in the mission to remember.

Several years later, after making Aliyah and beginning university, I had the opportunity to intern at Yad Vashem. Here, I have seen, heard, and learned many things. I have met and heard testimony from survivors, I have learned stories about different artifacts in the museum, and I have watched videos of different people sharing their thoughts and reflections. One of the things that made a large impact on me was my acquaintance with the story of Susan Kerekes. Yad Vashem has an incredible Bar/Bat Mitzvah twinning program, where bar/bat mitzvah boys and girls are given the responsibility of remembering a child from the Holocaust who was never able to celebrate their own bar/bat mitzvah. This November, a Bar Mitzvah boy was twinned with a boy named Sandor Braun. Sandor Braun's story was a bit of a mystery to us and it became my job to find out as much as I could about this boy and his family. That is when I came across Sandor's sister, Susan. Susan survived the camps and participated in the USC Shoah Foundation's project to record testimony, and through this I got to learn Susan's story. Even though I have never met her, nevertheless I connected with her. I laughed with her, I cried with her. And just like that Susan became a part of my life.
To me, this is what Yad Vashem is all about. Yad Vashem is about remembering what happened, and ensuring that it never happens again. To many victims of the Holocaust, this was their dying wish. I came across a quote on the Yad Vashem website that read, "I should like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger." In the Hall of Names, hanging in the dome are pictures of people who have been murdered. It does not show them in Auschwitz, it does not show them emaciated or behind barbed wire, but rather we get to see pictures of people smiling and laughing, some with family and friends, and living their lives. It is our responsibility to remember these people. To not only remember how they died, but also how they lived. And it just takes one person, remembering one person. Just one. And then we are one person closer to remembering the 1+1+1.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Mother's Desperate Plea for her Son

By: Michal Dror

On the night of November 9-10, 1938, the Kristallnacht progrom ("Night of the Broken Glass") raged throughout Germany and Austria.

Kristallnacht was launched in supposed retaliation for the assassination of a Nazi German embassy official in Paris, Ernst vom Rath, by a frustrated young Jewish refugee named Herschel Grynszpan. On November 9, yom Rath died of his injuries.

Within hours, crazed rioting erupted on the streets of cities across the two Nazi-controlled countries. The shop windows of Jewish businesses were smashed, the stores looted, hundreds of synagogues and Jewish homes were burnt down and a large number of Jews were physically assaulted. Some 30,000 Jews, many of them wealthy and prominent members of their communities, were arrested and deported to the concentration camps at Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald, where they were subjected to inhumane and brutal treatment – some even died. During the pogrom itself, some 90 Jews were murdered.

One of the Jewish men arrested was 28-year-old David Buchweitz from Fürth, Germany, who was placed in "protective custody" at Buchenwald.

As his personal prisoner's file from Buchenwald indicates, David was admitted to the camp on November 13, 1938. Like other prisoners in the concentration camps, David had to sign several forms, such as a card listing the personal belongings taken away from him when he entered the camp (see the image below).

After the pogrom was over, the Nazis continued with severe anti-Jewish measures. The Aryanization process of seizing Jewish property was intensified; the Jewish community was forced to pay a fine of one billion Reichsmarks, and the Germans set up a Central Office for Jewish Emigration (Zenstralstelle fuer Juedische Auswanderung) to "encourage" the Jews to leave the country. The Nazis conditioned the release of the incarcerated Jewish men upon their immediate emigration from Germany.

Acquiring a visa for emigration was a tiring, almost impossible process, as the quotas for Jewish immigrants to foreign countries were minimal to the extreme.

Like many Jewish families during this time, David's mother, Malka, was extremely frightened for her family and immediately began the process of obtaining visas to the United States, where the family had relatives. She wrote a letter to the camp's commandants begging for David's release. Eventually Malka succeeded in getting the desired papers for only one visa to the US. David was released from Buchenwald on April 12, 1939, and managed to emigrate.

In November 2015, 77 years after Kristallnacht, David's son, Frank, submitted an inquiry to Yad Vashem regarding Malka's fate.

In research conducted by Yad Vashem's Reference and Information Services Department in the Archives Division, David's personal documents from Buchenwald were found.

Among them was his mother's desperate plea for his release.

Like many other German Jewish women, Malka stayed behind. Malka Buchweitz née Knoebel (b. 1879) was most likely deported to her death in 1942.

Her handwritten letter is all that is remains.


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

My Father Kept a Cape in His Closet

"My father must have had a cape hanging in his closet. He was not a superhero, but when he needed to, he put that cape on."

Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, of the 422nd Infantry Regiment in the US Armed Forces, passed away in 1985. Pastor Chris Edmonds, his younger son, recalls that his father didn't speak much about his wartime experiences. As a young adult, Chris found out that his father had spent time as a POW, but little else was revealed. It was only when one of Chris' daughters undertook a project at college to create a video about a family member that his mother, Roddie's wife, handed her granddaughter a diary Roddie had kept during his imprisonment at Stalag IXA. She also revealed a brief account of parts of his life that Roddie had written before he died.

