A scene from the documentary Martha, in which director Daniel Schubert is given a more appropriate shirt by his grandmother, Martha Katz. (Courtesy NFB)
Two very different scenes in the National Film Board of Canada’s short documentary film Martha – which will be released on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27 – combine to highlight the joy and pain that is life. Directed and co-written by Daniel Schubert, a grandson of the film’s subject, Martha Katz, there is a funny and relatable interaction where his grandmother questions his choice of shirt for the filming and provides him with a more appropriate one. This lighthearted exchange contrasts with the heart-wrenching tour that Katz takes with her grandson through the Holocaust Museum LA.
Born in Berehove, Czechoslovakia, Katz is 14 years old when she’s taken to the ghetto, then to Auschwitz. Both of her parents and two of her brothers were murdered in the Holocaust; she, along with two other brothers and two sisters, survived the concentration camps. She speaks, with emotions near the surface, about some of her experiences. The documentary is a mix of seemingly spontaneous moments, while other parts are scripted reenactments or prepared questions being asked and answered.
“My original idea for the documentary,” Schubert told the Independent, “was to track Martha and her two sisters’ incredible journey together through the ghettos and, eventually, Auschwitz. After Auschwitz, they were even forced to work at a German bomb factory together in Allendorf, manufacturing the bombs. The fact that Martha and her two sisters managed to stay together and survive through all of the horrors of the concentration camps, to me, was a miracle. I thought that would make an amazing documentary.
“But, as we developed it at the NFB, we realized that a more traditional cinéma vérité documentary could be a viable way to tell her story, too. I did not know many of the facts beforehand, so many of the things she told me in the film came as a surprise. My grandmother and I have a warm and loving relationship and I thought, why not show that on screen as I find out all of these amazing things?
“The other thing about my grandmother,” added Schubert, “is she’s hilarious. She’s the classic Jewish grandmother and I wanted that to come across. I wanted this to also be a real picture of a grandmother and her grandson and how we naturally interact.
“We also decided that in between these cinéma vérité moments would be cinematic vignettes narrated by my grandmother herself. There were many more amazing things she went through, but, due to time constraints, I picked those stories.”
One of the stories is how, after the war, in Vienna, his grandmother met and married Bill Katz, who had been in a labour camp. The couple went to Winnipeg, with $200 they had saved up. They had two children – Jack and Sharon – and struggled financially. It was his grandmother who suggested they go into business for themselves. She went to night school, then saw an ad for a grocery store for sale – she bought it, learning on the job. There are some wonderful photos and video in this part of the film.
It was her goal in life for her two children to have whatever they wanted and she talks about her happiness at having had them. “We had to have a life again,” she says, stressing that this doesn’t mean she doesn’t think about the Holocaust all the time, because she does – “I hope it should never happen again. That’s all.”
“Bringing her to the museum was a bit of a tough decision, but she encouraged us to go,” said Schubert. “The intention was to see whether there was anything new that she and I could both learn about the atrocities committed. And, as it turned out in the film, there was; specifically, about the excruciating length of time the gas chamber took, in some cases, to exterminate those poor victims trapped inside, including my great-grandmother and her young son. Suffice to say, it took way longer than expected, and neither of us knew how long they may have had to suffer inside.”
It was for health reasons that Katz, who is now 90 years old, moved to Los Angeles.
“My grandmother suffered from chronic bronchitis since the war and, because of Winnipeg’s frigid winters, the doctors advised her to move somewhere warmer, or else her life could be at risk,” explained Schubert. “My grandfather’s brother lived in Los Angeles, so they helped them get settled there. They came to Winnipeg from Europe in 1948 and moved to Los Angeles in 1964.”
The 22-minute documentary is dedicated to the memory of Katz’s older sister, Rose Benovich. The statement at the film’s end notes: “Her courage in Auschwitz is the reason I am alive today.”
The following article was published in the Globe & Mail, as “A Dutch family hid me from the Nazis: I owe them my life,” in advance of Remembrance Day, Nov. 11, 2020. It is reprinted here with permission, in recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27.
I can never pass Remembrance Day without reflection. This year, we marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands. It meant freedom for Dutch men, women and children after a brutal five-year occupation by German military forces. More than 5,000 Canadian soldiers rest in Dutch soil and are mourned and remembered there annually. They were our liberators and will never be forgotten, for Canadians and Canada are seared into the collective memory of the population. I myself saw Canadian tanks chasing German half-tracks down the streets of The Hague. On May 4, 1945, I was looking out the window of my mother’s small apartment, where she had been hiding. A man across the street opened his door one day too early. He was shot by a retreating German soldier. I was dragged away from the window. I was not yet 5 years old.
Unlike most Dutch children who began their lives anew after the war, I was a Jewish child hidden with Albert and Violette Munnik and their daughter, Nora, from November 1942 to May 1945. I became Robbie Munnik and was returned to my parents, who had miraculously survived, the only survivors of their families of origin. My grandparents, aunts, uncles and numerous cousins had all been murdered. For Jews, the postwar world offered precious little solace or hope: it was a world of death and of mourning. Liberation did not feel particularly liberating. Within that depressing atmosphere, I made the transition from Robbie Munnik back to Robbie Krell.
For this Remembrance Day 2020, I want to honour the memory of my Christian Vader, my second father.
When my mother passed me on to Moeder (Mother), who agreed to take me for a few weeks while she secured a hiding place, Vader accepted me without hesitation. Did he know of the risk to his family, hiding a Jewish child? If not in 1942, certainly he did by 1943. But, unlike many in this situation, he did not dwell on possible consequences. He simply set about loving me.
Early in my hiding, they allowed Nora to take me out, but that was a mistake. A woman recognized me. She happened to know my mother and asked Nora why she was looking after me. Vader contacted her immediately to ensure she remained silent. From then on, I was housebound. He read to me and made toys for me. His brothers and a sister all kept the secret of my presence. One slip could lead to betrayal. I was beyond lucky. Vader worked hard, loved deeply and enjoyed his hobbies, which included playing the piano by ear and carving wood and shaping metal. He was talented.
The danger increased. Only after the war would we learn that more than 80% of Dutch Jews were deported and murdered, primarily in Auschwitz and Sobibor. Of 108,000 souls sent to the death camps, only about 5,000 returned. And of about 14,000 children in hiding, more than half were betrayed, as was Anne Frank and her family in Amsterdam.
Because of his modest nature, Vader stands in danger of being forgotten. Of course, not by me. Unlike so many, including princes and popes, presidents and prime ministers, industrialists and intellectuals, he defied the Nazis and accepted the risk of my presence. So, while the names of the Nazis that murdered us linger on, as do the names of leaders who either did not lift a finger, or worse, actively prevented Jews from reaching safe havens, he might have been forgotten. So, I choose to remember him. In the hour of need, he included me in his life then and thereafter. His only reward was that I called him “Vader” and that he had, in addition to his daughter, a son.
