Dr. Kamil Kijek of the University of Wrocław, in Poland. (photo from University of British Columbia)
For Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, the question of where to begin life anew after the cataclysm was not as clear as it might seem in hindsight.
Looking back at the successive tragedies of postwar life for Jews in Poland, it might seem obvious that the blood-soaked homeland held little hope for the future. The choices for survivors limited their options, though, and the faith that, surely, the worst had passed played a role in the decision by tens of thousands to try rebuilding their families on the soil of their ancestors.
The disastrous history of Jews in postwar Poland was the subject of a special presentation at the University of British Columbia by Dr. Kamil Kijek, an assistant professor in the Jewish studies department at the University of Wrocław, in Poland. Speaking virtually from Poland to students in-class and to a wider audience online, Kijek addressed the decision faced by Polish Jewish communities to stay in or leave post-Holocaust Poland. He was speaking to a class led by Dr. Ania Switzer, a sessional lecturer at UBC, who was born in communist Poland and who is a translator and historian specializing in Jewish studies and Holocaust education.
“Most of Poland did not become the desert of Jewish life right away,” said Kijek. “It happened over time.”
About 50,000 Jews survived the Holocaust in Polish territory. In early 1946, about 136,000 Polish Jews returned from the Soviet Union, where they had survived the war, and a few thousand others found their way back from other parts of Europe. By July 1946, there were about 200,000 Jews in Poland, compared with about 3.3 million in 1938.
The vast majority of Jews who remained in or returned to Poland after the war did not take up life in the places they had been born. The borders of the country had shifted enormously, with the Soviets taking large swaths of what had been eastern Poland and Poland being compensated with formerly German lands in the west. Jews, along with other displaced Poles, were encouraged to take up residency in these newly acquired places in the west of the country, replacing Germans who were expelled.
“It is almost impossible to understand the tragedy of the people the moment when they are freed,” said Kijek. “We need to understand that the end of the war and so-called freedom actually was a time of psychological collapse for most of these people.… These people, when they come back to the places [of their origin], they see their whole communities destroyed and it’s the first time they are sure that most of their friends and family were killed.”
Significant American and other Western funds flowed into the Jewish communities of the country, intended to rebuild Jewish society there. Hebrew schools, synagogues and other institutions were constructed and supported by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other international Jewish welfare and aid agencies.
The postwar period saw continuous upheaval in Poland, with civil war between pro- and anti-communist forces. It was not immediately clear that Poland would fall to communism, nor was it apparent at the time that, even if that did transpire, an Iron Curtain would fall across the continent. Polish Jews in the immediate aftermath of the war maintained close and supportive personal and institutional connections with family and Jewish organizations abroad. A degree of political pluralism revived before the country fell into the Soviet orbit.
Government oppression was not the only concern, though. On July 4, 1946, a pogrom in the southern Polish city of Kielce saw 42 Jews murdered and more than 40 injured. This was just the most deadly and well-known of a series of attacks against Jewish survivors after the war. The immediacy of antisemitic violence by their Polish neighbours disabused many Jews of the hope that they could rebuild a life in the country of their birth.
An exodus followed, but Kijek noted that, while contemporary observers might have seen abandoning Poland as an obvious choice, for people then, there were many considerations. They may not have had any money to facilitate relocation. At middle age or later, it might be natural to resist relocating to a place where one’s language is not spoken and one’s work experience is not transferable. And the prewar barriers that left European Jews to their fate remained largely in place: Western countries still did not open their borders to refugees.
Events unfolded quickly as the communists gained the upper hand in the country, the Cold War arose and the state of Israel was founded, providing at least a place where fleeing Polish Jews could find a welcome.
About 100,000 Jews were still in Poland in 1948, when an estimated 30,000 made aliyah. There was a tremendous amount of judgment, even suggestions of sedition, toward Jews who remained in Poland when Israel existed as an alternative, said Kijek.
“For Zionist leaders, any decision to stay in Poland was an act of a kind of national treason or an act of not understanding the lessons of the Holocaust,” he said, adding that those who remained were not all driven by ideological commitment to communism. The remaining Polish Jews represented a cross-section of Jewish society, including Orthodox, socialist and Zionist individuals. Eventually, even Zionist organizations accepted that not all Jews would make aliyah.
About one-third of Polish Jews who survived the war remained in Poland by 1950, but the emergence of the Cold War isolated them from Jews worldwide.
“All these ties are suddenly cut off in the end of 1948 and 1949,” said Kijek. The burgeoning of Hebrew schools and Jewish cultural organizations was stanched by a communist crackdown on “Zionist” institutions. The state nationalized much of the Jewish community’s remaining assets.
A liberalization occurred after the Stalin era and a number of Jews were able to flee Poland in the late 1950s. Those Jews who remained in Poland into the 1960s were, to a large extent, living a non-Jewish life and may have believed that their identity was no longer a barrier to whatever success they could attain in the country. However, following the 1967 Six Day War, in which Soviet-backed Arab countries were defeated by Israel, and 1968 student demonstrations that posed a genuine threat to the continued dominance of the communist regime, the scapegoat of “Zionism” emerged again, with Jews being accused of disloyalty to Poland, some being forced from their jobs, and the final mass exodus of Polish Jews occurred.
When the communist regime fell, in 1989, there were an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Jews in Poland, the last remaining of a millennia-old civilization.
The signage at the site of 1,700-year-old synagogue ruins in Albania was recently replace after a Canadian tourist informed the municipal government of the old signs’ illegibility. (photo from Dave Gordon)
During a trip to Albania in September 2022, Toronto-based Jewish journalist Dave Gordon visited the city of Saranda with a couple of friends. They especially wanted to see the 1,700-year-old synagogue ruins.
As Gordon describes it, the site is roughly the size of two side-by-side tennis courts. What remains are myriad roofless stone walls of just a couple feet tall, which once separated various rooms, including a study and two mikvaot (Jewish ritual baths). A representative of Albania’s culture ministry happened to be at the site when Gordon was there, handing him a leaflet with information about the site’s history and background. It said Israeli archeologists unearthed floor mosaics – now buried with a foot of sand, to protect them from the elements – that displayed a menorah and a deer, regarded in Judaism as a symbol of beauty, majesty and God’s mercy.
Additionally, the literature said the synagogue likely crumbled after either an earthquake or a Slavic invasion, and was abandoned in the last quarter of the sixth century. In the 21st century, there was more deterioration – this time, with the printed panels describing what is on the site.
Gordon was “shocked and disappointed” to see that the signage was in disrepair, faded by neglect. Two panels, each measuring some four feet wide by two feet deep, were blanched by the sun, so white that the lettering and imagery were illegible.
“My face turned the same colour as these signs,” Gordon told the Jewish Independent, for which he has written many articles. “This is part of my heritage, my history and people, and it was like it was another Jewish landmark sadly disappearing from memory.”
On Dec. 12, 2022, Gordon took action. He Googled the Saranda municipality offices’ emails.
