WWII-Separated Brothers Reunited After 65 Years

Izak Szewelewicz (left) and Shep Shell.

Izak Szewelewicz was born in the displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen, Germany shortly after World War II. This was a tumultuous time in Europe, with masses of people who had lost their family members and homes scrambling to start over.

Izak has no memories of his early years in the camp. He was sent to Israel for adoption in 1948, at the age of three, and raised by his adopting family. Izak’s biological mother, Aida, had meanwhile immigrated to Canada, and she later found and contacted Izak when he was an adolescent. They met several times and kept in touch, but she always refused to speak about the identity or fate of Izak’s father or anyone else from the family. [Read more…]

Marines’ First Jewish Chaplain

— by Paul J. Newman

Iwo_gittelsohnThe fight for Iwo Jima in 1945 was one of the bloodiest of World War II. A tiny island in the Pacific dominated by a volcanic mountain and pockmarked with caves, Iwo Jima was the setting for a five-week, non-stop battle between 70,000 American Marines and an unknown number of deeply entrenched Japanese defenders. The courage and gallantry of the American forces, climaxed by the dramatic raising of the American flag over Mt. Suribachi, is memorialized in the Marine Corps monument in Washington, DC. Less remembered, however, is that the battle occasioned an eloquent eulogy by a Marine Corps rabbi that has become an American classic.

Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn (1910-1995), assigned to the Fifth Marine Division, was the first Jewish chaplain the Marine Corps ever appointed. The American invading force at Iwo Jima included approximately 1,500 Jewish Marines. Rabbi Gittelsohn was in the thick of the fray, ministering to Marines of all faiths in the combat zone. He shared the fear, horror and despair of the fighting men, each of whom knew that each day might be his last. Roland Gittelsohn’s tireless efforts to comfort the wounded and encourage the fearful won him three service ribbons.

When the fighting was over, Division Chaplain Warren Cuthriell, a Protestant minister, asked Rabbi Gittelsohn to deliver the memorial sermon at a combined religious service dedicating the Marine Cemetery. Cuthriell wanted all the fallen Marines – black and white, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish – honored in a single, nondenominational ceremony. Unfortunately, racial and religious prejudice was strong in the Marine Corps, as it was then throughout America. According to Rabbi Gittelsohn, the majority of Christian chaplains objected to having a rabbi preach over predominantly Christian graves. The Catholic chaplains, in keeping with church doctrine, opposed any form of joint religious service.

To his credit, Cuthriell refused to alter his plans. Rabbi Gittelsohn, on the other hand, wanted to save his friend Cuthriell further embarrassment and so decided it was best not to deliver his sermon. Instead, three separate religious services were held. At the Jewish service, to a congregation of 70 or so who attended, Rabbi Gittelsohn delivered the powerful eulogy he originally wrote for the combined service:

Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors, generations ago, helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor… together. Here are Protestants, Catholics and Jews together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men, there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy…

Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn duty, sacred duty do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of white men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price…

We here solemnly swear that this shall not be in vain. Out of this and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.

Among Rabbi Gittelsohn’s listeners were three Protestant chaplains so incensed by the prejudice voiced by their colleagues that they boycotted their own service to attend Rabbi Gittelsohn’s. One of them borrowed the manuscript and, unknown to Rabbi Gittelsohn, circulated several thousand copies to his regiment. Some Marines enclosed the copies in letters to their families. An avalanche of coverage resulted. Time published excerpts, which wire services spread even further. The entire sermon was inserted into the Congressional Record. The Army released the eulogy for short-wave broadcast to American troops throughout the world and radio commentator Robert St. John read it on his program and on many succeeding Memorial Days.

Obama Honors Raoul Wallenberg at 100th Anniversary Event

On Rosh Hashanah Eve, President Obama participated in an event at the Great Synagogue in Stockholm honoring Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat and honorary U.S. citizen who worked to save lives while serving as Sweden’s special envoy in Budapest during World War II.

