Israel at 70: the drummer, the baker, the rescuer

Amin Alaev (R), 55 (R), Aviva Alaev (2nd R), 22, Allo Alaev (C), 85, Amanda Alaev (2nd L), 13, Ariel Alaev (L), 51, and Avraham Alaev, 7, pose for a photograph in their rehearsal studio in Rishon Lezion, Israel March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Amir Cohen

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – The cantor’s grandson came from Tajikistan. The baker, who survived Auschwitz, came from Czechoslovakia. The emergency responder is a sixth-generation Jerusalemite. Together in one land, they celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary on Wednesday evening.

Since 1948, Israel has been home to Jewish immigrants from around the world. And when they arrived in their new home, many stuck to what they knew, and who they knew, handing down family trades from generation to generation.

Dressed in a traditional Bukharan floral gown and embroidered cap, 85-year-old Allo Alaev plays the doyra – a central-Asian frame drum.

The Alaevs came to Israel from Tajikistan in 1991, one family among the 1 million Jews who have moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union since the fall of communism in 1990.

The master percussionist is accompanied by two sons and five of his grandchildren playing rhythmic, fast-tempo folk music on an accordion, violins and a darbuka drum.

“My father was a famous singer there, his father was a cantor and my mother was a famous doyra player. I learned how to play it from her,” said Allo, the family patriarch.

Israel’s cultural mix has been a boon. “It’s only made our music better,” said his son Ariel, 51. “Music has no borders.”

Amit Dagan (R), 55, Hadar Dagan-Abeles (2nd R), 28, Baruch Dagan (C), 45, Bat-Sehva Dagan (2nd L), 77, and Mordechai Dagan, 49, pose for a photograph with a picture of the family's late patriarch Yehezkel Dagan (1937-2016), at Hishtil Nursery in Nehalim, Israel March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Amit Dagan (R), 55, Hadar Dagan-Abeles (2nd R), 28, Baruch Dagan (C), 45, Bat-Sehva Dagan (2nd L), 77, and Mordechai Dagan, 49, pose for a photograph with a picture of the family’s late patriarch Yehezkel Dagan (1937-2016), at Hishtil Nursery in Nehalim, Israel March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

BREAD OF GENERATIONS

Keeping a family trade has provided a sense of stability for some Jewish immigrants who survived the Holocaust.

Jolanda Wilheim came to Israel in 1949, after she and her husband had been in the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz.

Their daughter, Myriam Zweigenbaum, said her father’s father had owned a bakery before the war, so when her parents moved to a new land where they had nothing else to fall back on, they drew on family knowledge to start their own bakery.

Wilheim, 96, still works in that small bakery in central Israel, with her daughter and two granddaughters.

“I feel I’m living out what it was that the Nazis had tried to cut down more than 70 years ago,” said Wilheim’s granddaughter, Keren Zweigenbaum, 38.

Despite the wars that Israel has fought with its Arab neighbors – and the still-unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict – Israel is seen by many Jewish immigrants as a safe haven in the Middle East.

The oldest Israelis remember the anti-Jewish sentiment that swept through the Middle East in the middle of the 20th century, fanned by Arab nationalism and anti-colonialism. The turmoil saw entire Jewish communities leave countries in which they had lived for centuries, even millennia.

That flight only accelerated after the establishment of Israel and the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, which fueled anger across the Arab world at the plight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes during the conflict.

The fate of those Palestinians – the vast majority of whom have never been able to return – is inextricably linked with that of Israel. The events of 70 years ago that Israelis celebrate are cause for mourning among Palestinians, who commemorate them as the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”.

CHARITY AND CARE

But not all Israelis are newcomers. David Weissenstern’s ancestors have been in Jerusalem for six generations. They were among the first families who moved out of the walled Old City in the 19th century, and built the first Jewish neighborhoods outside it.