“This is shameful for two reasons: your tourists will not be able to obtain much knowledge about the important landmark, and it shows little care from your city’s cultural department to maintain the signage,” he wrote.
“This is highly disrespectful, and I cannot understand why the two signs were permitted to deteriorate,” he continued, adding that he hoped to bring others to Saranda and “would love for them to take photographs of the new signage and publicize this wonderful jewel of archeology.”
A representative from the municipal offices wrote back, two days later: “For the problem in question, we have reported the need for scientific reconceptualization, the preparation and installation of information panels, and we have contacted the Directorate of Cultural Heritage … a copy of your complaint will be sent to the responsible institution and we hope that very soon we will have a better presentation of this monument.”
In the beginning of January, Gordon followed up with an email, asking if the inquiry had landed in the right hands. To his great surprise, on Jan. 20, the Ministry of Culture of Albania sent him this reply: “In response to your email, we inform you that the new information boards have been installed to the Synagogue of Saranada…. Please find attached the photos of the new signage.”
Esmeralda Kodheli, the ministry’s representative, added, “Thank you, too, for promoting our cultural and historical heritage.”
“Quite amazing!” Gordon told the JI. “To print detailed signs and place them, inside of 30 working days – and during the Christmas season, no less. And who was I? Just some guy from Canada writing some emails.”
Gordon said he felt “disbelief, delight and honoured, all at the same time,” and felt like his “little bit of activism” made a tangible difference, reminding him that anyone can enact change.
“I am pleased as anything that this amazing site of Jewish history now has dignity restored,” he said.
Dr. Ruki Kondaj, one of the friends who accompanied Gordon on his trip, is an Albanian-Canadian. He said about Gordon: “He’s done great work through his lobbying to restore the signage, and I’m so happy with his passion and determination. Together we discovered traces of Jewish history that tourists will know more about.”
Albania has various sites of Jewish interest, including the Solomon Museum in Berat, as well as an upcoming Holocaust museum in Tirana and a future Jewish history museum in Vlora, which also is home to “Jewish Street,” marked by a plaque on a home in the city centre, marking the one-time bustling Jewish area. Albania refused to cooperate with the Nazis, deciding as a nation to save its Jews, and even welcoming Jewish refugees from neighbouring countries. For more on Albania’s Jewish history, visit jewishindependent.ca/albanias-many-legends.
Jonathan Wasserlaufis a freelance writer, and a political science major and law student based in Montreal.
The harrowing history of Ukraine’s past was recounted recently in the annual lecture honouring Rudolf Vrba, the late Vancouver scientist whose 1944 escape from Auschwitz brought the most concrete proof of the Nazi “Final Solution” to the world.
Dr. Nataliia Ivchyk delivered the 2023 Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture, titled The Holocaust in Ukraine: Violence, Gender and Memory. Ivchyk is at the University of British Columbia on a visiting fellowship that was created by Dr. Richard Menkis and Dr. Heidi Tworek to bring to Vancouver a Ukrainian scholar at risk. Ivchyk is associate professor in the department of political sciences at Rivne State University for the Humanities in her hometown of Rivne, Ukraine, and her work is focused on public history and memory politics.
Ivchyk’s presentation was based on survivor testimonies held at the USC Shoah Foundation, and narrowed in on the experiences of Jews in the western Ukrainian region of Volhynia and Podilia. Of the approximately 27,000 Jews who lived in Rivne (then known as Rovno) in 1937, it is estimated that just around 1,200 survived to the 1944 liberation by the Red Army. In a single day, on Nov. 6, 1941, about 21,000 Jews were murdered by Einsatzgruppe C and Ukrainian collaborators. The surviving Jews were imprisoned in the Rovno Ghetto, which was created the following month. In July 1942, remaining Jews, about 5,000, were transported to a stone quarry and murdered.
About 1.5 million Jews died in Ukrainian territory during the war years, most of them shot in what has been called the “Holocaust by bullets.”
“The Holocaust has long remained on the margins of collective memory in Ukraine,” said Ivchyk. Babyn Yar, a ravine outside Kyiv where more than 33,000 Jews were murdered over two days in 1941, has become a national symbol of Holocaust remembrance, she said. “However, the local level of remembrance remained low.”
There are many other sites of atrocities that were committed in Ukraine. “Some are marked by monuments, others are still forgotten and lost,” she said.
Of the several thousand Jews who survived the initial mass executions, anyone over the age of 13 was forced into slave labour.
“Nobody wanted to work for the Germans,” Ivchyk quoted one survivor, “but we had to. We hoped it would somehow balance our relationship with the Germans and would help us survive.”
Violence against women was mainly carried out by Ukrainian collaborators, she said, though Nazis also took part.
“I remember many times Germans came at night, knocked on the windows, took away beautiful girls,” Ivchyk quoted a survivor. “Sometimes, they raped and killed them right away. Sometimes, they said we will come again.”
Rabbis became a particular target of violence against men, given their social and symbolic status, and their role as spiritual leaders.
In the Soviet era, historical memorialization was subordinated to the priorities of the regime.
“The Holodomor [the deliberate Soviet famine that killed millions of Ukrainians], the deportation of Crimean Tatars, the Holocaust and the genocide of the Roma – all of these events were suppressed in collective memory by the Soviet regime,” she said.
Today, support in Ukraine for Holocaust memorialization is ambivalent.
“The activities of the state today do not prohibit academic, educational or public activities in the field of Holocaust remembrance, but neither does it act as a financial or ideological initiator,” she said.
The Vrba event was funded by the Holocaust education committee of UBC’s department of history, which is responsible for the annual lecture, as well as a number of other organizations, including the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Diamond Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics.
Menkis, associate professor of modern Jewish history at UBC and chair of the Holocaust education committee, noted that the event recognizes Vrba’s contributions to two primary areas to which Vrba’s life was devoted: Holocaust education and science, particularly pharmacology. The annual lectures alternate between these topics.
Menkis told the audience how Vrba and his friend Alfréd Wetzler made the momentous decision to escape from Auschwitz after overhearing conversations around the planned deportation of Hungarian Jewry. After a difficult and dangerous trek, the pair reached northern Slovakia, where they compiled a report documenting the layout of Auschwitz and the extermination process there.
“Although the report is credited with saving many lives,” said Menkis, “Vrba and Wetzler were keenly aware that more decisive action could have saved more. After the war, Dr. Vrba continued to speak about Auschwitz and his experiences. His book, I Cannot Forgive, written with Alan Bestic, was first published in 1963 and has been issued in a number of translations and re-editions since. He is also well known for his unforgettable testimony in Claude Lanzmann’s [documentary film] Shoah and perhaps less well-known but also important was his effective testimony in the Canadian trials against Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel.”
Vrba’s widow, Robin, attended the event virtually. Vrba died in 2006.
