World War II Treasures Discovered in a Shoebox

At the Passover Seder, we recite the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. For Marc Shatzman and his family, there is also another Passover story to tell — how Shatzman’s maternal grandfather, Bruno Elkan, celebrated Passover as a Jewish American soldier in Europe in 1945:

While I was in Belgium I attended a Seder given by the seven Jewish families left in town. … The stories they told me are hard to believe but I know they are true. How they managed to survive the Hitler regime is hard to comprehend. They were lovely people & I felt quite at home.

These words were written by Elkan to his future wife, Adele Berkowitz, in a letter dated March 30, 1945. In a subsequent letter, he mentions a young girl at the Seder, who told him things that “no human being can understand.”

Bruno Elkan during World War II.

Through his letters to Berkowitz, Elkan created a first-hand account of the life of an American soldier in Europe during World War II. Until recently, his prolific wartime correspondence dwelled in a shoebox in Marc Shatzman’s closet. Although Shatzman never met his grandfather — who survived the war, but died from an allergic reaction at an early age — he feels connected to him, in part because of their physical resemblance. [Read more…]

Pride in Jewish Identity Under Nazi Occupation

Ladies wearing Jewish stars. Photo: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Ladies wearing Jewish stars. Photo: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

During World War II, German authorities and their collaborators in Nazi-occupied countries forced people of Jewish descent to wear identifying badges as a way to isolate them and publicly mark them as inferior. But some chose to embrace their forced visibility and celebrate their Jewish identity by posing for professional photographic portraits while wearing the yellow star.

[Read more…]

Hagley Author Talk: Destructive Creation in World War II

During World War II, iconic images of workers assembling tanks, guns and warships spoke to the effort taking place on U.S. soil while our soldiers fought on the other side of the world. Dr. Mark R. Wilson, associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, will explore this military-industrial mobilization during a Hagley Author Talk.

Dr. Wilson’s talk is based on his recently published book, “Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II.” He also wrote “The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861-1865.”

“Most of us are familiar with the Rosie the Riveter posters and wartime images showing women and men across the U.S. rolling up their sleeves and helping to produce materials and supplies during World War II,” said Roger Horowitz, director of Hagley’s Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society. “Wilson’s book is the first to document just how expansive the military-industrial mobilization was and the impact of American business on the Allies’ winning of the war.”

In his talk, Dr. Wilson will offer a groundbreaking reinterpretation of the history of the giant U.S. military-industrial mobilization for World War II. Although the “arsenal of democracy” was based on complex partnerships among private firms, government and the military, business leaders worked hard to obscure the contributions of the public sector. Their success became an important foundation for the long postwar march toward privatization and deregulation.

The talk will highlight Dr. Wilson’s use of Hagley’s extensive collections. He used several of the library’s records, including those of the DuPont Company Explosives Department, Sperry Gyroscope Company, J. Howard Pew Personal Papers, the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Reservations requested: Contact Carol Lockman, 302-658-2400, ext. 243.

The lecture will be held in the Soda House auditorium. Use Hagley’s Buck Road East entrance off Route 100 in Wilmington, Delaware.

PJFF Film: “Shalom Italia”

Directed by Tamar Tal Anati (the award-winning director of “Life in Stills”), “Shalom Italia” is filled with humor, food and Tuscan landscapes. This charming and poignant documentary, in Hebrew and Italian with English subtitles, straddles the boundary between history and myth — both equally pivotal in forming our individual and collective identities.

During World War II, Emmanuel, Andrea and Bubi, three Italian Jewish brothers, spent several of their formative years hiding in a man-made cave built by their father in the Tuscan mountains while the Nazis occupied Italy. Seventy years later, Bubi, the youngest of the trio, gathers his brothers for an unforgettable family reunion in the hopes of rediscovering the mysterious cave that saved their family from being deported to the camps.

