Distorting the Truth

Still struggling to face its country’s complicity in mass murder of its Jewish citizens,  some Lithuanian leaders resort to – Blame the Jews!

By Dr. Efraim Zuroff

Just over two weeks ago, on January 27th, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) convened a special session to mark the occasion. What should have been an entirely conventional event, which had been held annually ever since the 2005 decision of the United Nations to mandate this day, turned into a national scandal, the likes of which the Baltic country has not experienced since it obtained independence in 1990.

The person chosen to deliver the major speech to mark the commemoration of the Shoah was MP Valdas Rakutis of the Homeland Union Conservative Party, who heads the parliamentary committee for National Struggles and Historical Memory. After emphasizing the importance of understanding how the Holocaust took place and the identity of those responsible for the crimes, Rakutis delivered the essence of his message to Lithuanian society regarding this important event in Lithuania’s history.

False Claims. A historian by education, Lithuania’s conservative MP Valdas Rakutis  said on Remembrance Day that Jews share blame for Holocaust.

Part of it deserves to be quoted verbatim due to the importance of this text, which clearly presents the cardinal principles of the false narrative produced and promoted by the Lithuanian government from the day that the country obtained its independence from the Soviet Union.

Rakutis began by posing an important question:

But about those [the Nazis’ Lithuanian] helpers? … Are they the leaders of the Lithuanian nation, such as… Kazys Škirpa [leader of the Lithuanian Activist Front and an ardent supporter of the Third Reich who pledged allegiance to Hitler and incited violence against the Jews of Lithuania] or General Vetra [the code name of Jonas Noreika, the Lithuanian liaison with Nazis in the Šiauliai region, who played a key role in the murder of the Jewish population and the robbing of their property and belongings]? … Despite the great uproar of recent years, [the revelations by Noreika’s granddaughter Silvia Foti that he was a war criminal and a key Nazi collaborator and the controversy over the honors bestowed upon him by the state and the lawsuits filed by Grant Gochin to cancel them] there was no way to prove that they organized the Holocaust. No, it’s quite different people, often uneducated, who tend to feel important when they get a rifle in their hands, sometimes severely affected by the Soviet repression of 1941, sometimes blindly following orders.”

Hero or Horror. This memorial plaque at the Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences  of Jonas Noreika also known by his post-war nom de guerre  Generolas Vėtra (lit. ‘General Storm’), the Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan, military officer and Nazi collaborator  remains the subject of legal and political controversy and a focal point of disagreements about the role of Lithuanians like Noreika and the Provisional Government of Lithuania in the Holocaust.

In other words, these are classic excuses proffered by Lithuanian leaders and officials for the participation of local Nazi collaborators in the mass murder of the Jews. Our national heroes had nothing to do with it, and bear no responsibility (even if they had close ties with the Nazi regime).Those who did so, were either degenerates or socially marginal elements of Lithuanian society or individuals whose family members had been mistreated by the Communists during THE INITIAL Soviet occupation from June 1940 until June 22, 1941. And they were only following orders issued by Nazi officers.

Rakutis then continues:

Let’s get to know them, let’s understand why they did so. After all, there was no shortage of Holocaust perpetrators among the Jews themselves, especially in the ghetto self-government structures. We need to name these people out loud and try not to have people like them happen again. But also to answer the question of what were the views of the Jews themselves, what ideas led some Jews to cooperate with the Soviet authorities, to occupy important positions in repressive Soviet structures. Sometimes understanding the causes also makes it possible to understand the consequences, although it does not justify the actions.”

Here we come to the most outrageous statement of all. There have been attempts in the past by extremist Lithuanian nationalists to accuse Jews of being perpetrators, but to the best of my memory, such an accusation was never made by any prominent minister or MP. Besides being totally fallacious, this assertion is another way to deflect the guilt of the Lithuanians. Thus Rakutis refers to the ghetto as an area of “self-government,”  which means that the Jews ostensibly controlled their fate, and therefore those involved in their administration bear the responsibility for the deaths of the ghettos’ inhabitants. And to add insult to injury, Rakutis alludes to the fact that some Jews joined the Soviet police which cruelly treated Lithuanians prior to the Nazi invasion, another ostensible justification for Lithuanians who participated in Holocaust crimes.

Truth Unveiled. Author Silvia Foti (left) and her grandfather, Lithuanian WWII hero Jonas Noreika (right) of whom she says, “I learned that the man I had believed was a savior who did all he could to rescue Jews during World War II had, in reality, ordered all Jews in his region of Lithuania to be rounded up and sent to a ghetto where they were beaten, starved, tortured, raped and then murdered.”

The content and circumstances of this speech were so absolutely shocking, that there was a very strong, almost immediate, response. American ambassador Robert Gilchrist, tweeted on his embassy account:

It is shocking that on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, of all days, a member of Seimas should espouse distortions regarding Holocaust collaborators in Lithuania and shamefully seek to accuse Jews of being the perpetrators [my emphasis-E.Z.].”

Shortly thereafter, similar messages were tweeted by German ambassador Matthias Sonn (“To even insinuate that the victims were to blame in any way for their own murderous persecution under the Nazi German occupation is utterly unacceptable.”) and Israeli ambassador Yossi Levi, who described Rakutis‘ remarks as “insensitive” and “disturbing”. Even Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielijus Landsbergis expressed his opposition to Rakutis‘ accusations. Such public criticism of the nationalist narrative, which has been in place ever since independence, is unprecedented, and therefore very noteworthy.

Those were not the only harshly negative responses to the patently distorted Shoah narrative promoted by the Lithuanian government in the wake of the assertions made by MP Rakutis. Even more surprising, were the criticisms publically aired regarding the Lithuanian government’s most important institution dealing with Holocaust-related issues, the Genocide and Resistance Research Center [GRRC], which has been at the center of numerous controversies in recent years and is notorious for its unequivocal defense of the bogus Lithuanian narrative of the Shoah. One of the best examples is the list of Lithuanian Holocaust perpetrators it prepared at the request of the government, after Yosef Melamed, the Chairman of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, published an estimate of approximately 23,000 such persons (LITHUANIA Crime & Punishment, January 1999, p.61). In response, the GRRC produced a list of 2,055, and explained that even those persons were not that responsible since they were under German command.

Another particularly outrageous example is the “expert opinion” it provided to the Vilnius District Court to defend the good name and reputation as a national hero of Jonas Noreika (“General Vetra”), despite his active participation in the persecution and annihilation of the Jews in the Šiauliai region of northwest Lithuania, against a lawsuit submitted by South African-born Grant Gochin, a descendant of Noreika’s victims, to cancel all honors bestowed upon Noreika. According to the GRRC, Noreika had no connection to the Holocaust and actually was a Righteous Among the Nations, who ordered the Jews to move to a ghetto to ensure their safety.

Righting Wrongs. South African-born Grant Gochin is pursuing a case against a Lithuanian state entity tasked with researching and educating about genocide and war crimes. Says Gochin,” Dishonesty by the Lithuanian government made me research harder, and led to a terrible discovery; the tactics previously used to prevent the rescue of my Grandfather’s family from certain death, were the same tactics still being used by modern Lithuanian bureaucrats to rebuff me.” (Courtesy)

These cases no doubt constitute part of the background to the public statement signed by 17 historians of the GRRC in which they express their concern about “The devaluation of the discipline of history through the distortion of history research in an ideologized and politicized direction (encouragement to undertake ‘the defense of history’ and ‘memory wars’)….”. In addition, they point to “The disappearance of the line between expert professional work and amateur initiatives, both in history research as well as in the field of commemoration…”

Applauding Murder. Lithuanian civilians and German soldiers watching the massacre of 68 Jews in the Lietūkis garage of Kaunas on June 25 or 27, 1941. The image was taken by a German soldier who reported that the Lithuanian crowd cheered and applauded with the killing of each Jew.

And if this was not enough, there came the announcement by the Lithuanian History Institute and three prominent Lithuanian history scholars that they would no longer cooperate with the GRRC because of the unprofessional manner in which it was working.

It remains to be seen how Holocaust-related issues will develop in Lithuania, but the situation described above does give some hope that for the first time since independence, there might be a real opportunity to displace the false narrative and convince the Lithuania government to stick to the truth. They also have to stop glorifying Holocaust perpetrators, and promoting the canard of equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes. So now is the time for us to help persuade our leaders and governments, and Jewish organizations, to step up to this important challenge. And this will be the best way not only to remember our victims, but to truly honor their memory.

Civilian Complicity. A proud perpetrator (nicknamed the “Death Dealer”) at the massacre of Jews in the Lietūkis garage in Kaunas.



About the writer:

Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the coordinator of Nazi war crimes research for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of the Center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. His latest book, with Lithuanian author Ruta Vanagaite, is Our People; Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020) exposes the extent of Holocaust distortion in Lithuania, and has already also been published in Lithuanian, Polish, Hebrew, Russian, and Swedish.




While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO)

The Jews who fought back during the Holocaust

By Gabriel  Groisman, Mayor of Bal Harbour, Florida.

Our communal sense of history and peoplehood, and our ties to our religion and traditions, will continue to give us the strength to continue being a light unto the nations while our enemies fall by the wayside.

Last week, leaders from around the world commemorated those who perished at the hands of the Nazis during International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year, like most, there were statements recognizing and remembering those who were taken from us by people all over the globe. The recognition is critical and something appreciated by all from the Jewish community worldwide.

Much has been written about what needs to be done during the remaining days of the year to properly commemorate and educate the world about the horrors of the Holocaust, and what “never again” really means. A recent Pew Research poll proves that Americans’ Holocaust education is sorely lacking. For example, only 45 percent of Americans interviewed even knew that 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Even fewer knew that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany by a democratic political process.

Surely, what is far less known is how many Jews fought valiantly against the Nazis.

A group of female Jewish partisans. (Source: USHMM.)

