Recognizing Current Issues this Yom Hashoah – Part II

(Read Part I: On Connection here.)

Part II: On Action

Young professionals and college students are taking a deep interest in connecting to our remaining Holocaust survivors.

For example, in New York City, hundreds of volunteers team up with the iVolunteer organization to visit often-lonely Holocaust survivors and become like family.

According to the 2009 Claims Conference, survivors are “more likely than other elderly to be socially isolated, and as a result, are more likely to live in poverty and be in poorer health.”

While health and financial needs plague today’s survivor population, the worst poverty is loneliness. These feelings are greatly alleviated through volunteer visits. But honestly, I feel like the volunteers get more out of these visits than they could ever give.

However, while Jews across the world remember the Shoah this week, there is a large number of people who are unaware of the critical need for basic safety net services for many of the frail and aging Holocaust survivors who live right here in our own community.

According to the Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA), DC’s community safety net organization, there are hundreds of survivors in the DC-area in need of critical homecare and medical support services.  In fact, JSSA is reporting a dramatic increase this year in the number of survivors requesting care. As a result, JSSA is now facing critical shortfalls as the need is outpacing available funding.  (Learn more about the issue here.)

In light of all these issues, EntryPointDC partnered with JSSA to create an Inter-generational Passover Program with Silver Spring-area Holocaust survivors on Good Deeds Day. This was a memorable event not only for the Holocaust survivors, who were elated to have the opportunity to tell their personal stories and socialize with each other, but also for the young professionals who got to connect with them.

For one participant, it was his first time meeting a survivor, never having had the opportunity first hand. For a young woman, who is an Iraqi Jew , it was important to her to come because her own family had been persecuted in Iraq. Another came to connect with his Jewish heritage for the first time since the passing of his father.

Others came as proud representatives of their own survivor grandparents. After the event, one shared, “I just wanted to thank you for organizing this event; it really was so special.”

These connections are so important to our community. This June, we’re trying to make more of these inter-generational exchanges happen.

Service for SurvivorsWe want to connect survivors and young professionals with our Service For Survivors Trip – a Service Learning Trip to Miami Beach, Florida. Participants from EntryPointDC, GLOE, Community Services, and other partners will be joining us. Truly, we welcome anyone in their 20s & 30s to join us  in this mitzvah.

One of my favorite things about this project is the chance I’ll get to interact and connect with individual survivors, knowing that this is a population deeply in need, AND that there is something we can do about it. (The fact we’ll all be hanging out in Miami Beach doesn’t hurt either.)

As the last generational link, we are almost out of time to hear their stories.

And then, when the time comes, we’ll pass those stories on.

Recognizing Current Issues this Yom Hashoah – Part I

Part I: On Connection

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is a time for commemoration and reflection about the Holocaust and the six million men, women, and children who lost their lives because they were Jewish.

Yom Hashoah, which falls on Thursday April 19th, is also a day to honor the survivors and listen to their stories. I love working at a place where we get to look at these stories in multiple ways, knowing that everyone connects to it in different ways – whether it’s through film (Nicky’s Family) or art (Traces of Memory: A Contemporary Look at the Jewish Past in Poland), or through conversations.

The important part is that the connection happens.

My own interest in Holocaust studies began in my eighth grade Holocaust course with my teacher Mrs. Silverman. Unlike other projects in the past, the research projects in her class did not feel like homework, but rather like an opportunity for meaningful exploration – not something that junior high students often get to experience.

That eighth-grade project on survivors impacted the rest of my life: I’ve been studying and teaching the Yom Shoah ever since in some way or another – the power of having an amazing teacher!

My goal is to help others have similarly resonant experiences with this survivor community.

In Jacksonville, Florida, I brought my public school students to a Yom Hashoah program at the Jewish Community Center there. The majority of them were Muslim Bosnians whose parents were subjected to ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. These students really responded to class lessons on the history of the Holocaust, and asked to volunteer at the ceremony.

At the program, they were in awe because for the first time, they were able to put a face with the  Shoah history, and could personally connect to another group that understood genocide, first-hand.

The Passover seder, which talks about freedom from oppression, is often used as a time for Holocaust reflection. In fact, many Haggadot include passages about the relationship between the Holocaust and Egypt. Some Haggadot even explain how victims observed the holiday in Nazi occupied Europe.