The synagogue can hold 1,000 people, and its eternal flame has stayed lit since the building opened in 1870. Obama, wearing a white yarmulke, examined artifacts connected to the life of Wallenberg. The artifacts included Wallenberg’s phone book, diary and Swedish passport, along with the “protective passports or ‘Schutz-pass’ (belonging) to a Hungarian couple who survived the war in large part thanks to Wallenberg’s heroic efforts and his issuance of the protective passports,” according to the White House.

Then, Obama and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt left the building, and examined the imposing gray Holocaust Memorial wall outside. The wall is engraved with names of more than 8,000 Holocaust victims related to Swedish Jews, according to the White House.

The president then walked to a lectern to give a statement, facing members of Wallenberg’s family who were seated in front of him. After his remarks, Obama went from row to row in the audience, greeting the family members.

Full remarks after the jump.
President Obama: Good afternoon. I want to thank Prime Minister Reinfeldt, Lena Posner-Körösi, and Rabbi Narrowe for welcoming me here to the Great Synagogue — the heart of the Jewish community here in Stockholm.  

This evening is the first night of the Jewish High Holidays — Rosh Hashanah. For our Jewish friends, it’s a time of joy and celebration, to give thanks for our blessings, and to look ahead to the coming year. So to all our Jewish friends here in Sweden, in the United States, and around the world, especially in Israel — I want to wish you and your families a sweet and happy new year. Shanah Tova.

Days such as this are a time of reflection — an occasion to consider not just our relationship with God, but our relationship with each other as human beings. And we’re reminded of our basic obligations: to recognize ourselves in each other; to treat one another with compassion; to reach out to the less fortunate among us; to do our part to help repair our world. These values are at the heart of the great partnership between Sweden and the United States. And these values defined the life of the man we remember today — Raoul Wallenberg.  

Last year we marked the 100th anniversary of Wallenberg’s birth, and I was proud to send my greetings to your ceremony here in Stockholm. And today we’re honored to be joined by those who loved him and whose lives he touched — members of the Wallenberg family, including his half-sister Nina and the family of his late half-brother Guy; Wallenberg’s colleague, Gabriella Kassius; and some of the countless men and women whom Wallenberg saved from the Holocaust.  

We just had a wonderful visit together. They showed me some incredible artifacts — some of the Swedish passports Wallenberg used to protect Jews in Budapest. I saw his diary, his own passport, including a picture of him as he was and as he will always remain — young and determined and full of energy, and an enormous heart. And I’m here today because, as Americans, we cherish our ties to Wallenberg as well.

He was a son of Sweden, but he also studied in America. I know he spent most of his time in Ann Arbor, but my understanding is he spent some time in my hometown of Chicago as well. He could have remained in the comfort of Stockholm, but he went to Nazi-occupied Hungary in partnership with the U.S. War Refugee Board. To this day, schools and streets in America bear his name, and he is one of only a few individuals ever granted honorary U.S. citizenship. So he’s beloved in both our countries; he’s one of the links that binds us together.

Wallenberg’s life is a challenge to us all — to live those virtues of empathy and compassion, even when it’s hard, even when it involves great risk. He came from a prominent family, but he chose to help the most vulnerable. He was a Lutheran, and yet he risked his life to save Jews. “I will never be able to go back to Stockholm,” he said, “without knowing inside myself I’d done all a man could do to save as many Jews as possible.”

So when Jews in Budapest were marked with that yellow star, Wallenberg shielded them behind the blue and yellow of the Swedish flag. When they were forced into death marches, he showed up with the food and water that gave them life. When they were loaded on trains for the camps, he climbed on board too and pulled them off. He lived out one of the most important mitzvot, most important commandments in the Jewish tradition — to redeem a captive; to save a life; the belief that when a neighbor is suffering, we cannot stand idly by.

And because he refused to stand by, Wallenberg reminds us of our power when we choose, not simply to bear witness, but also to act — the tens of thousands he saved from the camps; the estimated 100,000 Jews of Budapest who survived the war, in no small measure because of this man and those like Gabriella who risked their lives as well. It also calls to mind the compassion of Swedes who helped rescue so many Jews from Denmark 70 years ago this year. And this legacy shines bright in the survivors who are here today and in the family trees that have continued to grow ever since — children and grandchildren and great grandchildren who owe their very existence to a Swedish hero that they never knew.  

