Graduation 1979, the author with his parents and brother

Graduation 1979, Dr. Rotbart with his parents and brother. Photo courtesy of NYT.

Read a really powerful essay this morning in the New York Times and thought I’d share it with you.

Poised to attend his daughter’s graduation from NYU this month, a man named Harley Rotbart, M.D. was reminded of his medical school graduation in May 1979. His father, a survivor of Auschwitz who was orphaned in the war, was never able to get a proper education past middle school. When he came to the states he made his living as a fruit peddler:

He was the most brilliant fruit peddler in the history of fruit peddling, the smartest man I ever knew,” writes Dr. Rotbart.

Yet, he had a crushing inferiority complex and felt he stood out for all the wrong reasons, mainly his lack of education and thick Polish accent. He was intimidated by all the accomplishments of those around him. But at his son’s graduation a curious thing happened. Dr. Rotbart describes the emotional scene that occurred immediately after the ceremony:

After hugs from my brother and Mom, I moved on to Dad. What happened at that moment I will never forget. Crying loudly, Dad fell to his knees in what can only be described as a total emotional breakdown. He shook and shivered and sobbed. People all around turned to stare, but he didn’t notice or didn’t care. The usual self-consciousness was gone. As I dropped to my knees to face him, he held me like never before. Everyone backed away to give us space; a few applauded. Strangers took pictures. Dad and I stayed on our knees, crying and hugging for a long time, until we both had the strength to stand up. Then, holding onto each other and to my Mom and brother, we made our way out of the auditorium. We didn’t stop at the reception for cookies or punch. We just kept walking until we felt the rain on our faces.

Only later did I fully realize what had happened. On that day, and again in a similar scene at my brother’s journalism school ceremony the next year, Dad was liberated from Auschwitz. He was no longer “142178,” a Nazi victim. My father could now stand face to face with doctors, journalists and other accomplished Americans. Although uneducated himself, he had educated his kids, and that was plenty good enough. Better than good enough: it was great. No longer bound by the restraints life had forced on him, he reveled in what this new country had given him. He reveled in his family and in his fruit truck. He reveled in personally defeating Hitler. At his sons’ graduations, he graduated to freedom.

I am so touched by this man’s capacity for love and understanding for his father.  The bittersweet release that his father felt, which took more than 34 years to occur, was certainly a long-time coming. It’s sad but it’s also happy. Many, perhaps most, survivors never get (or got) a sense of closure and freedom in their lifetime. But his father did, and it happened twice. Must’ve been a beautiful scene to happen upon. And I love Dr. Rotbart’s ability to tell it in such a sweet and loving way.

Oh, Dr. Rotbart is a pediatrician and author of several books about parenting, one of which is called, No Regrets Parenting. Sounds like he learned a lot from his dad. If you click through to the essay in the Times, you’ll see several photos of his dad. Take a close look at his smile in the two fruit-related pictures. It’s genuine and gorgeous. The best kind of smile.

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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.

 

TimeSpaceCreate

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.

 

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Credit: USC Institute for Creative Technologies

It won’t be long before people besides Joel Haley Osment start saying, “I see dead people.”

You know how one of the main laments of Holocaust studies for future (and current) generations is that the survivor population is dying out? How books and movies aren’t the same as face-to-face encounters with in-the-flesh survivors? Well, the University of Southern California is trying to do something about it.

According to a recent CNET article, “As the aging Holocaust survivor population dwindles, USC scientists scurry to create life-size 3D holograms that can answer viewer questions through Siri-like voice-recognition technology.”

The hologram initiative is a collaboration between the USC Shoah Foundation and design firm Conscience Display. According to CNET, they are developing “installations that let students and others converse with the hyper-photorealistic life-size digital versions of the survivors. Viewers ask questions, and the holograms respond, thanks to Siri-style natural-language technology, also developed at USC, that allows observers to ask questions that trigger relevant, spoken answers.”

Quick aside: I knew USC was home to Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, but I didn’t know it was responsible for Apple’s Siri technology. Nice. Great way to use what you’ve got and keep things in-house, USC!

The initiative is called New Dimensions in Testimony and USC says it will “display testimony in a way that will continue the dialogue between Holocaust survivors and learners far into the future.”

If you can get past the creepy aspect, (can’t help but see this played out in a Scooby-Doo episode), it sounds like a potentially viable solution to stem the despair of those who feel the memory of the Holocaust will die with its survivors. With the amount of Holocaust literature, art and film already in existence, plus those in the works (like mine) or that will be made in the future, I highly doubt that, but still, it will definitely have a less dire effect when there are no survivors on the ground.

This is the part I like best (aside from the cool hologram element, of course): “New Dimensions in Testimony will yield insights into the experiences of survivors through a new set of interview questions, some that survivors are asked on a regular basis, plus many of which have not been asked before.” (italics mine)

Hopefully they can get this project done quickly while the remaining survivors are still lucid enough to answer these new questions with some degree of clarity. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see. But I must say, I trust these guys at USC. They seem to know what they’re doing.

I’m more interested in the “holy-hologram-wow” factor, but for those of you interested in the techie stuff, the aforementioned CNET article goes into greater detail and includes relevant links.

What do you think about Holocaust holograms? Creepy? Brilliant? Not sure? Do you foresee potential problems or glitches? Do you think kids will be freaked out by this or intrigued? Please, do tell.

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.

