Global Response to the Holocaust Lecture Part 1: Austria, Germany, Hungary, Soviet Union Global Response to the Holocaust Lecture, a free Zoom event. Free Virtual Lecture Series Hosted by the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage October 14, November 11, December 9   Register by phone or follow the links, see below. These lectures are FREE but Registration for each event is required.

 Presented by Irene Shaland

Part I – The Ring of Fire: Austria, Germany, Hungary, Soviet Union – October 14  at 7:00 PM

Part II – From Europe to Asia: Norway, SwedenChina, India – November 11  at 7:00 PM

Part IIIThe Islands and the Boot: Cuba, Calabria/Italy, Malta, Corsica – December 9  at 7:00 PM

 Lectures are free, but a separate registration is required for each event. Zoom link(s) will be sent after the registration on the Museum’s site or by phone:

Call 216.593.0575 for info or to register.  Or register on Maltz Museum website:

For PART 1 of 3 Register here:

For PART 2 of 3 register here:

For PART 3 of 3 register here: 

About the lecture and the presenter, Irene Shaland

“…memory is the keyword, which combines past and present, past and future…” Elie Wiesel

Irene Shaland, the author of “The Dao of Being Jewish and Other Stories” invites you to embark on a journey through the painful past and often controversial present of twelve countries on three continents to understand how and why various nations around the world respond to the Holocaust remembrance. 

Find out more about Irene Shaland: link to Irene Shaland’s Page.

Check out Irene’s Lecture Schedule: link to lecture schedule.

Learn more about Irene’s latest book:

Free Zoom Lecture Travels in Jewish History Part I: Asia

*** New City Library, New York Presents Irene Shaland’s Free Virtual Zoom Lectures: Travels in Jewish History  ***

Part I:   Asia — Wednesday, Sept. 30 at 7:00 PM

Reservations Required:  Call 845-634-4997, ext. 139 OR Register on line at

Join Irene Shaland, the author of “The Dao of Being Jewish and Other Stories,” for a fascinating two-part talk about her travels through Jewish history in six countries on two continents.

In Part I:


Schedule of 2020 Jewish History Lectures by Irene Shaland

Rabbi Barbara Aiello

Upcoming Jewish History Lectures Presented by Irene Shaland:
September, October, December 2020

“…memory is the keyword, which combines past and present, past and future…” Elie Wiesel

An internationally-published writer and educator Irene Shaland invites you to embark on a journey through the painful past and often controversial present of twelve countries on three continents to understand how and why various nations around the world respond to the Holocaust remembrance.

Date Time Location Lecture Subject
Sept. 30, 2020 7:00 PM Zoom virtual event Irene Shaland presents Part I of her lecture “Travels in Jewish History” sponsored by the New City Library, New City, NY.  The lecture is free, but registration is required. To register call 845-634-4997, ext. 139.
Oct. 7, 2020 7:00PM Zoom virtual event Irene Shaland presents Part II of her lecture “Travels in Jewish History” sponsored by the New City Library, New City, NY.  The lecture is free, but registration is required. To register call 845-634-4997, ext. 139.
Oct. 14, 2020 7:00PM Zoom virtual event Irene Shaland’s virtual ZOOM lecture: “Global Response to the Holocaust, Part I: The Ring of Fire: Austria, Germany, Hungary, Soviet Union.” Hosted by the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. Separate Registration for Each Part is Required: Follow link to registration:
Oct. 15, 2020 4:30 PM Holocaust Resource Center of Kean University, NJ Irene Shaland presents her lecture “Journey of Conscience: Countries Around the World Respond to the Holocaust” at the Holocaust Resource Center of Kean University, 1000 Morris Ave. Union, NJ 07083. To register call 908-737-4633.
Nov. 11, 2020 7:00PM Zoom virtual event Irene Shaland’s virtual ZOOM lecture: “Global Response to the Holocaust, Part II: From Europe to Asia: Norway, Sweden, China, India.” Hosted by the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. Separate Registration for Each Part is Required: Follow link to registration:
Dec. 9, 2020 7:00PM Zoom virtual event Irene Shaland’s virtual ZOOM lecture: “Global Response to the Holocaust, Part III: The Islands and The Boot: Cuba, Calabria/Italy, Malta, Corsica.” Hosted by the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. Separate Registration for Each Part is Required: Follow link to registration:


More about Irene Shaland:

