Category Archives: Holocaust

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An Impossible Pretzel

Some people, it seems, like some dogs with teeth planted firmly in mailmen’s legs, just can’t let go.

Take Peter Beinart.

I have no problem with the columnist and former The New Republic editor’s expressing liberal Zionist views, much as I may disagree with some of them. There is room in this world for different perspectives.

Nor am I particularly vexed by his longtime opposition to President Trump; the president has certainly left himself open to criticism on many occasions. Mr. Beinart’s past insinuation that the president harbors tolerance for anti-Semitism was a silly and unfounded charge, but there are always plenty of those to go around.

What’s more troublesome is the columnist’s refusal to give Mr. Trump credit when it is due, like after the president’s speech last week at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Speaking to a crowd of several hundred at the museum, and belying once and for all accusations of his insensitivity toward the Jewish people, the president spoke of how “the Nazis massacred six million Jews,” how “two out of every three Jews in Europe were murdered in the genocide.”

Addressing survivors present, he said, “You witnessed evil, and what you saw is beyond… any description,” and asserted that, through their testimony, they “fulfill the righteous duty to… engrave into the world’s memory the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people.”

He also spoke of Israel as “an eternal monument to the undying strength of the Jewish people.” And he deemed Holocaust denial “one of many forms of dangerous anti-Semitism that continues all around the world,” concluding with the words: “So today we mourn. We remember. We pray. And we pledge: Never again.”

Enter Peter Beinart. Well, not into the museum, but into the pages of the Forward, where he cited Mr. Trump’s recounting of the story of Gerda Weissman, who, in 1945, as an emaciated 21-year-old veteran of Nazi work camps and a death march, was liberated, and elated to see a car sporting not a swastika but an American star. Her liberator turned out to be a Jewish American lieutenant, Kurt Klein, and they eventually became husband and wife.

Mr. Beinart reflects on “how [Mr. Trump’s] views might have affected people like Gerda Klein had he been president back then.” The original “America Firsters,” war-era isolationists, he contends, “shared a mentality” with the president – to protect the United States’ “shores and its people” and to “not squander money and might safeguarding foreigners in distant lands.”

“It is this mentality,” he asserts, “that earlier this year led Trump to propose a budget that cuts U.S. funding for the United Nations in half,” which could bring about “the breakdown of the international humanitarian system as we know it.”

The postwar Displaced Persons Camps, Mr. Beinart goes on to remind us, were administered by a U.N. commission, and paid for largely by the U.S. President Trump, he confidently states, “would likely have seen it as a prime example of other countries ripping America off,” and would “surely have disapproved,” in 1946, when anti-Semitic pogroms in Poland “sent tens of thousands of Jews streaming across the border into U.S.-administered DP camps in Germany,” of allowing any of them onto our shores.

Because Mr. Trump is president, Mr. Beinart concludes, “the Gerda Kleins of today are unlikely to see America’s symbols the way she did.”

One needn’t be a proponent of a Mexican wall to recognize that there is no comparison between, on the one hand, caring for people who narrowly escaped a multi-national genocidal effort only to face murderous pogroms, and, on the other, welcoming every foreigner seeking to improve his economic welfare.

Nor need one like Mr. Trump’s immigration ban to understand that, justified or not, the fear of terrorists infiltrating our country is somewhat more plausible today than it was regarding Jews in 1946.

Mr. Beinart, though, insists on twisting Mr. Trump’s sentiments into an impossible pretzel, into something cynical and hypocritical.

“He praises Holocaust survivors today,” the columnist writes about the president, “because it’s politically expedient. But his actions desecrate their memory. Had he more shame, he would not have spoken at the Holocaust Memorial Museum at all.”

But Mr. Trump, Mr. Beinart surely knows, isn’t currently running for office. And if there’s one thing most everyone agrees about, it’s that he expresses things bluntly, as he believes them to be. Had Peter Beinart more shame, he would not have written his article at all.

© 2017 Hamodia

Loss and Legacy

Like so many of his generation in Europe, he had an all too short childhood.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, when he was 14, he found himself, along with his family and others from the small Polish shtetl of Ruzhan, fleeing the Nazi invaders with only what they could carry on their backs. Soon enough, the refugees were apprehended and locked in a shul, with a neighboring home set ablaze and the flames growing closer. The din, he recalled, was deafening. People were shouting out the Shema with all their might, crying bitterly, saying Viduy. Then they were suddenly, miraculously saved before the flames reached the shul, by, they suspected, Eliyahu Hanavi, in the guise of a high-ranking German officer.

