Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
[UPDATE No. 2 5/22/2011]:
That was Friday. President Obama addressed AIPAC on Sunday morning, The reception he received was far from frigid, it fact it seemed enthusiastic, not quite the way you would receive a political leaders who had proposed “Auschwitz borders.”
Here is what the President said:
“It was my reference to the 1967 lines—with mutually agreed swaps—that received the lion’s share of the attention, including just now. And since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” means.
By definition, it means that the parties themselves -– Israelis and Palestinians -– will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. (Applause.) That’s what mutually agreed-upon swaps means. It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years. (Applause.) It allows the parties themselves to take account of those changes, including the new demographic realities on the ground, and the needs of both sides. The ultimate goal is two states for two people: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people—(applause)—and the State of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people—each state in joined self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace. (Applause.)”
As the President said there was nothing new or original in these propsoals. They have been American policy essentially since 1967, nothing different from the Clinton Administration and as President George W. Bush’s Chief of the National Security Council Stephen Hadley said on CNN nothing different that the Bush Administration.
So we Jews must ask ourselves: how irresponsible is it to invoke the image of Auschwitz? What are we going to say if ever there is an emergency?
As of this morning, it seems as if the Israeli Prime Minister is backtracking. Stay tuned, let us see what he has to say to AIPAC tomorrow evening and what he has to say when he addresses a Joint Session of Congress. [End UPDATE]
UPDATE: In the hours since I wrote this entry, it seems that other Jews also cannot help but invoking the Auschwitz comparison. Alan Dershowitz at least had the good sense to qualify his invocation of Auschwitz, but the ZOA left all caution to the wind: Its headline, “We Won’t Return to Auschwitz.”
I wonder, was the State of Israel between 1948-1967 Auschwitz? The ZOA, once the proud heirs of the great Zionist movement and which once supported partition as a means to obtain a Jewish State, might as well proclaim Israel is a failure. The IDF cannot protect the security of the Jewish State. Israel, even in 1967 borders, is not Auschwitz—- far from it.
So in its fury – remember, under its current leadership the ZOA opposed Israel’s efforts at peace – the ZOA in one press release has managed to trivialize the Holocaust and debase the accomplishments of the State of Israel while also seemingly comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler.
What an achievement! [end update]
Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper are my friends. I admire their work, their drive and their service to the Jewish people so this criticism is historical and certainly not personal. Still I disagree with a statement of Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Just after President Obama finished his speech on the Middle East today, the Wiesenthal Center sent out a statement condemning the speech with the title: “SIMON WISENTHAL CENTER ISRAEL SHOULD REJECT A RETURN TO 1967 ‘AUSCHWITZ’ BORDERS”
The use of the term “Auschwitz borders” is offensive and anti-historical. It demeans the Holocaust and diminishes the genuine achievement of Jewish empowerment in the post-Holocaust era of Jewish history. Despite the fact that Abba Eban and Benjamin Netanyahu—and now the distinguished leaders of the Simon Wiesenthal Center—have used it, does not make it any more credible or any less ahistorical. It makes it only all the more problematic
Permit me to tell you why.
Simply put, it misrepresents the situation of Jews in Auschwitz and the power of the contemporary Israel state. Jews had no troops, no armies, no tanks and no planes within the vicinity of Auschwitz; they had precious little to defend themselves, except perhaps their willingness to die.
Not all dangers facing the Jewish people are the dangers of Auschwitz.
I do not quarrel that the Jewish people face dangers but not all enemies are capable of – even if they were to desire to—systematic state-sponsored murder while dominating the fate of 9 million Jews.
Even the situation with Iran is not comparable to the Holocaust for one very basic reason. If you had to bet your life on whether Israel is more likely to attack Iran to prevent its nuclearization or Iran is likely to attack Israel with nuclear weapons, which way would you bet?
I can tell you how my Israeli family answers that question.
Israel’s first response to Iran’s nuclear threat was to obtain submarines capable of carrying nuclear weapons so that any leader of Iran who decided to attack Israel would have to consider that his country would face retaliation – the very basic calculus of Mutual Assured Destruction. They may be mad – or denying of this world—enough to attempt it, but they well know that such an attack would not go unanswered.
Auschwitz was Auschwitz. The borders of Israel are the borders of a sovereign state, which has the power to defend them. Let us not confuse the two.
Israel’s army is, to quote its current Defense Minister, the most powerful army within 1,000 miles. Israel is a regional military superpower and it is also enormously and disproportionately powerful economically in a global universe because of the talent of its people and their creativity in high tech and medicine and so many other fields.
As I have written before: “Comparing the contemporary situation to the Holocaust is to cede to our enemies a power they do not have, an intent they may not share, and to disparage to great achievement of the Zionist revolution that the Jews become actors in history rather than its passive victims.
“It is to invite upon ourselves not only nightmare of our own times, but the absolute darkness of another time and another place that is not our own and bears no resemblance to our own. Those who do so manifest considerable ignorance of those times and misinterpret our own.
Finally, it should not go unmentioned that President Obama did not suggest a withdrawal to the borders of 1967. Here is what he said:
“So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states…”
This has been American policy since 1967. The President has restated the obvious. “Mutually agreed swaps” is not a return to the borders of 1967, actually the 1949 Armistice Line. “Secure and recognized borders” is also not a return to the borders of 1967.
Negotiation is the means: Would that the parties could negotiate.
9.12.12 at 3:04 pm | There was a report in the Israeli paper Ha'aretz. . .
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10.24.11 at 5:49 pm | The Libyan people deserved an accounting.. . .
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May 8, 2011 | 7:25 pm
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
The American people are united in paying tribute to the U.S. military and to American intelligence operatives for the killing of Osama bin Laden. Almost all Americans — including many Republicans — are also willing to give President Barack Obama considerable credit for his courageous and considered judgment to order the attack on the compound and the capture of bin Laden.