Weissenstern, his son and grandson are part of Zaka, an Israeli emergency rescue and recover organization. Most of its volunteers, like him, are ultra-Orthodox Jews. Often first on the scene of car accidents and militant attacks, one of their tasks is to collect the body parts of victims, to ensure their proper burial.

“Treatment of the dead is one of the greatest Jewish edicts,” said Weissenstern, 71. His family, he said, has always kept communal Jewish edicts of charity and care for the other:

“If you make a dollar more or a dollar less, that’s less important. What matters is what you’ve given to others.”

By contrast, Aharon Ben Hur, 84, only came to Israel in 1951 from Iraq, once home to one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the Middle East.

Ben Hur’s father and young brother were among 180 Baghdad Jews killed in 1941, in a pogrom known as the Farhud. He now runs two falafel restaurants in Tel Aviv, with his son and grandson.

“In Iraq, as a boy, my parents suffered,” he said. “When we came to Israel, it was another life.”

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Kevin Liffey)

Polish lawmakers back Holocaust bill, drawing Israeli outrage, U.S. concern

Israel's Ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari, is seen after a meeting with Poland's Senate Marshal Stanislaw Karczewski, in Warsaw, Poland January 31, 2018.

By Justyna Pawlak and Lidia Kelly

WARSAW (Reuters) – Polish lawmakers approved a bill on Thursday that would impose jail terms for suggesting Poland was complicit in the Holocaust, drawing concern from the United States and outrage from Israel, which denounced “any attempt to challenge historical truth”.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) says the bill is needed to protect Poland’s reputation and ensure historians recognize that Poles as well as Jews perished under the Nazis. Israeli officials said it criminalizes basic historical facts.

The Senate voted on the bill in the early hours on Thursday and it will now be sent to President Andrzej Duda for signature.

“We, the Poles, were victims, as were the Jews,” Deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, a senior PiS figure and supporter of the law, said on Wednesday before the vote. “It is a duty of every Pole to defend the good name of Poland. Just as the Jews, we were victims.”

Under the proposed legislation, violators would face three years in prison for mentioning the term “Polish death camps”, although the bill says scientific research into World War Two would not be constrained.

Israel “adamantly opposes” the bill’s approval, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.

“Israel views with utmost gravity any attempt to challenge historical truth. No law will change the facts,” ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said on Twitter.

Israeli Housing Minister Yoav Galant, one of several cabinet ministers to denounce the bill, told Israel’s Army Radio that he considered it “de facto Holocaust denial”.

The bill has come at a time when rightwing, anti-immigrant parties like PiS have been in the ascendancy in Europe, especially in the former Communist countries of the east. EU officials have expressed alarm over the PiS administration in Poland, which they say has undermined the rule of law by exerting pressure over the courts and media.

The ruling PiS, a socially conservative, nationalist group, has reignited debate on the Holocaust as part of a campaign to fuel patriotism since sweeping into power in 2015.

The U.S. State Department said the legislation “could undermine free speech and academic discourse”.

“We are also concerned about the repercussions this draft legislation, if enacted, could have on Poland’s strategic interests and relationships,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, told Reuters it was likely to push Poland further toward nationalism and isolation.

“The president will have to sign it – otherwise it would mean he is giving into international pressure. But the external criticism will, of course, push the government further into the position of a besieged fortress, strengthening both the nationalistic rhetoric…and the nationalistic mood in the country.”

PAINFUL DEBATE

Poland had Europe’s largest Jewish population when it was invaded by both Germany and the Soviet Union at the start of World War Two. It became ground zero for the “Final Solution”, Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews.

More than three million of Poland’s 3.2 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, accounting for around half of the Jews killed in the Holocaust. Jews from across Europe were sent to be killed at death camps built and operated by the Germans on Polish soil, including Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor.

According to figures from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Germans also killed at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians.

Many thousands of Poles risked their lives to protect their Jewish neighbors; Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust center recognizes 6,706 Poles as “righteous among nations” for bravery in resisting the Holocaust, more than any other nationality.

