Journey of Conscience: Countries Around the World Respond to the Holocaust
Lecture presented by Irene Shaland at the Maltz Museum on January 30 at 7:00PM
Why do we tell stories?
Is it to entertain: to capture the attention of the mind for just a moment?
Is it to teach: to pass down lessons from one generation to the next?
Is it to remember: to ensure that our histories are never lost?
Maybe each story has its own reasons to be told. Without remembrance, Italian writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levy says, there is no future.
———————————————————————————————————————————–An internationally-published writer and educator Irene Shaland invites you to embark on a journey through the painful past and often controversial present of nine countries on three continents to understand how and why various nations around the world respond to the Holocaust remembrance.
“…memory is the keyword, which combines past and present, past and future…” Elie Wiesel
Austria, Germany, Hungary
We start our journey in Vienna. This magnificent city, an epicenter of European elegance and sophistication, is basking in its Baroque and Art Nouveau splendor. Vienna would rather have you waltzing from Schonbrunn Palace to Sachertorte’s shops, instead of searching out the synagogues and homes of its long-gone Jews. The Holocaust victims’ destiny was, for the most part, determined by three factors: the degree of control the Nazis had in the region, the history of Jews there, and the actions of the locals. The latter is where the Viennese truly excelled: their inventiveness and viciousness surprised even the Germans and quickly turned the city of Mahler and Freud into the city of “Hitler’s willing executioners.” After the war, Austria’s official position was that the country was the very first victim of the Nazi’s aggression. The Jewish community of Vienna today is small and, for the most part, consists of Eastern European immigrants. Austrian officials were not interested in inviting Holocaust survivors to return. Their shops and businesses had changed owners, university chairs and medical practices had been taken and, as some admit today, many a Vienna apartment still has furniture and art objects “borrowed”from Jewish neighbors. So why bother? And the Austrians didn’t, until the 1990s, when the Austrian government issued a statement acknowledging that Austria did take some part in the atrocities committed by the Nazis. To showcase its regret, the government even reconstructed a synagogue in Innsbruck (1993) and a Jewish Library in Vienna (1994). We follow the usual tourist route of Jewish Vienna from the Monument against War and Fascismto the Judisches Museum, from the Museum Judenplatzto the only Holocaust memorialin Austria and the nearby Stadttempel.But it is only when we reach an “un-touristy” Vienna by crossing the river to Leopoldstadtand follow the Path of Remembrancethere, we will see the Holocaust victims’ culture and suffering recognized. This is where the murdered Jews of Vienna are remembered, and finally their names and their life stories return.
We contrast Austria’s half-hearted efforts in reconciling its historic accounts with Germany’s “journey of conscious” into the painful past. In Berlin, we stop at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europenear Reichstag. There, on the sloping field, hundreds black concrete slabs of varying in height create the uneasy, troubling experience of walking through a surreal necropolis that lost its touch with humanity. We continue to the Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, where architecture reflects the “topography of terror” and tells the harrowing story of the Holocaust. We conclude our German tour by discussing the Stolpersteineinitiative that began in Germany and is spreading throughout Europe.
Our next stop is Hungary, where we start in Budapest near the deeply emotional monument called Shoes by the Danube. There, as we stroll along the embankment, we are passing by sixty pairs of rusted period shoes cast out of iron. Different sizes and styles, they are copies of the shoes that belonged to children, women, and men – all slaughtered by the Hungarian Arrow Cross militia. Then, we go to the Jewish quarterand walk along the streets where, as Elie Wiesel remembered in his Night,the Hungarian police barked their orders echoed throughout that small Jewish ghetto: “Faster! Faster! Move, you lazy good-for-nothings!” Hungary’s culpability in the Holocaust is undeniable. Yet in the years since the Cold War, the country is shifting from acknowledging that complicity to portraying itself, just like Austria did, as a helpless victim of the Nazi occupation. We visit the Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupationunveiled in Budapest’s Liberty Squarein 2014 during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the events of 1944, when the Nazi army entered Budapest. It depicts an eagle with sharp talons, signifying Nazi Germany, swooping down and attacking the archangel Gabriel holding a cross in his hand, who symbolizes the Hungarian people. We will proceed to the Freedom Squarewhere the country’s identity crisis as related to the Holocaust and Communism materializes in concreate and bronze. In January 2018, on the Holocaust Memorial Day, the Monument to Miklos Hothywas unveiled. In reality, this war-time “hero” sent thousands of Jews to concentration camps during the war.
