For the opening of the central Mimouna festivities, which this year were held in Ashkelon, the attending VIPs listed in the advertisement were mostly Ashkenazi dignitaries, including former Supreme Court justice Yoram Danziger, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Avi Dichter, Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Michael Oren, and Zionist Union MKs Tzipi Livni and Omer Bar Lev. Also listed was Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who is not Ashkenazi, and Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, who is Druse. And, of course, there was Sam Ben Chetrit, the chairman of the World Federation of Moroccan Jews, who can be credited with turning Mimouna into a national celebration.
Kara, who attended numerous Mimouna events, started out at the home of the Suissa family in Gan Yavne, so that he could share a table with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Also present were Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, each of whom participated in a number of Mimouna events throughout the country. Ben Chetrit was particularly pleased by Kara’s participation, because in Morocco the non-Jewish neighbors were the first to bring leavened bread into the homes of their Jewish friends to signify the conclusion of Passover.
President Reuven Rivlin was in Ashkelon, where he met with Yuli Edelstein. The past and present speakers of the Knesset are united in their belief that the prime minister should not be speaking at the opening of the Independence Day festivities on Mount Herzl.
At the time of going to press, it had been announced that a compromise agreement had been reached between Netanyahu and Edelstein, though conflicting stories emerged from their respective offices, and Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev had a somewhat different version of her own.
There were also rumors that Edelstein had come off his high horse because he realized that there was a possibility that Netanyahu might still be in office when Rivlin completes his term in just over three years from now. It’s well known that Edelstein would like to be the next president of Israel, but if he gets on the wrong side of Netanyahu, he can kiss his chances of the presidency good-bye, because Netanyahu, like the proverbial elephant, never forgets.
Regev and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who were both at Mimouna celebrations in Lod, wore almost identical Moroccan galabiyas in marine blue with intricate white embroidery. Regev got her hands dirty by plunging them into the dough and kneading it for the moufletas together with her host and hostess, Yaakov and Esther Revivo, parents of Lod Mayor Yair Revivo.
■ CONSIDERING WIDELY publicized reports and speculation that they will be indicted for various alleged corruptions, Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are very cool customers. Notwithstanding the tensions of numerous police interrogations, a grueling work schedule, a brief bout of illness possibly resulting from jet lag and lack of sleep, and the strain of conveying the impression that it’s business as usual, the Netanyahus, as always, took time out during the intermediate days of Passover to tour the Galilee and to make contact with the public beyond the political ivory tower.
■ IN BREMEN in northwest Germany, as elsewhere in Europe, people like to hear good things about their forebears, especially in matters related to the Holocaust, and even more especially in Germany, when such good things involve Germans risking their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. In Bremen, such deeds are commemorated through invitations to Holocaust survivors who were saved by non-Jews, not necessarily Germans, to come and speak of their experiences.
In Bremen, there is a special brotherhood or fraternity week designed to emphasize the need to prioritize humane considerations and to put differences on the back burner.
Names of potential speakers together with a synopsis of their stories are proposed by members of a committee which considers them all and then decides who, out of all the names received, will be invited.
One of the committee members is Rabbi Netanel Teitelbaum, the Haifa-born community rabbi of Bremen. He knew that his uncle’s wife, Tova, was a child Holocaust survivor who had been saved by gentiles, and he also knew that her father, Jonas Eckstein, in his native Bratislava, had heroically saved the lives of many Jewish children, primarily orphans from Poland and a significant number of adults, and had sent his own infant daughter into the care of Catholic friends for fear that her crying would attract unwanted attention and betray the location of the children in hiding. Teitelbaum contacted his aunt and asked if she would be willing to come to Bremen to talk about her father.
Whenever she receives such a request, Tova Teitelbaum accepts the invitation. For many years, she had battled to have her father’s heroism recognized. Yad Vashem had not been interested in honoring Jewish heroes, only non-Jews whom it honored as Righteous Among the Nations. Teitelbaum had not been overly interested in her father’s story, until he and her mother were no longer alive, and there was no one left to ask.
Like so many other offspring of Holocaust survivors and Holocaust heroes, who for years had avoided delving into the past, she gradually became very curious. She contacted the host of a radio program geared to reuniting Holocaust survivors with members of their families or with long-lost friends, got a few responses from people saved by her father, but not enough to get a comprehensive picture.
But then, in 2009, she was interviewed by The Jerusalem Post and suddenly there was much more interest not only in her father but in Jewish heroes of the Holocaust in general. Such interest came not only from people who knew her father, had been rescued by him or whose own parents had worked with him, but from organizations and institutions such as Yad Vashem, B’nai B’rith, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and the Slovak Embassy.
Teitelbaum was more than happy to be able to talk about her father in German and in Germany. Accordingly, last month, she and her husband, Yossi, went to Bremen, where she quickly realized that the interest lay more in Christians who helped Jews than in Jews who helped each other. So she told both stories – one of her father’s rescue operations and the other of how she was saved by a Christian family, which in later years was helped by her family. The orphans who were brought to Bratislava from Poland were escorted by a Christian called Natan, who was also adept at knowing which Nazis to bribe in order for them to turn a blind eye to his activities.