But fight they did!

Jews fought back alongside resistance groups around Europe, organized uprisings in the ghettos, created partisan units and even fought back in the concentration camps, attempting to bomb a crematorium in Auschwitz. To properly commemorate the Holocaust, these stories must be told as well.

Group of Jewish partisan fighters in Soviet territories (Wiener Holocaust Library Collections)

To that end, I commemorate and honor the story of the following Jews who courageously fought back during World War II and the Holocaust. Their stories represent the thousands who fought to the end.

Mordechai Anielewitz

Mordechai Anielewitz

In April 1943, this leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising led 750 Jewish fighters armed with a handful of pistols, 17 rifles and Molotov cocktails  – all smuggled into the ghetto – in a clash with more than 2,000 heavily armed and well-trained German troops. They held off the Germans for 27 days.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Leader. Mordechai Anielewicz (top right) amongst with members of Hashoer Hatzair wanted to show the world that Jews could counter the German oppressors in open battle. He died along with his brave comrades, defending a basement in Mila Street on May 8, 1943.

Boris Lekach

Boris Lekach

This one is personal. My wife’s maternal grandfather, Lekach fought for the Russians against the Nazis. He enlisted at age 16 with doctored papers just so he could fight. He was also well-known to many in the Jewish community in Russia for helping Jews escape during and after the war.





The Bielski Brothers

Made famous in a number of books and in the 2008 movie “Defiance,” the Bielski brothers – Tuvia, Asael and Zus – fled their city in Belarus after their parents and two other siblings were murdered. The brothers found shelter in the forest, where they created one of the largest and most effective partisan groups during the war, focusing on guerrilla attacks against the Nazis and their collaborators, as well as on preserving Jewish life even in their hideout. In a little more than two years, the Bielski group grew to about 1,200 people.

The Bielski Partisans. Named after a family of Polish Jews who organized and led the organization,  ‘The Bielski Partisans’ rescued Jews from extermination and fought the German occupiers and their collaborators around Nowogródek and Lida in German-occupied Poland.

Tosia Altman

Tosia Altman. A courier and smuggler to Warsaw Gehtto. Tosia Altman was captured suffering severe burn wounds and handed over to the Gestapo where she died.

A young woman who used fake papers to smuggle weapons and information in and out of Poland’s ghettos. She was an active member of the social Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, active in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising alongside Anielewitz and the other brave fighters.








Eta Wrobel 

Eta Wrobel.  Eta’s exclusively Jewish partisan unit of close to eighty people, set mines to hinder German movement and to cut off supply routes.

A young woman in her 20s, Wrobel helped form an all-Jewish partisan unit in the Polish woods. Her unit attacked German troops as they traveled through the area and is credited for saving the lives of hundreds of Jews.




Rudolph Masaryk

Rudolph Masaryk. A prominent member of the Treblinka prisoner uprising, Czech prisoner Masarek was killed on 2 August 1943.

On Aug. 2, 1943, at the Treblinka extermination camp, Masaryk and other Jewish prisoners stole 20 grenades, 20 rifles and a few handguns. Together, they attacked the SS guards, while another doused a large part of the camp with gasoline and lit it on fire. Approximately 300 prisoners escaped and 40 Nazi guards were killed during the Treblinka uprising.



May their memories be a blessing.

While it’s critical for the world to remember on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and on every other day that the Nazis rose to destroy the Jewish people, it is equally important for all to remember that the Jewish people fought back, and ultimately, as a people, we survived.

Today, the Jewish people not only survive but thrive. Our communal sense of history and peoplehood, as well as our ties to our religion and traditions, will continue to give us the strength to continue being a light unto the nations while our enemies fall by the wayside, as did Hitler and all enemies before him.






*This article first appeared in the JNS.

About the writer:

Gabriel Groisman is the mayor of Bal Harbour, Fla., and an attorney at Meland Russin & Budwick, P.A., in Miami. He has been a leader in combating anti-Semitism and the BDS movement, having written and passed the first municipal anti-BDS ordinance, as well as the first codification of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. He is a co-founder of the Global Coalition of Mayors Against Hate and Discrimination.








While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO)

Surviving the Shoah

Every year on the 27th of January, the world commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Of the six million Jews murdered in the Shoah (Holocaust) – one and a half million were children!

By David E. Kaplan

Entering  the Children’s Memorial at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem  – World Holocaust Remembrance Center – one is engulfed by darkness until one turns a corner and then suddenly overwhelmed by tiny flames from candles – a Jewish tradition to remember the dead –  that appear to reach out into eternity. Apparently, it might be one candle and through skillful mirror positioning, a single flame becomes many emerging endless. This is the point of the Memorial – that if the murder of ONE child is unbearable to bear then the innumerable flames help try apply the mind to the UNTHINKABLEone and a half million children snuffed out in cold blood!

Lives Lost. Each flame signifying a young Jewish child murdered in the Shoah at the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem  in Jerusalem.

The names of murdered children, their ages and countries of origin can be solemnly heard in the background – a roll call of the dead.

Visitors are left speechless; their only response – tears running down cheeks!

One child that survived that horror – though not her parents  –  was Roni Wolf from the city of Ra’anana in Israel. Her story of survival was revealed this month in an emotionally-charged global Zoom meeting together with her fellow survivors who had found themselves at an orphanage outside Brussels in Belgium during World War II. They had not seen each other since they were all young children together – in that  fateful orphanage where death stalked them!

The Zoom reunion on January 17, 2021, came about because of the research of a Jewish Dutch 24-year-old law student, Reinier Heinsman. While studying, Heinsman opted to volunteer at the Kazerne Dossin – a Memorial, Museum and Documentation Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights established within the former Mechelen transit camp from which in German-occupied Belgium, arrested Jews and Roma and sent them to concentration camps.

There, Heinsman became fascinated with the amazing rescue of some 60 orphaned Jewish children having been captured by the Nazis to be transported to Auschwitz on October 30th,1942. From photographs of the children he found at the Museum, he set about in tracing any surviving orphans. Over a period of eight months starting his research in May 2020, the intrepid investigator  reveals “I located five children in the photo who are still alive. The other six who participated in the Zoom reunion were from this orphanage but do not appear in the photo.”

All had been snatched at the eleventh hour from certain death.

The last ‘child’ he found was Reizel Warman, today Roni Wolf from Ra’anana, the only one living in Israel.

Dinner Time. Roni is bowing her head on the left during meal time at the orphanage.

On Sunday night, the 17th of January, the young law student welcomed the eleven Holocaust survivors on Zoom who last saw each other over seven decades earlier. Most of them today are living in the USA. Each of the former ‘children’ re-introduced themselves as ‘adults’ and told their life’s story. Each were truly indebted to Reinier who reveals he is unsure what drove him to tackle with such passion such a deep study of this magnitude that will soon appear in his soon to be published book, Jewish Orphans from Belgium in the Holocaust-Testimonies. Born to a Jewish mother and Christian father, Heinsman has never even visited Israel.

When Roni’s parents were herded onto the train for Auschwitz, they departed not from Antwerp but Brussels, where they had been  in hiding on Rue des Fleuristes. They had shortly before moved to the Belgium capital, “because it had a smaller Jewish population and they thought they could blend in and escape attention,” explains Roni. This proved to be true only temporary. Soon the roundups began in Brussels, and only days before the German’s came, Roni’s parents  Zalman and Malka, took their two baby daughters to their non-Jewish neighbours. Roni would later learn that her mother was murdered on the first day she arrived in Auschwitz; her father would succumb later from illness. “We only spent a few days with this family, who were terrified of the danger we placed them in. They then took us to Wezembeek, an orphanage for abandoned children outside Brussels.”

For a while, the children were safe.  

Wezembeek Children. Roni is in the front row second from the left with the white hood.

Explains Roni:

The orphanage was protected property as part of an understanding reached when Belgium capitulated in 1940, that the Nation’s children would not be harmed. This was insisted upon by the Queen. The Nazis adhered to this policy until one day in 1942, the trains bound for Auschwitz fell short of their quota. Precise by nature, the Germans would not countenance empty coaches. And if they could not meet their quota with adults, they knew where to find last minute substitutes the children at Wezembeek.”

Roni, who was 2-years-old at the time and her older sister Regina were amongst those herded onto the trucks and driven to the station. Luckily, the orphanage was run by a cool head in Madame Marie Blum!

The Wezembeek Orphanage where Roni and her older sister Regina Warman spent four years following their parents deportation to Auschwitz.

Marie had been assigned the post of manager of the Wezembeek Home when she was only 26 years old. On Friday afternoon the 30th of October 1942  – less than two months after Roni and Regina arrived at the home – the SS raided Wezembeek. As related by Marie later, the SS headed by a Dr. Holm, burst in with their firearms in their hands screaming and shouting orders. “Their aim was to frighten all into immediate obedience.” The men rushed into Madame Marie office and started ripping up the wires to the phone, breaking all telephonic contact with the outside world. Two staff members, Julia and Livine Kumps, were washing the corridor at the time.

The Wezembeek staff and boarders.

Dr Holm barked at Marie, “Are these two women Jewish?”

No,” replied Madame Marie, “they are outsiders employed on an hourly basis.”

Pay and get rid of them,” ordered an impatient Holm.

The Germans wanted little interference with what they were doing. After all, they were reneging on the deal with the Belgian royalty not to harm the country’s children!

All this was going through the mind of Dame Marie, who while drawing the money from a drawer in her desk, also managed to write something down on the two pieces of paper in which she wrapped the wages. The clock was ticking, and all she had time to quickly scribble was one word “PREVENT” and a phone number.  She hoped at least one of the messages would find its way to the Queen of Belgium and be understood.

It was not only a long shot  but the only shot!

For the plan to have any chance of success, Dame Marie also needed to buy time – to cause as much delay as she could.

This would prove tricky and dangerous.

