Monday, August 3, 2015

My Grandfather’s Gallery: A Family Memoir of Art and War by Anne Sinclair 2014

"...[Sinclair] tells the story of her grandfather’s life thematically, reassembling it from several vantage points. And in telling that tale she also recounts her own discovery of a part of her heritage she previously had chosen to ignore." from a review by Judy Bolton-Fasman in the Boston Globe 10/11/14

Anne Sinclair’s maternal grandfather, Paul Rosenberg, was a major Parisian art dealer before and after World War II. Like other Jewish owners of objects of value, his art work was both “officially” confiscated by the Nazis as well as looted. Many of the artists Rosenberg represented were creators of what Hitler called "degenerate art." Sinclair writes this memoir to explain who her grandfather was, what happened to the art he owned during the war, and how he and other family members went about trying to retrieve it.

Sinclair understands the delicate nature of her undertaking, She makes the important point that what happened to her family pales in comparison to what happened to others who lost their lives.  Her well-connected, large extended family managed to get passports and visas out of the country. Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art in New York sponsored Paul Rosenberg’s immigration to the U.S. Rosenberg fled with his family through Spain to Portugal, to New York City where he established another art gallery.

Much of this memoir has to do with Rosenberg’s relationships to the artists he nurtured and promoted– most prominently Picasso. The author explains how he worked with his artists, often buying paintings outright so that the artists had more or less steady income. When the family felt they needed to leave France, he hid his art in safe deposit boxes and in homes in the countryside where he had been living before they fled. He had already sent some art to England and to the U.S. for safe-keeping.

The story Sinclair tells about finding and retrieving the art after the war is sadly familiar. Much of it on the continent was gone. Investigations revealed that many businessmen collaborated with the Nazis and many of them went unpunished. Stolen art changed hands, landed in private collections and museums and no one seemed to care. After much inquiring and searching on the family’s part they retrieved all but about 60 of 400 paintings, many of which the family has since donated to museums. Sinclair is particularly fond of a work painted by Picasso in 1918 of her grandmother with her mother sitting on her lap which now hangs at the Musee Picasso in France.

Family
Author’s mother/s family
Alexandre Rosenberg – married Mathilde Jellinek
     Paul Rosenberg – son of Alexandre and Mathilde; married Marguerite Loevi
          Micheline Rosenberg – daughter of Paul and Marguerite; married Robert Schwartz (Sinclair)
                Anne Rosenberg – daughter of Micheline and Robert
          Alexandre Rosenberg – son of Paul and Marguerite; married Elaine
                Elisabeth and Marianne Rosenberg – daughters of Alexandre and Elaine
     Leonce Rosenberg – son of Alexandre and Mathilde
          Lucienne Rosenberg – daughter of Leonce

Jacques Helft – Paul Rosenberg’s brother-in-law; exact relationship unclear
Michel, Marianne, and Madeleine Loevi - siblings of Marguerite

Friends and Acquaintances
Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler
Georges Wildenstein
Gilbert Levy

To read an article in the New York Times about the Post War effort to retrieve the art, click here.
To read an article about an on-going saga about an art collection left after the war in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, click here.

Places
Bratislava, Slovakia
Paris, France
21 rue La Boetie
Drancy, Paris
New York City, New York


Monday, July 6, 2015

Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film by Glenn Kurtz 2014

"Every act of preservation, Kurtz observes, is only temporary, 'a brief swirl in the relentless flow of dissolution.' Eventually, everything and everyone gets lost. Jewish Nasielsk is a town that exists only in memory and those memories — of stonecutters and storytellers, mischievous school boys, a little girl with a red ribbon in her hair — are fading. In the pages of Glenn Kurtz's marvelous book, the ghosts from those three minutes are breathtakingly brought to life." from a review by Louise Steinman in the Los Angles Times 11/20/14.

Tucked away in his parents’ house in Florida was a three minute home movie taken by the author’s grandfather, David Kurtz, of a return trip to his birthplace in 1938 to the shtetl Nasielsk in Poland nearWarsaw.  The author, who states that he never had had much interest in exploring his Jewish identity, was fascinated at this glimpse of a Jewish population connected to his family. Because just almost all of them were killed during Nazi roundups, he felt compelled to learn as much as he could about where the film was exactly shot and who the people in the film were.

What ensued was a journey that took a number of years and involved travel to cities and towns in the United States, Europe and Israel to retrieve information and interview survivors who were still alive and members of their families. One of his great pleasures was showing the film to survivors who became excited when they could identify their younger selves or one of their parents or a sibling or a neighbor or a friend or town merchant. The film  triggered memories of their childhood and relationships that they thought they had forgotten. At least one survivor said that the film gave him back his childhood.

Glenn Kurtz was able to put together many pieces of the puzzle by following up on leads provided by survivors, by searching in archives, and by interviewing historians, archivists, and Jewish scholars as well as survivors. It is fascinating to see how piecing together a constellation of clues often  prompted  major discoveries – a positive identification, a relationship, a photo found in an official file or in an album owned by a survivor or relative. The longer Kurtz worked on deciphering the puzzles presented by the film, the more  expertise he acquired, which led him to rephrase his questions, which often led him back to information in a source he’d previously researched but whose details he now realized were significant.

