Archives for category: Women

 

terezin quote fixedI just learned of another baby that was born in a concentration camp. This is something worth celebrating—another sharp stick in Hitler’s eye! When I learned about my mother-in-law’s birth in a camp, I didn’t understand how that was remotely possible. Then I heard about a few more babies born in camps and was forced to suspend my disbelief. And now, another one.

Although this baby died in January at age 70, his name, Rudi Klobach, popped up in my news feed today. As the much-loved soccer coach of Women’s World Cup star Carli Lloyd when she was a student at New Jersey’s Delran High School (1997-2000), his death is noted for the sole reason that he will not be able to watch Carli go toe to toe with Japan in the finals this year.

As exciting as the Women’s World Cup is, I’m more interested in his family’s history. Born on June 18, 1944 in Terezin concentration camp, little Rudi went on to have a good life that positively impacted many children.

Per an article in yesterday’s New York Times, “Klobach was born in 1944 in the Nazis’ Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, where his father was given the job of collecting bodies to put in graves,” his wife Barbara Klobach said.

Like so many survivors, he rarely spoke of his family’s experience during the war.

I learned a little bit more about him in his obituary. He and his parents, Klara and Karl Heinz Klobach, were rescued from the camp by the Russians and eventually settled in Düsseldorf Germany, where his sister Maria was born. In 1948, when he was four years old, the family moved to the United States, eventually settling in Pennsylvania after his father, a trained architect, received sponsorship from an American architectural firm.

rudi klobach hall of fame trophy

Photo: courtesy of Mark Makela for The New York Times

In addition to coaching the girls’ soccer team through many a winning season, Coach K, as he was affectionately called, also taught German at Delran High School. In fact, the school’s German program wouldn’t exist without him: he built it from one class to a full-time curriculum with five levels of study. Deepening the school’s ties with all things Deutschland, Rudi established a German Club and traveled with his students every other year to Germany, Austria and Switzerland to enrich their language learning.

In 2011, Rudi was inducted into the South Jersey Hall of Fame in 2011. As a New Jersey native, I appreciate that they left off the “New” in the title. Sometimes Jersey is just Jersey, plain and simple.

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Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Rwanda. Credit: DKC Public Relations/AP

Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Rwanda.
Credit: DKC Public Relations/AP

I just read about an amazing woman, but only after her death. Her name was Anne Heyman and she had a vision to save Rwandan orphans by creating youth villages akin to the ones in Israel that took in all the Jewish children orphaned by the Holocaust.

When the village for orphans opened in 2008, a long line of teenagers, alone and shattered, stood in the blazing sun holding paper bags containing all their possessions. Entire families of some had been wiped out, and they had no photographs. Some did not know their birthdays, or even what their real names were.

She built the village of 32 houses high up on a hill “because children need to see far to go far,” said Heyman.

What impresses me about her work is that she embraced more than just the children, and spread the love and philanthropy in a pay-it-forward way. The youth that first arrived were those orphaned by the genocide  in 1994, but later children of parents who had died of AIDS began to  arrive. Soon, other vulnerable children were also taken in.

Ethiopian Jews who had grown up at a youth camp in Israel were the first counselors. Housemothers were hired locally to make the houses into homes, often the first the youths had known. Many of the women had lost their husbands and children to genocide.

In a nod to her inspiration, she named the camp, Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. “Agahozo” is a Kinyarwanda word meaning “a place where tears are dried” and Shalom is Hebrew for peace.

Although she died a premature death (age 52), her work will outlive her. And that’s a beautiful thing.

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As a Brooklyn-dwelling former spelling bee champ (4th and 5th grades, thank you very much), I was delighted to learn that the winning word at this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee was knaidel and it was spelled by a New York City kid who’d never eaten a matzoh ball in his life. He is the child of immigrants from southern India.

But as many who have cared to follow have since seen, the Yiddish-intelligentsia are up in arms over what they deem an incorrect spelling.

Oy vey!

At first I thought they were overreacting. But then I read this cogent essay in today’s New York Times and now see this is a much deeper issue that has its roots in anti-Semitism. According to Jewish scholar and professor Dara Horn (bold text mine),

 The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which created the standard Yiddish transliteration now used in libraries around the world, holds that the correct spelling is ‘kneydl.’

Yiddish is a thousand years old, but YIVO, founded in 1925 in what is now Vilnius in Lithuania, finished standardizing the spelling of Yiddish words in the Hebrew alphabet only in 1937. YIVO (an acronym for the Yiddish Scientific Institute) was created by scholars who saw Judaism as a nationality based on language, not religion — and who insisted, amid rising anti-Semitism, that the Yiddish language was as rich as any other. For Yiddish to matter, spelling had to count — which is why this orthographic debate is far more fraught than it appears.

