Has Israeli TV lost all interest in Nazi-hunting?

The toughest “nut to crack” is Israeli television

By Dr. Efraim Zuroff

First appeared in The Jerusalem Post (Courtesy, permission granted)

Practically every person who works in the field of Holocaust commemoration, research, education and activism is well-aware that there are only two weeks a year that the local media are truly interested in stories about various aspects of the Shoah. One is the week of Yom Hashoah, Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed on the 27th day of the month of Nissan in the Jewish calendar, six days after the end of Passover, which was chosen because it was a date during which the Warsaw Ghetto revolt took place. 

The revolt started on April 19, 1943, which was the eve of Passover and lasted until approximately the 5th of Iyar, the day on which Israeli independence was declared five years later.

The second is the week of January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1945, which was established as an international memorial day by the United Nations in 2005.

Tracking Mass Murderers. Pursuing a 90-year-old Dane suspected of being involved in the mass murder of Jews in Belarus during World War II, Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff talks to the media outside a Copenhagen Police Station in Copenhagen on July 21 in 2016. (Anthon Unger, Polfoto via The Associated Press)


These two weeks are like a breath of fresh air for the many hundreds of people in numerous different countries all over the world, who have dedicated their lives to various aspects of the Holocaust, and toil many hours a week dealing with a very painful, sensitive, and in many cases heart-wrenching subject. It is only natural therefore for many such individuals to look forward to these dates, and plan in advance, how to maximize the media’s biannual interest in Holocaust-related stories and issues.

I am no exception in this regard. Twice a year, I try to make sure to write at least one or two op-eds on various aspects of our continuing efforts to maximize justice and our fight against Holocaust distortion, which are the two main issues that our office concentrates on. So, for example, I arrange the publication of the findings of our annual report on “Investigation and Prosecution of Nazi War Criminals” to coincide with the two weeks in which media interest is at its highest level.

Needless to say, as the number of Holocaust perpetrators diminishes due to age, there was less and less interest in the trials, although the dramatic change in German prosecution policy instituted slightly more than a decade ago, whereby death camp guards could be convicted of “accessory to murder” based on service alone, did result in some increased interest.

Eichmann Trial – A Living Record. Adolf Eichmann, the architect of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” for the extermination of the Jewish people being tried in 1961 in Jerusalem. Televised and broadcasted internationally, the trial served to educate a global viewership about the crimes committed against Jews


From my personal experience of directing the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for the past 36 years, the toughest “nut to crack”, has always been Israeli television, especially the morning talk shows. Several times over the past years, I had been contacted and asked to appear, only to be told the night before, that horadnu et ha-aytem (we dropped the topic).

Thus, I was very pleasantly surprised when Adi, the producer of Channel 13’s morning show Ha-Olam ha-Boker, called me almost three weeks before Yom Hashoah, in order to ensure my participation in the program slated for that day.

Justice for the Dead. Central to preserving the memory of the Holocaust, the late legendary Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal pursued hundreds of war criminals after World War II and created a repository of concentration-camp testimonials and dossiers on Nazis at his Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna.

Also encouraging, was the fact that Shay, the researcher for the show, spent a total of well over an hour on the phone with me the day before to collect as many details and anecdotes as he could on the most interesting and exciting cases of the Nazi criminals whom I had helped to bring to justice.

He also provided the “icing on the cake”, when he assured me that my slot on the program would be nine minutes long, a very respectable length. In other words, it would be well worth my while to get up at 5 a.m. in order to arrive in Tel-Aviv on time.

Unfortunately, that was nowhere near the case. Nine minutes? Not even close. What happened was that I was supposed to follow an interview with former Israeli Supreme Court President, Aharon Barak, who at age eight was smuggled out of the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania in a sack of potatoes.

As far as I could ascertain, the interview was supposed to last about 8-9 minutes, but ultimately was on the air for 15 minutes. This left only three minutes for my segment, which was unceremoniously ended by the 8:00 a.m. news, without my being able to relate almost any information of any value or interest.

Of course what should have happened, was that the interview should have continued after the news for at least 5-6 minutes, during which the audience could have received some valuable information. Judging from the stories of the guests who followed me on the program, which I heard discussed in the studio waiting room, none seemed to be of any unique or special significance.

Needless to say, at first I was personally very upset, but by a few hours later, it was obvious that to me that the problem had nothing to do with me, but rather was a far deeper problem, the lack of interest and concern in Israeli commercial television regarding the efforts to bring Nazis to justice. Or as I have often explained to foreign journalists, who were very surprised by the lack of interest in the subject by their Israeli TV colleagues:

 “In Israel, unless you’ve caught Mengele, you haven’t done anything.”

And in the same vein, I will never forget a comment by one of Israel’s top political TV journalists today, Amit Segal, when he was approached at the Demjanjuk trial in Munich in 2009 by two journalists from the French equivalent of 60 Minutes.

No Let-Up. “The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers,” says Efraim Zuroff, the writer and his Center’s top Nazi-hunter.

They had interviewed me in Jerusalem, accompanied me to the trial’s first session in Germany and asked Amit, “Why isn’t Zuroff famous in Israel?” He began to explain to them that the Holocaust is a very difficult subject, and so on, to which I replied:

 “Amit, I would have loved to bring Himmler to justice, but he committed suicide before I was born,” to which he replied quite pithily:

 “Ze lo tayrutz,” (That’s no excuse.)

About the writer:

Dr. Efraim Zuroff is director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center – Israel office and Eastern European Affairs, and coordinator of the center’s Nazi war crimes research worldwide.

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).

Today’s antisemitism is brought to you by the letters ‘Z’ and ‘V’

When vandalism at Lithuania’s Ponar Holocaust memorial copies Russian tanks, it accuses the Jewish community of supporting Putin’s invasion

By Dr. Efraim Zuroff

First appeared in The Times of Israel

Two weeks ago, the Holocaust memorial at Ponar (in Lithuanian Paneriai) was desecrated twice. Once on March 31, and a second time three days later on April 3. Ponar, which is located about 12 kilometers (some 7.5 miles) from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius (Vilna in Yiddish and Hebrew) is the Holocaust memorial site for approximately 70,000 Jews, mostly from Vilna and its environs, and as such is the largest site of its kind in Lithuania, which explains its iconic status. The manner in which it was desecrated was particularly insidious: there was no graffiti denying the Holocaust and no antisemitic slogans, such as “Juden Raus” [Jews Out], appeared. Instead, the perpetrators smeared the letters “Z” and “V” on the monuments at the site.

Deface Designed to Deceive. The Holocaust memorial in Ponar (in Lithuanian Paneriai)) outside the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius was defaced twice in April with “Z” and “V” symbols of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Most foreigners would not understand the meaning of these letters, but for local residents and Eastern Europeans, the message is crystal clear. These letters, which are painted on Russian military vehicles, ostensibly indicate support for the Russian military campaign in Ukraine. In Lithuania, a small Baltic country, which borders on Russia, and cannot possibly defend itself against an invasion by its huge neighbor, support for the invasion of Ukraine is tantamount to high treason. Painting the letters on the memorial is tantamount to claiming that the Jewish community, whose memorial it is, favors the Russian invasion.

In other words, it is an extremely dangerous accusation that can only increase the vulnerability of the small, local Jewish community and lead to increased antisemitism and even physical attacks. In fact, one of the strongest motivations of Lithuanian Holocaust perpetrators to participate in the annihilation of their Jewish neighbors was the accusation that Lithuanian Jews had sided with the Communists during the first Soviet occupation of the country (June 1940 to June 1941). Indeed, the same accusation had played an important role in the mass deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia the week before the Nazis invaded.

Endangering Jews. Seen here is the Russian “Z” pro-war symbol that defaced the Holocaust memorial in Lithuania to stir trouble for the Lithuanian Jewish community by suggesting their support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, tantamount to treason.

The offensive graffiti was very quickly cleaned up in each case, but, in the meantime, those responsible have not yet been apprehended. This is hardly surprising in a country which has been one of the worst offenders when it comes to Holocaust distortion, and has not punished a single local Nazi perpetrator since it obtained independence. All one has to do is carefully analyze the response of Prime Minister, Ingrida Šimonytė, to understand how deep the problem of Holocaust memory is in Lithuania. Without any ostensible proof, she declared that the crimes were a “clear provocation aimed at antagonizing the public in Lithuania,” thereby absolving Lithuanians of any possible responsibility for the outrageous desecration of Holocaust memory there, though it also quite possibly jeopardized the physical security of Lithuanian Jews. Worse, that was only the beginning.

Vilnius Vague! Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė who left it vague (“other criminals”) who were complicit with the Nazis.

According to Šimonytė, “In one of the most tragic places in Lithuania’s history, where the Nazis and other criminals murdered thousands of innocent people, the provocateurs have splashed yet another symbol of hatred,” she said in a statement issued almost a week after the first desecration took place.

Is that an accurate description of the tragedy of Ponar?