Yet, there seems to be considerable division regarding whether pictures of bin Laden’s body should be released to the public. Some two-thirds approve of not releasing the photographs, and one-third — including many in the political and journalistic world — are in favor of releasing Osama’s photos. Their arguments vary: Some are arguing the public’s right to know, others believe that it will convince the world that bin Laden is dead, and still others merely want the satisfaction of seeing this murderer of Americans, of Westerners and of many more Muslims dead of gunshot wounds to the head.
I applaud the president for not releasing the photographs.
I do not believe that the photographs will convince the doubters, and I do believe that it could incite some in the world of radical Islam to ever greater violence and could, therefore, endanger American soldiers and/or other Americans.
Sometimes the imagination is more powerful than the actual photograph. Let people imagine what he looks like dead, shattered.
From the perspective of Jewish religious values, the decision not to release the photos is the right call; in fact, the only call.
Jewish tradition would easily sanction the attack on bin Laden: “If one comes to kill you, arise earlier and kill him,” the Talmud teaches. Self-defense is a sufficient justification.
But once the murderer is dead, his body must be treated with respect. After all, the murderer, even the mass murderer, is also a child of God — and, believe me, I do not envy God such children.
On Passover, Jews powerfully give expression to the desire for justice but also recognize that the perpetrators of injustice were also human.
Recall that we recite the Ten Plagues. Through the marvels of rabbinic commentary, we learn that because the Ten Plagues of Egypt were but the “finger of God”; at the sea, we experienced “the hand of God;” thus, there were 50 plagues. Because each plague had multiple dimensions to it, some rabbis say 200 and others say 250 plagues were inflicted on the Egyptians at the sea.
And yet, before we recite the Ten Plagues, we fill our wine cup, and as we recite them, we remove one drop of wine from the glass plague by plague, symbolically teaching that while the plagues were necessary, our cup is not full because there were human victims — even our oppressors.
According to the Bible, the Children of Israel began to sing of their victory at the sea. “God, the Warrior” [literally God is a man of war], “Who is like unto thee among those worshipped, Oh Lord?”
According to the midrash, when the angels sought to join this song in heaven, God silenced them: “My creatures are drowning in the Sea, and you sing songs?”
Bin Laden’s execution was so very well deserved that we can wholeheartedly celebrate his demise. The world is a slightly better place, but then we must remind ourselves — however difficult that reminder may be — that he was human and his body must be treated as it was, with respect.
We should not parade around with heads on swords. As the president said: “That’s not us” — at least, that should not be us.
Bin Laden’s death occurred on Yom HaShoah, the paradigmatic atrocity of the 20th century. It also coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Adolf Eichmann trial. Israel never showed a picture of the execution. Eichmann was cremated — as were his victims — his ashes scattered at sea so that there would be no grave to become a shrine. It was wise of the United States to bury bin Laden’s body at sea. His burial place will remain unknown, unmarked. No shrine will arise for his followers.
The media kept asking whether bin Laden’s death brought closure for those who had lost a loved one on 9/11, or even to the American people, as if there was a simple equation. They failed to grasp the difference between a tragedy and an atrocity.
The bombing of the World Trade Center — like the Oklahoma City bombing before it, and, without comparing the events, like the Holocaust 66 years ago — was not a tragedy but an atrocity. The reason the people of Oklahoma City could find no closure to their suffering after the execution of Timothy McVeigh was because of the imbalance between the magnitude of the crime and the limited justice that could be achieved.
Even the killing of bin Laden will offer no closure to the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings because the justice achieved can never balance the injustice of the deed. It is fragmented justice — at best.
Even as we rebuild, even as the 9/11 Memorial is opened, even as the site of the World Trade Center is repopulated with buildings and people, even as widows have remarried and orphans have given birth to their own offspring, the void will remain — absence where presence had been. So it must be in the aftermath of atrocity.
April 24, 2011 | 7:24 pm
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
There have been few times in the two thousand years of Christian Jewish relations when Jews have shed genuine tears at the death of a Pope;when Pope Jon Paul II died, I – and many other Jews – cried. Building on the work of Pope John XXIII has done more to improve on Catholic Jewish relations than any Pope in history. And Jew should react with joy at the beautification of Pope John Paul II on Sunday May 1st.
It is a paradox of the Holocaust that the innocent feel guilty and the guilty innocent.
Nowhere is this paradox more pronounced that in the post-Holocaust behavior of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II made confronting the Shoah and the fight against antisemitism a centerpiece of his papacy. He brought Roman Catholic-Jewish relations to a new level of respect. Like his predecessor Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II was directly touched by the Holocaust and has assumed responsibility for its memory. Both men were changed by the history they experienced and as leaders changed the institution they headed, even an institution so conservative and seemingly so reticent to change as the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope John XXIII accepted the ongoing life of the Jewish people after the arrival of Jesus rejecting supercessionism, the doctrine that Christianity had come to replace Judaism and thus that there was no reason for the people of Israel to remain Jews; he eliminated the charge of deicide and removed it from Catholic teaching and liturgy, he stopped to greet Jews leaving a Rome Synagogue on Sabbath, yet neither he nor his two immediate successors accepted the renascent State of Israel, the very form of Jewish life since 1948. He had come to terms with 1878 years of Jewish life – the years of Jewish exile from 70 C.E. to 1948
Enter Pope John Paul II who as a young man in Poland witnessed the Shoah. Three million Jews of Poland were killed in the Holocaust. After the war, Polish cities, which were once the home of large and thriving Jewish communities, were bereft of Jews and the Pope’s hometown was the site of a large ghetto whose Jewish population was deported to death camps. As a young university student, and when he worked in the theater Karol Wojtyla had Jewish friends. Some remained his friends throughout his long and distinguished life. As a recently ordained young priest, he was asked to baptize children born of Jewish parents who had been raised by Polish Catholics, who had sheltered them during the Shoah, thereby saving their lives. When their Jewish parents did not return after the war, the Polish family that had raised them lived them as their own children and wanted to raise them in their faith. On these occasions, the future Pope insisted that Jewish children first be informed of their Jewish origins and only then could they be baptized. It was an act of courage – political, religious and pastoral in post-war Poland, a deed of profound respect for memory. It was not an act popular with his congregants who were unable to tell young Jewish children of their origins during the war for such information could be lethal of both the child and his adoptive family, and who were reluctant to do so after the war for fear of reprisal from the local population and for complicating their relationship.
