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Source: The New York Times, September 30, 2014

A chilling disconnect runs through “The Decent One,” Vanessa Lapa’s relentless, numbing presentation of letters, diary entries and high-quality period footage that illustrates Heinrich Himmler’s rise from patriotic child to position of horrible power in the Third Reich.

The film’s juxtaposition of Himmler’s correspondence and German history is complex and fluid. His fussy reports about work and his love letters (signed “Heini”) rattle and offend with their untroubled banality. Read aloud in sometimes spirited voice-over by actors, they can instill a feeling of powerlessness before the deadly march of events. As Himmler’s life and an entire nation’s course are charted, the telling details that arise — routine bigotry, the fierce urge to serve, righteous family bonds — have a way of explaining everything and nothing.

Yet this steady stream becomes rough going. Ms. Lapa’s sources, acquired for the making of this documentary, are unusually rich (and their very quantity helps to dramatize the bureaucratic side of Nazi atrocity). But the voice-over-driven readings and the illustrative footage — unwisely augmented with new sound effects — lack a fundamental filmic momentum.

Many freshly haunting and illuminating undercurrents are brought forth all the same — for example, the Himmlers’ consideration of how to treat a child they have adopted. A possibly reassuring note is struck in the credits, which reflect the efforts not only of Ms. Lapa, granddaughter of survivors, but also of Himmler’s own great-niece. —Nicolas Rapold

Further reviews on Salon and Variety


Source: ABC News, October 15, 2014

Images of emaciated and mangled bodies from recent history in Syria were publicly displayed for the first time Wednesday at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, documenting the work of a former Syrian military photographer who defected and has testified in Congress about witnessing mass killings.

A small exhibit, entitled “Genocide: The Threat Continues,” features a dozen images from an archive of 55,000 pictures smuggled out of Syria. The photographer, codenamed “Caesar,” testified in July that he witnessed a “genocidal massacre” and photographed more than 10,000 bodies as part of his job. He warned a similar fate could befall 150,000 more people who remain incarcerated by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.

Some images at the museum show dozens of bodies lined up or piled atop one another with their faces obscured. Others show the effects of depravation and torture, including electrocution, gouged out eyes and removed genitals, said Cameron Hudson, the director of the museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide. They’re powerful images, and viewers are immediately reminded of the Holocaust, he said.

“They show a side of the Syrian regime that hasn’t really been really seen. You might have heard about it, read about it, but when you’re confronted with these images, they’re impossible to ignore,” Hudson said.

The museum relied on forensic examinations of the photographs conducted by the FBI and by former prosecutors and forensic experts of the International Criminal Court to verify the authenticity of the images. The U.S. State Department has cited the FBI’s examination as well, though the results have not been publicly released.

Syrian opposition groups hope to use the images to prosecute Assad’s regime for war crimes.

The photos were shown to the U.N. Security Council in April. At the time, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said the images “indicate that the Assad regime has carried out systematic, widespread and industrial killing.”

Syria’s Justice Ministry dismissed the images as “lacking objectiveness and professionalism.”

At the museum, the images of Syrian corpses from detention centers share striking similarities with those of concentration camps during the Holocaust, Hudson said, showing evidence of starvation and emaciated bodies. They are the result of long-term detention, not battlefield deaths, he said.

“You don’t wither away and die like that on a battlefield” Hudson said. “You don’t get that in a matter of days or weeks. It’s months and months of depravation that causes the human body to wither away like that.”

Daniel Sturm, 23, of Portland, Oregon, visited the museum for the first time Wednesday with his mother. He follows news out of Syria but said he and most people don’t know what’s happening on the ground. So he was impressed to see the images, he said.

“When you look at that, that is absolutely systematic killing,” Sturm said. “No emotion to it. Just ‘let’s get rid of that situation.'”

It’s important to remember genocide didn’t end with the Holocaust and is a real threat in Syria, Hudson said.

The museum decided to exhibit the images for the foreseeable future because its scholars have long studied how witnesses who escaped Nazi Germany and reported atrocities to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other officials in Washington, only to be ignored.

“We realized that this person, Caesar, the Syrian who escaped, he was a witness,” Hudson said. “We felt an obligation to tell his story as someone who showed real courage in coming forward and escaping and trying to tell the story of what he saw.”


Source: Howard Cohen, Miami filmmaker finds ‘Treblinka’s Last Witness’ for powerful Holocaust filmMiami Herald, October 17, 2014

Documentary filmmaker Alan Tomlinson’s first reaction to WLRN general manager John LaBonia’s pitch for a film about the Treblinka death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland was muted.

“Another film about the Holocaust? It’s kind of been done,” the Miami TV producer/director behind documentary features Nixon’s the One: The ’68 Election (2010), Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami (2008) and Plagues: The Ebola Riddle (2001), said of his initial feeling.

“As a filmmaker, what can I add to this? I’m not even Jewish. You’re kind of in tricky territory and it’s a delicate subject.”

