Archive for the ‘Holocaust’ Category
Though teen pop sensation Justin Bieber is a fellow Canadian, I’m not usually in the business of defending him. I do not have “Bieber fever.” I can’t say I know any of his work, except for “Baby” featuring Ludacris, a song so catchy you’d have to be without a soul not to hum along. I know Bieber hails from western Ontario, I know that he was discovered on youtube, and I know that there is a website dedicated to lesbians who look just like him.
So I was pretty surprised when Bieber came up today in the context of every Jewish studies student and scholar’s favourite inescapable topic: the Holocaust.
You see, apparently Bieber and buddies were over in Amsterdam, and they decided to pay an after hours visit to the Anne Frank House (presumably they weren’t baked at the time). Anne Frank House is museum set up in the house where Anne Frank, the most famous victim of the Holocaust, stayed hidden for two years in the early 1940s. The teenage girl chronicled her life in her famous diary before the Nazis finally captured her and sent her to a concentration camp. I visited Anne Frank House in 2001. It’s a pretty moving place. And apparently Bieber was moved too, so moved that he left this note in the museum’s guest book:
Truly Inspring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.
At first glance, this story seemed more like an incident from a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, a show with a distinguished record of hilarious Holocaust humour. It mixed the solemn with the silly so effectively it had to be some kind of joke, right? But no, it was the real life Justin Bieber expressing his genuine feelings after visiting Anne Frank House. He hoped she would have been one of his screaming, adoring fans. A belieber. So what are we to make of this?
Many have remarked that Bieber displayed an amazing degree of narcissism. He went to a museum that highlighted the horros of the Holocaust, and yet he made his reaction all about him, indeed, all about his celebrity. Unbeliebable!
And yet, and yet… here’s the other thing. Justin Bieber may have been right.
If you look at Anne Frank’s journal, later titled The Diary of a Young Girl, you’ll notice how incredibly normal she was. Frank was, in many ways, your typical teenager. She cared about her appearance. She had a crush on a boy hidden with her. She complained of boredom. She gave gifts to her family. She was aware of the latest fashion and literature and music. And so, in another setting, in another lifetime, Anne Frank might very well have been a belieber.
Inadvertently, through his arrogant and asinine message, Justin Bieber reasserted and clarified the central message of the diary. Frank should be remembered for her resilience, for her nobility in the face of mortal danger. She was indeed “a great girl.” But she was great precisely because she made her life so relatable, even under a Nazi occupation to which few can relate. Her diary is an account of her struggle for normalcy under hideously abnormal circumstances. But under other circumstances, she’d probably be singing along to “Baby’ just like the rest of us.
There’s a new player in the Jewish continuity game, with a new plan for bringing American Jewish youth back to their roots. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the idea, called the Helix Project, is to bring Jewish young adults, ages 18-23, on an all-expense paid trip to eastern Europe: Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, to learn about their rich Jewish heritage and ancestry that existed before the Holocaust. The trip, sponsored by Yiddishkayt (literally “Jewishness”), an LA based Jewish cultural organization, has only six participants this summer (three students from UCLA and three more from UC-Berkeley), but its founder, Rob Adler Peckerar, envisions the program becoming an alternative to Birthright Israel.
Regular readers of this blog know my thoughts on Birthright Israel, the all-expense-paid 10-day trip to Israel. I’ll summarize briefly: Birthright Israel is about birthing Jewish babies, not Zionism. Despite all the Zionist propaganda present on the trips, the program was designed to counter rising rates of intermarriage in the United States, not to strengthen the state of Israel (or at least, any benefits to Israel were tangential, or products of the former goal). Thus Birthright serves as a sort of Jewish meat market, where young Jews hook up with Israeli soldiers or with each other, in the hopes of finding a spouse, all for the greater good of the Jewish people.
This raises the question: would the Helix Project be any different?
On the surface, it seems that the answer is yes. The content of the trip, focusing on pre-WW2 eastern Europe, is critical to the Helix Project. As the LA Times reports, “it is, in more than one way, a deeply subversive idea.” And Adler Peckerar doesn’t mince words:
You know, you do a quick survey of college classes and you see that more is being taught about the destruction of Jewish culture than about the culture…. We have a whole postwar generation that has grown up knowing far more [about] Nazis and concentration camps than knowing Jewish writers and major Jewish centers of culture in Europe. And that’s terrible. To me, that is — I don’t want to be extreme about it, but it is a continuation of the Holocaust.