As Pope John Paul II, he recognized the State of Israel. He visited a synagogue for prayer and treated the Rabbi and the Congregation of Rome with every religious courtesy. Instead of dividing the world between Christians and Jews, he spoke of the commonality of religious traditions/ He spoke with reverence of the Torah. He spoke out against antisemitism again and again. He visited the sites of Jewish death and acknowledged on numerous occasions the centrality of the Shoah.
His visit to Poland in 1979 was perhaps the moment for which he was elected Pope. He delegitimated Communism in Poland and played a pivotal role in its demise. And Communism was the strongest enemy of Jewish nationalism and of Judaism.
In March 2000, Pope John Paul II visited Israel – the State and not just the Holy Land. From the moment he arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv to the moment he departed, it was clear to Roman Catholics and Jews, and to the international media, that this was an extraordinary gesture of reconciliation in the shadow not only of two millennia of Christian antisemitism but in the massive shadow of the Holocaust. Even if Pope John Paul II did not say everything that could be said – he apologized for the antisemitism of Christians not of Christianity—his bowed head at Yad Vashem and his note of apology inserted into the Western Wall said more than could be said by words alone. In the Third Millennia, The Pontiff was determined that Roman Catholics act differently, behave differently and believe differently. An eyewitness to the Holocaust, he had come to make amends. He took all-important steps to make certain that the full authority of the papacy was brought to bear against antisemitism. His theology was quite simple: antisemitism is a sin against God. It is anti-Christian. These are welcome words to every Jew and one could sense their power by the manner in which the Israelis received Pope John Paul II. Even ultra-Orthodox Rabbis, opposed by conviction to anything ecumenical and raised on the stories transmitted through the generations of confrontations between Priests and Rabbis, were deeply impressed by the Papal visit to the offices of the Israel’s Chief Rabbis.
Pope John Paul II’s record was not perfect. He attempted to canonize Pope Pius XII, the war-time Pontiff, he did not open the Vatican Archives from World War II for researchers on the Holocaust to let the true record of he Vatican be known, he canonized Pope Leo IX who had forbidden he return of a forcibly baptized Jewish child, he welcome Yasir Arafat and President Kurt Waldheim to the Vatican, the former before he recognized Israel and the later after his Nazi past was exposed and he had flamed Austrian antisemitism during his presidential campaign.. The most charitable thing that can be said of his handling of the pedophile scandal in the Church was that it was inadequate. Jewish tradition teaches that “there is no righteous person without sin.”
Yet none of this can obscure the overriding substance of his papacy. He demonstrated that true religiosity – devout, orthodox and pious as it may be—need not demonizes another religion and disparager other faiths and the right of another religion to worship their God as they believe. The innocent ones who felt guilty have led contemporary Roman Catholicism to renounce antisemitism and to accept the integrity of the ongoing religious life of the Jews. This behavior should serve as a model for Jews and Muslims as well as for other religious leaders as to the ethical requirements of religious doctrine.
April 6, 2011 | 4:43 pm
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
Andrew Stevens in collaboration with Meir Doron, Rebel with a Cause: The Amazing True Story of Urban Partisans in World War II.
As I was finishing Andrew E, Stevens’ memoir Rebel with a Cause, I received an email from a former colleague of mine reminding me of a promise I had made to write about Jews saving Jews during the Holocaust. She had long been contending that one of the major untold stories of the Holocaust and some of its most important unsung heroes were those Jews who put their lives at even more acute risk to rescue other Jews.
Yad Vashem had set the standard, a high standard indeed, of Holocaust heroism. The government of Israel recognizes and honors those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. The requirements are stringent. A committee, chaired by a former Supreme Court Justice examines the evidence; the nominee must be a non-Jew must have saved a Jew at the risk of his life without receiving any form of compensation, any expectation of compensation. Diplomats are routinely not eligible since they enjoyed Diplomatic Immunity their lives were seldom at risk. Raoul Wallenberg was one of the few exceptions,
Because the designation by Yad Vashem is so significant and the tile so exalted “Righteous Among the Nations,” many people, scholars and layman alike, overlook the important role that Jews played in saving their own.
Zionist histories exalted other Jews, those who resorted to arms – as if that was the only honorable option. It praises those who despite impossible odds fought for Jewish honor in the ghettos of Warsaw and Bialystok even in the death camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor. They never expected their battle to result in victory, but their efforts were a moral triumph even if they resulted in the mass murder of other Jews. Yom Hashoah is formally designated in Israel as “Yom Hashoah V’hagevurah,” Holocaust and Heroism – Resistance – Day as if the two are comparable.
Historians of other nations recognize self defense and people assisting one another as a form of resistance. Werner Rings the Swiss historian said that in every nation under German occupation there were four stages to Resistance. Symbolic and personal resistance: maintaining dignity, identity and continuity; Polemical resistance: disseminating information regarding the German crimes; Defensive resistance, protecting and aiding one’s own, and only later, much later armed resistance.
For Jews acting out of the long experience of Jewish history there were ways to deal with oppression and oppressors. Jews were more practiced in the art of symbolic and spiritual resistance. They initially attempted to thwart Nazi intentions by non-violent means, stopping short of direct confrontation in which Jews would inevitably be overpowered.
