The Shtetl Krupnik Experience

Suillus granulatus mushrooms, colloquially referred to as the “weeping” or “granulated” bolete.

— by Ronit Treatman

When I was a young girl, my grandmother and I would relive one of her favorite experiences from her childhood in Poland: picking wild mushrooms for krupnik, the Polish mushroom barley soup.

We woke up before dawn and drove to the pine forests surrounding Jerusalem. We arrived at the forest just as dawn broke.

The majestic pine trees became visible with the pink light of early morning. The crisp air was infused with the aroma of the trees. As we started hiking, the dry pine needles crunched underfoot.

The type of wild mushroom we picked is called Suillus granulatus, colloquially referred to as the “weeping” or “granulated” bolete.

Full recipe after the jump.
These mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with the pine trees: The mushrooms extract nutrients from the roots of the trees. In exchange, they improve the soil so that the trees have enough water and nutrients.  

I learned to identify the weeping boletes by looking for mushrooms with a large brown cap. I would check the underside of the cap to make sure that it was a golden color.

We spent a couple of hours filling a large basket with the mushrooms we found. We stopped when we had picked enough mushrooms for our needs. We knew that other people would like to have this adventure just as much as we did, and we made sure to leave some mushrooms for them too.  

We took our fungi back home to prepare krupnik. Weeping boletes taste like Portobello mushrooms. Their strong, earthy flavor is the perfect complement for barley.  

After a vigorous hike in the cold, and the seemingly endless wait in a home filled with delicious smells, we finally got to eat the krupnik. It was warm, creamy, and delicious; the perfect taste of the Old Country.

Savta Devorah’s Krupnik

  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 lb. mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 large carrots, chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 2 parsley roots, chopped
  • 8 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unbleached flour
  • 1/2 cup pearl barley
  • 1/4 cup minced parsley
  • 1/4 cup minced dill
  • salt and black pepper
  1. Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot.  
  2. Add the onion, garlic, mushrooms, carrots, celery, parsley roots, and barley.
  3. Saute over medium heat for about 20 minutes.
  4. Sprinkle the flour into the pot, and mix it in.
  5. Add the vegetable broth, and bring to a boil.
  6. Lower the heat to medium, and simmer the soup for 40 minutes.
  7. Add the parsley and dill.
  8. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.

May His Memory Be for a Blessing: Tadeusz Mazowiecki (1927-2013)

Mazowiecki served as the prime minister of Poland after the fall of Communism from 1989 to 1991.

— by Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress

Tadeusz Mazowiecki was one of the architects of the modern, democratic Poland and a friend of Israel and the Jewish people.

The Jews are grateful to Tadeusz Mazowiecki for his staunch defense of their rights as Poland emerged from communism, and for his help in resolving the crisis of the Carmelite convent on the grounds of Auschwitz in the early 1990s. He will also be remembered for speaking out against anti-Semitism clearly and unequivocally and exposing war crimes as special rapporteur for human rights in the former Yugoslavia. May his memory be for a blessing.

More after the jump.
The Mazowiecki government re-established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1990, and helped to open Polish airports for Jews leaving the then-Soviet Union. He was also part of the group that successfully fought for the repeal of the 1975 United Nations General Assembly Resolution, that determined that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.

Mazowiecki’s silent but effective diplomacy ensured that his country’s transition was successful. Together with Lech Walesa (pictured to the right), he laid the foundations for what is today the strongest country both economically and politically in Central and Eastern Europe.

Virtual Shtetl: An Online Archive For Polish Jews

Where did your family live before the second world war? If the answer is Poland, there is an incredible new resource for you to avail yourself of. It is the Virtual Shtetl. The Virutal Shtetl’s mission is “promoting knowledge of, developing an awareness of and commemorating the history of Polish Jews.” This site is an online archive which contains information about communities, photos, cemeteries, maps, documents, and news about what is happening in Poland currently. The Virtual Shtetl is a project in progress. You are invited to share your photographs, documents, films, and any other pertinent material to help preserve the memory of Poland’s Jewish community.  

Is Your Jewish Family from Poland Originally From Spain?

