Did Jewish Values Die with the Six Million?

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How can you be a Jewish state when you have no Jewish values? Do we need to quote Tanach and Talmud to remind ourselves of the Jewish values that have been ingrained on our souls since we were tykes? Don’t we do that every week in the synagogue? Is anyone listening? Isn’t Israel supposed to be, you should forgive the expression, the Mecca of Diaspora Jewry?

So why is it that fewer and fewer Jews care about Israel? Maybe it is because they don’t like what they see in a host of Israeli policies, from making nice with some of the vilest governments in the world to treating refugees from genocide like criminals. It is something that is hard to wrap your head around. As hard as trying to understand how rabbis in New York refuse to let victims of child abuse dial 911 without their permission.

Who are the people throwing rocks through black-owned shop windows in Tel Aviv and setting fire to Eritreans in Jerusalem? People who were educated in the Land of Yad Vashem? How many billions did we spend trying to teach people how to live together and prevent genocide? As Jews and as a Jewish community, we yell “hate crime” every time someone looks at us cross-eyed, denies the Holocaust, or paints a swastika on a wall, including at Yad Vashem in early June. In the meantime, we Jews treat each other, our children, and the strangers among us like we are less than worthless.

Did the Six Million die for nothing? They had faith in a free, democratic and ideal state of Israel that would be the salvation of the world. Ani Mamin they sang in the Ghettos and camps. Hatikvah was on their lips together with the Shma as they went to the gas. We sing those songs on Yom Hashoah along with the Partisaner Hymn and Kaddish.

Where is that land of Israel, the land of Jewish values and ideals? Today it’s a place where Israeli government officials tell the big lie about North Africans, and prevent their own people from protesting peacefully. Government officials said that these refugees from genocide are raping Israeli women, giving them AIDS, and are a cancer on Israeli society. And they are deporting them back to their countries of origin with ugly rhetoric and violence reminiscent of Kristallnacht.

The ideal Israel in our souls, the Israel of blue skirts and embroidered blouses, of campfires and idealism, only exists in our imaginations. As a student of history, not bubbeh mayses, the story of the birth of Israel, the story of how the Jewish community behaved before, during and after the war in Mandate Palestine, in Europe, in America, in community after community–except for a handful of people who put themselves on the line in the attempt to rescue Jews–is not a pretty story.

The fictional Ari Ben Canaans of Exodus and the Rabbi Michoel Wiessmandls were rare characters. The Israeli right wing murdered the man who saved my mother and thousands of others during the Holocaust. To this very day, the behavior of the established Jewish communities in the secular and denominational world is shameful–from the treatment of the North Africans, including Ethiopian Jewry and women in Israel and everywhere else where they are forced to sit in the back, not drive, not go to school, etc.(in the organizational Jewish world there is equal work, not equal pay and glass ceilings) to the decades of covering up child abuse and domestic violence everywhere. And if anyone tells you that women in Judaism are free, look them in the eye and say “Agunot.”

The typical American Jew looks on, aghast, as Israel self-immolates in front of Diaspora Jewry, and Diaspora Jewry faces its own house of horrors. So much for being a light unto the nations. So much for the lessons from the Holocaust. So much for Jewish values. How the hell did we become the monsters we teach our children not to be. How can we, just four generations after the Holocaust, remain silent in the face of our leaders’ moral bankruptcy? How can we tolerate it when a Jew calls another Jew a Nazi? How can we tolerate it when our own people behave the way they do?

Maybe Jewish values died with the Six Million. Maybe that’s when Jewish leadership died. Elie Wiesel once said, “Jeanette, don’t wait for leaders. Be your own leader.”

Listen to Wiesel. Speak truth to power. If you don’t like what you see in the Jewish community, don’t wait for someone to lead you. Pick up a phone, post something to facebook, make your voice heard. Protest and demand the end of hypocrisy. Be your own leader.

I.B. Singer Festival in Warsaw

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click on the image to enlarge it, and use the magnifying glass if you still can’t read the type!