Jews were masters at polemical resistance, newspapers and diaries, pamphlets and even major historical enterprises of documentation were present in almost all of the ghettos. Artists documented the crimes through the tools of their profession. historians by writing history, poets by their poetry, artists through their artistry, rabbis through teaching Torah and writing responza of Jewish law.
But not only professionals were committed to documentation. Children kept diaries. People with no professional training photographed what was happening and kept meticulous records. Leaders did their part. In Kovno, Lithuania, Abraham Tory kept a detailed diary of the daily events of the Jewish Council. Adam Czerniakow, the leader of the Warsaw Judenrat, kept a detailed diary and wrote in that diary until his final hour. Hirsch Kidushin took photographs in Kovno using a clandestine camera as did other Jewish photographers in the ghettos.
Jews were well schooled in the ways to assist one another. Ghettos had house committee, welfare drives, soup kitchens, innovative efforts to help one another even under the most desperate of conditions against the most determined of enemies.
Andrew Stevens and Meir Doron have collaborated on an important book that retells the final months of World War II German occupied Budapest Hungary through the eyes of a young Jew who worked as a forger producing the documents so essential to saving Jewish lives and then distributed these documents despite the dangers that were his daily lot.
Anyone familiar with the Holocaust knows the basic outlines of Raoul Wallenberg’s story; still, permit me a brief reiteration. Hungary was an ally of Germany during World War II. Anti-Jewish legislation was promulgated and antisemitism rose dramatically yet while the Jews of Poland and of other German-occupied territory were being annihilated, the Jews of Hungary were persecuted but not killed.
All that changed on March 19, 1944 when Germany invaded Hungary. In April the Hungarian Jews were ghettoized. Beginning May 15, 437.402 Jews were sent to Nazi concentration camps, primarily to Auschwitz, 147 trains, 54 days. Four out of five were killed on arrival. The deportations were halted on July 8th, the very day that Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest, the last remaining Jewish community in the blood soaked continent of German-occupied Europe.
And for the next six months there was a daily struggle to preserve these Jews. Wallenberg arrived with a mandate to save Jews. It does not diminish his exalted stature to recall that he arrived in Budapest seemingly as a Swedish Diplomat, but actually as a representative of the War Refugee Board, the American governmental body established when the United States finally got serious about rescuing Jews. Sweden consented to his participation because it wanted to cleanse its wartime record of close trade relationships with Nazi Germany. Wallenberg volunteered for this mission. He did not initiate the process of using official looking documents to save Jew or even the idea of using safe houses flying the flags of neutral countries. But he did devote his entire being to saving Jews, putting his life at risk – Adolf Eichmann threatened him, “even diplomats can meet with accidents.”
Still he did not operate alone. Official documents were printed, but many more were unofficially forged. Official documents were given to those who made it to the Swedish embassy. Many more were distributed by the Zionist underground, which exploited the chaos of the Hungarian capital under siege to enlarge the scope of Wallenberg’s activities.
Posing as a non-Jew of pre-draft age Endre Solyom, Stevens was a forger of ever increasing skill. He was also a courier of ever increasing daring delivering these documents. Each document offered a chance for life. Without them, death was imminent.
Stevens was born in Budapest 1923 as Endre Steinberger. His father a tailor, his mother a housewife, they were secular Jews belonging to the Neolog movement, the Hungarian equivalent of Conservative Judaism. Survivor accounts are usually divided into three major chapters Before, During and After and Stevens’ memoir is not exception. Yet his memoir pays scant attention to his life after. The charm of his depiction of the world before, the recollections of his grandparents’ villages and his large extended family is triggered in flashbacks when after four score and seven years he returns to the scenes of his pre-war life, sees what is present and experiences what is absent.
His post-war experience is mentioned but briefly, escape from Hungary to the West, his movement to the United States and to Los Angeles, marriage, divorce, remarriage, success in business and the opportunity to contribute to the efforts led by Tony Curtis – ne Bernard Schwartz – the restore elements of Hungarian Jewish life.
The heart and soul of the book however in is his Holocaust experience. At first he retains the perspective of a rebellious youth. Stevens is still angry at failure of Hungarian Jewry to grasp the dangers that awaited them and their passivity in the face of increasing peril. This serves as a marked contrast with his activities late in the war after he escaped from a slave labor battalion and returned to Budapest. Like many survivors’ memoirs, Stevens narrates the history of the time in which he lived, not quite distinguishing between what he knew at the time and what he learned afterwards. He judgments are certain where the historical record is not quite clear.
For example, he writes: “The leaders of Hungarian Jewry knew all about the Final Solution Still they cooperated with the Germans and their Hungarian helpers justifying their actions as if they were good for the community.” I teach my students to distinguish between knowledge and information and also to note when the rumors of impending death were confirmed and internalized and formed the basis on which to act. Yet Stevens’ passion is clear and the history he presents essential to understand his deeds in context.
Escaping from a slave labor camp in the fall of 1944, he was recruited by an old acquaintance who was also posing as a non-Jew and introduced into the world of the Zionist underground. At first he witnesses its primitive yet essential operations of copying and forging documents and delivering them to ever more desperate Jews. Endre Solyom gradually acquired the skills to forge his own documents, to scavenge for the ink and paper and then to distribute these documents. In the process, he encountered Wallenberg directly and gives ample testimony of his personal courage, charisma and effectiveness. Solyom witnessed the drowning of Hungarian Jews in the Danube River in the center of Budapest. To save ammunition, Jews were chained together and only one was shot – or only every other one – and they were dragged into the frozen river by the weight of the dead Jew.
Raoul Wallenberg died alone in the Soviet Gulag, but he did not work alone. His effectiveness depended on an underground army of men and women who prepared the forged official looking documents and the distributed them to needy Jews at a time when the difference between life and death was a stamp on a document. Stevens were certainly not the least of these young people. His story is their story and enables us to understand that Jews rescuing Jews is an essential and still undertold part of Holocaust history.