I cannot think of a better tribute to Raoul Wallenberg than for each of us — as individuals and as nations — to reaffirm our determination to live the values that defined his life, and to make the same choice in our time. And so today we say that we will make a habit of empathy. We will stand against anti-Semitism and hatred, in all its forms. We will choose to recognize the beauty and dignity and worth of every person and every child. And we will choose to instill in the hearts of our own children the love and tolerance and compassion that we seek.    

One of those whom Wallenberg saved later told this story — he was a young boy in hiding when they came for the women, including his mother. And “my mother kissed me,” he said, “and I cried and she cried. And we knew we were parting forever.” But then, “two or three hours later, to my amazement, my mother returned with the other women. It seemed like a mirage, a miracle. My mother was there — she was alive and she was hugging me and kissing me, and she said one word: Wallenberg.”  

Today we stand in awe of the courage of one man who earned his place in the Righteous Among the Nations. And we pray for the day when all peoples and nations find the same strength to recognize the humanity that we share, and to summon in our own lives our capacity for good; to live with tolerance and respect; to treat everyone with dignity, and to provide our children with the peace that they deserve.

So thank you very much. It is a great honor to be here today. And on behalf of the American people, we want to say to the Wallenberg family how truly inspired and grateful we are for all that he did. Thank you.

Book Chat: Exodus to Shanghai

— by Hannah Lee

Heartbreaking are the testimonies of Jews who sought every avenue of escape from Nazi-controlled Europe, but were foiled at every turn, with diplomatic and bureaucratic obstacles. They had limited access to accurate news. They had limited resources to buy their freedom and even the ones with means and the forethought found themselves victims of covetous maneuvers. Nazi regulations forbade bringing most valuables from the country and limited cash to 10 Marks or $10 per person.

First-hand testimonies are found in a book published in July, Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich by Steve Hochstadt.

More after the jump.
As part of the academic Palgrave Macmillian studies in oral history, Professor Hochstadt’s research focused on the odyssey of 16,000 Jews who escaped from Nazi-run Europe and found refuge in Shanghai, China when all other doors had slammed shut. The book distilled the transcripts of 13 narrators chosen from over 100 oral histories conducted with the survivors.  

Most of the narrators left their homes in the frantic and brief period between the Anschluss (the occupation and annexation) of Austria in March 1938 and the beginning of war in September 1939. They came from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia and represent a cross section of all refugees. The book does not cover the odyssey of the religious Jews from Poland, including the entire Mirrer Yeshiva, who spoke Yiddish and dressed differently from the cosmopolitan Berliners and the Viennese.

Desperate and resourceful women found out that a visa to Shanghai could release their men from concentration camps. Assistance came from the philanthropic organizations, Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden in Germany and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York, including tickets to Shanghai for the poorest families.

In the 1930s, Shanghai was the banking center of Asia and “an open port where the Chinese Nationalists and Communists, organized gangsters, Western capitalists, and the Japanese military competed for authority,” wrote Hochstadt. “Extremes of wealth and poverty jostled in the crowded streets.” Upon arrival, the refugees experienced culture shock in the form of the tropical heat, an alien language, and wartime inflation.  

The marvel was that the refugees quickly developed a community in exile, with Jewish institutions and forms of self-governance. The Austrians even created a café life on the streets of their new home. The most ambitious and successful creation was the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School, affectionately known as the Kadoorie School. About 600 students enrolled in a curriculum of religious and secular subjects, taught in English by the refugees and modeled after Jewish schools in Germany.

“The remarkable thing about Jewish life in Shanghai until 1943 is that there was no persecution,” wrote Hochstadt. The Japanese already controlled most of the city but, while they were allies of the Nazis, they adopted a completely different policy toward Jews. They finally took action on February 18, 1943, when they forced all “stateless refugees” who’d arrived after 1937 to live within less than a square mile in the neighborhood of Hongkou. However, the February Proclamation showed “the ambivalent nature of the Japanese attitude… the word Jew was not mentioned in the Proclamation ,” and the existing Baghdadi and Russian Jewish communities in Shanghai were spared.

