Tuesday, April 15, 2008
The Holocaust and Contemporary Antisemitism in Lithuania
The reason he returned it is that the Lithuanian government has brought proceedings against Dr. Yitzchak Arad, former head of Yad Vashem, for his actions against a Ukrainian village which engaged in rape, pillage, and murder of Jews.
The story provides an interesting confluence between the Holocaust, contemporary history, and enduring antisemitism.
Reading it against the backdrop of our trip this past week gives the story a particular resonance.
Reading it today when the commemoration of the uprising of the Warsaw ghetto is being held in Poland, it has even more resonance. It serves as a reminder that there were Jews in many places who fought back.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
Stormfront White Nationalist Website Covers My Visit to Auschwitz
Just goes to show you that the really bad ones got away! The Nazi's intended to chase them out of Europe and thereby made the rest of the world miserable!Nice, no?
Budapest : Some Final Reflections
On the plane to
I gave them the example of how the late Simon Wiesenthal invented, without any basis in fact, the notion that the Holocaust constitutes the murder of 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews.
I have just finished reading Samuel Kassow’s magnificent book, Who Will Write Our History? I had posted a superlative review of the book a few weeks ago. The review is absolutely accurate. The book is an outstanding contribution not just to our history of the Holocaust and a stellar exploration of how history – even in the most dire circumstances – can and should be preserved.
We wanted the simplest most unadorned account possible of what happened in each shtetl and what happened to each Jew [and in this war each Jews is like a world in itself.] Any superfluous word, any literary exaggeration grated and repelled…. It is unnecessary to add an extra sentence.
In late 1942 Ringelblum wrote, what are our “goals? A photograph of life. Not literature but science.”
Another member of the group, Menakhem Mendel Kon, wrote in his diary in the fall 1942: “I consider it a sacred duty for everyone… to write down everything he has seen or heard from others about what the Germans have done….It must all be recorded without a single fact left out.”
As Kassow demonstrates so forcefully, these people wanted: objective scholarship that avoided apologetics, bitter accusations, and blatant emotions. This, they believed, was the best way to serve the nation.
In short, matters were bad enough without making them seem even worse.
Rachel Auerbach – one of only 3 survivors of Oyneg Shabbes wrote in her memoirs:
The mass murder, the murder of millions of Jews by the Germans is a fact that speaks for itself. It is very dangerous to add to this subject interpretations or analyses. [That] can quickly turn into hopeless hysteria or endless sobs. So one must approach this subject with the greatest caution, in a restrained and factual manner…
An anonymous resident of the ghetto scrawled in margin of questionnaire on German-Jewish relations: Facts!
Many things made this week gratifying for me but chief among them was the way in which the participants were willing to be receptive to my push that they stick to the facts and not base their impressions on “romanticized” or “mythologized” versions of history.
It was tough teaching at times but it was, I am convinced, well worth the effort.
Saturday, April 12, 2008
Budapest : A Final Leg
The Hungarian Jewish community is "vibrant" compared to what is the case in Poland. There are about 200,000 Jews here and all the synagogues, schools, summer camps, and internecine warfare point to a normal Jewish community.
Normal, that is, if you include children being subjected on occasion to overt antisemitic comments, such as: You should go to Auschwitz.
On the day we arrived there was a big counter demonstration against the antisemitism. Some of our group went. I was simply too exhausted and, along with the other not so stalwarts in our group, went to Cafe Gerbeaud
Shabbat dinner was low keyed. Saturday a.m. we spent walking around Budapest and then for lunch we were joined by about 7 members of the Budapest Jewish community. Professor Michael Miller, who is a boon of unbelievable proportions to this community, had invited them to join us.
Miller teaches at Central European University which has an emerging and impressive Jewish Studies Program. One of the people Miller brought to lunch was Andras Kovacs.
Kovacs is head of the program and deserves great credit for what he is building. The program seems to have the potential to really help resurrect [is that the right word??] Jewish Studies in Eastern Europe. Of course, there are already pockets of Jewish Studies programs in different places, but this one seems particularly impressive.
