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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Reflections from Prague, Part 3 – Auschwitz/Birkenau: The Heart of the Beast

JPEF Education Manager Jonathan Furst recently returned from a trip to Prague for the ELMLE conference European International School middle-school educators. The trip included a pre-conference tour of the Terezin ghetto, and was followed by a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.

Following the trip to Terezin, I realized that my journey would be incomplete – I would be incomplete – until I went to the heart of the beast: Auschwitz-Birkenau. I arranged to visit a few days after the conference.

The first thing to know about Auschwitz-Birkenau is that it is cold. On the day I went, the temperature was -30˚ Celsius on a windless day. Even in thermals and a heavy coat I was chilled. I took my shoes and gloves off to pray for 20 minutes – days later, my hands were still chapped and my feet felt painfully cold. How anyone survived there at all is beyond my understanding.

Bikenau is one of the most desolate places on earth. 1.1 million people were murdered* – more than a thousand human deaths occurred every day for years. Truly a death machine.

They say that no birds and no animals ever strayed near, and no plants grew there during the Holocaust. And I believe it. The ground is barren – the ruins of barracks (destroyed by the Nazis’ attempt to erase evidence of their crimes) lie behind stretches of 13-foot high barbed wire. Electrified barbed wire: something about that still stuns and enrages me, the mere fact that someone could conceive of it.

My overall reaction, though, wasn’t rage. Or even shock or sadness (although I felt all of those). Unexpectedly, I felt a defiant pride. The Reich that was supposed to last a thousand years didn’t even last twenty. But we still live on, after four thousand years on this earth. “You’re gone,” I thought, “and we are here”.

And even here there was resistance – even the armed kind. Very few people have ever heard of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Revolt, when a group of Jews overcame the guards and destroyed one of the crematoria. (Tiny amounts of gunpowder were smuggled into the Birkenau death camp by women who worked in the munitions factory in Auschwitz). The ruins of the crematoria are simultaneously horrifying and inspiring to see in person.

And then there were the latrines. Dysentery was rampant, yet inmates who were in a constant state of diarrhea were allowed to go to the bathroom only at two or three fixed times of the day, and for no more than a few minutes. The latrine is a vast barn with hundreds of crude holes placed over a trench, side-by-side and back-to-back, to be used by 32,000 people a day. It’s the little details like this that bring the horror home.

The smell must have been asphyxiating. In an attempt to humiliate intellectuals and other ‘troublemakers’, the Germans would assign them the task of cleaning out the filth. But the job of ‘Scheissekommando’ was secretly considered an opportunity instead of a humiliation. Not only could the enslaved workers relieve themselves as often as they needed, but the guards would refuse to go in do to the stench, so this was one of the few places where Jews could talk without being overheard. Here is where the resistance organized and made plans.

Even in the most desperate conditions such as this, one could unearth stories of resistance. Most of them will never be known, but some still survive. To find out more, visit the following links:

*Until the end of the communist occupation of Poland, Birkenau was referred to as the place where 1.1 million Poles and other people, including Jews, were killed. Of those murdered at Auschwitz, approximately 75,000 were Polish. One million were Jewish.

All photos and videos taken by Jonathan Furst during his trip. Copyright 2012 JPEF.

Part 1 — Insights from the Prague International Schools Conference
Part 2 — Terezin: Healing Through Art and Storytelling

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Ralph Berger Shares His Impressions Of Speaking At Miami-Dade College

Ralph Berger, the editor of With Courage Shall We Fight and the son of Jewish partisans, recently spoke at Miami Dade College as part of Miami’s Holocaust Education Week. He shares his experiences our readers.


In February 2012, as part of Miami’s Holocaust Education Week, my brother Al and I were fortunate enough to have been asked to speak about the book we edited, With Courage Shall We Fight: The Memoirs and Poetry of Holocaust Resistance Fighters Frances “Fruma” Gulkowich Berger and Murray “Motke” Berger, which tells the story of our parents’ lives before, during and after WWII. The experience at Miami Dade College was one that neither of us will soon forget.

The College did a great job of publicizing the event. As we walked around campus, we saw posters announcing the event containing not only our pictures and the book cover, but one of the Bielski Brigade as well. The auditorium seated 350 people. We were quite surprised as students and professors kept coming into the room. More and more piled in. Extra chairs had to be brought in and some students wound up sitting on the floor. Unfortunately, some had to be turned away at the door.

As people were walking in, a slide show obtained from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum was playing. One professor then spoke about Jewish resistance during WWII and the Bielski Brigade in particular. He introduced the JPEF film “Intro to the Partisans.” Another professor introduced me and Al and had clearly read the book. He talked about our parents and the roles that they played in the Brigade.

This was one of the most attentive audiences we had ever seen. After our presentations, a professor came up to us and said that the “audience was so focused you could hear the proverbial pin drop.” The highlight for me came when one of the students read a poem of my Mom’s, “The Little Orphan.” He had a thick Spanish accent. Me and Al were “fahrklempt.” I could see my parents smiling.

Many of the students were from Cuba and Puerto Rico. They asked very heartfelt questions after the lectures. Though not Jewish, it was clear that they were engrossed in the story because so many of them could identify with parts of it - the universal story of resistance to oppression, fleeing from persecution and for a better life. I feel so lucky and so privileged to have been given the opportunity to help educate people – not only about the Partisans, but also about this very important chapter in Jewish history.

— Ralph Berger

Friday, April 27, 2012

Paintings by Mieczyslaw Watorski

Dear readers, we need your help! We recently received an email from a Holocaust Center on the East Coast about a duo of paintings someone recently donated to them. The paintings came from a collection of Holocaust artifacts owned by the parents (both survivors) of the donor. The artist’s name is Mieczyslaw Watorski, but little else is known about him, other than that both paintings were the 8th in a series of 8.

The first painting depicts the annihilation of the Krakow Ghetto:

The second painting shows the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising:

If you have any info about these paintings or the artist, Watorski, please email us at outreach@jewishpartisans.org.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Writing Contest Extended, Essay Suggestions for Students from Women Activist Think Tank

JPEF's 2012 Youth Writing Contest has been extended until May 10th! Please visit our contest page for more information, including best practices for students and teacher tips with useful ideas for using the contest in the classroom.

Devon Day of Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, CA recently sent us some of their own suggestions to help students choose a focus for the contest. This year’s topic centers on how the stories and life lessons of women partisans can inspire people today to make the world a better place.

Devon teaches Film Analysis to 150 students and is incorporating the contest into her curriculum. She asked a think tank of women activists to help her brainstorm resources and examples her students could use as inspiration in connecting the experiences of women partisans to contemporary subjects. Here are some key contemporary issues that the think tank came up with:

  • Modern resistance movements, particularly people resisting and fighting back against genocide
  • Contemporary women’s struggles for rights and civil liberties
  • Overcoming traditional gender roles (particularly women in the military)
  • Resisting/surviving sexual harassment and assault
  • Standing up to bullies and bullying
  • Risking your safety to helping others in need

Specific examples of such stories include Sunitha Krishnan who saved 11,000 children and women in India’s sex trafficking market and Dolores Huerta who worked with Cesar Chavez to bring rights to farm laborers and their families, and has expanded her foundation to work for gay rights, women’s rights and other causes.

Resources that could help inspire essayists include:

The Youth Writing Contest is a fantastic way to connect teens to the pivotal role the partisans played in history. When learning about the stories of the partisans, educators should encourage students to identify the main ideas and lessons from what they have researched through JPEF’s films and study guides. Then, educators can have their students relate these ideas and lessons to one of the ideas listed above, or other relevant issues in their lives.

We look forward to reading all of the contest entries and wish your students good luck!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Sonia Orbuch Q&A Webcast posted to Youtube

A recording of our recent Q&A webcast with Jewish partisan Sonia Orbuch is now available on Youtube! JPEF Executive Director Mitch Braff interviewed Sonia at her home this Tuesday, with over twenty schools watching the live stream. During the broadcast, students had the opportunity to ask Sonia questions via Facebook, email, and Twitter.

Watch the video below:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

JPEF’s Pictures of Resistance Exhibit Opens at UCLA Hillel

Pictures of Resistance, the Wartime Photographs of Jewish Partisan Faye Schulman opened March 15 at the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at UCLA Hillel. The exhibit includes 30 photographs from Schulman, the only known Jewish Partisan Photographer. JPEF Board Member Ada Horwich and her husband Jim hosted a private reception for JPEF’s Los Angeles stakeholders.

JPEF's Executive Director Mitch Braff gives a tour of the
organization's exhibit "Pictures of Resistance."

JPEF’s Executive Director, Mitch Braff, gave a private tour of the exhibit to the guests that included two Jewish partisans, Jeff Gradow and Martin Petrasek. Petrasek, a Jewish partisan from Slovakia who is featured in JPEF’s film “Antisemitism in the Partisans”, was impressed, “I have never seen photographs like this before. They are incredible.” (Petrasek is also the author of “Broken Promise”, which was turned into a feature film that JPEF co-produced in 2009.)

From left to right: JPEF Executive Director Mitch Braff,
Board Member Ada Horwich, Jewish partisan and JPEF
Advisory Board Member Martin Petrasek, and Jim Horwich

The exhibit is on display at UCLA through April 30. A second copy of the exhibit is also on display at the University of Illinois in Springfield, where Braff spoke at a reception for the exhibit on April 9. For more information, click here.

Monday, April 9, 2012

V’he Sheamda - The Promise To Take A Stand

In Jewish schools and homes everywhere, teachers and parents are preparing their children for the Passover holiday and the celebration of the Jewish people’s deliverance from the bondage of slavery. They are encouraging the youngest to recite the ma nishtana (the four questions) and engaging the older students in the retelling of the Exodus from Egypt. The celebration of Passover lends itself to one of the most significant learning experiences a Jewish child can have and one that is forever imprinted in his/her mind and heart.

On Passover, even while we celebrate our freedom from slavery thousands of years ago, we recite v’he sheamda and are reminded, “in every generation there are those who have risen against us to destroy us.” Last week we were brutally reminded of this declaration when Rabbi Jonathan Sandler (z’’l), his two sons Aryeh and Gavriel (z’’l), and a third student, Miriam Monsonego (z’’l) were gunned down as they entered Ozar Ha Torah Jewish Day School in Toulouse, France.

Rabbi Sandler was a devoted Jewish scholar who dedicated his life to instilling a passion for learning and a love for Judaism in every child. He spent several years studying and teaching in Israel and was a fervent advocate for bringing a quality Jewish education to children with learning disabilities. He returned to France a few years ago to teach in the same Jewish day school he attended as a child. In 2010, Rabbi Sandler participated in a seminar on Holocaust Education at Yad Vashem, where he asked penetrating questions and sought innovative ways to approach Holocaust education. Although, one of many participants, Rabbi Sandler left an indelible impression, declaring that his goal as a Jewish educator was to “educate the next generation to act as moral human beings.”

Sadly, there are three Jewish children who will never again ask “Why is this night different from all other nights?” and with the loss of Rabbi Sandler, thousands of others who will not learn the answer to this question under his gentle guidance. In the wake of this knowledge, our responsibility as Jews becomes increasingly clear. We are citizens of free countries and have the right, and therefore the obligation to speak out and to act. It is our duty to defend the vulnerable, challenge the aggressor and protect and promote human rights and human dignity everywhere. As we take up this charge, we draw courage from ancient Jewish heroes like the Maccabees and more recent inspiration from the Jewish partisans, who in the face of insurmountable odds, fought back against the Nazis to save thousands of lives and help bring an end to the Holocaust. We are empowered by the rebellion of those in the Warsaw ghetto, who on the first day of Passover, April 19, 1943, launched an uprising against their attackers that lasted until September – longer than both France and Poland were able to stave off German occupation.

Interfaith rally after the shootings (credit: AFP)

As we begin our own holiday preparations, we mourn for Rabbi Sandler, a lover of our tradition and for his children and students who will never again gather around the Seder table, nor grow to adulthood and experience the fullness of life. We stand together, shaken by an act of hatred and with a renewed awareness that as Jews we must be vigilant in combating antisemitism and tyranny wherever it breeds.

The Exodus from Egypt is widely regarded as one of the most significant events in the history of the Jewish people and Exodus 13:8 commands us to tell the story to our children so that it is passed from generation to generation. In fact the word Haggadah is derived from the verb “to tell.” Recounting the Passover story is the basis for the education of children in each generation to acquire the social and ethical values of the Jewish people. On Friday night, when you sit down at your Seder table and begin to read from the Passover Haggadah not only will you perform a mitzvah (commandment) but you will take the first step in fulfilling Rabbi Sandler’s dream to educate the next generation to act as moral human beings.

Chag Sameach.

-Sheri Pearl

Sheri Pearl is JPEF's Director of Development and holds two degrees in Judaic Studies from UCLA and Brandeis University.