In 1965, he and Moeder were brought to Vancouver by my parents to attend my graduation from medical school. My fellow graduates were drawn to him especially. He spoke no English, but the twinkle in his eyes spoke volumes. He was a people magnet. When they returned for my wedding in 1971, he fell ill shortly after and was briefly hospitalized at St. Vincent’s in Vancouver. There, he enchanted the nurses. When I came to visit, everyone on staff already knew him. They flocked to him. He radiated good humour and optimism. He did not know from anger, fear or bitterness. He hoped that I would not be consumed with anger over the Holocaust of my people, and that I would not turn away from Judaism or from Israel. And then, in 1972, he died. I do not know what he would have thought about the resurgence of antisemitism, the BDS movement and the antipathy toward Israel. But I can guess. And so can you.
But Vader will be remembered because Albert, Violette and Nora Munnik have been inscribed among “the Righteous” at Yad Vashem, the official site of Holocaust remembrance in Jerusalem. A tree planted as a seedling in 1981 grows at the site of the plaque bearing their names. And, in Vancouver, at Vancouver Talmud Torah Jewish day school, a sanctuary has been named in their memory and the entire story of their heroism lines the walls.
So, this year my memory is not consumed by what took place in Auschwitz and Sobibor, where so many of my family perished; this year, I will concentrate on remembering Albert Munnik, my Christian Vader, on Remembrance Day, and the Canadian troops that freed us.
Dr. Robert Krell is professor emeritus, department of psychiatry, University of British Columbia, distinguished life fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and founding president of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
On Dec. 9, the Honourable Rosalie Silberman Abella, a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, delivered the inaugural Elie Wiesel Lectureship in Human Rights. (photo by Philippe Landreville)
The Honourable Rosalie Silberman Abella, a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, last week delivered an emotional, scathing indictment of the world’s failures to live up to the promise of post-Holocaust human rights protections.
Abella, a daughter of Holocaust survivors who herself was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany, in 1946, delivered the inaugural Elie Wiesel Lectureship in Human Rights. She spoke Dec. 9 on the 72nd anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the day before the 72nd anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The promise of those documents – and the justice represented by the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals – has been betrayed and ignored, she said.
“These were the powerful legal symbols of a world shamefully chastened,” Abella said in the streamed virtual presentation. “But although Nuremberg represented a sincere commitment to justice, it was a commitment all too fleeting.”
As the West’s triumph over fascism gave way to conflict with communism, Germany transformed in the diplomatic imagination from an enemy conquered to a potential ally to be wooed, she said. Britain issued a communiqué to all Commonwealth countries to abandon prosecutions of Nazi war criminals.
“The past was tucked away and the moral comfort of the Nuremberg trials gave way to the moral expedient of the Cold War,” Abella said.
As the fight against communism eclipsed the fight for justice over past crimes, expedience led Western countries to welcome Nazi scientists and others to contribute to the military-industrial strategy – even as Jewish victims of Nazism, like Abella and her parents, sat stateless in DP camps.
To Abella, Nuremberg represented an acknowledgement of the failure of Western democracies to respond when they should have and could have.
“And so, the vitriolic language and venal rights abuses unrestrained by anyone’s conscience anywhere in or out of Germany turned into the ultimate rights abuse: genocide,” she said.
Some justice did in fact emerge in the aftermath of Nuremberg and remarkable progress has been made in some quarters, she said. “But we still have not learned the most important lesson of all – to try to prevent the abuses in the first place. All over the world, in the name of religion, domestic sovereignty, national interest, economic exigency or sheer arrogance, men, women and children are being slaughtered, abused, imprisoned, terrorized and exploited with impunity.… No national abuser seems to worry whether there will be a Nuremberg trial later because usually there isn’t. And, in any event, by the time there is, all the damage that was sought to be done has been done.”
Abella reflected on the preoccupation among jurists with the rule of law, noting that the atrocities of the Nazi era all took place legally under German laws. She said we should be focused on “the rule of justice, not just the rule of law.”
Itemizing the myriad genocides that have occurred since 1945, including ones happening now, Abella decried a lack of global will to confront atrocities before they occur.
“Clearly what remains elusive is our willingness as an international community to protect humanity from injustice,” she said, launching a broadside against the failures of the United Nations.
“It can hardly be said to have been the avatar of human rights we hoped it would be when it was created,” she said. “We changed the world’s institutions and laws after World War II because they had lost their legitimacy and integrity. Are we there again? Not so much because our human rights laws need changing, but because a good argument can be made that our existing global institutions, and especially the UN’s deliberative role, are playing fast and loose with their legitimacy and our integrity.”
She acknowledged the successes of some UN agencies, such as UNICEF, but lamented the body’s failures to meet its core objectives.
“The UN had four objectives: to protect future generations from war, to guard human rights, to foster universal justice and to promote social progress,” she said. “Since then, 40 million people have died as a result of conflicts all over the world. The UN eventually reacted in Libya and wagged its finger at Syria, but I waited in vain to wait to hear what it had to say about Iran, Venezuela and China, for example. Isn’t that magisterial silence a thunderous answer to those who say things would be a lot worse without the UN? Worse how? I know it’s all we have but does that mean it’s the best we can do? Nations debate, people die. Nations dissemble, people die. Nations defy, people die. We need more than the words and laws of justice. We need justice.”
Abella acknowledged the need to address climate change but suggested a moral climate crisis is upon us.
“We have to worry not only about how the climate is changing the world but how the moral climate is creating an atmosphere polluted by bombastic anti-intellectualism, sanctimonious incivility and a moral free-for-all,” she said. “Everyone is talking and no one is listening. We are rolling back hard-fought human rights for minorities, immigrants, refugees, workers and women.
Abella approached global justice through the eyes of a single family. Her parents were married in Poland on Sept. 3, 1939, the day the Nazis rolled over the border and as the Second World War began. Her parents spent four years in concentration camps. The brother she never knew was murdered at the age of two-and-a-half. The only survivors of her extended family were her parents and one grandmother.
“My life started in a country where there had been no democracy, no rights, no justice,” she said, struggling to maintain her composure. “No one with this history does not feel lucky to be alive and free. No one with this history takes anything for granted and no one with this history does not feel that those of us who are alive have a duty to wear our identities with pride and to promise our children that we will do everything humanly possible to keep the world safer for them than it was for their grandparents, a world where all children regardless of race, colour, religion or gender can wear their identities with dignity, with pride and in peace.”
Her own existence is a statement of the resilience of human hopefulness, she said.
“In an act that seems to me to be almost incomprehensible in its breathtaking optimism, my parents and thousands of other survivors transcended the inhumanity they had experienced and decided to have more children,” she said. “I think it was a way to fix their hearts and prove to themselves and the world that their spirits were not broken.”
Abella dedicated her lecture not only to Elie Wiesel, the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate, but also to Irwin Cotler, who introduced her prior to her presentation and who Abella called Wiesel’s “spiritual heir.”
Cotler, a former Canadian justice minister, is the founder and chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, which sponsored the lecture along with faculties of law at McGill University and the Université de Montréal, the Lord Reading Law Society and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute.
Cotler, who last month was appointed Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism, noted that Abella was the youngest person ever appointed to the Canadian judiciary, at age 29.
“She was the first refugee ever appointed to the judiciary and she was the first Jewish woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada,” Cotler said, noting that he was the justice minister who nominated her to the highest court. “She has been a remarkable trailblazer. A quintessential Renaissance jurist, public intellectual, educator and judge.”
Among Abella’s recognitions, Cotler noted, are 39 honorary doctorates.