Hüttenbach in Medan in 1880s. (photo from KITLV Album Or. 27.377)
Jewish communities in Indonesia have always been tiny, though their history is long. Jewish merchants are recorded in Sumatra as early as the 10th century, and diasporic and Israeli newspapers regularly report on the very small groups of Jews now living in Indonesia. (A 2022 article estimated that there were only 50 Indonesian Jews, and perhaps 500 Jewish expatriates.) However, the largest communities with the most substantial record are those in the late colonial cities of Batavia (now Jakarta), Surabaya and Manado.
The digitization of Dutch archives, both from European publications and the colonial newspapers, has facilitated research about the history of Jewish groups in the Indonesian archipelago. In this article, we offer some notes towards a history of some Jewish merchants in Medan between the 1870s and 1940s, as tobacco plantations on Sumatra’s east coast developed.
The Deli region on the east coast of Sumatra was not developed until the mid-1860s, when a few Dutchmen accepted an invitation from the sultan of Deli to establish tobacco plantations in the area. By the late 1890s, it had become one of the most profitable parts of the Dutch empire.
Deli tobacco leaves were “thinner than cigarette paper, and softer than silk,” and quickly the plantation zone’s tobacco became highly valued. The result was a brown “gold rush” of Deli tobacco in the late 1870s, attracting German, Swiss, English and Polish planters, as well as Dutch, to the new “dollar land.” Planters, tolerated and sometimes abetted by colonial authorities, instituted a brutal and often murderous system of exploitation of imported Chinese and Javanese labour.
Before long, merchants established themselves to serve the European population’s taste for European goods and technology. Among these new arrivals were several Jews, including Ashkenazi Jews from the Netherlands, Austria and Germany, as well as others who relocated from existing Baghdadi Jewish communities in Penang and Singapore. There are also scattered accounts of Jews in the Dutch army serving in Sumatra.
We know very little about how many Jews tried their luck in the eastern coast of Sumatra, but we have not yet found any evidence of a synagogue (as in Surabaya) or a dedicated cemetery (as in Aceh). The most consistent record of the community available today is not from the colony but rather from Amsterdam’s Nieuw Israëlietisch Weekblad (New Jewish Weekly). The first mention we have found in that newspaper was a report of an August 1879 anonymous donation of 60 guilders originating in the Sumatra’s east coast and destined for the Dutch branch of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, an international Jewish educational charity.
Between 1899 and 1901 the NIW published letters from N. Hirsch, a non-commissioned officer initially writing from the fortress of Fort de Kock (now Bukit Tinggi). In his letters, when not speculating that some Indonesians might be descendants of the lost tribes, Hirsch is troubled by the challenges of Jewish life in the Indies, without religious or community institutions. Months after his first letter, Hirsch joyfully reported the arrival of a kosher butcher and, in 1901, having since moved to Padang, on holding the first religious services at his home.
However, the bulk of sources concern a few European Jewish merchants who became prominent in Medan. Among the first Europeans to come to Deli were members of the Hüttenbach family, an established and assimilated merchant family from the German Rhineland city of Worms. The eldest son, August Hüttenbach, began working for the German-Jewish company Katz Brothers in Penang in 1872 at the age of 22. Katz Brothers, which had arrived in Penang in 1864 at the height of the tin rush, invested in all kinds of business, including supplying ships for freight. When the Dutch-Aceh war broke out in 1873, the company provided logistics and supplies to the Dutch military, and the Hüttenbach family’s shipping business ran a regular service to the Aceh ports.
While August became a prominent merchant in the British Straits settlement colony port of Penang (now in Malaysia), his younger brothers Jacob and Ludwig Hüttenbach settled across the Strait of Malacca, in Deli. In 1875, they opened the first European store in the harbour settlement of Labuhan Deli to cater to all the needs and requirements of the Dutch government, plantations and industrial groups.
Gradually, the family firm developed into a general merchandise company supplying all sorts of goods from Europe, and even establishing its headquarters in Amsterdam and another office in London. With their own shipping lines at their disposal, they were for a time the only importer in Deli. When the Hüttenbach enterprise moved its Sumatran operations inland to the developing city of Medan in the 1880s, the street on which they established their business was named Hüttenbach Street (today Jalan Ahmad Yani VII).
Hüttenbach enterprises supplied all manner of goods and services, ranging from live water buffalos and Brazil nuts to Bordeaux wines. It furnished machinery, tools, motors, electrical goods, harnesses, saddles, guns, ammunition, watches and clothing, and served as an agent for brands including Ford, Cadbury, Heineken and Guinness Stout, as well as other European trading, insurance and manufacturing companies. In the 1910s, its annual imports totalled 1,200,000 guilders and it supplied across the whole of Sumatra.
At the turn of the 20th century, Jacob and Ludwig retired to Europe and left Heinrich Hüttenbach (1859-1922), the youngest of the brothers, in charge of the company. Heinrich, who had been a well-known planter in Malaya, moved to Medan to run the company. A small glimpse of the brutality of plantation life is visible in the German primer Heinrich wrote to provide instruction for Europeans learning plantation Malay (Anleitung zur Erlernung der Malayischen Sprache), including instructions such as: Lu orang bôhong. Lu bukan sakit. Lu malas sadja. Saja mau kassi pukul sama lu. (You are a liar. You are not sick. You are just lazy. I will hit you.)
Selling to the sultans
Medan’s growth attracted other Jewish merchants, who also opened stores selling European consumer items such as clothes and luxury goods. Two German Jews, Louis Kellermann of Leipzig and Max Goldenberg of Hamburg, opened the S. Katz & Co. shop in the Kesawan shopping street. The Katz Brothers, a prominent firm of Singapore and London, did not appreciate what appeared to be an appropriation of their name, and put a notice in the local newspaper, the Deli Courant, making clear that no connection existed. We cannot know whether Katz’s implication – that Kellermann and Goldenberg were seeking to capitalize on a familiar trading name for their profit – was correct.
Among S. Katz’s employees was Russian-born Alfred Aron Arnold Zeitlin (1863–1938). Partnering with Goldenberg, Zeitlin opened a new store called Goldenberg & Zeitlin in November 1898, on the same main shopping strip, Kesawan Street. Majestic by all accounts, they specialized in the importation on luxury items such as jewelry, music boxes, typewriters, hunting rifles, glassware, curtains, suitcases, cigars and so on.
Other competitors were not far behind. An English-language travel guide to Sumatra in 1912 highlighted one of them: “A visit should also be paid to the establishment of Messrs. Cornfield. The firm are the official suppliers to the various sultans, and make a specialty of superior diamond jewelry of every description, although their stock includes well-selected continental fancy goods, pictures and also the latest modes.”
Wilhelm Cornfield (1862–1908), an Austrian Jew, had come to Deli in the 1880s, first working as a cutter at the S. Katz shop. In 1893, Cornfield started his own business as a tailor, offering European clothing with imported fabrics. Before long, he carried a complete range of clothes and luxury goods from London and Paris.
The first generations of merchants eventually left or passed away and were replaced by their children. When Wilhelm Cornfield passed away in 1908, his children expanded their father’s business. In particular, his son Isidore (1885-1923) became an investor in many luxury stores in North Sumatra, and also owned tea and coconut plantations on the east coast of Sumatra.