Throughout, Kurtz provides a  broader historical context for what happened in the town and to the members of the town.  Through both personal stories and historical documentation he manages to give life to a community that on film is very much alive. They had little idea of what was to come.

This memoir includes photos, and notes listing many institutions and resources.

To read or listen to an interview with the author that  had been broadcast on National Public Radio, to read an excerpt from the memoir, and to watch the three minutes in Poland film clip, click here.

To watch a video of the author talking about his project to identify people in his grandfather's home movie, click here.

Family
(Hermann) Hyman Kurtz – married Leah Diamond (Diamont)
     David Kurtz – son of Hyman and Lea; married Lena (Liza) Saltzman
         Jerry Kurtz – son of David and Lena
         Shirley Kurtz – daughter of David and Lena; married Jack Mandel
         Milton Kurtz – son of David and Lena; married Dede
            Roger Kurtz – son of Milton and Dede; married to Cynthia
                David Kurtz – son of Roger and Cynthia
           Dana Kurtz  – daughter of Milton and Dede; married to Rob
           Glenn Kurtz – son of Milton and Dede; author
    William Kurtz – son of Hyman and Leah
    Harry Kurtz – son of Hyman and Leah



David Diamond – sister of Lea Diamond (see above) – married to Essie Malina
     Fred Diamond – son of David and Essie
           Ronnie Diamond – granddaughter of David and Essie (parents’ names not included)
Louis Malina – sister of Essie; married to Lillian “Rosie”
           David Malina – grandson of Louis and Lillian (parents’ names not included)
           Jane Malina Levinson – granddaughter of Louis and Lillian (   “   )
Eliahu Kubel and Frumet Haze Kubel; cousin of Louis and Essie Malina (exact relationship not clear) 
     Sura Kubel Goldsmith – daughter of Eliahu and Frumet; cousin of Louis and Essie Malina
           Faith Ohlstein – daughter of Sura
           Jerry Goldsmith – son of Sura; married to Nikki
     Shandle Kubel – daughter of Eliahu and Frumet
     Chaja Kubel – daughter of Eliahu and Frumet
     Mindl Kubel – daughter of Eliahu and Frumet; married Josef Lederman
     Avrum Kubel – son of Eliahu and Frumet
     Rachel Kubel – daughter of Eliahu and Frumet
 David Kubel – cousin; exact relationship unclear

Haskell Bab (Babszuk) – grandfather of Lena Saltzman (exact relationship unclear)
 Chaim Saltzman - author's father's maternal grandfather
 Lena Saltzman – daughter of Chaim; married Hermann Kurtz (see above)
 Rose Saltzman – daughter of Chaim
      Lee – daughter of Rose
 Fannie Saltzman – daughter of Chaim; married Louis Karpf

Baruch Gershkowitz – married to Leah Kanat; distant cousin of Lena Saltzman Kurtz (see above)
     George Gershkowitz – son of Baruch and Leah
     Julius Gershkowitz – son of Baruch and Leah
    Channah Gershkowitz – daughter of Baruch and Leah
     Ruchel Gershkowitz – daughter of Baruch and Leah
     Saul Gershkowitz – son of Baruch and Leah; married Irma
Bernice Schechter – cousin of author; exact relationship unclear

Friends and Acquaintances
Mordehai and Libo Ajzenberg
     Cesia Ajzenberg (Susan Eisenberg) Weiss – daughter of Mordehai and Libo
Natanal (Sana) Milchberg – married Hendl Nordwind
     Fajga (Faiga) Milchberg – daughter of Sana and Hendl; married to Szmuel (Samuel) Tyk (Tick)
           Malca Tick – daughter of Faiga and Samuel; married David Reiss
           Heather Tick – daughter of Faiga and Samuel
     Yehiel Milchberg – son of Sana and Hendl
     Pesa Milchberg – daughter of Sana and Hendl
     Efraim Milchberg – son of Sana and Hendl
Ruchla Tyk- sister of Szmuel
Masha Nordwind – sister of Hendl
Boris Yehuda Skalka
      Israel (Srul) Skalka – son of Boris Yehuda; married Dvora Friedman
      Chawa Skalka – daughter of Srul and Dvora; married Jehouszua (Szaja) Tuchendler
            Avrum Tuchendler – son of son of Szaja and Chawa
           Moszek Tuchendler (Maurice Chandler) – son of Szaja and Chawa; married Dorris
                  Debra Chandler – daughter of Maurice and Dorris
                  Evelyn Chandler – daughter of Maurice and Dorris; married to Steve Rosen
                        Marcy Rosen – daughter of Evelyn and Steve; married David Eisenberg
                              Lev Eisenberg – son of Marcy and David
                        Jason  Rosen – son of Evelyn and Steve - married to Esther Lee
                        Emily Rosen – daughter of Evelyn and Steve
           Dawid Tuchendler – son of Szaja and Chawa
      Jankiel Skalka – son of Srul and Dvora; married Malka
           Brucha and Selig Skalka – children of Jankiel and Malka