But LaBonia, eager to continue WLRN’s mission as a storytelling channel rather than one completely reliant on public broadcasting’s national feed, felt he was on to something. Tomlinson’s resulting feature-length movie,Treblinka’s Last Witness, which offers a first-hand account by the last-known living survivor, premieres on WLRN-17 at 8 p.m. Oct. 28. The film will be previewed with a free public screening and discussion at 6 p.m. Tuesday at downtown Miami’s Olympia Theater at Gusman Center.

The journey from idea to opening began for the WLRN team in 2010, when LaBonia visited the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. There, he spotted an exhibit that displayed a boxcar from the Treblinka camp, where an estimated 900,000 Jews were slaughtered over a period of 13 months at the height of World War II.

Wedged into the floorboards sat a little girl’s gold ring. Did it slip off or was it purposely wedged there for safekeeping by an innocent youngster who figured she’d return to claim the jewelry at a later date?

Who knows? But LaBonia was struck by the image and compelled to conduct research.

The story of Treblinka, he felt, would resonate with South Florida viewers, since many Holocaust survivors and their descendants have called the region home.

But finding a survivor to recount the horrors would be difficult. The Nazis went to great lengths to cover up their crimes at Treblinka. Bodies were exhumed and burned on pyres of railroad logs, and trees were planted on the grounds. Unlike work camps like Aushwitz and Dachau, where remnants of gas chambers revealed their ghosts, Treblinka hid hers for more than half a century.

“A lot of people, myself included, were not aware that the Nazis also constructed a bunch of death camps where there was no warehousing of Jews. No working Jews. No work plan. No factories. Just gas chambers. Just industrial killing machines to kill large numbers of Jews,” Tomlinson said.

That was Treblinka. Jews, by the thousands, were packed onto trains and deposited at Trelbinka in the morning. The people thought they were simply there to be recolonized. By lunchtime, they would be dead. Men first. Women and children next. Cold and efficient.

“The largest attempted cover-up of a mass murder in the history of mankind,” said Andrew Hall, 70, chairman of the Holocaust Memorial of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and, as an infant born in war-torn Warsaw, a Holocaust survivor.

Tomlinson, who earlier served as a correspondent for the BBC in his native England, became excited when he heard of the existence of Samuel Willenberg, now 92 and the last known living survivor of the Treblinka death camp.

Thanks to the Internet, Tomlinson tracked Willenberg to the home he shares in Tel Aviv with his wife Ada. Two days after Ada answered his phone call, he was on a plane to meet Willenberg.

“During the Nazi occupation I met lots of people and I have learned to read people. Tomlinson is a person I could trust, and I had a good feeling toward him,” Willenberg said in a telephone interview through an interpreter.

Willenberg, who grew up the son of an eminent Jewish painter, helped ensure that Treblinka’s Last Witness would resonate.

“You see, in Holocaust films you have people sitting in round chairs, with a lamp in the back, telling this story with a huge emotional remove because it’s too painful to go there. For very good reason, interviewers treat these people with kids’ gloves because you are taking them back to a place where no one wants to be,” Tomlinson said.

“Samuel wasn’t like that. He’s a born survivor and a storyteller. I’ve been a journalist since I was 16 and I’m in my 60s now, so I’ve heard a lot of stories. My jaw fell open,” Tomlinson said. “It was such a staggering story. And not only was he able to illustrate his story verbally, but he told it with such a cocktail of emotions flowing through his body. One minute he was angry. One minute in tears. One minute laughing, telling some cynical joke about life in Treblinka. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him as he was telling his story.”

Willenberg and his family had lived in Czestochowa, Poland, when the Germans marched into their country in 1939. The family went into hiding, but his two sisters were captured in 1942. Willenberg fled to nearby Opatow but was herded, along with the town’s entire Jewish population of 6,000, aboard a cattle train bound for Treblinka. Within hours, all would be dead. Except Willenberg. A member of a nearby Jewish work camp recognized him and pulled him aside to join a labor force.

There, while sorting through clothes that once belonged to Jews and were to be sent back to Germany for the war effort, he recognized a pair of green velvet sleeves on a coat. He could never tell his parents, who survived the war, that he knew his sisters had been murdered.

Willenberg escaped and managed to make his way to Warsaw, where he took part in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. About 16,000 fellow members of the Polish resistance were killed, and the city was mostly destroyed.

Willenberg’s voice on the phone line tumbles out vibrantly in his native Polish. He attributes his survival skills to his plucky youth in pre-war Europe.

“This actually derived from my wild childhood. When I was a young boy I was a naughty boy. I’d sometimes run away and play hooky from school and take trains and even hid between two wagons and would travel through Poland.”

After the war, he fashioned a series of 15 bronze sculptures ranging in size from 18 inches to 3 feet that depict fellow Treblinka Jews. For years, the sculptures huddled in a basement in the couple’s Tel Aviv home. Daughter Orit, an architect who designed the Israeli Embassy on land once occupied by Hitler’s Third Reich in Berlin, has also designed a museum for a memorial on the Treblinka site. One of Willenberg’s goals is to raise enough funds so that the museum can be built and he can see his sculptures integrated into the site.