But Poland has also gone through a painful public debate in recent years about guilt and reconciliation over the Holocaust, after the publication of research showing some Poles participated in the Nazi German atrocities. Many Poles have refused to accept such findings, which have challenged a national narrative that the country was solely a victim.

A 2017 survey by the Polish Center for Research on Prejudice showed that more than 55 percent of Poles were “annoyed” by talk of Polish participation in crimes against Jews.

Poland has long sought to discourage use of the term “Polish camps” to refer to Nazi camps on its territory, arguing that the phrase implies complicity.

European Council President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and political foe of the PiS, said the bill had the opposite of its intended effect, tarnishing Poland’s name and encouraging the view of history it aimed to criminalize.

“Anyone who spreads a false statement about ‘Polish camps’ harms the good name and interests of Poland,” Tusk said on his private Twitter account. “The authors of the bill have promoted this vile slander all over the world, effectively as nobody has before.”

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams in JERUSALEM, Mohammad Zargham in WASHINGTON, Gabriela Baczynska in BRUSSELS and Marcin Goettig in WARSAW; Writing by Justyna Pawlak and Lidia Kelly; Editing by Peter Graff)

Court rules Nazi death camp ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’, 96, must go to jail

Oskar Groening, defendant and former Nazi SS officer dubbed the "bookkeeper of Auschwitz" leaves the court after the announcement of his verdict in Lueneburg, Germany, July 15, 2015.

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany’s constitutional court has ruled that a 96-year-old German must go to jail over his role in mass murders committed at the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz during World War Two, refusing to overturn a lower court ruling.

Oskar Groening, known as the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz” for his job counting cash taken from the camp’s victims, was sentenced to four years’ jail in 2015, but wrangling over his health and age have delayed the start of his sentence.

The constitutional court rejected the argument by Groening’s lawyers that imprisonment at his advanced age would violate his right to life, adding that the gravity of his crimes meant there was a particular need for him to be seen to be punished.

“The plaintiff has been found guilty of being accessory to murder in 300,000 related cases, meaning there is a particular importance to carrying out the sentence the state has demanded,” the judges wrote, upholding the Celle regional court’s ruling.

There is no further appeal to the constitutional court’s ruling. The ruling does leave open the possibility that Groening could be released if his health deteriorates.

In a 2015 court battle seen as one of the last major Holocaust trials, prosecutors said although Groening did not kill anyone himself while working at Auschwitz, in Nazi-occupied Poland, he helped support the regime responsible for mass murder by sorting bank notes seized from trainloads of arriving Jews.

Groening, who admitted he was morally guilty, said he was an enthusiastic Nazi when he was sent to work at Auschwitz in 1942, at the age of 21.

He came to attention in 2005 after giving interviews about his work in the camp in an attempt to persuade Holocaust deniers that the genocide had taken place.

Some 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust carried out under Adolf Hitler.

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Alison Williams)

Dozens of survivors pay homage to victims of Auschwitz

Survivors walk in remains of Nazi German concentration camps

OSWIECIM, Poland (Reuters) – Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and some of the last survivors of Auschwitz paid homage to the victims of the Holocaust on Friday, 72 years after the Nazi death camp was liberated in the final throes of World War Two.

At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe, Szydlo told dozens of people gathered in the camp that the suffering of the victims was a “wound that … can never be healed and should never be forgotten”.

“No one can understand this suffering,” Szydlo said. “I want a message to go out again from this place today that what happened in this German camp was evil … An evil that can be overcome with good. Memory and truth are our responsibility, they are our weapons against evil.”

Nazi German occupation forces set up the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Oswiecim, around 70 km (45 miles) from Poland’s second city, Krakow.

Between 1940 and 1945, Auschwitz developed into a vast complex of barracks, workshops, gas chambers and crematoria.

More than a million people, mainly European Jews, were gassed, shot or hanged at the camp, or died of neglect, starvation or disease, before the Soviet Red Army entered its gates in early 1945 during its decisive advance on Berlin.