— by Aaron Biterman

My family left northern Spain, likely around the time of expulsion in July of 1492. I am unsure what path they took to arrive in Poland, but oral tradition suggests that my Jewish family settled in the town of Hrubieszow in southeast Poland (near Lublin and Zamosc) by 1600. The surname they eventually adopted sounded much more Eastern European than Spanish. I talk more about the origins of the surname below. It’s possible my family was Ashkenazic and migrated west to Spain from another place, and then migrated back east after expulsion from Spain, but it seems more likely that they actually were Sephardic.

More after the jump.
Evidence that the family was Sephardic includes:

  • Dual Hebrew names (Yehuda Aryeh ben Yosef Tzvi) is a Sephardic practice. Ashkenazi tradition is “Yehuda ben Yosef.”
  • Concluding Shabbat davening with Ein Kelahaynu instead of Adan Olom is a Sephardic practice.
  • There may have been a synagogue in Hrubieszow before WWII which was Sephardic, where my ancestors prayed.
  • The family was religiously observant but not Hasidic even though the town they lived in (Hrubieszow) was a mostly Hasidic town.
  • There is an oral tradition of arrival in the area in Poland in the mid-1500s.

Jews had a very difficult time in Europe during the later portion of the Middle Ages. The beginnings of some of the behaviors of the Holocaust can be traced to the period in Europe from 1200 to 1500. Throughout Europe, the Jews were gradually confined in ghettos as the Middle Ages progressed. The first compulsory ones were established in Spain and Portugal at the end of the fourteenth century. Jewish ghettos existed in Madrid, Barcelona, Venice, Naples, Rome, Florence, Prague, and other European cities (Source: Jewish Displacement).

Beginning in the 8th century, Muslims had occupied and settled most of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain). Jews, who had lived in these regions since Roman times, were considered “People of the Book”‘ and given special status and often thrived under Muslim rule. The tolerance of the Muslim Moorish rulers attracted Jewish immigration, and Jewish enclaves in Muslim Iberian cities flourished as places of learning and commerce. Living conditions for Jews in al-Andalus became more difficult after the fall of the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate around the year 1030.

The Reconquista was the gradual reconquest of Islamic Iberia by the Catholic kingdoms with a powerful religious motivation: Iberia was being reclaimed for Christendom. By the 14th century, most of the Iberian Peninsula, present day Spain and Portugal, had been regained from the Moors. Overt hostility against Jews became more pronounced, finding expression in brutal episodes of violence and oppression. Thousands of Jews sought to escape these attacks by converting to Catholicism.

The Alhambra Decree (also known as the Edict of Expulsion) was an edict issued on March 31, 1492 by the joint Catholic Monarchs of Spain (Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon) ordering the expulsion of Jews from the Kingdom of Spain and its territories and possessions by July 31 of that year. The punishment for any Jew who did not convert or leave by the deadline was death. Scholars disagree about how many Jews left Spain as a result of the decree; the numbers vary between 130,000 and 800,000 (Source: Wikipedia).

Migration to Poland

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, Jews lived in 85 towns in Poland, totaling 18,000 — a mere .6 percent of the total population. But the 16th and the first half of the 17th century saw increased settlement and a relatively fast rate of natural population growth of Jews in Poland. Among the new arrivals there were not only the Ashkenazim banished from the countries belonging to the Hapsburg monarchy, but also Sephardim who were driven away from Spain and Portugal. Beginning in the middle of the 16th century, Jews started to settle in the countryside in larger numbers. During the hundred years of the 15th century, the Jewish Polish population exploded from about 15,000 to 150,000. In the middle of the 17th century there were 500,000 Jews living in Poland — five percent of the total population.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Poland became the center for Jewish learning. Between 1501 and 1648, Jews intensified their economic activity. The primary sources of income for Jewish families were crafts and local trade. The rapid development of Jewish settlement and economic activity was accompanied by expansion of their self-government organization. As in the Middle Ages, every autonomous Jewish community was governed by its kahal — a collegiate body composed of elders elected as a rule from among the local wealthiest. The kahal organized funerals and administered cemeteries, schools, baths, slaughterhouses and the sale of kosher meat. In the closed “Jewish cities”, it also took care of cleanliness and order in the Jewish quarter and the security of its inhabitants. Administering charities such as the organization of hospitals and other welfare institutions and the dowering of poor brides were also taken on by citizens or organizations within these Jewish communities (Source: Mike Rosenzweig).