To find a “happy Jewish story” in relation to the Holocaust, we need to change the continents and come to the island of Cuba that has been a welcoming refuge for the Jews since 1492, when conversossought a safe haven from the Spanish Inquisition. We start in Santiago,the gateway to Cuban and to Jewish history. There, we visit Fidel Castro Memorial at the Santa Ifigenia Cemeteryand discuss the controversial dictator’s legacy and his attitudes towards the Jews, the Holocaust, and the State of Israel. We proceed to Havana next, where in the 1930s, instigated by the Cuban nationalists in cooperation with the Nazi German Embassy, the hostility toward Jewish immigrants from Europe fueled both antisemitism and xenophobia. These attitudes played a significant role in the infamous tragic case of the transatlantic liner St. Luis.But with Batista’s coming to power, the atmosphere changed, and a relatively high number of Jewish refugees from the Nazi-occupied countries managed to slip into Cuba. Between 1933 and 1944, their number was estimated at 10,000 or even higher. Most were from Western Europe: refugees from Germany and Austria constituted over fifty percent; the majority of the rest were from Holland and Belgium. The refugees from Antwerp were encouraged by the Cuban government to introduce the diamond polishing business on the island. Within one year, they transformed the island’s economy and founded over twenty plants that employed thousands of workers. After the war, most of them returned to Europe. This little-known story of Cuba as a safe haven for refugees from the Holocaustis documented in the 2018 movie “Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels” by Robin Truesdale and Judith Krietz. In Havana, we also visit a small Holocaust Memorial located in the most unusual of places: a Jewish hotel! Named after the matriarch from the Bible, Raquel, this beautiful Art Nuevo building went into disrepair, but was reborn as a Jewish-themed hotel, with the government placing stakes on growing tourism, especially that of the American Jewish groups. Every room is named after a heroine of the Bible, and the restaurant serves Jewish dishes like gefilte fish and blintzes.
India and China
Going to Asia, we will follow India’s Jewish narrative and meet the world’s oldest, continuously living Jewish community. Visiting the best-kept secret in Delhi,its one room synagogue, we meet the Rabbi/Cantor/Attorney/Hebrew scholar Ezekiel Malekar who related a little-known story about India’s lives-saving role during the Holocaust. In the beginning of World War II, a ship with 1200 Polish Jewish orphans and some adult guardians was not allowed to dock in Britain. However, it was sponsored by a Baghdadi Jewish philanthropist, and ended up in Bombay. But there again, the British authorities would not grant them entry without permission from London, so the Maharajah (great king) of Jamnagar,in an India state of Gujarat, accepted them as his personal guests. There, the refugees were well cared for until the war ended. In 1989, the surviving members of the group along with their children and grandchildren, returned to Gujarat from the US and Israel, and dedicated a memorial to their safe haven, Indian state of Gujarat. The same group returned in the year 2000 when Gujarat was badly affected by a natural disaster, and the group worked to rebuild two villages. About ten years ago when Mr. Malekar, wanted to publish an account of that unparalleled chapter in the Holocaust history he contacted the Maharaja’s family for comments. Maharajas’ son responded that his deceased father would not have wanted any publicity because the Maharajah thought of the Polish refugees as his own brothers and sisters and treated them as such. The story of India as a shelter for Jews during the Holocaust is not commonly known, but what a very Indian story it is.