Retracing their steps and their intimate experiences during the war, the brothers, now as different as can be, bond and deliberate over the veracity of their memories, sharing hearty conversations and equally robust Italian meals along the way. From early morning breakfasts to a late night Shabbas feast, the food of their homeland evolves into the centerpiece of Bubi, Andrea and Emmanuel’s adventures through Tuscany. Facing the limitations of their imperfect memories and the physical setbacks of their aging bodies, the brothers resolve to accomplish their goal, come mozzarella or prosciutto! Joking and arguing aside, these kindred spirits spend countless hours trekking through the thick Tuscan forest to create a new memory, one that will serve as the basis for a brotherly bond that will remain for the rest of their lives.

Guest Speakers: Post-film Skype interview with Andreas Anati and Ruben Anati, two actors in the film, as well as with Tamar Tal Anati, the film’s director

Special Event: Film followed by discussion, as well as by an Italian brunch organized by Gran Caffe L’Aquila and inspired by the cuisine featured in the film (dessert and wine included with ticket)

Buy tickets here.

Jewish War Veterans Honor Black WWII Soldier

At a Holocaust education program, students at Benjamin Franklin High School (BFHS) learned about the life of Leon Bass, Ph.D., an African American soldier of the Second World War who witnessed the horrors of Buchenwald concentration camp. This program was sponsored by Fegelson-Young-Feinberg Post #697 of the Jewish War Veterans.

Bass was born in Philadelphia on January 23, 1925, and his father was a Pullman porter. In World War II, Bass was an Army soldier in the all-black 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion. He arrived at Buchenwald in April 1945, only one day after the camp had been liberated.

Brian Camper, climate and culture manager for BFHS, shared Bass’s description of the camp with the students: “Those who survived the camp reeked of burnt human flesh and torture chambers, and [were] still covered with blood.”

After being discharged as a sergeant, Bass returned to Philadelphia and graduated from West Chester University. He became a teacher at BFHS, and eventually became the school’s principal. He also earned a doctorate in education from Temple University. In his later years, he wrote the book Good Enough: One Man’s Memoir of the Price of a Dream.

Brian Camper

Brian Camper

Bass also spoke publicly about what he saw of the camps as a liberator. “Up until his death,” said Camper, “Dr. Bass continued to speak out,” regularly attending Holocaust memorial events honoring survivors and liberators. In addition, Bass was featured in the TV documentary film Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II.

Delia Bass Dandridge, Bass’ daughter, also spoke about her father. She explained that he was inspired to speak out about what he had seen at Buchenwald after hearing a Holocaust survivor tell her story to the students while he was principal at BFHS. “He knew then,” said Dandridge, “that he had his own story to tell, and he went around the country for thirty-plus years doing just that.”

“My father had a great strength,” she said, “and a great sense of humor and humility. He grew up in a very difficult time in our country, but he had parents who constantly told him he was ‘good enough.’ He passed this message on to his children, his grandchildren, his students, and to all those who needed to hear it.”

Larry Farnase

Larry Farnese

Pennsylvania State Senator Larry Farnese spoke next, saying, “As a friend, neighbor, husband, and brother, Dr. Bass was a lot like many of us here today. As a leader and a difference maker, he was like very few others.”

Farnese also explained that when Bass helped to liberate Buchenwald, “he did so as a member of the ‘other Army,’ the segregated Army.”

In his tribute to Bass, Don Cave, an aide to State Senator Anthony Williams, mentioned the recent presidential debates:

Think about the climate today in America. Think about the craziness: you hear about divisiveness; you hear about racial overtones…. We’re all in this thing together, and when one 19-year-old man with a rifle went overseas to Germany, to fight for a country that didn’t give him rights, understand that. What kind of a man… would pick up a gun and go fight for rights he didn’t have? Yet [when] he saw the humanity in these other people who were going through these crazy evil situations, he saw himself in them.

You cannot sit still and wait while you see another race or another group of people being dismantled and destroyed, because, guess what, when they’re done with that group, they’re coming for you. That’s what we mean: We are all in this together.

Cave challenged the students, “Do you have the heart to be like Dr. Bass, and go outside of yourself?”

Ronit Treatman

Ronit Treatman with Allan Silverberg of Post 697

Ronit Treatman, past president of The Philadelphia Jewish Voice, and granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, asked, “How likely do you think it is, for a little girl from Israel to get to meet the American soldier who liberated her grandfather?”