“It is an amazingly compelling story about personal courage and heroism,” Hall said. “The film will play an important role because it prevents us from forgetting and therefore from repeating. It’s an important message — the ‘bearing witness’ concept that is so important to Jewish people.”

Willenberg takes on the role of pleased film critic.

“They have made eight movies about me so far. I believe this movie is the best of them all,” he said. “This movie has reflected the true tragedy and what the world will gain is that people will learn the truth of this tragedy.” —Howard Cohen


Source: The Telegraph, October 17, 2014

Spanish fashion outlet Mango is the latest high street chain to find itself in midst of a social media outcry surrounding its choice of design.

A white women’s blouse featuring a recurring black lighting motif bears a striking similarity to the runic insignia of the Schutzstaffel (SS) – the Nazi party’s protection squadron. The double lighting symbol was a common feature on clothes worn by Nazi officials, as well as on Nazi flags.

Mango marketed the blouse in Germany, where the choice of the design has made headlines in the tabloid press. The outcry spread quickly elsewhere on social media and caused hundreds to take to twitter to ridicule and protest the design, and the controversy surrounding it.

Some twitter followers were quick to dub the blouse as part of the “Eva Braun collection”, referring to Adolf Hitler’s partner.

Mango’s page featuring a model wearing the blouse together with trousers and shiny black ankle boots included a purchasing prompt urging the buyer to click on ‘I would like the total look’ button (‘Ich moechte den Total Look’).

This too provoked references to Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbel’s infamous speech, where he addressed the crowds with the rallying cry ‘Do you want a total war?’ (‘Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg?’ )

Mango representatives responded to the accusations via twitter in German, saying that it “regrets the unfortunate association which was caused by the design of the blouse”.

The fashion chain also pointed out that the shirt was also available in designs dotted with “hearts and stars”.

The scandal follows the condemnation Zara received after a set of striped pyjamas with a yellow star appeared in its collection.



Source: Vanessa Gera, Haaretz, October 16, 2014

AP – They were both Holocaust survivors from Poland who suffered through unspeakable tragedies. But when director Roman Polanski and producer Gene Gutowski teamed up in the 1960s they never spoke of the war, preferring to focus on life by making movies and partying hard.

Even when the two reunited decades later for the 2002 Holocaust film the “The Pianist,” they didn’t talk about the horrors they had seen.

On Thursday, a new documentary about Gutowski’s improbable wartime survival premieres at the Warsaw Film Festival, directed and produced by his son, Adam Bardach.

Gutowski didn’t even speak about his past for years with his three sons, telling them the truth only when they were adults: that he was Jewish, that most of his family perished and that the name Gene Gutowski was an assumed identity that helped him survive WWII.

“For many years, I was living in absolute denial as far as being Jewish was concerned,” Gutowski, 89, said in an interview at his home in Warsaw this week. “I just didn’t wish to pass the burden of the Holocaust on to the next generation. It’s very painful.”

Slowly, he opened up. Finally he wrote a memoir.

“Dancing Before The Enemy: How a teenage boy fooled the Nazis and lived” is a joint journey in commemorating the lost family of cultured Jews from the eastern Polish city of Lwow, today the Ukrainian city of Lviv.

“It wasn’t a secret that the family members were all lost,” said Bardach, a 44-year-old based in Los Angeles. “It was just a question of how and why, and who they were as people.”

Gutowski was born Witold Bardach in 1925 into a family of lawyers, doctors, concert pianists and army officers. They lived a charmed life of privilege until 1939, when World War II broke out, bringing first the hardship of Soviet occupation to eastern Poland, followed by a German occupation that spelled genocide for the Jews.

After his mother was sent to the death camp at Belzec, young Witold knew he couldn’t survive if he stayed in Lwow. So he went to Warsaw, all alone at 15, struggling to pass as an Aryan.

Relying on evocative historical footage and interviews with Gutowski, the 65-minute film traces his life during the war until the liberation, when, thanks to knowing English, he worked as a counter-intelligence agent for the Americans tracking down Nazis in postwar Germany.

Today, he credits his knowledge of German and a huge dose of luck and chutzpah for his survival. Those traits gave the hungry teenager the courage to walk into German-only restaurants in Lwow, yell “Heil Hitler!” and sit down to a good meal.

Later he went to the work for the German Luftwaffe in Warsaw, stealing radio transmitters for the Polish underground, an activity that nearly got him killed.

When he was being hunted by the Nazis for stealing the radio equipment he was given shelter by his Polish girlfriend’s mother, a dentist, who procured the documents of railway worker Eugeniusz Gutowski, who had died in an accident.

As he learned of his family’s past, Bardach, formerly a Gutowski, took on his father’s original name.

“I didn’t want the Bardach name to end,” he said. “I felt very proud to be related to the Bardach family. They were people of substance with incredible stories of bravery.”

Gutowski, who is pleased at his son’s name change, says that was not an option for him once he became known in the film industry.