   Elia Applebaum – nephew of Chawa Skalka (mother was Chawa’s sister); married daughter of Rabbi Chaim Fine
   Sarah-Achicam Fine – daughter of Rabbi Chaim Fine; sister of Elia Applebaum’s wife

Israel and Paja Kulas
      Meir Kulas – son of Israel and Paja
      Czarna Ida Kulas Zimmer – daughter of Israel and Paja

David Leib  and Ester  Szmerlak (Schmerlak) (Simon)
Yitzhak and Frida Piekarek
      Jankiel Piekarek – son of Yitzhak and Frida
      Gitta (Gloria) Piekarek Rubin – daughter of Yitzhak and Frida

Mendel and Riza Perelmuter
      Fishl Perelmuter – son of Mendel and Riza
           Rizla Perelmuter – daughter of Fishl
      Sura Perelmuter – daughter of Mendel and Riza, married Avrum Landau
           Felix Landau – son of Sura and Avrum
      Josef Perelmuter – son of Mendel and Riza
          Dina Perelmuter – daughter of Josef
               Sophia Perelmuter Wolkowitz – daughter of Dina
          Fishl Perelmuter – son of Josef
     Chaim David Perelmuter – son of Mendel and Riza

Leibl and Faiga Owsianka
Arieh Czarko
     Shimon Czarko – son of Arieh

Chaim Nusen Cwajghaft (Tsvaighaft)
    Abram (Avraham Isser) Cwajghaft; son of Chaim Nusen
Unszer Swarcbert  (Shmuel Usher Schwartzberg)
    Laja Swarcberg (Leah Schwartzberg) – daughter of Unszer; married Louis (Lejba, Leibl) Silverstein (Zylbersztajn)
    Idessa Swarcberg (Schwartzberg) – daughter of Unszer; married Shloma Rychermann (Solomon Richman)
        Keva Richman – son of Idessa and Solomon; married to Beverly
  Itzhak Koprak- nephew of Usnzer; married Channa Koprak
       Morchechai (Mikhail) Koprak – son of Itzhak and Channa

Fajwel Lejbowicz – married Szeindla Waligura
Mordechai Rajczyk
Majer (Meir) Filar

Jankiel and Chana Glodek
    Abraham Glodek – son of Jankiel and Chana
    Leibl Glodek – son of Jankiel and Chana
    Herszek Glodek – son of Jankiel and Chana
    Szlamek Glodek – son of Jankiel and Chana
    Gittla Glodek – daughter of Jankiel and Chana
 Leslie (Lejzor) Glodek – married Celia
           Jennifer Glodek – daughter of Leslie and Celia; married Jonathan Benn
           Graham Glodek – son of Leslie and Celia; married Maria

Mottl Brzoza
Moshe (Mojsze) Cyrlak; married   ?    Srebro
     Israel Cyrlak – son of Moshe
Abram Gutman – married Chaya Finkelstein
    Grace Gutman Pahl – daughter of Chaya Finkelstein
    Lonia Gutman – daughter of Abram and Chaya
 Rivka Finkelstein – probably a relative of Chaya

Hersz Jagoda
    Michael Jagoda – son of Hersz
     Jankiel (Jacques) Jagoda – son of Hersz
Leib Jagoda
Israel Yagoda – uncle of Natan and Arie – exact relationship unclear
? and Elkie Yagoda
     Natan Yagoda – son of ? and Elkie
     Arie Yagoda – son of ? and Elkie; married to Shifra

Moszek (Moshe) Rotsztejn (Rotstein) (Mark Rothstein) – brother of Avruml and Simcha
Avruml (Rotsztejn) Rotstein – brother of Moshe and Simcha
Simcha (Rotsztejn) Rotstein – brother of Moshe and Avruml
Saul Reingewirtz (Raimi)
Chaim Huberman
Tuwia Blaszka
Mendel Bergazyn
Leib Jedwab
Abraml Jedwab
Shiye Brozoza
Shimon Kaminski

Idel and Czarna Skornik
     Maryisia Skornik- daughter of Idel and Czarna
Moshe Skornik – distant relative of Idel
     Peril Skornik – daughter of Moshe
              Yiniv Goldberg – grandson of Peril

Leon (Ljzor)  Finklestein (Finkielsztejn) – btother-in-law of Czarna Skornik (exact relationship unclear)
Icchok Buchman – brother of Fajwel
Fajwel Buchman – brother of Icchok
Ita Melman
            Anat Aderet – granddaughter of Ita
Rachel Rosenthal – married Chaim Laks
Itzhak and Channa Koprak
       Morchechai (Mikhail) Koprak – son of Itzhak and Channa
Neshka Rosenberg
Irving Novetsky
Morris Laboda
Boyes Sheinbaum (Szejnbaum)
Meilich (Moyshe) Hokhman
Jankiel (Jack) Weingarten
Moishe Borstein