Jewish merchants competed to import European consumer goods, their firms merging, dividing and often clashing with one another. In 1915, the Hüttenbachs’ company split into a wholesaler business and the retail business. The retail business was managed by Isidore Cornfield while Heinrich Hüttenbach maintained the import interests. This split, however, caused a legal dispute between Hüttenbach and Cornfield about the management of the new department store. In the end, Cornfield won the case and opened Medan’s Warenhuis(Warehouse) in 1920, the first department store in Sumatra, the remains of which still stand. The Hüttenbach firm, on the other hand, was declared bankrupt in December 1921, after 46 years of business, due to the global financial crisis and mismanagement.
The bankruptcy resulted in Heinrich Hüttenbach’s return to Amsterdam. A few months later, he went missing on a passage from Amsterdam to London, and was declared dead five years later. The Cornfields, too, suffered great misfortune. Isidore and his wife, opera singer Henriette Zerkowitz, returned to Vienna, where he died of heart disease in October 1923 at the age of 38. By 1939, now run by his brother Adolf, the Cornfield fashion store, in financial trouble, was liquidated, closing its doors in July 1939 after more than 50 years of trading. Most likely, as the Depression caused a decline in demand for Sumatra tobacco, consumer luxury goods were no longer a viable business.
Like many other German and Dutch Jews, most of these merchants were assimilated to European society and identified with national groups in the colony. They belonged to Dutch and German clubs and contributed to patriotic celebrations. Indeed, Hirsch complained of the European Jewish merchants that they represented themselves as Christians, were lost in bitter competition with one another, and were utterly lacking in piety. With many secular and/or assimilated Jews, there seems to have been little impetus to form Jewish institutions.
Dutch Jews and war
At the end of the First World War, there was high demand for expatriates to come to the Deli region to manage plantations and serve the colony. Many Dutch Jews responded and went to work for plantations, Dutch companies or the government; there are also a few examples of Jewish doctors. But newspaper archives suggest that numbers remained tiny, and only from the mid-1920s is it possible to speak of community activities.
One tantalizing biography from the 1920s is that of writer, painter and planter László Székely, born to a Jewish family in what is now eastern Hungary, with a birth name given as László or Smiel Ziechrman. Arriving in Sumatra in 1914, his life and work is rather overshadowed by an affair with a Dutch planter’s wife, Madelon Lulofs, that scandalized Deli colonial society. After divorce and remarriage to Székely, Lulofs, in works such as Rubber (1931), became one of the principal literary voices critical of Dutch colonial power. Székely also wrote literary sketches of his own, mostly for the Hungarian press. His novel, translated into English as Tropic Fever: The Adventures of a Planter in Sumatra (1937), provides a candid picture of colonial planters’ life in Sumatra, now considered an important social commentary on that vanished society. The couple settled in Budapest in 1930.
When Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, the Jewish community raised funds to support relief efforts, but, by March 1942, Sumatra, too, had fallen to the Japanese. Some Jewish families found themselves under threat at both ends of the world: persecuted in Europe on the basis of their Jewish identity, and in the Indies as Dutch enemies of the Axis Japanese. Adolf Cornfield died in a Japanese internment camp. A Dutch Jewish physician who worked on the east coast of Sumatra, Dr. Hans Koperberg, was also captured and imprisoned by the Japanese. In a book of poetry titled Bittere pillen en scherpe pijlen (Bitter Pills and Sharp Arrows), he wrote about his experiences of being moved from one camp to another, dedicating his book “to my two sisters murdered by the Huns, Uncle Dr. Felix Catz and Aunt Brama and to all the friends murdered by the Japs.”
Our investigations have so far found little record of Jews in Sumatra after the Second World War. Survivors left for the Netherlands or perhaps Australia and, by 1958, Sukarno had expelled all Dutch citizens from Indonesia.
Budiman Minasnyis a professor of soil landscape modeling at the University of Sydney with an interest in Indonesia colonial history. Josh Stenberg is a senior lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Sydney. An earlier version of this article was published in Inside Indonesia 146: Oct-Dec 2021.
The Diamond Foundation is leading the way in contributing to JWest, with an historic $25 million gift – and community donors have matched this gift with another $25 million.
The Diamond Foundation’s matching gift is the first philanthropic contribution to the project and it is the largest donation ever made by the Diamond Foundation. Completing the match means $50 million toward the JWest capital campaign target of $125-plus million.
Alex Cristall, chair of the JWest capital campaign, had this response: “I want to thank the Diamond Foundation for this transformational gift. A project of this magnitude will not be possible without the tremendous generosity demonstrated by the Diamond Foundation, as well as philanthropic support from the community at large. It is our hope that the Diamond Foundation’s incredible community leadership will serve as inspiration, and we are now calling on others to work with our team to champion this project in an equally impactful way.”
The Diamonds’ gift will have a significant impact on the plans for JWest, providing a social, cultural, recreational and educational asset for all. This is the most extensive project in the history of the Jewish community in Western Canada and it is estimated to cost more than $400 million. Bringing it to life will require philanthropy, government funding and astute financing.
Gordon and Leslie Diamond, who are honorary JWest campaign co-chairs and members of the Diamond Foundation’s board, shared: “We are pleased to be the first family to make a significant contribution to JWest’s capital campaign. Our family has called Vancouver home for almost a century, and we have always believed in contributing whatever we can to ensure there is a bright future for our children and their children.”
The announcement builds on the $25 million funding provided in 2021 by the B.C. government.
“Mazal tov! I’m so pleased that our government’s shared mandate commitment of $25 million and a $400,000 investment in redevelopment planning has been bolstered with philanthropic support from the Diamond Foundation and community,” said Melanie Mark, Hli Haykwhl Ẃii Xsgaak, minister of tourism, arts, culture and sport. “These generous contributions underscore the importance of a renewed Jewish Community Centre to 22,590 Jews and all people living in this community. It speaks to the power of working together to shine a light on our province’s diversity and inclusion.”
The new space, once complete, will deliver a state-of-the-art community centre, expanded space for the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, double the current number of childcare spaces, expanded seniors’ programming, a new theatre, a relocated King David High School and two residential towers that will provide mixed-use rental housing (a portion of which will be below-market rates).
“JWest is the amalgamation of decades of work, and the fact that we saw our gift matched so quickly sends a clear signal that the community stands behind this project,” said Jill Diamond, executive director of the Diamond Foundation. “The Diamond Foundation has had a unifying focus to assist and advocate for initiatives in the Vancouver area that help improve the quality of people’s lives. The impact JWest will have on the Jewish community and the surrounding Oakridge community is undeniable.”
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The Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation has added two new members to its board of directors: Mervyn (Merv) Louis and Michelle Karby. They join an impressive group of volunteers, who for the past decades, have donated both their time and funds to care for the elderly of the Vancouver Jewish community.
