Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Story of Survival

My name is Elysha Varenbut and I am from Toronto, Ontario. Currently I am spending a semester in Jerusalem studying at Hebrew University. I began volunteering at Yad Vashem this year, and met Holocaust survivor Berthe one day while listening to her special story. I instantly felt connected to her and her passion for life.

Berthe in the Hall of  Names
Berthe was born in Lyon, France in 1932 into a Jewish family. Her father, originally from Poland, moved to France at the young age of 14. Quickly realizing the danger that Jews faced, he became communist, in the hope that it would ease the harsh lifestyle created as a result of living in Europe. Her mother, originally from Poland, moved to France with the same intention as Berthe’s father. As the situation continued to worsen, Berthe’s parents quickly realized that in order to keep Berthe safe she would have to be sent away.

In December 1941, when Berthe was only nine years old, she packed a suitcase. About to leave behind her family and the only life she had ever known, she was scared and uneasy, but somehow understood it had to be done. Berthe was relocated through a Christian church program, and had to hide her true Jewish identity in order to fit into her new life. She was taken in by a young woman, Madame Marsona, and her three children, who were living in a small village about 100 kilometers outside of Lyon. Madame Marsona lived a very simple life; she was strict yet sensible, and treated Berthe as one of her own. Berthe explains, “She knew I was Jewish but never said a word… not even to her children.”
Elysha and Berthe at Yad Vashem 
Berthe lived in a stable household with Madame Marsona and her family for about two years before German soldiers began to invade the town in 1943. “When I was walking I would look down… I was afraid they would see my face and see I was a Jew. I was so afraid to say the word ‘Jew’." Not only was Berthe afraid for her own life, she feared that Madame Marsona and her family were also at risk. It was forbidden for French citizens to host Jewish people for several weeks without registering them with the authorities; some French rescuers were punished and either deported or even murdered. However, although the Marsona family understood the risks of hiding Berthe this                                                                                                              did not deter them from hiding her in their home.

On September 3, 1944, French units liberated Lyon, and Berthe safely returned home to her mother and father in Lyon. Berthe continued living in Lyon with her parents until 1956, when she made Aliyah to Israel. Her parents later joined her in Israel in 1971.

Elysha and Berthe at Yad Vashem 
Looking back and thinking about the hard times Berthe and her family went through, she still manages to remain positive and have an optimistic outlook on life. “Because I learned to be tough, I learned to survive,” she said. "I am grateful to the Marsona family for saving my life. It is my duty to remind you that there are good people in the world.” Berthe’s story is just one of many that display actions of courage, bravery, and strength. The Marsona family, along with other Righteous Among the Nations families and individuals who risked their lives to save Jews will forever be appreciated and admired.

Berthe has been through so many struggles and losses, and yet she is able to wake up every day with a smile and focus on the good in the world. Spending time talking to Berthe and listening to her stories has been a wonderful learning experience. Every moment I spend with her is very special, and she is continually helping me to learn and grow more as a person. She helps young individuals every day realize the importance of listening to the voice of survivors in order to keep their memories alive.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Fighting for Freedom

New online exhibition marking 70 years since VE Day

"Fighting for Freedom" is a special new online exhibition marking 70 years since VE Day, the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Allied forces. This new exhibition tells the personal stories of some of the 1.5 million Jewish soldiers who served in the Allied Forces during WWII, through items such as artifacts, photographs, uniforms, prized medals and more, each telling a singular wartime tale. These treasured items express the unique encounters and individual experiences these combat soldiers faced when liberating their fellow Jews from the horrors of the Nazi concentration and death camps. 

Cloth wall decoration found in an
abandoned Jewish home in Lithuania
Moshe Domb enlisted in the Lithuanian division of the Red Army. During the war, Domb was wounded and hospitalized. While journeying to  rejoin his unit, he passed through many Lithuanian villages, seldom finding a Jewish child or woman who had miraculously survived. In one of the villages that he passed through, he entered the empty home of a Jewish family where he discovered an embroidered cloth decoration on the kitchen wall. Embroidered on the cloth is an image of a woman in a kitchen with the Yiddish saying "die Reinkeit liegt in Scheinkeit" (Purity lies in Cleanliness.) As Domb's unit marched through these villages they began to understand the magnitude of the destruction of the Jewish people and felt that they had arrived too late. In a letter Domb wrote, "We have already lost the war, no Jews are left in Europe, there is no hope of finding any of our family." Moshe later donated the cloth he found to the Yad Vashem Artifacts Collection.