Leslie Vértes shares a family photograph. Vértes is one of the survivors featured in the Montreal Holocaust Museum exhibit Witnesses to History, Keepers of Memory. (photo from Montreal Holocaust Museum)
Collective memory has always played an important role in Jewish life and traditions. For thousands of years, Jews have celebrated holidays, mourned loss and memorialized history together as a people. And, most often, we have done so in person.
We say Kaddish as a community, celebrate a bris among a gathering of peers and family and come together every year to retell over dinner the story of the exodus of the Jewish people from ancient Egypt. The 20th-century philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin noted, “All Jews who are at all conscious of their identity as Jews are steeped in history.” The late Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks expressed it another way: “Memory for Jews is a religious obligation.”
This past year has presented huge challenges for those institutions that strive to educate the public about history in general and, specifically, the Holocaust. During the pandemic, many museums and educational centres have been forced to choose alternative venues to connect with their members and the larger community. On Yom Hashoah and Kristallnacht, organizations across the world turned to recordings and interactive discussions in their effort to remind people that the Shoah’s messages remain relevant, even if their institution’s doors were temporarily closed.
Finding ways to continue that education and connection on a daily basis has required some creative thinking, said Sarah Fogg, who serves as the head of marketing, communications and PR for the Montreal Holocaust Museum. The museum, which was founded by Holocaust survivors, had been planning to launch a special photographic exhibit this year, highlighting the lives and wartime experiences of 30 survivors from the Montreal area.
“[The exhibit] was something that we had dreamt of for a really long time,” said Fogg. The museum had planned to narrate each of the stories visually using a triptych of personal images and the sharing of an artifact that the survivors had preserved: a father’s cap that he was required to wear at Auschwitz, a woman’s prayer book, an irreplaceable but tattered passport to freedom. But how could such stories be presented in the midst of a pandemic?
“The pandemic completely forced us to change, to rethink, to overhaul the plan we had for the exhibit,” said Fogg, who admitted there was a sense of urgency to the exhibit’s launch. Some of the speakers are now in their 90s and have already retired as volunteers. Plus, 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps (and the 41st anniversary of the museum’s founding). This year, 2020, was the ideal time to launch the exhibit.
“[The online presentation] is the result of many brainstorming sessions where we discussed … how we could present this exhibit in a way that is different to other portrait exhibits that have happened around the world,” said Fogg. “And so, the ‘triptych’ as we have been calling it, the three photos, was really the result of wanting to showcase more than one portrait of the survivor and really wanting to showcase their uniqueness and their personalities.”
Fogg said it was in the middle of one of the photography sessions that the staff suddenly realized what was needed to translate this photographic essay to an online presentation. It was the survivors’ own accounts of why their personal artifacts held irreplaceable significance. It was also the story of how they had survived and how it had transformed them, once they began their new lives in Canada.
“So often when we talk about the stories of Holocaust survivors, the narrative tends to end when they leave Europe,” Fogg said. “But there is so much more to talk about.” Many of the survivors, who were children or young adults when they arrived in Montreal, went on to raise a family. All became volunteer speakers through the museum and other organizations in order to educate people about the Holocaust. Some became published authors and teachers. All, Fogg said, became inspiring leaders of their community.
“If I had to summarize what the lesson or the inspiration would be for viewers, it’s resilience. I mean, not only are they incredible survivors who escaped the Holocaust, but they come to Canada, they build new lives, they start careers, they make families and they find happiness again. They are this embodiment of resilience.”
Taken on their own, the artifacts tell dozens of unique and often heart-rending stories about the Holocaust. But they are also testimony to the survivors’ remarkable ability to draw meaning, purpose and even beauty from the darkest of memories. Sarah Engelhard’s black-and-white snapshot tells the story of her first Passover in Canada. Ted Bolgar’s touching account gives renewed significance to friendship and the value of a precious tea set. Marguerite Elias Quddus’s last memory of her father, as he was arrested, is embodied in a bitter-sweet tale about his forgotten eyeglasses.
Following the Second World War, Montreal became a second home for thousands of Holocaust survivors, some who saw it as a temporary port of refuge, and many who stayed to make it their home. The museum was opened in 1979 by members of the Association of Survivors of Nazi Oppression as a means to educating the public about the dangers of antisemitism and racism. More than four decades after its founding, the museum’s legacy still continues to be relevant, Fogg said. And, like the testimonies and artifacts that illumine these stories, the message it carries is an intensely human and important one.
“You know, we’re not talking about numbers or figures, we’re talking about Ted, Leslie, Liselotte and Daisy. These are real people that we love and care about and they are real people whose families and lives were torn apart by the Holocaust,” said Fogg. “And so, I think we can make a parallel to situations today, where real people are continuing to be impacted and devastated by genocide.
“I think what’s beautiful about the exhibit and working with survivors is that they are real people. What better way to understand history and especially difficult, complex and painful history than to hear it from such wonderful and caring and generous individuals,” she said. “They are the best educators and we are so lucky to learn from them, and we’re so lucky that they wanted to be a part of this exhibit.”
The museum’s effort to reach virtual audiences during the pandemic does appear to be working. Fogg said that, since its launch in September, the exhibit has not only been seen by viewers around the world, but has won three international awards for its visual presentation and design. The pandemic may have temporarily limited the world’s physical ability to connect, but it hasn’t stopped innovation or the heartfelt effort to care about others.
The first Jews in the Montreal area were Sephardim serving in a British regiment. One was Aaron Hart, whose son would later be elected to the legislature to represent the Trois-Rivières area.
By the early 19th century, Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe had begun to trickle in and, by the early 20th century, more than 7,000 Jews had made their way to Montreal, most fleeing antisemitism in the Russian Empire and Europe. Many would arrive to find that prejudice and discriminatory policies weren’t exclusive to distant geography. The election of Ezekiel Hart to the legislature would later inspire a resolution to ban Jews from serving in office. It take another 60 years before a law would be enacted that would give Jews in Lower Canada the right to self-representation.
By the 1930s, Montreal’s Jewish population had increased to 60,000, making it the largest Jewish hub in the country. Many worked in the growing garment industry or owned stores and restaurants in the city. A smaller number moved to the country to become farmers and use skills they brought with them from the old country.
Distrust toward Jews and the growing number of Jewish refugees looking desperately for a new home before and after the Holocaust made immigration to Canada virtually impossible in the early 1940s. It took the efforts of organizations like the Canadian Jewish Congress to push for changes to immigration laws and open doors to refugee families. By the early 1950s, another 9,000 Jewish refugees eventually made their way to Montreal’s port. By the 1970s, those numbers had swelled again, reaching close to 120,000.
Today Montreal’s Jewish community is much smaller, for many reasons, including out-migration from the 1970s to 1990s. But the early Jewish pioneers, those who arrived in Montreal in the 18th and 19th centuries, are not only credited with building new businesses and opportunities for a growing city, but for planting the seeds for Canada’s diverse Jewish community.
Jan Lee’s articles and blog posts have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism, Times of Israel, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
Andrzej Mańkowski, Poland’s consul-general in Vancouver, shared some reflections on his country’s history with the Jewish Independent, including about the Ładoś Group, which tried to help Jews escape the Nazis by the issuing of fake passports. (photo from Andrzej Mańkowski)
The wartime actions of Poland and its people provide a prime example of the human capacity for good and evil. Many Poles today proudly point out that there are more of their compatriots recognized in Yad Vashem’s Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations than there are heroes of any other nationality. By contrast, the work of Polish-Canadian historian Jan Grabowski and a team of researchers in Poland chronicles in great detail the collaboration by Polish officials and ordinary citizens in assisting the Nazis in the goal of executing the “Final Solution” in that country.