Yitzhak Leib Lubieniecki
       Hershel (Henry) Lubieniecki – son of Yitzhak
       Andrzej (Avram Moshe) Lubieniecki – son of Yitzhak; married Manya (Maria) Wlosko
       Shimon Lubieniecki – son of Yitzhak

Abrahm Itzhak Wlosko – father of Manya
Berl-Bernard Mark
Perla Tch
Zelda Beharier
Heike Goldwasser
Manya Goldwasser
Miriam Myrla – married Josef Skurnik; second husband   - Sadik
       Carla Sadik Blumenthal – daughter of Miriam and - Sadik
Czarna Myrla – sister of Miriam and Malka
Malka Myrla – sister of Miriam and Czarna

Abraham and Leah Vilchinski (Wilczynski)
     Valek (Mordekhai) Vilchinski – son of Abraham and Lea
     Tadek (Yitzkhak) Vilchinski – son of Abraham and Lea
Faigele Pludwinski (Pludwin)

Leiser Horowitz
Boruch Filar
Aron Filar
Leibl Filar


Places
Berezne, Poland
Nasielsk, Poland
Sarny, Poland
Mokvyn, Poland
Radzyn, Poland
Nowy Dwor, Poland
Jablonna, Poland
Warsaw, Poland
Bialystok, Poland
Warsaw ghetto
Piekielko labor camp
Flatbush, Brooklyn NY
Roslyn, NY
Palm Beach Gardens, NY
Boca Raton, Fla
Detroit, Michigan
Bloomfield, Michigan
Windso, Ontario, Canada
London, England
Nachlat Nashelsk, Kiryat Ono, Israel
Paris, France

Monday, June 1, 2015

Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind by Sarah Wildman 2014

"The book weaves together the historical with the intensely personal, redefining what counts as appropriate archival material and elevating intimate aspects from Valy’s life, and Wildman’s own, to new importance." from a review in the Times of Israel written by Batya Unger-Sargon 11/7/14

After the author Sarah Wildman’s grandparents died, much to her surprise she found a cache of letters, including photos, mostly passionate letters written by a young woman, Valerie Scheftel to her grandfather. In 1938 her 26-year-old grandfather had left her behind in Vienna six months after the Anschluss, when he left for America with his mother, sister, brother-in-law and nephew. This engaging and suspenseful memoir narrates the author’s attempts to unravel the story behind the letters that stop at the end of 1941 when America entered the war.

What struck Sarah Wildman in particular as she read the letters was that although she had felt close to her grandfather, she knew little or nothing about his life in Europe. A doctor who graduated from the University of Vienna Medical School just before Jews were forbidden to attend, he appeared to be happy. He was constantly upbeat. Now, reading Valy’s letters and others from family members left behind who begged him for official papers and money in order to flee increasingly dangerous circumstances, she had to rethink her assumptions. She wanted a better understanding of what had happened and she wanted to find out who Valerie Scheftel was.

The author, a practicing journalist, spent years visiting cities and towns in Europe retracing Valy’s steps, all the time consulting with Holocaust scholars at academic institutions and archives in Europe and in the United States.  She was in the first contingent to visit the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen in Germany once it opened to the public.  Her extensive research required time commitments, financial resources and persistence, and the reader looks over her shoulder as she finds documents and listens to conversations she has with experts and with a few family members still alive.

One of the strengths of this memoir is that the author contextualizes the lives of her grandfather and Valy and others caught in Europe in the 1930’s by describing geography, the constantly changing living conditions, the constantly added restrictions that led to the increasing strangulation of Jewish life, the establishment of the ghettos, the roundups, the camps.

In the process of doing the research and writing the book she gives birth to two children. She realizes that she is the last generation to have a direct connection to survivors. For her daughters the Holocaust will be a more distanced historical event. Sarah Wildman's connection to this story is immediate and visceral.

To read about another family trapped in Vienna, click http://www.timesofisrael.com/75-years-after-anschluss-nazi-shadows-haunt-austria/.
To read an article about how to commemorate the Holocaust after all survivors have died, click here.

Family
Sarah Feldschuh – married Josef Wildmann
    Manele Wildmann – son of Josef; married to Chaja
         Lotte Wildmann Sudarskis – daughter of Manele and Chaja
              Georges Sudarskis – son of Lotte
              Gilbert Sudarskis – son of Lotte
         Blanka Wildmann – daughter of Manele and Chaja
         Regina Wildmann Hirschfeld – daughter of Manele and Chaja
         Josef Moses Wildmann – son of Manele and Chaja
    Chaim (Karl) Judah Wildmann – son of Sarah; married Dorothy Kolman
         Joseph Wildman – son of Karl and Dorothy; married Margot
                Sarah Wildman – daughter of Joseph and Margot; partner of Ian Halpern;                       author
                       Orli and Hana – daughters of Sarah Wildman and Ian Halpern
                Rebecca Wildman – daughter of Joseph and Margot; married to Michael Repetti
    Celia Wildman – daughter of Sarah; married to Carl Feldschuh
         Shirley Feldschuh – daughter of Celia and Carl
         Joseph Feldschuh – son of Celia and Carl
Sam Feldschuh – brother of Sarah; married Fanny Hollenberg
Henryka and Benzion Feldschuh – cousins, exact relationship unclear
Isiu and Dolfi Feldschuh – relationship not clear
Reuven Ben-Shem (Feldschuh) – Pnina 1st wife; Ruth 2nd wife ; exact relationship unclear
     Josena Feldschuh – daughter of Reuven and Pnina
     Kami (Nechemia) Ben-Shem – son of Reuven and Ruth; married to Shely
           Sharon Ben-Shem – daughter of Kami and Shely