A few weeks ago, just before Passover, one of my best friends, a 27 year old young professional working in Finance, discovered her own family’s experience in the Holocaust. It had a huge impact on her and inspired her to lead the seder at her home for the first time, and to intertwine the two histories.

She wrote me:
‘After lighting the candles and saying a prayer, the first thing I said to initiate our Passover 2012 was: “These are the traditions our grandparents celebrated with their families before the war, and it is important to preserve these traditions and honor all of those we have lost.”

I then passed around a framed photograph (that came into my possession only a few days before), with a picture of my grandfather’s immediate family. Being able to see six individuals who did not survive enabled everyone else at our seder to truly feel the importance of this night.’

These are the vital connections we need to make with our survivors – teaching lessons to young people and within our own families – so that no future generation has to have first-hand experience with genocide again.


Read Part II: On Action Here

After Rich Iott: Playing Nazis and Writing Like Survivors

Rich Iott dressed as a member of the Waffen SS

Rich Iott, second from right, in a Nazi SS Waffen uniform

There was a gasp of disbelief when it became known that Rich Iott, a Republican candidate for Congress in Ohio, enjoyed dressing up as a member of the Waffen/SS as part of historical reenactments of World War II battles. Mr. Iott’s subsequent defense of his hobby and appreciation of the over-achieving German military has not done him any favors. Nor has his counter-attack on Eric Cantor, the current Minority Whip and the highest-ranking Jewish Republican member of Congress, helped much. In the process of digging his hole ever-deeper, Mr. Iott explained his admiration for the soldiers he recreates by saying, “They were doing what they thought was right for their country. And they were going out and fighting what they thought was a bigger, you know, a bigger evil.”

When he says that, Iott is engaging in a naïve, if amoral, act of radical empathy. In Iott’s mind, his German alter-ego, Reinhard Pferdmann is a tragic character, who fought valiantly for what he believed—conveniently ignoring that part of what he believed-in was an ideology of racial purity that legitimized the murder of millions.

Moral idiocy aside, Iott is achieving what many of us seek in literature – a vicarious experience that allows us a measure of understanding of another’s life and experiences. It is the particular life and experiences in question that make Iott’s activity a perversion of imagination. The legacy of the Holocaust makes such a life unworthy of memorializing in a manner lacking explicit condemnation.

What about when those life experiences include surviving the Holocaust? There we run into the opposite problem, where the importance of the lives lost makes memorializing them either in a fictional or a non-fictional setting a sacred and fraught act. There rightly are no “historical reenactments” of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or the march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald. Likewise, to read a work of Holocaust fiction or memoir actively discourages empathy because it is generally accepted that one who was not there cannot truly understand the experience of surviving the Holocaust. Ruth Franklin’s new book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford University Press) takes a look at this complex issue which she’ll be discussing on Tuesday, October 19 at the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. The program will feature an introduction by Leon Wieseltier, the Literary Editor at The New Republic.

Scandals involving fake Holocaust memoirs (Fragments and Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years) are despicable frauds, not only because they serve the pernicious ends of Holocaust deniers, but because they have made the requirement of fidelity to historical and biographical facts obscure the role imagination plays in transcendent literature. In fact, the lack of artifice in seminal works like Elie Wiesel’s Night, have long set the standard for other Holocaust-themed works. While Rich Iott labors under a surplus of misguided and selective imagination, Holocaust literature risks a paucity of it. Franklin would argue that fidelity to true imaginations (as opposed to Iott’s frivolous ones) is as great a responsibility as fidelity to the facts (which Iott selectively ignores).

In her thorough survey of the major memoirs and novels about the Holocaust, Franklin identifies the essential contributions the best of these works makes to the perpetuation of the Holocaust narrative. She covers the writers you would expect like Wiesel and Primo Levi, but she also spends significant time on lesser-known and equally worthy authors like Imre Kertesz. While Franklin is an advocate for the power of imagination, she is particularly hard on authors of the “Second Generation” whom she accuses of “identity theft.” Likewise, she sees promise in the “Third Generation” of writers like Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer who by not having to deal directly with the Holocaust, have been able to shed new light from oblique angles. She also spends significant time on Thomas Keneally’s “non-fiction novel”  Schindler’s Ark and its adaptation into Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List.