She guided  Holm to the infirmary room where she said there were two boys with “contagious diphtheria” germs. Unfortunately when 13-year old Michel Goldberg and 7-year-old Jacob Gebotzreiber were asked by Holm if they were indeed ill, they truthfully answered:

No, we are not sick.”

An irritated, impatient and much angered Holm then proceeded to move all of the children out towards the large canvas covered truck. Holm was meticulous in going through the entire home so as to be certain that everyone was accounted for.

Seven of the staff members were forced to board the truck together with the children. At that moment, a staff member – a Mrs. Gold – fainted which gave Marie time to run back for water, clothing and medical supplies for the journey.

Valuable time was bought.

Marie sat in front with the driver and Roni on her lap. She struck a conversation with the driver who looked at Roni and said:

 “I have a daughter of the same age.”

Tedious conversation passed the time away and helped eased the tension.

The truck arrived in the Mechelen town centre where the children were offloaded into a large courtyard in front of the Dossin military barracks where many other deportees were gathered awaiting deportation to Auschwitz.

Again, Marie needed to play for more time and pulled the same stunt she had failed earlier with Holm. She convince the Commander of the Barracks, an officer Steckman, that there were two children that were taken from an infirmary having contagious diseases. Steckman ordered the boys to be separated from the rest of the children and began phoning awaiting further instructions.

Finally after all the delays, Steckman was ordered by his superiors to release the children, which he did  that included Dame Marie and the orphanage staff.

The drive back to the orphanage was harrowing, afraid that they would be stopped at any moment and sent back to the deportations.

They returned safely back to the orphanage and survived the Shoah!

Marie would later discover that Julia Dehaes, the cleaner, had taken her scribbled note and had run to the hardware store in the village, where a telephone was available and called the number that Marie had written on her paper. One thing led to another and a message got through quickly to Queen Elizabeth of Belgium who contacted the military governor of Belgium, General Alexander Von Falkenhausen. He complied with her pleading and ordered the return of the children to Wezembeek. That order came through while the children were disembarking from the trucks and being marched towards the train.

A short while later the train left for Auschwitz with a few empty carriages, while the truck returned to the orphanage full –  with the children!

Close Encounter. Roni (Reizel Warman) soon after her narrow escape of being deported on a transportation to Auschwitz.

In 1992 Madame Marie Blum was honoured by the US Senate for being “a true heroine”.

When the war ended, only Roni and Regina of the Warman family in Belgium had survived but so had her aunt Rachel, who was living in London.

When Rachel was given the names in 1945 of all the deportees in Belgium she noticed that her brother’s children Regina and Rosa (Roni) were not listed. “It meant they had survived,” thought Rachel. She had lost in the Shoah her parents, two brothers, a sister, a sister-in-law, aunts, uncles and cousins, “but I had two nieces and we were going to find them.”

The Marvelous Madame Marie. Roni with the ‘children’s saviour’ Madame Marie Blum (left) at Wezembeek orphanage.

After months of investigation, we learnt that one was living with a devout Catholic family and the other in a Jewish children’s home.” Rachel travelled to Brussels, brought them back to England where she and her husband Jack adopted them.

Surviving to Thriving. A jovial Roni (left)  and her friend Pearl during basic training in the Israeli Defence Force.

At the age of eighteen, Roni left for Israel on a year’s educational programme. Instead of returning to the UK after the year, she joined the army where she met her future husband, South African Ivor Wolf.

Young Country, Young Lovers. From surviving the Holocaust and brought up in London, Roni meets Ivor Wolf from South Africa to forge a life together in the young State of Israel.

Epilogue

On Yom Hashoah in 2009, Yediot Achronot ran an article on the Holocaust with an appeal from a woman working at Yad Vashem to identify any of the children in the six photographs she had randomly selected from some 130,000.  The caption read:

Lost Youth

Shortly before midnight, one young reader of the Hebrew paper was about to retire to bed when she glanced at one of the photos. The next thing she did was call her parents in Ra’anana and said:

 “Don’t go to bed, I’m coming over right now.”

Roni and Teddy. A picture of innocence removed from the horror gripping all of Europe.

A short while later, Yaella arrived, finding her parents, Ivor and Roni Wolf anxiously drinking coffee. She dropped the newspaper on the kitchen table and pointed to a photo of a little girl clutching her teddy bear.

 “Mommy, it’s you, it’s you,” she tearfully repeated.

The following day Roni contacted Yad Vashem. The photo was taken when Roni had been staying at Wezembeek, the orphanage outside Brussels.

Horrors from the Holocaust. A 2009 article in Yediot Achranot of Roni Wolf pointing to herself in the paper’s earlier article with a photograph of herself holding a teddy bear taken at Wezembeek Orphanage.

Now twelve years later, Roni has again reunited with the past, meeting on Zoom all those fellow children who narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Nazis.

“Living in our Jewish state with my husband, children, grandchildren and great grandchild instills in me hope for a brighter future” says Roni.




Survivors Reunite. The young Dutch law student Reinier Heinsman who tracked down Jewish Holocaust survivors from a Belgium orphanage and brought them together for a Zoom reunion.





While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO)

Time to Tell the Truth

Lithuania is adept as passing over its nefarious past

By David E. Kaplan

There was a certain irony here!

Last year being the 300th anniversary of the Vilna Gaon’s birth, the Lithuanian Parliament dedicated 2020 the year to commemorate this world famous commentator of Torah and Talmud and the country’s 700-year-old Jewish history. Yet was it not Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, commonly known as the Vilna Gaon, who said, “The goal of the redemption is the redemption of TRUTH.”

Sketchy Holocaust Past. Charcoal sketch of the Vilna Gaon who was recently honoured by the Lithuanian government designating 2020 the Year of the Vilna Gaon and the History of the Jews of Lithuania.

Where is that “redemption” for Lithuania if it does not honestly confront the TRUTH  and reveal the role it played as perpetrators  in the Holocaust?

In an article in The Jerusalem PostThe Elephant in the roomThe false narrative of the Holocaust promoted by the Lithuanian government” (published January 15, 2021), chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Efraim Zuroff, takes issue with those celebrating the “contemporary relations between Israel and Lithuania” when the task should really be to unmask Lithuania’s murder of its Jews during the Holocaust.

Zuroff writes:

The horrific fate of Lithuanian Jewry during the Holocaust is no secret. Nor is the highly significant role played in the murders by local collaborators from all strata of Lithuanian society. Of the approximately 220,000 Jews living under the Nazi occupation, 212,000 were murdered.” That translates into 96.4%, representing the highest percentage of victims among the large European Jewish communities.

And this is what is most astonishing, revelatory, sobering and horrifying!

Some 90% of them,” reveals Zuroff, “were shot near their homes in Lithuania, in many cases by their neighbors.”

Shot in the ‘Dark’. A group of Jews before being executed in the forests Siauliai, Lithuania, 26-29.06.1941.

Hidden Holocaust

Zuroff has done extensive research and in 2020 published with Rūta Vanagaité, a descendent of Lithuanian perpetrators an expose of Lithuanian complicity in “Our PeopleDiscovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust”. The book is a journey of a descendent of the victims of the Holocaust and a descendent of its perpetrators who team up to unravel the truth of who murdered the Jews of Lithuania.

Guardians of Death. Members of the Lithuanian Militia in civilian clothing, leading Jews to the Seventh Fort in Kovno, Lithuania, June 25, 1941.

Their research reveals as Zuroff writes:

If we add the more than 5,000 German, Austrian and French Jews murdered in Lithuania, and the approximately 20,000 Jews murdered in 1941-1942 by the 12th Lithuanian Auxiliary Police Battalion sent to Belarus in October 1941, the figure of victims is staggering for such a small country. What is virtually unknown, however, is that there were less than 1,000 Germans stationed in Lithuania during the Nazi occupation. Given the fact that all of these victims had to be murdered individually by shooting, and buried in some 250 mass graves, primarily in Lithuania (234 mass graves), but also in Belarus, one begins to grasp the incredibly critical role played by Lithuanian collaborators.”

Digging before Death. Jews digging a trench in which they were later buried after being shot in Ponary outside Vilna in Lithuania.

Zuroff feels that Lithuania does not yet deserve Israel’s “friendship and cooperation” because “instead of boldly and honestly confronting the tragedy of its Jewish population, Lithuania became a leader of the post-Communist Eastern European initiatives to distort the narrative of the Holocaust”.

Zuroff sets out the four ways Lithuania did so:

– “It grossly minimized the crimes of local collaborators (none of whom have ever been punished in Lithuanian courts)”.

– “It inflated the small number of Lithuanian Righteous

– “It has brazenly promoted the canard of equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes, and vigorously lobbied for the observance of memorial day for all the victims of totalitarian  crimes, which would make International Holocaust Memorial Day superfluous

– “It has glorified anti-Soviet fighters, even if they committed Holocaust crimes which, in theory, should have disqualified from being turned into national heroes.”

Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, (right) and Lithuanian journalist Ruta Vanagaite in Jerusalem who teamed up to investigate Holocaust crimes perpetrated by Lithuanians. (Courtesy)
 

Rather than confront the past, Lithuania prefers to suppress it. Following the publication of Zuroff’s and Rūta Vanagaité book,the father of Lithuanian independence, Vytautas Landsbergis wrote an op-ed in the country’s most influential and popular website,  basically telling Rūta, a celebrated writer in Lithuania, that now that she has “betrayed her country”, she “should commit suicide.”  That was sufficient to convince her  at the time to leave Lithuania  and seek refuge in Israel. Adding insult to injury, her publisher severed relations with her, removed all her books  from bookstores, and taunted her that they “were going to turn her books into toilet paper.”

So much for honouring the legacy of the Jews of Lithuania!

Suppressing Truth. President of Lithuania from 1990 to 1992 and Chairman of the Lithuanian Parliament from 1992 to 1996 Vytautas Landsbergis.