Irene Shaland is an internationally-published art and travel writer, educator, and lecturer focusing on the rich tapestry of global Jewish experiences, culture, and heritage. A member of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, she is a presenter at the Society’s annual conferences and contributor to its HaLapid academic journal.  Irene is a contributing author and lecturer at Siegal College of Jewish Studies, Touro Law School of New York, the Center for Jewish History Research, the American Sephardic Federation in New York, and the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Irene authored three books, including recently published “The Dao of Being Jewish and Other Stories” and numerous magazine articles on Jewish history and cultural travel published in such American, Canadian, and U.K magazines as The Baltimore Jewish Times, The Boston Forward, Chicago Jewish News, The Jewish Journal of Greater Boston, Cleveland Jewish News, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Detroit Jews News, Hackwriters Literary Online UK magazine, Holiday Magazine – France/UK, IMAGE Magazine, The Jewish Journal of San Antonio, Jewish Life Magazine, Jewish Montreal, L’Chaim Magazine of the Intermountain Jewish News, London Jewish Telegraph, Los Angeles Jewish Times, The Lotus, Montreal Jewish Magazine, Northern Ohio Life, Orange County Jewish Life, Jewish Chronicle – Pittsburgh, ROMAR Travel, San Diego Jewish Journal, Shelanu – Kenya, Sino-Judaica Institute Academic Magazine, Theater Journal, Tikkun Magazine, The Toronto Jewish Tribune, Washington Jewish Week, ZEEK Magazine, and 5 Towns Jewish Times.


Discovering Jewish Connections in Sardinia

View on Cagliari, the capital city of Sardinia, an island famed for its unearthly beauty.

Sardinia is an island famed for its unearthly beauty. Sardinia is second only to Sicily in its size among the Mediterranean islands. Like Sicily, Sardinia attracted numerous waves of invaders: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, the Italian city-states of Pisa and Genoa, and the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon—all succeeded one another in dominating the island. The Northern Italians came last, with Garibaldi himself falling in love with the island. He chose to live the last years of his life in Carpera, Sardinia.

Renowned for its great beaches and luxury resorts overflowing with tourists from all over the world, Sardinia tightly guards its ancient secrets, but for the persistent Jewish history pilgrims, these secrets reveal themselves, one story at a time.

The beginning of the Sardinian Jewish story

The first facts about the Jews in Sardinia came to us from Flavius Josephus, born Joseph ben Matityahu. This first-century Roman-Jewish scholar recorded in his study Antiquities that in 19 AD, four thousand Jews were deported to Sardinia from Rome by the Emperor Tiberius. Flavius noted with sadness that the emperor “punished so many” for the “crimes of the few.” These “few” were four crooks who persuaded a senator’s wife, a convert to Judaism, to invest large sums of money in a non-existent synagogue, which these liars claimed to represent. The Emperor hoped that the Jews would perish in Sardinia. Instead, the numerous descendants of the exiles built a prosperous life for themselves and became indispensable for the island’s rulers in trade, finance, money-lending, crafts, and medicine. In  the city of Alghero during the Aragonese (Spanish) rule, the Jews were exempt from paying customs duties and were even allowed to display the royal coat of arms on the synagogue as a sign of their importance to the Crown. While the island’s largest Jewish community was in Alghero, thriving communities existed in a number of other Sardinian cities, like Sinai, Nora, and Cagliari, the island’s capital.

As recorded inJewish Encyclopedia, archeologists note that Sardinia is one of the few places in Italy with catacombs containing Jewish inscriptions written in “ebraico-latino” or Hebrew with Latin. Even today, the Sardinian language contains what linguists call “a hint at a Jewish presence,” a few words that might represent an influential Jewish presence. For example, the word caputannifor September is a literal translation of Rosh Hashanah as “head of the year.”

Walking through Jewish Cagliari

In Cagliari, our first stop was the Il Castello district of the island’s capital. Named after the medieval hilltop castle, Il Castelo or Su Castedu in Sardinian is one of the most photographed iconic images of Cagliari. Built first by the Pizans and then by the Aragonese, this city within the city with its gothic and baroque palazzi of Italian and Spanish aristocrats was also a home to a prosperous Jewish community. Even today, 500 years after the expulsion and total annihilation of the Sardinian Jewry, the area of Il Castelo called Ghetto degli Ebrei is one of the most attractive places in Sardinia for Jewish history pilgrims. The former Jewish Ghetto is located north of the medieval Torre del’Elefante, built by the Pizans as a defensive structure against the Aragonese. In the late 1400s, all Cagliari Jews were forced to move into this small area located between the streets Via Santa Croce and Via Stretta and to wear special identifying clothes. In the years preceding the infamous Edict of Expulsion, the ominous influence of the “Most Catholic Monarchs,” Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, was painfully felt in Cagliari.