Friends
Hanna (Toni) Flamm – married Franz Scheftel
Valerie Scheftel – daughter of Franz and Toni; married to Hans Fabisch
Ilse Charlotte Fabisch  – sister of Hans; married to Paul Yogi Mayer
      Carol Mayer  – daughter of Ilse and Paul; married to Ed Levene
              Charlotte and Jessica Levene – daughters of Carol and Ed
Rudof and Dora Fabisch – parents of Ilse and Hans
Paul Fabisch – brother of Rudolf
Walter Raschkow – relative of Hans Fabisch; exact connection unclear
     Ingeborg Raschkow – daughter of Walter
Julius Flamm – uncle of Toni; married to Rozia
Bruno Klein
Tonya Morganstern – married Alan Warner
Benno Weiser Varron
Paula Hollander
Alfred Jospe
Walter Lustig
Elli Konigsfield
Ruth Koningfield Schnell – sister of Elli
David Teichmann
Gertrude Striem
Earnest and Margot Fontheim

Places
Zaleszczyki, Poland (now in Ukraine)
Borszczow, Ukraine
Vienna, Austria
Wahlringer Cemetery, Vienna
Berlin, Germany
Jewish Hospital, Berlin
Troppau, Czechoslovakia
Breslau, Poland (was Germany until 1945)
Pittsfield, Massachusetts
Cranbury, New Jersey
London, England
Israel

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace by Alexander Stille

"It is Mr. Stille’s determination to use his skills as a reporter to flesh out his family’s history that lends this book its depth of field and emotional ballast." from a review by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times  3/21/2013

Alexander Stille’s intention in this interesting memoir is to explore how geography, history and culture shaped each of his parents individually and how their different backgrounds contributed to their volatile marriage and to his upbringing. The author, a journalist, is the son of Mikhail (Misha) Kamenetzki, also a journalist, whose family had fled Russia in the wake of the Russian Revolution and settled in Italy, only to have to flee from Italy to the United States as Europe became immersed in World War II.  Mikhail Kamenetzki took the name Ugo Stille, shared with a journalist friend, so he could continue as a journalist in Italy when Mussolini was in power. When he finally got to New York he kept the pen name and continued as a journalist, working as a foreign correspondent reporting to Italy from the U.S.

Among the most vivid scenes in the memoir are those that take place in Italy. The author uses his skills as a journalist to recreate the historical moment and his family’s precarious position – his grandfather used every means possible to find their way out and get to America. Like many other Jews, he sensed doom if he didn’t try everything. But unlike many, he was successful, partly because he had some resources, he was resourceful, persistent, and lucky. A distant relative in the United States never responded to his plea to sponsor them. But as luck and trial and error would have it, a total stranger whose name he plucked from a phone book agreed to sponsor them. It took two years, many days spent on line at the American Embassy, but eventually he was able to leave with his wife and two children.

After the author fills us in on the background of his Protestant  mother and her family and her move to New York, he writes about how, unhappily married to her first husband, she finds herself at the same party as Misha Kamenetzki, one in honor of Truman Capote. In some ways it was an example of the adage “Opposites attract.” Most likely her American character as well as her good looks attracted him. Something of a rebel, she was perhaps attracted to his “otherness,” certainly to his worldliness and his ability to attract a following of literati and other intellectuals. 

Through Stille’s chronicling of their marriage, old age and death he fleshes out their personalities. He also spends some time exploring his father’s ambivalent relationship to his Jewishness. His father had never told his wife that he was Jewish before they married and it seems he would have been just as happy to not reveal that fact at all. That being said, there are times when he acts and reacts to situations that acknowledge his Jewish roots.

That his father was quite an interesting character is quite clear. That he was shaped by “The Force of Things,” as expressed in the title, is a large part of why he was so interesting. That the author has been shaped by that history as well goes without saying.

To read an article about Italian Jews during World War II click here.
To read an obituary of Ugo Stille click here.