Szydlo’s conservative government worries that the world will forget that Auschwitz was a German camp, and has launched a campaign against any mention of “Polish death camps” in international media.

Of the six million Jews who died during the Holocaust, about half had been living in Poland.

(Reporting by Janusz Chmielewski; Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Lidia Kelly and Kevin Liffey)

Auschwitz museum recovers thousands of long-lost items

Belongings of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners are presented during a news conference at the Auschwitz Birkenau State Museum in Oswiecim

OSWIECIM, Poland (Reuters) – More than 16,000 personal items belonging to victims of wartime Nazi death camp Auschwitz have been recovered in Poland, decades after they were put away and then forgotten about.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau museum in the southern Polish town of Oswiecim said items such as jewelry, thermometers, cutlery, empty medicine bottles, keys and brushes had been discovered in 1967 by archaeologists searching an area where a gas chamber and crematorium had stood during World War II.

Described as “the last personal belongings of the Jews led to death in the gas chambers upon selection at the ramp”, the museum said they had been stored away in 48 cardboard boxes in the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw and left there until it tracked them down recently.

“These were items belonging to Jews from Poland, Hungary and from across Europe. They made their way to the threshold of the gas chambers with only their personal clothes, with their tiny bags,” museum director Piotr Cywinski told Reuters, calling the collection of items “a gigantic find”.

The museum was aware of the items because of a 1967 film showing the excavation and believes they were stored away to be studied. But in a statement the museum said that “a few months later, there was a political turnabout in 1968 and the communist authorities took a clearly anti-Semitic course”, referring to Poland’s former communist regime.

“The register of the museum collections only shows slightly more than 400 objects from these excavations. We were convinced, however, that it had to be much more,” Elzbieta Cajzer, head of museum collections, said in the statement.

“We began the investigation of several months by verifying archival documentation.”

The museum said its staff had managed to track down the last surviving members of the 1967 project and had brought the items to Oswiecim last week. They will now be checked and documented.

Between 1940 and 1945, about 1.5 million people, most of them Jews, were killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz-Birkenau in German-occupied Poland.

(Reporting By Reuters Television; Aditional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Former Auschwitz guard apologizes at trial; says it was ‘nightmare’

Defendant Hanning, a 94-year-old former guard at Auschwitz death camp, arrives for the continuation of his trial in Detmold

By Elke Ahlswede

DETMOLD, Germany (Reuters) – A 94-year-old former Auschwitz guard on trial in Germany apologized in court to victims on Friday, telling them he regretted being part of a “criminal organization” that had killed so many people and caused such suffering.

“I’m ashamed that I knowingly let injustice happen and did nothing to oppose it”, said Reinhold Hanning, a former Nazi SS officer, seated in a wheelchair in the court in Detmold.

Hanning is charged with being an accessory to the murder of at least 170,000 people.

Holocaust survivors, who detailed their horrific experiences at the trial which opened in February, have pleaded with the accused to break his silence in what could be one of the last Holocaust court cases in Germany.

Hanning finally broke the silence he kept over the course of 12 hearings, each limited to two hours due to his old age.

Reading in a firm voice from a paper he took out of his gray suit pocket, he said: “I want to tell you that I deeply regret having been part of a criminal organization that is responsible for the death of many innocent people, for the destruction of countless families, for misery, torment and suffering on the side of the victims and their relatives”.

“I have remained silent for a long time, I have remained silent all of my life,” he added.

Just before, his lawyer, Johannes Salmen, had given a detailed account of the defendant’s view of his life and particularly his time in Auschwitz.

In this 22-page long declaration, Hanning admitted having known about mass murder in the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

“I’ve tried to repress this period for my whole life. Auschwitz was a nightmare, I wish I had never been there,” the lawyer cited Hanning as saying.

The accused was sent there after being wounded in battle and his request to rejoin his comrades on the front had been rejected twice, he said.