There was a period when members of the Sephardic middle class could establish themselves with some distinction in Poland. This most important page in the history of Sephardic Jews in Poland began with the reign of the Polish King Sigismund II Augustus (1529-1572). At that time, one of the most influential statesmen of the Ottoman Empire was Don Joseph Nasi, a Sephardic Jew who died in 1579 (Source: Alexander Beider).

In 1588, Polish Chancellor Jan Zamoyski established a special privilege allowing Sephardic Jews to live in his own newly founded private town of Zamosc. Many advantages were offered to those Sephardic Jews who decided to move there, which prompted a number of Sephardic families to migrate to the town. During the first part of the 17th century, new settlers generally came from Italy and Holland, according to Alexander Beider. Some of the Sephardic Jews left the area; others intermarried with Ashkenazic Jews. As a result, during the second half of the 17th century, Sephardic names do not appear in the historical documents of Zamosc and Lvov. The census of 1664 showed only 23 Jews in Zamosc, most Ashkenazic.

The presence of Sephardic families in the territory of Poland during the 16th to 18th centuries did not influence the surnames used by Polish Jews during the 19th and 20th centuries. The cultural fusion of foreign Sephardic Jews with local Ashkenazic Jews, who had lived in the same area for several centuries and were far more numerous, was rather rapid. The Sephardic Jews lost their language, and their descendants used Yiddish as the vernacular. They dropped their Sephardic names and were named according to local Ashkenazic patterns (Source: Alexander Beider).

Jews lived in Russia for centuries — sometimes welcomed and other times barely tolerated. Before 1500, Jews were permitted to live anywhere in Russia. As Russia’s western boundary moved west in the 1600s and 1700s, more Jews were annexed into a country which was intolerant of Jews. In the late 1700s, Catherine the Great decreed that Jews could only live in the territory along the western Russian border, known as the Pale of Settlement. In 1772, more Jews lived in the Pale than in the rest of Europe.

Prosperity continued until the second half of the 17th century, when a series of massacres by Cossacks ruthlessly killed Jews and Gentile Poles alike. Poland was then pummeled by another Cossack uprising, two invasions by Sweden, and a war with Turkey. In the 1700s, Poland was divided three ways, and the Jews of Poland fell under the rule of Russia, Germany, and Austria (Source: Jewish Displacement).

Surname Biterman

My family’s surname of Biterman could either have Eastern European or Sephardic origins. I talk more about it on my genetic genealogy page…

Poland: Exploring Jewish Life Past and Present

The recently restored Yeshiva of the Sages of Lublin, or Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin. Photo provided courtesy of Dr. Lawrence Schofer.

“The perception that Poland is just a cemetery with Jewish blood is a very incomplete picture,” says David Mink, participant in this summer’s Gratz College trip to Poland. And he should know because Mink and his 32 fellow travelers got the complete picture of Poland this summer through the travel-study tour led by Gratz professor Dr. Michael Steinlauf.

“This is going to be your challenge: You will be standing in a place where tens of thousands of Jews were murdered, and then you will learn that for many hundreds of years before, there was a flourishing Jewish community on that very spot. The challenge is to hold on to both.” Steinlauf raised this challenge, and then–with the support of the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland–gave the Gratz travelers the unique opportunity to meet it. The group delved into Poland’s robust prewar Jewish past, shuddered at haunting symbols of Nazi inhumanity and marveled at both the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland and the overall vibrancy of this country today.

More after the jump.

These are Jewish tombstones from the old cemetery in the small town of Szydlow, which was largely destroyed during World War II. Szydlow now has about a thousand residents. Photo provided courtesy of Dr. Lawrence Schofer.

Pictured above is Wawel, an ancient Polish castle in Krakow. Photo provided courtesy of Dr. Lawrence Schofer.

This is a sidewalk marker delineating the Warsaw Ghetto. Photo provided courtesy of Dr. Lawrence Schofer.

“The trip achieved an excellent balance. It was a moment-by-moment study in contrast,” explains Dr. Reena Friedman, trip participant and professor of Jewish history. For example, there was the concentration camp Majdanek–in all its horror–followed by a visit to the grand yeshiva in Lublin. Similarly, while the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw contained what Friedman describes as “layers and layers of Jewish history” and “tombstones that are so respectfully inscribed,” there was also a marker for the mass graves of those who perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. “Everywhere we went the contrast was very striking–going from a place of utter barbarity to a place of great peace and humanity,” says Friedman.