We know who the Nazis were, and we know what role they played in the Final Solution in general, and in Lithuania in particular. But who are these anonymous “other criminals”, who according to Šimonytė were responsible for the annihilation of 70,000 Jews? Has she never heard of the infamous “Ypatinga burys”, (the special ones), the Lithuanian mass murder squad, one of the worst in the history of the Shoah, who carried out the murders at Ponar? There is no doubt about their role, or for that matter the role of more than 20,000 Lithuanian collaborators who participated in the mass murder of approximately 90 percent of their Jewish fellow citizens.

Mass Murder. One of the massacre pits at Ponor, where mostly Jews were mass murdered by German SD and SS  and their Lithuanian collaborators, including Ypatingasis būrys  killing squads.

Šimonytė’s speech is hardly surprising. With the leaders of Russia and Ukraine hurling insults with Holocaust connotations at each other week after week, and marshaling false comparisons to the Shoah to try and enlist sympathy and support, the accuracy of the historical narrative is being steadily eroded. In the meantime, all we can do is speak out and protest, but when this conflict is over, we will have a difficult task when it comes to rebuilding and fortifying the historical truth of the Nazi campaign to annihilate the Jewish people.

About the author:

Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.

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).

Teach Your Children Well

This year, it seems more important than ever to pass the torch of education and remembrance to the next generations

By Rolene Marks

The responsibility to bear witness, remember and educate is so important for the next generations to continue”.

We say this this every year as we approach Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel. Unlike the UN-designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day which takes place on the 27th of January to coincide with the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp and commemorates all victims of the Holocaust, Yom Hashoah focuses specifically on the Jewish victims and coincides with the Hebrew anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

This year, these words seem to have greater urgency.

Illuminating the Dark. Holocaust survivors light six torches representing the six million victims of the Nazi genocide during the opening ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, as Israel marks the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. Seen here lighting one of the torches at the ceremony in 2018, is survivor Miriam Lapid.(Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The importance of Holocaust education is not a mere understatement, it is critical. As time marches on, we lose our remaining eyewitnesses and survivors of mankind’s most horrific genocide. As time marches on, so it becomes ever more urgent for us to bear witness to the first-hand accounts of the horrors of the Holocaust.

This year, the commitment has to be on us to ensure that we pass the baton on to the next generations, so that they can bear witness, using the mediums they know best, in the language that is the most appealing to their peers.

A 2020 survey carried out in the United States by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany found that among adults under 40, roughly 1 in 10 respondents did not recall ever having heard the word “Holocaust” before. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed did not know 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Over half of those thought the toll was under 2 million. These are staggering statistics and have exposed a glaring lack of Holocaust education in the USA.

Over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos were established across Europe during World War II, but nearly half of the respondents could not name a single one.

The most important lesson is that we can’t lose any more time,” said Greg Schneider, Executive Vice President of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany. “If we let these trends continue for another generation, the crucial lessons from this terrible part of history could be lost.”

Europe is no different.

A European based survey, shortly before the one in the US, found that antisemitic stereotypes are widespread; with more than a quarter of Europeans saying Jews have “too much influence in business and finance”. According to the CNN/ComRes survey into European attitudes towards Jews, 34 percent of those surveyed said they knew just a little or had never heard of the Holocaust, while 20 percent of French people between the ages of 18 and 34 said they had never heard of the Holocaust. You would think that on the continent that remains a graveyard for once thriving Jewish communities and where there are reminders in every major city, they would be a little more educated and aware; but alas, they are not.

A third of Europeans surveyed said Jewish people use the Holocaust to advance their own positions or goals.

Karen Pollock, Chief Executive of the UK based Holocaust Educational Trust, told CNNthe poll confirmed “a worrying increase in the number of people who believe traditional antisemitic tropes or hold antisemitic views, as well as a disappointing lack of knowledge about the Holocaust.”

These are not the only surveys and studies producing worrying results. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, named after the famed Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter, have raised the alarm over the increase in the amount of Holocaust denial, distortion and revisionism on social media. It is no great secret that social media platforms, especially Twitter, are a cesspit of hate. While Facebook has managed to clamp down on Holocaust denial, Twitter remains a veritable free- for-all. I have lost track of all of the times I have complained to Twitter about vile antisemitic content only to receive the message that the post in question does not violate their ”standards”.

Fading Faces. Images like these Hungarian Jews on the selection ramp at Auschwitz determining  those deemed “fit for work” or sent to the gas chambers are amongst millennials of ever-decreasing interest. (Photo: Yad Vashem, from the Auschwitz Album)

The role of social media platforms is critical. It is here where the younger generations interact and sadly, form their opinions on global events. On the one hand, these platforms create the opportunity for people to express themselves – and on the other, allows for predatory antisemites, Holocaust deniers and distorters to find a captive audience and create communities.

We do not need surveys to tell us how critical Holocaust education is. We are seeing a rise in antisemitism that is rivalling that of pre-World War II. Subsequent genocides and human rights violations have shown us that the lessons of history have not been learnt. Holocaust education is vital not just to help combat antisemitism; but to reinforce the lessons of history. NEVER AGAIN has to mean something, right?

We cannot rely solely on educational institutions and the media to educate – we have to take the responsibility on board ourselves as individuals, organisations and communities.

Has the like of this happened in your days or in the days of your fathers? Tell your children about it, and let your children tell theirs, and their children, the next generation!” (1 Joel 2-3).

These words are inscribed at the entrance to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust Memorial and Museum. As we lose our last eyewitness survivors of the horrors of the Holocaust to the passage of time, so it becomes more of an imperative that our generation must bear witness, remember and teach the ones to come.

Living Testimony. French Holocaust survivor Victor Perahia, interned as a child in the Drancy camp outside Paris and then deported to Bergen-Belsen, speaks to students during a January 2020 workshop dedicated to Holocaust remembrance at Drancy. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

This Yom Hashoah as we remember our 6 million and honour the individuals and the communities targeted for extermination simply because they were Jewish, we need to not only renew our vow of NEVER AGAIN, we need to commit to the 6 million martyred, that we will continue to bear witness, to testify on their behalf and to educate.

Seeing is Believing. A photo taken April 12, 1945, shows just some of the bodies found by U.S. troops when they arrived at Nordhausen concentration camp in Germany. (Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library)

Their voices cry out to us; they implore us, they remind us of the urgency of their plea. It is a plea we will hear. It is a vow we will honour.

May the memories of our 6 million be forever blessed.

Education is the Key. Young people at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem looking above at the dome displaying photos of the victims of the Holocaust and then below at the water, reflecting those NEVER to be forgotten faces.

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).

Ending Holocaust Distortion Through Education

A reflection this Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) on  protecting the history of the Holocaust

By Jonathan Feldstein

While I, like others have been following the Russia-Ukraine war obsessively, a specific US news report got me thinking! 

Firstly, it is hard to imagine that an unprovoked war is happening at all, much less obliterating entire communities. The human tragedy is underscored with more than five million – over 10% of Ukrainians – having fled their country.  However, because of whom and where I am, I tend to look at this horrific tragedy through a Jewish and Israeli prism. This stems from common experiences of war which Ukrainians are suffering and which Israel has suffered – and still suffers – as well as to the wholesale slaughter and destruction of Jewish communities during the Second World War at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.

What is happening in Ukraine is unspeakable on many levels.  It’s unimaginable that anyone of good conscience can look at this reality and not at least be sympathetic to and supportive of the Ukrainians, and equally horrified by and opposed to the Russian aggression. I pray the war will end and that there will be sweeping war crimes trials and sanctions against Russia and the perpetrators, and that Ukrainians will all be able to return home and rebuild their lives.

Trivializing the Shoah. However horrendous the Russian leader’s actions are, comparisons of Vladimir Putin to Hitler is inappropriate, inaccurate and offensive to the victims of the Holocaust.

However, while not in any way detracting from my heartfelt sympathy with the people of Ukraine, I take strong exception to parallels drawn between Ukraine today and the Holocaust.  Sadly, there have been a plethora of such people’s ignorance of history, which I find particularly unsettling this week as Israel observes Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day. Part of the problem is ignorance.  I don’t fault people for not knowing, but people should avoid publicly expressing such false analogies if they know only too well that they are ignorant on the subject. This is something they can correct by self-education. There cannot be enough education about the Holocaust which can take many forms from reading informative books – particularly the testimony of survivors  – to watching accurate documentaries.

Holocaust ignorance, however, does not excuse Holocaust distortion. Ignorance was recently spotlighted when Whoopi Goldberg asserted that “the Holocaust isn’t about race.” What it was about, according to Whoopi was:

 “… White people doing it to White people, so y’all gonna fight amongst yourselves.”

The sad truth is that Whoopi’s Holocaust ignorance is less about her and more a reflection of how widespread that ignorance is. This celebrity was a microcosm of a disturbing global phenomenon.

Watching a report on the Ukraine by Brian Kilmeade on FOX News, exposed how inappropriate Holocaust analogies are and the need to prevent this phenomena. Exposing this ignorance was the wanton display of photographs of the Holocaust parallel with pictures of Ukraine today – as if the two shared equivalence. I was going to let that lie, so in my quest to educate, I took to FOX’s social media and sent messages to correct the inappropriate parallels: 

It’s not cool to show pictures of Ukraine juxtaposed with the Holocaust. That’s lazy and grossly inaccurate. What’s happening in Ukraine is horrific. It is not a genocide. It is not the systematic murder of millions of people because of their religion. It’s not based on an ideology of racial purity. Other than the fact that people are suffering, and it happens to be in part of the world where the Holocaust took place, there is no parallel.”