With the end of the war, these refugees again had to find new places to live. Nearly all refugee families wanted to leave Shanghai as soon as possible. “Very few had been able to create a life they wanted to continue in China. Remaining in post-colonial China…meant learning and adopting Chinese culture; only a handful of European Jews accepted that challenge,” wrote Hochstadt.

Illustrative of the enormous difficulties for displaced persons after the war, one of the last groups to leave Shanghai, 106 of them without U.S. visas, were supposed to travel across the Pacific on the “General Gordon,” but the Chinese refused to allow the ship to anchor offshore.  So, on May 1950,

the refugees had to take a train to Tientsin, then board barges in heavy seas to get out to the ship. When they arrived in the United States, they were put on a sealed train and transported across the country to Ellis Island…In June, another boat took them to Bremerhaven [Germany], and they entered DP camps, where they stayed for one more year. Finally they were given visas to the United States in 1951.

By the time of the Chinese Communists’ Cultural Revolution in 1966, the Jewish communities of Shanghai “were just a memory.”

The book gives the history of the slight majority of the Shanghai refugees who came to the United States. Life in the United States meant assimilation, letting go of their German culture. They had to adjust to a new world order. One refugee, Lisbeth Loewenberg, reminisced about her adjustment to stability:

My first job that I found after one week when I walked around, that was with Collier’s magazine. This place took subscriptions, they had salesmen go running around and selling subscriptions to Collier’s and Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan, and so on, and I processed these orders. People took subscriptions for one year. I said, “But how do people know that after one year they will still be at that address?” I couldn’t believe in permanence anymore. I was completely shocked that some people took two-year subscriptions. It floored me. But you don’t know where you are going to be tomorrow, was my reaction. And life has actually always seemed to me not permanent.  It’s all just transitory.

Remarkably, these refugees, most of whom had been children or teens during the years in Shanghai, can even look back and say, as did Doris Grey, that they were “the best years” of her life. Another, Gerald Kohbieter, said, “It was a lifesaver. The Chinese were polite people, and they put up with a lot with us…There were some frictions, but all in all, I must say there were good hosts.”

The resilience of youth allowed many of them adapt to, and even profit from their refugee experiences. Lisbeth Loewenberg said,

All the barriers fell. It didn’t make a difference, what does your family do…because everyone was there and started from scratch, nil, nothing, in Shanghai. All things being equal, if all people start under the same adverse conditions, this is where your true ability will show or your true survival instincts or your enterprise…Don’t ever blame the condition, blame yourself.  Because under the most impossible conditions, some people will make it one way or another.

Professor Hochstadt earned his Ph.D. in History from Brown University, taught at Bates College in Maine for 27 years, and is now professor at Illinois College. He has just published another Holocaust oral history, Death and Love in the Holocaust: The Story of Sonja and Kurt Messerschmidt (Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine).

History Lesson By Teen Troupe

— by Hannah Lee

From the mouths of babes and the brainstorming of teens: “Sosúa: Dare to Dance Together” is the result of an outreach effort to bring together the Jewish and Dominican populations of the Upper Manhattan neighborhood. Teens performed in song, dance, and rapping monologues this past Sunday at the National Museum of American Jewish History.  Their performance highlighted the little known fact of synergy that occurred in 1938 when the Dominican Republic was the only country of the 38 nations invited to the Évian Conference, organized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to offer a haven to Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled countries.

More after the jump.

One of Latin America’s most repressive dictators, General Rafael Trujillo, had ulterior motives for rescuing Jews.  His nation bordered Haiti, his army had massacred 15,000 unarmed Haitians, and he wanted to deflect the international outcry.  Also, as documented by Allen Wells in his 2009 book, Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sosúa, Trujillo “sought to “whiten” the Dominican populace, welcoming Jewish refugees who were themselves subject to racist scorn in Europe.”  