His collaboration with Polanski began in the 1960s when he produced three of the director’s now classic films, “Repulsion,” ”Cul-de-Sac” and “The Fearless Vampire Killers.” Despite being friends who speak Polish together, the two men never discussed their own wartime experiences, Gutowski said.

Polanski escaped the Krakow ghetto, assumed a false name to survive and lost his mother at Auschwitz.

Still, while working on “The Pianist,” Polanski relied on Gutowski to help recreate Warsaw street scenes under the Nazi occupation and to cast actors, determining who should be a German, a Pole or a Jew. Only thin actors could portray starving Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Gutowski remembers the pain that returned to both of them during the filming of certain scenes. In one, Nazi guards randomly forced old Jews to dance together to a street band, one of the sadistic ways they dehumanized Jews before killing them.

“I remember sitting there with Roman and we were both crying,” Gutowski said. “It just brought back the horror of it all.”


Source: The Jerusalem Post, October 10, 2014

The works of Patrick Modiano, the French author awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, deal frequently with the experience of Jews under the collaborationist Vichy Regime in World War II occupied France.

His works also deal with the ambiguous role played during the Holocaust by ordinary Frenchmen, including their role in deporting Jews to Nazi camps.

Modiano, whose father came from an Italian-Jewish family, was awarded the $1.1 million prize, the Nobel committee said, “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”

Born in a Paris suburb soon after the end of World War II, Modiano, 69, has written more than two dozen novels, as well as children’s books and screenplays, but relatively few have been translated into English. While famous in France, he is little known in the United States.

His first novel, “La Place de l’étoile,” was published  in 1968 and was, in part, about a Jew who engaged in shady activities during the Nazi occupation.

He also co-authored the screenplay of Louis Malle’s acclaimed 1974 film “Lacombe, Lucien,” which focused on a young man who joins pro-Nazi French collaborators after being rejected by the anti-Nazi resistance, but then falls in love with a Jewish girl. “Dora Bruder,” published in 1997, traces the life of a girl deported and killed at Auschwitz.

“I have always felt like I’ve been writing the same book for the past 45 years,” he told a news conference after the award was announced on Wednesday.


Source: Lilit Marcus, #Holocaust selfies are inevitable if you turn solemn sites into tourist trapsThe Guardian, October 9, 2014

I’m a travel writer, and I’m Jewish. That means that, whether I’m writing about them or not, visits to Jewish sites – including museums, synagogues, and restaurants – are often an important part of any trip I take. But there’s one kind of Jewish site in which I have absolutely no interest in visiting: a concentration camp.

I know many people for whom visiting a concentration camp is a serious act or even a triumphant one. A few years ago, a viral video of a camp survivor and his grandchildren dancing around at Auschwitz to the tune of “I Will Survive” had me crying at my desk. For people whose families perished at these places, the visits are mournful and a way to pay tribute all the ones they’ve lost. And events like last month’s excavation of the gas chambers below the camp of Sobibor show that former concentration camps need to be preserved as evidence of what happened there.

But even when the concentration camps and other Holocaust-related sites themselves are presented with respect and dignity, not every visitor acts accordingly. The American basketball star Danny Green’s “#Holocaust” selfie he posted on Wednesday from Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is hardly the most offensive: I’ve seen far too many photos of people smiling, waving and throwing gang signs in front of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at Auschwitz. A friend came back from a visit to Dachau, telling me about the tourists who had taken cheesy selfies in front of prisoner uniforms. And earlier this year, the American college student Brenna Mitchell’s self-described “Auschwitz selfie” went viral and launched many conversations about what is and isn’t appropriate taste at such serious historical sites.

For some people, a visit to a place like Auschwitz isn’t about paying respect or learning about history – it’s simply yet another “must-see attraction” they’re checking off in their guidebook, a thing to be Instagrammed, like the Mona Lisa or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The Holocaust is so visceral and wrenching to me that I’d rather opt out of visiting a camp altogether than run the risk of having to interact with the people who will treat it like an attraction at Disneyland.

Thanks to work by historians, scholars, artists and activists, there are thousands of ways that I can (and do) learn about the Shoah. But I don’t need to see where people were murdered in order to grasp its gravity – and I especially don’t need to see those killing fields when they’re full of tourists stopping in on their way to the beer garden.

In a short story by the late writer Leonard Michaels, the main character – a Jewish mathematics professor named Nachman – attends a conference in Krakow, Poland, where he is assigned a tour guide who tells him that she is taking him to Auschwitz because she’s aware that some of his family members were there. Nachman, however, has another idea. “I don’t want to tour Auschwitz,” he tells the guide. “I would like to see the ghetto, particularly the synagogue.” In other words, he wants to see where they lived, not where they died.