In another message:

I don’t believe that this was done with malice, and whoever wrote this material needs to learn more. This month is Israel’s national Holocaust Memorial Day. I am very happy to speak with any of your staff who would like to be educated in a constructive way, and to meet in person the next time I am in the US. It is incumbent for anyone reporting the news to use proper language and accurate parallels, and if there are no accurate parallels, not to go fishing for ones that are inappropriate.”

Sadly – possibly indicative of not only ignorance but also indifference – I received no responses.

Designed to Deceive. Photographs of the current situation in Ukraine (when shown in black and white) are being used to compare millions of people across Europe who were forced to flee Nazi aggression during World War II and the Holocaust.

I also took great exception to President Biden calling the war in Ukraine “a genocide”.  Horrific as it is, it is not “genocide”. His depiction is an inaccurate distortion

Are there war crime happening? Yes.

But genocide, the systematic murder of an entire people, no; not even close. Biden is wrong as is anyone using the “genocide” analogy. 

Biden is not the only president to speak inaccurately. Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was wrong contriving Holocaust analogies. The fact that he’s Jewish doesn’t excuse him. On the contrary, if anything, he should be more informed and accurate and sensitive to the memory of Jewish Ukrainians who perished not because of war but solely as a consequence of true “genocide”.  When Zelensky’s family were murdered in the Holocaust, it was not because they were Ukrainian – it was because they were Jewish!

Despite his inappropriate Holocaust analogies, I am prepared to cut Zelensky some slack for leading his country with such heroism and moral clarity.

Mirky Past made Mirkier. Back in 2019, a staircase in a shopping mall on Kiev’s Bandera Avenue located on a street named for a collaborator with the Nazis is decorated with a large swastika.

However, Zelensky had the temerity to castigate Israel and the Jewish people of not standing sufficiently with Ukraine because Ukrainians “saved Jews during the Holocaust”. Here again is a display of gross ignorance or denial of the truth. While Israel and the Jewish people are fully supportive in word and deed with the Ukrainian people, Zelensky conveniently forgets his people’s lack of concern when Jews were singled out for total annihilation – to the last man, woman and child. Factually, fewer than 2,700 Ukrainians have been recognized as Righteous Gentiles for risking their lives to save Jews. While many of Ukraine’s 200,000 Jews today owe their lives to these heroes, many millions of other Ukrainians were indifferent or collaborated with the Nazis as willing partners in the mass murder of Jews. That is their history.

Whitewashing or ignoring the horrid history of Jews being murdered before and during the Holocaust by complacent and willing antisemitic Ukrainians is offensive. The Holocaust is not a smorgasbord of horrors that people can pick from to use as they so please to compare to the suffering of others.  As I wrote to FOX, the Holocaust or Shoah has no comparison with what is horrifically unfolding in Ukraine, the US border, or any other suffering around the world. 

Distorting the Past. Israel’s Holocaust research center “Yad Vashem” condemns comparison of the Holocaust to the Ukraine conflict

In a recent conversation with Lithuanian journalist and author Ruta Vanagaite, we discussed how ignorance and antisemitic stereotypes led to Lithuanians active participation and complacency in the murder of all but 1.5 percent of Lithuania’s Jews.

What’s the answer?

Education, education, education.”

About the writer:

Jonathan Feldstein ­­­­- President of the US based non-profit Genesis123 Foundation whose mission is to build bridges between Jews and Christians – is a freelance writer whose articles appear in The Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, Townhall, NorthJersey.com, Algemeiner Jornal, The Jewish Press, major Christian websites and more.

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).

Lithuania’s Holocaust by Bullets and Revisionism

Based on the Keynote address delivered at the 30th Annual Educators’ Conference on the Holocaust at Arizona State University on February 28, 2022.

By Grant Gochin

Three of my grandparents were born in the Baltics. Their families were slaughtered. They spent their lives searching for anyone that could have survived. There were none. Those three grandparents were Brocha Leya Novosedz of Birzai, Lithuania. Samuel Gochin of Papile Lithuania, and Dora Rummel of Janjelgava, Latvia.

World War II began in 1939. Nazis created ghettos in Poland and elsewhere but the “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem” and the mass slaughter of Jews was not decided until the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942.

What changed between the launch of Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, and the Wannsee Conference in 1942? What changed was the slaughter of Jews in Eastern Europe, in the “Holocaust by Bullets”. This genocide, perpetrated by locals, showed Nazis how easily a population could be co-opted to murder their neighbours. It showed the Nazis a path to the possibilities of total annihilation of Jews throughout Europe.

The slaughter of Jews in Lithuania began prior to the arrival of the Nazis.

In a country of 2,500,000 people, there were fewer than 1,000 Nazi’s in the whole of Lithuania during the Holocaust. With so few Nazi’s, they alone could not have forced Jews into ghettos, plunder their assets even before they are murdered, torture them, commit mass rape, and then murder about 220,000 Jews. This was done mostly by Lithuanians, in, what is now known as – the “Holocaust by Bullets”.

915 Lithuanians or 0.04% of the Lithuanian population were found by Yad Vashem to have rescued Jews. This leaves 99.96% of Lithuanians either perpetrators, bystanders or have insufficient proof of their unsubstantiated claims. It is rather ironic that almost every Lithuanian I have met in the past 30 years has told me that their family was within the 0.04% of rescuers – unsubstantiated claims to be sure. These misstatements reflect the widespread revisionism within Lithuanian society and the dishonest official teachings of the Holocaust by the government of Lithuania. Included within the 99.96% of Lithuanians, are those responsible for the “Holocaust by Bullets”, and the annihilation of 96.4% of Lithuanian Jews. My family included!

According to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance:

– “Holocaust denial seeks to erase the history of the Holocaust. In doing so, it seeks to legitimize Nazism and antisemitism.”

– “Holocaust distortion acknowledges aspects of the Holocaust as factual. It nevertheless excuses, minimizes, or misrepresents the Holocaust in a variety of ways and through various media”.

Lithuanians began murdering Jews prior to the arrival of Nazi’s. Often at murder sites, no Germans were even present. There are multiple cases where Nazi’s complained about the savagery and cruelty of Lithuanians. Lithuanians traveled to neighbouring countries to murder Jews. Lithuania had the highest murder rate percentage of Jews in all of Europe. Some Lithuanians were disturbed by the blood lust displayed by their countrymen. National leadership asked that Jews not be murdered so publicly to reduce angst suffered by spectators. Nonetheless, the slaughter of Jews was often perpetrated in public festivals with parties held after to celebrate the slaughter of their neighbours and the sharing of the plunder.

The Real Killers. Crowd views the aftermath of a massacre at Lietukis Garage, where pro-German Lithuanian nationalists killed more than 50 Jewish men. The victims were beaten, hosed, and then murdered with iron bars. Kovno, Lithuania, June 27, 1941.

Facts are inconvenient for Lithuania. Who wants to be known as a country of such savagery? There was no possibility of Lithuania denying the Holocaust, it is the most documented genocide in history. The government of Lithuania therefore decided to implement a state sponsored programme of Holocaust distortion. Here are four examples:

Example one: Kazys Skirpa was supposed to be the Prime Minister of Lithuania, but he was detained in Berlin. Brazaitis became Prime Minister instead. Skirpa represented Lithuania to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Government. Skirpa called for the elimination of Jews from Lithuania and likely proposed this idea to Nazis. He was the founder of the Lithuanian Activist Front who was responsible for murdering Jews publicly, and who broadcast Nazi talking points into Lithuania inciting the murders. The government of Lithuania called this merely an “incident of antisemitism” and claimed that by calling for the elimination of Jews, he didn’t mean to actually hurt them! Lithuania has absolved Skirpa of any crimes and officially hail him as their national hero. This is Holocaust revisionism.

Example two: Juozas Ambrazevičius Brazaitis became the Lithuanian Prime Minster. He called for Jews not to be murdered so publicly. He established the first concentration camp for Jews in Lithuania.

After the Holocaust, both Skirpa and Brazaitis were given visas to immigrate to the USA. Brazaitis’s crimes were investigated by US Congress, but Congress screwed up. They investigated an incorrect name, with incorrect data. The investigation therefore was invalid from the start. Leading the investigation was the US Immigration Service. Brazaitis died prior to the end of the investigation which meant there was no possibility of concluding the investigation as there was no longer a living body to deport. The investigation was therefore terminated for lack of a legal subject.

The Government of Lithuania falsely stated that US Congress closed the investigation not for lack of probative value, but rather that Congress “completely exonerated and rehabilitated Brazaitis”. This is an absurd falsification. Four different US lawyers wrote lengthy legal analyses on the reasons the Lithuanian government interpretations of “rehabilitation and exoneration” were just plain ridiculous. The Lithuanian Government ignored these American legal analyses of Congressional statements.

US Congress took note of the official Lithuanian governmental reinterpretation of Congressional documents. In 2019, Congressman Brad Sherman wrote to the Lithuanian Prime Minister explaining US Law, and that the Lithuanian government’s finding of facts were misrepresentations and misstatements. They were legally impossible and needed to be revoked. The Government of Lithuania ignored Congressman Sherman.