Louis, a certified public accountant, emigrated with his family from South Africa to Canada in December 1978 and joined a small accounting firm in Vancouver. In the summer of 1979, the firm was acquired by Grant Thornton LLP. In 2016, Louis retired as a partner of Grant Thornton LLP, where he worked for 38 years, of which 33 were as a partner specializing in audit, accounting and business advisory services. Louis advised and worked with clients in many different industries, including manufacturing and distribution, real estate investments and construction, entertainment, and professional practitioners.
After his retirement from Grant Thornton LLP, Louis worked as the chief financial officer of Plotkin Health Inc. and MacroHealth Solutions Limited Partnership until retiring again, in August 2020. During these years, he successfully helped merge a U.S. partnership and a Canadian company to form the parent partnership of MacroHealth Solutions Ltd. Partnership, a medical cost management and solutions provider in North America.
Louis has been married for 46 years and has two sons. He and his wife love to travel and are particularly fond of cruises; they have toured North America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Southern Africa. Louis is an avid sports fan and, while his playing days are over, he loves watching all sports, notably hockey, golf and rugby.
Karby is an experienced wills, estates, trusts and corporate lawyer heading up the wills and estates group at Owen Bird Law Corp. She helps clients plan, build and protect their legacies. Prior to developing her expertise in this area, Karby spent many years in and out of a courtroom honing her skills as a commercial litigator.
While born and raised in Vancouver, Karby’s adventurous spirit and love of travel translated into 18 years studying and working in places that included Montreal, Toronto, Israel, Cape Town, Melbourne and Sydney. Now settled in Vancouver with her husband and two teenage sons, Karby enjoys the beautiful natural environment, being close to her family and giving back to the community that she grew up in.
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Kimberley Berger has joined Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver as its new outreach worker in the regional communities. In particular, she will focus on White Rock, South Surrey and New Westminster.
Berger has worked in the nonprofit sector for more than 30 years, focusing on community development and family support. She has held many roles, ranging from frontline work to executive director of South Vancouver Family Place. She also dedicates time to supporting parents whose children are undergoing cancer treatment at B.C. Children’s Hospital with the West Coast Kids Cancer Foundation.
Berger believes that a strong sense of connection makes both individuals and communities more resilient. Building relationships is central to her role at Jewish Federation and in her own personal life with her family of four in East Vancouver.
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This year, the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library raised more than $30,000 for the library. These funds will help it purchase new books and supplies for programs. Thank you to all of the Friends of the Library, and to the volunteers who helped make the fundraising a huge success.
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The Israeli Ministry of Education has granted Boys Town Jerusalem an Award for Excellence. The school ranked in the top 10% of the 838 high schools examined over the 2021-22 academic year.
In releasing its findings, the Israel Ministry of Education cited Boys Town Jerusalem (BTJ) for reaching outstanding achievements in the academic and social realms, as well as for instilling crucial ethics and values. BTJ principal Yossi Cohen noted that the prize reflects the ministry’s findings of the extraordinary efforts by BTJ instructors to spur students to reach a high academic level, avoid dropout and advance to Israel Defence Forces enlistment and higher education.
This marks the third time in the past decade that Boys Town Jerusalem has been awarded the prize for excellence, and the first time in which the school has reached the top-echelon rank. The Ministry of Education Award for Excellence includes a monetary reward for teachers among the highest-scoring schools.
In saluting BTJ’s instructors, Cohen stressed the COVID-related hardships over the past two years, which have demanded exceptional efforts to keep students focused and excelling despite the increased illness, poverty and strife they face at home.
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A ceremony dedicating the new home of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Communications Branch School for Software and Cyber Security was held in August at the Advanced Technologies Park (ATP) located at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU).
BGU president Prof. Daniel Chamovitz, IDF chief-of-staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, head of the communications branch Col. Eran Niv, Be’er Sheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovich and other officials and guests were in attendance.
The school’s new location will enable collaboration with BGU and the high-tech companies in the ATP. The school is the first of the communications branch units to move south as part of the national move to strengthen the Negev following the government decision to move the IDF south. The branch’s new main base is under construction alongside the ATP.
The move will assist in the preservation, development and empowerment of the technological human-power in the IDF while creating opportunities and a space for new collaborations in the south.
The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity (EWF) in New York is launching a new impact-driven philanthropic strategy to advance human rights around the world.
The foundation, led by Elisha and Marion Wiesel, will adopt a hybrid approach that will not only grant funds but also work with organizations directly as partners, offering access to innovative thinking partners and acting as an emblematic megaphone to champion their cause.
The foundation’s recalibrated grantmaking program will seek to fund organizations that embody Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel’s legacy as an educator and activist. Grants to educators will support moral educational programs inspired by Jewish values. The foundation is seeking to support programs and projects that foster dialogue, especially in engaging ways.
Activist grants, meanwhile, will focus on programs that restore the rights and dignity of the Uyghur population, in keeping with Elie Wiesel’s belief that “sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the centre of the universe.”
The foundation will be awarding one or more grants in each portfolio for its next cycle, ranging in size from $50,000 to $200,000. Applicants must be financially sound 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations or have a U.S.-based fiscal sponsor at the time of application, and be able to demonstrate realistic plans for carrying out the program or project for which they seek funding. Submissions will be reviewed internally through various stages and finalists will be considered by a group of notable names, passionate about the respective value track. Grant applications are being accepted online through the foundation’s website (eliewieselfoundation.org) and are due by Dec. 15, 2022.
“The values my father stood for – combating indifference, educating youth, calling out injustice and defending human rights – continue to be the moral bedrock of the Elie Wiesel Foundation,” said Elisha Wiesel. “We are so excited to announce our new grantmaking program to provide nonprofits that embody those values with the resources to achieve lasting impactful change.”
“Elie Wiesel was my dear friend and trusted partner in the fight for human rights around the world. I think it is very appropriate that his foundation put the fate of the Uyghur people as one of its main priorities and will be focused on delivering resources and moral support to those advocating for the Uyghurs,” said human rights activist and EWF advisory board member Natan Sharanksy. “The free world cannot stay silent about China’s horrific persecution of its Uyghur minority. I know firsthand the power of outside support to those standing bravely against totalitarian regimes. That is why I am glad to serve as an advisory board member at the Elie Wiesel Foundation, dealing with this issue.”
Other members of the advisory board on the Uyghur crisis include Mark Hetfield, president and chief executive officer of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the oldest resettlement organization in the world; and Gulhumar Haitiwaji, the daughter of a Uyghur woman who survived a Chinese re-education camp.
The advisory board on moral educational programs includes neuroscientist, actress, podcast host and author Mayim Bialik, an outspoken activist for mental health and Jewish causes; Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, a professor of religious studies and the director of the Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Centre at Manhattan College; and Sarah Idan, the founding chief executive officer of Humanity Forward, a multi-dimensional organization that promotes education and peace.
The Elie Wiesel Foundation was established after Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Under the direction of Wiesel and his wife Marion, the foundation developed, implemented and funded several critical humanitarian programs in Israel, including the Beit Tzipora Centres and the Darfurian Refugee Program. This new direction will allow the foundation to widen its scope through meaningful, action-driven partnerships.