Poland’s government prefers to focus on the more positive fact. So sensitive and contentious is the history that, in 2018, Poland passed – then, in the face of international outrage, rescinded – a law that criminalized expressions of Polish complicity in the Holocaust. At the time, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin acknowledged that many Poles had aided Jews during the war era, but also that “Poland and Poles had a hand in the extermination” of Jews during the Holocaust.
Poland’s consul-general in Vancouver spoke to the Jewish Independent last week and shared some personal reflections on his country’s history – including how his own grandfather was murdered in Auschwitz.
Andrzej Mańkowski wanted readers of the Independent to know of a recently discovered story of a group of Polish diplomats in Switzerland who provided faked passports to help Jews flee Europe.
Called the Ładoś Group, after Aleksander Ładoś, the Polish envoy in Bern from 1940 to 1945, the six individuals included four Polish diplomats, one of whom was Jewish, and two representatives of Jewish organizations that conspired with the officials. The RELICO Assistance Committee for the Jewish Victims of the War, established by the World Jewish Congress, and the Agudat Yisrael worked with Ładoś and his colleagues.
In addition to Ładoś himself, three other Polish diplomats were members of the group: Stefan Ryniewicz, Konstanty Rokicki and Juliusz Kühl. The two members of Jewish organizations in Switzerland who rounded out the group were Abraham Silberschein of RELICO and Chaim Eiss of Agudath Israel.
Beginning in 1941 (or possibly earlier) until the end of 1943, the six men illegally purchased passports and citizenship certificates from Latin American countries, primarily Paraguay. The documents were sent to Jews in nations under German occupation, where possessing them increased chances of survival.
“Many of those passports came too late to save people,” Mańkowski said. “The recipients or the holders of the passports ended up in Auschwitz in spite of already having the false passports in their hands.”
As many as 10,000 forged passports may have been obtained, but most reached their intended recipients – primarily German and Dutch Jews, as well as some Polish Jews – too late. Of about 3,200 passports issued to individuals whose names are known, it is estimated that about 800 individuals – approximately 25% – survived the war.
Mańkowski’s own family history is deeply impacted by the horrors of the Nazi era. His grandfather, Emeryk Mańkowski, fled Ukraine after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and settled in central Poland, where his wife’s family owned land. Part of that land was forested and, during the German occupation, Nazi officials discovered a radio communications device in the forest on the property. Unable to identify the owner of the contraband device, they arrested 10 members of the local intelligentsia – including Emeryk Mańkowski – and sent them to Auschwitz as a warning to the rest of the population.
At the time, Polish inmates were permitted 100 zlotys per month from their family. During the second month of his incarceration, Mańkowski’s family had their monthly stipend returned, with a message telling them that the prisoner was no longer present in the camp.
“The German Nazi bureaucracy was so precise and honest to send back money after killing the victim,” said his grandson, the consul-general.
While Poles suffered at the hands of the Nazis, Mańkowski acknowledges the magnitude is incomparable. Three million Polish Jews died during the Holocaust and, during the same period, three million non-Jewish Poles also died, he said. This represented about 10% of the larger Polish population, but 90% of the Jewish population. After the war, he said, a Polish family of 10 would have a relative missing from their holiday table. A Polish Jew from a family of 10 would be alone.
The consul lamented that Poles and Jews have incompatible narratives.
“We have two separate histories,” he said, citing the visits by Israeli students to the memorial sites of the Shoah in Poland. “These groups of Jewish youths from Israel walk around in Warsaw and see only ghetto, only death all around. They never see us, living Poles. They are coming with bodyguards, they are insulated from Poles.”
The controversy around the now-rescinded law proscribing discussion of Polish complicity led to a major diplomatic eruption with Israel, and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki acknowledged that it was not any respect for civil liberties or historical veracity that led to the reversal, but international pressure.
“Those who say that Poland may be responsible for the crimes of World War II deserve jail terms,” Morawiecki said at the time. “But we operate in an international context and we take that into account.”
Chrystia Freeland, then Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, wrote on Twitter that Canada is “concerned by the potential impact on free speech” of the Polish law and urged that country to “ensure open discussion and education about the horrors of the Nazi death camps.”
The consul emphasized that the law didn’t apply to scientific publication, research or artistic activity, as these fields were excluded from the jurisdiction of this law.
World attention has focused on Poland in recent years not only because of concerns around free expression and inquiry into Holocaust-era history. Poland has been called the worst country in the European Union for gay rights. Expressions of hate speech are leveled against LGBTQ+ Poles by individuals at the highest levels of government. There is a lack of legal protections for sexual minorities and criminal charges have been laid against individuals exhibiting Pride flags. Dozens of Polish communities have declared themselves “LGBT-free zones.”
Mańkowski acknowledged that Poland is a conservative country. Last month, a new abortion law was promulgated, banning abortion in almost all cases.
“It’s a question of some conservative attitudes and opinions on the part of Polish society,” he said. “We are quite conservative, that’s true…. It’s a hot discussion within Polish society and, if you follow polls and opinion research, you will see the real judgment of Polish society and maybe the political system is not following the tendencies of the changing trends.”
A portrait of Robbie Waisman, by artist Carol Wylie. Part of the exhibit They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds, at the Zack Gallery to Jan. 4.
Even via a wobbly Zoom-led tour, the impact of Saskatoon artist Carol Wylie’s portraits – nine of Holocaust suvivors and nine of residential school survivors – can be felt.
The title of the solo exhibit at the Zack Gallery until Jan. 4 is They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds. It is taken from the proverb: “They buried us … they didn’t know we were seeds.” And the choice of 18 portraits was deliberate.
“It was quite quick and early in the process I decided that 18 had to be the number,” said Wylie at the exhibit’s virtual opening Nov. 19, “because there’s so much darkness in the stories but there’s so much light and life in the survival… [T]here’s three of the Holocaust survivors who are involved with the March of the Living and to actually go back to the camps, to Auschwitz, and to make that walk when you were there; I can’t imagine the courage it takes. And they do it so that others are educated. That’s the rising above it and making something really powerful out of a black, dark experience.
“And I see the same thing with residential school survivors, like Gilbert [Kewistep] and like Eugene [Arcand], who spend so much of their time going around to schools and speaking in public about their experiences to make sure people are educated about that. And, again, reliving what they went through every time they tell it, I’m sure.
“So, the 18 and the connection to chai, to life, came really early in the process. It had to be 18, because that validation of life that these people represent … had to be present.”
The scale of the paintings was also chosen purposefully. “I want these portraits to take up space and to be very present and, for when you’re standing in front of them, to have them fill up your field of vision, so that you can’t wander past, uninterested and unengaged,” said Wylie.
The project started several years ago, she explained. “I saw Nate Leipciger speak at the Holocaust memorial service in Saskatoon and, it’s ridiculous, I’ve been [attending] for lots of years but, for some reason, that year, it hit me for the first time how elderly all these people are getting.”
