Category Archives: Auschwitz

What you do Matters: 20th Anniversary Lessons from the USHM: Part 1

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist

then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.

then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

  • Pastor Martin Niemoller, a one-time supporter of the Nazi’s who emerged as an outspoken Hitler foe was incarcerated for seven years in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps.  After the war, he traveled and preached collective guilt for Nazi persecution and crimes against humanity.  (This bio is adapted from the US Holocaust Museum calendar)

That’s what?  Four degrees of separation from one group to ‘me’.    That is certainly part of my ‘fascinations’ (if I could even call it that) with the Holocaust.  Even closer, I am – or could have been – the prime victim – as a Jew.

But my reason for attending the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s 20th Anniversary National Tour in NYC on March 3rd goes deeper than that, as I’m sure it does for so many of us:

  • disbelief of the horrors mankind inflicts on each other
  • sadness that people will follow without thought
  • awe in human nature’s resilience and strength and ability to survive
  • disbelief that human nature doesn’t change and repeats horrific genocides

For pictures and more information go to:

67 years after the Holocaust and end of WWII, this is a good time to commemorate the Museum’s work, and:

To honor and celebrate NYC’s 300 Survivors, and

50 WWII Veteran Liberators.

Stories of survival are important.  How often have each of us shared our cunning ways of getting through the day without losing our minds, or, here in NYC, braving the subway at rush hour and feeling lucky when the trains run smoothly.

Perspective is everything.

I know I’ve read ‘that there have been enough movies about the Holocaust’, I think many of us would agree that there haven’t been enough.  Not enough for the simple reason that the act of genocide continues.

Holocaust survivor Eva Von Ancken donating toys given to her during the war.

Holocaust survivor Eva Von Ancken donating toys given to her during the war.

The USHM’s national tour honors and strives to protect – and commemorate the past, but the majority of sessions are about the present and future.  They are to remind us of our failings to honor ‘NEVER AGAIN in the near past:




That saying:  NEVER AGAIN after the Holocaust has come to be:

NEVER AGAIN – until it happens again.

The USHM’s 20th Anniversary National Tour events strive to:

  • Invoke the feeling that what each of us does matters, and,
  • Spread thought and action to insure another genocide does NOT occur anywhere – every again.
Survivor AND WWII Veteran, Hanna Deutch pins her location at the end of the war

Survivor AND WWII Veteran, Hanna Deutch pins her location at the end of the war

I pass people everyday, knowing they possess unimaginable stories and emotions. I remind myself:  ‘Be kind:  everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”  (St. Philo).

Walking into the Hilton on March 3rd,  my awareness and sensitivity of battles people have fought was supercharged.

Navigating the crowd I looked at people’s faces before my eyes darted to pins which proudly identified participants as  Survivor or Veteran.  When I saw either, I admit to being instilled with a sense of reverence and awe.  That, tinged with emotion.

Oh, and I got a pin too.  No notation.  Just a reminder of ‘Never Again’.


Over a dozen rooms were dedicated to recording histories of survivors and their children, collecting objects and memorabilia, film and video testimonies of survivors and liberators, amateur movies from life in Eastern Europe before WWII, and space to search for lost family history.  Or for that matter, children who were lost from their family history.

A big question raised here:  as Holocaust survivors die, who will tell their stories?

Here’s what I wonder:

How do we teach young people about the Holocaust in a way that makes them feel it’s real, it can happen again, – has happened again –  and they – personally – can do something about it?

Teens learn about the Holocaust in school, but how much will they read and pursue?  There’s so many other devastations that are competing for emotions and attention these days, will a 67 year old atrocity have the horrific honor of securing a spot in someone’s mind?

I’ll share more about the tour over the next four posts including:  the event (part 1), people (part 2), the message (part 3), and call to action (part 4).

What do you think are the lessons we should remember from the Holocaust?

What do you think people need to learn to prevent genocides?

Anything you would like to know about the day?

‘Miss Holocaust Survivor’: Celebrate Beauty!

Beauty is all around us and just because we seek it doesn’t mean we see it.  The key is in the definition (of beauty) and the hope and expectation: ‘I’ll know it when I see it’.

Celebrating beauty: Hava Hershkovitz crowned ‘Miss Holocaust Survivor’

There is so much pressure and unrealistic expectations of beauty thanks to fashion mags and the silver screen.  Then there is Of course the ultimate celebration and proclamation of beauty:   beauty contests.

I won’t criticize beauty contests here and now .  This post is about celebrating one  important, unusual, and  very controversial contest:  ‘Miss Holocaust Survivor’.

14  women aged  74 – 97 competed on Friday, June 28th, in Haifa, Israel for the crown of most ‘beautiful’ Holocaust survivor.  The criteria was  (largely) on their survival story and lifetime work.

Is a beauty pageant the answer to celebrating these women?  If it reminds us of the beauty of survival and the strength of the human spirit, I say yes.