Walking though the winding narrow streets of Ghetto degli Ebrei, we found the Church of Santa Croce.  During this trip we learned that in both Sicily and Sardinia, the churches’ names like St. Giovanni (John the Baptist) or Santa Croce (Holy Cross) served often as an indication that they were built on the foundation of a demolished or reconsecrated synagogue. As a 2006 restoration confirmed, Cagliari Santa Croce was indeed built using the main synagogue’s structure. Only the neighborhood’s name “Ghetto degli Ebrei” points at the historical Jewish presence, while the former military barracks built on the foundation of the old Jewish houses display the sign “Centro Comunale d’Arte e Cultura il Ghetto.” But this is an exhibition place now, with no connection to Sardinian Jewish history.

Garbage dump on the site of a Jewish cemetery

Rabbi Barbara told me that the Cagliari Jewish community, though not the largest in Sardinia, created an important center of Jewish life in the island’s capital. In the late 1990s, Rabbi Barbara’s friend, a Sardinian engineer named Giacomo Sandri, helped to discover an early medieval Jewish site in Cagliari. The site represented a complex world centered on the synagogue with a mikveh and a garden for a sukkah around it. The entire archaeological site was soon covered up to make way for new construction, and today, a garbage dump covers the ancient Jewish cemetery. Discovered artifacts were sent to the Cagliari Museum. However, when we visited the museum in September 2014, none were on display; instead, the Jewish artifacts were kept in storage for preservation. One artifact that I was interested in was shipped, as the curator on duty explained, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for their show “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age.” It was the famous Nora Stone, the oldest existing example of the first alphabet, also called Proto-Canaanite or early Hebrew alphabet.

Little-known connections: the city of Nora and early Hebrews

Our next stop was the city of Nora situated on the south coast of Sardinia. Believed to be the first city founded in this island, Nora dates to the 11th century BC. This ancient city, most of which is said to be underwater, is of high interest to archaeologists. Nora was one of the most important centers of Phoenician expansion in the Mediterranean. Enterprising maritime traders, the Phoenicians were a Semitic people who spoke a language similar to Hebrew and were the first group to colonize both Sicily and Sardinia, attracted by Sardinia’s strategic location near important sea routes linking the Mediterranean with the Near East. The area was also rich with metal deposits, such as copper, iron, lead, and silver. The Phoenicians established their stronghold on the island; archaeological findings in Israel prove they imported silver during biblical times.

For me personally, Nora with its famous Nora Stone is placed forever at the roots of all recorded history and written literature of Western civilization. The Nora Stone, dating to the 9th century BC, was found at Nora in the late 1700s. The stone’s incised writing is considered to be the first alphabet. Unlike cuneiform script, one of the earliest known systems of writing that relied on multiple pictorial symbols, the Nora alphabet used less than thirty letters, one for each sound, and was written like Hebrew, from right to left. This Phoenician invention—alphabetic writing—spread across the world they colonized. By the first millennium BC, the people of the Levant, including the Phoenicians and Arameans, or Hebrews, were using a standardized alphabet, which was soon transformed to create other written languages such as Greek, Etruscan, and Latin. The very word “alphabet” comes from “aleph” and “bet,” the first two letters of the Phoenician writing system.

In Nora, not much is left from the Phoenicians. What visitors see today is mostly from the Roman period. The sunken city of Nora, as it is called, seems suspended between the sea and the sky, and walking through its ruins was almost a mythical experience. I could not help but think that, like the Phoenicians, who disappeared from history by being absorbed into much stronger civilizations of the Carthaginians and the Hebrews, the Jews of Sardinia were also pushed into historic oblivion, by forces of anti-Semitism and religious intolerance.

Jewish Sardinia today

Only a few Sardinian Jewish families returned to their ancestral island after the establishment of the unified state of Italy in the 1880s. Tragically, most of their descendants were killed during the Holocaust. Today there are very few Jews living in Sardinia, and there is no formal Jewish community on the island. However, just like in Sicily, an increasing number of people who suspect that they have Jewish roots are rediscovering these roots through the study of Judaism. Giacomo Sandri, an engineer from Cagliari, who assisted in discovering the ancient Jewish site there, wrote a book on Sardinian Jewish history and made an Orthodox-style conversion to Judaism. Since 1992, Rabbi Barbara has been officiating at conversions of the Sardinian Anousim, descendants of those who were forced to give up their Jewish identity over 500 years ago.