How further ironic, that the Vilna Gaon, whose 300th anniversary was so honoured in 2020, would not only have been murdered had he lived in Vilna during the Holocaust, but more than likely  – as the statistics show:

He would have been shot not by a German Nazi but by a Lithuanian civilian!



While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO)

Kristallnacht Comparisons

By Rolene Marks

There is a startling new trend emerging in the media. Commentators wishing to make a point or push a political agenda are resorting to Holocaust comparisons, in particular Kristallnacht. It is abhorrent and trivializes the experience of the victims of the Holocaust and survivors.

During Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a synagogue burns in Siegen, Germany. November 10, 1938. (courtesy of Shamash: The Jewish Internet Consortium.)

Several months ago it was CNN anchorwoman, Christiane Amanpour, who drew the comparison between Kristallnacht and the Trump administration.

“This week 82 years ago, Kristallnacht happened,” Amanpour said in the monologue. “It was the Nazis’ warning shot across the bow of our human civilization that led to genocide against a whole identity, and in that tower of burning books, it led to an attack on fact, knowledge, history and truth. After four years of a modern-day assault on those same values by Donald Trump, the Biden-Harris team pledges a return to norms, including the truth.”

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour says she regrets equating President Donald Trump’s tenure to Kristallnacht, an attack on Jews in Nazi Germany seen historically as the Holocaust’s launch.

This resulted in an out pouring of condemnation from Jewish organisations and individuals who were understandably appalled. Amanpour apologized for “juxtaposing the Trump administration with Nazi crimes’ but the gauntlet had been lowered, paving the way for others to do the same.

“I observed the 82nd anniversary of Kristallnacht, as I often do. It is the event that began the horrors of the Holocaust. I also noted President Trump’s attacks on history, facts, knowledge, and truth. I should not have juxtaposed the two thoughts. Hitler and his evils stand alone, of course, in history,” she continued. “I regret any pain my statement may have caused. My point was to say how democracy can potentially slip away, and how we must always zealously guard our democratic values,” Amanpour added.

But there it was. Once the comparison was out and despite the apology, it gave the greenlight to others to follow suit.

Following the violence that took place in Washington DC when a violent mob stormed the Capitol Building, social media platforms have cracked down and removed far-right individuals and groups like QAnon and The Proud Boys from their platforms. They have also cracked down on US President Donald Trump, shutting down his Twitter profile, Facebook and YouTube pages and others. What is strange is that the genocidal Ayatollah Al Khameini from Iran who routinely denies the Holocaust and calls for the eradication of “cancerous” Israel is still allowed a platform. Tech giants Apple, Google and Cloud technology, AWS have also removed platforms like Parler, long seen as a stage for far right rhetoric. The cyber world is purging what they see as far right hate speech. Pity they aren’t purging some anti-Semites….

Some took to the airwaves and to Twitter to lament.

Former Republican Congressman for Iowa, Steve King (known for making racist comments in the past) and Fox News host, Jeanine Pirro, both compared the de-platforming of alt-right voices from social media to Kristallnacht.

“I have lost 8,000 followers on this Twitter account in one day. Apple, Google, Facebook, & others have cancelled many conservatives. Last night was cyber god’s Kristallnacht!” King wrote on Twitter. Um, no.

Jeanine Pirro remarked on air, “They gave us a taste of this pre-election when they suppressed the Hunter Biden story, and now that they’ve won, what we’re seeing is the kind of censorship that is akin to a Kristallnacht,” she said. Sigh.

Pirro tried to qualify her statement. “Although book burning started earlier, Kristallnacht included the destruction of Jewish stores, homes & synagogues containing rare Jewish books & Torahs. My reference was in context of books. The Holocaust was the greatest hate crime the world ever tolerated. I abhor all violence,” she wrote.

Fox News host former New York State judge Jeanine Pirro calls Parler backlash “akin to a Kristallnacht” days after the deadly attempted coup on Capitol Hill.

Fox commentator, Glenn Beck has likened it to a “digital ghetto”. I have no words.

You would think they would know better. Former Governor of California and Terminator icon, Arnold Shwarzenegger, in a recent speech made the comparison of events in Washington DC to Kristallnacht. While he was careful to acknowledge Kristallnacht and explain it in historical context, his speech made me very uncomfortable with the reference. Both the Capitol attack and Kristallnacht, he argued, were the actions of violent groups motivated by lies from their leader. The mob that approached the Capitol, urged on by President Donald Trump earlier that day,  chanted that the election was stolen from him, while Kristallnacht was the work of a group Schwarzenegger called “the Nazi equivalent of the Proud Boys” (a far right, antisemitic group) who responded to the antisemitic libels put forward by Adolf Hitler and his ministers. While the former Governor made some very poignant and powerful points about democracy, invoking Kristallnacht was in the worst possible taste.

In a video posted to Twitter, Arnold Schwarzenegger compared the riot at the Capitol last week to Kristallnacht saying  “My father and our neighbors were misled also with lies, and I know where such lies lead.”
 

What was Kristallnacht?

Kristallnacht also known as the Night of Broken Glass, was a pogrom against Jews carried out by SA (Stormabteilung) paramilitary forces and civilians including Hitler Youth throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938. The German authorities looked on without intervening, in fact they encouraged it. The name Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”) comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed, looted and burnt to the ground. The pretext for the attacks was the assassination of the German Diplomat, Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old German-born Polish Jew living in Paris. Jews were forced to pay for the damage incurred to their property.

Jewish homes, hospitals and schools were ransacked as attackers demolished buildings with sledgehammers. Rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. Over 7,000 Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. British historian Martin Gilbert wrote that no event in the history of German Jews between 1933 and 1945 was so widely reported as it was happening, and the accounts from foreign journalists working in Germany sent shockwaves around the world.

Citizens of Austria, where Arnold Schwarzenegger grew up, watch in Graz as the Jewish cemetery’s ceremonial hall burns. (US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Dokumentationsarchiv des Oesterreichischen Widerstandes)

Kristallnacht stands alone as a historical event, steeped in hatred that was the precursor to the destruction of two thirds of European Jewry in the Holocaust. The Jews of Europe were hunted down and marked for murder, regardless of age, gender or social strata but simply because they were Jewish. To be Jewish meant you were sentenced to death. There is absolutely no comparison of this to having your social media profile shut down because of your political leanings.

What these comments expose is a glaring ignorance and trivializing of not just the Holocaust and the historic experience of Jews, but the current climate where antisemitism is rising and where Jews are often the targets of not just the far right but the left as well and this is prevalent on social media.

One thing remains clear, the need for Holocaust education has never been more important.

The Oscar Winner and Plungė

Recent passing in the UK of celebrated Academy award-winning scriptwriter brings back memories of his Lithuanian roots

By Danutė Serapinienė

First appeared in the local Lithuanian newspaper and translated into English with the help of the writer‘s  daughter, Rita Williams.

On September 8th 2020, at the age of 85, the South African-born British author, playwright, and screenwriter, Sir Ronald Harwood passed away. Best known for his plays for the British stage as well as the screenplays for The Dresser and The Pianist, for which he won the 2003 Acadamy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, Harwood‘s roots trace back to Plungė (in Yiddish Plungyan).

Cape Town born, Sir. Ronald Harwood in his study in London.

The writer‘s  father was born and spent his childhood in our city and this year marks the 15th anniversary of this celebrated writer‘s first and last visit to his father’s homeland.

Two classmates from Cape Town

Ronald Harwoods father was Isaac Horwitz. As a teenager, in 1902 he arrived in Cape Town in South Africa, and in 1934, his son Ronald was born. The boy found himself in the same class throughout his schooing at Sea Point Boys School as Abel Levitt, whose father was also from Plungė, but the two were unaware of this at the time. After matriculating, the friends parted ways.

In 1951, Ronald moved from Cape Town to London  to pursue a career in the theatre, and following an English master telling him his surname was too foreign and too Jewish for a stage actor, he changed it from Horwitz to Harwood.

In 1959, he married Natasha Riehle (1938-2013), the granddaughter of a 7th generation descendant of the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great and had three children – Anthony, Deborah, and Alexander.

From 1993 to 1997, Harwood was president of the International Club of PEN (Poets, Essays, Novelists),  and from 2001 to 2004, he served as president of the Royal Literary Society. The creative legacy of this writer would span 24 stage plays, 20 screenplays, 33 books and publications. Nominated 32 times for various awards, Harwood won eight, his most presigious being the Oscar for The Pianist, which revealed his strong interest in the Nazi period, especially the situation of people who either chose to collaborate with the Nazis or who faced strong pressure to do so and consequently had to work out their own personal combination of resistance, deception and compromise.

Sir Ronald poses with his Best Adapted Screenplay award for “The Pianist” during the 75th Annual Academy Awards in 2003 (Credit: Getty)

His schoolfriend Abel settled in Israel. Together with his wife Glenda, they pursued a path of honouring the memory of Abel‘s relatives and other Jews of Plungė killed during the Holocaust in Kaušėnai, and helped to establish the Tolerance Education Center at the Saulė Gymnasium. For their outstanding efforts in preserving Jewish history and culture in the Plungė district, Abel and Glenda Levitt were awarded in 2014 our Municipaliy‘s Badge of Honor. This was followed in 2019, when the Lithuanian Embassy in Israel awarded the Levitts‘ the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs badge of honor, the “Star of Lithuanian Diplomacy” for fostering relations between the Republic of Lithuania and the State of Israel and perpetuating historical memory.

Relations between the two classmates were resumed when Abel read Harwood’s novel “Home” and learnt that Ronald’s father had emigrated to South Africa from Plungė. Abel called Ronald and suggested “What about you and Natasha joining us in a trip to our shtetl Plungyan?” They immediately agreed.  