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On the Friday night immediately after Rosh Hashanna, my son Dan called for Shabbat dinner at Occupy Wall Street. There were about 25-30 of us who made kiddush, ate cholent (translates these days into vegetarian chili), had tuna fish instead of gefilte fish and drank lots of juice while eating home-made challah. When a CBS reporter found us under the sculpture on the northwest corner of Cedar and B’way, he didn’t want to know why we made Shabbat in Zuccotti Park. He didn’t care that there were ethical, principled reasons to have Shabbat at a protest, to sanctify a day by speaking out for justice. This guy wanted us to be hippies having pot luck dinner. Sorry we didn’t fit his stereotype. “I only have 10 seconds, no time for this Shabbat thing,” he said.

I was the senior in the bunch, and David Peel, a real hippie who hung with John and Yoko back in the day (and was singing Tevye’s greatest hits), was one person who asked me why I was there, as did a struggling freelance journalist. They both looked pointedly at my gray hair and my grandmotherly physique.

“I am here because when things were circling the drain, the banks wouldn’t renegotiate our mortgage. The credit card companies hiked their interest rates. My husband got sick and lost his job. And the co-pays on drugs have become obscene. My Nexium went from $30 for 90 pills to $640+ on a co-pay. Full price for that formerly $30 bottle is $1080. That’s why I am in Zuccotti Park. I marched against Vietnam in 65 (and married a Viet Nam vet). I marched in the Women’s Lib Parade in 1970, because my Orthodox Jewish husband refused to grant me a Jewish divorce for seven long and bitter years. I marched on behalf of Soviet Jewry and for the State of Israel. Now I am marching for me.”

In bankruptcy and foreclosure, after paying every bill for 21 years, we lost a state tenant in our investment/retirement home in Arizona and lost the house. Then clients bailed on us because they had no money, others canceled projects because of investments with Madoff and other shaky stuff. Now our home in New Jersey is underwater.

We write books, we edit books, we print books. We are a necessary niche market business. But the trustee for U.S. Bankruptcy court will not allow us to sell the books we print for our clients, let alone our used books, and is demanding $21,500 for the books I need to do my work, for the mementos of a full and not-boring life, for my beloved Brooklyn Bridge collection, and my Judaica. That’s why I go to Zuccotti Park and exercise my first amendment rights.

If anyone missed what the media says about people like me and my son Dan—they are saying we are young (I wish), smelly, nasty, ignorant know-nothings who do not believe in the system, we are criminals, etc. You really have to see the Jon Stewart take on this to see what they say about people like you and me. CLICK HERE.

We are not who the media says we are. We know who we are. We are those who struggle just to keep it together, to rescue something from everything we had ever worked for. And those of us who have parents watch them in the last days of their lives as they suffer along with us. And trust me—it is infinitely more difficult when those elderly parents are Holocaust survivors.

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Isaiah speaks for God, who essentially says, “Who needs you to fast and say all these prayers of repentance and offer me all of these sacrifices if you don’t take care of your widows, your poor and your orphans?”

That’s why it is precisely on Yom Kippur that I am with my son in Zuccotti Park. It is precisely here that I can, with a clear conscience, ask for forgiveness for selfishness, apathy and pride. I want people to understand that it’s not just about ATM fees and interest rates; it’s about human beings who are just like you and me. It’s about millions of Americans who are teetering on the edge of the abyss, and nobody out there with the means, the power and the vision wants to step forward and give us the help we need to survive as our American dreams turn into nightmares.

I knew it a long time ago, but you cannot, like Isaiah, be a prophet in your own hometown. Check out youtube.com. On May 1, 1979, Ayn Rand, the grand diva of the free market, was a guest on Donohue, who at the time had the only intelligent talk show on TV. My sister-in-law and I were in the audience. I wore a white dress and had long, black curly hair and big glasses. I was eight months pregnant with Dan, my son who called for Yom Kippur services at Occupy Wall Street. Rand and I had a knock down drag out with Donohue as referee, and it dominated the show. For Rand, it was all about keeping whatever you make, charity is a waste and it’s not the government’s job to protect anyone or give them a leg up, and how dare Donohue allow her to be attacked by hippies!