It’s that idea – I want to see where they lived – that drives my personal Jewish tourism. Everyone has their own way of remembering the past, of committing it to memory. Mine is to see the places where Jewish people lived, where they thrived, where they fell in love and baked apple cakes for Rosh Hashanah and held Passover seders and taught their children to read Hebrew. Concentration camps are anathema to that. I’m glad that many have been preserved, so that there will be always be reminders of the horrible atrocities that humans visited on other humans. But I’ll never go there myself. –Lilit Marcus

Source: Dafna Arad, Haaretz, October 2, 2014

A 1996 exhibit at Yad Vashem, “No Child’s Play: Children in the Holocaust: Creativity and Play,” was supposed to be temporary. It would include children’s artifacts from the Holocaust like dolls, toys and drawings.

The title was taken from the book “Rules of Life: A Childhood of Dignity” by Janusz Korczak, the Polish-Jewish pediatrician famous for accompanying the orphans under his care to Treblinka.

The exhibit was supposed to be open for three months, but it’s still there, maybe because it’s painful to close an exhibit that touches the hearts of young ones. Included are children’s descriptions of the toys they played with during the Holocaust – toys that their parents improvised or that they made themselves. There are also teddy bears and board games.

But the exhibit is finally being closed – in six months. Some artifacts will become part of a larger exhibit at Yad Vashem. The new version won’t just deal with play and creativity, but with the entire world of childhood during the Holocaust. Still, the old exhibit will be remembered as a classic.

“While this is perhaps the most difficult exhibit imaginable, it contains nothing frightening. At first glance the objects are old children’s games,” says Yehudit Inbar, the exhibit’s curator and director of Yad Vashem’s museums.

“My daughter was 8 when she helped me one summer at Yad Vashem. About this exhibit she said, ‘There were children like me in the Holocaust.’ That’s all right; a person doesn’t have to understand the story at that age.”

Inbar says she wanted to find a way to humanize the Holocaust. All Yad Vashem had was a Monopoly set from Theresienstadt and a doll dressed as a Jewish prisoner. She thought about putting the Monopoly game in a display case, putting down a rug and books, and inviting child visitors to read and write about it.

“But then I said to myself, ‘What are a game and toys doing here? People were murdered in the Holocaust. Who played back then?’ I was afraid the survivors would be angry with me,” Inbar says.

“When I told Prof. Israel Gutman, a Holocaust survivor and a researcher in the field, that I was afraid the toys were a sensitive point, his eyes filled with tears. He asked me to do the exhibit and said he would speak with anyone who had a problem with it.”

Monopoly sets with a twist

So Inbar sent letters to Holocaust survivors who had been children during the war. At first they treated the idea of play during the Holocaust as if it were a heinous accusation. One survivor living in Haifa was furious, so Inbar phoned her.

“Afterward she constantly sent me little letters with her memories of the games she had played,” Inbar says. “The exhibit grew to include several dolls and teddy bears and countless stories.”

As Inbar puts it, children have a unique way of thinking and enormous potential. “Sometimes I think we grown-ups block their creativity,” she says.

“What interests me is how the Jews behaved during the Holocaust as human beings in a crisis …. You couldn’t survive for a minute during the Holocaust if you didn’t have help.”

Yad Vashem has three Monopoly sets from the Holocaust. The first one, which a father made for his newborn daughter in Hungary in 1941, is based on the streets of Budapest.

“He was taken for forced labor shortly afterward and never returned,” Inbar notes. “The cards in the game refer to events of the war – ‘Pay a hunger tax,’ ‘Your wallet is stolen on the train,’ ‘Pay a sick tax,’ and so on.”

The second Monopoly set is from Theresienstadt. It was made in 1943 in a graphics workshop, where people worked for the Nazis during the day and for the children at night. Children who were destined for Auschwitz and Treblinka would pass the games on to kids who stayed in the ghetto.

“The big prize in these games is a day of rest. The children in Theresienstadt lived through this Monopoly game and learned about the situation they were in. The game is based on a bird’s-eye view of the ghetto,” Inbar says.

“From it they learned the locations of the main kitchen, the prison, the storage building and the parents’ house – all the information and an element of play. The game was made in such a way that it could be colored. For small children, it was an experience of drawing.”

There is also a Monopoly set that a child played with in the Shanghai ghetto, where Jews had fled the Nazis. But it’s simply an ordinary set that survived the Holocaust with the people.

A teddy bear like no other

Walking around the exhibit, it’s clear the curator knows the story of every item she worked so hard to collect. She still weeps at the most painful stories.

“We searched for items all over the world,” Inbar says. “At survivors’ conventions in Eastern Europe, at associations of child survivors in the United States. The items always arrived as a result of personal connections, and each one is heavily charged.”

Inbar calls Fred Lessing’s tattered teddy bear “the Mona Lisa of Yad Vashem.” Lessing, who survived the Holocaust as a boy in the Netherlands and is now a psychologist in the United States, never parted with the cuddly toy until the exhibit was set up.

“As a psychologist, Lessing gave workshops to American Jews who had survived the Holocaust as children. He always went to the workshops with his teddy bear, which had survived the Holocaust with him,” Inbar says.

“Ann Shore, the head of the Hidden Child Foundation in the United States, told me about it and said ‘Yehudit, you don’t have a chance. He never gives that teddy bear up for anything.’