Today, Sardinia seeks to demonstrate the island’s resolve to remember its Jewish history and to preserve the evidence of Jewish civilization in Sardinia. On September 22, 2013, a square in Alghero was renamed Plaça de la Juharia(the Square of the Jews), recalling the fact that the square was once the center of the city’s Jewish quarter and the place where the main synagogue was located. This event, which was attended by hundreds of people, opened with the song “Avinu Malkeinu” performed by a local band. Taking part in the inauguration were Alghero’s mayor as well as the Israeli ambassador to Italy, who said: “This is a historic and symbolic gesture.” The mayor then delivered a speech and said that he would like to rectify the injustice caused to the town’s Jews in the past. He concluded by calling on Jews to return to Alghero. “Welcome home,” he said (Israel Jewish Scene, September 30, 2013).

The Anousim: what we learned from the “Children of the Forced Ones” in Sicily and Sardinia

In the contemporary European context of increasing anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli attitudes sometimes escalating to violence, Sicily and Sardinia present a new and unusually optimistic chapter in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. Our own journey in search of Jewish stories on these two islands brought our understanding of both Jewish history and Jewish identity to a new level.

The destruction of synagogues and the burning of “Judaizers” five centuries ago failed to extinguish the Jewish spirit. Rabbi Barbara told numerous stories, some from her own family, of traditions whose meaning was often forgotten but that survived in their homes’ secret cellars and in people’s hearts. Cooking continued to conform to kosher dietary laws. Family burials were done outside the church with bodies rapped in simple shrouds. Special marriage blessings were recited in a “strange language” at home under a crocheted canopy.  Deathbed confessions of Jewish ancestry to the families were common. The Anousim descendants, whose heritage was so cruelly stolen, hidden, and ignored, sustained their history in their flesh and blood. And perhaps it is the call of blood that drives a continuously growing number of B’nei Anousimto search for their historical legacy and reclaim it.

Most Anousim have no records to prove their Jewishness, they just know that this is who they are. Traditional Judaism does not recognize their claim. It took over twenty years for Conservative Judaism to pass a resolution recognizing the Anousim and creating a welcoming space for those who want to return to the Jewish people. In the early 1990s, Rabbi Barbara Aiello, the first reform Rabbi in Italy, became a leader of the southern Italian B’nei Anousim movement. For over 25 years, Rabbi Barbara has been performing numerous conversions, Bar Mitzvahs, and weddings, and organizing educational events for Jews and non-Jews alike. In Sicily and Sardinia, a Jewish cultural and religious renaissance is on the rise, with events centered on Jewish history taking a prominent place in the intellectual environment of the south of Italy.

While working on my Sicilian-Sardinian study, I came across Steven Spielberg’s speech addressing the audience during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation. “If you are a Jew today,” said the founder of the Shoah Foundation, “you know that we’re once again facing the perennial demons of intolerance. Anti-Semites, radical extremists and religious fanatics that provoke hate crimes — these people want to, all over again, strip you of your past, of your story and of your identity … causing Jews to again leave Europe.” (World Jewry Digest, January 2015). It seems, I thought, that southern Italy and especially my beloved Sicily, prove to be different, once again trying to recreate the once and future world of acceptance and multiculturalism. Sheh Elohim Yevarech Othca—may this be blessed.

Selected Sources

Dyson, S. Archeology and History in Sardinia from the Stone Age to Middle Ages: Shepherds, Sailors, and Conquerors. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Sorge, A. Legacy of Violence: History, Society, and the State in Sardinia. University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Torre del’Elefante in Il Castello
Torre del’Elefante in Il Castello district of Cagliari. The former Jewish Ghetto was located north of this medieval tower.
Via Santa Croce, the main street in Cagliari’s Jewish Ghetto
Via Santa Croce, the main street in Cagliari’s Ghetto degli Ebrei (Jewish Ghetto).
Church of Santa Croce, Cagliari
The Church of Santa Croce was built on the site of the destroyed synagogue of Cagliari.
Excavations of Nora Sardinia
View of Nora, the first city in Sardinia built by the Phoenicians in the 11th century BC.
nora stone
The Nora Stone (9th century BC) was found at Nora in the 1700s. The Stone’s incised writing is considered to be the first alphabet.