The Gratz group was able to witness the scope of Jewish history in Poland primarily because today’s Poles–both Jews and non-Jews alike–have been dedicated to uncovering and restoring their country’s rich Jewish past. As David Mink explains, “What excited me throughout the trip was to see the young people of this country enthusiastically reclaiming their history–Polish history and Jewish history because the two cannot be separated. We met some of the wonderful Poles who have been part of this renaissance, and that’s what really made this trip exceptional.”

People like Dr. Anna Sommer, the cosmopolitan young woman who led the group’s tour of Auschwitz. Sommer grew up in the town of Oswiecim, next to where the Nazis constructed the Auschwitz camp. Although she is not Jewish, her curiosity about what happened in her town led her to earn a Ph.D. in Jewish history. She has since relocated to the United States, but returns to Poland every summer to lead tours.

Then there was the respected historian Jan Jagielski. Beginning in the 1970s, Jagielski, a non-Jew, was among the first generation of people working to preserve the Jewish past in Poland. Dedicated to this effort for decades, he brought history to life for the Gratz group by sharing stories enshrined in thousands of tombstones in the Warsaw cemetery.

There were also the impressive young Jewish tour guides from the Taube Center’s Mi Dor Le Dor program, who directed the group on many legs of its journey throughout Poland. And there were the passionate people of the Grodzka Gate, a cultural center run by non-Jews, which has been dedicated for many years to restoring the memory of Jewish life in Lublin.

In addition to the restoration of Jewish sites in Poland, many Polish Jews themselves are in the process of discovering and exploring their Jewish heritage. After the Holocaust and four decades of Communism, there are Poles who have only recently uncovered their Jewish roots. Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, who was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and who once served as chief rabbi of Japan, shared a particularly dramatic story of two skinheads who discovered that they both had Jewish roots. As a result of this discovery, they are now a married couple living as Orthodox Jews.

Stories like this one proliferate in contemporary Poland, Dr. Steinlauf stresses. Poland today is an amazing success story,” he says. “It’s modern, bright, airy and very youthful. The Poles have transformed their country and have created a place unlike what anyone expected.”

The interweaving of such modernity with Poland’s Jewish past will soon be prominently on display in the sleek new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, set to open next year. High tech and interactive, this grand structure on the footprint of the Warsaw Ghetto will be a “major site for Jewish remembrance,” according to Steinlauf.

With the new museum on the itinerary, Steinlauf is planning to lead another Gratz tour to Poland in the summer of 2014, giving other travelers an equally eye-opening view of Jewish life in Poland–both past and present.

A version of this article originally appeared in Gratz College’s electronic newsletter, The Gratz College Insider, and is reprinted here with permission. Located in Melrose Park, Gratz College is the oldest pluralistic college for Jewish studies in North America. Jodi Benjamin, the author of this article, is a freelance writer from Maple Glen, who can be reached at [email protected]

25 Young Poles Discover Jewish Roots and Arrive in Israel

— by Jen Glantz

JERUSALEM (August 21, 2012) – 25 young Polish Jews, many of whom have only recently discovered their Jewish roots, arrived in Israel yesterday, August 20, for a special seminar organized by Shavei Israel, an organization that aims to strengthen the connection between descendants of Jews and the State of Israel & the Jewish people. The participants, between the ages of 18-35, most of whom were raised Catholic, came from a variety of cities throughout Poland, primarily Krakow, Katowice, Warsaw, Przemysl and Gdansk. For many it marks their first time visiting Israel.

Photo credit: Mariusz Frej. Courtesy of Shavei Israel.

More after the jump.
“There is a growing thirst among young Poles with Jewish roots to learn more about their Jewish religious and cultural heritage,” said Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund. “This awakening would have been unthinkable just 25 or 30 years ago, but since the downfall of Communism, an increasing number of Poles have sought to reclaim and affirm their Jewish identity. We owe it to them to assist them in any way that we can.”