 

AshesHolocaustSweden

The mausoleum at the Majdanek concentration camp outside Lublin, Poland. Photo: CC BY-ND Kasia/Flickr

You know the definition of chutzpah wherein a man kills his parents and then begs for leniency on account of being an orphan? Well, here’s something that closely adheres to that definition: a Swedish artist used the remains of people murdered at Majdanek concentration camp in Poland for his painting, currently on display at a gallery in Lund, Sweden.

The artist, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, defends his use of the ashes, per his artist statement at the gallery: ‘The ash has followed me, always been there …  as if the ash contains energies or memories or souls of people … people tortured, tormented and murdered by other people in one of the 19th century’s most ruthless wars.’”

Uh, yeah, and that’s why you should not have used their ashes in your art. Those ashes are sacred. And they don’t belong to you. According to The Blaze: “[von Hausswolff] apparently collected the ashes 20 years ago, however there is not much information regarding how he acquired them. The Telegraph claims that he ‘took the ashes during a 1989 visit to Majdanek.’ A translation from a description on the gallery’s web site seems to indicate that the artist nabbed the ashes directly from cremation ovens during his visit.”

What an ash-hole.

The eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. I remember and I honor you. With me, this is personal: Without you my mother would’ve perished in the death camp. Thank you to that one vet who saved her from certain death and to the countless others who risk their lives every day to save the innocent. – Thomas Berger (aka, my husband)

This blog post is in honor of LeRoy “Pete” Petersohn, who made my husband’s existence, and subsequently my two children’s, possible. Below is an abridged version of his obituary from the Beacon News, his employer of 44 years.

LeRoy Emil Petersohn LeRoy “Pete” Emil Petersohn, 87, of Montgomery, [Illinois] passed away Monday June 14, 2010 at his home. He was born August 14, 1922 in Aurora the son of the late Emil and Minnie (Schmitt) Petersohn.

Pete retired from the Beacon News after 44 years and was a 60 year member of the Chicago Typographical Union. He was a life member of Montgomery VFW and a member of the American Legion.

A veteran of World War II, in October 2008 he received a prestigious Shofar of Freedom award from Temple Israel in Albany, NY; for being a liberator, witness, and providing much needed medical care to the victims of the Holocaust at  Mauthausen Concentration Camp near Linz, Austria. He was a medic with Patton’s Third Army, Eleventh Armored Division Headquarters Combat Command B. He entered the war at Bastogne, Belgium and received his purple heart during the Battle of the Bulge. He was an original liberator at  Mauthausen concentration camp, while there he convinced his Major that a very ill, three-week old baby was worth saving. Sixty years later, the baby and he were reunited during a celebration of the liberation, at Mauthausen. Their story has recently been published in a book titled The Liberators: America’s Witnesses to the Holocaust, by Michael Hirsh. In 2005 he received the Golden Badge of Honor from the Austrian government.

He is survived by a very close and dear friend Dolly Wilson of Montgomery, his daughter Sandra Whiting of Black Forest Colorado, sons, Gary (Bobbie) May of Aurora Colorado, David (Sally) Petersohn of Oswego, Randy (Donna) Petersohn of Lombard, Brian (Debbie) Petersohn of Montgomery, a special niece Bonnie (Dwight) Evinger McConnell of Montgomery and a very special “Baby” Dr. Hana Berger Moran of Orinda, California, 13 grandchildren, 10 great grandchildren, numerous family members and an unbelievable amount of wonderful and supportive friends.

That “very ill, three-week old baby worth saving” refers to my mother-in-law, Hana Berger Moran. Her only child, Tom Berger, is my husband and the father of my two children, third generation Holocaust survivors.
Thank you Pete. It was an honor to meet you in Albany when you received the Golden Shofar Award. My family and I are forever grateful for your service.

2nd and 3rd generation Holocaust survivors display their honorary tattoos.  Photo: Uriel Sinai for The New York Times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rolling Stones reference aside, many children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are getting replica tattoos of their relatives’ prisoner identification numbers, permanently etching history — a very personal one at that — onto their arms.

New York Times reporter Jodi Rudoren writes in today’s paper how the kin of Auschwitz survivors “are memorializing the darkest days of history on their own bodies.”

Rudoren writes, “Only those deemed fit for work were tattooed, so despite the degradation, the numbers were in some cases worn with pride, particularly lower ones, which indicated having survived several brutal winters in the camp.”

I never knew that. My mother-in-law’s mother was deemed fit to work and did so at a slave labor camp in Freiberg, Germany. She also had a number, but it was never tattooed on her body. I’m not sure why but when I inquired my mother-in-law told me she believes it was because it was the very end of the war and the Nazis were just trying to process the prisoners as quickly as possible. Tattooing, apparently, slowed them down.

I learned a few other things in Rudoren’s article: Auschwitz was the only camp to employ this method of identification. Also, they started out branding chests but eventually moved to the left forearm.

“After the war, some Auschwitz survivors rushed to remove the tattoos through surgery or hid them under long sleeves,” writes Rudoren. “But over the decades, others played their numbers in the lottery or used them as passwords.”

Some Jews find the act of tattooing a relative’s number on one’s forearm offensive and disrespectful.

Rudoren writes, “The 10 tattooed descendants interviewed for this article echoed one another’s motivations: they wanted to be intimately, eternally bonded to their survivor-relative. And they wanted to live the mantra ‘Never forget’ with something that would constantly provoke questions and conversation.”

In July 2011 I wrote about a grandson who has his grandfather’s number inked on his bicep, a gesture I am just now realizing shows strength rather than subservience. In the accompanying photo he is flexing his tattooed bicep, proving his point.

Thanks to my friend Liv Nilsson Stutz for bringing this article to my attention.