Um, that sounds a little extreme, kind of like the whole “intermarrying is like finishing Hitler’s work” slogan. Still, Adler Peckerar’s idea is an interesting one. As the late Tony Judt wrote: “Many American Jews are sadly ignorant of their religion, culture, traditional languages, or history. But they do know about Auschwitz, and that suffices.” It’s true that much of American, or even global Diaspora Jewish identity, centers on the Holocaust and the State of Israel. Heck, that’s exactly what the (subsidized but not free) March of the Living trip for 16 and 17 year old high school students is all about. It takes you to pre-war Poland, shows you something of the lives that Jews led there, but then focuses on the death camps, the gas chambers, the crematoria, all the other horrors of the Holocaust. The “highlight” of the trip is the reenactment of the “March of the Dead,” a brief silent march from the concentration camp Auschwitz to the death camp Birkenau.
And then, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, rises the State of Israel. The second half of the 16-day trip takes place in the Holy Land, contains a health dose of that Zionist propaganda, and basically shows you how wonderful Israel is, with the highlight being the awesome celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.
In exploring Vilnius yesterday, the whole “city of ghosts” thing seemed to ring true. We walked along the beautiful streets, but the people seemed detached from the beauty around them. We claimed up to a castle at one of the flat city’s highest points, and took in the view. It was truly majestic. But through that castle was a museum, which hardly recognized the non-Lithuanian character of the city for much of it’s history. It’s as if they went from paganism to the Soviet era with nothing in between. And what they truly celebrated was liberation from the Soviets. On the top floor of the museum, a television played clips about Lithuania’s “2009 Millenium Odyssey: One Name – Lithuania.” This country celebrated 1000 years of Lithuanian history by sending a yacht sailing to visit every Lithuanian community in the world. Impressive, but strange. Hearkening back to a pagan past with a worldwide sailing trip for a nation with no real connection to seafaring? Imagined Community anyone? Still, I shouldn’t be too harsh here. Lithuania is a young country, building its own culture and nation. But I think an honest assessment of their history would do them some good.
The Lithuanian “Genocide” Museum, formerly the KGB museum, was even more troubling. The museum’s name begs the question: genocide committed upon Lithuanians, or by Lithuanians? The museum was in fact dedicated to the two Soviet occupations, from 1940-1941 and then 1944-1990. Those occupations were indeed oppressive. But if genocide ever occurred on these lands, it was between 1941-1944. One exhibit, outlining the casualties of the three occupations, noting 240,000 “Lithuanians” died between 1941-1944, and in brackets, that 200,000 of those were “Jews.” Apart from that, there was no mention of the Holocaust, except for a couple of lines at the bottom of one early exhibit, which said something like: “For those interested in the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews, you should check out the Holocaust museum.”
I have no trouble with a museum dedicated to horrors of and resistance to the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. As I wrote earlier, I was very impressed with the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which told a Polish story while not neglecting the Jewish element. The Lithuanian Genocide museum had none of that subtlety. Indeed, it had a large outdoor exhibit about the role of basketball is unifying the Lithuanian nation and resisting the Soviets. This exhibit, which consisted of a basketball net and about ten displays, was orders of magnitude larger than any mention of Jews in the museum.
So today, after a lovely guided tour of the sites of the former Jewish neighbourhood/ghetto, I went to check out the Holocaust museum, or rather, two parts of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum: The Museum of Tolerance, and another museum specifically dedicated to the Holocaust in Lithuania. I did not have high hopes. When I walked through the first section of the Museum of Tolerance, I feared that this museum was not for me: it had artifacts from Jewish Lithuania, but nothing I hadn’t seen elsewhere. It seemed that the museum existed to educate native Lithuanians about Judaism, which is great, but I I already knew the basics and didn’t need a refresher course. What was worse, there weren’t any Lithuanians in the museum actually learning this stuff.
At the beginning of this trip, what seems like eons ago, my father and I attended a conference in Warsaw on transnationalism. At one of the lunches, we sat with Scotsman, a professor at a Swedish university who had spent the previous several years teaching in Vilnius, Lithuania. I knew it would be the last destination on my eastern European voyage, so I asked him how he felt about the place.
His face darkened. “It’s a city of ghosts,” he said.