I spent the lunch chatting with a young woman who had just finished her Ph.D. at the university. She had written on Ba'alei Teshuvah, Jews who "rediscover" or "return" to Jewish practice [though the term implies a "return" it generally signifies someone who was not at all observant of religious practices and who becomes so]. As she observed, every Jew in Hungary is a Ba'al Teshuva of one degree or another.
When this trip was in the planning and I heard that we were going to fly from Krakow to Budapest for Shabbat [it entailed two flights], I thought it was not a good plan [actually I think the term I used was "nuts"]. It did not seem to make sense, on such a short trip, to devote a half day and two flights to getting someplace for a total of 36 hours.
So I was wrong. Really wrong.
First of all, Budapest is a lovely city [so, of course, is Krakow]. It is, however, much bigger than Krakow and somewhat more cosmopolitan. More importantly, from the perspective of its Jewish community, Poland's was decimated while a major portion of Hungary's survived.
The contrast was striking and not having seen this city, I am sure many of the participants would have walked away from the visit convinced that Eastern Europe was a Jewish wasteland. It certainly is not what it once was [through no fault of the Jews] but Budapest reminds us that there are communities fighting to not just survive, but thrive.
The reaction of some of the Israeli participants was notable. They commented with great sensitivity and concern, why would someone remain in Budapest, even with all its schools, shuls, and Jewish communal life, especially if your child is subjected to these kinds of attacks. They just did not get it.....
On one hand I fully understand their response and on the other... well these are HUNGARIAN Jew and they don't want to leave Hungary judenrein. It is the same feeling expressed by people such as Stashek Krijewsky and other Polish Jews we met. This is where they are and this is where they feel they belong.
My computer battery is about to die and I have got to catch my plane to Amsterdam and home.
All in all quite a trip.
Friday, April 11, 2008
Rwanda: Bomb at Rwanda Genocide Museum Mars Week of Mourning
Reuters reports that a bomb thrown at Rwanda's genocide museum killed a policeman. This came during the week of mourning marking the 14th anniversary of the genocide. The Hutus apparently resent the week because it focus attention on their misdeeds.
As William Faulkner said: "The past isn't dead. It isn't even passed." That has been a leitmotif of this past week here in Poland and Hungary with the Wexner Foundation alumni group and it is the essence of this terrible event.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Krakow : Auschwitz-Birkenau Postscript
Spent most of the day in Birkenau and, at that, most of the time in the back at Crema 5,4,3,2 [in that order], the Sauna, Canada, and a few other places. For me the most powerful part of that visit is to the exhibit of pictures in the Sauna. They are family pictures brought to Auschwitz/Bikenau by people who, under the impression that they were being resettled, brought their most precious memories with them in the form of family pictures. They are so precious because they show the victims in all their life and not in their camp status.
The group held a most moving service right next to Crema 2 [between the remains of the ovens and the pit/pool into which the ashes were dumped]. The most powerful part was when people began to call out the names of those for whom they were mourning.
After a relatively short visit to Auschwitz 1, we returned to Krakow. At dinner we were joined by 3 members of the Tzulent [pronounced Chulent] society, the Jewish "young peoples" society of Krakow. They were wonderful. These are young people who are finding their way to their Jewish identity. None of them knew they were Jews or practiced Judaism growing up.
One of them talked about the vibrant 300 member Krakow Jewish community. On the way back to the hotel Brigitte Dayan, who lives on the Upper West Side, observed that there are more Jews in her building than are members of the Krakow Jewish community.
Yet rather than being depressed everyone -- Israelis and North Americans -- walked out on a high. Here were young people who celebrated their Jewish lives in a place that has been so marked by Jewish deaths. They are making a difference. All of us in the group have a choice in how we want to live our Jewish lives... in fact we have lots and lots of choices.