Freund added that,

with the start of the new Jewish year just a few weeks away, it is fitting that these young Poles have come to Israel to rekindle their bond with the Jewish people. They represent the future of Polish Jewry, which despite decades of suffering and persecution is now beginning to thrive. There can be no sweeter revenge for what was done to us seven decades ago in Poland than to reconnect as many of these young Polish Jews as possible with Israel and the Jewish people.

The unique program, which is run by Shavei Israel’s team of Polish-speaking rabbis and educators, is designed to assist them in discovering more about their Jewish roots and learning more about ancient and modern-day Israel. Among the topics that will be covered are the laws of Shabbat; the upcoming festivals of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot; and “Keeping kosher in a non-kosher world.” Participants will also study the weekly Torah portion that is read in synagogue.

Sessions will be led by Rabbis Baruch Babaev, Yitzchak Rappoport, Avraham Rabitz and Dawid Szychowska, along with Shavei Israel’s emissary to Krakow, Rabbi Boaz Pash, and its emissary to Katowice, Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis. Morning, afternoon and evening prayer services will also be available.

Not only will the young Poles delve deeper into Jewish study in the classroom, but they will also have an opportunity to tour various sites in Israel such as Masada and the Dead Sea, and the northern part of the country including the Sea of Galilee and the Kabbalistic city of Safed. The group will also visit the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem and explore the Western Wall tunnels.

Two special activities include a meeting with the Polish Ambassador to Israel, and an all-day study seminar at a local yeshiva.

Today, there are approximately 4,000 Jews registered as living in Poland, but experts suggest there may be tens of thousands of other Jews in Poland who to this day are either hiding their identities or are simply unaware of their family heritage. In recent years, a growing number of such people, popularly known as the “Hidden Jews of Poland”, have begun to return to Judaism and to the Jewish people.

Shavei Israel is a non-profit organization founded by Michael Freund, who immigrated to Israel from the United States, with the aim of strengthening the ties between the Jewish people, the State of Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world. The organization is currently active in nine countries and provides assistance to a variety of different communities such as the Bnei Menashe of India, the Bnei Anousim (referred to as the derogatory “Marranos” by historians) in Spain, Portugal and South America, the Subbotnik Jews of Russia, the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, descendants of Jews living in Poland, and others.  

Shavei Israel currently has two full-time emissaries in Poland located in Krakow and Katowice.

Holocaust, Holocaust, Holocaust

— Rabbi Avi Shafran

When Palestinian Authority presidential adviser Ziad Al-Bandak paid his respects recently at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum called the Palestinian’s visit there “a marketing of a false Zionist alleged tragedy.”

A newly appointed Romanian government official, Dan Sova, averred earlier this year that “No Jew suffered on Romanian territory” during World War II. (Tens of thousands of Romanian Jews were killed on Romanian territory, and hundreds of thousands others deported to their deaths. The historian Raul Hilberg concluded that “no country, besides Germany, was involved in massacres of Jews on such a scale.”)

We tend to get exercised by Holocaust denial, and for good reason. The refusal to accept the facts that part of the ostensibly civilized world went on a genocidal murder spree over the years 1938-1945 and that most of the rest of the world didn’t much care implies a certain regret that the genocide failed.

In the end, though, deniers of that historical truth are-at least outside the Arab world-generally marginalized, recognized as either mentally deficient or depraved.

More after the jump.
But then there are those, even among our fellow Jews, who are, if not Holocaust deniers, then Holocaust deriders. Like a writer for Tablet, an online magazine, who recently wrote (Warning: deeply offensive quote ahead) that

Each time we clapped for the old Hungarian lady who spoke about Dachau, each time Elie Wiesel threw another anonymous anecdote of betrayal onto a page, I eyed it askance, thinking What did you do that you’re not talking about? I had the gut instinct that these were villains masquerading as victims who, solely by virtue of surviving (very likely by any means necessary), felt that they had earned the right to be heroes, their basic, animal self-interest dressed up with glorified phrases like ‘triumph of the human spirit’.

And more (if the reader has the stomach for it):

I wondered if anyone had alerted Hitler that in the event that the final solution didn’t pan out, only the handful of Jews who actually fulfilled the stereotype of the Judenscheisse (because every group has a few) would remain to carry on the Jewish race-conniving, indestructible, taking and taking.