For me it was quite the opposite. When Donohue explained to me that according to Rand, corporations will do the right thing, I said that I didn’t believe that. “The more money you have,” I said to him, “the more power you have.”

Now, if anyone on Fox Not the News cares to show up at Kol Nidrei services at Occupy Wall Street, I would be proud to answer any questions intelligently. But I have learned, again, through bitter experience, that Fox never lets reality get in the way of Fox facts.


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On Tuesday morning, August 23, a group of about 20 survivors and 2Gs (Second Generation) took a trip out of Warsaw and into the countryside. It was 8 a.m., and Agneishka S. was our guide. We didn’t know what to expect and so we girded our loins for what we knew was going to be a rough go. First stop, Majdanek—a death camp pressed up against the edge of the city of Lublin, which for centuries until the Holocaust, was an incredible center of Jewish life and learning (learn more about Jewish Lublin through the centuries here.

View from the parking lot

Majdanek was opened on October 1, 1941 as a P.O.W. camp, became a death camp and was captured intact by the Red Army on July 22, 1944.

Where we were

During the 34 months of its operation more than 79,000 people were murdered there—59,000 of them Jews from Lublin and Warsaw—and the locals knew it. It was the only camp located near a major city and the Nazis had no time to destroy it before they ran from the Soviets.

You had to be blind.

I sat in the back seat of the bus, behind Isaac and Karen. Charley was upfront with other folks from his hometown, Detroit. He and I had gone to Bergen-Belsen in 1985 together to protest when U. S. President Ronald Reagan went to Bitburg to lay a wreath on the graves of the Waffen S.S.

When we pulled out of Warsaw, only a few of us knew each other, and I huddled near the window, feeling alone. Camera in hand, I was waiting to see what I could see from the window of this time capsule, a rocket shaped bullet of a bus that sped through the countryside. You could glimpse a bit of antisemitic graffiti scrawled on the walls, but not as much as expected. (I saw more in London in 2000 than I saw on the way to Lublin in 2011.)

Once we left Warsaw city limits, it was as if there were no suburbs. We went from city to country in a heartbeat. Little hamlets lined the two-lane road, until we came to little towns, where the road signs at the major intersections pointed to Reszow, Chelm, Bialystok, Wroclaw (Breslov to the Hasidim of Reb NaNaNa Nachman) and back to Warsaw.

Fields and forests on the way to Lublin


A glimpse of the woods where the ghosts live

Between the tiny dorfs with their neat little gardens, were the forests, but the bus was moving too fast, and the windows were too reflective to get good shots of the places where the ghosts of the partisans seemed to hide behind each narrow-trunked tree. The dense greenery I had seen from the plane separated fields and we wondered how so many managed to hide in these small places, worrying about the mushroom gatherers and others who wandered through the woods. Once in a while, a dirt road would disappear into the trees, which were densely packed between fields.

This is not the way to literary Chelm

We arrived in Lublin, a crowded city, and Agnieshka pointed out the castle on the hill. It was the same castle where Eta Wrobel, one of my favorite and feisty survivors, was held by the Nazis and then escaped into the woods. (Eta was a partisan from Lukow, who’d been betrayed for forging work permits and other papers.)

The Castle/Prison on the hill

Before we could even absorb the city or the castle, we pulled into a parking lot in front of a low-slung building that smelled like a urinal, and they made us watch a movie we didn’t want to see. Beyond the building were the watch towers and the barbed wire fences, as well as a chimney in the far distance. A gray stone wall said Majdanek, and to the right of that wall was a huge monument, a massive, massive block of concrete or stone mounted on pillars that dwarfed everything around it. And when you stood in front of it, off in the distance, about half a mile away, was something that closely resembled a flying saucer.

Gateway to Hell

It looked like we were the only busload of “tourists” in the place. A handful of people, speaking Polish, passed us by. I wandered off by myself. I didn’t like group pictures, and having listened to so many stories, seen so many photos (all in black and white of course), I didn’t think I really needed explanations of how a death camp worked.