“I accept his apology but I can’t forgive him,” said Leon Schwarzbaum, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor and co-plaintiff.

She said Hanning should have recounted everything that happened in Auschwitz and “what he took part in”.

Although Hanning is not charged with having been directly involved in any killings at the camp, prosecutors accuse him of facilitating the slaughter in his capacity as a guard at the camp where 1.2 million people, most of them Jews, were killed.

A precedent for such charges was set in 2011, when death camp guard Ivan Demjanjuk was convicted.

Accused by the prosecutor’s office in Dortmund as well as by 40 joint plaintiffs from Hungary, Israel, Canada, Britain, the United States and Germany, Hanning is said to have joined the SS forces voluntarily at the age of 18 in 1940.

Hanning on Friday said however that his stepmother, a member of the Nazi-party, urged him to join.

A verdict is expected on May 27.

Germany is holding what are likely to be its last trials linked to the Holocaust, in which more than six million people, mostly Jews, were killed by the Nazis.

In addition to Hanning, one other man and one woman in their 90s are accused of being accessories to the murder of hundreds of thousands of people at Auschwitz.

A third man who was a member of the Nazi SS guard team at Auschwitz died at the age of 93 this month, days before his trial was due to start.

(Writing by Elke Ahlswede and Joseph Nasr; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Former Auschwitz Guard Describes Camp In Detail

A former SS guard on trial in Germany has provided chilling details about the operations of the camp and the lives of those who were imprisoned there.

Oskar Groening is facing 300,000 counts of accessory to murder in connection with his service at the camp from May to July 1944 when Jews from Hungary were brought to the camp and almost immediately murdered.

Groening testified that during the time so many trains full of Jews were coming to the camp that they sometimes had to wait with doors closed while other trains were emptied and processed into the camp.  He testified about one night where he worked 24 hours straight on the ramp at Birkenau where the Jews were brought into the camp and it was “a busy shift”indicating there was non-stop arrivals of victims.

“The capacity of the gas chambers and the capacity of the crematoria were quite limited. Someone said that 5,000 people were processed in 24 hours but I didn’t verify this. I didn’t know,” he said. “For the sake of order we waited until train 1 was entirely processed and finished.”

A surprising part of the testimony was Groening contracting many survivors claims that the process was chaotic, saying it was “very orderly”.

“The process was the same as Auschwitz I. The only difference was that there were no trucks,” he said during the second day of his trial. “They all walked —some in one direction some, in another direction … to where the crematoria and gas chambers were.”

Survivors and their families said they would be satisfied with any confessions given by Groening.

“I’m going to take whatever confession he gives —it’s better than no confession,” survivor Eva Kor, 81, told reporters. “Maybe this is the best thing he has ever done in his life. Isn’t that sad?”

Auschwitz Survivors Warn Of Rising Anti-Semitism

The 70th year since the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp was marked with a solemn memorial by almost 300 survivors of the camp.

A million people were killed during the Holocaust at Auschwitz.

The event was an uneasy gathering for the survivors who say they see similar anti-Semitic violence in Europe and warn that it is still on the rise.

“We survivors do not want our past to be our children’s future,” survivor Roman Kent told the BBC.

“Once again young Jewish boys are afraid to wear yarmulkes [skullcaps] on the streets of Paris, Budapest, London and even Berlin,” added Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress.

Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, who directed the Academy Award winning Schindler’s List, spoke at the event about how making that film and speaking to survivors changed his life and made him understand his Jewish heritage.  He also spoke about the rising anti-Semitism around the world.

“The most effective way we can combat this intolerance and honor those who survived and those who perished is to call on each other to do what the survivors have already done, to remember and to never forget,” Spielberg said.

The survivors said they will keep speaking out about the horrors of Auschwitz and the Holocaust until the day they die.

“I’ll do it for as long as I can. Why? There are still a lot of Holocaust-deniers the world over and if we don’t speak out, the world won’t know what happened,” said 85-year-old Renee Salt.