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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Belarus Righteous Among the Nations Posthumously Honored at Yad Vashem

Yesterday at Yad Vashem, a special ceremony posthumously honoring Yelena Vorotchik (Schultz) and her mother Yefrosinia Grenko from Belarus, as Righteous Among the Nations took place. Mr. Yevgeniy Vorotchik, son of the survivor and the Righteous Among the Nations emotionally accepted the medal and certificate of honor on his mother's and grandmother's behalf. Yevgeniy was extremely touched to accept the award on behalf of his mother and grandmother in honor of their memory.

Yakov Meilachs, was born in 1921 in the city of Odessa. In 1939, Yakov was drafted to serve in the Red Army and after Germany attacked the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, he was sent to the front lines. A short while after, his unit was surrounded and he was captured by the Germans and imprisoned in a prisoner of war camp in Barysaw, Belarus. While at the camp, Yakov was in constant danger of death due to his ethnic appearance which gave away his Jewish identity. Therefore, he changed his name to Vorotchik, which was the family name of his neighbors in Odessa.  
Yelena Vorotchik with Yakov Vorotchik and children

Yefrosinia Grenko lived with her daughter, Yelena in Barysaw and worked at a cowshed of the German army unit that guarded the prisoner of war camp. Yelena came to help her mother milk the cows and took every opportunity she could to help the prisoners by smuggling food and tobacco. This is how Yelena met Yakov. During one brief conversation, Yelena mentioned to Yakov that he looks Jewish. Yakov revealed his secret and told her his real name, Yakov Meilachs, and that he feared that sooner or later his true identity would be discovered, and he would be killed. Yelena told her mother of her discovery and they both decided to help him. They bribed a clerk in the population registry to issue Yakov a fake identification card with the name Yakov Vorotchik in order to protect him while in the camp. Eventually Yakov managed to escape the camp and hid for several months at the home of Yelena and her mother, where they risked their lives to hide him. After the prison guards were replaced, and there was no danger of Yakov being recognized, he lived openly and worked at a factory. He continued to live with his rescuers, and was presented as Yelena's fiancĂ©.  After liberation, Yakov and Yelena were married and had three children.

After the war, Yakov began to search for his relatives in Odessa. His older brother was killed in battle, however his mother Zisla and his younger brother Lev survived. Acting upon his mother's advice, he did not change his name back to his original name, but instead kept the name Vorotchik for the rest of his life. He continued to live in Barysaw, and was recognized by the Jewish community as a Jew and never denied his Jewishness. Yelena and Yakov lived together for 47 years until Yakov's death in 1989.

Yevgeniy Vorotchik unveiling his mother's name on the Wall of Honor
with Mr. Vladimir Skvorsov
At the ceremony, Yevgeniy spoke fondly of his parents saying that they were wonderful people who worked a lot and loved each other deeply. Although they passed away, he is grateful for his growing family of 7 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren, thanks to these two brave woman who risked their lives to save his father's life. 

The ceremony was attended by Ambassador of Belarus to Israel, Mr. Vladimir Skvortsov, Director of the Department of the Righteous Among the Nations, Irena Steinfeldt, family including Yevgeniy's two grandchildren, Holocaust survivors, as well as members of the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous and teachers currently participating in a Russian speaking educators' seminar at Yad Vashem's International School for Holocaust Studies.

A memorial ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance was held where Yevgeniy rekindled the eternal flame, accompanied by his grandson who is currently serving in the IDF. The ceremony continued in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations followed by the awarding of the medal and certificate and the unveiling of Yevgeniy's mothers name on the Righteous Wall where Yevgeniy proudly took photographs with his family and friends.

For more information about the Righteous Among the Nations:

Monday, February 23, 2015

EHRI International Workshop at Yad Vashem: Holocaust Art – An Essential Tool for the Methodology of Constructing a Historical Narrative

Artworks created during the Holocaust, often intimate and fragile, at times extremely personal, can be viewed as important documents, written by means of artistic expression rather than with words. They constitute a most valuable tool for understanding the inconceivable reality of the Holocaust. A discussion of the methodology for integrating the visual into research and education about the Holocaust was initiated last week at Yad Vashem. The workshop raised the question of how to implement this approach in museums, classrooms and research.

The European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI) held an international workshop, organized by the Yad Vashem Archives and the Museums Division, from February 9, 2015 to February 11, 2015 in Jerusalem. The Workshop entitled "Holocaust Art – an Essential Tool for the Methodology of Constructing a Historical Narrative” explored the role of the visual arts in an attempt to build a historical Holocaust narrative, examining the phenomenon through an array of approaches. The workshop included museum directors, curators, scholars and leading experts from all over the world such as Germany, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, U.K., U.S.A. and Israel. Participants presented lectures on various topics within the framework of Holocaust Art, such as: the use of art as visual testimony; setting Holocaust Art in its historical context; the role of the artist as recorder of history; and, methodologies to investigate art looted by the Nazis and the Provenance Research Project.

Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett presenting the opening keynote address.
The opening session took place on Monday, February 9, 2015 with welcoming remarks from Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate. Shalev emphasized the importance of art on two levels: first, the interweaving of art as historical testimony in Yad Vashem's Holocaust History Museum, and second, the importance of seeing art and its creation, during the harshest of circumstances, as a component that preserved the artists' human spirit.

Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, Program Director of the Core Exhibition, POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, presented the opening keynote address, entitled "Felt Facts: The Role of Art and Culture in the Holocaust Gallery at POLIN Museum". In this presentation, she argued for a removal of focus from art specifically, to an emphasis on visual culture broadly defined.     
The closing session took place on Wednesday, February 11, 2015 with a round table moderated by Haim Gertner, Director of the Yad Vashem Archives Division and member of the Executive Committee of EHRI; Yehudit Shendar, Retired Deputy Director and Senior Art Curator of the Museums Division and currently with Yad Vashem's Provenance Research Project, and Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg, Curator and Art Department Director in the Museums Division. The participants expressed enthusiasm for having had the opportunity to exchange knowledge and ideas with colleagues in the intimate atmosphere of this first of its kind workshop and concluded that there is a need to continue the collaboration between researchers and the various institutions dealing with these important issues. In addition, they stressed the necessity to acknowledge Holocaust Art as part of the mainstream in the field of Art History. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Holocaust survivor, journalist and author Roman Frister passes away in Warsaw, aged 87.

Roman Frister was born in 1928 in the town of Bielsko, Silesia, the only child of a bourgeois, well-off family.  Roman was given a multi-cultural education, with access to books in German, Polish and English. His parents had intended to send him to a prestigious boarding school in London straight after his Bar Mitzvah. 

When the war broke out, Roman’s family lived under an assumed identity thanks to forged identity papers that Polish friends of his father’s managed to obtain for them.  When the Jews were forced into the Bielsko ghetto, the Fristers stayed at home, but eventually had to move to Krakow, where they continued to use their forged papers. 

Roman, who looked “Aryan”, felt secure walking on the streets of Krakow while all the city’s Jews, including his own grandparents, had been forced to move into the ghetto.  The 13-year-old Roman decided that he would find a way to smuggle his grandparents out of the ghetto. After monitoring the daily running of the ghetto, he managed to sneak inside bringing with him the clothes of a priest, a nun and a novice.  He found his grandparents, who were astonished to see him.  After much argument, Roman convinced them to exit the ghetto with him dressed up in the garments he had brought.  Roman’s act of rescue granted his grandparents a few more months of life:  on discovering them hiding in a village, the Nazis murdered them.

Roman and his parents were eventually caught after they were betrayed.  His mother was murdered in front of him in the Krakow prison, and he was deported with his father to several camps, including Plaszow and Auschwitz-Birkenau.  “Chance played a major role in my survival,” relates Frister “As long as I knew how to take my chance when it arose. Once, I was caught while in a camp.  The SS man drew his gun, but the bullet got stuck in the barrel.  Chance, right? But if I had stood around until he reloaded, he would have shot me.  I ran, thus helping chance to help me.  This is a trait that characterizes me till today,” he said in an interview with “Yediot Aharonot” in 1993.  In another incident, Frister stole a prisoner’s cap after his own was taken, thus buying his life at the price of another Jew’s death. “If human life is the ultimate value, shouldn’t one do everything possible to stay alive, even at the cost of another’s life? Who can judge whose life was more important?  My life is worth more to me than the life of anyone else.  I’m not holy.  I knew that if I didn’t do it, I’d die.  Even today, I think I did the right thing.”

In 1957, Roman immigrated to Israel and entered the world of the media.  He was a journalist for the Ha’aretz newspaper for many years, lectured in journalism at the university and wrote several books.  One of them, “The Cap:  The Price of a Life”, is an autobiographical account.

In his book, Roman recalls his father’s dying words, spoken as he lay on his bunk in the Plaszow labor camp:  “…I only ask one thing. Just one. That you be a human being. A fair person. That you don’t take the morality of the camps with you into your new life. That you don’t adopt the laws of the jungle. That you forget what you acquired here.  The necessity to lie and cheat and hurt others. The contempt for law and honesty. And promise me that you will never – you hear – never steal.”   

Roman Frister will be laid to rest on Wednesday, 11 February 2015 in the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Response from Yad Vad Vashem regarding the on-site taxi service

In order to prevent inflated prices for tourists visiting one of Jerusalem's most popular sites, Yad Vashem decided to arrange for an on-site taxi service. Several months ago, a tender was issued which according to Israeli law was advertised in an Arabic newspaper, thus enabling Arab taxi operators to participate in the tender."

Yad Vashem placed no precondition in the tender regarding the identity of the cab drivers. Three Jerusalem taxi services, made offers for the tender. The best offer was made by Hapisgah Taxis and therefore they were chosen.  It is important to note, that the Hapisgah Taxi service did not submit any documentation to the Yad Vashem commission stating that the taxi service has a policy against employing Arabs. After clarifying with the manager of Hapisgah Taxi, the service said that they have no such policy. The Israeli Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the Ministry of Economy is currently looking into this matter.