I wandered into the disinfection showers, and pulled out a little prayer book I had “neglected” to give back to Isaac, who carried a few copies. I thought this would be as good a place as I could find for the moment, empty but for me, so I could whisper a few psalms for the health of my cousin, Libbie, in Jerusalem. Her dad had asked me to say prayers over the graves of our “great” ancestors—the “Gedolim,” the generations of religious leaders of the Jewish people for centuries before the Holocaust. As far as I was concerned, all those who were murdered in this terrifying place were Gedolim.


One Murdering Place of two

Where our people tried to live

Soon Charley (from Detroit), Isaac (from Boston), Karen (from Pine, Colorado) and the others walked in with the guide. We were led from the showers to two gas chambers—one run on diesel fuel and the other on Xyklon B. These were no underground gas chambers. They were right there, near the entrance to the camp. Welcome to Majdanek, welcome to the death factory, we have nothing to hide.

Tears ran free as we recited El Moleh Rachamim and Kaddish. It wouldn’t be the last time, not in that place or in others.

We moved on to the barracks—did I need to know the numbers? These barracks were not shades of gray, they were in trendy “earth tones,” which gave me a dose of cognitive dissonance. (That was going to happen a lot to all of us on this trip.) How many bodies were squeezed into each bunk? What rained down on you from the pallet above if its inhabitant did not live through the night? The stench would have been unimaginable, and the stove, the only source of heat, looked incredibly inefficient, so that people would freeze in the winters. The ventilation was minimal, so that people would suffocate in the summers. (The day we were there, the temperature was hovering in the 90s. and the sun was brutal.)

A Haunted Place

The gray gravel crunched underfoot and when we looked back, the massive monument looked smaller and less overbearing.

But we were nearing the crematorium, and the town of Lublin looked down at the camp with its implacable façade. I looked at Charley. He looked at me. “Do you watch HGTV?” I asked. “House Hunters International,” he said. “Rooms with a view,” I said. “Do they get a discount? Move to Lublin and get a view of rolling green fields? Beats me.”

What does it take to live here?

A place to pray

Inhumane Water Heater

The crematorium was ingenious. It was in perfect condition, as if you could go back to business on demand. The ovens were spotlessly clean, not an ash to be seen. The energy generated by them was used to heat water for the camp and officers’ quarters. Some asked what they used for fuel. “Coke,” said the guide.

“The real thing,” I murmured to myself, bitterly. Charley heard me and gave me a poke. “Let’s say Kaddish,” I responded. And we did.

As we were leaving, Charley and I looked out the back door of this place that was hell, at the blooming flower beds, in the bright sunshine, as the city’s windows stared back at us blankly, with the castle on the hill behind them.

So tastefully done.

I walked over to the “flying saucer” and looked down at tons of ashes and bits of bones. All that was left of those who passed through the gates of this place in my face was this pile of human remains, whose souls we could feel floating around us.

Vessel from an Evil Planet

The Ashes of Our Families

We said Kaddish once again, I prayed for Libbie, and we left for the city to look for some hope.

Save the Date: A note from Pierre Sauvage

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New York, Wednesday, November 16, 6:30 pm
On November 24, 1942, Rabbi Stephen Wise held a press conference announcing State Department confirmation that the Jews of Europe were being mass murdered. How did American Jews and their leaders respond to the crisis? Not Idly By—Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust, an award-winning new documentary by Pierre Sauvage (56 min.), presents the challenging testimony of Peter Bergson, a Palestinian Jew who led a determined and controversial American effort to fight the Holocaust. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion with Sauvage, historians Richard Breitman and Jonathan Karp, and other distinguished scholars, Sponsored by the Center for Jewish History, the American Jewish Historical Society and the Varian Fry Institute.
Not Idly By—Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust—click here to view 4 min. excerpt from the documentary

Most Americans—even many American Jews—believe that we didn’t know. Many assume that we couldn’t have done anything even if we had known. Meet Peter Bergson! A Palestinian Jew who had served with the nationalist Irgun organization in pre-Israel Palestine, Peter Bergson (born Hillel Kook, 1915-2001), had come to the U.S. in 1940. In America, this firebrand led what came to be known as the Bergson Group, whose strenuous efforts from 1941 to 1945 underscore just how much was known—and how much could have been attempted during those difficult years. Sometimes vilified at the time, Bergson remains a controversial yet relatively obscure figure in the history of America and the Holocaust.