They don't have those choices and yet they so value what they do have. They were the perfect antidote to what we had seen during the day.
The members of the group then did something really amazing. On the spot they collected $1000 and gave it to the Tzulent society to support the Seder they are making. And they did so to honor the three scholars and leaders who have accompanied them on this trip: Larry Moses, Ezra Korman and myself. They could have given us nothing more precious than this.
It is a gift I shall truly treasure.
Now some folks have gone off to the Jewish quarter. I am off to bed since our wake up call comes at 3:15 a.m. tomorrow.
Next stop: Budapest.
The conversation was too long and complex to easily summarize especially as we are leaving for our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau shortly. We are getting an early start in order to avoid some of the "crowds" that get there later in the day. I always find it somewhat surrealistic that we rush to get there early in order to avoid the crowds....
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
The design is powerful and the way in which they recognize that their job is not to tell the story of the Holocaust but to send the visitor out -- prepared with the right context -- to Auschwitz, Majdanek, and all the other terrible places associated with this history.
Off to meet with Professors Annamaria Orla-Bukovska and Jolanta Aambrosewicz-jacobs who teach at the Jagellonian University. Jolanta is also a consultant to the Auschwitz museum. They are bringing 4 Polish students from the Jagellonian who study the Holocaust.
Should be a good evening on which to build after our conversations of the previous few days.
Warsaw : Leaving for Krakow
I feel, more strongly than ever, that it is imperative that, in visiting a place such as this which was the site of some unspeakable horrors [though we do speak about them quite a lot], we keep our historical facts.
The "Poles were worse than the Germans" notion has come up again and my attempt to demonstrate [I do not say argue because this is not opinion, this is fact] that the Poles, many of whom were genuinely antisemitic, were NOT the ones responsible for what happened here. That was the Germans.
Yesterday someone described that as "apologia" for the Poles. I recognize that this tendency to want to blame the Poles is a deeply emotional argument that is rooted in parents' and grandparents' encounter with Polish antisemitism. That was real and in many cases made life terribly difficult. There were Poles who were pleased the Germans "gave it" to the Jews.
But the Holocaust itself... that was the Germans.
One of the other reasons I feel so strongly about this is that it negates hundreds of years of Jewish life in Poland. Someone reminded the group yesterday when we were at the Yeshiva that the rabbi who founded it was a member of the Polish Parliament in the interwar period. He was not the only rabbi who was in the parliament. And certainly not the only Jew.
Life is always more complicated if we don't let facts get in the way....
But, as I argued to the group yesterday, it is critically important that when dealing with this topic which is so filled with emotion, pain, and horror that we get the history right.
It's not just because of the deniers [they are not that important... potentially dangerous yes... important? no]. It's for other reasons:
1. If you are going to draw contemporary lessons from this horror then you cannot draw them based on untruths.
2. The victims wanted you to get the facts right. Witness Samuel Kassow's magnificent new book Who Will Write Our History? It is the story of the Oyneg Shabbes group [Emanuel Ringelblum]. They wanted facts not myth. They wanted a careful recounting of what happened to them. As one of them noted, what happened to them was bad enough. It's not necessary to aggrandize it in any way.
More on that later.
Lively trip. Off to finish packing [why do we always bring too much???] and then, after a meeting with the Director of the to be built Museum of Polish Jewish History, the train to Krakow and another encounter with history and with the present.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
A few hours ago I told the Wexner group that it was a magisterial work. I am delighted that the Pulitzer committee recognized the greatness of this work.
It's also nice to learn of this when one is at the site of this tragedy.
It's an overwhelming book, rich in information, beautifully written, and a synthesis of the research of others which is woven together with Friedlander's own insights.
Last night at the opening session Larry Moses, President of the Foundation, gave a powerful presentation on the personal, emotional, and more existential aspects of being a child of survivors. It is difficult to summarize such a talk and I can only hope that he will post it or publish it in some form.