April 4, 2011 | 11:36 am
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
When I heard the news this evening that William J. Lowenberg, the former Vice-Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and a prominent San Francisco developer and Philanthropist had died, I recalled the conversation we had had about his last journey to Poland. President George W. Bush had appointed him to the delegation headed by Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff to represent the President at the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 2008. As Presidential delegates go, Lowenberg was a natural choice. A native of Holland, his office still has a picture of his hometown synagogue on his wall along with his picture with Presidents and Prime Ministers, all the signs of his stature and achievement. Lowenberg was a survivor of Auschwitz. During its most formative years from 1982-1993 Lowenberg was Vice-Chairman of the United States Memorial Council, appointed by President Ronald Reagan to oversee the development of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was during this period that funds for the construction of the Museum were raised, the building was erected and the permanent exhibition was created and the Museum was opened to the public. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Lowenberg reflected, “an opportunity and an achievement worthy of a lifetime.”
The 2008 trip was Lowenberg’s first visit to Poland since the war.
He had scrupulously avoided setting foot on Polish soil in the years since his incarceration despite the many pilgrimages that San Francisco’s Federation and National Jewish leadership had taken, despite the call of duty for the Holocaust Memorial Museum, despite – or because – of the haunting memories that a teenage boy incarcerated in Auschwitz must have.
He told me, almost casually, that he had been to Warsaw sixty four and half years ago.
Only one steeped in Holocaust history could understand what he meant.
A word of history: Warsaw was once the home of 400,000 Jews, one in three of the Polish capital’s inhabitants. It boasted of some eighty Jewish newspapers, numerous synagogues and distinguished yeshivot. It was populated by Jews of every sort, secular and religious, Zionist, who dreamed of life in Palestine and Bundists, militant Jewish socialist/nationalists who sought minority rights in majority culture, peasants and aristocrats, scholars and rabbis. It was the home of the Yiddish theater and a major exporter of Yiddish movies, many of them classics in the history of cinema, not just in Jewish cinema.
Shortly after the Germans invaded in September 1939 a ghetto was formed that was the largest ghetto in the world surrounded by an 11 foot high wall, which absorbed Jews from neighboring Polish towns and was the place which contained at its peak almost half a million Jews, more than 1 in 7 of the 3.3 million Jews of Poland. The ghetto must be viewed from two perspectives.
To the Germans the ghetto was a holding pen, a reservation to contain the Jews until a decision was made and the infrastructure created to implement that decision. For the Jew, the ghetto was life itself, what they would live until…
Until what, they did not know.
Their task was to endure, iberleben, to live beyond, to survive, is the word Jews used. That is how they lived in 1940, 1941, and in the winter and spring of 1942. And then the Great Aktion began, between the 23rd of July and the 12 of September 265,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka, a newly opened death camp, where they were gassed upon arrival.
For the most part, those who remained in Warsaw were young and alone, they had lost parents and siblings, even spouses and children and they vowed that they would not report voluntarily to the trains. Resistance was born in despair and even in self loathing for having been deceived by the words: “Resettlement in the East” and taken no action to stop it.
When deportation order was given again on April 19th – April 20th was Hitler’s birthday and Nazi leaders wanted to give him a Warsaw that was Judenrein as his gift – the Jews rose in armed resistance. At first the Germans were forced to flee – Jews fought and the mighty German Army was in retreat, at least for the moment.
But when they returned, they came back in force. Rather than fight the Jews from street to street General Jorgen Stropp gave the order to burn down the entire ghetto, building by building, block by block. On May 16th 1943, in the final coup de grace Stropp gave the order to blow up the Tlomack Street synagogue. He wrote to his superiors in cryptic terms “The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw in No Longer.”
Lowenberg was in Auschwitz when the Warsaw Ghetto rose in rebellion. Deported from Holland he faced selektion. Young and able bodied, he was capable of hard work and he was chosen for such labor. No one survived Auschwitz alone and Lowenberg had an older friend, who guided him and supported him. His friend and he were among the prisoners sent from Auschwitz to clear the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto. They had volunteered for the assignment, hoping – perhaps against their better judgment—that is was wise to get out of Auschwitz, gambling that this time, the Germans were not lying to them. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
When he arrived in Warsaw, the ghetto was in ruins; the only building left standing was a Roman Catholic Church near the edge of the ghetto that was served by Roman Catholic priests and Roman Catholic alter boys, that was used by Roman Catholic nuns and Roman Catholic parishioners who because of their Jewish ancestry – literally the blood of their grandparents – were defined as Jews by the Nazis.
Bodies were strewn about and beneath the rubble were even more bodies of Jews who had built hiding places and who were asphyxiated by the world burning above them. One tries of imagine what a sixteen year old boys faced, and the more one tries, the more one fails. Even Lowenberg cannot describe what he saw; words elude him but not the sense of astonishment, not the sense of loss. He had lived through Auschwitz and seen all he had seen. He arrived in Warsaw and had to comb the ruins brick-by-brick, body-by- body. He had grown old though according to the reckoning of the calendar, he was still a teenager.
So as he returned to Warsaw, reluctantly yet defiantly, he saw the contrast between the ruins of his imagination and a city that is thriving amidst the prosperity of the post-Communist years. He saw a building boom. As a developer in the company of another developer who saw the opportunities of the future, Lowenberg could not escape the rubble of the past. He could not invest in Poland’s future or see his own future in Poland; on that soil, he could only perform his task representing his adopted homeland, the President of these United States and returning home to the land of his freedom, the land of his rebirth. He attended the ceremonies and heard the speeches by the Polish President and Prime Minister, the President of Israel, Shimon Peres and the representative of President Bush. He was there – but somehow also not there.