…In 19th-century Europe, religious writers spelled Yiddish words by imitating Hebrew, using vowel markings where none were necessary so their new writing would resemble ancient Hebrew texts. Meanwhile, Jews who wanted to assimilate into European life wrote in a Yiddish spelling that openly imitated German.

…[In the early Soviet Union] government control over Yiddish schools and presses led to the invention and enforcement of a literally anti-Semitic Yiddish orthography by spelling the language’s many Semitic-origin words phonetically instead of in Hebrew. (Imagine spelling “naïve” as “nigh-eve” in order to look less French.) It was an attempt to erase Jewish culture’s biblical roots, letter by letter.

These psychologically destructive spellings — implying, as they all did in various ways, that Jewish culture didn’t belong in Europe — were what YIVO was fighting against.

…By 1945 the Nazis had killed the majority of the world’s Yiddish speakers. YIVO itself survived only through the efforts of Jewish prisoners, including celebrated poets who were forced by the Germans to loot YIVO’s archives for a Nazi-created “Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question.” Members of this “paper brigade” risked their lives to smuggle out cultural treasures, including documents that scholars had painstakingly collected to record and standardize Yiddish spelling.”

As Ms. Horn tweeted, “My piece on #yiddish spelling [w]as a matter of life and death,” and although perhaps a bit overstated, I somewhat agree. What do you think?

Hitler's food taster, Margot Woelk. Photo: Markus Schreiber, AP.

Hitler’s food taster, Margot Woelk. Photo: Markus Schreiber, AP.

Margot Woelk, the sole survivor of Hitler’s 15 food tasters, has recently come forward about her wartime experience. She is 95 years old and never told a soul until recently.

The food was delicious, only the best vegetables, asparagus, bell peppers, everything you can imagine. And always with a side of rice or pasta,” she recalled. “But this constant fear — we knew of all those poisoning rumors and could never enjoy the food. Every day we feared it was going to be our last meal.”

What a paradox. Indulging in gourmet fare at every meal when the rest of the world is scrounging for scraps, yet knowing any forkful could be the last. And yet, it was all to protect a megalomaniacal mass murderer. At first it seems difficult to reconcile, but after reading this important part of the story that was left out (!!!) by nearly every news outlet that reported on this in the last couple of days, I realized she too was a victim. According to an article in Spiegel, April 2, 2013,

…[the] young woman who had refused to join the League of German Girls (BDM), the girl’s version of Hitler Youth, and whose father had been hauled off for refusing to join the Nazi party, became Hitler’s helper. Each day, her life was on the line for a man she deeply despised.”

Why did she come forward now, 68 years after the war ended? “For decades, I tried to shake off those memories,” she said. “But they always came back to haunt me at night.” Well into her twilight years, frail and home-bound (there’s no elevator in her Berlin apartment building), she feels compelled to share her story and try to make peace with what she did. According to Spiegel,

It wasn’t until this winter, when a local journalist paid her a visit for her 95th birthday and began asking questions, that she spoke about what she calls the worst years of her life. At that moment, she suddenly decided to break her silence. ‘I just wanted to say what happened there,’ she says. ‘That Hitler was a really repugnant man. And a pig.’

The other 14 tasters—all young women in their early 20s like Ms. Woelk—were shot by the Russians. Only Ms. Woelk survived because she heeded the advice of an SS friend, and fled Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in the nick of time and took a train to Berlin. But her deeds did not go unpunished.

“The Russians then came to Berlin and got me, too,” Woelk said. “They took me to a doctor’s apartment and raped me for 14 consecutive days. That’s why I could never have children. They destroyed everything.”

It’s a very sad story and something I never really thought about, even though I vaguely knew there were food tasters for Hitler. It’s amazing that she kept the story to herself; she never even told her  husband. What a burden to carry for an entire life, especially one that’s lasted as long as hers. I know some people won’t feel compassion for her, and I agree on some level it’s not easy, but she suffered too at the hands of the Russians. Read more of her story here and let me know what you think.

 

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Hello to my loyal readers (all nine of you!). I was just accepted into the Byrdcliffe Writer’s Residency summer program to work exclusively on my book, Googling the Holocaust. I applied to the program several months ago and just found out today. You better believe I’m excited. Ecstatic. Yippee!!!

Thanks for your continuous support by reading my posts, commenting when something resonates (or riles), and basically for believing in me. I hope you’ll continue to stick with me as the story continues to unfold.