Family
Author’s father’s father’s family
Israel Kamenetzki
    Ilya Kamenetzki – son of Israel; married Sara Altschuler
             Mikhail Kamenetski (Michael, Misha U. [Ugo] Stille) - son of Ilya and Sarah; married    Elizabeth Bogert
                     Lucy Stille – daughter of Mikhail and Elizabeth
                    Alexander Stille – son of Mikhail and Elizabeth; author
   Myra Kamenetzki – daughter of Israel

Author’s father’s mother’s family:
Moses Altschuler
      Rosa Altschuler – daughter of Moses
      Sara Altschuler – daughter of Moses; married to Ilya Kamenetzki (see above)

Places
Mir, Russia (now Belarus)
Riga, Latvia
Moscow, Russia
Formia, Italy

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction by David Weiss Halivni 1996

"Halivni's book is surprisingly rich and resonant . . ." from a review by Jonathan Kirsch in the Los Angeles Times 10/16/1996

David Weiss HaLivni has written a memoir in order to tell the story of his life from a religious and spiritual perspective. Until he and his family were deported to Auschwitz when he was a teenager, he spent his early years from about the age of five with his grandparents in Sighet, Romania where his Hassidic maternal grandfather was his mentor. The author was precocious indeed, and although he insists his capacity to memorize was not unusual, as a very young learner he memorized large tracts of the Talmud. He was his grandfather’s pride and joy, his family’s pride and joy, as well as the community’s.

He relates later that his extensive Talmud learning helped him in the various Concentration camps he was assigned to. He impressed fellow inmates with how much he had learned and their reverence for learning stirred a number of them to help him survive. This included at least one Jewish kapo.

When HaLivni was liberated, he first went back to Sighet where he found out that his family had all perished. He then spent some time with a family friend in Budapest, then moved to a Displaced Person’s camp in Germany. From there he was sent to New York with other orphaned children and stayed in places where he refused to eat the food until others could prove it was kosher. It was at this point that Jewish American religious scholars encountered his vast learning.

HaLivni, who went on to teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary and then Columbia University, writes about charting his own course. Yeshiva scholars advised him against going to a secular college, wanting him to devote all his time to Talmud, but  HaLivni was interested in the secular world as well as the religious, so he attended yeshiva and Brooklyn College simultaneously.

HaLivni devotes very important chapters to the Holocaust, how he was affected by it, and how and why he still has faith in God despite what he experienced and despite having lost his family. He also writes about how certain beliefs by members of the general public concerning the Holocaust disturb him. For example, he says it is not true that every survivor feels guilt for having made it out alive.

This memoir leaves the reader with a lot to think about. His exploration of his own life as a survivor (he tells little of his traumatic experiences as a concentration camp prisoner) reinforces the notion that survivors are not a monolithic group. Their reactions are shaped by their upbringing, past experiences, circumstances, and individual personalities.

This memoir includes a detailed and useful glossary explaining religious terminology and well as describing who historical personages mentioned in the body of his work were.

To watch a video of a discussion between Elie Weisel (who grew up in Sighet)  and Oprah Winfrey about Auschwitz and to see them at Auschwitz, click here.

To read about the study of the Talmud, click here.

People
Family
Shaye Weiss   
            Channa Yitte Weiss – daughter of Shaye; married Yisroel Yehuda Katina (a cousin)
            Ethyl Weiss- daughter of Shaye
            Feige Weiss – daughter of Shaye; marries and divorces Zallel Weiderman
            Channa Yitte Weiss – daughter of Feige and Zalell; (took name Weiss once parents divorced)
            Leitzu Weiss – daughter of Feige and Zalell; (took name of Weiss once parents divorced)
David Weiss Livni – son of Feige and Zallel; (took name of Weiss once parents divorced); married Tzipora;  took name Livni is the U.S..
            Shai Livni – son of David Weiss Livni – married Diane Kushnir
Leib Weiss – brother of Shaye
Shiya Maggid – distant relative
Sarah  Festinger – author’s great aunt

Menachem Mendel Hager – grandfather of Tzipora – wife of author

Friends and Acquaintances
Beryl Landau
Shlomo Weiss
Leizar Hoch
Naftali Elimelech Schiff
Menachem Mendel Hager
Shimi Weiss
Rutzi Kratz
Yekutiel Yehuda Teitelbaum
Zalman Leib Gross
Menyu Rubin
Moshe Finklestein
Shulamit Halkin
Saul Lieberman
Aaron Kotler
Joel Teitelbaum
Yizhak Hutner
Louis Finkelstein
Gerson Cohen
Joel Roth
Laibl Kahan
Oskar Dob
Joshua Herschel Friedmann
Chaim Lieberman
Moshe Scharf
Aaron Wertheim

Places
Sighet, Romania
Kobolecka Poljana, Ukraine (formerly Czechoslovakia)
Khust, Ukraine
Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp, in the former Czechoslovakia
Visheva, Ukraine
Ungvar (Uzhgorod), Ukraine
Tyachevo, Ukraine
Jewish Theological Seminary, NYC
Windsheim Displaced Person’s Camp, Germany
Yeshivas rav Chaim Berlin, NYC

 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson (a novel) published in 1947, published in English in 2010, translated by Damion Searles

"... [T]his is entirely attributable to Keilson's artistry, knowing the small details, having a sense of the house where Nico is being hidden, knowing the main characters well … all this makes the fear, anxiety and distress of the situation these 'normal' people find themselves in palpable." from a review in the Globe and Mail by Andre Alexis 9/3/2010

Hans Keilson, a German Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, has written a novella that draws on many of the experiences of his life: He fled to Amsterdam and hid, and he worked with the Resistance. This work gives readers an opportunity to immerse themselves in occupied Holland and to experience the occupation from the perspective of a Christian couple cooperating with the Resistance and from the perspective of a Jew in hiding.