And yet, on American soil, all Lowenberg wanted to talk about was the future. He was to attend the Gala pre-opening of San Francisco new Jewish Museum. He was upset by the scandals in Israeli politics. He was concerned about the Iranian threat to Israel. Survivors have learned to take threats seriously and promises far more lightly. He was looking forward to the campaign and the election. He was proud of the work that he did with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the way it had served the cause of remembrance, the children who were visiting the Museum and learning about the past. They would shape the future; they would remember.
It was not easy to return, but it was clear to see the distance he had traveled from the ashes of Auschwitz and rubble of the ruined ghetto to a suite high above San Francisco—the distance he had traveled and the distance the Jewish people had traveled in the 64 ½ years since he last set foot in Warsaw.
March 17, 2011 | 2:14 pm
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
Naming is the most human of functions. In the Bible, Adam named the animals and plants. Scientists name diseases, and in so doing they identify its symptoms, predict its consequences and prescribe treatments. Ultimately, they seek a cure or better yet a means to prevent the disease.
If we call the diplomacy, the give and take underway of the past two decades the “peace process” or a “return to the peace process,” we are confused by the events of the past years and deservedly despairing. Clearly, trust has broken down. Both parties do not trust the other – and for good reasons. How can the Israeli trust the Palestinian, given the nature of—just insert the atrocity de jour—the murder of babies, the suicide bombings and the societal support given to the murder of Israeli civilians? Who among us would suggest that they can be trusted, that Israel can build its future aspirations expecting that the Palestinians will be peaceful. And the Palestinians clearly do not trust the Israelis. We can argue over the reasons, but it takes no great insight to show that trust has broken down.
In reality, there is no peace process. What is taking place in the Land of Israel/Palestine is at best a divorce between the two parties, who will continue to live in the same “martial home” [land], even after they are divorced. Separation must now be the goal, separation because reconciliation is impossible—at least in the current climate, at least for the foreseeable future.
It is because the two parties do not love each other, cannot trust each other, and cannot live together that the divorce is necessary. Viewed as a process of divorce, Israel can fashion a policy that makes real sense politically and psychologically. And it can use a vocabulary that tells the truth to itself and the world and does not mock the meaning of peace.
Yitzhak Rabin had come to the conclusion that separation was required. Unlike his colleague Israel’s current President Shimon Peres, the driving force behind the Oslo Agreement, who dreamed of a new Middle East and articulated that vision in glowing – dare we say prophetic terms – Rabin was no dreamer but a pragmatist. The Palestinians did not want to live under Israeli rule and as he learned well when he served as Defense Minister during Intifada I, Israel did not want to pay the price of occupation, including the moral price of defending one’s territory by killing or wounding an adversary’s children.
For Rabin, Oslo was a divorce, the separation of two nations. The outlines were clear. Land for peace. Rational negotiations were aimed toward a maximum level of separation and maximum achievable comfort on both sides after the divorce. Incremental steps would be taken on the road to the divorce. He also understood contrary to the mantra of the Israeli right and the organized American Jewish community that settlements were an obstacle to peace and they were not in the security interest of Israel.
Israel’s instinctual response to many crises resembles the initial instincts of a spouse in a bad marriage—get even, respond. Israel cannot respond in kind to the brutality witnessed last weeks, but its Interior Minister urged building more settlements, pushing up ever closer to the Palestinians.
In the late 1990s, during his first term as Prime Minister Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who defeated Shimon Peres on the promise that he could find an alternative to divorce, thought that separation was unnecessary. He soon concluded that the most he could hope for were tougher terms of separation, better conditions, less alimony, less engagement, more land, less inconvenience at the end. Yet under his government, even Israel’s right wing was forced to give up the dream of the Greater Israel. Since then every opinion poll in Israel has shown consistent support for the separation of Israelis and Palestinian, which is distorted by calling it the “land for peace” formula.
Since ethnic cleansing remains unacceptable – morally, politically and globally—partition is the only solution.
Netanyahu’s successor, Ehud Barak knew that there was no peace process. He so deeply – perhaps even desperately—wanted a divorce that he was prepared to be flexible—just not suicidal. His generous offer was scorned by Arafat—many on Arafat’s own staff urged him to take the deal—and Barak paid the political price of defeat.
His successor Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also understood that there is no peace process. He promised greater security, a promise on which he could not deliver without changing the terms of the engagement between Israelis and Palestinians. His successor, Ehud Omert understood the necessity of a divorce and came close to an agreement on its costs.
And Netanyahu in his second round as Prime Minister has also understood that divorce is necessary. He wants to sacrifice too little for the divorce and doesn’t want to lose power in the process so he is timid; his policy vacilates and he was without a strategy even before the uprisings in the Aran world. His view was that Israel can live with the status quo, a view he continued to hold even as there is no status quo.
The imbalance of forces is so great that Israel’s overwhelming strength is its greatest public relations weakness. Palestinians were unwise to misperceive a reluctance to use force for weakness. It is strength, strength of character and strength of vision. When provoked again and again, Israel used force consistently and firmly and their use of force enjoyed overwhelming domestic support even as it caused disquiet overseas.
Some are uncomfortable with the image of Israel as Goliath, the strong against the week, the well armed against those less well equipped but such was the case and despite not understanding the role reversal, my Jewish brethren should not be displeased. Goliath wins most of the time. Perhaps only in the biblical fable does the young David emerge triumphant and unscathed.
I suspect seeing this as a divorce process not a peace process, as separation because of hatred may indeed allow us to see the outlines of a deal.
Israel should welcome the declaration of a Palestinian state. If I had been Prime Minister – a prospect no one should ever welcome – I would have done so a decade ago, essentially establishing unilaterally the borders Israel wants, vacating the settlements that are not viable and securing those it wants to maintain and then tell the Palestinian President that if he wants to improve on the current borders then the negotiating table is still available.
Pull a Jim Baker! As the Secretary of State, Baker once publicly gave then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir the White House’s phone number to call if he ever became interested in peace. Give Arafat the phone number of Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office if he wants improved borders and more assets.