“Our Shtetl”. Plunge before World War II from where the fathers of both Sir. Ronald Harwood and Abel Levitt came from before emigrating to South Africa.(Photo Collection, 181co)

Returning to their Roots

On May 25, 2005, Ronald and Natash Harwood and Abel and Glenda Levitt arrive in Plungė and visit Jakov Bunka, known as “The last Jew in Plungė”. Next, they visit the Kaušėnai memorial, where 1,800 Jews from Plungė were murdered in July 1941. Although Ronald’s family had allready left before the Holocaust, he walked in silence, deeply moved, shrouded in the sanctity of the moment.

Next, our  guests visited Saulės Gymnasium, where in an open lesson held in the Assembly Hall, Ronald addressed the gathered students and teachers and spoke about the making of the film “The Pianist”, basing his script on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist living in Poland. After the Nazis occupied Warsaw, the musician, separated from his family, went into hiding for several years. The idea of ​​the film, explained Ronald, was not to give in to the terrible force of events and to remain a spiritually unbroken person. The screenwriter recounted how the lead actor, the talented American Adrien Brody, had to starve to appear physically like a hunted and hungry man. Not eating normally, the actor was naturally and constantly melancholy – contibuting to the realism of his performance. Admitting that he had  initially agonised how to begin the screenplay – the opening being so important –  he revealed that it was the film’s director, Roman Polanski whocame up with the idea of the main character playing the piano in the opening scene. The screenwriter took advantage of that advice – then came the inspiration to ‘compose’ all the frames and present the protagonist playing the piano in the finale. This film won three Oscars – Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. Harwood took questions from the audience.

Somber Note. Adrien Brody in the role of Wladyslaw Szpilman, the real-life concert pianist who spent two years hiding in the ghetto of Warsaw during the German occupation of Poland in World War II seen here in Roman Polanski’s Holocaust The Pianist, screenplay by Sir. Ronald Harwood. 

Visiting that afternoon the Samogitian Art Museum, Harwood was met as he entered the hall with a melody by Frederik Chopin played by the pianist of Plungė‘s Mykolas Oginskis Art School. It was a moving introduction to his next encounter as it was the same melody from the opening sequence in The Pianist. It powerfully resonated; after all, the movie’s soundtrack symbolises a belief in life and human purpose that man can find in himself the strength to restore a shattered world even while enduring the horrors of Nazism.  

Music was his Passion, Survival was his Masterpiece. Poster for the award winning film, ‘The Pianist’ about Wladyslaw Szpilman.

Again speaking about the making of the film, Harwood also spoke  about himself and his father who came from Plungė, and answered questions from the audience. The meeting concluded with a photograph of all the participants.

The next day, the Harwoods and Levitts visited Kazys Vitkevičius, the last surviving rescuer of Jews in the Plungė district.

In 1941, at the age of 14, he helped his mother Emilia Vitkevichienė hide and feed Jewish girls. He did this by digging pits in which he hid the girls covered by branches, and bringing them food. Both his mother and Kazys were honoured by Yad Vashem as ‘Righteous among the Nations‘. Ronald and Natasha were visibly moved by the experience of meeting this special man.

At the special reception for our guests at the Municipality, Abel and Glenda Levitt were most impressed by Harwoods words to Algirdas Pečiulis, the mayor of Plungė:

Mr. Mayor, I know you have difficulties with the budget. I appeal to you no matter what you decide, don’t cut the cultural budget so as not to harm your community.”

These words inspired Abel and Glenda to organize with the Saulė Gymnasium Tolerance Centre, “The Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art competition”. Since that time, the Competition has grown from a local, then to a regional and presently to a national event.

Exposing the Past. Drawing by Karolina age 14, a participant in the annual Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art Competition. Note the open eye, an admission of seeing and knowing.

Seeing Light Beyond Darkness

The aim of the Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art Competition is to encourage students to explore a dark chapter in their history and to  express their understanding of it through art. Simply put, school children would be invited to dance, sing, write or paint their insights of the Holocaust.

Confronting History. ‘A Stain on History’ by student Bernadetta Plunge a participant in the annual Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art Competition.

In the spring of 2007, the final event of the first competition took place, which was attended by students and their teachers from Plungė, Palanga and Mažeikiai. Abel and Glenda Levitt came from Israel to assist in judging the competition, while Harwood, who was unable to attend due to commitments of work, sent a letter to the participants, which was read aloud to everyone. He wrote of his strong family roots to  Plungė and the memories from his last visit that gave him strength in his daily life. He believed that his late father, “would be deeply moved, knowing that I could breathe the same air he breathed as a boy and that I could look up at the same sky he did.”

Gone Forever. “Oblivion” by student Albertas from Plunge captures generations of young Jews lost forever in the Holocaust.

He recounted the impact it had on him hearing of the massacres and seeing the graves in Kaušėnai and meeting the heroic rescuer of Jewsish girls – Kazys Vitkevičius:

 “I learned that, despite the horror he experienced, he has survived as a bright example of goodness and courage. He showed the light where I saw only darkness.”

Your Ronnie”

In 2010, Ronald Harwood was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of England and became Sir. Ronald Harwood and his wife Lady Harwood. The Tolerance Education Center at the Saulė Gymnasium congratulated  Sir. Ronald Harwood who replied with thanks ending his email – “Your Ronnie”.

Signing off with such familiarity from someone who mixed in social circles from world leaders to celebrity film stars, as well as being hosted  for a dinner by Prince Charles and Camilla on the occasion of the writer’s 80th birthday, truly resonated with the people of Plungė.

Sir Ronald Harwood receives a knighthood for Services to Drama Investitures at Buckingham Palace (Credit: Rex Features)

In the 13 years of the Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art Competition, over 800 students have participated. Over the years, interest in the competion has expanded geographically with particiation from schools in Ariogala, Kaunas, Klaipėda, Šiauliai, Vilnius, Alytus, Marijampolė and Kėdainiai. Such support for the goals of the competition offers hope that the current generation can help to create a more beautiful world.

In countries and cities abroad, Abel and Glenda Levitt have exhibited many of these fine artworks by students at schools  confronting the haunting question of “What happened to our Jewish communities during the Holocaust? ”

Towards A Tomorrow Of Tolerance. Lithuanian Ambassador Edminas Bagdonas (left) awards Abel and Glenda Levitt with the Medal of Honor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv on the 4th June 2019. (Photo D.E. Kaplan.)
 

They are confronting through art their past to seek a more enlighened future.

At these exhibitions  – which have been held at Plungė Public Library, Biržai, the Israeli cities of Tel Mond, Netanya, Kfar Saba, Jerusalem, Herzliya, Ra‘anana, Tel Aviv, South African cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, as well as London, Toronto and Washington – the Levitts speak about Lithuania and the Tolerance Centre in Plungė, which promotes the values of humanity and tolerance through art. So thank you to Abel and Glenda in helping to  bring the better angels of our city to the outside world. Let me end with the words that “Ronnie“ concluded in his letter to the first contestant of the art competition:

Politics is temporary, but art is eternal.”

It can be said too that the life of Sir Ronald Harwood was temporary but his message eternal. He has left us a legacy that illuminates the road ahead for those that remain to follow.

Revealing the Truth. The writer Danutė Serapinienė (centre) receives an award from the President of Lithuania Gitanas Nausėda (right) for her contribution to educating about the Holocaust that took place in Lithuania.


The Lost Names of Lithuania. The first of two documentary films telling the story of the Jews of Birzai. This poignant film chronicles the astonishing group tour to BIrzai last year. The second documentary, now being made, will tell the depressing story of modern Lithuania (Click on the picture or caption).




About the Writer:

Danutė Serapinienė is a retired schoolteacher in Plungė. She recently received an award by the State President of Lithuania for her role in educating about the Holocaust in Lithuania.







While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

Remembering Munich

Survivors recall the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

By Rolene Marks and Yair Chelouche

“They’re all gone”.

They were the words that reverberated around the world. Television viewers across the globe were glued to Jim McKay, who anchored ABC’s coverage of the unfolding terrorist attack in Munich during the 1972 Olympics. The words are seared into our conscience. We can never forget that moment when we heard that 11 members of the Israeli Olympic Team had been murdered by Black September terrorists. Germany, once emblematic of painful memories for the Jewish people, had become a place where Jews were targeted for murder yet again.

Proud Presence. The Israeli delegation at the opening ceremony in Munich. (Credit: Agence France-Presse-Getty Images)

On the 5th of September, we will remember how these terrorists first killed two members of the Israeli delegation and held another 9 hostage, until they too, were slaughtered.  Israelis are far too familiar with terrorism, having endured attacks from terror groups since the birth of the modern state; but for it to happen like this on foreign soil, at the Olympic Games, the very essence and symbol of brotherhood and the human spirit, made the pain that much more acute.

Several weeks ago, history was made when the Israeli Airforce entered German airspace for the first time to train with the country’s Luftwaffe.  Apart from practicing complex maneuvers, the premise of the joint exercise was to strengthen ties – and pay tribute to the past. Sharing the commitment to fight antisemitism and declaring “Never Again” the two allied forces flew over the Dachau Concentration Camp in tribute to victims and survivors of the Holocaust as well as those who were murdered on that tragic day in September, 1972.

Yehuda Weinstain has often been called the “Flying Fencer”.  Weinstain was just 17 when he participated in the Olympics as a Fencer.  He recalls the excitement of being in the Olympic Village, sharing the camaraderie with his team, being a bit star struck at seeing the famous athletes and practicing with intense focus. It was the Olympics after all! The Olympics symbolise the best of the sporting world and the very spirit of international goodwill, devoid of the partisan politics that plague global discourse. This was shattered with the attack on the Israeli team.

“Flying Fencer”. Future Israeli pilot, Yehuda Weinstain  was just 17 when he participated in the 1972 Munich Olympics as a Fencer. 