Then, in a miracle of will, the boy decided to leave his parents to journey to Bialystok, to join the Novardoker yeshivah, a dream he had been promised, before the war, he would be able to fulfill.

The yeshivah, though, wasn’t there anymore, and so the boy jumped onto a train to Vilna, where many Polish yeshivos had relocated. Lithuania was still independent.

It wasn’t long, though, before the Soviets took over, and he and his chaverim and rebbe were sent to Siberia, where they spent the war years, enduring long 40 degrees below zero winters.

He once came close to death there. One of the other young men even trudged for kilometers through the snow on a mission, the trudger thought, to bury the boy, who was rumored to have succumbed.

At war’s end, the group made its way to Germany, were smuggled into Berlin’s American sector and set up a yeshivah in a town called Salzheim. Eventually, the boy, now a young man, was able to sail to America, where he married a respected Baltimore Rav’s daughter, who taught him English and helped him pursue his career, first as a rebbe in Baltimore’sYeshivas Chofetz Chaim and then as a shul Rav, a position he held for some 60 years. They had three children.

He was my father, hareni kapporas mishkavo. And his actual kevurah did not happen until more than 70 years had passed since that day his friend expected to inter him. It took place just before the start of Chanukah.

For all who knew and loved my father – and it is a very large group – his petirah was a wrenching personal loss. But it represented a tragedy for Klal Yisrael, too, and not just in the sense that an oved Hashem and marbitz Torah left this world.

It was a national tragedy for another reason, too, because, among all the many men and women whose lives my father touched and who came to the shivah house or called or emailed their nechamos – a group that included an astonishingly diverse spectrum of Yidden, from talmidei chachamim to the not-yet-frum – not a single one was from my father’s European chevrah.

That dearth, of course, was not unexpected. But it was an unhappy reminder, all the same, that the generation that witnessed the Jewish Europe that once was, and the horror and hashgacha of the Holocaust years, the generation that was our living link to that place and those days, is ebbing.

The only member, in fact, of my father’s Novardok chaburah in Siberia still alive is Reb Herschel Nudel, may he have a refuah shleimah, the man who endured that long, frigid walk to “bury” my father so many decades ago. Considering his astounding chessed, his arichas yamim, isn’t surprising.

And yet, the scene at my father’s levayah that most vividly remains with me was when the announcement was made that grandsons and great-grandsons of the niftar should come forward to carry the aron to begin its journey to the beis olam, where my mother, grandmother, uncles and aunts, my Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, and my rebbe, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zecher kulam livrachah, all lie, awaiting techiyas hameisim.

Those summoned came forth, but it took a while before the aron could be lifted. Not that it was heavy. My father wasn’t a physically large man. But it was a challenge for the many young men, all yirei Shamayim, who had heeded the call to find an empty spot to put their hands.

It was an aron, not a shulchan. But the words “Banecha kish’silei zeisim saviv lishulchanecha,” “Your sons, like olive shoots, all around your table” (Tehillim 128:3), even at that agonizing moment, rang like a melodic bell in my mind.

© Hamodia 2017

A Window into the Past

It’s barely visible. Taped to the inside of the front bay window of a neat, modest house on a nondescript street in Toronto is a photocopy of a spoon.

The window, off the living room, is dominated by two large, healthy banana plants that have thrived there for many years. But if you look closely at the window of the house near Eglington Avenue, where my dear in-laws live, you’ll see the reproduction of the spoon, and might wonder why it’s there.

The answer to that question has to do with my father-in-law, Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, may he be well, an alumnus of a number of World War II concentration camps. And with Chanukah, too.

The spoon that was photocopied was one of the items he smuggled out of Auschwitz, when the Nazis moved him into “Camp Number Eight” – a quarantine camp, for those suspected of carrying typhus.

There were no labor details in that new camp, but the inmates were ordered to help in its construction, which was still underway. Having had some experience in the Lodz ghetto as a mechanic, my father-in-law helped the electrical technician install the camp’s lighting.

With his new access to tools, he brought his spoon to work and filed down its handle, making it into a sharp knife, which he used both to eat his soup ration and to cut the chunk of bread he and others were allotted and had to cut evenly to apportion it fairly. My father-in-law became the go-to person to wield his spoon-knife to help avoid disputes and maintain relative peace among the prisoners.

When winter came, he was transferred to “Camp Number Four” in Kaufering, a camp more similar to Auschwitz. Despite the terrible hardships the prisoners suffered daily, however, my father-in-law, a Gerer chassid, and other G-d-fearing Jews in the camp tried whenever possible to do what mitzvos they could, despite all the dangers that involved.

My father-in-law always kept mental track of the calendar, and he knew when Chanukah had arrived. During a few minutes’ rest break, he and a group of inmates began to reminisce about how, back home before the war, their fathers would light their menorahs with such fervor and joy. They remembered how they could never get their fill of watching the flames sparkling like stars, and basked in their warm, special glow.

And they spoke of the war of the Chashmonaim against their Seleucid Greek tormentors, who were intent on erasing Judaism from Jewish hearts. And how Hashem helped them resist and rout their enemy, enabling Jews to freely observe the Torah and mitzvos once again.

If only, they mused, if only they could light Chanukah candles.

One prisoner said he had a small bit of margarine he had saved from his daily ration. That could serve as our oil. And wicks? They began to unravel threads from our uniforms…

But a menorah. They needed a menorah.

My father-in-law took out his spoon.  Within moments, the small group was lighting their Chanukah lichteleh, reciting the brachos of “Lehadlik ner”, She’asa nissim” and “Shehecheyanu.” The prisoners all stood there transfixed, immersed in their thoughts… of Chanukahs gone by.

The small flame kindled in them, too, a glimmer of hope. As they recited She’asa nissim, the bracha about the miracles Hashem had performed for our forefathers “in those days”, but also “at this time,” they understood that the only thing that could save them would be a miracle. A “nes gadol,” in fact.

Non-religious Jews, too, stood nearby and watched the luminous moment in the darkness of their concentration camp lives. Who knows what difference it may have made in their own lives.

My father-in-law today, along with his eishes chayil, are filled with gratitude for his having been graced with a personal miracle and surviving those days – a harrowing story in itself, which he chronicled in his ArtScroll/Mesorah book “Destined to Survive.”

And they thank Hashem for the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren He has granted them, kein yirbu, committed to lives of Torah and mitzvos.

A more elaborate menorah than a spoon is placed at their window each Chanukah. But the spoon, or at least a photographic reproduction of it, always shares the window space, a reminder of a Chanukah many years ago in a very different place.

And, somehow, the large, thriving plants that frame the window seem appropriate too.

© 2016 Hamodia

Unrighteous Indignation

And here, all this time, we thought Auschwitz was a Polish death camp.

It was, of course, at least in the sense that it was a place in Poland where upward of a million souls, the vast majority of them Jewish, perished at the hands of ruthless, evil murderers.

The camp, though, was built and operated by Germans, a fact that has brought Polish authorities to protest when the camp is labeled “Polish.”

In 2012, for instance, President Obama raised hackles when, awarding a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to a Polish resistance fighter, he referred to a “Polish death camp.”  He later apologized, saying he should have used the term “Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland.”

Earlier this month, the Polish government approved a new bill mandating fines and even, in some cases, prison terms of up to three years for anyone who uses phrases like “Polish death camps” to refer to Nazi camps on Polish soil.

While threatening penalties for using a particular phrase is an act of dubious wisdom or worth, the Polish protesters have history on their side… at least with regard to who owned and operated the death camps on Polish soil. Germans, not Poles, ran Auschwitz, Treblinka and other death camps, where more than three million Jews died; Poland was an occupied country at the time.

But the indignation isn’t righteous.  At least not unless it includes an important caveat; an admission that many Poles themselves were no mere bystanders to the Holocaust.

Some Polish officials are trying to obscure that truth.  “It wasn’t our mothers, nor our fathers, who are responsible for the crimes of the Holocaust, which were committed by German and Nazi criminals on occupied Polish territory,” asserts Zbignew Ziobro, the Polish justice minister.

But the justice minister does truth an injustice.  In implementing their genocidal program, German forces drew upon all-too-eager-to-help Polish police forces and railroad personnel, who guarded ghettos and helped deport Jews to the killing centers. Individual Poles often pitched in, identifying and hunting down Jews in hiding and then actively participated in the plunder of Jewish property.

In his book “The Coming of the Holocaust: From Antisemitism to Genocide,” University of California, Santa Cruz Professor Peter Kenez described Poles of German ethnicity as “welcome[ing] the [Nazi] conquerors with enthusiasm.”

Nor were ethnic Poles unhappy at the prospect of helping the invaders rid their country of Jews.

History Professor Jan T. Gross, who was born in Poland to a Polish mother and Jewish father, published “Neighbors” in 2001, in which he documented that atrocities long blamed on Nazi officials were in fact carried out by local Polish civilians.

Like the massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne in July 1941. Mere weeks after Nazi forces gained control of the town, its Polish mayor, Marian Karolak, and local Nazi officials gave orders to round up the town’s Jews – both long-term residents as well as Jews who were sheltering there. Some Jews were hunted down and gleefully killed by the town’s residents with clubs, axes and knives. Most were herded into a barn, emptied out for the purpose and set afire, killing all inside.

There were also Poles, of course, who helped Jews, even risking their own lives to do so. Yad Vashem has recognized more than 6,000 of them as “Righteous Among the Nations” for rescuing Jews, more than from any other country.

But the norm, sadly, was that Polish citizens were more likely than not to turn against their Jewish neighbors when circumstances permitted.  There are numerous personal accounts of such hatred leading to murder.  It lasted throughout the war, and beyond it.

The Polish town of Kielce was home to about 24,000 Jews before World War II, and the number swelled considerably during the war, as German officials forced Jews from other towns and countries to enter the ghetto established there.  By August 1944, all but a few hundred Jews who were kept alive as slave workers there had been murdered.

You may know the rest of the story. After the war, about 150 Jewish survivors returned to Kielce. Slowly, they began to rebuild their lives, establishing a shul and an orphanage. On July 4, 1946, the town’s non-Jewish inhabitants started a blood libel, falsely accusing the Jews of kidnapping a Christian child. A mob descended on the Jews and, as police and soldiers stood by and watched, the local Poles viciously murdered 42 innocent Jewish Holocaust survivors and injured scores more.

If you drive down Bathurst Street in Toronto, you might notice a shul called Kielcer Congregation, presumably established by survivors of the war and pogrom, or by others in their memory.

And if you drive about a mile south, you’ll reach Eglinton Avenue, off of which my dear in-laws live.  My father-in-law, Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, may he be well, is an alumnus of a number of concentration camps, including the Polish – sorry, “German on occupied Polish territory” – one called Auschwitz.  At war’s end, he emerged, barely, and managed to find his way back to his Polish hometown of Lodz.  He had heard that his younger sister Mirel (whose memory is carried in the second name of my wife), had also survived the war and had returned there.

He discovered that Mirel had indeed reached Lodz.  And that one day soon after their arrival, she and several other girls had visited the local Jewish cemetery to find the graves of relatives who had died in the Lodz ghetto.  The girls split up and made up to meet at the cemetery entrance.  All did, except for Mirel.  Having survived the war and made her way “home,” she had been murdered by an unknown assailant among the graves.

Before that was known, the other girls went to the police to report the missing person.  The response they received was, “What is your worry?  So there will be one Jewess less in Poland.”

© 2016 Hamodia

The Professor Stumbles

You just can’t, as they say, make this stuff up.

A performer recently made news by implying that 1) Holocaust denier David Irving deserves reconsideration, and 2) that the earth is flat.

The entertainer didn’t offer those two wise thoughts as part of a comedy routine, but in a serious, assertive manner, using the medium of “rap” – a genre that some people consider music (count me among the deniers there).

“Stalin was way worse than Hitler,” the fellow also declared.  “That’s why the POTUS gotta wear a kippah.”  POTUS, of course, in secret service-speak, means “president of the United States” and kippah means… well, you know.  If you’re looking for logic, even of the paranoid variety, you might wish to look elsewhere.

Someone else also recently made news about his own Holocaust views. That would be Professor Yair Auron, an Israeli historian several million light years removed, culturally, from the flat-earth rapper.  In a way, though, Mr. Auron is the more hazardous of the two.

The professor is upset at the Israeli educational system for teaching that the Nazis’ determination to destroy every vestige of the Jewish people is something uniquely Jewish.

He accuses Holocaust educators of repressing or minimizing the suffering of others targeted by the Nazis, and is upset that other mass murders are not placed on a plane with the Nazis’ attempted destruction of Klal Yisrael.

“It must be asked,” he said recently, “if, in Israel in 2016, instead of also shaping Holocaust commemoration through humanist and democratic values… [is] fostering racism and xenophobia… Ignoring the non-Jewish victims is perhaps the most concrete manifestation of this trend.”

No one, of course, denies that the Nazis killed thousands of Communists, mentally disabled, Gypsies, criminals and others.  Nor that mass slaughters of human beings were committed by Stalin in the Soviet Union, by Pol Pot in Cambodia, by the Turks against the Armenians and by the Hutu tribe against the Tutsi and moderate Hutus in Rwanda.  And those outrages all deserve to be remembered.

But to contend that it’s somehow wrong to stress the singular hatred Hitler, ym”s, had for Jews, and his determination to destroy our people in toto is to reveal the deepest of delusions.  And fostering that delusion is a Holocaust revision of its own.

Determination to create a world that would be Judenrein – free of Jews – was the Nazis’ first and foremost goal.  They may have had no compunctions about killing others they felt were detrimental to the Third Reich – political opponents, the non-productive, those they deemed “asocial.”  But they didn’t seek a Gypsyrein world or a disabledrein one.  The Nazi quest was to clear the world, not just Germany, of Jews; and it was a deep and abiding obsession, a psychopathy clothed in philosophical/theological garb.

Hitler revealed as much in Mein Kampf, where he wrote: “If… the Jew is victorious over the other peoples of the world, his crown will be the funeral wreath of humanity and this planet will, as it did thousands of years ago, move through the ether devoid of men…”

Even as he and his companion were about to commit suicide, on April 29, 1945, at 4 a.m. the fading führer issued a statement declaring “Above all, I charge the leadership of the nation and their followers with… merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples, international Jewry.”

Scholar Steven I. Katz put it succinctly: “The Holocaust is phenomenologically unique by virtue of the fact that never before has a state set out, as a matter of intentional principle and actualized policy, to annihilate physically every man, woman, and child belonging to a specific group.”

Or, as the philosopher Emil Fackenheim wrote, “The extermination of the Jews had no political or economic justification. It was not a means to any end; it was an end in itself.”

And there’s something more, too, a context that makes the Nazis’ Jew-hatred singularly significant.  Here, perhaps, a non-historian may have said it best, and only last week.

Awarding a posthumous honor to Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, an American serviceman who protected Jewish captives in a German POW camp, the aforementioned POTUS recalled Mr. Edmonds’ words to the camp’s commander, who had ordered Jewish prisoners to come forward: “We are all Jews.”

“We are all Jews,” explained Mr. Obama, “because anti-Semitism is a distillation, an expression of an evil that runs through so much of human history, and if we do not answer that, we do not answer any other form of evil.”

Gut gezokt.  Hear it well, Professor Auron.

© 2016 Hamodia

Govrov Selichos, 1939

This time of year in 1939, in a Polish town called Ruzhan, a 14-year-old boy had his plans rudely interrupted.  The boy, who, fifteen years later, would become my father, had made preparations to travel to the Novhardoker yeshivah in Bialystok, but the German army invaded Poland before he had the chance, and the Second World War began.

My father, shlita, his family and all Ruzhan’s townsfolk fled ahead of the advancing Germans.  That erev Shabbos, they found themselves in a town called Govrov, just before the Germans arrived there.  Motzoei Shabbos was the first night of Selichos.

Several years ago, I helped my father publish his memoirs, about his flight from the Nazis, his yeshivah days, his sojourn in Siberia (as a guest of the Soviet Union), and his subsequent emigration to America and service as a congregational rav in Baltimore for more than 50 years.  He is currently the mazkir of the Baltimore Beis Din and the rav of a Shabbos minyan.

In his book (“Fire, Ice, Air,” available from Amazon), he movingly describes how he insisted on taking leave of his parents to go to yeshivah, his banishment, along with Rav Leib Nekritz, zt”l and a handful of other Novardhoker bachurim to Siberia; and his being shot while being smuggled, after the war, into Berlin’s American sector.

About that Motzoei Shabbos Selichos in Govrov, he writes:

My family and I were lying on the floor of a local Jew’s house when we heard angry banging on the door and the gruff, loud words “Raus Jude!  Raus Jude!” – “Jew, out!”…

The SS men chased us from the houses, prodding us with bayonets to raise our hands and join the town’s other Jews – several hundred people – in the middle of the town’s market area…

Some of the Germans approached the men among us who had beards and cut them off, either entirely or purposely leaving an odd angle of beard, just to humiliate the victims.  One man had a beautiful, long beard.  When he saw what the Germans were doing, he took a towel he had with him and tied it around his beard, in the hope that our tormentors might not see so enticing a target.  But of course, they went right over to him, removed the towel and shaved off what to him and us was a physical symbol of experience, wisdom and holiness.  He wept uncontrollably.

We stood there and the smell of smoke registered in our nostrils, becoming more intense with each minute.  It didn’t take long to realize that the town’s homes had been set aflame.  Later we heard that a German soldier had been discovered killed nearby and that the SS men had assumed that the culprits were Jews… We Jews were ordered into the synagogue… the doors were locked and SS men stood outside to ensure that no one managed to escape …  The town had been set afire, and the Nazis clearly intended to let the flames reach the synagogue.   Houses nearby were already wildly burning…

The scene was a blizzard of shouting and wailing and, above all, praying.   Psalms and lamentations and entreaties blended together, a cacophony of wrenched hearts.  Everyone realized what was in store and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that any of us could possibly do. 

The smell of smoke grew even stronger…  And then, a miracle occurred.

How else to explain what happened?  Those in the synagogue who were standing near the doorway and windows saw a German motorcycle come to a halt in front of the building.  A German officer – apparently of high rank – dismounted from the machine and began to speak with the SS men guarding our intended crematorium.   The officer grew agitated and barked orders at the other Nazis.  After a few minutes, the doors to the synagogue were suddenly opened and, disbelieving our good fortune, we staggered out…

What made the officer order them to release us we did not know and never will.  Some of us suspected he was not a German at all, but Elijah the prophet, who, in Jewish tradition, often appears in disguise.

We were ordered across a nearby brook…  And so there we sat, all through the Sabbath, watching as the synagogue in which we had been imprisoned mere hours earlier was claimed by the flames and, along with all the Torah-scrolls and holy books of both Ruzhan and Govrov, burned to the ground…

That night was the first night of Selichos…

I have often contrasted in my mind my father’s teenage years and my own, during which my biggest worries were lack of air conditioning in my classroom and tests for which I had neglected to study.

And each year at Selichos, I try to visualize that Selichos night in Govrov.

© 2015 Hamodia

Stubborn Spirit

The birthday cake was ablaze with 105 candles, and many among the scores of people present at the Czech embassy in London this past spring for the party would not have been there – or anywhere – had it not been for the man in whose honor they had gathered.

Nicholas Winton, who remains in full possession of his faculties, including his sense of humor, saved the lives of 669 children, mostly Jewish, during the months before the Second World War broke out in 1939.  There are an estimated 6000 people, many of those children, now grown, along with their own descendants, who are alive today because of his efforts, which went unrecognized for decades.

Born in 1909 in West Hampstead, England, Mr. Winton was baptized as a member of the Anglican Church and became a successful stockbroker.  He lived a carefree life until December 1938, when a friend, Martin Blake, asked him to forgo a ski vacation and visit him in Czechoslovakia, where Mr. Blake had traveled in his capacity as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, a group that was providing assistance to refugees created by the German annexation of the Sudetenland regions of the country. Together, the two men visited refugee camps filled to capacity with Jews and political opponents of the Nazis.

Mr. Winton was moved by the refugees’ plight. Knowing, too, about the violence that had been unleashed against the Jewish community in Germany and Austria during the Kristallnacht riots a mere month earlier, he resolved to do for children from Sudetenland what British Jewish agencies were doing to rescue German and Austrian Jewish children.

Audaciously (and illegally) “borrowing” the name of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, he began taking applications from parents, first at a hotel room and then from an office in central Prague. Thousands lined up to try to save their children’s lives.

(When an interviewer recently remarked to Mr. Winton that his actions “required quite a bit of ingenuity,” the interviewee responded, “No, it just required a printing press to get the notepaper printed.”  And asked about travel documents he had forged and the “bit of blackmail” that he had employed to save children, Winton, seemingly amused, just replied, “It worked.  That’s the main thing.”)

Returning to London, Mr. Winton raised money to fund the children transports, including funds demanded by the British government to bankroll the children’s eventual departure from Britain; and he found foster homes for the refugee children.

The first transport organized by Mr. Winton left Prague by plane for London on March 14, 1939, the day before the Germans occupied the Czech lands. After the Germans established a Protectorate in the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, Winton organized seven further transports that departed by rail out of Prague and across Germany to the Atlantic Coast, then traveled by ship across the English Channel to Britain. At the train station in London, British foster parents waited to collect the children. The last trainload of children left Prague on August 2, 1939, and the rescue activities ceased when Germany invaded Poland and Britain declared war on Germany at the beginning of September 1939

During the war, Mr. Winton volunteered for an ambulance unit for the Red Cross, then trained pilots for the Royal Air Force. He married, raised a family and earned a comfortable living. For 50 years, his rescue efforts remained virtually unknown until 1988, when his wife found a scrapbook from 1939 with all the children’s photos and names.  (Asked why he kept his secret so long, he explained, “I didn’t really keep it secret, I just didn’t talk about it.”)

Once his story got out, Mr. Winton received a letter of thanks from the late former Israeli president Ezer Weizman, was made an honorary citizen of Prague and, in 2002, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his service to humanity.  His recent projects include providing help to the mentally handicapped people and building homes for the elderly.

It would be easy to place Nicholas Winton’s story securely in the “Righteous Gentiles” file, along with the accounts of other non-Jews who proved themselves exemplars of humanity.   But his life, as it happens, is not that simple.  It may speak less to the greatness of chassidei umos ha’olam and more to the pinteleh Yid.

For the bittersweet fact is that Nicholas Winton was born Nicholas Wertheimer, and was baptized and raised Christian on the decision of his parents, assimilated German Jews.

© 2014 Hamodia

Of Peoples… and People

Commuting to and from Manhattan daily on the Staten Island Ferry brings me into the vicinity of many a tourist. The boat sometimes resembles a United Nations General Assembly debate, without the translators.

When I hear German or a Slavic language spoken, I can’t help but recall the wry words of the late New York City mayor Ed Koch as he led the Ukrainian Day parade one year. He told the parade’s grand marshal: “You know, if this were the old country this wouldn’t be a parade, it would be a pogrom. I wouldn’t be walking down Fifth Avenue; I would be running… and you would be running after me.”

And I’m reminded, too, of the sentiment of my dear father, may he be well, who spent the war years first fleeing the Nazis and then in a Soviet Siberian labor camp. When I asked him many years ago how he feels when he meets a German non-Jew, he told me that any German “has to prove himself” to be free of the Jew-hatred that came to define his people. My father’s “default” view of a German (or, for that matter, Pole or Ukrainian or Romanian…) is “guilty,” or at least “suspect.”

And yet, he continued, if a German clearly disavows his elder countrymen’s embrace of evil, then he deserves to be seen and treated as just another human being. I imagine others might not be so willing to accept even the apparent good will of someone from the land and stock of those who unleashed the murder of millions of Jews (including my father’s parents and many of his siblings and other relatives). But that is how my father approaches things. And how I do, too.

All of which I shared with two German filmmakers a year or two ago. They had requested an interview, to be used in a documentary for broadcast in Germany that would focus on how Jews regard Germans today. I consented, if only because I had no reason to say no.

When the visitors, young people who clearly disavowed anti-Semitism, arrived at Agudath Israel of America’s offices and turned on their camera, I explained that there were Jews, of both my father’s generation and mine, who would always see Germans as evil; but others who would choose to judge an individual, in the end, no matter his genealogical or national baggage, as an individual.

What became of my comments, or the program, I can’t say. I don’t know anyone in Germany who saw the broadcast.

The interview comes to mind because of a recent Agence France-Presse report about Rainer Hoess, the grandson of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess, yimach shemo, who estimated that he was responsible for the deaths of two and a half million people, including at least a million Jews. He was found guilty of war crimes by Polish authorities and hanged near Auschwitz’s crematorium in 1947.

As a 12-year-old growing up in post-war Germany, Rainer was puzzled by negative feelings toward him that he sensed in his school gardener, a Holocaust survivor. A teacher revealed the truth about his infamous forebear.

Now 48, Rainer Hoess seeks to deal with that awful discovery by devoting his life to fighting the rise of neo-Nazi movements across Europe. At first sought out by such hate groups to join them as a “high profile” member, he turned the tables and condemned them unequivocally.

“Every time I have the chance to work against them,” he says, “I will do that.” And he has devoted the past four years to educating schoolchildren about the dangers of right-wing extremism, sadly on the rise in Europe. Last year alone, he addressed students in more than 70 schools in Germany, and has visited Israel.

There’s food for thought here, because it seems inevitable that people will generalize about groups, be they ethnic, national or even professional, whether the justification is conceived as based on genetics, environment or culture.

But our generalizations, however justified they may seem to us, should not figure in our judgments of the individual who has just introduced himself. That fellow might end up adding fodder to our assumption. But he might do just the opposite, and should be given the chance.

After all, there are generalizations, too, that others make about us Jews qua Jews, sadly; and about us Orthodox Jews as Orthodox Jews, sadder still. And, whether those generalizations are based on isolated, unrepresentative facts or pure fantasy, we want others to regard us not in their shadow, but in the revealing light of who we are. And we should give others the same courtesy.