Yael Eckstein, president and chief executive officer of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. (photo from IFCJ)
Twice a year, the president and chief executive officer of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Yael Eckstein, heads into Ukraine’s rural districts to visit elderly Holocaust survivors. Eckstein says she prefers to make the three-hour flight to Kyiv from her office in Jerusalem in the winter, when the temperatures in Ukraine have often plummeted, and country roads to small, out-of-the-way villages are overgrown with ice and snow and almost impassable. She knows that’s when these Jews, most of whom are in their 80s and 90s now, will need help most: when the summer’s vegetable harvest is almost gone and there’s no money by which to purchase food, when “it’s freezing, so freezing you can’t feel your fingers and there’s no heat” because there’s also no electricity.
For 18 years, Eckstein has been making this trek to connect with Ukraine’s most vulnerable Jews, those who survived the pogroms and Nazi exterminations in the 1930s and ’40s and are distrustful of their neighbours, so have lived self-sufficiently for decades. For many of these residents, Eckstein said, maintaining formal connections with local Jewish communities is viewed as a risk. “They don’t want to be on any lists of the Jewish community or of the synagogue, because they were the lists that Ukrainians used in order to find the Jews and kill them [during the Holocaust].” And so, for decades, they have done their best to live on what they can grow and preserve themselves.
“That’s a lot of hard, physical labour and work. When they get to 80 or 90 years old, suddenly they can’t do that any more. They can’t go chop wood [for their wood-burning stoves]. They can’t grow the vegetables,” said Eckstein. And they can’t haul enough water from the well ahead of winter to store in their kitchens when it’s icy, “so it leaves them literally starving, without heat and water.”
This past winter, those needs became even more pressing. The IFCJ was already networking with the country’s many small Jewish communities when Russia began amassing its forces at the Ukrainian border. About 200,000 Jews in the former Soviet Union were receiving humanitarian aid, including life-saving aliyah to Israel. A war could further jeopardize Ukraine’s most vulnerable residents.
“Around four days before the war broke out in Ukraine, I flew into Kyiv and assessed the needs on the ground,” said Eckstein. “When I got back [to Israel] the first thing I did was [give] a $1 million emergency preparedness grant to Jewish communities across Ukraine.” She urged them to use the money to buy canned food, mattresses and other emergency supplies in case war broke out. Eckstein said they also connected with major charities in Ukraine, to formulate a broader plan for helping Jewish refugees displaced by the conflict.
As a Jewish philanthropy organization whose success is largely driven by Christian donors, the IFCJ holds a unique role in garnering support for Israel and Jewish causes. It remains one of the largest pro-Israel charities in the world and its data show that it has raised more than $2.6 billion US for Israeli and Jewish causes since its inception in 1983. Since this February, the organization has contributed more than $6 million in aid to Ukrainian Jewish communities, with $1.5 million coming through its Canadian affiliate, the IFCJ Canada.
When it comes to raising funds and support for aliyah, the IFCJ is a powerhouse. In 2021, it brought more than 5,500 olim (immigrants) to Israel. Another 4,000 were resettled this year, including 38 Holocaust survivors who got to Moldova on stretchers. The cost of the transportation to Israel and medical treatment were paid for by the IFCJ, “but the second they landed in Israel, the Israeli government took full responsibility,” said Eckstein.
But, as stated, aliyah isn’t the only way that the IFCJ has provided aid to Ukrainian Jews. In February, the Moldovan government opened its airspace so that the IFCJ could land a plane carrying 15 tons of supplies for Ukrainian refugees displaced by the conflict.
“We off-loaded the 15 tons of humanitarian aid to our partners on the ground to drive it to [refugees] inside of Ukraine and then we loaded the plane with 180 Jewish refugees who were making aliyah and flew them to Israel. When we had enough olim to fill two flights, we immediately flew two flights,” Eckstein said.
Partnerships are key to the success of many of IFCJ’s programs, especially to getting food and clothing to those in need. “We gave the [Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)] and Chabad, for example, millions of dollars. The IFCJ often works with the Jewish Agency in Israel, as well. We create the criteria and the program and they are able to implement it on the ground,” explained Eckstein. “[In] areas like Moldova, when there’s no one else who is able to do it, the fellowship creates the programmatic ability and implements the life-saving plans” that are then carried out by partners.
The IFCJ (initially called the Holyland Fellowship of Christians and Jews) was launched in 1983 by Yael Eckstein’s father, the late Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. According to the organization’s website, its mission was “to fulfil his vision of building bridges of understanding and cooperation between Christians and Jews,” a focus that was reflected in the rabbi’s writings, speeches and broadcasts. In 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fellowship launched its On Wings of Eagles program to fund the transport of Soviet Jews to Israel.
In 2003, the fellowship’s sister organization, IFCJ Canada, was launched to connect with Canadian donors. It contributes to a variety of global humanitarian programs.
“In regard to aliyah,” said IFCJ Canada executive director Jackie Gotwalt, “we work on the ground with local partners providing support and resources for newly landed olim to help them start their new lives in the Holy Land.”
Since 2003, the Canadian organization has raised more than $120 million from its largely Christian donorship, which goes both to supporting aliyah and humanitarian aid in the former Soviet Union and other countries with at-risk Jewish populations, such as Ethiopia, Venezuela and, recently, France.
“The IFCJ focuses on support from Christian friends of the Jewish people to further efforts we support to address the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and in bordering countries and, in particular, assist members of the Jewish community caught in this tragic conflict,” Steven Shulman said.
Shulman serves as the president and chief executive officer of Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, which ensures direction and control of charitable funds raised by Jewish federations throughout Canada. He said the Jewish federations across Canada and IFCJ fundraise independently, though they both work with the Jewish Agency and the American JDC to further the same goals, which are to facilitate aliyah for those who request it and provide humanitarian aid to Jewish communities in the region.
Eckstein said there are many reasons why their Christian donorship contributes to the IFCJ, but at the core is a sense of obligation and a belief that they are doing their part to help Israel stay strong.
“It’s really biblical. Protestant and Evangelical Christians are mostly our donor base. What makes them unique from the other streams of Christianity is that they put a big focus on the Torah. They read the Tanach, what they call the Old Testament,” which places an emphasis on helping the Jewish people return to Israel, Eckstein explained.
“What I’ve seen in the past 18 years of working with Christian friends of Israel is they feel so lucky to be able to play a small part in both saving Jewish lives who [they feel] have been forgotten, neglected [or] persecuted by [others]. [The fact that] now, as Christians, they are able to help them, is something they feel [is] an opportunity and privilege.”
Jan Leeis an award-winning editorial writer whose articles and op-eds have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, issued a special prayer in English and Hebrew to mark the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. It was shared by Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld at the opening of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign Sept. 8, hours after the Queen passed away.