Still, Inbar phoned him and told him about the exhibit, which would only last three months. Through the teddy bear Yad Vashem could tell Lessing’s story.

During the Holocaust, Lessing’s mother hid each of her three children in a different place. At Fred’s hiding place, a dog grabbed the bear and tore its head off. Fred was ill with diphtheria, had a very high fever and was near death. His mother showed up despite the danger, and Fred asked her to make a new head for his friend, whom Fred simply called Bear.

“She took a piece from the lining of his jacket and somehow sewed a new head from it, with eyes. Today the teddy bear looks like a fetus. All its fur is gone,” Inbar says.

“Since then, all the world’s leaders have been photographed with Fred Lessing’s bear. I always ask if I can take their pictures so I can send them to Lessing. When Margaret Thatcher was here, she broke down in tears. Tony Blair, all the chiefs of staff, all the who’s who.”

When Inbar and colleagues were invited to a child survivors’ conference in Seattle, they took the teddy bear with them so Lessing could be reunited with it.

“We left a note in its display case saying that the teddy bear had gone on a family visit,” Inbar says. “We prepared a special box for it, went and met with Fred, and he took Bear to sleep with him that night. In the morning he said ‘Bear is yours.’”

The people at Yad Vashem correspond with Lessing to this day.

“We send him greetings from children who stand near it, hugging the little box and crying. Only rarely do people pass by Lessing’s teddy bear without stopping. Sometimes when I’m about to leave the office in the evening I feel sad that I’m leaving the teddy bear alone in his glass box,” Inbar says.

“But the next morning I’m always happy to see him again. In many ways, this teddy bear carries within him the essence of the Holocaust, that terrible pain.” –Dafna Arad


Source: Samuel G. Freedman, Eight Mannequins at a Wisconsin Museum Tell of a Holocaust Tragedy, The New York Times, September 26, 2014

MILWAUKEE — Eight female mannequins stand in an exhibition room of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee here, clad in smart and urbane apparel, the sort that might have come from a “Thin Man” film, or something with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. The clothing went on display about two weeks ago. The fashions are both text and textile, a story of life and death told in fabric, and a recollection during the High Holy Days of mortality and persecution.

The story began decades ago with a family divided between two continents and two destinies. For the purposes of the exhibition, “Stitching History From the Holocaust,” it also started on the day in 1997 when a lawyer named Burton Strnad introduced himself to Kathie Bernstein, an archivist collecting photographs and artifacts from Milwaukee’s Jewish community.

Mr. Strnad (pronounced STRAH-nod) had moved his mother into an assisted-living facility and was cleaning out the house. In the basement, he found several items that he thought might interest Ms. Bernstein. One was a letter, dated Dec. 11, 1939, and cleared by Nazi censors in Czechoslovakia, and another was a packet of dress designs.

The letter had been written by Paul Strnad in Prague to his cousin in Milwaukee, Alvin Strnad, Burton’s father. In careful language, crafted to slip through the censor, Paul asked Alvin for help getting him and his wife sponsorship to immigrate to America, which would mean escaping from Czechoslovakia’s German occupiers. Paul’s hope was that someone in Milwaukee would offer his wife a job as a dressmaker. The eight colored drawings in the packet — for an evening gown, two coats, two suits and several daytime dresses — were meant to support the appeal.

Ms. Bernstein recorded the donation and assured Burton Strnad, “We’ll use it one day.” As compelling as the material was, it left gaping questions. Paul Strnad’s letter had not mentioned his wife’s name, though he had included a snapshot of them both. Who were these people? What had happened to them?

Years passed, and Ms. Bernstein’s growing archive became the core of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, which opened in 2008. “We had a concept of what we wanted our Holocaust area to be,” said Ellie Gettinger, the museum’s education director. “We wanted to make it very local and very personal, because we knew most of our visitors would not be Jewish.”

So the Strnad letter, photograph and clothing designs went into a display case in the museum’s permanent collection. Soon after, Ms. Gettinger’s mother came for a visit. “You could do more than that,” she told her daughter of the sketches. “You could make them.”

What sounded at first like maternal second-guessing wound up inspiring Ms. Gettinger to plunge into research. In the online database of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, she found a “page of testimony” identifying a Holocaust victim named Hedvika Strnad. The document, which had been submitted by a niece in the 1990s, stated that Hedvika was married to Paul Strnad and had worked as a “Lady Taylor.”

That confirmation provided enough incentive for the museum to develop an exhibition on Paul and Hedvika Strnad, as well as their American relatives. The challenge was to transform Hedvika’s drawings into three-dimensional reality.

In the fall of 2012, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater had done a production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” giving a special performance at the Jewish museum. The show had required period costumes. So a year later, as work commenced on the Strnad exhibition, Ms. Bernstein and her staff turned to the theater’s costume artists.

Jessica Hartman Jaeger at the repertory theater assigned a dozen people from the costume shop to the task. Over nearly 3,000 hours spread across 10 months, they matched the colors in the drawings; determined the likely fabrics, like rayon and bouclé; extrapolated the sketches into patterns; and assembled the dresses and coats with matching hats and shoes.