And if he – his Palestinian allies or his Palestinian enemies—choose to attack, Israel will respond as one sovereign state responds to an attack by another, which is perceived rather differently than the attack of one occupying party on the “powerless people” it occupies.
Critics will contend that unilateral withdrawal is a disaster because it rewards violence, it imposes on Israel the civil strife necessary to evacuate the settlements, and the Palestinians might mistake it for weakness, as was the withdrawal from Lebanon. They have a point—but not quite a convincing one. For what is the alternative?
Under the status quo ante, the radicals dictate the terms of the strife. Because Israel is an occupying force, its efforts at self-defense are perceived as aggression against a defenseless population and subject to criticism by external forces.
David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding father, said many times, “I don’t care what the nations [‘goyim’ translated literally] say, I do care what the Jews do.” Divorce – not peace – is the strategic goal, not because peace is undesirable, but because it is unachievable in the foreseeable future. Israel therefore can shape a map it can live within not as a plan but as a reality on the ground and change the facts on the ground and thus the terms of the debate.
Marriage counselors and divorce lawyers well know that when all love is lost and there is no hope for reconciliation, the most that one can achieve is the division of property, the maximum separation of the parties so that daily frictions do not intensify the overall conflict.
And few marriages can end without outside intervention. That is why intensive American-led mediation is necessary and for the United States to remain disengaged is disadvantageous to all parties and should be unwelcome by all supporters of Israel.
Forget about peace. It is time for a divorce. Separation is imperative. Divide the assets, establish boundaries, and allocate resources and set firm ground rules. That is the most that can be achieved. And that is quite a lot.
February 28, 2011 | 7:33 pm
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
In the fabled fifties when New York was New York, there was one sure way to begin an argument and no way to end it. Just ask any member of the male species who the best center fielder in New York City was and you would hear tall stories of Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. Women (or girls as they were called in those days) were less likely to follow baseball then. The debate still arouses much more passion than logic.
Only a Brooklyn Dodger fan would defend what cannot be defended, attack what cannot be attacked, marshal evidence to contradict what is sacrosanct in baseball—statistics—hits, runs batted in, home runs, double, triples, stolen bases, strikeouts, ultimately pennants and World Series victories. But what Brooklyn boy ever backed away from a fight only because the chances of victory were slight?
Duke Snider, along with his teammate Jackie Robinson, were the class of the Brooklyn litter. They are in the Hall of Fame together with their teammates Roy Campanella and Pee Wee Reese. Snider, who died on Sunday was the best on a ball club that has entered the domain of fable. Handsome and youthful even though prematurely gray, Snider was grace. His stance was pure perfection. He crouched a bit, but kept his body in flawless proportion. His swing was powerful, but never off balance. His fielding superb, Snider was the quickest off the bat of the three and he seemed never harried in the field because he was where he was supposed to be, perfectly positioned to make the catch, pivot and throw, and Snider could throw a ball 400 feet on a fly. Just for fun, Snider would throw balls out of the park. Among his teammates, the Boys of Summer, Snider was the once-born, the well tanned, handsome man, a proud stallion, the athlete to whom all things came easily. Although he was to enjoy his best years in Brooklyn, Snider was the California kid, the sure thing.
Imagine it; the Duke of Flatbush owned an avocado farm in California. Hell, growing up people we knew ate meat and potatoes, kishka and kasha, herring and borscht, pasta and spaghetti, chitlin and fried chicken. Who in Brooklyn ever heard of avocado? Was it green or yellow? Did one really eat such things?
Snider was the one Dodger most unlike the Brooklyn fans. He was uncomplicated, the natural. Everyone in Brooklyn was complicated; each had a complex story to tell. A superb school athlete, Snider had won sixteen letters in high school and with Pete Rozelle as his publicist, Snider was an all-star in baseball, basketball and football. He married his high school sweetheart, the beautiful Bev, the type of girl who would be found with the school jock. Snider was the player we wanted to be, but could not be. He never even seemed to sweat—or so it seemed to us then.
At the height of his powers, after his best season, he made $42,500. At the peak of his achievements, he left Brooklyn when Walter O’Malley absconded with the Dodgers to Los Angeles – even though I now live in Los Angeles and my son Josh adores the Dodgers I will never forgive O’Malley for his betrayal—where the Bums became sophisticated, California chic. The California kid was home again, but the Duke of Flatbush was a stranger in LA. Right Field was 296 feet down the line in Ebbetts field. Right Center Field was 440 feet away at the Coliseum. They move to LA took the bat out of Duke’s hand. Still, he hit more homeruns in the decade of the 1950s than any other player in Baseball including Mickey and Willie.
After his talents eroded, Snider lost almost everything. When he returned to New York with the Mets only the number 4 remained. Like Willie Mays, he was but a shadow of his former self, a has been .The final indignity, he was traded to the hated Giants.
Duke later became a casualty of the Vietnam War. His bowling alley located adjacent to Pendleton Air Force base went bankrupt when soldiers en route to or from Vietnam did not spend their final hours throwing strikes. He lost his farm. And he was forced to wait year after year to make the Hall of Fame. Few men of his era with his statistics more than 400 homers and 2,000 hits waited as long. He returned to baseball as a minor league manager and an announcer for Montreal and he bounced back by charging for what he once gave away for free, his signed name on a baseball. Apparently, he wanted more; he needed more so he cheated Uncle Sam.
The heroes of our youth: Mantle destroyed himself drinking; Snider cheating. And Willie, still morally undiminished, for a time made the rounds greeting gamblers and playing golf with those who once dreamed of standing in his shadow and now can afford to pay for such fantasies come true.
We, the boys of New York City, are older now, perhaps wiser. We couldn’t make it as jocks so we became professionals. We have gone on to distinguished careers and impressive accomplishments. Even as we age, and come close the retirement age, our future is in front of us, not in the past. We watch these men with anguish and sadness for now we are in the age of success and accomplishment as they trail into the sunset and now at the ripe age of 84 into death.