“This place is full of survivors. It puts us at the center of attention so people will care. It’s not easy at this age to be in a beauty contest, but we‘re all doing it to show that we’re still here,” the silver-haired Hershkovitz said.  (Hava Hershkovitz was crowned the winner!)

“I have the privilege to show the world that Hitler wanted to exterminate us and we are alive. We are also enjoying life. Thank God it’s that way,” added Esther Libber, a 74-year-old runner-up who fled her home in Poland as a child, hid in a forest and was rescued by a Polish woman. She said she lost her entire immediate family.

Pageant’s many critics  felt focusing on beauty belittled the gravity of the Holocaust.  Others felt the sponsoring cosmetic companies ‘making up’ the contestants were in it for their own gain. I say focus on redefining beauty.   I think this is an opportunity to really, finally, understand  ‘beauty comes from within’.

A BBC listener commented on Friday’s story, ‘I can’t believe people came out of Auschwitz smiling’ (as a contest critique).  Based on my chilly October day tour last year, I couldn’t believe people came out at all

Imagine being able to survive such dehumanizing and horrific conditions, to survive and raise families, contribute to society, build the state of Israel, and have the humor to compete in a beauty contest.    I was and am filled with awe.

Survival takes strength.  If that’s not beauty, what is?   I think about how ‘difficult’ it is to ‘survive’ in today’s economic downturn.  In tough times it’s easy to shrug off shows of beauty,  diminishing (my own) strength.   Imagine  holding onto beauty in the depths of your soul in a death camp, partisan forest, or a root cellar.

300 interested contestants obviously survived with strength and dignity.   They  deserve my respect for their example to primp and preen and flaunt their beauty .

There are about 200,000 (aging)   Holocaust survivors still alive in Israel.

Sadly, Genocides continue.

‘Never Again’.  The Holocaust wasn’t just about extermination – it is about miraculous survival.

The Nazi’s and their collaborators showed the worst of human nature.  Survivors, the best.  Survival of the fittest!  Winner,  Ms. Hershkovitz, beautifully reminds us:  ‘We’re still here.’

How do you define beauty? 

Is this an appropriate way to honor Holocaust survivors?   Share your ideas!

Shoes: One giant step for empathy?

Shoes!  When did shoes become the go-to destination for journeys to nirvana?  When did well-appointed heels turn cads into princes and transform us plain girls to ‘sex-y in the city’?   Or has footwear always been as important to fashion as the saying: ‘Don’t judge me until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes’  has been to identity and peace?

Does our penchant for buying shoes, amassing Imelda Marcos or Carrie Bradshaw sized collections speak to our need to understand others?   Do new shoes provide  the potential and ability to walk that mile to understanding?

My footwear reflects my soul and mirrors my identity.  My journeys are on

Shoes fit for very long journeys

foot and I’ve learned the hard way that Jimmy Choos and Manolo Blahnik’s derail my  joy into train wrecks.

Footwear can define identity, and, is just as complicated.   I recently told a dear friend, ‘we may wear the same size, but we like and wear very different shoes – literally and figuratively’.

It can be hard to understand someone you love.  Someone  whose footwear appears interchangeable with your own.  Different styles, different

One pre-Xmas night, a group of young men were camped in front of a shoe store on 34th Street in Manhattan. They were spending the night to be first in line to buy the ‘newest’ sneakers. What kind? What did they look like? No-one knew – just that they wanted them.

toes add difficulty relating to the owner of the heart-pumping-blood to those other  toes. As a species focusing on souls, rather than soles, and the miles journeyed, can surely help promote listening, peace and, understanding identity.

Swapping metaphoric  ‘shoes’:  Would any genocide occur if perpetrators imagined themselves, or their mothers, or wives, or children as victims?  Would they say ‘NO’ to crimes of hate?

Empathy, the ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes, to listen for  identity without bias or judgement.   This must be a key to peace as I wrote about in my recent post ‘Peace Requires Listening’.

Daniel Lubetzky,CEO of Kind Bars and PeaceWorks remarked (one of) the key to Palestinian-Israeli peace is for Israeli’s to listen to Palestinian needs.  I think a shoe swap and long survival hike might help.

I’ve often found empathy, along with blisters, after finding myself on a path with someone I’ve judged (health).  ‘Blisters’ force me to slow down, open my eyes, acknowledge the pain.

It’s painful to listen if we are not sure of our identity, or we are not on firm footing ourselves. In Vilna, Lithuania (‘Dinner in Vilna’), Lilly said she was unhappy before she focused her identity and connected with Judaism.  Some say shoe shopping, especially during a sale, is a religious experience. There are other ways to worship.

Empathy.  Walking that metaphoric mile.  Several years ago, I discovered

Imagine these pills shaped like SHOES: Empathy pills!

the cure.  A pill.    A shoe-shaped empathy pill.   Mid-judgement, mid-hate action, a quick pill pop would change everything with, ‘Here, walk a mile in my shoes.  Have an empathy pill.’

As soon as a pharmaceutical company gets back to me, I’ll take your orders.