Medal received by Ernestina-Yadja Krakowiak
 for service in the battle for Berlin
Another Jewish solider featured in the exhibition is Ernestina-Yadja (Minz) Krakowiak who was one of a number of Jewish women who served in the Allied Armies during WWII. Krakowiak, was born in Warsaw and fled to Soviet territory early in the war and was sent to a detention camp in Siberia. When a Polish unit of the Red Army was founded, Krakowiak joined its ranks, becoming only one of two women in her unit to serve in the artillery division. For her involvement in various combat operations, she was awarded both Polish and Soviet ribbons and medals which she later donated to Yad Vashem. 

To view other captivating stories of these Jewish soldiers in the online exhibition "Freedom Fighters" click here.

The exhibition is generously supported by the Genesis Philanthropy Group. 

Ernestina-Yadja (Minz) Krakowiak, 

Red Army, Polish Division

Yad Vashem's Artifacts Collection is comprised of over 28,000 itiems donated over the years by Holocaust survivors and members of their families, as well as various organizations in Israel and abroad.  The many personal effects in the collection unveil the individual stories of people, families and at times, entire communities.  Yad Vashem's national campaign "Gathering the Fragments" has been operating since 2011, in an 11th hour effort to collect Holocaust-related personal items from the general public in Israel. The items are then preserved, and their stories made available to researchers, students and the public. 

Information about donating items to Yad Vashem for safekeeping is available at 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

North Carolina High School Class Finds Relatives of Holocaust Victims

A local public school in North Carolina, U.S.A concluded an intensive year-long research project where students worked diligently to return a Holocaust-era letter to living relatives of the writer.
Professor Todd Singer's American History class at the East Henderson High School embarked on a year-long journey to find a living relative of Betty Erb, who together with her fiancé, Martin Selling, were murdered in Auschwitz. More than 75 years ago, Betty wrote a desperate letter to a John B. Erb in the United States, in hopes that they were related, requesting help to be able to escape Germany and immigrate to Bolivia. As a Jew in Germany in the 1930's, she understood that her life and that of her fiancé were in danger. The letter survived, but, like too many, Betty and Martin did not.

Todd Singer asked his class to help him research and find out what happened to Betty. The class worked persistently to search for information, and also to search for a living relative, to whom they would present the letter. Malka Weisberg, from Yad Vashem, assisted their continued search and using the ITS Tracing Service, a living relative was found in Australia -  Andrew Blitz - who then connected the class with his sister, Suzanne, in Florida.

"The search for a living relative of Betty Erb, who together with her husband, Martin, was murdered in Auschwitz, began as Todd Singer taught his class about the Holocaust," noted Weisberg. "Todd showed the class a letter, which Betty wrote to an Erb in the United States asking for his help. She did not know if they were related but she tried anything as her situation became desperate.   From there, the class embarked on a journey of discovery.   They used the Yad Vashem website and found out that Betty and Martin had been murdered. They then decided to find a relative, to whom they would present the letter. They wanted to make sure the memory of Betty and Martin would survive. They unraveled information about an individual, but through this learned about an entire nation, hunted down and murdered because they were Jews.  Anyone can search our database, as we continue to digitize the 179 million pages of documentation contained in our Archives.  The students at East Henderson High School found Betty's information through our website. They could not find Pages of Testimony filled out about them, because tragically, there was no one close to them who survived to fill them out. They turned to us and we continued the search where they left off."  

The culmination of this memorable project took place yesterday as the students, who vowed to remember Betty Erb and Martin Selling, filled out Pages of Testimony in their memory that will be kept at Yad Vashem. 

Blitz, Erb's relative, said, "We are now able to gift the legacy of remembrance to Betty Erb…When we commemorate the victims of the Holocaust we will incorporate memorial prayers to her, recall her plight, and stand in honor of her testimony. (The students') gift to us is not just history, but the recovery of memory itself that would otherwise have been lost from our world."

The original letter was presented to Betty's relatives, who have generously decided to donate the letter to Yad Vashem's Archives, where it will be preserved for generations to come.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Son of Albanian Righteous Among the Nations and Albanian Minister of Agriculture Visits Yad Vashem