The firsthand experience that is so powerful is soon to be lost, she said, and “I felt there was something that I had to do to help to preserve that.” And she would do it with the best tool she had, her passion and ability to create portraits.
“What I have learned over the years,” she said, “is that, when you capture the nuances of a person’s face, you really reflect who they are and much of their history and how they’re made up of that history. Even though it’s not like hearing a verbal story, it’s seeing a story in a different form.
“I started this idea to do a series of portraits of Holocaust survivors. And then, as I entered into it, little things started to pop up that were connecting the Jewish survival to the residential school experience. It started with a community seder at our local synagogue, where our rabbi, who is very forward-thinking, always has elements on the tables that recognize other groups … and, that particular year, he had made special mention of making sure that we understand – especially in Saskatchewan, where we have a really dark history of residential schools – the experience of the Indigenous people that we live with.
“And I started thinking, it’s not a parallel experience, but it’s an experience that is shared in terms of pain and suffering and then survival and rising above it…. And, because I live in Saskatchewan, this is part of the history of the land that I call home, that I’m a settler in, that this is a time of truth and reconciliation, it’s a time of trying to address these issues, so, as a personal step towards reconciliation, I can sit down, listen to the stories of some of these residential school survivors and bear witness to them and bring them in to be part of this project, so that they can converse through their portraits, as a group of survivors.”
It was only after making this decision that Wylie discovered that people like Vancouver’s Robbie Waisman – who is among those featured in the exhibit – were already meeting with residential school survivors to share ideas and experiences.
The project took about three-and-a-half years to complete. Waisman is the only Vancouver-based subject. “All the other Holocaust survivors were from Toronto, Edmonton and Saskatoon, and all the residential school survivors are from Saskatchewan,” said Wylie in an email interview with the Independent.
“I had to be really careful,” she noted at the exhibit opening. “There’s a very, very fraught history of non-Indigenous artists and non-Indigenous photographers representing Indigenous peoples and I knew I was stepping into this murky ground. All the way along, I had to keep asking myself questions about my own integrity around this, what are the reasons for why you’re doing this and does every single survivor that you talk to understand fully what this project is about and [are they] fully on board with it. At the end, I thought, if there are people who are criticizing it, that’s fine, but, I feel, after conversations I’ve had with many residential school survivors, that it’s more important that we raise this issue and more important that I make this step towards reconciliation than be fearful of doing something that maybe I shouldn’t be doing or that the art world might perceive that I shouldn’t be doing.”
When the work was completed, Arcand and Kewistep “smudged the work before it went off on its first exhibition. Then they gave me a smudge kit that I could use myself, if I wanted to, in the future. It was extremely meaningful to me; it was almost like they’d given it their stamp of approval, as well as imbuing it with these good graces and these good thoughts and this positive energy before the work went anywhere and anyone had a chance to see it.”
The exhibit has been shown in various places and will travel elsewhere after its time at the Zack.
Wylie’s general process in doing portraits is to speak with her subjects first.
“I think that, in order for the mask that we all wear in the world to protect ourselves, in order for that to drop, there needs to be time spent talking,” she said. “There’s this very strange artificial intimacy that happens when you’re sitting two feet – before COVID times – away from somebody that you’re drawing, and you’re talking and you’re looking intently at them…. So, I always wait until that couple of hours of conversation and visiting is over and then I pull out my camera.
“I need to work from photographs because I like to get a strong resemblance and I can’t have people coming back endlessly to sit for me…. But that’s when I take them, is after that time has been spent, that conversation has happened, and their mask has come down and they are open.”
The openness that is seen in the subject’s faces, stressed Wylie, “is not something that I put there, it’s something that they had. Seriously, I paint what I see… And that captures what they have, what they are, because it’s all within there, it’s all in their face.”
Given the caveat that there is something intangible about what makes a good portrait, Wylie said in an email, “I believe a portrait should bear resemblance to the subject. But, in addition, it should feel like the portrait is inhabited; like it contains the spirit of an individual. You often hear people comment about the eyes in a portrait following them. I think that’s the sensation of some element of the person, and not just their resemblance, being present. I also like to see evidence of the artist in the work in the form of brushstroke, colour choices, etc. This trace of the artist distinguishes a painted portrait from a photo.”
She described her need to create portraits as “a compulsion I’ve had since I was a child. Even then,” she said, “I drew people, made my own paper dolls. In my grad school investigations I discovered, I believe, that it’s because of a fascination I have with the mystery of consciousness, and the fact that we can never share another’s consciousness. We learn about ourselves through our interactions with others and these connections enrich our being.
“The face is a major part of how we communicate and is strongly connected to our identity,” she said. “Yet, we cannot see ourselves the way others see us, so there’s this mystery around faces. What do they hide? What do they reveal? How do you feel as ‘you’ wearing your face? How do I communicate as ‘me’ wearing my face? I am just never tired of painting a portrait, but am always excited when I begin a new one.”
The exhibit opening was hosted by gallery director Hope Forstenzer, who credited her predecessor, Linda Lando, for bringing this show in. The exhibit is open by appointment and via onlyatthej.com. A commemorative book, being prepared with Wylie’s help, is in the works, as well, said Forstenzer.
On Dec. 9, 6-8 p.m., the gallery is having a Zoom event with Waisman and Wylie, as well as Lise Kirchner from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and Shelley Joseph from Reconciliation Canada. Readers interested in attending should email Forstenzer at [email protected].
Yad Vashem holds an almost sacred place in the Jewish world. The foremost repository of materials relating to the Holocaust, and Israel’s official memorial to the victims of Nazism, the centre is practically an obligatory destination for visiting diplomats and foreign dignitaries. It is a solemn place dedicated to the terrible past, but with an explicit vision for a future without hatred and genocide.
Yad Vashem is rightly focused on the Jewish particularity of the Shoah. We take for granted the logic of Yad Vashem being located in Jerusalem. The capital of Israel and, spiritually, of the Jewish people seems a logical place to remember this massive cataclysm in Jewish history. But it commemorates a history that took place thousands of kilometres away, in Europe. Its presence in the Jewish state is itself a statement about Jewish particularism. But this does not erase the universal lessons Yad Vashem advances.
Since its founding in 1953, it has been a model for the world in commemorating and educating about the worst chapters in human history. The events of the 20th century that necessitated the invention of the word “genocide” did not end with the Holocaust. Genocides have occurred since 1945 – and before. Educators and others who strive to preserve and transmit these histories and their lessons struggle over the balance between respecting the very specific characteristics of the Holocaust, for example, with the broader messages for all humanity. At a time when antisemitism is experiencing a resurgence, it is essential that the role of Jew-hatred be addressed and confronted, at least in part with the recent past as a warning for the dangers of complacency.
While the struggle between universality and particularism is challenging, all can probably agree that Yad Vashem stands as a monument to human rights and the dignity of all people – and as a lesson to those in societies where those values are compromised. At the same time, the existence and focus of Yad Vashem safeguards the particular and monumental horrors of the genocide against the Jews.
This is why there is rightful concern over the proposed appointment of former brigadier general Effi Eitam as head of Yad Vashem. His proponents – including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who nominated him for the position – contend that Eitam’s career has been spent defending the Jewish state. And among the lessons many people take from the exhibits of Yad Vashem is the necessity of a Jewish state as a bulwark against a world that has yet to cure itself of antisemitism.