And, finally, there’s a more subtle challenge to the memory of the six million, though in a way more disturbing for its subtlety. Call it Holocaust fatigue.

Like some recent blogging by a reporter for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the premier American Jewish news service. Reporter blogs allow journalists to let their hair down a bit and offer reports that are more informal and personal than the writers’ official, supposedly objective products. The blog entries are thus windows on their writers’ minds.

This particular writer, who produced a short, straightforward report on the recent Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas, used his blog platform to present his followers a “real time” series of observations from MetLife Stadium on August 1. Meant to be droll and funny, they came across, at least to some readers, as more smarmy than savvy.

One entry reads: “8:02: First mention of the Holocaust (‘Auschwitz,’ ‘Nazis,’ ‘ghetto,’ ‘gas chambers’).”

A second one reads: “8:19: Another mention of the 6 million.”

And a third: “8:20: Hitler mention: On this day in 1936, the Olympic Games began at a stadium of similar size in Berlin…”

The writer doesn’t spell out his precise feelings about the references, but in the context of the “sassy” tone of the blog, it’s pretty clear that he found them somewhat… tiresome.

The Holocaust has, sadly, been misappropriated in the service of various purposes. But if ever there were a proper and fitting place for invoking the designs of the would-be destroyers of Klal Yisrael, indeed, of Judaism, then a mammoth Jewish celebration of Torah is it. “Yehei Shmei Rabba” declared by 90,000 Jewish voices in unison was thunderous testimony to the fact that our enemies, again, have failed and that both our people and our Torah have emerged from unspeakable national tragedy faithful and strong.

I don’t mean, of course, to in any way compare Holocaust fatigue to sewage like Holocaust denial and Holocaust derision. The latter are evils, the former an unfortunate problem.

But it’s a problem, a deeply discomforting one, all the same.


How the Israel Philharmonic Saved Jews From the Nazis

— by Hannah Lee
I did not hear of this in time to write about it for Yom HaShoah or Yom Ha’Atzmaut, but I didn’t want to sit on it for a whole year.  It was aired on Israel’s Channel 2 in April.  My husband’s maternal uncle, Yaacov Mishori, emeritus principal horn player of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and a former member of the orchestra management team, appears on-camera as one of the commentators.  The two video clips together total one hour of viewing; they are in Hebrew with Hebrew subtitles, but some of the people interviewed speak in English.

When you search the origins of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), you get a brief paragraph on Wikipedia:

The IPO was founded by violinist Bronisław Huberman in 1936, at a time when many Jewish musicians were being fired from European orchestras. Its inaugural concert took place in Tel Aviv on December 26, 1936, and was conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

However, the full story is much more heartbreaking.  

More after the jump.

Bronislaw Huberman, born in Częstochowa, Poland in 1882, was a child prodigy on the violin.  At the tender age of 14, he performed the violin concerto of Johannes Brahms in the presence of the composer, who cried and was “stunned by the quality of his playing.”  [“Around this time the six-year- old Arthur Rubinstein saw one of Huberman’s concerts.  Rubinstein’s parents invited Huberman back to their house and the two boys struck up what would become a lifetime friendship.”]  

During the ’30s, Huberman sought a way to help his fellow musicians who were facing persecution and murder at the hands of the Nazis.  He devised a plan that used the guise of recruiting musicians for a newly created Palestine Orchestra, funding the effort with his own money.  There were only 72 spots in the orchestra.  He auditioned his musicians, standing with his back to the musicians, because he knew that anyone he did not select would most likely perish during wartime Europe.  The chosen ones were all excellent musicians of high-standing.  Some even defected to the kibbutzim shortly after arriving, allowing Huberman the opportunity to recruit additional Jews.  The languages spoken by the early members of the orchestra were German, Polish, Hungarian, and Russian.  The orchestra later changed its name to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and it played “Hatikvah” at the Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948 at the Tel Aviv Museum.

In a similar manner was the welcome offered in American academia, including the creation of the Committee on Social Thought in 1941 at the University of Chicago by the historian John U. Nef, the economist Frank Knight, the anthropologist Robert Redfield, and Robert M. Hutchins, then President of the university.   Lore passed down by the students say that the new department was created to provide a convenient haven for refugees fleeing from wartime Europe.  Over the years, temporary and permanent refugee members of the Committee have included Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, Allan Bloom, Friederich Hayek, Leszek Kolakowski, Edward Levi, Paul Ricoeur, and Karl J. Weintraub.