I filed a legal action against the government of Lithuania in their own courts for their Holocaust deceptions. The Lithuanian Government responded that they know more about US law and operation of Congress than Congress, and specialist US lawyers. They called Congressman Sherman “just a politician” and to date, Lithuania continues their fraud. This constitutes Holocaust fraud. The Lithuanian Government freely reinterprets official Congressional documents for Holocaust deceptions and they insult our legislators.

Example three: Antanas Baltusis. Majdanek Concentration Camp was public. The fences were barbed wire. The citizens of Lublin could see the prisoners. They complained about the smell of death. Nobody in the surroundings were unaware of the daily slaughter taking place in this death camp.

The leader of the guards at this concentration camp was a Lithuanian named Antanas Baltusis. The government of Lithuania declared Baltusis innocent of any crimes on the grounds he served on the outside of the camp and did not know what he was guarding on the inside of the Camp. Apparently, he could not see through the wire, he did not smell what the general public could smell from many miles away; he did not see the Jews going in and ash coming out. His colleagues who were committing murders every single day did not tell him what they were doing. Supposedly he never asked what he was guarding, never saw anything, never heard anything, and never knew anything. This is Holocaust deception.

Example four: Jonas Noreika. This monster murdered my own family in Lithuania. He was just one regional leader that the Lithuanian Government continues to glorify. Many years ago, I was standing over a death pit containing the twisted bodies of my own relatives. I asked, who did the actual murdering? It was Jonas Noreika. This information was first exposed in Germany in 1984. This was six years before Lithuania regained independence. In 1995, President Brazauskas of Lithuania stood in front of the Israeli Parliament and offered his apology for the actions of Lithuanians. That’s what he said outside Lithuania. But when he returned to Lithuania, he promptly declared many Holocaust perpetrators innocent of the crimes they committed and made them into national heroes, Noreika included.

Truth Revealed. Left to right: Grant Gochin (Courtesy); Accused Nazi collaborator Jonas Noreika (Courtesy); and granddaughter Silvia Foti (Ina Budryte/via JTA)

Hitler wrote the book “Mein Kampf” where he outlined his plans for the Jews of Europe. Noreika wrote the Mein Kampf of Lithuania. He was a rabid Jew-hater. He was one of the most powerful leaders in Lithuania and was a mass murderer. We do not know if he murdered with his own hand; however, we do know that he ordered the murders and signed many documents persecuting Jews. Noreika was responsible for the slaughter of anywhere between 8,000 – 15,000 Lithuanian Jews. Men, women, children, babies, elderly, sick and disabled.

I have been addressing the issue of Noreika with the Lithuanian government for almost a decade. They have threatened me with criminal and Constitutional charges for exposing their fraud and for insulting their heroes. These threats remain ongoing.

Over the past many years, I have filed at least 20 legal actions against the government of Lithuania, all rejected by their Courts and government. Every branch of the Lithuanian government involved has contributed to the deception, this includes the current President of Lithuania.

What Lithuania never contemplated is that a witness would step forward. Noreika’s own granddaughter, Silvia Foti. Foti wrote a memoir about her own shocking discovery of her grandfather’s crimes – his murder of anywhere between 8,000 – 15,000 Lithuanian Jews. The Lithuanian Government’s only response to her discoveries are to attack her credibility and her family. To enforce their ideology, they then further rewrote history to absurdly declare that Noreika was a secret rescuer of Jews. Silvia Foti has become a leading international voice speaking against government sponsored Holocaust revisionism.

Ponary Massacre. Lithuanian  collaborators  guard Jews before their execution at Ponary, Lithuania , June–July, 1941. Some 70,000 Jews were murdered at Ponary, most of them from nearby Vilna.

Lithuania’s then Ambassador to Germany – Ambassador Semaska, also the grandson of a Holocaust perpetrator, (whose grandfather was similarly rewritten into a rescuer of Jews), made the public case that Noreika had not murdered a single Jew. Adolf Hitler did not murder a single Jew by his own hand either! Vladimir Putin has not murdered a single Ukrainian by his own hand. This is how far the Lithuanian government has stretched itself to protect their murderers.

The government of Lithuania stated that Noreika MUST be considered “completely innocent” as he had not been placed on trial and convicted during his lifetime. Neither was Hitler or Stalin.

Shortly after denying Noreika’s crimes and claiming he could not be prosecuted after his death, the government of Lithuania declared that a poet named Cvirka was an enemy of Lithuanians and removed his statue. This duplicity displays Lithuania’s standards of historical accuracy and guilt depend exclusively on the victim’s Jewishness or lack thereof.

The Lithuanian military have honoured both Skirpa and Noreika on the covers of their military magazine as the State honors them as heroes. This is Holocaust revisionism. The current Lithuanian Minister of Defense was the head of a programme to investigate Holocaust Survivors for possible war crimes. This is Holocaust inversion. He also contributed to Lithuania’s Holocaust deception.

Twenty legal cases, vast amounts of international publicity and affirmation by multiple governments and NGO’s have shown there is no path for truth inside Lithuania. My legal case is currently in front of the United Nations. It will only be a foreign body that imposes truth upon Lithuania.

These are just four examples of Holocaust denial, distortion, revision, deception, fraud and inversion in Lithuania, and there are many more. While, in my opinion, Lithuania is the worst of the Holocaust revisionists, they are by no means the only ones.

Both the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and the US State Department have since identified and declared Lithuania as Holocaust revisionists. One has to ask the question – “That Lithuania continues to commit such blatant fraud about events from 80 years ago – is there anything about which they will not lie?”

The truth about the murder of approximately 220,000 Lithuanian citizens is dependent only upon their Jewish ethnicity.

Since regaining independence in 1990, Lithuania has not punished a single murderer of a Jew. Or is it that it “will not”? Lithuania did all they could NOT to prosecute Holocaust perpetrators and waited until they died so they could not be prosecuted. This is Holocaust revisionism.

The declarations by the Lithuanian Government that murderers were actually rescuers and that the guilty cannot be determined is finding its way into Lithuanian academia. These frauds have now become primary source facts published by a European Union member government, who is also an ally of America. It is only a matter of time before these falsifications find their way into American textbooks and destroy decades of combined and cumulative work towards factual Holocaust education. The biggest threat against Holocaust education in the world today is the Lithuanian governments’ Holocaust frauds.

Complicit in Killing. What Lithuania today prefers to hide –  a Lithuanian militia in 1941 leads a group of Jews to the site of their execution, at Ponary, near present-day Vilnius,

Not only does this lead to a corruption of education, but it also has a wider and worrisome impact. When such a clearly documented genocide can be so easily rewritten – it gives license to future perpetrators to escape culpability. After all, if a European government can commit Holocaust fraud so openly, why would we think genocide fraud could not be so easily replicated in Africa, or Central America, or even in Ukraine? Allowing the rewriting of the Holocaust facilitates the next genocide. Perpetrators knowing they can rewrite history allows them to start wars with impunity, because, as we know, it has been the victor that has written the history books. Truth must prevail for the course of history to veer towards peace and justice.

Lithuania is currently impervious to truth, but we cannot allow this to impact our educational systems in America. We are working to implement new policies that will require the State Department to provide annual updates in their Human Rights Reports and flag any government that engages in Holocaust and other genocide denial and distortion. This will lay the foundation to track and report on government-sponsored genocide, denial and distortion, ensuring that crimes against humanity will not be whitewashed and rewritten by future governments.

For a country such as Lithuania to find a path out of this morass, it will need fresh leadership. For future generations to not be tarred with the taint of Holocaust deception, falsified history must be repudiated, and truth told. For Lithuania to show sincerity, national leadership responsible for Holocaust denial must be charged under their own national Holocaust denial laws. This problem did not begin recently and it will take time to correct. It is the task of international academia to ensure that history is reported accurately. We do have real allies inside Lithuania who would like to see their country break with their past. We need to encourage them.

One thinks of the people of Ukraine. May they not be the victim of the world’s next genocide and may history accurately record what is happening.

About the writer:

Grant Arthur Gochin currently serves as the Honorary Consul for the Republic of Togo, and as Vice Dean of the Los Angeles Consular Corps, the second largest Consular Corps in the world. He is the Emeritus Special Envoy for Diaspora Affairs for the African Union, which represents the fifty-five African nations. Gochin is actively involved in Jewish affairs, focusing on historical justice. He has spent the past twenty five years documenting and restoring signs of Jewish life 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 (0&EO).

Soul of Salonica

Violent endings and new beginnings are the weave in this tormented tapestry of three great faiths and peoples inhabiting this bewilderingly exotic city

By Alex Rose

Thessaloniki  – also known as Salonica – is today the second largest city in Greece. Once the second largest city in the Byzantine Empire and later the second busiest port in the Ottoman Empire, I was fascinated to read in Lay of the Land,When Jews Thrive, the World Thrives”, that Israel’s 2022 Genesis Price recipient, Dr. Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer, was born and educated in this ageless cultural crossroad.

“The Jerusalem of the Balkans”. According to the 1913 census, the city’s population was 157,889, comprising 61,439 Jews, 39,956 Orthodox Greeks, 45,867 Turks, 6,263 Bulgarians and 4,364 “foreigners.”