The only documentary to draw on both existing filmed interviews with Peter Bergson, Not Idly By provides the riveting first-hand testimony of the charismatic and eloquent Bergson, who comments on the response to the crisis by non-European Jews and describes the Bergson Group’s determined efforts to fight the Holocaust. This notably included the fiery 1943 production We Will Never Die by Ben Hecht and Kurt Weill (Madison Square Garden, Hollywood Bowl), presented extensively for the first time in the documentary. Yes, this is a one-sided view of those times: Peter Bergson’s. Isn’t it about time we gave further though to that side?

Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street
New York, NY 10011
Ticket Sales $15 general, $10 CJH, AJHS members, seniors, students
Further information: Not Idly By – Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust


Fresh Headlines From the Crypt: ‘Bomb Auschwitz,’ Says Golda; FDR: No Way, by J. J. Goldberg, Jewish Daily Forward, Sept. 5, 2011
Pierre Sauvage’s response to the attack on the Bergson Group that is at the heart of the article:

Yes, Roosevelt was good for the Jews—the Jews of America. And yes, bringing a reluctant country into the war was a major Roosevelt accomplishment. And yes, to be sure, American Jews then did not have the power and self-confidence we acquired later.

But let’s start by being candid about the American response—and the American Jewish response—to the massacre of the Jews of Europe: we here all have skin in the game. We are talking, after all, about what our families did and didn’t do during that long crisis. The widespread and persistent eagerness to assert that “we didn’t know” and “we couldn’t have done anything even if we had known” is one measure of how powerful the taboo continues to be about the unacknowledged American experience of the Holocaust. J. J. Goldberg’s trivializing of the Bergson Group’s amazing determination to get the word out and to do something about it strikes me as merely a new attempt to keep the taboos in place.

As Peter Bergson puts it my documentary Not Idly By—Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust, “We couldn’t have stopped the Holocaust, we could have slowed the Holocaust, we could have made it an inefficient Holocaust. The people who made it efficient were the Allies who didn’t interfere. And the people who didn’t urge them to interfere were the [American] Jews.”

The fact is that we will never never know what might have been accomplished to rescue Jews in Europe since so little was attempted or even considered. For my part, I was born and sheltered in a tiny Christian area of France that defied the Nazis and turned itself into the very haven of refuge that America refused to be. My own life has thus taught me that collective will and action can be startlingly imaginative and dynamic even under the most trying circumstances. Where there’s a will, there is indeed often a way.

What the article also completely misses is that at this point, the discussion should be as much about us as it is about them. So many years later, are we at last willing to probe not only what happened here then, but our many evasions today about that experience? If we do not fully and forthrightly—and without smugness—acknowledge and dissect our share in past failures, are we not limiting our ability to act effectively in meeting the challenges of today and tomorrow?

Belatedly Recognizing Heroes of the Holocaust, The New York Times, Sunday, Aug. 7 (on the Bergson Group)
Bergson Group Activists Recognized At Yad Vashem-Wyman Conference, The Jewish Press, July 27, 2011
Historians Debate: Could More Jews Have Been Saved?, Jerusalem Post, July 17, 2011, on the Bergson Group conference at Yad Vashem on July 15 (excerpts from Not Idly By were shown)

Pierre Sauvage also draws on Not Idly By and the work-in-progress And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille in his illustrated lectures Learning Hope From the Holocaust: The Challenge To Us Of Holocaust Rescuers, and Did We Fight the Holocaust? Varian Fry and Peter Bergson.
Upcoming: Syracuse University, NY; York College, PA; Memphis, TN; Denver, CO.

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