Yehuda Weinstain recalls how it was a twist of fate that saved his life. Having visited the city to acclimate so that when it came to choosing his accommodation, he chose the same room that was in between that of the coaches and other team members. This decision would prove lifesaving.

The sportsmen were assigned a room in a complex with three bedrooms, with two in each room.

Touché. Israeli fencer Yehuda Weinstain (right) scores a hit in a fencing bout in the 1972 Munich Olympics before the massacre.

When the terrorists started their deadly attack, they went to the rooms on either side of Weinstain and roommate, Dan Alon; but not theirs. They heard the shots that killed wrestling coach, Moshe Weinberg. They knew that something horrific had occurred. Weinstain remembers seeing a blood puddle at the place where Weinberg’s body lay as he peered through the window.

“It could’ve been me,” he says, “Because the terrorists, passed by my window twice and didn’t come in. Later on we believed that the terrorists’ omission on our door was a deliberate act by Moshe Weinberg who wanted that the people who will face the terrorists are those, he thought, could resist stronger. So it was my luck”.

Desperate Situation. Held hostage, fencing coach Andre Spitzer (right) and marksmanship coach Kehat Shorr (left) negotiating with the German police.

He recalls making the decision to run to safety. “I ran about seven metres around the corner. It felt longer. I had the feeling that someone could shoot me in the small of my back”, he says. It was Alon’s turn, then some of the others to make the run for safety and he, Weinstain and the remaining survivors were taken to safety by German police and isolated before being sent home to their worried families in Israel.

40 years later (2012) – “The 11th Day” – Munich ’72 massacre survivors.

Yehuda Weinstain, Olympic athlete for Fencing enlisted in the army as is required of Israeli citizens and became Lt Col Weinstain, a combat pilot in the IAF, flying many important missions for the Jewish state.

 His latest mission was addressing the delegation from the IAF that participated in the training exercise in Germany – a poignant and important moment.

As Young fencerAvishay Jakobovich at the Munich Olympic village
Dr Avishay Jakobovich

Dr Avishay Jakobovich was also at those fateful games – albeit in a different role. Host country Germany, wanted to show the world that it had moved forward from its Nazi past and invited all participating countries to send separate delegations  of youth under 21 that would serve as cultural and social Ambassadors. In retrospect, many would criticize the lack of police presence and security. Jakobovich, delighted to be part of the Israeli delegation, remembers the incredible happy and inclusive vibe, with dancing and singing amongst the different global representatives and enjoying the games as a spectator.

Israel’s Young Ambassadors. Avishay Jakobovich (left) as a member of the Israeli youth social ambassador’s delegation to the Munich Olympics.

This was until the massacre of the Israeli coaches and athletes. “We were quickly removed from where we were staying and isolated. I called my parents to let them know I was okay. The hardest parts were when we represented the State of Israel at the main memorial held by the Olympic committee the day after the massacre and accompanying the coffins of the victims and the flight was difficult and emotional, knowing the bodies of those murdered were underneath us, in the belly of the plane. I sat next to Ankie Spitzer, now the widow of Andre Spitzer the Fencing coach. Very hard,” he recalls.

Dr Jakobovich served as Chief Gynaecologist for the IDF and is a leader in his field today.

This and every September, we remember them – the 11 coaches and athletes, slaughtered in their prime in one of the most nefarious and infamous terror attacks in recent history. The recent IAF-Luftwaffe flyover may have been history in the making and a great tribute to remember and heal wounds but it is the message of that auspicious occasion that we take heed of – NEVER AGAIN!

Munich Olympics Opening Ceremony. Israeli Delegation enters the Olympic stadium onr the 26/08/1972 (left). The ceremony (centre). Ending the opening ceremony by freeing pigeons of peace (right).

Murdered in Munich. The 11 Israeli sportsmen killed at the Munich Olympics on the 05/09/1972

Right handed fencer. Co-writer Rolene Marks (L) with the “Flying Fencer” Yehuda Weinstain (R), Sept. 2020


While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

We said NEVER AGAIN

China’s treatment of Uighur minority – a Crime Against Humanity.

By Rolene Marks

We said NEVER AGAIN2

We said NEVER AGAIN. After the Holocaust, when the devastating images and testimony hit international consciousness and Jews struggled to come to terms with the murders of so many of us, including generations of our families, the world said NEVER AGAIN. We agreed that we need to learn from the genocide that was the Holocaust that was built on the foundations of religious intolerance and hatred of the other, including the Roma, members of the LGBTQ community and others. But we did not. After the horrors of the Holocaust, we thought that there would be no more genocide- but there was. The names are familiar – Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Syria, the Yazidi people and now China is firmly in our sites.

We said NEVER AGAIN3.gif

The images are frightening and familiar. Nearly two million Muslim Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and Uzbeks have been detained in internment camps since April 2017. The Chinese government is cracking down on anyone that practices Islam, and in many cases, traveled to countries like Turkey or Afghanistan and visited Mosques or shared religious texts. Some have been detained for wearing the veil or hijab for respect and modesty reasons as prescribed by Islamic laws; and some men arrested just for growing beards as prescribed by Islam. Children are systematically removed from their families in an effort to isolate them from their Muslim communities. The images that have been smuggled out and have surfaced on social media show the round-up of men in vast numbers and transported via train to these camps. It is a scene horrifyingly reminiscent of the rounding up of Jews during the Holocaust, the majority who were then sent to certain death.

image006 (15)

 

China is a communist country and religion is seen as anathema. The Chinese government has tried to defend their actions by claiming that the Uighur Muslims that they are rounding up and sending to these camps are “extremists” and that this is a “counter-terror” measure and call any allegations against them “baseless”. The Chinese call these facilities, “reeducation camps”.

These are not “reeducation camps”. More like concentration camps!

These reeducation camps are anything but humane. Detainees or rather prisoners are subjected to hours and hours of indoctrination, a process that can last several months until they are forced to denounce Islam.  They are forced hour after hour to listen to and study communist propaganda and give thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Chinese officials have also reportedly used waterboarding and other forms of torture, including sexual abuse, as part of the indoctrination process.

Uighur women are treated in the most appalling manner.  Pregnant women who refuse to abort their foetus – in order to not exceed the birth quotas – are sent to the camps. Former detainees have said they were given injections that stopped their periods or caused unusual bleeding consistent with the effects of birth control drugs. There have also been reports of sexual abuse. A Uighur activist has spoken out against China’s “Pair Up and Become Family” programme, in which Han Chinese men are sent to live with Uighur women, many of whose husbands have been sent to the camps.

The programme, first introduced in 2017, was discussed in an October 2019 report by Radio Free Asia that cited two unnamed Chinese officials. The report outlined a horrific programme in which many of the Chinese men would often sleep in the same beds as the women.

“Normally one or two people sleep in one bed, and if the weather is cold, three people sleep together,” one official told RFA. “It is now considered normal for females to sleep on the same platform with their paired male ‘relatives’,” he said in reference to the men, who are referred to as “relatives” even though they are not family. Uighur activists have referred to it as a policy of mass rape.

The scenes of men rounded up and transported on trains is not the only image that has a horrific similarity to the Holocaust. Uighur women have their hair cut off and exported to the West.

Earlier this year, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials seized a shipment of human hair from China. Officials said that 13 tons (11.8 metric tons) of weaves and other hair products worth an estimated $800,000 were in the shipment.

The production of these goods constitutes a very serious human rights violation, and the detention order is intended to send a clear and direct message to all entities seeking to do business with the United States that illicit and inhumane practices will not be tolerated in US supply chains,” said Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s office of trade.

This is the second time this year that CBP has slapped a rare detention order on shipments of hair products from China, based on suspicions that people making them face human rights abuses.

China Protest
Forced Family Separation. Uighur women grieving for their men who they claim were taken away by the Chinese authorities after a protest in Urumqi, China, Tuesday, July 7, 2009. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Stripped of their femininity and their identity, this bears a striking similarity to the way women were treated during the Holocaust. Today, the Auschwitz Museum has a room filled to the ceiling with human hair, shaved off the heads of Jewish women and girls, forced into labour, treated in the most monstrous conditions before many of them were routinely murdered by the Nazis.

Prisoners are allowed no contact with the outside, including family members. Many are fearful of what could happen to their loved ones if they dare make any contact.

Where is the global outcry?

Where are the UN resolutions and fact finding missions?

Activists around the world are trying to raise awareness – and push for investigations for Chinese crimes against humanity. A group of exiled Uighurs has appealed to the ICC (International Criminal Court) to launch an investigation for crimes against humanity and genocide.  Human Rights Watch, UN Watch and US Senator Cory Gardner, are amongst those calling for UN investigations into the treatment of Uighurs and so far the UN human rights panel have said that they have “credible” information to launch an investigation. Jewish organisations and individuals, drawing from our own history of genocide and persecution are trying to raise as much awareness as possible – and showing solidarity with the global Muslim community.

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Appealing to the UN. Protests against China’s oppression against the Uighurs.

The Chinese (when they bother to respond) insist it is counter terror – or simply do not respond. Earlier this year, Yu Jianhua, China’s Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said the country was working toward equality and solidarity among all ethnic groups.

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“Mass Rape”. Uighur activist Rushan Abbas says the practice of Han Chinese men sleeping with Uighur women that has been taking place for years is nothing less than “a scheme of mass rape”. (Source:AAP)

The images are growing more and more worrying. So many times, we have said NEVER AGAIN! So many times we have thought we have learnt the lessons from history.

We cannot fail the Uighur people. Never again is now.

 

 

 

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

 

An Open Letter to Seth Rogen

By Stephen Schulman

Dear Seth,

I must apologize if I have never heard of you before, but neither being a reader of the tabloids nor a follower of all the fashionable internet podcasts, I had never come across your name until now.

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Relishing in Reviling. Beginning as a lighthearted conversation between two Jewish comedians, Rogen (right) and Marc Maron (left), the talk turned to Israel where Rogen’s disparaging comments sparked an uproar.