Today, Albanian Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Edmond Panariti visited Yad Vashem. His visit was especially meaningful to him because his relatives were honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. Yad Vashem posthumously honored Isuf and Niqi Panariti from Albania, as Righteous Among the Nations in October 2014. Edmond Panariti, along with his relative, Dr. Agron Panariti, son of the Righteous, toured the Holocaust History Museum, participated in a memorial ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance, and visited the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations where their family members names are inscribed on the wall. Panariti was very grateful and expressed how proud he is of his family and their "small contribution" to humanity. It was very exciting for the Panaritis to see their family members names inscribed on the wall of honor. He said that he was also very impressed by his visit here at Yad Vashem and hopes to help continue to spread the importance of remembering the past and the Holocaust.
Isuf and Niqi Panariti
When the deportations of Jews from Thessaloniki began in March 1943, Mari and Eli Kuonne managed to escape with their daughter Frida, born 1931. Their other daughter, Medi, was married to a non-Jewish hotel owner, who used his connections to arrange for his in-laws to leave the city. (His wife stayed behind and was under the protection of her husband, a non-Jew). He contacted an Albanian businessman, Isuf Panariti, who was in Thessaloniki on business, and who smuggled the family of three over the border and then hosted them in his home in Korca. When the Germans occupied Albania in September 1943, the Kuonnes first hid at the home of Panariti, and then Eli Kuonne joined the partisans, and his wife and daughter moved to a remote village where they stayed with Niqi Panariti’s family.

Edmond Panariti and Dr. Agron Panariti
 at the Garden of the Righteous
When Albania was liberated in October 1944, Eli Kuonne returned from the partisans and the family returned to Thessaloniki. The Jewish quarter had been completely destroyed and their families had been murdered. The Kuonnes rebuilt their lives in Thessalonki, and in 1954 Frida married Jewish businessman Isaac Matalon. Throughout the years Frida maintained a correspondence with the Panaritis, but meetings were impossible because of the isolationist policy of the communist dictatorship. Despite all requests to meet, in 1980, after Isuf Panariti passed away, Isaac Matalon petitioned the Albanian Foreign Ministry, asking that his wife be permitted to visit Isuf’s widow, Niqi Panariti “who had saved her during World War II”. The request was turned down, and Niqi, who passed away in 1992, and Frida never met again.

A ceremony honoring the Panaratis will take place in Tirana, Albania in July 2015. The Panaritis are one among 75 Righteous honored as Righteous Among the Nations from Albania.

For more information about the Righteous Among the Nations:

Monday, April 27, 2015

Holocaust Commemoration in South Africa

By: Yiftach Ashkenazy 

Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day in Israel is a day that usually focuses on  the memory of the Holocaust in Israel, however this year I wanted to highlight the work that has been done in a country that we typically don’t think about—South Africa.

Holocaust survivor Tomi
I discovered Holocaust commemoration in South Africa when I arrived in South Africa during the week of International Holocaust Memorial Day in January. I had traveled on behalf of Yad Vashem and the Israeli Foreign Ministry to attend lectures held at various Holocaust centers in South Africa that included: Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. The lectures touched upon how Holocaust survivors have rebuilt their lives and on Yad Vashem's pedagogical philosophy. I met more than 5oo people and felt they had a strong connection to the Holocaust. I also had the opportunity to meet students from Orange farm. When I concluded my trip, I left with a good feeling and gratitude for the important work of the Holocaust centers in South Africa.

Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental with the Jewish
Women's Benevolent Soiety
When I returned to Israel I received a message from Marlene Bethlehem whom I met while in Johannesburg. She informed me about an important event related to Holocaust commemoration that Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental, whom I met while on my trip, would participate. Tomi is a survivor of Bergen-Belsen Concentration camp. He was 9 years of age at the time and has since written a book called I Was A Boy In Belsen. He has spoken all over the world about his experience in Bergen Belsen.

The Nashua Children’s Children Charity Foundation and the Jewish Women’s Benevolent Society brought Tom to South Africa where he spoke in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. One of the remarkable events associated with his visit was a dinner at Investec in March where he addressed 250 people, including the Israeli Ambassador. The evening commenced with a very unusual musical item. The MC Garbai School from Lenasia, a Muslim school for hard-of- hearing pupils, played a selection of music on marimba instruments (traditional African xylophones).They then presented the South African anthem as well as Hatikvah in sign language for a Jewish audience.

I was touched by this special bridging of cultures. When I think about this event and the work alongside Yad Vashem in South Africa, I understand how important it is to remember Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day in Israel, in addition to other commemoration events around the world.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Faces of the Fallen

"Faces of the Fallen" is a volunteer project, established in 2012, to research the lives of fallen soldiers in Israel and complete the details engraved on their tombstones. Sponsored in cooperation with the memorial unit of Israel's Ministry of Defense, the project works collaboratively with Yad Vashem to research soldiers who were born in Europe and immigrated to Israel either prior to or immediately following the Holocaust. Yad Vashem serves not only a source of vital information about the soldiers' lives, but also helps shed light on the soldiers' family backgrounds and sometimes locate living relatives by making 
use of information in the Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names. 
Grave of Moshe Willinger
Many of the fallen in Israel between the years of 1940-1950 
were soldiers who immigrated before World War II. The majority of the families they left behind were murdered in the Holocaust. Other fallen soldiers were themselves survivors of the horrors of the Holocaust who were recruited into the army soon after their arrival and fell in the battle for Israel's independence. Often there is very little information about their experiences during the war or their family background. "Faces of the Fallen" is currently researching the lives of some 300 soldiers from Europe, mainly Holocaust survivors. Headed by Dorit Perry and Uri Sagi, project volunteers "adopt" soldiers and research their biographies in archives in Israel and abroad. 