And why should you care? Because memory is preserved in many different ways. To be critical of the selective memory of World War II war reenactors only does half a job. We should be equally rigorous in how the legacy of World War II reads on the pages of our books.

Inglourious Basterds and the power of Cinema

by Joshua Gardner (Coordinator for the Washington Jewish Film Festival, which runs December 3-13, 2009)

Inglourious BasterdsAs coordinator of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, I have seen my fair share of Holocaust films, but I can say with certainty I have not seen anything like Inglourious Basterds before. It’s part tense World War II thriller, part over the top gore-fest and a one hundred percent Jewish revenge fantasy. Ok so maybe not yours or mine, but unmistakably Quentin Tarantino’s Jewish revenge fantasy. Which other filmmaker could center a pivotal scene in a World War II film to David Bowie’s Cat People

For those unfamiliar with the premise of the film, Inglourious Basterds focuses on a rag-tag group of Jewish-American soldiers getting revenge against the Nazi’s and a young French-Jewish survivor also searching for vengeance. These separate story-lines collide when the Third Reich decides to hold a lavish movie premiere at the very cinema the French-Jewish woman owns. The film ends with a bang with the whole cinema, Hitler and all, being mercilessly destroyed. If I remember my High School history class correctly, this isn’t exactly how it happened.

I am part of the final generation that will get to experience a Survivor’s first hand story. I think for this very reason we are seeing resurgence in Holocaust film, a final push before the wounds of time slowly heal. I think Inglourious Basterds puts itself on this very edge of Holocaust filmic history, a challenging movie that puts forth the idea that film shapes history.  After first-person narratives fade away, the Holocaust will live on through Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful for a generation who never gets to meet a survivor. Who’s to say Tarantino’s version of history won’t be equally prolific for legions of young Jews in the future, an entertaining exercise in “what-if” theorizing.

Tarantino’s spin on the end of World War II is a cathartic re-envisioning; his ultimate ode to the power of cinema. And for all of the implications this film brings up it still manages to be one of the most disgusting, edge of your seat, World War II comedies I have ever seen. Suffice to say: it’s one for the history books.

Waiting for Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino’s World War II revenge-fantasy isn’t in theaters for another week and a half, but Jeffrey Goldberg has a great article (Hollywood’s Jewish Avenger) about the film and Tarantino in The Atlantic. Perhaps as interesting as the eminently quotable director is the light shed on the psycho-sexual allure of the film for cast-member Eli Roth and his role as Tarantino’s Jewish consultant:

The horror-movie director Eli Roth—his film Hostel is the most repulsively violent movie I’ve ever seen twice—plays a Basterd known as the “Bear Jew,” whose specialty is braining Germans with a baseball bat. Roth told me recently that Inglourious Basterds falls into a subgenre he calls “kosher porn.”

“It’s almost a deep sexual satisfaction of wanting to beat Nazis to death, an orgasmic feeling,” Roth said. “My character gets to beat Nazis to death. That’s something I could watch all day. My parents are very strong about Holocaust education. My grandparents got out of Poland and Russia and Austria, but their relatives did not.”

There’s more than a little truth to this wishful power inversion. And perhaps, pornography is the perfect analogy — titillating, unrealistic, demeaning, exploitative, a poor substitute for the real thing, but alluring and potentially habit-forming.  However, Roth also relates a crucial turning point in the development of the script at his family’s seder where Tarantino was a guest:

I was his Jewish sounding board,” Roth said. “‘Would a Jew do this, would a Jew do that?’ He kind of didn’t have an ending. But after the seder, he said, ‘I’m going home to finish.’ He understood that we are still pissed off about things that happened to us 3,000 years ago. At the end of the seder, we talked about how the Jewish thing was to remember, that there was no absolution.”

And that’s where I start to get nervous(er). If what you take away from a Passover seder is that we’re still pissed about slavery, well then… it’s like coming away from the 4th of July thinking Americans would like nothing better than to shove a firecracker down the throat of Queen Elizabeth’s corgi.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a part of me that is very excited to see this film. As much as I know the brand of sadism it peddles is probably not healthy either for Jewish or American culture (especially in a post-Abu Ghraib world), Tarantino films provide a kind of testosterone-boiling fun that I don’t want to miss out on just because of my Jewish scruples. I’ll be interested to see if that rush of adrenaline provided by the gore and profanity leaves me feeling I’ve enjoyed $10 well-spent, or just gory and profaned.