In this novella, first published in the same year as Anne Frank’s diary, Keilson creates a young Christian couple who’ve agreed to take in a stranger – a single Jewish man in his 60’s. In the first chapter we learn that after many months the hidden Jew has died of natural causes. The rest of the novel is mostly made up of scenes from the past – from his being introduced to the couple, to his settling in, to the nervousness on everybody’s part.

Several chapters deal with the dilemma of how to get rid of the dead body without the couple being suspected of having housed a Jew or without their being caught red-handed with the body of a Jew.  This focus reinforces in the novel an absurdist element created by a political reality that has the world turned upside down. Here a young couple have put their lives in jeopardy to extend hospitality to someone in need. The person who is in need has committed no vile act for which he is being hunted. His sole crime – he was born a Jew.

As we read, we become aware of the many potential problems that can and do arise – issues that the young couple had not thought to anticipate. How safe is it, for example, for the Jew they call Nico, to come downstairs? Can they trust anyone with their secret? Which family members? Any family members? What about venders who come regularly, like the milk man? What to do about the woman who comes to clean twice a week? Caution is intensified by fear.  His being hidden in their home becomes a focus of their day-to-day lives. We can imagine this situation occurring all over this small country and wherever in Europe Christians offered to hide Jews.

The young couple starts off talking amongst themselves about the stranger’s being a Jew. It is clear that Jews are strangers. They are curious about what it means to be Jewish since the stranger explains that he’s given up Jewish ritual practice.  But through the months of forced closeness they become connected and their common humanity transcends their difference. He had put his life in their hands. They mourn his death. They will be forever changed.

People
Hans Keilson (author)

Places
Holland

To read the obituary for Hans Keilson published in the New York Times, click here.
To read the obituary for a Dutch Christian who helped and hid many Jews, click here.


Monday, February 2, 2015

I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits 2012 (a novel)

 "I Am Forbidden whips by, its extravagant narrative steadily cast with complicated, thoughtful characters." from a review by Susannah Meadows in the New York Times 5/15/2012

In writing I Am Forbidden,  Anouk Markovits who grew up in a family who were followers of the Jewish ultra-Orthodox Hassidic Satmar rebbe (rabbi), draws from her own past. The main characters of the novel are members of the Satmar community and, mirroring her own experience, one of the main characters leaves the sect and family to live in the world they shun.

The relatively short novel covers a lot of territory. Book I opens in 1939 with scenes in Szartmar, Maramures, and Sibiu, Transylvania. Book II takes place in Paris (where the author was raised) and covers ten years starting in 1947. Books III and IV take place in Paris in 1968 and in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Book V starts in 2005 in Manhattan and closes with a scene in Williamsburg in 2012.

Markovits has constructed an engaging plot that explores the strict life within the community through the lives and decisions of the various characters as they go about obeying their rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, who his followers revere as an inspired interpreter of God’s word.  Markovits brings history to life in her weaving into her story some of the controversy surrounding what came to be known as the Kasztner train, which transported Hungarian Jews to Switzerland out of harm’s way in 1944. The Satmar rebbe Joel Teitelbaum was a passenger  on that train, and we listen as the moral and spiritual issues surrounding his escape are filtered through the belief system of whichever character is telling the story.

What is clear from reading this novel is that although the writer has herself left the fold, she tries to give both sides a fair hearing. She paints a complex portrait of generations in a family, their religious leaders, and their practices in an era that starts with World War II and the Holocaust and brings us up to contemporary times. She leaves room for her readers to contemplate issues of community, individuality, faith, choice, spiritual longings, moral quandaries and moral imperatives.

People
Family
Since this is a novel, none of the author's family members are named.

Public Figures
Rezso Kasztner
Joel Teitelbaum
Rudolf Vrba
Alfred Wetzler

Places
Szatmar (Satu Mare), Transylvania, Romania
Kolozvar (Cluj), Transylvania, Romania
Maramures, Romania
Kenyermezo, Hungary
Budapest, Hungary
Paris, France
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York

To read an interview with the author, click here.
To read an article about the Kasztner controversy click here.

Sa

Monday, January 5, 2015

Berlin Childhood around 1900 by Walter Benjamin first published in 1950; this edition translated into English by Howard Eiland – 2006


"Berlin Childhood around 1900 is perhaps an even more important book today than when it was written." from commentary by Jeffrey Lewis as part of the You Must Read This series on National Public Radio website, May 28 2012

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) wrote the pieces included in this volume in the 1930’s when he was no longer living in Germany. Published in 1950, ten years after his death, Berlin Childhood around 1900 includes some pieces first published in German newspapers, but during his lifetime the manuscript as a whole was rejected by several publishers.
 
Before exile, Benjamin had lived in Berlin, the place of his birth, having been raised in the West End in a prosperous, assimilated German Jewish family. He was a part of the vigorous intellectual life in Germany that was destroyed by Hitler.

In these pieces Benjamin  re-examines his childhood from a sensual, impressionistic point of view, a literary style much like Marcel Proust employs in his autobiographical fiction. Benjamin was, in fact, a translator of Proust. Benjamin realizes his home, his city, his native country, have been taken from him, so he sets out to re-create many aspects of his childhood so that he can hold on to them. In transferring memory to paper, he leaves behind an eye-witness account, a poetic inventory, of a home and a city that were soon to be destroyed.

The poignancy of his account resides in the innocence of the protected, privileged child he had been whose perspective and experience he re-inhabits in order to write these vignettes. For example, in a section entitled Society, he discusses in some detail a large oval piece of jewelry his mother owned and the pleasure he got out of watching her take it out of the jewelry box and her wearing it on the nights she and his father had social engagements. He remembers it not only as a gem, but as a talisman that he believed kept both him and his mother safe.

As he is writing in the 1930’s about times and places that he treasured, he is aware of the external threat of Hitler’s rule, and we come away with a pervading sense of loss. We know the tragic outcome. -

This volume also includes an introductory essay by the translator, Howard Eiland.

To read a review of a biography of Walter Benjamin published in 2014, click here.
To see a photo of Benjamin's headstone in Portbou, Spain click here.
To read account of his death, click here.

People
Georg Benjamin – brother of Walter
Walter Benjamin
Dora Benjamin – sister of Walter

Places
Berlin, Germany

Monday, December 1, 2014

What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933 by Joseph Roth, translated from German and with an introduction written by Michael Hofmann, published in English in 2008

"It’s not only what Roth sees; it’s what he sees through. And often he sees unknowingly into the future we inhabit beyond his time." from a review by Nadine Gordimer in The Threepenny Review Spring 2003
 Joseph Roth, a journalist and novelist born in Galicia in 1894, arrived in Berlin, Germany in 1920 after first living in Vienna. In this volume Michael Hoffman brings together 34 of Roth’s journalism pieces written between 1920 and 1933 which he has translated from the German. He also includes an informative introduction which includes biographical information about Roth and places him in the context of the Weimar Republic. And he provides footnotes so as to help us understand an occasional obscure reference. Also included are many photographs and illustrations.

Grouped according to subject matter in this volume, Roth’s topics give an impressionistic feel for the Berlin between the wars. His point of view is that of the outsider – someone who lives in the city and knows many of its quarters well, but at the same time he looks at the city, its residents, its architecture, its infrastructure, its cafes and night life with “new” eyes.

An assimilated German Jewish intellectual, Roth chose to write about Berlin’s Jewish quarter and he wrote sympathetically, but at a remove. He describes its residents who are refugees from the East, their difficult living conditions, and the lure of Palestine for those who wander homeless. He is quite passionate in his opinions and upset at their plight, but although he was himself born in Galicia, it is clear he sees them as “other.”

According to Hofmann’s introduction, in 1925 Roth made Paris his new base although he still spent time in Berlin and continued to write for the German newspapers until the Nazis came into power in 1933. The pieces included in this volume written starting in 1924 seem more engaged and more consistently political. One piece laments the murder of Walter Rathenau, a German Jew who, serving as foreign minister, was killed by right-wing extremists. Another, entitled “An Apolitical Observer Goes to the Reichstag,” is a cynical, critical look at the members of the German parliament. In the course of the piece he criticizes the seeming paralysis of the various political parties, each representing its own interests. And he ominously refers to “[t]he goose-stepping of the Nationalists.”

The most powerful piece in the collection because of its subject and Roth’s engaged fury is the last one included, “The Auto-da-Fe of the Mind,” published in French in the September/November issue of Cahiers Juifs (Paris). The title, deliberately echoing the barbarity of the Spanish Inquisition, is at one and the same time a piece written to protest the enormity of the burning of books of German writers who the Nazis considered “degenerate,” many of them Jewish, and to protest the expulsion from Germany of German Jewish writers (including Roth, of course). In the piece he gives a brief history of entrenched German anti-Semitism and praises the many German Jewish writers whose books were burned, listing more than three dozen alphabetically (from Altenberg to Zweig). But most importantly, he uses the piece to alert the world, to try to get the world beyond Germany to understand the implications of what was happening. This piece is horrifying to read  now, given that we know the outcome.

People
Roth mentions no family by name. The translator Michael Hofmann supplies some background about Roth's family in the introduction.
One piece is a tribute to Walter Rathenau.  In the final piece, as stated above, Roth lists and characterizes each of about three dozen German Jewish writers.

Places
Berlin

To watch a video about the book burning in Germany, click here.
To read a timeline that covers Berlin history and its Jewish residents, click here.