Nevertheless, while appearing in the podcast of Marc Maron to plug your latest film, promote yourself and widen your fan base, you held forth and bared your soul to all and sundry on the subject of Judaism and Israel. After reading reports of your words, myself, both being a citizen of and living in this country, I feel that your words are in dire need of an emendatory reply.

“To me it just seems an antiquated thought process. If it is for religious reasons, I don’t agree with it, because I think religion is silly. If it is truly for the preservation of the Jewish people, it makes no sense, because again, you don’t keep something you are trying to preserve all in one place – especially when that place is proven to be pretty volatile, you know? I am trying to keep all these things safe, I’m gonna put them in my blender and hope that’s the best place…..that’ll do it. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Your message is clear:

You have negated Israel’s existence as a home for the Jewish people, seeing its purpose as illogical, senseless and useless. Furthermore, in your opinion, since all religion is a baseless mumbo jumbo; Israel has no religious justification for existence at all. Sweeping statements indeed!

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Senseless Seth. Seth Rogen says Israel ‘doesn’t make sense’.

Seth, your ignorance is abysmal, appalling and frightening. You are 38 years old. Have you never read any books? Have you never attempted to broaden your knowledge?  Have you never progressed beyond that of a muddled pre-adolescent?  For a person of your age, I find your mental vacuity simply breathtaking.

Israel has had a Jewish presence for millennia. Towards the end of the 19th century, many young pioneers, identifying themselves primarily as secular and socialists but aware of their heritage, fired with ideals of social justice came to then Palestine from exile; to rebuild a homeland for the Jewish people. With the passing of time, amongst other social organizations, the Histadrut (the Labour Federation) that saw to the rights of the workers and Kupat Cholim (the sick fund or NHS) were founded for the benefit of all the occupants of Palestine irrespective of background or religion. Was all this done for the sake of religion?

Return to Zion has always been a central tenet of Judaism and the Land of Israel features prominently in our prayers. Jerusalem and the Land of Israel is not only part of Jewish history; it plays an integral role in the Hebrew Bible and is an inseparable part of our faith. You choose to view this as antiquated and valueless.

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Voyage of the Damned. Refugees aboard the M.S. St. Louis arriving in Antwerp, Belgium after over a month at sea, during which they were denied entry to Cuba, the USA and Canada. Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Throughout our history (and yours too!), there have been pogroms, expulsions, forced conversions, massacres and persecutions of our nation in Christian and Muslim lands. When so many Jews were desperately trying to escape the clutches of Nazism, where were the countries of the world offering them a safe haven? In 1939, the steamship St. Louis with close to a thousand Jewish refugees on board seeking refuge was denied docking rights in many countries and it returned to Germany with its passengers ultimately dying in the concentration camps. Amongst the countries denying them entry was Canada – your birthplace – where a member of parliament stood up to say that letting in one Jew was one Jew too many! Yet, these same countries that denied Jews entry, after the war opened their gates to let in many Nazi collaborators. Canada, your Canada, in the post WW II period, opened its arms to and turned a blind eye to the influx of these criminals. Today Canada boasts the dubious record of having the largest number of memorials to Nazi collaborators.

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“None is Too Many”. The title of this book about Canada’s restrictive immigration policy towards Jewish refugees during the Holocaust is based on an immigration official in 1939 when asked how many Jews would be allowed in Canada after the war replied, “None is too many”. A monument – referred to in the media as the “none is too many” memorial – was displayed in Halifax’s Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 to commemorate the liner M.S. St. Louis carrying Jews fleeing from Nazi Germany being blocked from entering Canada. The ship was forced to return to Europe and 254 of the refugees later died in Nazi concentration camps.

With the termination of WW II, there were many Jews who had survived the Holocaust scattered in DP (Displaced Persons) camps throughout Europe, my late parents-in-law being amongst them. Why in these camps? Why didn’t they return to their former homes? The answer is very simple. They had been taken over by others and to assert their property rights was tantamount to asking to be murdered. When my father-in-law returned to Bialystok, his former neighbours made this very clear to him and his example was one of many. Where was the one place they wanted to go to that would be free of post war pogroms and anti-Semitism? You guessed it:  Palestine – shortly to become Israel.

You clearly don’t know it but prior to and after the declaration of the State of Israel, the 850,000 Jews living in the Arab countries were persecuted, disenfranchised, dispossessed and expelled thus bringing to an end of Jewish presence that had existed for over a thousand years. The Arab countries are now ‘Judenrein‘ – an accomplishment the Nazis would have applauded! The great majority of the refugees found their home and rebuilt their lives in Israel – the country whose existence you find senseless!

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Many peoples have their own ancestral homelands. Do the Jewish people not have the same right, or have you conveniently ignored that fact? Just ponder this:  Had there existed a Jewish state prior to the Second World War, countless lives could have been saved!

Yes, Israel is located in a ‘volatile’ region. It is indeed so, not of our own volition but due to the fact that our neighbours refuse to accept our right to exist. Peace has been signed with Jordan and Egypt albeit a cold one with calls within these countries for our destruction. A Hezbollah controlled Lebanon with its huge arsenal of rockets sends daily threats while Hamas in the Gaza Strip sends incendiary balloons to torch our land. Dear Seth, you with your wisdom and perspicacity, what do you suggest we do? Close shop and move en mass to Canada?

‘And I also think that as a Jewish person, I was fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life! They never tell you that – oh, by the way, there were people there. They make it seem like it was just sitting there, oh like the f***g doors open!…. They forgot to include the fact to every young Jewish person.’

Dear Seth, in your settling of accounts, is this all that you can remember about your Jewish education? Have you never progressed beyond that? Any thinking person is inclined to disbelieve that Palestine simply comprised one big vacuum beckoning to be filled by Jewish settlements! It wasn’t the moon! A perfunctory perusal of history books would inform you that there was an Arab presence there too. In 1917 the Jewish population of Jaffa/Tel Aviv was forcefully exiled to some parts that today are in the West Bank,  in 1929 the Jewish population of Hebron was slaughtered,  and in 1936 there were riots in which many Jews were killed. Who carried them out? It wasn’t pixies!

Open Letter to Seth Rogen4
Turbulent Times. US newspapers headline the massacre of Jews during the Arab riots of 1929 when more than 130 Jews were killed in Jerusalem, Hebron and elsewhere.

Once again, your reasons for Jews supporting Israel: ‘They want to make you feel frightened enough about your own survival to the point that when you are old enough, you will make sure money goes to Israel, and that trees are planted and that you will always speak highly of Israel and Israel will survive no matter what.’

Dear Seth, when Israel comes to your mind, is your sole connotation that of trees? Possibly you can’t see the wood for all the trees? For your elucidation, Israel is a thriving country of 9,000,000 people that in spite of being surrounded by enemies is prospering. Amongst other achievements, it boasts a stable economy, a booming hi-tech industry and is a world leader in agricultural technology. It is the only true democracy in the Middle East; and guarantees religious freedom to all faiths in it. There is a large LGTB community that openly asserts its rights; and members of it serve in our Knesset (Parliament).

Diaspora Jewry openly identifies with the state and supports it. There is an awareness of our security problems – with Iran and its proxies openly preaching genocide against us – and they take pride in the strength and ability of the Israel Defense Forces in protecting its citizens and borders.

I have yet to encounter a Diaspora Jew who has been so brainwashed that his/her knees are perpetually knocking in terror and his/her trembling hands continually writing out cheques for the state! Methinks you are getting carried away by one of your film scenarios!

‘As I get older, I appreciate that religion you know……….it puts you to work and it forces you to do stuff.’

Dear Seth, kindly make up your mind and be consistent. On one hand you say that religion is claptrap and on the other hand praise it for helping you during a period of mourning. Your paucity of vocabulary attests to the shallowness of your thoughts.

‘I remember my dad frankly telling me, People hate Jews. Just be aware of that. They just do.’

Your dad knew what he was talking about. Institutionalized antisemitism was part of life in Canada. There was a quota on Jews entering higher institutes of learning and many clubs and societies restricted their membership. Unfortunately, today in this turbulent time of fear and uncertainty, antisemitism has grown and become a multi headed monster assuming many shapes and forms, the old tropes have taken on different guises and conspiracy theories abound. A Canadian Polish newspaper has printed stories unequivocally stating that Jews have devised and spread the Covid-19 virus in order to profit from it – a modern twist to the medieval accusation of Jews poisoning the wells.

Open Letter to Seth Rogan2
Blame the Jews. The Polish-Canadian newspaper Glos Polski publishes an anti-Semitic tirade suggesting COVID-19 is a creation of “organized Jewry”.

And you Seth, at this heightened period of antisemitism, with your appearance on the podcast, with your self importance, eagerness to self publicize and ingratiate yourself and with your ‘progressive,’ ideas have made yourself the darling of the BDS camp, providing grist to the mill for the detractors and deniers of legitimacy of Israel. Even with your mother twisting your arm, you simply ‘clarified’ your ideas and said some remarks were made in jest. Some jest! Your lack of sensitivity is shocking.

Seth, it appears that as a standup comedian, you spent some lean years before producing your cinematic tour de force: ‘The Pickle Barrel.’  I wish you every success with it. Just do yourself and us all a favour: Before making your next public appearance, buy some books, do some much needed reading, consult with those more learned than you and then think before you open your mouth.

Stephen Schulman

Ramat Hasharon

Israel

 

 

 

About the writer:

image001 (4).pngStephen Schulman is a graduate of the South African Jewish socialist youth movement Habonim, who immigrated to Israel in 1969 and retired in 2012 after over 40 years of English teaching. He was for many years a senior examiner for the English matriculation and co-authored two English textbooks for the upper grades in high school. Now happily retired, he spends his time between his family, his hobbies and reading to try to catch up on his ignorance.