Teitelbaum also learned some surprising things while in Bremen. When she met Karoline Linnert, one of the two mayors of Bremen, she learned that when Linnert took office in 2007, she discovered that there was confiscated Jewish property still sitting in the cellar of city hall, replete with Nazi stamps and documentation. She catalogued the items, and put them on exhibition. Where the owners or heirs could be traced, the items were forwarded to them. The rest were put on sale, and the proceeds were given to the Jewish community.
Teitelbaum also met the archbishop of the Catholic Evangelical Church of Bremen, and also spoke in the parliament to an audience of some 300 people. She was also interviewed by a local newspaper. Her father used to say to her, “One day you’ll tell my story,” and that’s what she’s doing, more than seven decades after the fact.
■ KOOLULUM, THE social initiative organization that conducts mass singing events and arranges Zikaron Basalon whereby Holocaust survivors tell their stories in the intimate settings of parlors in private homes, brought together hundreds of Holocaust survivors and their families at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem to unite in singing “Hai” (Alive), the song performed by the late Ofra Haza at the Eurovision Song Contest in Munich in 1983.
That contest was particularly poignant, given both the country and the city in which it was performed in the shadow of the Holocaust and the Munich Massacre by Black September during the 1972 Olympic Games. The song, which was placed second, scored 136 points, which in itself was symbolic because 36 in gematria (numerology) is two times life, and all the survivors had been given a second chance.
The recording made at Beit Avi Chai was released for Holocaust Remembrance Day and posted on social media and numerous websites in Israel and abroad.
The lyrics of “Hai” were written by the late Ehud Manor, and the music composed by Avi Toledano. Manor noted at the time that the words were an expression of Jewish defiance and victory directed at anyone who attempted to destroy the Jewish people. The emphasis in the refrain is: “This is the song that our grandfather sang yesterday to our father, and today, I, I am able to sing it.”
During the recording, many of the survivors were overcome with emotion. Some with concentration camp numbers visible on their arms, yet hands planted firmly on their Israeli children and grandchildren, they described some of the horrors they had endured but had nonetheless managed to overcome and survive. Many family members arrived from all over the country, some from abroad, to join their grandparents and great-grandparents in this triumphant event, despite the tragic and traumatic memories that it evoked.
Beit Avi Chai executive director Dr. David Rozenson described the project as “unique” in terms of commemorating and preserving Holocaust remembrance. “By uniting in song, we celebrate not only the miracle of survival but the next generations of those who have been born and who are, together, continuing the great miracle of the Jewish people in the Jewish state.”
Koolulum also organized the mega get-together this week at the Menora Mivtachim Arena in Tel Aviv, where 12,000 people joined Rivlin and Regev in singing Naomi Shemer’s “For all these things,” the recording of which will be featured next week on all Israeli television channels on Independence Day. Whole families purchased tickets simply to ensure that they would be part of the historical record of Israel’s 70th anniversary, even if their names did not appear in any of the credits.
Regev, obviously aware that there had to be people of differing political and social backgrounds among the 12,000 people singing with gusto, said that the event was a demonstration of national unity, and, inspired by the language of the song, said that everyone had to be grateful not only for the honey but also for the sting.
■ FOR RIVLIN this is a roller-coaster week, or perhaps more of a seesaw from Holocaust to redemption, then back to Holocaust, and redemption again. For more than a week, he has been preparing for his participation in March of the Living, and, while doing so, he participated in the Independence Day songfest, and the following day he hosted a Holocaust survivor in the Zikaron Basalon series. Wednesday evening, April 11, he will be at Yad Vashem on Mount Herzl for the opening of Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies and almost immediately afterward will fly to Poland to join President Andrzej Duda in the March of the Living. Then, after returning home, he has to once again begin preparations for Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and for Independence Day.
■ FORMER CHIEF rabbi of Israel and of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who has never missed the opening of Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem or the March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau the following day, is once again participating in both, and is not bowing out due to advanced age. He will celebrate his 81st birthday on June 1.
All three of his sons are carrying on the multigenerational family tradition of entering the rabbinate. One of them, David, who is currently chief rabbi of Israel, is walking in his father’s footsteps in more ways than one. He will be reciting a chapter from Psalms at the Yad Vashem ceremony. Lau Sr., who is already an Israel Prize laureate, will next month receive the prestigious Guardian of Zion Award, while prior to that his nephew, Rabbi Benny Lau, will be conferred with an honorary doctorate by Bar-Ilan University.
■ HISTORY IS never more important than when told by its participants or by eyewitnesses. In the Jewish world this month, many families are looking at old photographs and at postcards and letters written by relatives who were caught up in one way or another in the Second World War. What makes such documents particularly precious is not their literary style, which often leaves a lot to be desired. But it’s the honest simplicity – replete with grammatical and occasional spelling mistakes that are part and parcel of such documents – that often makes them more authentic and more valuable than academic works by historians.
Margaret Fargotstein and Amy Baxter of Memphis, Tennessee, cherish a letter written by their maternal grandfather, US Army Capt. (Dr.) Ben Schaffer to his wife, Fagie Schaffer, after an assignment in Austria at the end of the war. Capt. Schaffer, a dentist, was among the first medical staff to enter Mauthausen concentration camp.