To Ms. Jaeger, these looked like clothes meant for fun, similar to what a young woman might have worn for a day of shopping or a movie matinee. Yet all the spunk and verve they exuded stood in contrast to what had befallen the Strnads. Unable to get out of Czechoslovakia because of the United States’ tight restrictions on immigrants and refugees, they were interned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, deported to the Warsaw ghetto and killed without any record.

“I felt so inadequate,” Ms. Jaeger recalled. “You want to do justice to the designer. You want her vision to be realized. But you can’t talk to her about it. And the reason why is tragic.”

Even as the dresses were being made, another piece of history dropped into place. Ms. Gettinger had been searching for the niece who had filed the Yad Vashem form, Brigitte Neumann Rohaczek, and ultimately found her listed in a footnote to a German-language book about the Kindertransport, which had rescued Jewish children. She wrote to the author: No reply.

At about this point, in late 2013, a college student studying abroad in Germany, Tyler Grasee, contacted Ms. Gettinger asking for a summer internship. She put him to work trying to find Ms. Rohaczek. Within weeks, Mr. Grasee had her address and telephone number in Nuremberg.

Mr. Grasee then interviewed Ms. Rohaczek, and from her memory poured palpable details of Hedvika. She liked to be called Hedy; she had red hair; she smoked; she owned a dressmaking shop. Sometimes she had her seamstresses make clothes for Brigitte’s dolls. Ms. Rohaczek also gave the museum a letter from Paul to her father, with a handwritten note from Hedy at the bottom.

This summer, Burton’s adult daughter Karen came from Texas to meet with the museum’s staff. While in Milwaukee, Karen Strnad went through boxes and photo albums in her mother’s home. In one, she found the last piece of the exhibition’s mosaic: a letter from Paul to his cousin Alvin, dated October 1938, just after the Munich Agreement handed over parts of Czechoslovakia to Hitler.

“What a catastrophe has overtaken our country,” Paul wrote, “a catastrophe which has upset our whole life.”

When “Stitching History From the Holocaust” opened, 17 members of the Strnad family, some of whom had never met, attended. Last summer, Karen Strnad and Ms. Rohaczek traveled to the village where Paul Strnad was born. And on every dress and coat in the exhibition is a small, posthumous design label, with “Hedy” sewn in script modeled on her handwriting.

“There’s this Hebrew word, ‘hineni,’ that means, ‘I am here,’ and I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” Karen Strnad said. “Now I can say ‘hineni’ and be looking at a family member I’ve never known about before. I can say ‘hineni’ about Hedy’s creations. These dresses are artifacts of the history of my family. They are keeping them spiritually alive.” —Samuel G. Freedman


Naomi Pfefferman, Jewish Journal, August 12, 2014

I experienced Robin Williams’ generosity of spirit even before I got on the phone with him for an interview about his Holocaust-themed film, “Jakob the Liar,” in 1999.   The time our interview was set happened to land on the day a white supremacist went on a shooting spree at the North Valley Jewish Community Center (NVJCC), wounding three children and two adults, late that summer, and I had to cancel our conversation in order to help cover the aftermath of the tragedy out in Granada Hills.

I was almost certain that the interview would not be rescheduled; usually “celebrity” interviews are pretty much set in stone and if you cancel, you may as well forget it.  But Williams was not your typical celebrity.  Not only did he promptly reschedule the interview for the next day; he also began our conversation with a concerned “How are you?” and earnestly asked how the Jewish community was faring the day after the NVJCC rampage.

Williams had a famous love for children, and in Peter Kassovitz’s “Jakob the Liar,” he played a latke salesman who protects a young girl and uses humor to raise spirits in the last days of the Warsaw Ghetto.  It wasn’t the manically comic Williams that I encountered in the interview, but rather a sweetly serious, wistful actor who admitted he was daunted by taking on his first Holocaust drama, and one with some dark humor to boot.

Here is my subsequent profile on the performer, who was found dead on Monday of an apparent suicide in his Tiburon, CA home at 63:

There is an old joke from the Holocaust, Robin Williams says.

Two old Jews want to kill Hitler. The fuhrer doesn’t show up. “So one turns to the other and says, ‘My God, I hope nothing happened to him,’ ” Williams quips.

Williams, the pre-eminent comic actor of his generation, cites the joke flawlessly. But he does not laugh, nor is there a trace of his signature, rapid-fire improvisational comedy. He recites the bit reverently, as if delivering a eulogy rather than a joke. There is something sacred about the humor, he suggests.

Speaking quietly by telephone from his home in San Francisco, Williams says he discovered the joke in a book on humor from the Holocaust, one he studied to prepare for his upcoming role in Peter Kassovitz’s Holocaust drama, “Jakob the Liar.” In the movie, set in the last, desperate days of a Polish-Jewish ghetto, Williams portrays Jakob Heym, a latke vendor who shelters a young girl and boosts morale with humor and tall tales after overhearing a forbidden radio broadcast.