 

Sugihara-Train-9_4_1940-KaunasLithuania, USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

The Sugihara family headed for Berlin, Sept. 4, 1940. Courtesy of USHMM & Hiroki Sugihara.

I can’t get this image out of my head: Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara leaning out the window of his departing train, illegally signing off on visas to help thousands of Jews escape Hitler’s deathly grasp.

The Huffington Post captures the scene well: “The Japanese government closed the consulate, located in Kovno [aka Kaunas]. But even as Sugihara’s train was about to leave the city, he kept writing visas from his open window. When the train began moving, he gave the visa stamp to a refugee to continue the job.”

In Conspiracy of Kindness, a PBS film documenting Mr. Sugihara’s remarkable story, his wife, Yukiko Sugihara described their last days in Lithuania:

He was so exhausted, like a sick person. Even though he was ordered to go to Berlin, he said he couldn’t make it to Berlin and suggested we go to a hotel and rest before leaving. When we got to the hotel, the Jewish people came looking for us there. So he wrote some more visas in the hotel.

The next day when we got to the train station, they were there too. So he wrote more visas on the platform until the train left. Once we were on board, they were hanging on the windows and he wrote some more. When the train started moving, he couldn’t write any more. Everyone was waving their hands. One of them called out, ‘Thank you Mr. Sugihara, we will come to see you again,’ and he came running after the train. I couldn’t stop crying. When I think about it even now I can’t help crying.

From July 31 through August 28, 1940, Mr. Sugihara issued at least 2,139 visas; in many cases entire families were able to escape on a single visa.

Chiune Sugihara, Kaunas, Lithuania, 1940Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

Chiune Sugihara, Kaunas, Lithuania, 1940
Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

There is so much more to his story, much of it heartbreaking, but certainly worth knowing. PBS produced a timeline of his life with just the right amount of details to give us a sense of who this courageous man was. When he was sent to Prague in 1941 after Berlin, he boldly issued another 69 visas.

None of this was without consequence. Upon his return to Japan in 1947 (he and his family were interned in Russia for 18 months after the war ended), he was forced to resign and lived the next 25 years in obscurity, taking on  menial odd jobs including selling light bulbs door to door.

All this time Mr. Sugihara wondered if his visas actually worked. Although many survivors attempted to locate him, no one succeeded until 1968, when visa recipient Joshua Nishri, by then an Israeli diplomat, got in touch with him.

It wasn’t until 1985 though, after amassing hundreds of survivor testimonies attesting to Mr. Sugihara’s brave acts of kindness, that Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, declared him “Righteous Among Nations,” and planted a tree in his name. A park in Jerusalem was also named for him.

The timeline concludes with his death in 1986 at the age of 86, “…having proved beyond doubt that one person can make a difference. By some estimates, more than 40,000 people alive today have him to thank for their very existence. Sugihara once said, recalling his decision in Lithuania in 1940, ‘I may have disobeyed my government, but if I didn’t I would be disobeying God.’ ‘In life,” he said, ‘do what’s right because it’s right, and leave it alone.'”

In 2000, on the 100th anniversary of his death, Japan formally acknowledged his courageous deeds. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Foreign Minister Yohei Kono apologized to Sugihara’s widow, Yukiko, for any ‘troubles’ that Sugihara had suffered and unveiled a plaque at the ministry’s diplomatic record office, where Sugihara’s picture, his story and the list of people to whom he issued visas are now prominently displayed.”

The New York Times referred to him as the “Japanese Schindler.” No disrespect to Mr. Schindler, but Mr. Sugihara saved more lives. (I know that sounds petty and somewhat callous, but hey, it’s true.) Perhaps Mr. Schindler should be called the German Sugihara?

If you’re interested in learning more, have at it:

Beate Sirota Gordon; via The Forward

Beate Sirota Gordon (photo via The Forward)

I love learning about unsung heroes. Especially when they’re women. And Jewish.

Meet Beate Sirota Gordon (pronounced bay-AH-tay). Born in 1923 to Russian Jews who had settled in Vienna, Ms. Gordon lived in Japan from ages 5 to 15; her father, a world-renowned concert pianist, had been courted by the Imperial Academy of Music in Tokyo. In 1939, just before her 16th birthday, she moved to California to study at Mills College; her parents remained in Japan. After the attack on Pearl Harbor she was unable to reach them and had no idea if they were even alive.