Read other little known stories of Jewish communities around the world in Irene Shaland’s book “The Dao of Being Jewish and Other Stories”


Jews of the Jungles and cities in Brazil – Free Lecture in New City NY

theater in Manaus, Brazil
The Opera House in the heart of the Amazonian Jungle, Manaus, Brazil

Free Lecture: Jews of the Jungles and Cities in Brazil

Lecture presented by IRENE SHALAND  on Sunday April 14th, 2019   at 2:00 PM

Join Irene Shaland, an internationally-published travel writer and author of several books for a captivating journey through 500 years of Jewish history in Brazil. Encounter little-known stories of Brazil discovery in the context a twisted world of the 15thcentury politics, deceptions, and intrigues. Learn about the key role the  Crypto-Jews played in this country’s exploration and development. Find out why Anna Novinsky, a renowned expert in Jewish history residing in Sao Paolo, claimed that “Brazil was built by the Jews!”

Journey from the 15thto the 21stcentury of Brazilian history and visit Salvador Bahia, Manaus, the Amazon, Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, and the Iguassu Falls to uncover fascinating Jewish narratives of this unique country and to meet the Brazilian Jews who dwell in its cities and in the jungle.

Lecture is free, but Reservations is Required: Call 845-634-4997, ext. 139. 

Address: New City Library  220 N. Main Street, New City, New York 10956

Inside the Grand Temple sanctuary
The Grand Temple in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


Loaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Sugar Loaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro

Read more Jewish stories from all corners of the world in Irene Shaland’s latest book “The Dao of Being Jewish and Other Stories”

Countries Around the World Respond to the Holocaust

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”


Reprinted with permission of the author, Rabbi Barbara Aiello

Throughout Israel, especially in Tel Aviv, the last day of the year is “party night.” On December 31st Israelis will celebrate along with the rest of the world but instead of shouting “Happy New Year,” Israelis do something different.  As the year turns from one year to the next, Israel’s Jews will wish each other a “Happy Sylvester,” a New Year’s greeting that invokes, of all things, the name of a Catholic saint!

Israel is the Jewish state and the Jewish New Year of Rosh HaShanah is marked on the Hebrew calendar on the eve of the first day in the Hebrew month of Tishrei – a Jewish Holy Day that occurs in the fall of the year.  Rosh HaShanah is the day to greet friends and family with “Shanah Tovah,” a Hebrew phrase that means “a good year,” or “Happy New Year.”  Hence the dilemma – What to say to differentiate the secular new year from the religious one?

That was the problem that immigrants from Western Europe faced when they first came to Israel. These newcomers still wanted to celebrate the secular New Year as they had done in their home countries and to avoid confusion they needed a new greeting.  But why Sylvester?

Israeli writer and columnist Daniel Rogov did some digging and found that for years no one was certain who Sylvester really was. Until recently many scholars believed that the original Sylvester was a Catholic saint, however there was always some confusion about his life.  Speculations included one popular story that Sylvester was an obscure Catholic priest who became famous for walking from Bordeaux to Jerusalem – barefoot!

Others believed that the saint was really a Roman Catholic pope whose claim to fame was that he had brought an animal back to life.  Pope Sylvester, legend has it, raised a bull from the dead. Others opined that Sylvester was an Italian monk known for his “friendly relationships” with the local young ladies.

Recently new information about the illusive Sylvester has come to light. Historian Georges Duby in his recently published book, “France in the Middle Ages,” speculates that Sylvester may have been Peter Sylvester, who was the bishop of Beauvais in 1431 when Joan of Arc was arrested in his city.

Sylvester earned the respect of his fellow Frenchmen because his was the voice of calm among the hype and hysterics surrounding Joan of Arc’s rise to fame. Apparently, Sylvester was the only cleric who did not believe that young Joan was acting under the influence of the devil.  Sylvester defended Joan of Arc as “a good Christian, a woman of purity who lived according to the rules of the church and who had no evil in her.” Although Sylvester’s colleagues were determined to bring Joan to trial and subsequently execute her, Sylvester spoke out against such harsh treatment.

On the morning of December 31st, Sylvester himself was arrested, thrown into jail and tortured there. Several minutes before midnight the 82-year-old Sylvester died, but not before saying his final words, “The year ends and so do I.”

Bishop Sylvester, as one who stood up to the Church authority and who died for his beliefs on the last night of the secular year, became the “Sylvester” of the Israeli greeting offered at the beginning of each secular year.  So, in his honor and memory, Happy Sylvester!

Rabbi Barbara Aiello

Read more fascinating Jewish stories on Rabbi Barbara’s website blog