The cooperation with Yad Vashem allows the project team to access archival
databases and learn more about the fallen soldiers. Thanks to information in Yad Vashem's Names Database, project staff were able to learn more about Moshe Willinger, a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, who fell in the line of duty on August 15, 1948 at the age of 20. Tracing the history of Brent Willinger, Moshe's father, volunteers found evidence that Moshe's sister may have been murdered together with her father. They also found the name of his mother, as well as further information about his family's experiences during World War II. During an emotional ceremony held on April 21, 2015 at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl attended by Moshe's cousins, his friends from the Bnei Akiva youth movement as well as the young volunteers who had tirelessly researched his story, Moshes Willinger's tombstone was replaced with a new stone containing all the updated information that was discovered.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Family Reunion

Today at Yad Vashem two cousins ​​who have found each other thanks to Yad Vashem's Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names met for the first time. It was a very emotional and unexpected meeting. The grandmothers of Tatiana Zuckerman of Moscow (66) and Shalhevet Sara Ziv of Kfar Sava (67) were sisters.

Shalhevet Sara Ziv with daughter Hadar Ziv Lahav 
and Tatiana Zuckerman in the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem
Tatiana came especially from Moscow to take part in an educator's seminar at the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, coordinated in partnership with the Holocaust Foundation based in Moscow. She believed all her life that she had almost no extended family, and that apart from her mother, Rachel Perelman (Milenki) (87), a survivor of the Minsk Ghetto and Auschwitz (who now lives in New York), and a very small number of distant cousins, no family members who survived the Holocaust. During her visit, Tatiana asked for assistance in searching Yad Vashem's databases to check for information about her family and their fate during the Holocaust. To her surprise Tatiana found a Page of Testimony on the Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names commemorating Tzeril Milennki, her grandmother who was killed in the Minsk ghetto. The Page of Testimony was submitted in 2011 by Shalhevet Ziv, a grandniece of Tzeril. 

 Yad Vashem staff helped Tatiana locate Shalhevet and through searches on Facebook- were able to connect Tatiana and Shalhevet. The two talked (with the help of a translator – since Tatiana speaks only Russian) and confirmed that they are in fact related. Shalhevet came to Yad Vashem the next morning (today) to meet Tatiana before she returns to Moscow on Tuesday. The two cousins were so thrilled to meet each other. Tatiana and Shalhevet immediately felt a strong family connection and talked for hours comparing their family narratives and history as well as their lives today. Shalhevet showed Tatiana the family pictures and documents that she had found over the years and explained how her grandmother, Sarah Milenki, Tzeril's sister, was murdered along with other Jews of her town in the synagogue in Rakov.
Shalhevet Sara Ziv showing a picture of her
mother to Tatiana Zuckerman at Yad Vashem

This was especially meaningful and poignant for Shalhevet who has invested many years and much effort investigating the roots of her family. As a tribute to her grandmother Sara who was murdered in the Holocaust, Shalhevet has made it her mission to share her family's legacy. After meeting with Tatiana, she is now able to continue and develop her research of the family tree, making corrections and additions based on information she has learned from her newly found cousin. She is preparing to publish a book based on her research, in which she was able to trace the roots of her family as far back as 1838. Tatiana feels that she has been given the gift of a family, "I cannot wait to share this discovery with my mother, she will be deeply moved to know that others survived. All these years we believed we were the only ones."

Shalhevet said elatedly with tears in her eyes to Tatiana, "You have a big family now in Israel!"

The other educators participating in Tatiana's seminar also joined to meet Shelhevet and take a photograph together. They were very excited for Tatiana and her discovery of her new family in Israel.
Teachers from the educator's seminar in the
Hall of Names at Yad Vashem 
The International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem serves as a world hub for Holocaust education, attracting educators from around the globe. Pedagogical materials and teacher-training activities are being constantly developed to create tailor-made programs for each visiting group, thus training an international cadre of educational leaders who continue to disseminate the School’s unique teaching philosophy across a variety of cultures. In 2014, the International School engaged with over 20,000 educators. Among its scores of pedagogical activities, the School conducted more than 150 long-term seminars and 370 teacher-training days.