This trip is designed NOT to be just a let's tour the terrible Holocaust sites in
Consequently the participants have been broken up into small groups -- equal numbers of Americans and Israelis -- to tackle aspects of that conversation. They began that conversation last night. It continued more informally today on the multi-hour bus trip to
It "exploded" tonight at the conversation about the commemorative trips to
One of the reasons tonight’s conversation became so raw was that something happened today at Majdanek which brought some of the subliminal issues into sharper focus.
We met a group of Israeli army officers who were visiting the camps together with both a Holocaust survivor and some parents who had lost children in
Because of scheduling matters if we had stayed to join them we would have had to drop the stop at Yeshiva Churchmen Lublin, the yeshiva which created the study program Daf Yomi [daily Talmud study].
Two of the members of the group – a Reform and Orthodox rabbi -- had carefully prepared a study session which was a composite of traditional Talmudic sources and contemporary theology/philosophy about the Holocaust [Fackenheim].
The Israelis were VERY upset that we were leaving Majdanek without participating in the ceremony [it began as we started to depart]. Some of the Americans felt they were overreaction, especially since this was not something that had been planned in advance and it's hard to simply shift things around.
The organizers felt that we could not summarily drop another element of the program, especially since two of the group had worked so hard to prepare the study session.
For some people this seemed to juxtapose the idea of a modern state of
Then there was tonight’s session and all those raw emotions.
When I left the bar a few minutes ago Israelis and Americans were deep into discussion [and some drink] discussing, debating, reflecting and just talking.
I guess that means that things are working as they should be.
Gotta pack. After a morning meeting with the Director of the new
We spent the day in Majdanek and Lublin, met up with a group of Israeli soldiers at Majdanek, and are right now in the midst of heated discussion on the role of the kind of trip we are on and the kind of trips many Israeli and American youth take to Poland.
Does it create a bunker mentality?
Does it make them feel that they are victims? That the diaspora is a place of death?
A lot of vibrant and rather raw feelings are being expressed.
Warsaw: Reflections 
I am in
What was striking about the teenagers was how normal it all was. One can easily forget where one is and the fact that, until 15 years ago, these kinds of activities would have been, if not risky, certainly frowned upon by the government.
Late on Sunday the real "work" began. The purpose of my trip is to accompany a group of alumni if the Wexner Foundation's programs. They include alumni of their Israel/Harvard Kennedy School program, Graduate Fellows program, and their Heritage program. Each program has a different target audience. One is for mid-career Israeli government and NGO officials, those who are clearly on a fast track. The Graduate program targets students entering rabbinical, cantorial, communal service, education, and PhD programs. It helps fund their graduate work and provides them with outstanding programs over the course of the 4 years of their fellowship. The Heritage program targets emerging [and some rather emerged] North American Jewish lay leaders.
The programs are all highly selective and are run at the highest level. This trip was open to alumni of each of the programs [there was only space for 40 people so not everyone who wanted to go was able to do so]. The trip itself is designed to be far more than an exploration of the history of
We spent yesterday visiting the main Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, walking what remains [virtually nothing] of the streets of the ghetto, meeting with Rabbi Michael Schudrich [the Chief Rabbi of Poland], and engaging in conversation amongst ourselves.
We had a provocative [in the best sense of the word] discussion at the Rappoport memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto about the nature of Yom HaShoah and its linkage in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s to the Ghetto uprising. In fact, in Israeli society in those decades the two were linked, as if to suggest that the majority of victims went like "sheep to the slaughter" while the ghetto fighters were the heroes. [This is a very complicated conversation but it was really stimulating to have it with a group of Israelis and Americans.]
Many parts of the day were fascinating but, since I am limited by time [we are off to
For many people in the group it is hard to fathom why anyone would want to stay here after all that happened on this soil [of course it happened at the hands of the Germans who, in certain -- but certainly not all -- cases were "supported" in this by Poles]. Yet it is striking to hear the stories of how people make their way back -- slowly, hesitantly -- to this aspect of their identity.
There is more to tell but I have to go to breakfast, give a talk on the intersection of memory and identity, and then head off to
Saturday, April 5, 2008
Shabbat in Warsaw: "Mir Zeinen Da" [We are still here]
I spent this past Shabbat in
Yesterday I attended services on Saturday morning at Beit Warszawa, the Jewish Cultural Association. It was a Reform/non-traditional service. [Though, in fact, the liturgy etc. were pretty traditional.] There were about 20 people in attendance. Afterwards Rabbi Burt Shuman, an American born rabbi who has been here a number of years, asked me to lead the group in a conversation about Holocaust denial. That was followed by lunch and Torah study.
One of the rabbis is an Israeli. She spoke about participating in an Israeli television show done recently in Poland. She lamented the fact that it began with Yiddish songs and was all about the past. There was no sense of a contemporary Jewish life.
The striking thing was the age of those there. I would say that the majority were in their 30s and 40s. There are many other people -- of all ages and stages -- involved in Beit Warshava's many other activities.
Later in the afternoon I spent a couple of hours with Jerzy Halberstat, the Director of the soon to be built
Tomorrow a.m. I shall go to a retreat center outside of
The reason I write all this is that so many Jews who come to visit
[Many visitors come confused about who did the destroying, i.e. it was the GERMANs not the Poles. They come with the historically daft idea that the Poles were worse than the Germans.... but more on that in another post. For my previous thoughts on that see the my comments here.]
I am also reading Poland and the Jews: Reflections of a Polish Polish Jew by Stanislaw [Stashek] Krajewski who is on the Philosophy faculty at the
Stashek has become a traditional Jew. [Had a fantastic Shabbat dinner at his home.] He grew up knowing nothing about tradition or Jewish practices. He is also a Polish Jew. During the very bleak days in the 1980s -- which turned out to be the death throes of communist rule -- Stashek wrote for the underground press. Some of those essays are included in the book.
When I was here in October I met with members of the Czulent [pronounced chulent] society, the Jewish "student" [many in the group are not students] organization in
Visitors -- young and old -- often find it emotionally and intellectually simpler to treat this place as one with a past but with no future. The community may be small. There are many Jews still in the woodwork. There are many who are still hesitant about emerging. It is a complicated situation. But it is not just a place about the past. For visitors to come and see only that is to shortchange both themselves and a small but fascinating Jewish community.
More later. I am off for an early morning walk in the "
Friday, April 4, 2008
Rabbi Herbert Friedman: The Loss of a Giant 
My colleague, friend, student, and teacher, Mel Konner, has posted a wonderful recollection of Herb Friedman.
Mel, a prominent anthropologist whose book Unsettled is a fascinating investigation of Judaism and Jewish history from an anthropological perspective, was actually the one who pulled Herb aside at the Wexner retreat and told him what was going on with me, i.e. that Irving was suing me and I needed a defense fund.
Mel did not ask me if he could talk to Herb about it. [I would probably have said don't bother the man.] He just did it. For that I am eternally grateful.
He has produced a great snapshot of Herb in this essay.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Rwanda Genocide Denial: Conference in Montreal a Bust
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Dresden Death Toll: Kurt Vonnegut's Son Continues the Misinformation
Distortion strikes again. According to the Nazi era Dresden police and to subsequent studies it probably was somewhere in the vicinity of 30-40,000. This is a terrible toll. But it's not 140,000.
Remember, of course, that Vonnegut relied on David Irving for his historical information in Slaughterhouse Five.
Deniers such as David Irving are intent on aggrandizing the death toll because then they can point to Allied "atrocities."
For background on this see Richard Evan's expert report for my trial or my own History on Trial
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Rabbi Herbert Friedman: The Loss of a Giant 
1. Rabbi Friedman's own book The Roots of the Future [There are only two left in stock on Amazon right now so other people may have the same idea... though there are used copies available.]
2. A beautiful and touching message sent out by Larry Moses, President of the Wexner Foundation:
I regret to inform you of the death of our beloved teacher, mentor, and friend, Rabbi Herbert Friedman, Founding President Emeritus of the Wexner Heritage Foundation. Rabbi Friedman died this morning at his home in New York. He was 89 years old. More than teaching us leadership, which he did in abundance, Herb embodied and demonstrated it. He was passionate, courageous, and determined. Above all, he was fiercely proud of his Jewish heritage.3. And finally, an excerpt from my own book, History on Trial which tells of what happened right after I learned that I would need at least a million dollars [turned out to be closer to two] for my defense. It only conveys a small portion of the great debt I owe Herb Friedman.
Along with Leslie Wexner, his dear friend and partner, Herb put adult Jewish learning on the Jewish map once and for all, and because of Herb we will forever couple Jewish learning and Jewish leadership.
My colleagues on the Foundation’s professional staff in New York have expressed their devotion to Herb over these past months and to the very end through their loving visits with Francine and their caring for Herb in countless ways.
With sadness that he is now gone, but with soaring gratitude for his life, we express our condolences to Francine, their children and grandchildren, and to all of us who, in some way or another, felt that Herb took us under his wing.
A few days later, my ability to ignore this issue [that I would need to raise the funds] abruptly ended as I was leaving my home for a weekend seminar organized by the Wexner Heritage Foundation. I was climbing into the taxi to the airport when a Fedex truck pulled up in front of my home. The driver ran over and handed me a large envelope from Anthony. I took out a multi-paged document. I quickly turned to the last page and blanched. The bottom line was 1.6 million dollars.Throughout the years of my legal battle Herb watched over me, calling me to check if all was OK, reminding me that I was to let him know if I needed anything, and just making sure that I knew he was there in every way possible.
I generally loved participating in the Foundation’s activities and had been looking forward to the weekend as a bit of an escape from the case. The retailing legend, Leslie Wexner, had created the Foundation to educate Jewish communal leaders. Wexner, together with his wife Abigail, believed that Jewish life needed leaders who were both educated in Jewish history and tradition and knew how to think outside the box.” Adhering to Leslie’s commercial philosophy that “retail is detail,” the Foundation’s programs are meticulously executed and were models of adult education.
I had been teaching for the Foundation for over ten years. At this seminar I was scheduled to participate in a series of panels about strategies for lessening inter-denominational Jewish strife. That topic quickly faded into the background as word of my predicament quickly spread. Participants inundated me with questions.
The Founding President of the Foundation, Rabbi Herbert Friedman, a tall man with an Einstein like shock of white hair pulled me aside. Friedman had been United States Army chaplain during World War II. He became profoundly troubled by the myriad of Jewish survivors languishing in Europe -- some were being housed in former concentration camps. Many wanted to enter Palestine but the British refused them permission. Friedman commandeered American army trucks and, with the help of Jewish soldiers, transported survivors to Italian ports where they boarded ships for Palestine -- among them the SS Exodus -- and tried to outrun the British blockade.
After the war he went on to a distinguished career in Jewish organizational life.
Friedman, sounding a bit miffed that he had heard about my case via the grapevine and not directly from me, demanded a briefing on the case. He immediately asked how I was planning to raise the money. I told him that I had no idea. “I’ve always been a giver, never a recipient. I never imagined I would need to solicit funds for my own needs.”
He peered down at me and declared, in a slightly condescending tone which, had it come from anyone else, I would have resented. “It’s time to get organized. He then added: “Irving set his sights on you, but it’s the entire Jewish community and historical truth that he is aiming at.”
And then Friedman took charge. He called Les Wexner and briefed him. Les responded in his characteristically straightforward fashion. He asked for background material and after closely scrutinizing it, told Friedman: “This is not Deborah’s issue. It’s much bigger than that. We will do whatever it takes. Whatever it takes.” He told me I was not to worry about funds.
The operative line in this excerpt is "And then Friedman took charge." That was his style. That was his genius. That was Herb Friedman.