For me, it is of particular interest in that my maternal grandmother and a cousin were the only family members to find their way from Salonica to Jerusalem shortly prior to the commencement of WWII.

So they too were spared the horrors that befell the Jewish community there under the Nazis.

Out in Time. The writer’s maternal grandmother Reina Calderone, who left Salonica for Jerusalem shortly before the outbreak of WWII.(Courtesy Alex Rose)

Salonica City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950” by historian  Mark Mazower is described by  the Guardian’s Jan Morris as “A tremendous book about a city unique not just in Europe, but in the entire history of humanity.” The 509 page book consisting of of 23 chapters and includes a number of historical photographs, provides a history of a fascinating, turbulent city and a brilliant guide to Salonica’s rich past.   It unearths the buried past and recounts the haunting story of how the three great faiths – Islam, Christianity and Judaism  – that shared the city were driven apart.

Europe meet the Orient. The history of a bewilderingly exotic city of clashing cultures and peoples, from the glories of Suleiman the Magnificent to its nadir under Nazi occupation.
Salonica is the point where the wonders and horrors of the Orient and Europe have met over the centuries.

Salonika’s  initial character was Byzantine – a synthesis of imperial Rome, the Greek language and Orthodox  Christian faith. Subsequently, the big upheaval was the advance of the Ottoman Turks into the Balkans from Anatolia in the 14th century.

Lost Legacy. Little remains from the 2,000-year presence of Thessaloniki’s Jewish community, though its contribution has been pivotal to the city’s culture, society and economy.

Under the rule of the Ottoman Sultans, one of the most extraordinary and diverse societies in Europe, lived for five centuries amid its minarets and cypresses on the shore of the Aegean, alongside its Roman ruins and Byzantine monasteries. Egyptian merchants and Ukrainian slaves, Spanish-speaking rabbis – refugees from the Iberian Inquisition – and Turkish pashas rubbed shoulders with Orthodox shopkeepers, Sufi dervishes and Albanian brigands.

Thriving Jewish Life. A Jewish family from Thessaloniki, Greece seen in 1917. (Wikimedia Commons)

In essence, it was generally inhabited by people of the three faiths who for the most part lived peacefully.

Flames over Salonica. In 1917, a massive fire roared through the Mediterranean port city of Salonica, Greece, then home to the largest and most dynamic Ladino-speaking Sephardi Jewish community in the world is depicted in this “Study for 1917 Fire —Salonika” (2016) by Harry I. Naar (Courtesy of Naar via JTA)

Mazower describes in Chapter  16 ‘The Great Fire’ of 1917, as “one of the seminal issues.”  He quotes the British journalist and author Collinson Owens:

“……the wailing families, the crash of falling houses as the flames tore along, swept by the wind; and in the narrow streets, a slow moving mass  of pack-donkeys, loaded carts, camels carrying enormous loads; Greek boy scouts [doing excellent work]; soldiers of all nations as yet unorganized to do anything  definite; ancient wooden fire-engines that creaked pathetically as they spat out ineffectual trickles of water; and people carrying beds [hundreds of flock and feather beds], wardrobes, mirrors, pots and pans, sewing  machines [every family made a desperate endeavor to save its sewing machine] and a general collection of rubbish.”

The damage was  almost incomprehensible.

No less than three quarters of the old city had been destroyed, according to an official report. Close to ten thousand buildings were destroyed and over 70,000 people had lost their homes. The Jewish community was worse effected, for the fire had consumed its historic quarters; most of its thirty-seven synagogues were gone, its libraries , schools, club buildings and offices.

Surviving Synagogues. The Yad Lezikaron Synagogue in Thessaloniki commemorating the victims of the Holocaust which the writer’s wife  Renee visited in 2015. Out of 40 synagogues before WWII, only left are the  Monastir and Yad  lazikaron, the last working synagogue, which includes the ‘remains’ from the destroyed synagogues. (Photo Alex Rose)

In Salonica, fires were such a regular occurrence that prayers against them formed part of the local Yom Kippur (holiest day of the year in Judaism) service. This fire dwarfed all previous fires suffered by Salonica as it destroyed the essence of the Ottoman town, and its Jewish core. Out of the ashes, an entirely new town began to emerge, one molded  in the image of the Greek state and its society.

The Shoah

In Chapter 22, Mazower addresses, “Genocide”. On 6 April 1941, German troops  attacked Greece from the north and three days later entered Salonica. The country was partitioned, while Salonica and its region were among  the strategically vital areas which remained  under the control of the German army.  As the resultant death toll rose, fear of famine gripped the population. Emaciated adults were collapsing on the pavements. The wife of the Swiss consul  upon arriving home at the end of 1941, reported:

 “The specter of a contrived  extermination of a whole population cannot be dismissed as a hallucination conjured up by starved stomachs, but rather viewed as a logical appraisal of German  behavior in Greece since the invasion of Russia.”

Around this time, Hitler’s ideological commissar, Alfred Rosenberg was setting up a research center in Frankfurt for the study of world Jewry. When Greece fell , he immediately sent a team to Salonica – “one of the main Jewish centers, as you yourself know”, he told Martin Bormann. In October 1941, Heinrich Himmler warned Hitler that the city’s large Jewish population posed a threat to German security.

Alfred the Monster. Nazi theorist and ideologue Alfred Rosenberg  who played a decisive role in shaping Nazi philosophy and ideology, sent a ‘team” to Salonica.

It came as a shock when on July 8, 1942, the local Wehrmacht commander in Salonica instructed all male Jews aged between 18 and 45 to present themselves for registration. From eight o’clock in the morning, the following Saturday, 9,000 Jewish men stood in lines in Plateia Eleftherias while their names were taken down. The round-up on July 11 helps one to realize how the Final Solution unfolded: not only through instructions from Berlin, but also through the voluntary participation and initiatives of local  authorities.

Something less than 5% of Salonika’s Jewish population escaped deportation compared with perhaps 50% in the Greek capital a year later.

Lost World

In Chapter 3, “The Arrival of the Sephardim”, we read and lament of so much of the Jewish character of the city that was lost.

By1668, the Jews were such an integral part of Salonica that it seemed impossible to imagine they had not always been there.  And indeed there had been Jews in the city before there were any Christians. At the conclusion in the paragraph prior to Chapter 23 – “Aftermath” – we find according to German records, approximately  45,000 people reached Auschwitz  from Salonica and within a few hours of arrival, most of them had been murdered  in the gas chambers.

Hell on Wheels. A railway officer walks in front of a train that was used by the Nazis to carry Jews from Thessaloniki  (Salonica) to Auschwitz during the WWII. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

The tragedy of this transition is captured in Devin E. Naar’s 18 August 2017 article in Times of Israel, ‘A century ago, Jewish Salonica burned’, which he describes in his sad subhead:

“The home to the largest and most dynamic Ladino-speaking Sephardi Jewish community in the world was rebuilt, only to be destroyed anew”

Salonica had suffered from a series of fires in its history, but during the four centuries under the benign rule of the Ottoman Empire, the city’s residents were permitted to rebuild without much state interference. Not so after ‘The Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917’. The Greek government, which had only recently annexed Salonica during the Balkan Wars (1912-13), saw in the fire an opportunity to transform once and for all Jewish and Ottoman Salonica into Greek Thessaloniki.

They Came, They Conquered, They Murdered. Invasion of German army into Greece spelled disaster for most the Jews of Salonica.. (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)

As much as Salonika’s Jewish community rebounded from the fire of 1917, the destruction wrought by the German occupation was insurmountable. Beyond the dispossession, deportation and murder of almost all of Salonika’s Jews by the Nazis, the entire character of the city was irrevocably transformed. Several dozen synagogues, with the exception of one or two, were destroyed by the Nazis and their collaborators; visual traces of the Jewish presence in the built environment were gone.  

A journalist further lamented:

The most important thing that the fire destroyed was the Jewish soul of Salonica. It is a terrible story.”

About the Writer:

Alex Rose was born in South Africa in 1935 and lived there until emigrating to the USA in 1977 where he spent 26 years as an engineering consultant, much of it at Westinghouse. He was also formerly on the Executive of Americans for a Safe Israel and a founding member of CAMERA, New York ( Committee for Accuracy in the Middle East Reporting in America and today one of the largest media monitoring organizations concerned with accuracy and balanced reporting on Israel). In 2003 he and his wife made Aliyah to Israel and presently reside in Ashkelon. His writings appear frequently in Times of Israel – The Blog.

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).

When Jews Thrive, the World Thrives

Surviving the Shoah and its impact on human survival today

By David E. kaplan

Interviewed from the USA on Israel’s Channel 12, only a few days before Holocaust Memorial Day on the 27 January 2022, this year’s Genesis Prize recipient – dubbed Israel’s “Jewish Nobel” -gave an answer to a particular question that was touchingly telling.

Savior from Salonica. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, who as chairman and CEO of Pfizer pharmaceutical company helped develop the lifesaving COVID vaccine, owes much to the valiant efforts of others to save the lives of Greek Jews during the Holocaust. His mother and father were among the very few to survive the Nazi occupation of Salonica, the ancient Greek city where he was born.