But Eitam’s military record is more than troubling, and this is the main reason for concerns about his appointment. During the First Intifada, he brutally instructed his troops to break the bones of a 21-year-old Palestinian prisoner, Ayyad Aqel. The soldiers beat the young man to death. Four of Eitam’s soldiers were court-martialed and the Military Advocate General reprimanded Eitam and recommended he never be promoted. (He was.) In addition to his military career, he served two terms in the Knesset representing various religious parties, and held several cabinet portfolios.
Beyond Eitam’s record of heinous action is a record of deeply concerning and racist ideas. He has referred to Arab Israelis as a “cancer” and promoted ethnic cleansing of West Bank Palestinians: “We’ll have to expel the overwhelming majority of West Bank Arabs from here and remove Israeli Arabs from political system,” he said in 2006.
Referring to human beings with terms like “cancer” is precisely the sort of dehumanization that can be a precondition to genocide. In any society – including one as open as Israel, where diverse views and expressions are the norm – these statements must preclude someone from a role like head of the world’s foremost research centre about, and memorial to, the Shoah. Eitam’s military service – he was part of the raid on Entebbe, among other things – can be seen as evidence that a strong Israel is the best defence for the Jewish people in a world capable of genocide. But Eitam’s statements cannot be justified from the mouth of one who seeks to advance the lessons, particular or universal, that Yad Vashem is expected to convey.
The nomination is threatening to create yet another schism in the government, as Netanyahu’s coalition partner Benny Gantz opposes Eitam’s appointment. Ideally, a more suitable leader will be found for this important role, one who stands as a defender of the sanctity of the Shoah and its lessons for humanity.
The author as an infant with her parents Sarah and Mechel, and brother Hy, in Kazakhstan, where she was born in 1944. (photo from Reva Kanner Dexter)
A year ago, I attended the 31st Annual World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants, hosted by our own Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. I have kept the story of my own Holocaust experience suppressed because it never seemed as tragic nor as diabolical as others’. Furthermore, because I was an infant, born in 1944, I did not think that I had the right to call myself a child survivor. However, attending the conference changed that perception.
I claim the dubious distinction of being in the one percent of children born of Polish parents who survived. As three million Jews of Poland were murdered, I feel very privileged.
Of course, the circumstance of my miraculous survival is due to several factors. First, my parents escaped Poland in September of 1939. Second, they were living close to the Ukraine border. Third, they had the essential skills and resilience to overcome many hardships.
My mother Sarah (daughter of Pinchus and Chana) and my father Mechel (son of Israel and Esther) were born and grew up in small towns in southeastern Poland. Krasnystaw and Izbica were 12 kilometres apart. Close enough for biking and walking between the two towns along the Wieprz River.
Typical of small towns in that region and era, Sarah and Mechel grew up poor. Sarah’s father was a barber, who taught her his skills as soon as she could hold a razor blade. Mechel’s father was a tailor who had taught him the art of sewing, also at a young age.
Sarah and my father had moved to Chelm after their marriage, and Sarah was already six months pregnant when the German troops invaded.
Mechel was a member of a Zionist/socialist club, so he got the news early that the Nazis had taken over the town – 1,500 young men were rounded up and shot. Rumours of castration created panic. Mechel took off by bike with some of his pals, telling Sarah he would be returning.
Sarah’s birth mother lived in Rovno, Ukraine, so she made her way alone across the border with the help of a Yiddish-speaking Russian soldier. She had the prescience to bring her barbering tools. Little did she know that trains and train stations were going to dominate her life from that night forward for the next six years.
Sarah and Mechel gave birth to their first child, Chaim (Hy), who an aunt testified was born in Rovno, while an immigration document states that he was born in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Memories do seem to play tricks when the brain is violently assaulted.
The Russians saw and seized the opportunity of so many Jews fleeing Poland into Ukraine. They tricked Jews by telling them that eastern Poland was now under Soviet rule and that they would be given safe passage back home.
It was a lie, a big one. The Jews were shoved into open cattle cars and sent to forced labour camps all over the U.S.S.R. Workers were required to keep the country running under the murderous hand of Stalin.
My parents and baby brother survived the train ride from Rovno or Kiev, which finally stopped in a logging camp on the banks of the Ob River, in Siberia. They realized immediately that their lives were only worth what their labours could produce.
I recall stories of wolves howling in the night and rats “as big as kittens” stealing their meagre rations while they slaved in the tundra in the day and tried to sleep in the frozen barracks in the night.
My father organized a strike – after all, they were in a communist country weren’t they? The demands for better working conditions were answered rapidly by rounding up the leaders during the night and incarcerating them in the Gulag.
Sarah had to fend for herself again. Even though she was freezing, undernourished and exhausted, she had an ample amount of milk flowing from her body. This was noticed by the commandant, whose wife had just given birth and could not nurse their sickly baby. Sarah was promoted from lumberjack to nursemaid.
As the two women became friends, Sarah got news that Mechel and the other men were still alive.
In June 1941, when the Nazis attacked Russia, the Soviets granted amnesty to the surviving Polish citizens. Poland and Russia became allies. The Jewish prisoners were released, only into a more dangerous predicament.
With Mechel’s leadership, the ragtag group of Jewish lumberjacks built rafts, trusting the river to lead them to safety. They navigated the Ob River by day, roping up by night.
During the night, the women would scramble up the banks, scavenging for food on adjacent farms. My mother told us that she dodged many bullets through the darkness. But the plan succeeded in getting them to a train station.
The next few years, they were underground, following trains, bartering at train stations, trying to regain health. Sarah would do pop-up barbering, thankful for her tools and endurance.
They finally made it to Czymkient, Kazakhstan, where Mechel got a job sewing uniforms for pilots at a pilot training academy. I was born in December 1944. Hope and optimism returned to our little family.
Of course, the story does not end here. Other chapters will emerge, as I continue to pull pieces of the survival puzzle together.
Thanks to the conference, I realize how important it is to keep searching for objects and recording memories, which return our beloved victims and survivors to us in spirit.
Reva (Rivka) Kanner Dexter has been a docent at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre since 2007.
Abigél Szoke and Károly Hajduk in the film Those Who Remained. (photo from Menemsha Films)
The Hungarian movie Those Who Remained has been making the rounds at international film festivals, including, in recent weeks, the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival. And perhaps no other film at this year’s VIJFF, which contained six features and one short, generated as much discussion afterwards.
“In its purest form, Those Who Remained represents near-perfect film composition, entailing exceptional directing, editing, pacing, acting and cinematography. A film of this calibre only comes along every few years,” said Farley Cates, a committee and jury member of this year’s VIJFF.
“This film was selected for its ability to leave such a strong impression on the viewer, pondering its many layers and facets from a psychological and geopolitical perspective. This film is like a wondrous painting in which the longer you look at it, the more you see happening,” added Cates, who will serve as co-director of the festival in 2021.
The film takes place in Budapest during the period between the end of the Second World War and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. While surviving Hungarian Jews did go to Israel and elsewhere, a large number stayed in their homeland. The Jewish population of Hungary today is estimated to be well over 100,000, the vast majority of whom live in Budapest.