I’ll tell you, it’s not very likely, but it happened to me. My grandmother survived Auschwitz; my grandfather was one of the people that Dr. Bass liberated from Buchenwald, and I grew up with them. I grew up in that community of survivors.

One of the things Treatman came across living among Holocaust survivors was “how grateful they were to the soldiers who saved them,” she said:

I was growing up during the Cold War. My grandmother was liberated by Russian soldiers, and my grandfather was liberated by Americans, and they were grateful to both of them. I really appreciated the opportunity to tell [Bass] what he meant to us. We got a chance to talk, and it was so interesting; I didn’t know the American Army was segregated at that time.

Treatman respected Bass even more due to his service at the corps of engineers:

I also was a soldier; I served in the Israeli army, and I can tell you, that even in 1986, my friends who served as army engineers had a very dangerous job. They’re the guys who take apart land mines, and most of my friends who served [as engineers] were missing at least one finger. When Leon Bass told me that’s what he did, I looked at his hands, and all the fingers were there. He was very good.

One thing Bass and Treatman’s family shared “was the silence,” she said:

Growing up, we never talked about the war… Then, if you wanted to talk about it, you were walking on egg shells, because you knew if you asked the wrong thing, it would be very upsetting, and the next thing I knew was my grandmother [would] be swallowing Valium.

Bass became a pacifist after the war, Treatman said, “and I’m not sure I would be a pacifist, learning about what life was like here, and I come from a family of fighters. I don’t know what you may think the Holocaust survivors were like.” Members of Treatman’s family fought in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republic, and one of her grandfathers fought the British in pre-Independence Palestine.

Peter Nelson

Peter Nelson

Peter Nelson, director of the New York office of Facing History and Ourselves, a program dedicated to teaching about racism and discrimination, spoke of Bass’ experience in the Second World War:

He was told he wasn’t good enough to go into a restaurant with fellow soldiers, he wasn’t good enough to be in certain barracks, he wasn’t good enough to walk on the street, and the truth was, he wasn’t ‘good enough.’ He was great enough.

Mary Johnson

Mary Johnson

Mary Johnson, senior historian for Facing History and Ourselves, said that Bass “made the connection [between] what he had witnessed in Europe and what was happening in this country, with segregation, and the importance of the Civil Rights Movement. He always made that connection because so much of what transformed soldiers that were in Europe was finding out what happens if you allow that kind of discrimination and hatred to occur.”

Danny Goldsmith

Danny Goldsmith

Anthony Luker, representing Congressman Brendan F. Boyle, presented a congressional citation form to Delia Bass-Dandridge, honoring Bass for his service in the Army and for his Holocaust education work.

Danny Goldsmith, a survivor of the Holocaust, told the story, with pictures, of his family in Belgium during the Holocaust and World War II.

Event photos are courtesy of John O. Mason.

Enigma: the Hebrew Adaptation of the German Encryption Machine

— by Meir Deutsch

The CAPCHTA exhibition in the Bernhard Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem has an interesting exhibit: an Enigma machine used by Israel prior to its establishment in 1948.

Enigma was originally invented by Arthur Scherbius for business purposes, but was not successful. During World War II, the German Army, Air Force and Navy used the machine for the encryption and decryption of secret messages.

The Enigma had to undergo the process of conversion to the Hebrew Alphabet which has only 22 letters as against 26 letters in the original. The four letters filling the empty spaces on the Hebrew keyboard were replaced by the letters F, X, Y and V. The Hebrew version did not have the “end letters” on the keyboard. However, it still has still the original instruction in German on the back panel.

Marian Rejewski and the Polish Cipher Bureau were the first to break Germany’s Enigma ciphers, already in December 1932. Before the outbreak of the second World War they gave their findings to the British and French, but the ultimate breakthrough was made by the British: in March 1941, when the German armed trawler ‘Krebs’ was captured off Norway complete with Enigma machines and codebooks, the German naval Enigma code could finally be read. The work of the code breaking, called Ultra, was performed in Bletchley Park.

More after the jump.
The British tried hard to conceal their code breaking success from the Axis. In 1942, when five Italian ships bound for Africa were sunk due to Ultra information, Churchill sent a telegram to Naples congratulating a fictitious spy and awarding him a bonus.