Chris was "blown away. How could I not have been aware of my father's wartime activities? I stayed up that night conducting searches on the Internet to see what else I could find out about him." The first item to pop up was a journalistic piece concerning a property deal between ex-President Richard Nixon and Lester Tanner, in which Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds was mentioned. When Chris and Lester finally made contact, Chris heard the story of how Roddie had saved the lives of his fellow Jewish POWs, and how this one act of incredible bravery had become a lifelong inspiration for Tanner and many other of his fellow soldiers.

Roddie's Code

As a non-commissioned officer (NCO) in the US army, Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds of Knoxville, TN participated in the landing of the American forces in Europe. Taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, Edmonds was interned at Stalag IXA, a POW camp near Ziegenhain, Germany.

The Wehrmacht had a strict anti-Jewish policy, singling out Jewish POWs from the rest of the POW population and then murdering them or sending them to extermination camps. In January 1945, the Germans announced that all Jewish POWs in Stalag IXA were to report the following morning. Edmonds, who was the highest NCO at the camp, and therefore in charge of the prisoners, ordered all the POWs – Jews and non-Jews alike – to follow the order. When the German officer, Major Siegmann, saw all the camp’s inmates standing in front of their barracks, he turned to Edmonds and exclaimed: “They cannot all be Jews!” To this Edmonds replied: “We are all Jews.” Siegmann took out his pistol and threatened Edmonds, but the Master Sergeant did not waver and retorted: “According to the Geneva Convention, we only have to give our name, rank and serial number. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.” The officer turned around and left the scene.

One witness to the exchange was Lester Tanner, who was also captured during the Battle of the Bulge and interned at Stalag IXA. Tanner had been inducted into military service in March 1943, and trained in Fort Jackson, where Master Sergeant Edmonds was stationed. Tanner remembered Edmonds well from his training period: “He did not throw his rank around. You knew he knew his stuff and he got across to you without being arrogant or inconsiderate. I admired him for his command… We were in combat on the front lines for only a short period, but it was clear that Roddie Edmonds was a man of great courage who led his men with the same capacity we had come to know him in the States.” Tanner told Yad Vashem that they were well aware that the Germans were murdering the Jews, and that therefore they understood that the order to separate the Jews from the other POWs meant that the Jews were in great danger. “Over one thousand Americans stood in wide formation in front of the barracks behind Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds… The US Army’s standing command to its ranking officers in POW camps is that you resist the enemy and care for the safety of your men to the greatest extent possible. Master Sergeant Edmonds, at the risk of his immediate death, defied the Germans with the unexpected consequences that the Jewish prisoners were saved.”

A Lifelong Inspiration

In early 2015 the late Roddie Edmonds was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. Of more than 26,000 "Righteous" recognized to date, Edmonds is only the fifth United States citizen, and first American soldier, to be bestowed with this highest of honors bestowed by Yad Vashem on behalf of the State of Israel.

Pastor Chris is currently participating in a seminar for Christian leaders at the International School for Holocaust Studies. This is his first trip to Israel, and one that comes at a time when his personal family story is likely to become a national, if not international, sensation. The account of his father's heroic actions that Pastor Chris has painstakingly discovered over recent years reads like a fictionalized Hollywood movie. But it is all true, and has been a source of inspiration for both Pastor Chris and the survivors his father saved for the past 70 years.

"My father always had a strong sense of duty, of responsibility to his fellow human being, whoever they were," says Pastor Chris. "He was a man of great religious faith and an unwavering moral code and set of values to which he was completely dedicated. From my conversations with his comrades, it is clear he was also a strong commander, leading by example and taking personal risks in order to safeguard others."

Since discovering the story, Pastor Chris has made relentless efforts to contact all the names of his father's fellow POWs painstakingly recorded in his wartime diary. "Many of these have led to meetings and lifelong friendships with people I could never have imagined: senators and congressmen, survivors and their families – and even the rabbi of a local synagogue. Who could have imagined a Baptist preacher and a rabbi becoming such fast friends?"

Pastor Chris is currently working on having his father be awarded a Medal of Honor – the USA's highest military honor, awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. And when he speaks to young students, Pastor Chris tells them that his father "must have had a cape hanging in his closet. My father was not a  superhero, but when he needed to, he put that cape on. You too have a cape: if you are witness to an injustice, you can choose to ignore it, or to intercede. We all have the power to influence others, and if we invest in this way of life, in making the right decisions, we too can make a tremendous difference in this world."

More information about the Righteous Among the Nations, including background, stories and the Database of Righteous, can be found online here.