Trujillo offered to accept up to 100,000 refugees, although only 750 Jews succeeded in crossing the Atlantic Ocean between 1940 and 1945.  Mostly from Germany and Austria, the Jews settled in the small seaside town of Sosúa and they created a dairy and cheese cooperative, named Productos Sosú, on the grounds of an abandoned banana plantation,  which is still in existence today.  Most of the descendants of the original settlers moved away to New York or Miami, including the abovementioned author Wells, but some still live in Sosúa, where they maintain a synagogue and a museum.

The inter-racial and inter-cultural project was conceived by Victoria Neznansky, the chief program officer of the YM & YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood, where the German and Russian Jews do not mingle with the larger Hispanic population, comprised mostly of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.  In 2008, the Museum of Jewish Heritage held an exhibit on Jews who had found shelter in the Dominican Republic just before the outbreak of World War II.  That historical link gave Neznansky the spark to reach out to noted composer Elizabeth Swados about creating a dance theater piece for her teen constituency.  Art would be the lure to bring in the two groups of participants.

Neznansky started with a group of 10 Jews and 10 Dominicans in 2009, but now the project reaches out beyond its neighborhood.  The current performers hail from 17 schools in the greater New York area.  Ranging in age from 12 to 18, the participants met weekly to study the historical episode, bond over their shared history of discrimination, and rehearse the production. Each year’s teens add their own stories, interpretations and raps.  One of the participants, Kaitlin Abreu composed a Spanish song to add to Swados’ original score.  

Part I tells the story of how the Jews arrived in Sosúa.  A memorable prop of clear plastic Magen David (six-pointed star of David) was held aloft by teens and torn apart to depict Kristallnacht, also referred to as the Night of Broken Glass, in which coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria occurred on 9-10 November 1938.  Part II recounts how the Dominicans welcomed the Jews into their midst, often resulting in marriage between the mostly male Jews and the local Latina girls.  At the finale, two large red hands are linked together and flipped to represent a stylized heart.

In one monologue, a teen offered the ice cream sundae as a metaphor for racial harmony: Hitler only wanted vanilla, Trujillo wanted to get rid of his country’s fudge sauce, but “everyone knows that the best ice cream sundae has all of its parts.”  And in another segment, another teen noted that “one’s man’s trash is another man’s treasure” and what happened in Sosúa went “way beyond recycling.”

At the talkback after Sunday’s performance, an audience member referred to a piece of monologue about middle school being the pivotal period when children no longer play together innocently, regardless of racial or ethnic background.  As the performers are all in their teens, what would they suggest for parents who wish to raise their own children with tolerance?  One performer recommended communal projects such as theirs.  A Dominican girl told about living on the Jewish side of her mixed community and being asked to turn on lights for her religious Jewish neighbors.  She had no context for what it meant.  Another Hispanic teen enthusiastically spoke about joining in a Chanukah celebration with his Jewish peer from the group.  A third girl endorsed the study of world history, to learn about the cultural contributions of people other than our own.  Another boy endorsed “celebrating other races,” other cultures.  Finally, several teens raved about their theatrically focused high school programs for facilitating tolerance, as the performing arts tout excellence, regardless of background.

“Sosúa: Dare to Dance Together” has since been performed,  amongst other venues, at the United Nations and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan.  According to The Jewish Week, the filmmaker Peter Miller, whose documentaries, such as “Jews and Baseball” and “Sacco and Vanzetti,” have aired on PBS, has begun co-directing a documentary about the project with Renee Silverman,  a member of the Washington Heights Y.  Neznansky reports that the filmmakers have recently received a grant from the Kroll Foundation to edit and complete a rough draft of the documentary.   However, the Y needs funding to continue the project beyond the original three-year grant from the UJA Federation of New York.  Indeed, at Sunday’s performance, an appreciative audience member voiced the hope that every school could see the performance.

Photo credits: Historical black and white photographs courtesy of American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives. Color teen photos courtesy of Roj Rodrigues.