Dr. Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer, was asked whether – because of Covid –  he would be travelling to Israel to accept his $1 million prize from President Isaac Herzog at a ceremony in Jerusalem to be held on June 29, to which he replied with an engaging smile:

 “Well, there is the incentive for me to work even harder.”

And work hard he has.

Not only has the Pfizer vaccine protected tens of millions of people around the world and prevented even more, from suffering severe illness or even death from the coronavirus infection, it may have also saved the global economy.

The Pfizer CEO took over at the 173-year-old pharma giant just a year before the pandemic when the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 surfaced. When Bourla was confronted about taking on the world-crippling coronavirus, there wasn’t the vaccine technology yet for the job that lay ahead, but he trusted his scientists. 

Disappointed but Undeterred. While “disappointed” during 2020 by COVID vaccine rhetoric, Pfizer CEO Bourla wrote that Pfizer is “moving at the speed of science,” driven by the deadliness of the disease and urgent need for a vaccine. 

It was here that Israel’s Genesis committee recognized Dr. Bourla for his “leadership, determination, and especially for his willingness to assume great risks”. Unlike CEOs of most other major companies working on developing COVID-19 vaccines, Dr. Bourla declined billions of dollars in US federal subsidies in order to avoid government bureaucracy and expedite development and production of the vaccine. As a result, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine was ready in record time –  MONTHS instead of YEARS!

However, let us remember that if Hitler had his diabolical way,   the health of the world today would not be so secure.

Born in Thessaloniki, Greece, Dr. Bourla was raised in a family that faced the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand. His parents were among only 2,000 survivors out of a once-thriving, ancient Jewish community of 50,000, almost completely wiped out by the Nazis.

Precious Few. The parents of Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla were among only 2,000 of Salonika’s once-thriving Jewish community to survive the Holocaust.

A year ago on January 27th for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Dr. Bourla joined the Sephardic Heritage International where he shared his Greek Sephardic family’s story of tragedy and survival.

My father’s family, like so many others, had been forced from their homes and taken to a crowded house within one of the Jewish ghettos. It was a house they had to share with several other Jewish families. They could circulate in and out of the ghetto as long as they were wearing the yellow star.

But one day in March 1943, the ghetto was surrounded by occupational forces and the exit was blocked. My father and his brother (my uncle) were outside when it happened. Their father (my grandfather) met them outside, told them what was happening and asked them to leave the ghetto and hide because he had to go back inside as his wife and two other children were home. So later that day, my grandfather, Abraham Bourla, his wife Rachel, his daughter Graziella and his youngest son David were taken to a camp outside the train station and from there, left for Auschwitz. My father and uncle never saw them again.”

He explained how his father and uncle were able to escape to Athens. Thanks to local police who were helping Jews escape from the Nazis, they were able to obtain fake IDs with Christian names.

When the Germans had left, they went back to Thessaloniki and found that all of their property and belongings had been stolen or sold. With nothing to their name, they started from scratch, becoming partners at a successful liquor business that they ran together until they both retired.”

Greek Tragedy. The Greek city of Thessaloniki  (Salonika) under occupation by German troops. Bourla’s parents were among only 2,000 survivors out of  a once-thriving, ancient Jewish community of 50,000 that survived the Holocaust.

Then followed Bourla relating the harrowing story of his mother who was also saved in miraculous circumstances. 

So well-known in the town, she was afraid to venture outside her house for fear of being recognized on the street and turned over to the Germans. She essentially stayed at home “24 hours a day“, said Bourla.

However, on one of her rare ventures outside, she was recognised and forcibly escorted to a local prison.

My Christian uncle, my mother’s brother-in-law, Costas de Madis approached a Nazi official and paid him a ransom in exchange for a promise that my mother would be spared.

However, my mother’s sister, my aunt, didn’t trust the Germans. So she would go to the prison every day at noon to watch as they loaded the truck of prisoners. One day, her fear had been realised, and my mom was put on the truck. She ran home and told her husband, who then called the Nazi official and reminded him of their agreement – who said he would look into it. That night was the longest night in my aunt and uncle’s life because they knew that next morning, my Mom would likely be executed.    

The next day, my Mom was lined up with other prisoners against a brick wall. And moments before she would have been executed, a German soldier on a motorcycle arrived and handed some papers to the men in charge of the firing squad. They removed my mother from the line. As they rode away, my Mom could hear the machine gun slaughtering those that were left behind. Two or three days later, she was released from prison after the Germans left Greece.”

Eight years after narrowly escaping death, Bourla’s parents met by way of matchmaking and were married.

My father had two dreams – one, that I would become a scientist and two, that I would marry a nice Jewish girl. I’m happy to say he lived long enough to see both dreams come true.”

Afraim Katzir, Director of the Sephardic Heritage International, said at the time that “It is very inspiring that it is the son of Holocaust survivors who is on the front line of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

A year and more variants of covid later, the Genesis committee recognised the role of Bourla in leading the development of a COVID-19 vaccine and will be awarding him $1 million in prize money.

A Light unto the Nations. This year’s virtual lighting of the Chanukah candles at Israel’s embassy in Washington, D.C., was led by Albert Bourla.

And what does Bourla intend to do with this money? He is donating it to projects aimed at preserving the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, with a particular emphasis on the tragedy suffered by the Greek Jewish community.

In welcoming Dr. Albert Bourla to the distinguished family of Genesis Prize Laureates, Co-Founder and Chairman of The Genesis Prize Foundation Stan Polovets said that:

 “Dr. Bourla personifies two of the most fundamental Jewish values: the commitment to the sanctity of life and to repairing the world.  And while the pandemic is far from over, millions of people are alive and healthy because of what Dr. Bourla and his team at Pfizer have accomplished.”

So while Dr. Bourla is praised for his services in fighting Corona,  2021 was recorded at the most antisemitic year in the last decade, fueled by the very pandemic he was fighting against. Even in in his native Greece, which should have taken pride in Bourla’s achievements, there were those in media that instead perverted the facts in order to fuel antisemitism.

The Good, Bad and the Ugly. Pfizer CEO albert Bourla was attacked by a Greek newspaper –  the Makeleio daily  – with horrific antisemitic Nazi tropes. November 10, 2020. (Courtesy/Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece via JTA)

There was Bourla educated at the university in Salonika and who after graduation joined Pfizer in Greece to begin his steady climb through the executive ranks of the multinational corporation and is generally credited with driving the company to develop the two-shot COVID vaccine in record time, and what do they do?

Following in November 2020 the welcome announcement by Pfiser of promising results in clinical trials, Greece’s Makeleio newspaper claimed that “Bourla is evil” and the vaccine that “Pfizer is working on is actually deadly.” The paper juxtaposed a photograph of Bourla with that of Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele, who conducted gruesome experiments on Jewish prisoners. Albert Bourla wants to “stick the needle” into Greeks, delivering what the paper described as “poison” in the guise of a vaccine.

Despite some criticism from the Greek Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs calling it “most vile anti-Semitism reminiscent of the Middle Ages”, the unrepentant newspaper responded by publishing another hate-filled article three days later, describing Bourla as a “Greek Jew” who was under the control of a sinister-sounding “Israel Council”.

In its annual report on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day 2021, Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry found that antisemitic conspiracy theories blossomed as soon as the coronavirus began spreading around the world in February 2020.

According to its report, the false theories circulating went on the lines as follows:

Jews and Israelis created and spread the virus so that they could rescue the world with lucrative vaccines.

The report said:

The advent of the vaccines, coupled with Israel’s vast vaccination campaign, assisted by Israelis and Jews who hold prominent positions in the companies that produce these vaccines (such as Tal Zaks, Chief Medical Officer at Moderna, and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla), was used to reinforce these accusations: Israelis and Jews join hands so that Israel may be the first to recover from the pandemic, while the rest of the world stands in line and begs the Jews for help.”

Writing on the Wall. Anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled in a UK stairwell in this undated photo juxtaposes Holocaust imagery with the current coronavirus crisis. (Community Security Trust)

Contrast the hate of the antisemites with the words of the Genesis Prize recipient, which explains not only Jewish survival but why an unappreciated world is forever enriched by Jewish survival:

Says Bourla:

I was brought up in a Jewish family who believed that each of us is only as strong as the bonds of our community; and that we are all called upon by God to repair the world. I look forward to being in Jerusalem to accept this honour in person, which symbolizes the triumph of science and a great hope for our future.”

Israel President Isaac Herzog

Watch the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s global program, in partnership with The King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence, featuring leaders and peacemakers from the Gulf, Indonesia, Israel, and the United States, commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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 Importance of Memory

By Karen Pollock CBE, Chief Executive, Holocaust Educational Trust

Today we mark Holocaust Memorial Day on the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous Nazi concentration and death camp.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, we remember the 6 million Jewish men, women and children who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. We remember them as the people they were before they were victims – as members of families and communities, as teachers or doctors, people who dreamed of travelling, or playing football for their favourite team. Ordinary people with lives ahead of them

Jewish life before the Holocaust

And we can’t help but remember what happened to them – how they were marked out and identified as Jewish, how they were stripped of their property and their rights, how they were stripped of their citizenship and forced out of their homes. How they were forced into ghettos, and starved and beaten and tortured. And how, eventually, they were taken to ravines and fields and purpose-built death camps across Europe and murdered, in their millions, simply because they were Jewish.