Arriving in China, we start with a brief discussion of the Chinese Jewish narrative that consists of two distinctive stories: one is of the Jews OF China (Silk Road, Kaifeng, Luoyang) and another is that of the Jews IN China (Harbin, Shanghai). In Shanghai, we explore this city, an archetype of modern China, city of action and burgeoning economy with its typical self-confidence. We follow the Jewish heritage path there: from the first arrivals of the Baghdadi Jews in the 1840s, to the Russian wave in the 1920s-30s, to Shanghai becoming a safe haven during the Holocaust. Then, the path continues to the Japanese invasion and the creation of the “Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees” or Shanghai Ghetto. We visit numerous Jewish-related sites such as the Ohel Rachel Synagogue (now Education Bureau), the Jewish Refugee Museum (former Ohel Moshe Synagogue), the houses in the former Ghetto, and the recently created Memorial Wall to the Shanghai WW II refugees.
Norway and Sweden
Retuning to Europe, our destination now is Scandinavia, where during WW II almost the entire Danish Jewish community and close to half-of the Norwegian Jews were smuggled to neutral Sweden and saved from the Nazis. In our quest to understand both Norwegian and Swedish responses to the Holocaust, we have go to Oslo and Stockholm. The Jewish Museum of Oslois located in the old synagogue building on Calmeyer Street in the center of the city, in a neighborhood marked by the last 30 years of immigration: we see an Iraqi barbershop, Kurdish bakery, and a mosque. This area was traditionally an immigrant enclave: fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, about 100 Jews were the first settlers. In the building next to the museum, Salomon Selikowitz from Lithuania opened his haberdashery business in the 1890s. Most Jews who lived on this street during the 1940s, ended up in Auschwitz. Today only the Stolpersteineor memorial brass cobblestones with the victims’ names, dates of birth and deportation, attest to the destruction of the Oslo Jewry. Few people hurrying down the street look down at these brass plates. The voices of the dead are barely heard. But inside the Museum, there is a wonderful exhibit: “Remember us unto life – Jews in Norway 1940-45” dedicated to Norwegian Jews who were denounced by their neighbors, arrested by the Norwegian police, deported, and sent to Auschwitz. We will also meet an architecture student Lior Habash to discuss the current rise of antisemitism and what it means to be a Jew in Norway today. Our next stop is the Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minoritieslocated in Bygdoy neighborhood, in a beautiful park-covered island, just across the harbor from downtown Oslo. The first thing one sees when approaching the Center is a giant sculpture that resembles a punch card. The artwork is called the “Innocent Questions:” the shifting words and phrases of a giant punch card are connected to personal data,” innocent” perhaps at a first glance, but used to facilitate mass murder of Norwegian Jews. The Center houses a Holocaust museum and is engaged in research, documentation, and education. What makes the Center’s exhibit diffirent is its focus on the role Norwegians played in the mass murder of their former neighbors and co-workers. Traditionally, in history lessons, the Germans were presented as villains, while Norwegians were resistant fighters, heroes, who risked their lives trying to smuggle their Jewish compatriots to Sweden. While the stories of heroism are certainly true, Norwegians today have to face the fact that the collection of data on Jewish residents, arrests and deportations were carried out by the Norwegians.
Stockholm: To see a more complete picture of the Jewish story within a Scandinavian context, we have to go to Sweden, the country that during World War II was a safe haven for most of the Scandinavian Jewry. In Stockholm, we explore the role Sweden played in saving not only the Jews from Denmark and Norway but also from Eastern European countries via the Swedish Red Cross White Buses project. We visit the controversial Rail Wallenberg Memorialand discuss why this hero, venerated in the US, Israel, and several other countries, was never given deserved recognition in his own homeland. The mystery of Wallenberg’s disappearance in the Soviet prisons remains unsolved. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, two official joint investigations, Swedish and Russian, failed to provide any answers: what were the circumstances and cause for his arrest? Why was not he released together with his Swedish colleagues? The unexplained indifference of the Swedish government during the first crucial years of Wallenberg’s disappearance is nothing short of a (intentional?) diplomatic blunder that Sweden, two generations later, has yet to explore fully. Our next stop is theGreat Synagogue of Swedenlocated in the heart of Stockholm. There we meet John Gradowski, the Head of Information and Public Relations for the Jewish Community of Stockholm. John takes us to a courtyard where an impressive Holocaust memorial was inaugurated by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden in 1998. The Memorial is a 42-meter wall leading from the Synagogue’s entrance to the Jewish Community office building. The names of 8,500 victims, relatives of the Jews of Sweden, are engraved on this wall, serving as a link between “a monstrous past and a future in which such atrocities should not be repeated,” said John. He pointed to a sculpture in the Synagogue yard: an elderly Jewish man rushing away with a Torah in his hands. Called “Flight with a Torah,” it was made by a Russian-born Swedish Jewish artist Willy Gordon as a memorial to Sweden as a safe haven during the Holocaust. We continue our discussion about the Jews in Sweden today: from the situation in Malmo to the rise of anti-Semitism in Sweden and Annika Hernroth-Rothstein‘s struggle for preservation of the Jewish identity when she applied for a political asylum in her own country.
The Former Soviet Union
Our last stop is the Former Soviet Union, where we visit Minsk, Belarusthat has one of the most impressive Holocaust memorials in that country. Until the breakup of the Soviet Union, the government never recognized what happened during World War II to the European Jewry in general and to their own Jewish citizens in particular. Even though the word “Holocaust” came into widespread usage at the end of the 1960s, it was only when my husband and I arrived in the U.S. in 1982 that we learned about the Nazi’s “Final Solution” and heard the word for the first time. The Soviets had their specific models for controlling historic remembrance both within their republics and the Soviet bloc countries. The Soviet government completely rejected any notion of national identity. The official propaganda showcased the number of Soviet people killed by the enemy during the war but never specific atrocities done to the Jews. The very word “Jewish” was never used and instead, the vague “Soviet patriotic citizens” were commemorated. The Soviets suppressed any hint of the Nazi “final solution” for the same reason they covered up other wartime accounts, such as the massive collaboration with the Nazis in the Soviet territory and in the countries that would become members of the Soviet bloc. The Soviet government’s goal was to conceal the Nazis’ mass killing of the Jews, while blaming the Germans for their own atrocities like the Katyn Massacre when the Red Army’s executed more than nine hundred Polish officers in the Katyn forest. The regime did not want questions about its own strategies of ethnic relocations, mass purges, and concentration camps.
Minsk, Belarus:Yama (the Pit). According to “The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust,” the Minsk ghetto was the largest ghetto the Nazis established in the occupied Soviet territories. Between 80,000 to 100,000 Jews of Minsk and the vicinity were forced into that ghetto and most were murdered. In 1947, a modest obelisk was erected near the place where thousands of Minsk Jews were massacred. The Minsk memorial is considered to bethe first Soviet memorial dedicated to the Jewish victims of Nazism. For many years, it was also the only one that dared to proclaim openly in Yiddish: “Dedicated to the Jews, victims of Nazism.” At the end of the 1940s –early 1950s, during Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign against “cosmopolitism,” both the poet Chaim Maltinski who wrote the verse in remembrance of the murdered Jews and the stonemason Morduch Sprishen who chiseled these words on the obelisk were arrested and sent to the Gulag for their “bourgeois and nationalistic” tendencies. In the year 2000, a sculptured group was added to the old obelisk. The added group was created by a Jewish Belarus architect Leonid Levin and Israeli sculptors Else Pollack and Alexander Finski. The entire complex is now called The Pit (“Yama” in Russian). Placed at the site where Minsk Jews were killed, the monument is indeed a deep pit with a long granite staircase leading to the bottom. A bronze group of twenty seven emaciated naked human figures is descending along the steps toward their violent death. A violinist, pregnant woman, and children are among the group. Faces are not detailed, just an overall expression of horror. It took eight years to complete this group. All work was done by hand. The memorial, whichI believe to be one of the best visual expressions of many families’ Holocaust narratives, is being repeatedly vandalized.
Perhaps some things never change: there will always be those who are bent on destruction and those who are inspired to create. Let our families’ Holocaust narratives, oral, written, or chiseled in bronze, be the creative force that preserves memories and builds bridges between the horrific past and the future in which inhuman atrocities should not be repeated. May we always choose life. L’Chaim.
Find more Irene Shaland’s stories in her latest book “The Dao of Being Jewish and Other Stories”