Using her skills (fluent in English, German, Japanese, French, Spanish and Russian) and smarts (convinced her professors to let her take her exams without attending classes and secured a job at a U.S. government listening post monitoring radio broadcasts from Tokyo), she slowly but surely figured out how to discover their fate.  As reported by New York Times obituary writer extraordinaire Margalit Fox (now that’s a job I truly envy), Ms. Gordon “later worked in San Francisco for the United States Office of War Information, writing radio scripts urging Japan to surrender.”

Beate Sirota Gordon in 2011; photo: Stephan Babuljak

Beate Sirota Gordon at 2011 Commencement;   Credit: Stephan Babuljak

By the war’s end, she’d graduated from college and had become a U.S. citizen, but she still had no word of her parents. At this time American civilians were not welcome in Japan. By securing a job as an interpreter on General MacArthur’s staff in Washington, D.C., Ms. Gordon eventually made her way to Tokyo on Christmas Eve 1945, where she promptly discovered the depth of the city’s devastation. She went straight to her parents’ house and found a mere charred pillar.

She eventually found her parents, who had been interned in the countryside and were severely malnourished. She nursed them back to health in Tokyo while working for General MacArthur.

The first item on MacArthur’s agenda was to draft a post-war constitution for Japan, a top-secret assignment that had to be completed in one-week’s time. As the lone woman on the committee, Ms. Gordon was assigned the section on women’s rights. She was 22 years old.

“Japanese women were historically treated like chattel; they were property to be bought and sold on a whim,’ Ms. Gordon told The Dallas Morning News in 1999. “Women had no rights whatsoever.”

Among the rights granted as penned by Ms. Gordon were “choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters.” The constitution went into effect in 1947.

She didn’t mention her role in Japan’s constitution until the mid-1980s. Her memoir, The Only Woman in the Room, which came out in 1995, made her a celebrity in Japan. There is also a documentary about her life, “The Gift From Beate.”

Although there must be other stories out there of Jews in Japan during and after WWII, this is the first I’ve read about. If you know of others please send them my way.

Lost Childhood - by Rachel Konnely

Lost Childhood – Photo: Rachel Kornelly

I came upon this student Holocaust exhibition in a rather somber fashion, after reading an obituary for Kathy Carlisle, the high school teacher who had assigned it. The project, The Holocaust: Illuminated Memory, showcases the collective work of photography students at St. Francis High School, Spring Semester 2012. In Ms. Carlisle’s own words,

“This conceptual photography assignment required students to utilize historical research about the Holocaust to create symbolic photographic imagery.  An exploration of artists employing symbolism, metaphor, and allegory in historical and contemporary art established the foundation of the project. Students began their work by expanding their knowledge of the Holocaust from 1933 to 1945 through personal and collaborative research and class assignments.

The students’ creative challenges began as they refined their research to focus on a single personal narrative from a survivor or someone who had perished in the Holocaust. They were asked to personally assess and symbolize the essence of that single person’s story through photographic imagery. Students were limited to a palette of sepia or black and white photography, using only tonal value to describe the depth and breadth of their concept. The final step of the project required students to write an artist’s statement about their work, elucidating their creative process and its connection to their research.”

What I like about this assignment is that it required the students to get in real close and seek out one person or one moment and create art around that. To see the trees instead of the forest. St. Francis is an all-girls Catholic school, so I’m assuming none of the young women have a personal connection to the Holocaust, although it’s quite possible I am mistaken. Some of the students were able to go beyond the cliché, not an easy task in our over-saturated Holocaust memorializing world. I did not write that last sentence as a criticism of the vast amount of Holocaust art and literature that exists, only that it’s quite a feat to capture something that goes beyond “Never Forget.”

Some of the students’ work worth mentioning include:

Lost in the Snow - Photo: Hibba Munir

Trapped in the Snow – Photo: Hibba Munir


Trapped in the Snow
– by Hibba Munir
I linked my images to the personal history of Hanna Mueller. Hannah Mueller was reading about the harrowing treatment of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition and she told her grandmother, “We’re fortunate that we live in the 20th century in Czechoslovakia and such a thing can’t happen to us.” It was only six years later on March 15, 1939, when the Germans occupied Prague. On a cold and snowy day, when Mueller was only a mile from her home, the Germans entered the city on tanks and trucks, with their guns pointed toward the rooftops. The picture I chose symbolizes how calm the cold and snowy day seemed, until the Germans entered the city. In my second image, the fence symbolizes how the Jews were trapped and how they were just waiting to reach the other side, which contained trees, a symbol of freedom. Mueller’s story really moved me because it made me think of how innocent the Jews were, and how bad luck just came upon when they least expected it. I learned how much suffering the Jews went through both emotionally and physically. I learned how unjust the Germans actions were. By reading Mueller’s story and other stories, I was able to grasp a better perspective of what occurred at the concentration camps.

The Valued Potato - Photo: Nhi Le

The Valued Potato – Photo: Nhi Le


The Valued Potato
by Nhi Le

In this image, I wanted to emphasize the importance of a potato to a person living during the Holocaust. I was surprised that someone compared a potato to a diamond. I didn’t think anyone would compare a small worthless potato to a valuable diamond. When I read about this, I thought of how much I eat every day and how I have taken so much for granted. In the photograph, I compared a bowl of food that I eat everyday to one potato that can last a person a whole day or even a week.

 

The Wall in the Way - Photo: Maxi Wilson

The Wall in the Way – Photo: Maxi Wilson


The Wall in the Way
– by Maxi Wilson

I chose to portray the life of David Rubinowicz. He loved nature and enjoyed looking out a window that faced a road and a large field. He said that he remembered when his favorite field was blocked by marching soldiers. I was inspired to portray having things that you loved forcefully taken away. I learned that the Holocaust involved a lot of sneaking, hiding, and running away than I had originally thought. I know that many families were separated during the Holocaust, but I feel like losing something inanimate, like a field, is just as heartbreaking. If you lose the joyful things in life, along with the love from your family, what do you really have? I felt that having a gate in front of the field would portray the dividing aspect of the Holocaust. In other words, it shows that victims of the Holocaust were unable to have what they desired.

 

Mario Balotelli at Auschwitz; photo: Getty

Mario Balotelli,  the  Ghana-born Italian soccer star who led Italy into the Euro 2012 soccer championship finals yesterday, was raised by a Jewish Italian foster mother from the age of three. Holy hummus on pita, Batman!

Out of courtesy and respect, Balotelli and his Man City teammates visited Auschwitz while in Poland for Euro 2012. At one point he sat down on the train tracks that transported millions of people to their death and stared silently into the distance. Later he told his teammates that three of his family members were among those killed in Auschwitz. According to the European Jewish Press, he’d never shared that information with anyone before.

Balotelli, who is 21 years old, told The Sun that when he was 18 he found letters and documents that revealed his mother’s tragic  past.

He dedicated his two goals against Germany to his mother, Silvia Balotelli, who had come from Italy to watch him play.

 “At the end of the game when I went to my mother, that was the best moment,” he said. “I told her these goals were for her. I waited a long time for this moment, especially as my mother is not young anymore and can’t travel far, so I had to make her happy when she came all the way here.”

Balotelli dedicates his two goals against Germany to his mom, Silvia Balotelli. photo: ejp.com

Waiting to hear their names called… photo: courtesy of The Sun

First they were fighting for their lives. Now they’re fighting for the crown?

Yesterday in Haifa, Israel, 14 female Holocaust survivors aged 74 to 97 competed in a beauty pageant for the title of Miss Holocaust Survivor (at the very least they could have extended the courtesy of Ms. Holocaust Survivor.) Shimon Sabag, director of Yad Ezer L’Haver (Helping Hand), the organization that produced this event, said that the pageant was a celebration of life and that “the fact that so many women entered prove that it’s a good idea.”

I beg to differ.

That so many women — the 14 contestants came from a pool of 300 — does not mean it was a good idea. I’m no scientist but if you’re going to use the words “fact” and (a variation of the word) “proof,” it should at least pass the smell test. And this pageant reeks of wrong on so many levels.

Critics have alternately described the pageant as macabre, inappropriate, misguided, offensive, and gimmicky. I believe it is all those things. And it’s surely in bad taste.

Ms. Sabag says  the winners were chosen based on their personal stories of survival and rebuilding their lives after the war.  She’s quick to note that “physical beauty was only a tiny part of the competition.” Grrr.

I wonder if she and the other organizers of this pageant were responding to the fact that survivors  —and their children and grandchildren — are desperate to keep the stories of the Holocaust alive. There are so many books and memoirs out there and many people complain that there’s nothing left to be said, or at least nothing new. This was a nice deflection perhaps, to offer up something new to talk about something that’s becoming increasingly old. But even so, it still feels crass and misguided.

I like what Gal Mor of Israeli site, Holes in the Net, wrote:

“Why should a decayed, competitive institution that emphasizes women’s appearance be used as inspiration, instead of allowing them to tell their story without gimmicks? This is one step short of ‘Survivor-Holocaust’ or ‘Big Brother Auschwitz.’ It leaves a bad taste.”

Indeed it does. What do you think?