For decades after the war, the human stories of the Holocaust were missing from the public discourse. People knew about the Nazis, they knew about Hitler, they knew that there had been gas chambers. But they didn’t know the human face of those whose lives ended in those gas chambers. The victims were alien, abstract, a homogenous group of 6 million. And they certainly didn’t know the stories of the survivors.

Smiling faces of Jewish kids before the horror was to befall them.

There were lots of reasons – survivors were rebuilding their lives; they did not want to keep reopening their deepest and darkest wounds. And even when survivors did speak, they were met with disbelief, or simply with disinterest. Across the world, countries were rebuilding and trying to move on from the war, and stories of the atrocities faced by survivors were a painful reminder of a past that everyone wanted to forget.

Two of the five girls in this photograph—taken in Humenné, Slovakia, around 1936—are known to have been sent to Auschwitz, Poland, on March 25, 1942, as part of the first official transport of Jews to the death camp. Neither Anna Herskovic (second from left) nor Lea Friedman (fourth from left) survived. (Photo courtesy the Grossman and Gross families)

How times have changed.

There is a lot that paved the way for the change we now see – the televised trial of Eichmann, Schindler’s List in cinemas around the world, survivors gathering in Israel for the first time – and the passage of time. But today, looking back, what I see is the tenacity of survivors who, in their retirement especially, were determined that the world would know what happened to them. In the years since they have been tireless in their efforts to affect change, and to ensure that the horrors of the past would never be forgotten.

Two young Jewish women wearing the yellow star in Paris. Wearing of the star was made compulsory in occupied France in 1942. (PHOTO: KEYSTONE-FRANCE/GAMMA-KEYSTONE VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Today, around the world, communities of all faiths and none, of all backgrounds, in countries who were once occupied by the Nazis and those who were not, will pause for a moment to remember the Holocaust. They will remember the horrors of the past, and they will commit to ensuring its legacy continues. Holocaust Memorial Day has become internationally recognised and integrated into calendars across the globe.

And today those survivors who were not heard for so many years are in the spotlight. Their stories are being told, their voices are being heard, and their legacy is being cemented.

That is not to say that our work is done. Antisemitism continues to be an issue globally. Holocaust distortion continues to grow more prevalent, whether in the rhetoric surrounding the pandemic, in social media ‘jokes’, or in the comparisons of Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto. There is a huge amount of work to be done to ensure that the hatred that led to the Holocaust is understood and addressed, and that the integrity and truth of the past is preserved.

Elie Wiesel once said that to forget the dead is akin to killing them a second time. Today on Holocaust Memorial Day, they are not forgotten.

About the writer:

Karen Pollock CBE, Chief Executive, Holocaust Educational Trust. She started her professional life working for the Parliamentary Committee Against Antisemitism (PCAA), where she became Director. She joined the Holocaust Educational Trust as Communications Director in 1998 and became the Trust’s Chief Executive in 2000. She was a founding Trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and is a member of the Council of the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust Council at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. She is a Vice President of the Jewish Leadership Council, a trustee of the Community Security Trust and an Advisor to the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation. In 2012 Karen was awarded an MBE for her services to education in the UK. In 2020, she was awarded a CBE for services to Holocaust education.

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).

Survivor to ex-Nazi camp guard:

‘You’ve lived 100 times longer than baby Erika’

The 27th of  January marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp. Every year on that day, International Holocaust Memorial Day takes place. This is a day designated by the United Nations for remembrance, memory and education about the Holocaust. Today we read about a Holocaust survivor facing a concentration camp tormentor more than seven decades after World War II, in a court in Germany.

Israeli Holocaust survivor Emil Farkas gave gut-wrenching testimony in the trial of an S.S. guard who served in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

By Dr. Efraim Zuroff

(courtesy of Times of Israel)

Holocaust survivor Emil Farkas of Haifa was one of the best gymnasts in Israeli sports history. He was Israeli National champion twice and won multiple medals in the Maccabiah Games. But his greatest badge of honor may be the testimony he gave in a German court earlier this month.

At nearly 93, Farkas was the first witness to testify in person — and, apparently, the only Israeli survivor who will do so — at the trial of former S.S. guard Josef Schuetz, who served for almost three years in the notorious Sachsenhausen Nazi concentration camp.

Time to Testify. Holocaust survivor 93-year-old Emil Farkas from Israel, testifies at the trial of former S.S. guard Josef Schütz, who served in the notorious Sachsenhausen Nazi concentration camp. (Screenshot from Nov. 4, 2021 Kan11 news broadcast)

Emil was born in February 1929 in Zilina, then Czechoslovakia and today Slovakia, to a middle-class Orthodox Jewish family. His father managed a shoe store that sold orthopedic shoes, and his mother was a nurse. He was the youngest of five siblings: four brothers and a married sister, who was the mother of a one-year-old daughter named Erika.

In the wake of the Nazi invasion of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939, Slovakia became a separate political entity, ruled by the fascist Slovak Hlinka Guard, in effect a satellite state of the Third Reich. Restrictions on Jewish life became increasingly severe: the yellow badge was made obligatory, and, in March 1942, the first deportations to Auschwitz and Majdanek began, as did the tragedy of Emil’s family.

Among the deportees to Auschwitz were his brothers Bela and Arpad, his sister Peppi and her husband and infant daughter, all of whom were murdered there. Emil was soon sent to two Slovak forced labor camps, first to Novacky and later to Sered, and from there in 1943 or 1944 to three German concentration camps in which the conditions for the prisoners were much harsher, and the chances of survival much slimmer.

Emil’s ‘Home’. A roll call in the early morning or late evening inside the Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen in Oranienburg on the outskirts of Berlin, Germany. (AP Photo, file)

The first was Sachsenhausen, where by sheer luck his athletic prowess helped save his life. Every day Emil would get up an hour or so before rollcall, wash himself with snow (in the winter) and do gymnastic exercises with incredible precision. The S.S. guards were shocked by his performance and reported him to the camp commander, who transferred him to work on the “Shoe-Testing Commando”, a group of political prisoners (all non-Jews), whose task was to break in new army boots for the S.S. They did so by marching 30-40 kilometers from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day in a brand new pair of boots, while singing German military songs. Their reward was an extra piece of bread, which helped Emil survive, but if not for his physical strength and stamina, he may have shared the fate of other prisoners who died in the course of these grueling marches.

Surviving to Thriving. One of Israel’s finest gymnasts having been national champion twice and winning multiple medals, Holocaust survivor 93-year old Emil Farkas of Haifa  – seen here (centre) at a Maccabiah, the Jewish world’s Olympic Games – was the first witness to testify at the trial of former S.S. guard at Sachsenhausen, Josef Schuetz.

From there, he was deported to Bergen-Belsen, where he barely survived a savage beating by camp commandant Josef Kramer, a notorious sadist who was hanged by the British after the camp’s liberation. From Bergen-Belsen, Emil was sent to Dachau, where he was liberated by American soldiers, and nursed back to health with the special assistance of a Jewish US Army officer.

Beast of Belsen”.  Following his ‘residency’ at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Emil Farkas  was deported to Belsen-Belsen where he barely survived a savage beating by the camp’s commandant, Josef Kramer, a notorious sadist who was later executed by the British after the camp’s liberation.

Needless to say, testifying at the trial was not an easy task for Emil. Preparing a chronologically accurate narrative of all the different camps and important incidents would have been a challenge for someone half his age, let alone a nonagenarian of almost 93. Luckily, German lawyer Thomas Walther was leading the Farkas “team” — Emil’s relatives and myself invited to accompany him to the trial. Walther, who together with his colleague Kirsten Goetze is responsible for the dramatic change in German prosecution policy vis-à-vis Nazi war criminals that facilitated the belated German trials of the last decade, crafted a dramatic statement for Emil to deliver at the trial.

Return to Hell. Having survived the horrors, Holocaust survivor Emil Farkas from Israel, speaks to a reporter at Sachsenhausen Memorial (Photo Ilana Dreyer)

After relating the major details of his travails in the camps in which he was incarcerated, with a special emphasis on Sachsenhausen, Emil addressed the defendant directly:

“I am sure you must have seen me many times running with the ‘Shoe Commando.’ Today I came to Brandenburg to see you. And therefore I want to ask you: At the end of your one-hundredth year, is your dark secret worth so much to you, that you cannot bring yourself to apologize for your contribution to my suffering? Isn’t it time for you to be brave?

“You didn’t only see me, you also always heard me sing the song I was forced to sing. The name of the song was ‘Erika.’ And thus you heard me sing the second stanza again and again…as I thought about my sister Peppi’s one-year-old daughter, whose name was Erika.

“You Mr. Schütz, you became an adult, living 100 times longer than Erika!”

Hearing that testimony in Hebrew in a German courtroom, read by Emil’s granddaughter’s husband Doron Ben-Ari who had to replace Emil for technical reasons, was an unforgettable experience and one which I found extremely moving.