That’s what I had heard, and read. In this way, Vilnius, formerly Wilno, or Vilna, was not unlike Lviv, formerly Lwow, Lemberg, or Lemberik. Vilnius had once been a mostly Polish and Jewish city, with a small Lithuanian population. In fact, it had been a seat to Jewish intellectual life in Europe, home to the famous rabbi known as the Vilna Gaon, and to YIVO, an academic institution dedicated to the scientific study of Yiddish culture and language, until it relocated to the New York in the 1930s, where it became part of the Center for Jewish history, where I conduct much of my dissertation research.
Indeed, in American Jewish history, a distinction is made among formerly Polish Jews between Galicianers (from Galicia, the region of Poland/Ukraine controlled by the Austro-Hungarian empire until WW1) and Litwaks (Lithuanians). They spoke Yiddish with different inflections and pronunciations, but supposedly the differences ran deeper. The Galicianers were supposedly simpler but more pious, the Litwaks more secular but also more educated and enlightened, with YIVO emerging as a shining example of this enlightenment.
The YIVO people who left were smart to get out when they did. Because then the Nazis came and killed all the Jews. And then the Soviets came and exiled all the Poles, and moved the Lithuanians in. And so Wilno/Vilna became Vilnius, a city populated by formerly rural Lithuanians, just as Lwow had became Lviv, a Polish-Jewish city now firmly Ukrainian.
My dad and I came home yesterday. Not to Montreal, but to Budaniv, Ukraine, formerly Budzanow, Poland, where my grandfather, Arnold Weinfeld, was born and raised. We’d come a long way.
In my parents’ home in Montreal hangs a large, blown up framed photograph of house. Standing in front of the house are my great-grandparents, Moishe and Brauna Weinfeld, and two of their three kids, my grandfather Arnold, and his older sister, my great aunt Gizela. That was their house in Budzanow. Two stories and with a basement, apparently it had been one of the largest houses in town, as my great-grandfather had been a successful tobacco distributor. My father had that image seared into his mind, because he knew that that house was no more. Or so he thought.
Four years ago, I still didn’t think Budzanow existed. My grandfather had always told my father that Budzanow had been destroyed. Flattened. Erased like so many others shtetls by the Nazi killing machine. In 1999, I visited Treblinka, and took a picture of myself next to a stone commemorating the destruction of Budzanow, annihilated like so many other Jewish communities in eastern Europe. I thought that the last remnant of the town.
And so, four years ago, during my summer Yiddish class, in a discussion about shtetls, I told one of the instructors that my grandfather was from Budzanow, but it no longer existed. “Yes it does,” she said. “No it doesn’t,” I replied. “My grandfather said it doesn’t exist anymore. The whole town was destroyed.” I felt certain. But she said: “maybe he meant the Jewish community was destroyed, but the town is still there.”
And so later that day, thanks to the glory that is the internet, I googled the Polish shtetl Budzanow. And sure enough, it still existed, only now it was called Budaniv and was in Ukraine. I should have noticed an inconsistency long ago. After all, my grandfather had also said that he returned to Budzanow immediately after the war. Though his neighbours greeted him warmly, he found his childhood home looted. He never returned.
In any case, after learning about Budaniv, I excitedly told my father. He was in shock, but that quickly turned to happiness. We said that one day we would visit. And we finally made that happen.
So early yesterday morning, me, my father, our guide Alex, and our driver Vitali set out to find Budaniv. Neither of them had been there before either, but armed with GPS and maps, they said getting there would be no problem.
Our first stop, though, was Tarnopol, to visit the local archives. Tarnopol is the major city in the region Budaniv is located, and contained town registries for all the surrounding villages. The archives were old and dark. There was no internet access, and the computers appeared to be from the 1980s. Everything seemed a bit chaotic, but Alex spoke to a very friendly and helpful archivist, who was able to provide us with voting records from Budzanow from 1930.
My father, Alex, and I brought the two musty record books to the reading room, and began poring through them. Neither my father nor I can really read Polish, but we can read names. At first, it seemed fruitless. But then, not more than 10 minutes after we began, I saw them. “Weinfeld!” I shouted. There they were. Moishe and Brauna Weinfeld, my great-grandparents. The book listed their professions: we couldn’t make Moishe’s out, but knew he had been a tobacco distributor, a very religious man having come from nearby Zabraz (another shtetl in the Tarnopol region) to marry Brauna Schutzmann and work in her family’s tobacco business. Under Brauna, it simply said housewife. It also listed their ages: Brauna was 57, Moishe 56, meaning they had been born in 1873 or 1874. And best of all, it lasted an address. There were no street names, but they had lived in the central town area, house number 635.