“In an age of profound change, she signified order and justice; and in times of tension, she offered generosity of spirit,” the prayer read. “A defender of faith with an unfailing sense of duty, she was a steadfast guardian of liberty, a symbol of unity and a champion of justice in all the lands of her dominion.… In life, she was a most gracious monarch, who occupied a throne of distinction and honour. In death, may her legacy inspire the nations of the world to live together in righteousness and in peace.”
History’s longest serving British monarch, Elizabeth II passed away 70 years and 214 days after ascending the throne upon the death of her father, King George VI.
Canada’s Governor General Mary Simon paid homage to the Queen and, on Monday, the government announced that Simon and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, perhaps accompanied by others, would represent the country at the monarch’s funeral Sept. 19.
President Isaac Herzog will represent Israel at the Queen’s funeral. Jewish leaders around the world joined others in lauding the Queen’s service.
In 2005, the monarch attended a ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. According to reports, she refused to be ushered away by staff, instead remaining to speak individually to the attendees and listening to each of their experiences of survival.
“She gave each survivor – it was a large group – her focused, unhurried attention. She stood with each until they had finished telling their personal story. It was an act of kindness that almost had me in tears,” the late British chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote afterward. “One after another, the survivors came to me in a kind of trance, saying: ‘Sixty years ago I did not know if I would be alive tomorrow, and here I am today talking to the Queen.’ It brought a kind of blessed closure into deeply lacerated lives.”
Queen Elizabeth II was patron of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, a British government-funded charity that promotes International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Buckingham Palace seems to have maintained an unspoken boycott of Israel, one of the countries the Queen never visited, although she met many Israeli leaders and knighted the former prime minister and president Shimon Peres.
Manfred Gottfried and a group of men on the stairs to the Dr. Sun Yat-sen mausoleum. (photo from VHEC: RA001-5-o7-5-9-0339x)
A little over 20 years ago, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre started the Shanghai Oral History Project. Led by Roberta Kremer and Daniel Fromowitz, the project recorded the oral histories of Vancouver’s small Shanghai Jewish survivor community. They interviewed 10 survivors and/or their descendants, learning about their rich and unique experiences of survival in Shanghai.
This project, along with loaned artifacts and memorabilia, became the basis for VHEC’s 1999 exhibition Shanghai: A Refuge During the Holocaust. It opened alongside another exhibition, Visas for Life: The Story of Feng Shan Ho. Both were well received, and included film screenings on the topic of Jewish refugees in Shanghai, and a demonstration of mahjong, a game which remains popular in the Jewish community in Vancouver. Once the exhibitions concluded, materials were returned to their lenders or safely placed under the VHEC’s care, and the interviews were catalogued and filed away.
In January 2022, I began my co-op position as digital projects coordinator with the VHEC. One of the first tasks assigned to me was to help improve accessibility to the Shanghai interviews and the audiotape transcriptions. In the 20 years since these oral history transcriptions were created, the VHEC has changed its digital file management and storage system. Some files were missing while others were mislabeled. Many files would no longer open within the current version of Microsoft Word. At the top of some transcriptions was a disclaimer: “The whole tape is not transcribed, only that which is related to Shanghai.” Throughout the transcriptions, comments like “(side discussions)” denote what the original transcriber believed to be unrelated to the subject matter.
Rummaging through these transcriptions, it became apparent that I would not simply be “tidying up.” By revisiting the Shanghai Oral History Project, my goal was to do more than just emphasize the unique experiences of this small group of individuals. As I listened to their interviews and transcribed their words, I wanted to offer a glimpse into how Shanghai Jewish survivors expressed themselves and reflected on their time in Shanghai, while also highlighting things that weren’t considered when the exhibition first opened 20 years ago.
On the list of possible interviewees for the Shanghai Oral History Project, George Melcor’s was the only name with “very elderly” added beside it in parentheses. Listening to George’s interview, it became clear that this would be a challenging transcription. George sometimes mumbled, which made it difficult to comprehend his words, or he would mix up his stories. But, for 88-year-old George, Shanghai left an impression. When asked by interviewer Daniel Fromowitz what memories of Shanghai come to mind, George lit up with excitement. “Shanghai was alive all the time. Never closed, always open.… Clubs and gambling, everything was free. Shanghai was a very free city.” At this point, the slow progression of the interview sped up: the emotions in George’s voice suggest that he was reliving his 16-year-old self. For a moment, George was not elderly.
What is striking listening to the Shanghai audiotapes is the dialogue between the interviewer and interviewee. Lore Marie Wiener was interviewed about her experiences in Shanghai by both Roberta and Daniel. But rather than just giving answers, Lore proceeded to converse with both interviewers, asking about where they were born, their experiences growing up and whether they faced antisemitism. Lore was also very reflective. She questioned the nature of Jewishness and what it consists of; she questioned “… why did we not interfere in Rwanda, and we do interfere in Yugoslavia?” With the former, there was a back-and-forth between Roberta and Lore, but, with the latter, Daniel was not sure how much to engage. These side stories provide a picture of Lore that is more than just her experiences of escaping the threat of Nazi violence and survival in Shanghai; it is the continuation of her life after the Holocaust.
Lastly, how did the interviewees recall, if any, their connection to the local Chinese and Japanese communities? In general, although interviewees were in Shanghai, Chinese people featured only in the background. They were acquaintances, as was the case for Anne Chick and the two Chinese kids living in her neighbourhood. For most interviewees who did interact with Chinese people, it was through a working relationship with Chinese servants, workers or amahs.
For Lore, she employed several Chinese tailors in her shop, as well as a chauffeur and a cook called Dun-zen. Interracial relationships were also possible. Kurt Weiss noted that, after divorcing his first wife, he had a Chinese girlfriend until he left Shanghai. Gerda Gottfried Kraus mentioned in passing how, in postwar Shanghai, one of her acquaintances married a Chinese woman and wanted to bring her with him to the United States. Knowledge of some Chinese, particularly Shanghainese, was also a common theme found in these interviews, though many interviewees state that they’ve either forgotten it after not using it for so long, or knew only the absolute basics. Additionally, they never learned how to read Chinese characters.
Knowledge of Japanese people was more limited. Kurt’s success as a suit salesman was due to his patron relationship with a Japanese engineer named Kato. Lore mentioned she was helped by a Japanese engineer when she and her mother were stranded in Harbin. But the one individual whom most interviewees referenced was Ghoya, the Japanese commandant of Hongkew ghetto. Ghoya developed a reputation as an unpredictable ruler: while Lore mentioned that her father and husband were treated well by Ghoya due to their academic connections, other interviewees mentioned episodes of violence committed by Ghoya and his guards against the Hongkew inhabitants. Their brutality is matched only by their treatment of the local Chinese. Most interviewees mentioned the mistreatment that local Chinese faced.
The experiences of Shanghai Jewish survivors are often overlooked when compared to those who survived in Europe. Lore was very concerned about this. At the end of her interview, she stated: “I’m not uncomfortable with anything. [But] … just try to be careful about the parts where I am too pleased with my life because there are so many people who suffered.” With the “global turn” in academic research into the Holocaust, the sub-category of “Shanghai survivor” has been gaining strength. It is a term that validates the experiences of refugee Jews and others who survived the Holocaust in Shanghai, while also acknowledging the unique circumstances and challenges they faced.