© Hamodia 2014

Children’s Programming

“Nahoul” is a giant bee, or, better, a man in a furry bee costume.  He is one of the intended-to-be-lovable characters on “Pioneers of Tomorrow,” a children’s television program produced in Gaza.

In a recent episode, Nahoul encourages a boy from Jenin to attack his Jewish neighbors.  “Punch them,” he advises.  “Turn their faces into tomatoes.”

“If his neighbors are Jewish or Zionist,” Rawan, the little girl host of the show adds helpfully, “that goes without saying.”  Nahoul then advises throwing stones at “the Jews.”

A bit later in the program, another little girl shares her hope to become a policewoman, so that she can “shoot the Jews.”

“All of them?” the host asks with a smile.

“Yes,” the other girl replies.

“Good.”

Nahoul is likely to meet the fate of other cuddly animals – like Farfour the Mouse, a rabbit and a bear – that were previously featured on the program only to suddenly disappear, the show’s little viewers being informed that each character had been “martyred” by Israelis.

The airwaves in Gaza are tightly controlled by Hamas, the de facto government, and “Pioneers of Tomorrow” is part of that violent and hateful group’s effort to educate the region’s children about what Hamas considers their civic and religious duties.

They educate and we educate.

It might seem a novel thought, but it’s really an obvious one: The surest way to understand a society lies in the entertainment it offers its young.

American culture qua culture is largely aimless.  If it has ideals, they are high-sounding ones like “freedom” and “individuality” but which generally translate as “do what you will” and “I’m okay, you’re okay.”  Reportedly, much of the programming aimed at American children pays homage to the same.

Children’s fare in the Orthodox Jewish world is also telling.  And although it does not use television as a medium, it’s voluminous.  Whether in the form of books, compact discs, MP3s or cassette tapes, there is an astounding array of memorable musical offerings, characters, stories and performances that convey the ideas and ideals that inform the community, and that reflect its essence.  Jewish children are taught about Jewish history, about love for other Jews and for Eretz Yisroel, about the beauty of Shabbos and the meanings of yomim tovim, and about the performance of mitzvos; about the evils of jealousy and loshon hora and about the importance of Torah-study.

And then we have Hamas.

Shavuos approaches.  My wife and I will miss having our children with us.   (They’re all either married or in yeshiva –yes, the marrieds invited us to join them, but their father is a hopeless homebody.)  But when I go to the beis medrash on Shavuos night, I’ll remember all the Shavuos nights spent learning Torah with the little boys, later young men, whom we were privileged to raise, and all the subtle teaching of both them and their sisters that went on around the Shabbos table, and throughout the weeks and years.

And I will remember one Shavuos in particular, quite a few years back, when I was learning in a nearby shul – packed with others, many of them fathers and sons too – with one of our sons, then a 12-year-old.

We spent most of the night engrossed in Gemara.  We began with the sugya of tzaar ba’alei chayim in Bava Metzia, which he was studying in yeshiva, and then continued with the sugya of Yerushalayim nischalka l’shvotim in Yoma, which he and I were learning regularly together.

Dovie seemed entirely awake throughout it all, and asked the perceptive questions I had come to expect from him.

The experience was enthralling, as it always was, and while it was a challenge to concentrate (at times even to keep my eyes from closing) during Shacharis, Dovie and I both “made it” and then, hand in hand, walked home, where we promptly crashed.  But before my head touched my pillow (a millisecond or two before I entered REM sleep), I summoned the energy to thank HaKodosh Boruch Hu for sharing His Torah with us.

That silent prayer came back to me like a thunderclap a few days later, when I caught up on some reading I had missed (in the word’s most simple sense) over Yomtov.  Apparently, while Dovie and I were learning Torah, the presses at The Washington Times were printing a story datelined Gaza City.

It began with a description of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Abu Ali, being “lovingly dress[ed] by his mother in a costume of a suicide bomber, complete with small kaffiyeh, a belt of electrical tape and fake explosives made of plywood.”

“I encourage him, and he should do this,” said his mother; and Abu Ali himself apparently agreed. “I hope to be a martyr,” he said.  “I hope when I get to 14 or 15 to explode myself.”

My thoughts flashed back to Shavuos and to my own son, and I thanked Hashem again.

© Hamodia 2014

POSTSCRIPT:  It turns out that we will indeed be away from home for Shavuos, in Israel, for the bris of Dovie’s and his wife Devorah Rivkah’s  firstborn .  May we all know only happy occasions!