The video clips are bracketed by the playing of Brahms in Częstochowa’s synagogue (now a concert hall) by Joshua Bell, an American with Jewish maternal ancestry.  There were dual historical and personal connections, because Bell now plays on a Stradivarius violin called the Gibson ex Huberman (the names of its first two owners), which was made in 1713.  It had been stolen twice in its lifetime: once for three days in 1919 and the second time on February 28, 1936 from the dressing room of Carnegie Hall.  Huberman never saw it again in his lifetime.  The violin only re-surfaced in 1985 with the deathbed confession of the thief, a former nightclub musician named Julian Altman.  Bell was able to buy the violin for just under $4 million dollars, right before it was to be sold to a German industrialist to become part of a collection.   Bell’s maternal grandmother was from Minsk and his maternal grandfather was born in Israel, so Bell mused on the video that “he might have listened to Huberman play.”

Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s Filmmaker, Arrested in Philadelphia

–by Henrik Eger

A beautiful young woman, clutching her film reel like a Torah, is fighting to defend her work against an arresting American officer in occupied Austria in 1946. Reluctantly, with a pistol in her face, she hands over the canister. Then, in a demanding voice, she says, “Cut! We’ll do it again.”

Playing Leni, by David Robson and John Stanton, directed by the innovative Seth Reichgott, and produced by Madhouse Theater Company at the Adrienne Theater in Philadelphia, looks at the manipulations of Leni Riefenstahl, the Führer’s most influential filmmaker, her many propaganda films, and her denial that she glorified the Nazi Empire, numbing millions to the horrors to come.

More after the jump.

Doyenne of Denial

Playing Leni centers around Riefenstahl vehemently rejecting any accusations that her heroic propaganda films contributed to the Third Reich and the Holocaust.

During the play, the audiences witness an excerpt from Riefenstahl’s original film Tiefland (Lowland) with Gypsies as Spanish peasant extras. The soldier tries to get Riefenstahl to confess that the actors were from a forced labor camp and that she made a contract with the SS to hire them, despite knowing that most of them would end up murdered in Auschwitz shortly after the shooting.

Riefenstahl, doyenne of denial, claims that she still maintains a wonderful correspondence with many of them. However, the soldier tries to tear down her web of fabrication: “All of those extras have been exterminated!”

Riefenstahl shrugs off the accusation, “I am a director, not a casting agent.” The soldier, unimpressed, pushes on: “What did you know about the systematic murders of Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies-?”  The woman who was closer to Hitler and Goebbels than anyone outside the Nazi hierarchy, renounces all accusation of involvement, adamantly declaring, “This won’t be in my film or any film!”

Cat-and-Mouse Games

Audiences of Riefenstahl’s works, like Triumph of the Will or the two famous 1936 Olympic films, may not have realized that they got played and sucked into toxic, persuasive propaganda.

Similarly, Frau Riefenstahl, the mistress of power and control (compellingly portrayed by Amanda Grove), goes all out to seduce the arresting U.S. soldier (the multi-talented Robert DaPonte) by playing Leni, browbeating him-and the audience-into submission: “No Leni, no movie,” and, “This is my story and my arrest!  So stop screwing around with B-movie shit!”

She manages to turn her brief incarceration into a scene where she coaxes the American officer into acting various parts, forcing him to play her role while interacting with Goebbels. She even manages to get him to play a German officer who kills prisoners in Poland while she films the scene.

The soldier, unwillingly dragged into Riefenstahl’s cat-and-mouse game, tries to turn the situation to his advantage by working on her script as his ruse to get her cooperation and to reveal information before the Nuremberg trials.

Just when the soldier thinks he has caught her in his trap, confronting her with the impact of her films on countless lives, she brushes him off: “Life is too short for regrets.”

“First Rule of the Interrogation: Don’t Joke About the Jews”

The soldier, modeled on Budd Schulberg, the writer who actually arrested and interrogated Riefenstahl, reveals himself as Jewish. The stubborn anti-Semite, who clearly has not learned anything, ridicules him. He then warns her, “First rule of the interrogation: Don’t joke about the Jews.”