The postwar period for Jews who remained in Hungary was difficult. An Orwellian state of affairs had commenced: people were questioned by the police in the middle of the night; colleagues reported on other colleagues. Amid this upheaval in Hungarian society, the two principal characters in the film – Aldo, a middle-aged doctor, and Klara, a teenage girl – deal with the trauma they experienced during the Holocaust.
Abigél Szoke, who plays Klara, was selected by Variety as one of the “10 Europeans to watch” in 2020. The magazine calls her a “revelation”: “She makes Klara’s energy, pain and smarts palpable, all the while being touchingly tuned to the emotional shadings of Aldo.”
The relationship between Aldo (played by Károly Hajduk) and Klara never develops into anything scandalous, though some of the peripheral characters in the film perceive it to be so. Despite Klara’s advances, Aldo does not allow the relationship to become sexual.
The film is a tale of survival, depicting two people’s attempts to get on with the normal, sometimes banal tasks of everyday life within the shadow of the unspeakable atrocities they witnessed and experienced only a very short time before.
Repressed emotions among survivors was a central theme to the VIJFF panel discussion after the film. Speakers included Budapest-born survivor Adrienne Carter, University of Victoria professor Charlotte Schallié, psychologist and member of the Victoria Shoah Project Robert Oppenheimer and music professor Dániel Péter Biró of the University of Bergen in Norway. Among other things, they discussed the common tendency of many survivors to refuse to talk about the events of the camps and the persecution afterwards, just as, in the film, Aldo refuses to say anything about the loss of his wife and children.
What is interesting, too, about this movie, the panelists noted, is that it was made in a Hungary led by Viktor Orban, a populist, nationalist and authoritarian leader who has presided over the country in an undemocratic fashion for the past 10 years. In fact, Hungary has produced a number of films set in the period around the war recently, including 1945 (2017) and Son of Saul, which was selected as the best foreign language film at the 2015 Academy Awards.
Orban has displayed a penchant for playing up the antisemitic caricature of Jews as the power brokers of the world stage. A popular target of his has been 90-year-old Hungarian-born financier George Soros, a regular figure of derision among right-wing groups in North America, as well. In 2017, Orban, who ironically received a scholarship from the Soros Foundation to study at Oxford in the late 1980s, plastered billboards across the country in an anti-migrant campaign featuring a smiling Soros that read “let’s not let Soros laugh in the end.”
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Note: This article has been amended to reflect the correct name of the film festival. It is the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival.
The author in the synagogue in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. (photo from Miri Garaway)
When I first started planning and researching our October 2017 trip to Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the foremost thing on my mind was learning about the Jewish history of the region. It was uncharted travel territory for me and I was curious to uncover the areas that were once vibrant Jewish communities.
Rather than being herded around by bus on a large organized tour and staying in North American-type hotels, which are far away from the pedestrian-only “Old Town” neighbourhoods of the cities, I wanted the challenge of researching centrally located, charming and historical bed and breakfasts and/or apartments and then finding private or small group Jewish heritage tours within each place. This proved to be an interesting process, whereby I delved into several possibilities. I left no stone unturned in designing this journey and it was such a feeling of exhilaration to put it all together and enjoy it.
Once I decided on accommodations in each city, I then had the task of transportation. To save time and energy, I hired a series of private drivers. This proved to be a wise decision, as 17 days does not allow for a slow pace. An added bonus was having our driver appear at the hotel, take our luggage and drop us off at our next destination, stopping to tour along the way, if we desired.
By pure chance, I had come across a U.K.-based company called mydaytrip.com – they responded promptly, were professional and easy to deal with and I had full confidence that I made the right choice. In addition to hiring a private driver, I also discovered a private tour company (based in Vancouver) called toursbylocals.com – their in-depth walking tours were excellent and I would highly recommend them.
Another option I used was Viator, a subsidiary of Tripadvisor. They offer a variety of small group (maximum eight people) tours all over the world and they liaise with local travel agencies, which provide the service. It is a great way to have various tour options at a reasonable cost.
Our first stop was Ljubljana, Slovenia, a charming university town of friendly people, exquisite Baroque architecture, a delightful cobblestoned Old Town and a vibrant café culture. Most notable is the Kaverna Zvezda, the best pastry café in town, featuring the traditional kremna rezina, also known as cremeschnitz, cream and custard between layers of puff pastry, which I had also tried in Israel. In short – divine. The gibanica (pronounced gabanitza), a delicious cake with poppy seeds, curd cheese, walnuts and apples, is another legendary cake in Slovenia and reminded me of a cake my Eastern European grandmother made. She was from Czernowitz, Austria-Hungary.
Pumpkin seed oil is “king” here and is used with the same frequency as olive oil is in Italy. Vegetarian pumpkin soup is on every menu, much to my delight. Were there any remnants of a Jewish community here? This seemed like Jewish comfort food to me.
Documents show that Jews settled in Ljubljana from the 13th century onward and worked as merchants, bankers, artisans and some as farmers. They had a synagogue, a school and a rabbinical court. In 1515, the Roman emperor Maximillian expelled the Jews and Ljubljana’s Jewish Quarter disappeared.
As I walked down the two narrow streets in the Old Town, that once housed a small Jewish community – Zidovska ulica and Zidovska steza, Jewish Street and Jewish Lane – the only sign of a Jewish presence was a vacant stone indentation on a building where a mezuzah had once stood.
Maribor, the second largest city in Slovenia, has a synagogue, but, unfortunately, it sits empty. Jews were also expelled from here, in 1496, though, eventually, both Ljubljana and Maribor regained their Jewish communities – until the Second World War. Then the Holocaust took its toll.
On a positive note, a synagogue did open in Ljubljana in 2003, but it is now part of the Jewish Cultural Centre. Ljubljana was previously the only European capital lacking a Jewish house of worship. The city does not have a rabbi, but the chief rabbi for Slovenia, Rabbi Ariel Haddad, resides in nearby Trieste, Italy.
* * *
Split, Croatia, once had a vibrant Jewish community, so, after visiting the Dalmatian coastal town of Zadar, we headed a little further south to Split, stopping first at the World UNESCO Heritage Site of Trogir.
In Split, I had arranged for a private guide, Lea Altarac, to meet us and give us a Jewish history tour as well as a general city walking tour. In 3.5 hours, we covered a lot. Lea is a teacher; extremely knowledgeable and proud of her city. Her mother is Bosnian and her father is Jewish; she has a Jewish soul, albeit one that does not practise Judaism. Nevertheless, she was eager to enlighten us with some of the Jewish history of the city.
We first toured Diocletian’s Palace in the Old Town and Lea pointed out the many Magen Davids etched into the stone. Once we had finished touring the extensive palace, we walked to the edge of the Old Town. There, we came across the small synagogue of Split, no exterior decoration to distinguish it, which is maintained as a museum by Lea’s father. As we climbed the stairs to the second floor of the old stone building, I tried to visualize it teeming with congregants, sadly no more.
One of the oldest European synagogues, it was created in the 16th century. The interior dates back to 1728. That was the first restoration of several, and when the mechitzah (partition between men and women in an Orthodox shul) was added. It is interesting to note that the ark was built into the western wall of the palace.
The synagogue was plundered by fascist fanatics in 1942 and, unfortunately, many valuable ritual books, archives and silver objects were burned or stolen.
In 1996, during another restoration, a commemoration plaque of local victims of the Holocaust was given to the synagogue as a gift from the Israeli ambassador.