My father and I were ecstatic. We looked through the books a bit more, but were too excited to stay in Tarnopol much longer. We thanked the archivists, ate a quick lunch, and got back in the van to go to Budzanow.
Today was a day of contrasts in a city with many names. Today, it is Lviv, a Ukrainian city. Before World War II, it was Lwow, a Polish city. Before WWI, though still Polish, it was officially Lemberg, a city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And all the while, until the Second World War, it had a large Jewish minority, many of whom called it Lemberik in Yiddish. These name changes, though, only scratch the surface of the city’s fascinating and tragic history.
The city long had a Ukrainian presence, and the oldest church building, St. Nicholas, is Orthodox, dating to the 1200s. But for most of the past few centuries, Poles dominated numerically and culturally. In the late 18th century, when Poland was partitioned 3 ways, the city fell into the hands of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Through World War I, it remained mostly Polish, with a small Ukrainian minority, and a much larger Jewish minority. After the war, Poland became a nation, and though the Ukrainian population increased, they still remained the city’s third ethnic group, and the least important culturally. Then the Nazis came and murdered all the Jews, and then Stalin came and expelled all the Poles. Today, the city is almost entirely Ukrainian (with a small Russian minority), its ties to its past severed.
We hired a guide for the day, a superbly knowledgeable and friendly Ukrainian named Alex. The goal was to see mostly Jewish Lwow, but not to neglect the rest of the city. I thought of my recent discovery that my grandfather, Arnold Weinfeld, had attended Kazimierz University in Lwow from 1922 to 1926. My grandmother, Irene Weinfeld (nee Altstock) had been born and raised in the city. He was 12 years older than her, and they only met in 1944, after Poland had been liberated by the Soviets. But I imagine that they might have talked about beautiful Lwow in their courtship period. My wife, Julie, reminded me that our courtship was similar: we both graduated Harvard in 2005, but only met in New York a couple of years later. But we already had much to talk about, friends and places and memories in common, and that made the romancing all the smoother.
Thus, despite my unease at being in Ukraine, I felt excited to see the city that may have helped bring my grandparents together. Hiring a guide was the right decision, as seeing Jewish Lwow is more difficult that it sounds. We walked through the cobblestone streets, and stopped at parks and outdoor markets and decaying remnants of buildings where synagogues once stood. We saw a Jewish hospital, now simply a hospital with Stars of David adorning it. We saw doors that had once been entrances to Jewish shops, with the mezuzahs long stripped away. We saw the apartment where the famous Yiddish poet Sholem Aleichem lived, for a year in the early 20th century, en route to New York. Some of the places were marked with plaques. Others were not. Some of the plaques’ English text contained numerous spelling mistakes. Occasionally, the words “synagogue” or “Jewish community” in the Ukrainian text were scratched out.
Historian Omer Bartov wrote a book called Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present Day Ukraine. I haven’t read it, but the title says it all. Unlike in Poland, Ukraine has not made any effort to come to terms with, or even really acknowledge its Jewish past. According to Alex, the typical Ukrainian resident of Lviv probably has no idea that his or her city had once been a third Jewish.
Poland has not entirely exorcised its antisemitism, past or present. But they are trying. The rejuvenation of the Jewish neighbourhood in Cracow, the construction of the Jewish museum in Warsaw, the clear, beautiful monuments to the Jewish past throughout the country, the inclusion of Jews in Polish museums such as that commemorating Polish events such as the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, all point to this change in the right direction, a change towards objectivity in looking at the past, a change toward healing. In the essay that concluded his magisterial Postwar, the late Tony Judt observed that acknowledging and coming to terms with your antisemitic past, or at least beginning to do so, was the entry ticket into the European Union. Poland has done it. I believe Lithuania has done it. Ukraine has not.
Nonetheless, the city charmed me. We went from site to site, of the vanished Jewish past, but I imagined that my grandparents may have attended those synagogues, shopped at those shops, walked on those streets. We visited the university, now called the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, teeming with young Ukrainian students, and I imagined my grandfather in those same buildings. We went to several spectacular churches, pointing to the remaining religious diversity still present in Ukraine: from ornate Catholic churches to the dark, mysterious and beautiful houses of worship of the Ukrainian Orthodox, to the Greek Catholic cathedrals, somewhere in between. I came to enjoy the city that had made me uneasy just a day before.