But fans take heart. They were heroes, not saints.
February 27, 2011 | 8:07 am
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
I join with Michael Kimmelman (NY Times February 19, 2010) in celebrating the decision of the Auschwitz Museum to revamp its exhibitions for the 21st century.
The visitation to Auschwitz is growing year by year. Its visitors are younger and younger and younger visitors inevitably have less first hand knowledge of the events of World War II.
Furthermore, the tools available to contemporary creators of Museum are dramatically different than the resources that were available a generation ago in the less Westernized Poland when the exhibitions at Auschwitz first took form.
So while we celebrate and applaud such an opportunity, Mr. Kimmelman did not consider some basic flaws in the current plan and invite a basic conceptual rethinking of the entire exhibition.
This critique is written in friendship and admiration for the Director, the staff and curators but it designed to improve the entire experience of the visitor and to further empower the visitor to understand the experience at Auschwitz.
In the current Museum and in the plans for its redesign, the most powerful elements of the exhibition at Auschwitz I, actually come from Auschwitz II [Birkenau]. We must consider returning them to Birkenau and exhibiting them in situ.
These artifacts include: Hair, Suitcases, the Model of Cremetoria II, eyeglasses, Bowels,
Jewish ritual objects, prosthesis, Toothbrushes and hair brushes etc.
Visitors are currently given the false impression that what happened at Birkenau, at the ramp, at the crematoria, at Canada – the place at which the possessions that Jews brought with them into the camp was gathered and sorted before being shipped back into the Reich—and in the Sauna, the place where tatooing and shearing of prisoners occurred actually happened at Auschwitz I.
Guides dutifully tell them otherwise, but visitors are informed and deeply moved not so much what they hear as by what they see. Such a misimpression is inevitable because a museum, any museum is about what one sees.
Furthermore, since these items were moved from their original site, the exhibition at Birkenau where the events actually happened is unanimated and resorts to static text and few actual artifacts except for the remnant of the barracks that were there and the ruins of the destroyed crematoria. The reconstructed Sauna is done brilliantly and shows the talen of the Museum staff, but it is bereft of objects.
One should explore the possibility of relocating many, most or all of these artifacts back to Birkenau where their impact would be immediate and powerful.
For example: The Model of Crematoria II is powerful and moving; so powerful that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem have made it an integral part of their exhibitions where they are regarded as the most powerful element of the core exhibition. The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Educational Center uses a very powerful model of Crematoria IV as a mainstay of its own exhibition. Yet nothing but a flat panel appears to illustrate the destroyed gas chamber and crematoria at Birkenau and the visitor sees what is there, but has difficulty, despite the skill of the guides, envisioning what once as there and the process of killing.
Only the most imaginative of the visitors can retain the image of the Model of the Crematoria now displayed at Auschwitz I when they visit Auschwitz II.
Visitors to Birkenau are told where the “Gypsy Camp” was located adjacent to the ramp, but aside from a sign, nothing of the experience Roma and Sinti is presented in situ. The visitor would not be unwise or uninformed to come away with the impression that the Gypsy camp was in Auschwitz I and not in Birkenau.
“Only those who were there will ever know.” What is missing in the current exhibition and what must be included in the next iteration of the Auschwitz Museum exhibition is the voices and faces of the eyewitnesses – Survivor testimony.
Survivor testimony forms an essential part of the great Museum exhibitions on the Holocaust throughout the world from London to Washington, from Jerusalem to Mexico City, from Skokie to Houston, survivor testimony has communicated the experience of those who were there and made it come alive to a new generation.
There are an estimated 80,000 video histories relating to the Holocaust and many of these deal with the experience of Auschwitz. The USC Shoah Institute Foundation alone has 52,000 testimonies in 57 languages taken from 32 countries. The availability of testimony makes it possible to create survivor testimonies in the languages of the visitor; among them Polish, English, German, Dutch, French, Russian, Danish and Spanish that describe first hand what happened in each dimension of the experience at Birkenau from deportation from the ghetto, to long train ride, arrival. Selection, separation from one’s loved ones, how one learned of the crematoria and the death of one’s loved ones, processing in the Sauna, Daily life from waking to working to eating and sleeping;.
the latrine, moral and spiritual resistance, the Uprising of October 1944 and the experience within the crematoria narrated by surviving Sonderkommado, but also death marches and liberation..
Core testimony could be developed and even borrowed from earlier attempts to create edited films and it could be made available in multiple languages for visitors from different countries. The material is readily accessible; the technology is easily available and it would enliven a visit to Auschwitz.
Furthermore, the archive at Auschwitz should overtime contain all the testimonies taken in the world relating to Auschwitz along with the technological infrastructure to retrieve this information. We know that the USC Shoah Foundation Institute would be willing to cooperate as would the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. We suspect that others would be willing to participate as well in making this material accessible to the Auschwitz Museum.
Visitation to Birkenau should be increased and the two best ways to increase such visitation are to make the experience at Birkenau een more experientially compelling and to enhance the infrastructure of Birkenau to handle vehicles, busses, taxis and the public.
In the ideal world, the visitor facilities currently available at Auschwitz I would be created at a point between Auschwitz I and Birkenau, with easy access to both camps, making a visit to both sites equally accessible. Under current conditions the infrastructure favors Auschwitz I not Birkenau and the visitors disproportionately visit Auschwitz I.
Barring such a dramatic change of infrastructure – parking, food, and restrooms – everything else should be done to increase the visitors to Birkenau including the creation of a visitors’ center that would allow arriving visitors to go directly to Birkenau. Furthermore, as the experience at Birkenau is made even more intense, both by advertisement and by word of mouth, the visitorship would increase if the core experience is found at Auschwitz II and not Auschwitz I.
These changes are essential to bringing the exhibition into the 21st century. They are within the capacity of the Museum and they would serve the next generation.