So, are you planning to see the film?

Pope is Shocked (SHOCKED!) To Find Holocaust Deniers in His Church

claude-rainsA major kerfuffle in Catholic-Jewish relations sprung up last week when Pope Benedict XVI un-excommunicated a couple of self-appointed Bishops who reject Vatican II and accept Mel Gibson. The Pope was apparently the last person to learn that one of these Bishops, Richard Williamson, in addition to prefering the Latin Mass, also prefers to perpetuate the pernicious lie that six million Jews did not die in the Holocaust and that the paltry 200,000-300,000 who did die did not do so in gas chambers. The Pope apparently isn’t very tuned-in to Swedish television. In all fairness, I can’t say that it’s on my TiVO either.

The ensuing outcry against the Holy Father’s action has proven that the dogma of Papal Infallibilty does not apply to management of the news cycle. The result is today’s statement from the Vatican which stated,

In order to be admitted to episcopal functions in the Church, Bishop Williamson should also publicly and unequivocally distance himself from such positions about the Shoa, which were unknown by the Holy Father at the time of the lifting of the excommunication. 

This statement seems to have satisfied much of the organized Jewish world. But, parsing this statement reveals that the Pope is not threatening the revocation of the revocation of excommunication, rather the withholding of admission to “episcopal functions in the Church.” Roughly translated,  Bishop Williamson can be a Holocaust denier and remain a Catholic, but he can’t remain a Holocaust denier and be a Bishop.

This distinction seems to have been missed by the likes of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier, who stated, “if Williamson refuses to recant, the Vatican should excommunicate him – this time permanently.” Also either missing or ignoring this distinction was the ADL’s Abe Foxman who similarly stated that Williamson and company, “must accept the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the positive teachings about Jews by the last four popes, including Pope John Paul II, before they can be fully accepted back into the Roman Catholic Church.”

They’ve already been accepted back into the Church as members who can receive the sacraments and avoid the after-life penalties that would result from a serious lack of salvation. What remains at stake is whether they will be allowed a role in administering these sacraments.

And perhaps that’s as it should be. While Holocaust denial is a vile lie and Holocaust deniers base anti-Semites, acknowledging the historical fact of the Shoah is not a tenet of the Catholic faith. Pope Benedict may decide that Williamson can’t work as a priest, but as long as he accepts the teachings of Vatican II, (or at least does not publicly crusade against them) what he believes or doesn’t believe about the Holocaust is moot. Whether that will satisfy those in the Jewish community who have felt wounded by the Vatican’s mishandling of this matter remains to be seen.

One thing is certain, Richard Williamson is not the first Catholic holocaust denier, and probably not the last either.

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Opening Tuesday: Albanian Muslim Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust

The faces that confront you in Norman Gershman’s photographs have seen suffering, experienced suffering. They are faces you look at and know, life has not been easy for them. At the same time, these portraits do not communicate bitterness, but rather extraodrinary warmth and pride etched in the lines of their faces. These are rescuers and their families from Albania, the only European country to have more Jews following the Holocaust than it did beforehand. In part that is because the pre-war Jewish population was comparitively small. But it makes it all the more remarkable that over 2,000 Jews, many fleeing from Austria, Greece and Italy were hidden in the homes of Albanian Muslims during the Nazi occupation that followed the Italian surrender to the Allies.

Tuesday, September 2 from 5:30 to 7:30 pm, join photographer Norman Gershman for the opening of his exhibit, “Albanian Muslim Rescuers during the Holocaust” which is on-display in the Ina & Jack Kay Community Hall and the Harold and Barbara Berman JCC Cafe. The photographs are accompanied by oral history from the rescuers or their descendants of the incredible, individual acts of courage in a corner of the world where it might not have been expected. Central to their actions was the Albanian concept of “Besa” which very loosely translates to “faith and honor.” As the members of the Kazazi family put it, explaining the actions of their parents, “Our parents were not very religious, but they believed in the Koran and Besa. Without the Koran there is no Besa. Without Besa there is no Koran. For the heart there is no color of skin. No man or woman can forget God.”

The exhibit runs through November 30 in partnership with Theater J’s production of Honey Brown Eyes, which begins performances October 22.

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