The humor in the film, like the joke book, is dark, bleak, shocking, but not tasteless, Williams insists. Jakob tells a friend that he will make a good-looking corpse; a neighbor’s favorite gag is to bang on the door and pretend he is the Gestapo. “For the survivors, the humor prevented soul death,” Williams says. “It was a gift that they gave to each other.”

During the first days of production in October 1997, however, Williams was hesitant about some of the comedy. The first week of shooting took place in Piotrkow, Poland, once the first Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, liquidated exactly 55 years before the beginning week of production. Williams arrived on the set, donned his heavy, threadbare costume with its yellow star and wandered streets and alleys where carnage had once occurred. “The effect was immediate,” he says. The Holocaust ghosts seemed to come to life. And suddenly, Williams worried that the comedy in the script was, perhaps, inappropriate. “I was like, ‘My God, can we do this?’ ” he says.

Director Kassovitz, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, diagnosed the problem early. “Robin had moments of doubt about doing something funny,” Kassovitz explains. “He was a little bit anxious about the material … Like the other American actors, he had a guilt, not to have been a victim of the Nazis.” In a fatherly fashion, Kassovitz took the veteran comic actor aside for a pep talk. “He said, ‘Do not be afraid of the humor, because it existed. It was a survival mechanism,’ ” the actor recalls.

Perhaps the ultimate permission, for Williams, came from fellow cast member Janos Gosztony, the survivor of a brutal work camp. “Janos said that the Nazis would force people to stand at attention for 24 hours at a time,” Williams says. “And if you fell over or passed out, you’d be shot. It was the humor that kept people going. It was bleak humor, always whispered, anything to keep each other awake.”

“Jakob the Liar” went into production about a year before the release of Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful,” another film in which the hero uses humor to assuage the despair of the Holocaust. Both films feature a child and a prominent comic actor (Benigni is known as the “Italian Robin Williams”), and already the comparisons between the two movies are emerging. Several weeks ago, Entertainment Weekly remarked that “Sony’s going to have to convince us we didn’t see a very similar-sounding movie last year, starring a goofy, awards-happy Italian guy.”

Williams is gently miffed at the snipe. “Is there humor in the film? Yes, I’m not going to deny that,” he says. “But this movie is different. It’s based on a novel by a Holocaust survivor; it’s an ensemble piece; it’s set in a ghetto. People say they’ve seen this before. But how many police movies do we see every year? How many exploding asteroids? People can tolerate that, but they say, ‘Oh God, another Holocaust film. Can’t have that! Seen that!’ “
The role in “Jakob the Liar” is a natural for Williams, who has played other iconoclastic healers in films such as “Awakenings,” “Good Will Hunting” and “Patch Adams.” “I play a lot of survivors and widowers,” he admits. “I call it the Dead Wives’ Club.”

One gets the idea that Williams, 47, has long used humor to overcome the pain in his own life. He has often described growing up, without siblings, in a rambling, 40-room mansion in a suburb of Detroit. There was a gatehouse, an empty garage with room for 25 cars, but few playmates; the shy, lonely child was frequently left alone with the maid. Williams sometimes referred to his father, then a stern, auto industry executive, as Lord Stokesbury, Viceroy of India. His mother, a former model, was often away at benefits, but Williams connected with her by making her laugh. As he once said, “I’ll make Mommy laugh, and that’ll be OK.”

Williams continued to make people laugh while attending Julliard and working the comedy clubs of San Francisco and Los Angeles in the 1970s. In 1978, he was cast as the manic extra-terrestrial in the hit TV series, “Mork and Mindy,” and he became an instant celebrity. His “breakthrough” film was “Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987), which earned him the first of three Oscar nominations.

Williams also starred in “Hook” for director Steven Spielberg, whom he telephoned often on the set of “Schindler’s List.” “At times, the movie was so hard for Steven that I would call him on the weekends and just make him laugh,” Williams says.
When Williams finally won an Oscar for his role as a troubled psychologist in “Good Will Hunting” in 1997, he thanked the “Mishpoche Weinstein” brothers of Miramax.

Yes, the actor knows Yiddish, so much so that “People tend to think I’m Jewish,” Williams says. “I love Yiddish because it is a great language for comedy. There are so many great words. And ‘nu’ is the greatest word of all. It encompasses everything: ‘What? How are you? Everything good? Bad? Hmmmm? Nu?”

The Yiddish and the humor, in part, was what drew Williams to “Jakob the Liar” when Kassovitz’s manager sent the script to his production company three years ago. The performer was so taken with the project that he agreed to serve as its executive producer; the movie is the second to be produced by Blue Wolf Prods., the company Williams runs with his wife, Marsha Garces Williams.

Before traveling to Poland, the actor immersed himself in research, reading the chronicles of the Lodz Ghetto and watching the Claude Lanzmann documentary, “Shoah,” among other endeavors. Today, the man who specializes in portraying optimists and healers says he would like to play a villain, preferably one who illustrates Hannah Arendt’s concept of “The banality of evil.” “To portray that right on, would serve a great purpose,” he says.


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