 

 

 

 

Feature Picture: Sarah Snook and Seth Rogen are husband and wife in the new comedy “An American Pickle.” (Credit –

 

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

 

The Crisis of Zionism

By Alex Ryvchin

When the French playwright Edmond Fleg attended Theodore Herzl’s Third Zionist Congress in Basel he marvelled at the scene. “I looked about me. What Jewish contrasts! A pale-faced Pole with high cheekbones, a German in spectacles, a Russian looking like an angel, a bearded Persian, a clean-shaven American, an Egyptian in a fez, and over there, that black phantom, towering up in his immense caftan, with his fur cap and pale curls falling from his temples.” Fleg saw the sum of Jewish exile in that room. Jews of east and west, religious and secular, wealthy and poor, radical and conservative. A people dispersed to every corner of the globe, just melting a little into their surrounds, adopting local language, custom, dress, before being rudely plucked out and sent onward by Kings and Empresses, warlords and clerics, to new lands and new privations.

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Time to Act. First Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland in 1897. Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

The staging of a Zionist assembly in Europe, which unified Jews under the banner of a single idea, had been achieved through a combination of grandeur and old-fashioned community organising. At the First Zionist Congress, also held in Basel, in 1897, Herzl entered the Stadtcasino in black trousers, tails and a white tie, more befitting a matinee of La Traviata than a Jewish communal event. But in the days before, Herzl sat up with students addressing envelopes long into the night.

At that First Congress, the aim of Zionism was expressed as to establish a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel secured under public law. Within this simple declaration stood an almighty mission. The Jews had not had a national home for two millennia. The Land of Israel had since 135 CE been known by another name, had seen multiple empires befall it, and had a meagre Jewish population of 25,000. Moreover, the mass physical return of a scattered and acculturated people to long vanquished lands was something that had never been achieved in human history.

It was this dreamy idealism that gave Zionism a magnetic quality. It animated Jewish youths to throw themselves into community activism and intellectual rumbles out of which organised Zionism grew. It led to the founding of grass-roots Zionist groups like Bilu (House of Jacob, come ye and let us go), whose members travelled from Russia to Palestine and established agricultural settlements. It compelled the likes of Chaim Weizmann to spend his student days in Germany as a member of another Zionist group, the Verein, throwing his humble stipend into sausages and beer while raucously debating Zionism, socialism, nationalism and internationalism in cafes until the wee hours.

And it prompted the writer Israel Zangwill to lambast the Jewish establishment for holding back the progress of Zionism to the detriment of the suffering Jewish masses. Zangwill thundered to the Jewish poor in London’s East End, “we are supposed to pray three times a day for the return of Jerusalem, but, as soon as we say we want to go back, we are accused of blasphemy!”

When this generation of Jewish activists encountered the pamphlets of thinkers like Leon Pinsker and Herzl their minds were instantly seared and permanently changed. How could a vigorous young Jew coming of age in a time of unsparing brutality towards Jews, be unmoved by Pinsker’s illustration of their stateless people wandering the earth as “a ghost-like apparition of a living corpse … living everywhere but nowhere in the correct place?” Or Herzl’s functional oratory that promised, “the Jews who wish for a state will have it. We shall live at last as free people on our own soil and die peacefully in our own homes.”

Not only was Zionism exciting and radical, world events conspired to make it a matter of life and death. Jews were looted, raped and slaughtered across Russia in 1881 and 1905, in Fez in 1912 and in Shiraz in 1910. This turned Zionism from a rising ideal into an urgent humanitarian mission.

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Poetic Warnings. Although Hayim Nachman Bialik’s later writings became more universal in outlook, it was his “In the City of Slaughter” written in response to the Kishinev pogrom that proved such a powerful statement of anguish at the situation of the Jews of Europe.

The Kishinev pogrom of 1903, while comparatively less bloody than some of the others of the time, was chronicled so graphically it caused deep shame in the Jewish world. The poet Hayim Nachman Bialik wrote:

in the dark corners of Kishinev, crouching husbands, bridegrooms and brothers peering through the cracks of their shelters, watching their wives, sisters, daughters writhing beneath their bestial defilers, suffocating in their own blood, their flesh portioned out as booty.”

The New York Times reported:

 “the scenes of horror were beyond description … the streets were piled with corpses and wounded.”

After Kishinev, an editorial of The American Hebrew noted that “American Zionism had come of age,” while a Christian speaker at a Zionist meeting at Cooper Union declared, “all efforts must be made to establish a Jewish commonwealth.” Zionism offered Jews an escape from Kishinev, both physically and psychologically.

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Hunting Season. Jews were the prey as seen in this photograph taken following the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, when 49 Jews were murdered following a ‘blood libel’ against the Jewish community. Here, the victims are laid out wrapped in prayer shawls prior to burial (public domain)

Any doubt about the necessity of Zionism dissipated as the Holocaust descended onto Europe. As David Ben-Gurion noted, “what Zionist propaganda could not do,” being to fully reveal Jewish self-delusion and vulnerability, “disaster has done overnight.”  The surviving Jews, absurdly warehoused in displaced persons camps in Europe several years after the defeat of Nazism, yearned to locate the ruins of their families and rebuild lives away from European antisemitism. “Palestine is definitely and pre-eminently the first choice” for resettlement, Earl Harrison, President Truman’s envoy for refugees, reported.

The creation of Israel in May 1948 did nothing to dim Jewish interest in Zionism. The establishment of the state may have been the practical fulfilment of the Basel vision, but much work remained. There was the immediate defence of the state against invasion, rescue missions for imperilled Jews, the upbuilding of a society, and the pursuit of peace with Arab neighbours once war subsided. In a sense, Zionism became more important as the Jewish world unified behind creating a society worthy of the two millennia intermission.

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Rebirth of a Nation. David Ben-Gurion declaring on the 14 May 1948 the state of Israel with the portrait of Hertzl above.

For diaspora communities, there were governments to be lobbied to achieve recognition of Israel, public opinion to shape, humanitarian aid to raise. Zionist organisations like the Jewish National Fund and Women’s International Zionist Organization and a kaleidoscope of others weren’t simply folded into the Jewish State in 1948, they redoubled their efforts.

There were trees to plant to cultivate the land, university faculties to endow, lone soldiers to support, victims of terror to assist, millions of Soviet, African and Middle Eastern Jews to rescue and absorb. All of this deepened the investment of diaspora Jews in the Zionist project. No one wanted to miss out on history in the making and if Aliyah was impracticable, membership of Zionist organisations, political activism and fundraising enabled diaspora Jews to be active players in the extraordinary story of Jewish rehabilitation and national rebirth.

For Jews who had either lapsed in their religious observance or, like the vast majority of Soviet emigres, were never religious to begin with, Zionism offered the Jewish communal pride, feelings of belonging, and opportunities for learning and debate, previously only to be found in religion.

A senior Israeli diplomat once told me that Zionism was his religion. It is the sort of comment that would instantly be misconstrued as amounting to worship of settlements or prayers at the altar of Bibi. But I immediately understood what he meant. He was immersed in the story of Zionism, believed with perfect conviction in its justness and necessity, was inspired by it, and compelled to act civically and humanely by its teachings. He wished to convey the wondrous stories of Zionism to his children – Weizmann’s experiments with acetone, Herzl’s awakening at the Dreyfus Trial, the magical moment on 29 November 1947 when Jews worldwide realised they would get their state. This diplomat wanted his children to imbibe these stories as he had, so that they too would grow up connected to their Jewishness, know who they are, remain strong in the face of aggressors, and proud in the knowledge that they belong to a people of vision and fortitude.

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French Injustice. The Dreyfus trial in 1894 known in France as “L’Affaire”, come to symbolise modern injustice and remains a prime example of a conspired miscarriage of justice and antisemitism.

Yet the price of Israel’s incredible success is that the very imperatives that drew Jews to Zionism – state-building, rescue of Jewish communities, urgent defence, are now seemingly gone, meaning there is much less to connect a young Jew of Johannesburg, Sydney or Toronto to a national project playing out on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, currently lacking towering figures and spellbinding moments.

The solution is a deeper understanding of what Zionism means and what it truly represents. Zionism, at its core, has always been about rights. Yes, Zionism sought a national home for the Jewish people. But why? To protect the most fundamental right of all, the right to live. Zionism remains, through its support for a strong Jewish state and its ethos of Jewish self-help, the greatest bulwark against antisemitism. And it was Zionism that attained recognition that the Jews are a people and thus possess the right to self-determination. As Churchill observed, “the Jewish people should know they are in Palestine as of right and not of sufferance.”

History shows that the most basic rights extended to other peoples have to be hard won and vigilantly defended when it comes to the Jews. Zionism represents that bundle of rights that the Jews have secured and will never relinquish. The right to a place of refuge from murderous hatred. The right to a national centre for the preservation and enlargement of Jewish cultural, scholarly and scientific contributions. The right for Jews, like all other nations, to freely determine their own political status.

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The Knesset. After 2000 years of exile and persecution, the Jewish parliament stands proudly in Jerusalem as a functional symbol of Jewish nationhood.

When expressed as the embodiment of Jewish rights, Zionism soars above party politics and the acrimony of policymaking in modern Israel, and it correctly presents anti-Zionism as a campaign to strip Jews of their rights. But if Zionism loses a clear purpose, it will be swept away by more emotionally gratifying offerings, which have the capacity to deliver absolute ruin.

 

 

 

About the writer:

Alex-Ryvchin.jpgAlexander (Alex) Ryvchin is an Australian writer, advocate, commentator, and lawyer. A former spokesman for the Zionist Federation UK, Ryvchin’s writings on the Arab-Israeli conflict and Jewish history have been published in numerous international newspapers including The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, The National Post and The Jerusalem Post. Ryvchin is a regular columnist for The Spectator.

 

 

 

 

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs