Monday, February 28, 2011

Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport: written and directed by Mark Jonathan Harris

"Most of the interviews are with the children, now mostly in their 70's, who recall the overwhelming facts of their childhoods with simple dignity and heart-rending power."  from a review by A. O. Scott in the New York Times, September 15, 2000

In the months before the official start of World War II, through an act of Parliament England agreed to provide temporary residence to Jewish children from European countries on the continent and to place them with British families. 10,000 children escaped to England in an operation called the Kindertransport and were cared for in England before, during and in some cases, after the war.

This moving and very informative documentary consists of interviews with eleven surviving adults who were part of the Kindertransport and through their own words we hear about life before the threat of war, their parents’ decisions to send them to England on the Kindertransport, their parting from their parents as they boarded the train, their placements and how they worked out, and what happened when the war was over.  Also, through interviews we get the perspective of one of the mothers of a former Kindertransport child. And we also hear from one of the English foster mothers.

Knitting the interviews together is footage from newsreels of the time, some of classic World War II scenes – people saluting Hitler, people using the London Underground train platforms as bomb shelters, bombs landing on British cities like Coventry, Jews being rounded up, Jews being liberated from the camps – but also movies of the children of the Kindertransport playing soccer, writing letters to their parents, reading, sleeping and eating in the hostels. 

As the former Kindertransport children talk, we see photos of them from before the war when they led normal lives without a hint of what was to come.  They talk about the anguish of separating from their parents, of their parents’ assurances that their stay in England would be only temporary. Because it was difficult for their parents to get visas out – countries had strict quotas – and normally you had to be sponsored by someone in the country you were trying to get to – they took advantage of this opportunity to get their children out.

Many of the children became real members in the families in which they were placed. Others were moved from family to family.Parents wrote frequently to bolster their childrens’ spirits, but once war broke out communication became brief and infrequent. Most stopped hearing from their parents and a few said that because they listened to the news they both did and did not know what not hearing from their parents meant.

When the war was over only a small number had parents who had survived. And of those whose parents did survive, reunions were often fraught. For example, Kurt Fuchel reports that in 1938 he was 10 years old when he had been placed in England. He was not reunited with his parents until 1947 when he was nineteen.

Two men who are interviewed about their part in working on the Kindertransport are singled out in this movie for special praise: Norbert Wollheim a German Jew who was asked to lead an effort in Germany to get this massive transfer of children underway, and Nicholas Winton, a British citizen, who did everything in his power to facilitate the arrival and placement of children from Czechoslovakia.

To watch a nine-minute  Canadian Broadcasting Company video that focuses on Nicholas Winton's role in rescuing Jewish children in Czechoslovakia and to arranging to get them to England, click here.

To read an article published in 1912 about a recent Kindertransport reunion click here.
To read an article published in 1913 about a recent Kindertransport reunion click here.

Former children on the Kindertransport interviewed and where they were from:
Lorraine Allard – Forth, Bavaria, Germany
Lory Cohn – Breslau, Germany
Hedy Epstein, Kippenheim, Germany
Kurt Fuchel – Vienna, Austria
Alexander Gorbulski (Gordon) – Hamburg, Germany
 Eva Hayman – Celakovice, Czechoslovakia

Jack Hellman – Tann, Germany
Bertha Leverton - Munich, Germany
Inge Sadan - Munich, Germany (Bertha Leverton's sister)
Ursula Rosenfeld – Quackenburg, Germany
Lore Segal – Vienna, Austria – Franzi Groszmann – her mother
Robert Sugar – Vienna, Austria

Others interviewed:
Norbert Wollheim – rescuer 
Nicholas Winton – rescuer
Mariam Cohen – Kurt Fuchel’s foster mother.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Prisoner without a name, Cell without a number by Jacobo Timerman 1981

"Not just autobiography, or political analysis, or a victim's cry in the night, it is all these things. Timerman describes what he suffered in prison and what he thought, and how he and Argentina got to where they were."  from a review in the New York Times by Anthony Lewis, May 10, 1981

Jacobo Timerman emigrated to Buenos Aires, Argentina from Ukraine with his family in 1928 when he was five years old. A respected intellectual, television commentator and founding editor of the newspaper La Opinion, he was kidnapped in April of 1977 and was not released until thirty months later. He was never officially charged with a crime.

Timerman wrote this memoir in Israel after he had been released, stripped of his citizenship, and expelled from Argentina. The memoir is a narration of what happened to him as well as a discussion of the state of Argentinian politics and the parallels between what was happening in Argentina under the military junta in the 1970’s and what had happened in the 1930’s in Germany. He includes a fascinating analysis of the psychology of the fascist mentality that fashions Jews into perennial scapegoats.

Timerman tells us about his time in prison. He writes about electric shock torture, beatings, and solitary confinement. But what bothered him the most emotionally was when the guards and his inquisitors taunted him because he was Jewish. He remembered when he was quite young asking his mother after some local anti-Semitic incidents, “Why do they hate us?” Her answer, that they just don’t understand “us” stayed with him. He writes that the German Jews thought that if they explained themselves - for example they had lists of German Jewish decorated World War I veterans published in the newspaper - then the Nazis would see that vilifying them as a group did not make sense. Likewise, he questioned the tactics of his fellow Argentinian Jews for expecting that reasonable negotiations with his captors would lead to his release.

Logic and evidence didn’t work in Germany, and Timerman says it did not work forty years later in Argentina. He was tortured for not coming up with names of those involved in a Jewish Zionist conspiracy to rule the world, a charge presented as fact that no one could refute because the torturers, like fascists in totalitarian regimes everywhere, were not interested in refutations.

To read about Jews amongst the "disappeared" in Argentina, click here.

Jacob Timerman
    Nathan Timerman – Jacob’s son
        Yosel Timerman – son of Nathan
        Jacob (Jacobo) Timerman – Nathan’s son; married to Risha; author
            Nathan Timerman – Jacobo’s son
                Nahum Timerman – son of Nathan
Nehemias Reznitsky

Bar, Ukraine
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Plaza Hotel, Buenos, Aires, Argentina
Magdalena Prison, Argentina
Puesto Vaco Prison, Argentina
The One District, Buenos Aires, Argentina
House of Troy, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tel Aviv, Israel

Monday, February 14, 2011

Yesterday: A Memoir of a Russian Jewish Family by Miriam Shomer Zunser, published in 1939, reissued in 1978, edited by her granddaughter Emily Wortis Leider

"Miriam Shomer Zunser, journalist, playwright, and artist, was an important promoter of Jewish culture in America during the period before World War II." from the entry by Eric Goldstein in the Jewish Women's Archive

Written in New York when Europe was in turmoil and its Jewish communities were being decimated, Miriam Shomer Zunser, a successful Yiddish playwright, takes her readers back to an earlier time. She begins her memoir with stories about her grandparents Michel and Yentel Bercinsky who married in 1834 and who raised their family in Pinsk which was then part of the Russian Empire.  Yentel Bercinsky had 24 babies, but only eleven lived to adulthood.

The author tells highly polished stories about this large Bercinsky family, stories that had been circulating in her family, many of whose members were obviously gifted raconteurs. (A number of family members, including the author, had careers in the literary arts and in theater.) The early chapters in particular have a fairy tale, once-upon-a-time quality to them, complete with young brides and grooms and elaborate wedding celebrations and Purim feasts.

Zunser’s grandfather was an accomplished self-taught legal scholar who argued the law on behalf of his community. He was religiously observant and a prominent member of the community where he owned a large home and felt a moral obligation to feed the poor. But he was also a patriarch who expected to be obeyed.  Zunser relates how her grandfather sought out what he deemed an advantageous match for each child. The author then writes chapters in animated prose focusing on the various children and their fates. The chapters have dramatic story lines that are full of intrigue worthy of fiction. She tells about her grandfather negotiating dowries and staging huge weddings. But some of his children were married against their will, and some marriages ended in separation and divorce. As the stories unfold we learn a great deal about what life was like for this family in nineteenth- century  Russia and in the early 20th century when most of the Bercinsky children immigrated to America and had to reinvent themselves as Americans.

Zunser digresses in order to spend some time telling us about her father who had married into the Bercinsky family with the approval, of course, of her grandfather. Nochim- Mayer Shaikevitch, a prolific writer of pulp fiction, escapist novels written in Yiddish in Russia, took a pen name (Shomer) he said because he used family stories as fodder for his fiction and was concerned about embarrassing them. The author writes that her father’s popular novels encouraged a generation of Yiddish speakers to learn to read; that he had paved the way for the next generation of more literary story tellers like Sholom Aleichem who had disdained Shomer’s fiction. But her father’s life in America mirrored that of so many immigrants, especially the men. His fiction had fallen out of favor; he never really gained a footing in the United States and died a broken man.

In 1978 Zunser’s memoir, which was out of print, was republished with a Postscript written by her granddaughter, Emily Wortis Leider. In this Postscript we learn more about the remarkable author, Miriam Shomer Zunser, who was active in many endeavors. Besides writing Yiddish plays with her sister Rose, she created projects focusing on Jewish music. And well aware that many women did not have fulfilling opportunities outside the home, she became active in the women’s suffrage movement.

The memoir includes many family photos.

To read a lengthy article by Arthur Arye Gordon which in its first third highlights the funeral for Miriam Shomer Zunser's father, the novelist Shomer in 1905, click here. It uses a discussion of the funeral as a way of characterizing aspects of Jewish life in New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Tzodek-Mayshe Bercinsky- married Shayndel
    Laybush Bercinsky - son of Tzodek-Mayshe and Shayndel
    Michel Bercinsky - son of Tzodek-Mayshe and Shayndel; married Yentel
        Rochel-Leah Bercinsky - daughter of Michel and Yentel
        Mayshe Bercinsky– son of Michel and Yentel; married to Henye
            Alter – son of Mayshe and Henye
        Dinneh  Bercinsky – daughter of Michel and Yentel; married Nochim –Mayer Shaikevitsch (Shomer)
            Shayndele Shaikevitsch - daughter of Dinneh and Nochim-Mayer
            Avrom (Abe) Shaikevitsch - son of Dinneh and Nochim-Mayer
            Manye (Miriam, Minnie) Shaikevitsch – daughter of Dinneh and Nochim - Mayer; married Charles Zunser; author
                Helen Zunser Wortis - daughter of Miriam and Charles
                    Emily Wortis Leider (author of memoir’s postscript)
                Florence (Flossie) Zunser Saltz - daughter of Miriam and Charles
                Shomer Zunser - son of Miriam and Charles
            Anna Shaikevitsch - daughter of Dinneh and Nochim - Mayer
            Rose Shaikevitsch - daughter of Dinneh and Nochim - Mayer
            Mayshe Shaikevitsch - son of Dinneh and Nochim - Mayer
        Haiye Bercinsky – daughter of married Avrom Chaim Rosenberg
            Shayne-Channe – Avrom’s daughter from first marriage
            Uziel – Avrom’s son from first marriage
            Mayshe Rosenberg – son of Haiye and Avrom
        Faygle Bercinsky - daughter of Michel and Yentel
        Avrom Bercinsky - son of Michel and Yentel
        Dvayreh Bercinsky - daughter of Michel and Yentel
        Fraydel Bercinsky - daughter of Michel and Yentel; married Avrom Gruenberg
        Menye Bercinsky - daughter of Michel and Yentel; married Boruch Rubenstein
        David Bercinsky - son of Michel and Yentel; married Nancy Davidson
        Joshua Bercinsky (Behring) - son of Michel an Yentel
    Berel Bercinsky – son of Tzodek-Mayshe and Shayndel; married Gittle
    Sarah Bercinsky - daughter of Tzodek-Mayshe and Shayndel

    Zlate – Yentel’s sister
    Berel Fialkow – Yentel’s brother-in-law; married to one of Yentel’s sisters
    Uziel Rosenberg – father of Avrom Chaim Rosenberg
    Jo Davidson – Nancy Davidson’s brother
    Elyakum Zunser – father of Charles

Author’s grandfather’s family
Sorke – married Gavriel Goldberg
    Hodes –daughter of Sorke;  married Isaak  Shaikevitsch
        Nochim-Mayer Shakevitsch – their son; married Dinneh Bercinsky (see above)
    Ronye Vigodsky– daughter of Sorke

Family friends and acquaintances
Jacob P. and Sara Adler
Bertha Kalich
Molly Picon
Ludwig Satz
Getzel Tsichovsky
Elia Baillin
Zimel Blucher
Abraham Goldfaden
Joseph Lerner
Sigmund Mogulesco
Uziel Rosenberg
    Avrom Chaim Rosenberg – Uziel’s son; marries
Abbe Rosenthal
Dov-Baer Debzevitch
Zwi-Hirsch Masliansky
Samuel Joseph Fuenn

Yaneve (Jonava), Lithuania
Pinsk, currently in Belarus
Nesvizh, currently in Belarus
Yeshivah of Volozhin, was in what is now Belarus
Odessa, Russia
Nikolayiev, Ukraine
Homel, currently in Belarus

(Yesterday by Miriam Shomer Zunser is, unfortunately, currently out of print, but used copies are available for purchase through internet sources.)

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Journal of Helene Berr by Helene Berr, published in French and in English in 2008

“Reading … [The Journal of Helene Berr] was not unlike reading Anne Frank’s diary: you feel you are in the presence of an author who would have become a major literary figure had she survived.” From an interview with Simon Mawer in the New York Times January, 2010.

Helene Berr, a resident of Paris, France was a member of a cultured well-off Jewish family that had lived in France for many generations. She was a gifted violinist as well as a gifted student at the Sorbonne where she made English literature her specialty. In her journal, which she kept from April of 1942 through February of 1944, she wrote with great excitement about the music she played and listened to. Music was a refuge and had the power to transport her away from the horrors of everyday life. Throughout the journal she uses quotes from the English Romantic poets Keats and Shelley to explain her state of mind or to amplify her opinions and anxieties about the on-going Occupation.

The Berrs felt themselves French citizens who happened to be Jewish. Raymond Berr, Helene’s father, was a prominent citizen, the director of a large chemical company, and a veteran of the French army. For the first few years of the war they went about living their lives as best they could; the stated targets of the Nazis were foreign-born Jews, many of whom had recently crossed the borders into France on the run from the Nazis.

The early part of the journal is taken up with Helene’s love life, the normal preoccupations of a 21 year-old. She’s in the process of dropping one boyfriend and becoming involved with another, but as the journal progresses, as her family and those around her became more directly threatened, her entries became more focused on  facts, rumors, observations, and anxieties about the war and the future. She even considered what she’d take with her if she were arrested: her violin and some books. She became well aware that she might not survive and that she was serving as a witness who was recording what was happening all around her.

June 1, 1942 was the date when the Nazis decreed that French Jews had to start wearing a yellow star affixed to their coats. After some hesitation, Helene decided she would wear it proudly. She describes in brilliant detail being out in public, looking directly into the eyes of people who stared at her. She had many non-Jewish friends and she writes about how most went out of their way to be supportive as did some strangers on the street who deliberately smiled at her. Most interestingly, she describes how wearing the yellow star changed her sense of self. For the first time in her life she felt like a foreigner. She also writes about how wearing it was exhausting.

Being from an established French family was not enough. Helene Berr records with horror when toward the end of June of 1942 her father was picked up and sent to Drancy where he was held for three months.  Less than a month after he was arrested, she records what she’s heard about the mass round-up of Jews who were sent to the Veledrome d’Hiver before they were transported to Drancy. Then on July 30, 1942 all of Helene’s co-workers in the office she worked at at the I.G.U.F, the Jewish governing body where Helene worked with young children, were arrested on a day she hadn’t been in the office.

When he father was released in September of 1942 they debated leaving Paris, but they never did. Little by little their circle of friends either escaped to France’s free zone, went into hiding, or stayed at home and, like them, lived one day at a time in great despair, waiting for the allies to make inroads and chase the Germans out. Helene wrote her last entry on February 15, 1944. Tragically, Helene and her parents were arrested and sent to Drancy on March 8, 1944. We learn about their arrest from a letter included in this volume that Helene wrote to her sister from Drancy on the morning they were arrested.

In addition to the memoir the English edition includes:
An introduction by the translator, David Bellos
Two maps: one of Helene Berr’s Paris and the second of The Latin Quarter in 1942
A letter from Helene Berr to her sister Denise written on the day she was arrested
An essay by Helene’s niece Mariette Job called “A Stolen Life”
An essay by David Bellos, called “France and the Jews”
A short bibliography for further reading
Family photos
Four indexes: Acronyms and Special Terms; Books Mentioned by Helene Berr; Street Names and Places; Personal Names

To learn more about the Drancy transit camp, click here.

Berthe Rodrigues-Ely
    Antoinette Rodrigues-Ely – daughter of Berthe; married to Raymond Berr
        Jacqueline – daughter of Raymond and Antoinette
        Yvonne – daughter of Raymond and Antoinette; married to Daniel Schwartz
            Maxime and Yves Schwartz– sons of Yvonne and Daniel
        Denise – daughter of Raymond and Antoinette; married Francois Job
            Nadine, Didier, and Mariette Job – children of Denise and Francois
        Helene- daughter of Raymond and Antoinette; author
        Jacques – son of Raymond and Antoinette

Laure Nathan – cousin of Antoinette Berr
“Auntie” Germaine, “Uncle” Jules, and Nicole – exact relationships not clear
Friends and Acquaintances
Jean-Pierre Aron
Andre Baur – married to Odette; nephew of Julian Weill
Francoise Bernheim
Edouard Bloch
Jean Bloch
Lisette Bloch
Robert Dreyfus
Jacques Goetschel
Tamara Isserlis
Andre Kahn
Armand and Lea Katz
Emmanuel Lefschetz
Cecile Lehmann
Leon Lyon-Caen; brother-in-law of Pierre Masse
    Claude, Georges, and Gerard Lyon-Caen – sons of Leon
Jean Marx
Pierre and Francoise Masse
Charles Meyer
Denise Milhaud
Roger Nordmann – engaged to Francoise Blum
Therese Schwartz
    Danielle and Pierre Schwartz – children of Therese
Jacque Ulmann
Julien Weill
Maurice Weill-Raynal – married to Suzanne?
    Francois Weill-Raynal – son of Maurice; married to Edith
Jacque Weill- Reynal
Emmaline and Marianne Weill-Raynal – twin sisters

Paris, France
Aubergenville, France
Pithiviers Transit Camp, France
Les Tourelles – Concentration Camp, France
Drancy Transit Camp, France
Velodrome d’Hiver
Hopital Rothschild