In an almost Pavlovian fashion, Riefenstahl declares that she has nothing against anyone, “as far as I’m concerned, people are all the same.” Yet, she uses euphemisms to avoid the term “Jews.”  The interrogator has to beat it out of her before, referencing Hitler, she admits to prejudices against, “people unlike himself.” The U.S. soldier spells it out for her, “Jews you mean.”

Apparently unaware of the presence of a significant Jewish community in Los Angeles, Hitler’s filmmaker dreams of making movies in Hollywood-the height of chutzpah. The soldier reacts sardonically, “I’m not sure the Jews on Rodeo Drive have gotten past it yet.”  The audience roared with delight.

A Thorny Issue

My friend and guest, Stefanie Seltzer, president of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust (WFJCSH), did not laugh.  The Riefenstahl play had brought back many painful memories of her childhood in occupied Poland.  

Going by the derisive laughter in the theater, often directed at Leni, I wasn’t sure whether the audience went home feeling enlightened or merely entertained by schadenfreude, whether they saw Riefenstahl as the “Inglorious Bitch” akin to Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds-or whether they went home in self-reflection.

“We Are the Same, You and I”

Playing Leni, the drama about the power-hungry filmmaker willing to walk over bodies, encourages the American audience to discover not only some of the inner workings of a Third Reich mind, but also our own: “You’re doing this for you!  We are the same you and I,” asserts Riefenstahl.

Through the American soldier and the German filmmaker, we may recognize our own ambiguities in the pursuit of happiness.  As Robson puts it, Riefenstahl was “an opportunist extraordinaire. Life is full of people willing to do anything to become famous. Where does the conscience go in all that?”

Entering the theater, Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will fills the screen.  Leaving the theater, where we had just witnessed the unbearable Riefenstahl, did we look critically at the triumph of the will-within ourselves?

HENRIK EGER, Professor of English and Communication, DCCC, Media, PA.  Ph.D. University of Illinois at Chicago (1991). Member: Board of Directors, Theatre Ariel, the Jewish theatre of Philadelphia.  Philadelphia correspondent of All About Jewish Theatre (AAJT) and YouTube producer-writer: AAJT–The World’s Largest Secular Synagogue and Open University… Playwright of Jewish life and people, seen from a German perspective. For a detailed description, click here:…

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UN Commemorates Racist Durban Racism Conference

— Sharon Bender

B’nai B’rith International condemns the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of a resolution commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 2001 World Conference Against Racism. That event, in Durban, South Africa, was a forum overshadowed by rabid anti-Israel sentiment and deserves to be remembered as embodying the worst aspects of the United Nations.

The vote results included 104 nations in favor of the resolution, 22 against, and 33 abstentions.

B’nai B’rith International commends those nations voting against the commemoration: Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Netherlands, Palau, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Particularly disappointing was the near unanimous bloc of Latin American nations voting in favor of the resolution.

More after the jump.
The proposal to celebrate the original Durban conference has been championed by Arab and other largely non-democratic states, many with records characterized by mistreatment of minorities that have used their collective numbers to push through many anti-Israel resolutions at the world body. Though it is now only in its early planning stages, the Durban commemoration has been scheduled for a time when world leaders are expected in New York in September 2011, and just after the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

“It is tragic that more nations don’t publicly recognize and condemn Durban as the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish free-for-all it truly was,” B’nai B’rith International President Dennis W. Glick said. “Our delegates joined other non-governmental organizations in walking out of the conference in 2000 and again during Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel diatribe during the 2009 Durban Review Conference in Geneva. The prospects for anything positive to take place at a 10-year commemoration are no better.”

The 2001 World Conference Against Racism, with its Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA), implied that Israel alone is a racist nation. Even worse than the U.N. proceedings were the NGO forum and street scenes that saw horrific expressions of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

“The original Durban conference attempted to validate the perverse theory that Zionism is racism,” B’nai B’rith International Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin said. “Durban’s legacy of hate, intolerance, and double standards should never be forgotten, and should certainly never be celebrated.”

Following the proposal to commemorate Durban, Canada was the first country to unequivocally state it would not attend such an event. B’nai B’rith is calling on all countries not to participate in “Durban III.”