There is no official rabbi for the synagogue in Split, but the rabbi from Zagreb, Croatia, comes about twice a year.
During archeological excavations carried out in the area of the Roman city of Salona, the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia and the parent city of Split, traces of an established Jewish community were found. When Salona was destroyed, in the early seventh century, the surviving Jewish members took refuge within the walls of Diocletian’s Palace. This settlement was the early beginning of the city of Split.
The term Zueca is used to describe the localities where Jewish tanners and dyers lived. This was a common trade for centuries. Other Jewish occupations included weaving, tailoring, the sale of cloth, the running of a bank, as well as the food business, which was not permitted to Jews elsewhere.
Via 16th-century documents, we learned that there were Spanish and Portuguese immigrants who settled in Split, which was a port for trade between the Republic of Venice, to which Split belonged to at that time, and the Ottoman Empire. Most notably, a Spanish Jew named Daniel Rodriga, short for Rodriguez, was responsible for promoting the development of trade between Europe and the countries in the east. Caravans were also used for the exchange of goods to Turkey and Asia, which Rodriga felt was safer. He conceived the idea of building a large quarantine area, a lazaretto, in the port of Split to house men and goods from the eastern countries, before ships took them to Venice and the rest of Europe.
There was no Jewish ghetto in Split, as the members of the Jewish community enjoyed civil liberty. It was not until the late 18th century, toward the end of Venetian rule, that a ghetto was formed, due to the influence of the clergy and the decline of the Venetian economy.
Our walking tour led us up a steep hill, Marjan Hill, where we were afforded a spectacular view of Split. Overlooking the city, in a forest-like setting, is the Jewish cemetery, one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries known. It was founded in 1573 and was used until 1946.
After the collapse of fascism in 1943 and before the occupation of Split by the German army, many of the younger Jews left Split and joined the resistance movement in partisan units. Jews who did not leave were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to forced labour and concentration camps. Only one-third of the community survived and returned to Split after the liberation; others emigrated to Israel.
* * *
Sarajevo was our next stop, with a visit to Mostar on the way. Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is a picturesque city situated on the Neretva River, only a two-hour drive from Split. I arranged a walking tour for the morning and asked the tour guide if we could visit the proposed site of a new synagogue. The small patch of land was donated by Zoran Mandlbaum, head of Mostar’s 45-member Jewish community, in the hopes that a synagogue would be built there. His vision was a building made of glass, symbolizing trust between Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christian Serbs and Roman-Catholic Croats, and bridging ethnic gaps. For now, the only distinguishing feature of this barren piece of land is a wrought-iron Magen David carved into the gate.
Mostar originally did have a synagogue, but it was damaged during the Second World War and the communists turned it into a puppet theatre in 1952. We visited that colourful building. Today, there are only a handful of Jews living in Mostar.
Walking through the charming Old Bazaar (Kujundziluk), we reached the famous Old Bridge, a curved structure, originally built of square stones and completed by a Turkish architect in 1556. Its arch spanned nearly 29 metres and stood 20 metres above the river. Although the famous bridge was destroyed during the war in 1993, it was rebuilt in 2004. The tradition of diving contests off the bridge has been maintained.
Of notable interest is the elegant Turkish-designed Muslibegovic House and courtyard/garden, now a hotel, which we were fortunate enough to tour.
In another couple of hours, we arrived in Sarajevo, a beautiful city, surrounded by mountains. The first Jews, Sephardim, arrived in Sarajevo as early as 1541. They were mainly artisans, merchants, pharmacists and doctors. Ashkenazi Jews began arriving in the 17th century, fleeing persecution in Europe. When the Austrians occupied Sarajevo in 1697, they burned and destroyed the Jewish Quarter, including the synagogue.
When the Ottomans regained control of Sarajevo, the lot of Jews improved. Sarajevo became known as “Little Jerusalem,” having the unique feature of a synagogue, a Roman Catholic church and a mosque all within 500 metres of one another.
Jewish life changed dramatically with the rise of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust – 85% of the Jewish population perished and those who survived emigrated to Israel in the late 1940s. Before 1941, there were 12,000 Jews living in Sarajevo and 15 synagogues. In 2017, 700 Jews lived there, out of a population of 400,000. There was no official rabbi, but a rabbi, originally from Sarajevo, came in from Israel to officiate for the High Holidays.
Our Jewish heritage tour was given by a young Muslim man, the owner of Meet Bosnia travel agency. He was very proud of the fact that he was licensed to give this tour. We began at the Old Synagogue, which was originally built in 1581, but burned down and was rebuilt a couple of times. The synagogue was converted into a museum in 1965. There are historical exhibits, ritual objects, Ladino books, photographs, religious traditions and depictions of life before the Holocaust. There is a replica of the famous 14th-century Sarajevo Haggadah; the original being in the National Museum. Unfortunately, that museum was closed for renovations.
Next to the synagogue is the building called Novi Hram, or New Synagogue, now an art gallery owned by the Jewish community of Sarajevo. There was also a large, ornate Sephardi synagogue, built in 1932, but the interior was destroyed by the Nazis in 1941.
Most impressive was the grand Ashkenazi synagogue, built in Moorish style and located across the Miljacka River that runs through Sarajevo. It also serves as the Jewish community centre. We were fortunate enough to be there during Sukkot, and went to their sukkah. The synagogue also holds Friday night services.
We visited the large hillside Jewish cemetery, among the oldest in Europe. It was founded by Sephardi Jews in 1630 and contains more than 3,500 uniquely shaped tombstones; some with inscriptions in Ladino. There are two Holocaust memorials: one Sephardi, one Ashkenazi. After 1959, it became a mixed cemetery and, in 1966, it closed. The cemetery was used as an artillery position by the Bosnian Serbs during the siege of Sarajevo and many of the tombstones were toppled.
One thing I noticed during our stay in Sarajevo was that everyone we met was proud of the multicultural aspect of their city. One woman, in a Judaica shop we were taken to, next to a cinema that once housed a Sephardi synagogue, proudly told us that her Muslim neighbour helped her and her family build their sukkah.
It was hard to leave this fascinating, exotic city that had weathered so much, but we drove on to Dubrovnik, via the country roads. In the Serbian parts of that countryside, we saw signs in Cyrillic and I felt like I was in Russia.
What a contrast to arrive in Dubrovnik, a city inundated with tourists, even in October. Our Jewish heritage tour, which also included a walking tour of the city, was led by a Catholic woman studying for her master’s degree in archeology. In the late 1400s, early 1500s, there was a Sephardi community in Dubrovnik, with about 300 members. In the 1800s, Ashkenazi Jews arrived. Before the Second World War, Jewish property was confiscated and Jews had to wear the yellow armband. Some community members were involved in the anti-fascist movement. After the war, Jews were still registered in Dubrovnik, but most of them had immigrated to New York City.
We visited the Sephardi synagogue, located in the Old Town in a three-storey stone Baroque building; it is one of the oldest in Europe. The synagogue and museum received a direct hit from a missile during the war in the 1990s, but the Museum Foundation, the Croatian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and UNESCO, as well as private donations, helped restore it. There are fascinating displays of ritual objects in the museum and a Judaica shop next door. Sadly, there are only about 50 Jews left in Dubrovnik, all residing outside the Old City walls.