The letter, written in Germany just two days after VE Day, is dated May 10, 1945.
“Dearest One, “I didn’t have to go on a hospital route today, so will try to catch up on several things.
“I still can’t get over the things I saw yesterday. Four days ago (we were still at war) our company received an emergency call for medical officers and enlisted personnel and to bring delousing equipment. They were to report to Mauthausen, Austria – about 15 miles east of Linz, Austria.
“The 11th Armored Division (who had been at Camp Barkely) has liberated a large concentration camp and several smaller ones. So their officers asked for some of our men.
“Maj. Buckley and a couple of others went down the next day to view the place, and they returned with horrible stories. It so happened that yesterday’s run carried me to a POW hospital located just across the Danube River from Linz, and upon finishing my business there – I headed for Mauthausen.
“The village (of Mauthausen) is a small place situated in the hill and mountainous territory. Normally, the area would be beautiful. As we (my driver, my interpreter and I) approached the area we saw hundreds of the former inmates walking out ‘free.’ They were easy to recognize.
Most of them still wore their flimsy striped prisoner shirts. All were starved and were mere skin and bones.
“Many made motions to their mouths, indicating hunger, but we couldn’t do anything for them. First of all, we were also hungry, having no food with us; and secondly, if we had food and gave it to them, they would end up with dysentery. Others waved to us – so weak they could hardly raise their hands. Still others were too weak to walk and either lay or sat on the sides of the road, waiting for death to take them.
“Some few, however, appeared stronger and shouted to us, ‘American, American!’ Well – this was the front, and I must say it did my heart good to be able to give the poor souls a friendly smile and wave. Lots of them saluted as we passed and – for the first time – I had the feeling of a liberator receiving the greetings of the liberated.
“We finally arrived at a fairly large place and in we went. Rode around the area, saw some horrible sights, and then found out this camp was only a small one compared to the one seven miles further. So on we went.
“Honey, let me interrupt the sequence of this story to again thank G-D that our loved ones live in the US. For – but for that fact – some of those people, or should I say living skeletons and dead, could be us.
“I received permission from the colonel in charge to go in and inspect any part or all if I desired. So the three of us went in. First was the ‘shower room.’ The inmates undressed and went in for what was to be showers. But the doors closed and locked on them and instead of water, out of the showerheads came poison gas. It only took a few minutes and then the bodies were removed to the next building – the crematorium. Many would be still alive. Soon smoke would rise from the chimneys and the smell of hair and human flesh was in the air. There were still bodies in the crematorium when the place was captured. Also being used to a degree, but the people are dead of malnutrition and sickness.
“The barracks were a sight not to behold. The bunks were 3-5 inches in height rammed and jammed next to each other. Quite a large number of inmates too weak to get out of them. Disease runs rampant. At this one place there are over 4,000 cases of TB, mostly women, about 200 cases of typhus – the epidemic type, and every other disease imaginable.
Dysentery is horrific. One of the barracks had nothing but dysentery cases. The bunks were 5 high and the poor souls too weak to help themselves, so the one on top was fairly lucky. They just lay there dying – urinating and defecating in their bunks. The human waste would then drip and fall on the other bunks below. It was all too horrible for comprehension.
“The tubercular women were about the worst of the lost. Just bone covered by skin – some only weighing 65-70 pounds. As many as 4 to one bunk and the [illegible] that carry them out.
“The entire ‘Koncentration-Lage,’ as they are called, was built out of granite, except for the wooden barracks, and the granite was quarried nearby by the inmates and the place built by them – each stone being carried up the so-called ‘180 steps of death.’ “As they became too sick to work, they were sent to the ‘dispensary,’ which was like a separate little camp below the large one. Here they died, having been given no attention. The bodies were stripped of clothes – ‘too important an item’ – and the bodies buried in huge pits.
“So many have died the past few days (nothing in the world could have saved them) that the colonel had to resort to mass burial. He made use of a large soccer field and had bulldozers and steam shovels dig out large graves. The bodies are placed like cordwood in the graves and the bulldozer covered them – as do some large numbers of civilians.
But – there are army chaplains of all 3 faiths present to give a simple burial service. I saw an untold number being buried myself.
“I took a few pictures from the outside of the place and had intended to take some on the inside. But – I got chicken. When I saw those people – I did not have the heart or nerve to level my camera at them.
Perhaps it is for the best.
“I only hope and pray that G-D deals mightily with the perpetrators of such crimes and atrocities to humanity.
“I’ve tried to put into words some of what I have seen. It is an impossibility to do so accurately. There is just too much. Even our own minds didn’t want to grasp it at all. What can mere words express? “If this description spoils your next meal, I’m sorry. I know. I didn’t feel much like eating afterwards.
“I’m bringing this to a close, as I want you to get this as soon as possible and our mail is just going out.
“Tell the girls I haven’t forgotten them. I’m just busy as can be.
I’ll write first chance I get.
“No mail for our company for a week now. Have no idea when we’ll get our next batch.
“Kiss our children for me. All my love…