It is heartening to know that, in the 20-plus years since the VHEC’s Shanghai exhibition, research into this dimension of the Holocaust and the voices of these survivors have not been obscured, but, instead, have expanded into a vibrant subfield. By revisiting past projects and exhibitions, and making them more accessible, we can hopefully gean new information about the Holocaust and the multiplicity of survivors’ experiences.
Ryan Cheuk Him Sunis a PhD candidate in the University of British Columbia department of history. His research examines the entangled histories between Jewish refugees escaping Nazi oppression and the British colonies of Hong Kong and Singapore. He is also interested in the journeys that took Jewish refugees to East Asia, and their experiences in transit onboard ships and trains. He can be reached at [email protected]. This article was originally published in the VHEC’s Spring 2022 issue of Zachor.
The Masorti synagogue in Chernivtsi Ukraine has become a refuge for Ukrainians fleeing the war. Its new aron kodesh, built by grateful refugees, has become a symbol of the partnership being forged between small, out-of-the-way communities and those fleeing for safety. (photo from Schechter Institutes Inc.)
As the war in Ukraine continues, educational and religious organizations that helped support the country’s fledgling Jewish communities are finding they have a new mandate these days: to help the millions of refugees that have been left homeless by the Russian invasion.
More than 12 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine, eight million of whom are internally displaced. According to a May 5 report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, most of those affected are women and children. In many cases, the refugees have either lost family members in the bombings or have been separated from loved ones. A significant number are struggling to find shelter, food and resources.
Schechter Institutes Inc. president Rabbi David Golinkin told the Independent that synagogues and Jewish day schools have become refuges for Jews and non-Jews alike in recent months. The institute’s educational program, Midreshet Schechter Ukraine, which partners with Masorti Olami, provides funding and educational services for Conservative communities in Ukraine. Golinkin said three of the four Masorti (Conservative) synagogues are located in regions that have been hit by bombing, including in Kyiv, where Schechter had just opened a facility in January.
Golinkin said the two nonprofits had spent more than a year finalizing the purchase of a building that would be big enough to house a sanctuary, as well as a full array of youth programs and services. Two weeks after purchasing the property, however, Russia invaded Ukraine, forcing the community to suspend the opening. As Russian troops advanced toward Kyiv, community members were urged to leave the city. Some congregants sought refuge at the Masorti synagogue in Chernivtsi, near the Romanian border, while others headed out of the country to Poland, Moldova or Romania.
Three months into the war, the Chernivtsi synagogue, tucked away in southern Ukraine, has become known for its hospitality toward those fleeing the conflict. A steady flow of refugees fills the city every day, many turning up at the Masorti facility looking for a bed or a meal. Others head to the Chabad House located nearby. Golinkin said the two organizations have learned to work together, and will refer refugees to the other community when their own facility is full. No one is turned away, whether they are Jewish or not.
Schechter and Masorti Olami also work with partners across Western Europe, Israel and North America to help Ukrainians who are seeking refuge outside of the country. Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, who serves as the executive director for the educational programs of Midreshet Schechter and oversees programs in Ukraine, said hundreds of refugees have relocated to Israel, Berlin and other places with the help of Masorti congregations across Europe. She said the most moving example was the rescue of a teenage boy from eastern Ukraine whose parents had died. Volunteers made the 1,000-kilometre trip through war zones to bring him to Chernivtsi.
“[It] was a terrifying experience for him,” Gritsevskaya said, “since it took three days without basically sleeping or eating [to reach Chernivtsi]. Finally, with a lot of help from the Israeli government, we managed to bring him [to Israel].” She said he seems happy with his new home and his new school. “He always wanted to come to Israel,” she said.
Cities in eastern Ukraine are still hemorrhaging populations, driven by the escalating war in border cities and villages. Yuri Radchenko, who leads the Masorti synagogue in Kharkiv, is the director and co-founder of the Centre for Inter-Ethnic Relations in Eastern Europe, a think tank of researchers who specialize in Eastern European and Jewish history. He said most of the members of his small synagogue were able to flee the city. A few chose to remain behind.
“Some teachers [have] elderly parents who are … unable to move from the city,” said Radchenko. He estimates that 30-50% of Kharkiv’s two million residents escaped before the Russians captured parts of the city, which has been heavily damaged from Russian shelling. Many residents sought cover for months in Kharkiv’s fortified subway and other makeshift shelters. Recent estimates suggest at least a quarter of Kharkiv’s residential housing has been destroyed, along with crucial infrastructure.
Still, Radchenko said many who fled the country hope that they may one day be able to return home. “People understand that it is hard to make a change,” he said, noting that immigrating to another country often means starting at a lower employment level in an unfamiliar culture. He speculated that some residents will follow the example of other postwar populations and return to rebuild their city if Ukraine wins the war. And, indeed, many of the residents who sought shelter in Kharkiv’s underground shelters are gradually returning home to repair their apartments and clean up the rubble.
Radchenko said he can empathize with them. Much of his own work was put on hold when he was forced to flee. “I would come back to Kharkiv,” he said definitively. “[If] I could move back, I would not wait. I think I would visit to see how it looks like, but I would come back if my apartment and the district where it’s located were safe.”
For now, Schechter and Masorti are taking the long view of the war. Russia’s continuing attacks mean increased risk to civilian populations, more refugees on the run and more uncertainty. The conflict also means an even greater need to bolster resources at the Chernivtsi synagogue, so that Jews can continue to come and pray, learn and find a good kosher meal there, and refugees can find support. But Schechter and Masorti know that a significant number of Jewish communities in Ukraine will need to be rebuilt. And that will take both time and money.
Schechter’s director of development Michal Makov-Peled said the Cantors Assembly will be hosting an hour-long telethon of music and stories on June 12 to raise money for Schechter and Masorti Olami’s emergency campaign. She said the funds will go toward assisting Jewish communities in Ukraine, as well as increasing support for refugees, which is expected to be an ongoing need, for now.
“We have 11 apartments that we are renting [to refugees in Chernivtsi],” Makov-Peled said, adding that they also distribute food to Jewish communities in Kyiv and Odessa, where residents are slowly returning, but which have been economically impacted by the conflict.
In Chernivtsi, communities are also finding rhythm and a new way of life. Some are exploring ways to expand the small synagogue’s services, others want to pay back the generosity they have been shown. Gritsevskaya said the synagogue now has a new aron kodesh (ark) to house its Torah, built by grateful visitors who saw a need. “Many aren’t members of the Chernivtsi community, but were just passing through,” said Gritsevskaya.
The June 12 Cantors Assembly performance, Mivtza Ukraine, will be aired around the world on YouTube and Facebook. To make a donation or for more information, log on to cantors.org/mivtzaukraine.
Jan Leeis an award-winning editorial writer whose articles and op-eds have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.