Emil gave an equally poignant speech on Friday night at the main Berlin synagogue and magnified the impact of his presence at the trial through powerful interviews with the media in which he emphasized the importance he attributes to trials of elderly perpetrators like Schütz, even this many years after the crimes were committed. Our visit with him to Sachsenhausen with Dr. Astrid Ley, the director of the memorial site, also received extensive media coverage.

Nazi Track Record. The location of the shoe testing track at Sachsenhausen alongside a memorial.

The hospitality extended by the German government was remarkably gracious — everything possible was done to make Emil and our group feel that we were honored guests. Even more striking was the camaraderie that developed within our delegation under the leadership of Walther, a Righteous Among the Nations German lawyer who has devoted his life to a shared cause. We were a group of Israelis of different persuasions, ages and religious observance, united by our commitment to the mission and thrilled to be able to participate in achieving justice for Holocaust victims and survivors.

Facing his Evil Past. The accused S.S. guard Josef Schuetz covers his face as he sits at the court room in Brandenburg, Germany, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

About the author:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Distorting-the-Truth2.jpg

Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.

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).

Bnei and Bnot Mitzvah and the Quest for Meaning

By Richelle Budd Caplan

Yad Vashem

As a mother, I know first-hand about the special bond between siblings. Although they are ultimately individuals with different personalities, they remain linked in a meaningful way that is often difficult to describe in words – especially when they have developed their own form of communication that others in their orbit are not privy to comprehend.

(Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Developing meaningful links, whether between siblings or friends, is an important part of childhood and maturation. Over the years, a number of international barmitzvah programs have been initiated in an effort to cultivate meaningful connections among Jewish people. For instance, the well-known Jewish social action project in the 1970s and 1980s to bar/bat mitzvah with your “twin” in the Former Soviet Union. These twinning ceremonies at the time acknowledged that not all Jewish children were free to celebrate their coming of age and raised awareness about the “Jewish refuseniks” behind the Iron Curtain. Some of these Jewish youngsters even wore bracelets engraved with the names of the refuseniks who were in Soviet jails, such as Ida Nudel; Yuli Edelstein; Anatoly Sharansky (who we know as Natan Sharansky) and others. Following the massive exodus of Soviet Jewry approximately thirty years ago, breaking these bracelets had special meaning for those who had bonded with them on their respective wrists.

Yad Vashem has launched a unique twinning bar/bat mitzvah program that has been successful in providing scores of young people with a memorable experience by connecting with Jewish children who were unable to have a bar/bat mitzvah during the Holocaust. Although this twinning program has been successfully undertaken, some families have concerns.

Jalen Schlosberg receives a certificate from Cynthia Wroclawski, Manager of the Shoah Victims’ Names Recovery Project, during his Bar Mitzvah celebration, at the Synagogue in Yad Vashem Jerusalem (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Recently a Hebrew school teacher who attended a professional development seminar in Yad Vashem related that one of her pupils who was enrolled in this twinning program wanted to discontinue his participation because his parents were concerned that it was too depressing. In the eyes of his parents, their child’s time would be better spent playing sports. This example is not unique, unfortunately.

On the basis of recent surveys, a significant number of millennials and Gen Z are unable to name a single German Nazi concentration camp or ghetto. This lack of knowledge severs yet another bond between the Jewish people and the younger generations. Yet, despite this concern, and perhaps because of it, some Jewish parents still want their children around bar/bat mitzvah age to learn about the Holocaust.

So how can we convince families that the study of the Holocaust will not traumatize or depress their children? How do we encourage young adults that this subject matter can imbue their lives with meaning, especially by learning about the many stories of courage and sacrifice made by “their people” during the Holocaust?

(Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Every generation has often modified celebrations of rites of passage in Jewish tradition depending on the circumstances of the given place and time – especially in periods of danger and persecution. Emphasizing how Jewish families sought to celebrate and observe Jewish rituals and holidays, despite great risk, can encourage young people to connect with their history. After all, many Jewish youngsters who lost their families and communities struggled to maintain traditional customs and never had a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony during the Holocaust. In the words of Itzhak Reznik, “My parents were religious, but by the time I turned thirteen, I didn’t know I was supposed to be celebrating. All I wanted to do was survive.”  The lack of food, religious articles, and places of worship made it extremely difficult to celebrate festivals and ceremonies.

(Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

For example, Tomi Reichental was born in 1935 in Piestany, Slovakia. He and his family were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944. On 18 December  1944, it was Tomi’s brother’s thirteenth birthday. Tomi remembers that “the small stove in the corner of the room had wood burning in it. Mysteriously, several potatoes appeared which were sliced and put on the stove to bake.” He recalls that a family friend entered the room, carrying a piece of black bread that had been cut in slices, spread with margarine and layered to resemble a cream cake. According to Tomi, their friend saved her rations for at least two days which meant that she went hungry to give some happiness to his family. He states that, “The gloom lifted and celebratory humor ensued with mazel tov wishes, embraces, kisses and well-wishing from friends. This is how my brother crossed from childhood to adulthood.” Tomi, along with his mother, aunt and brother, survived the Holocaust, and moved to Ireland after the war.

A Survivor’s Testimony. Tomi Reichental addressing students about the Holocaust.

Bilha Shefer was born in Germany in 1932, and after Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass in 1938, escaped with her family to the Netherlands, where they were eventually deported to the Westerbork transit camp. From Westerbork, they were sent to Bergen-Belsen and eventually released via a one-time prisoner exchange in which Jews were exchanged for German Templers. 

Upon arriving in Bergen-Belsen, Bilha remembers that her mother gathered the family and pulled out a jar of strawberry jam that she liked. According to Bilha, everyone was surprised by this rare treasure. Bilha’s mother proudly proclaimed: “Mazal Tov – it’s your bat mitzvah, your birthday.”  Bilha’s mother had hidden the jar in her bag throughout their journey in order to celebrate Bilha’s bat mitzvah.

Yosef “Tommy” Lapid‘s bar mitzvah took place during the height of the Nazi occupation of Budapest.

Tommy recalls how a perfume bottle was broken to mark his bar mitzvah, thrown to the ground by his mother in an act of resistance, to preserve the integrity of her family: harkening back to a more refined past and to hold fast to the humanity that had been stripped away from them. Surviving the Shoah with his mother, Tommy would later, following a successful career in journalism, serve as Israel’s Minister of Justice and Deputy Prime Minister. His son, Yair Lapid is today Alternate Prime Minister of Israel and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Tommy Lapid reporting from the trial of Adolph  Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961

Ultimately, most teenage Holocaust victims never had an opportunity to celebrate their bar/bat mitzvah. Some Holocaust survivors have had special bar mitzvah ceremonies in their golden years at the Western Wall or in neighborhood synagogues as part of their need to find closure and celebrate this rite of passage as part of their Jewish identity.

For example, Yaacov Wexler, a member of Yad Vashem’s staff, had his bar mitzvah in Yad Vashem’s synagogue. Wexler, a baby at the time that he was rescued by Polish Catholic parents, decided to return to the Jewish people over a decade ago and live in Israel. Wexler’s bar mitzvah was celebrated in the presence of another young Polish-Jewish boy who survived the Holocaust – Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council. Bar/bat mitzvah children may be encouraged to learn about the story of Yaacov Wexler, a Holocaust survivor who decided to reconnect to his Jewish roots.

(Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Robert Powell‘s mother escaped Nazi persecution in Europe, keeping her Jewish identity a secret to her US-born children. At the age of sixty-five, Robert decided to have a bar mitzvah ceremony after he discovered his family roots.  In Robert’s words, my ancestors had a “determination to keep alive our Jewish heritage. Our legacy. Our Jewishness. It only remains for me to honor them by living fully and openly…”

Bar/bat mitzvah programs can provide an opportunity to embark on a personal, meaningful journey. For instance, a few years ago, a Jewish family in the New York area turned to Yad Vashem to mark their daughter’s bat mitzvah by twinning with a Holocaust victim. The bat mitzvah girl requested to know more about her twin’s family. After examining the Pages of Testimony, the family asked Yad Vashem to connect them with the twin’s surviving relatives in Israel. As a result, the two families became close. Since the Israeli family had a son studying in the United States, the bat mitzvah girl invited him to attend her celebration. He did. Entering the event hall, he saw a beautifully framed certificate featuring his aunt’s name. In her speech, the bat mitzvah girl told her guests the story of her adopted twin, and how this Page of Testimony enhanced her bat mitzvah preparations. Through Yad Vashem’s twinning program, this Jewish American family not only fostered a connection with a Holocaust victim but also developed a direct relationship with an Israeli family.

(Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Yad Vashem hopes that its twinning program will further encourage bar/bat mitzvah aged youths to learn more about the vibrant tapestry of Jewish life before the Holocaust and become inspired by Holocaust survivors’ stories of resilience. This educational process can have a positive impact on bar/bat mitzvah children who are building their “Jewish bedrock”, committing themselves to Jewish continuity and embarking on a life-long quest for meaning.

About the writer:

Richelle Budd Caplan

Living in Israel since 1993, Richelle Budd Caplan is Director of International Relations and Projects of the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem. A graduate of Brandeis University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with many articles on Holocaust education widely published, Caplan is an active member of the Israeli delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and has developed Holocaust-related projects with numerous international organizations and institutions.

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).