In the meantime, how has a pair of shoes helped you understand others, or, shaped or defined your identity?

What leg of your journey has developed your empathy?

Please, share your thoughts and also let me know how you came to read this post!

A (Promised) Krakow Story and PICTURES!

A young man in a yarmulke swept through my field of vision and competed with Anna G.’s story for my attention.  Don’t get me wrong, she was charming, passionate and brilliantly informative.  But a yarmulke?  Outside of a synagogue?  Here in Krakow?  And although we were in the Jewish Cultural Center (JCC built by Prince Charles, mentioned in ‘Krakow’s past blends into the present’ with the promise to write about Stawek), I couldn’t help but be intrigued by this proclamation of Jewishness.    Anna seemed amused by my interest letting me know that about 15 men and one teen wear yarmulkes without anti-Semitism or curiosity.  Nevertheless, I wanted to hear about this young man’s journey and how he came to be hanging out in the JCC on this Thursday afternoon.

Stawek P. gave a friendly but hesitant smile,  letting me know his English

Stawek P

wasn’t very good. Sitting in a large meeting room decorated with a local artist’s paintings  to the right of the reception area wasn’t very private or cozy.  But as he settled into his story words flowed and we spoke for the next 90 minutes.

(Stawek corrected some of the facts in this post for me.  He reported that there was a big chanukja on Szeroka Street and the JCC.  Yes, the spelling for chanukja is correct, though I have misspelled his name – the second letter is closer to an ‘l’, though a letter that we do not have in the English alphabet!  If you ever wondered why my spelling seemed ‘off’, it is because I often used spellings of my ‘host’ country.)

Stawek was born in Plesse (Pszczyna), a town with a large Jewish population before the war, reduced to 200 after, and now numbering 15 – his family.  Following this family’s religious affiliation through the last few generations  is a unique yet familiar story: Hasidic grandparents; secular, not Jewish parents, and now Stawek, a 20 year old Jewish studies student who wears a yarmulke.  Proudly he shared he is 100% Jewish and 100% Polish.   Poland was the land of the Jews, the capital of Jewish culture and the history of both people is tightly interconnected.

Going to synagogue wasn’t important growing up.  Yet all his classmates went to church – not him.  He didn’t celebrate the same holidays.  When his teacher asked about Christmas he had a tree and presents but no tradition.  (Something we can all think about this time of year!) When asked, Stawek is happy to be Jewish, a response I’ve heard elsewhere.  There are 100 (or 200, depending on definition) Jews in Krakow, and he questions whether there will be Jews here in a generation.  A response to ponder considering four congregations reach out to meet the needs of this small community.

Stawek ‘became’ Jewish since moving to Krakow for school although he grew up hearing his grandparents speak Yiddish, which he believes to be a dying language.   It was Malgosia ( Perla), his paternal grandmother with whom he was close who told him about Jewish traditions.  Malgosia died in 2003 and her miraculous story of survival is melded into his own.

Stawek’s great-grandfather Josef Anszel Lednicer in 1930’s , moved with his future wife from Krakow to (Pszcznya) Pless for economic reasons (NOT because he ‘saw’ danger as I previously wrote).     In 1941 Malgosia was born while the family was in hiding.  During the war, Polish friends of his great-grandparents gave them shelter in their house from 1940 to July 1941 .  Shortly after, a Polish neighbor ‘outed’ Malgosia’s parents as Jews.  In July 1941, the family separated as Malgosia’s parents went to the Sosnowiec Ghetto while she stayed with the host family.  Two older children (Nesia and Alter) were placed with other families.

From the Sosnowiec Ghetto, Malgosia’s parents were sent to Auschwitz.  Her Mother was sent to Ravensbrick,  the Father to Bergen-Belson, where he survived the death march.  Both were liberted by American troops.   Both decided to return to Plesse at the same time where they were reunited – meeting randomly in the street!   Collecting their three children from their ‘adopting’ families, Malgosia’s – and Stawek’s –  family was the only full Jewish family in Plesse to survive the war.

A miracle.  Another miraculous story of  body and faith survival.    These are the types of stories I could hear every day and which I was ‘gifted’ many times on my journey.  These survival stories shared by children and grandchildren in synagogues felt even more miraculous.   Like everything, survival is complicated, and in retrospect I wonder how the storyteller is effected and guided by their family’s miracle?   As hidden and ‘forgotten’ Jews follow their hearts and curiosity into a synagogue or JCC, how do these personal and collective stories shape this next generations personal and religious identity?   I don’t have the answer to these questions – yet.  All I know is that stories continue to be told and shared,  a sign of hope and wonder.  And wonder raises questions that beg to be answered.

Some pictures:

This Krakow courtyard is likely to be one of the most memorable images from Holocaust movie history. This courtyard is from the opening scene of 'Schindler's List' and perhaps the reason we know of Krakow.

Marker found on the Schindler Factory which is now a museum about the occupation and worth a trip to Krakow to see

Yes, Krakow has a fairy tale castle and this is the sight that greeted me as I entered the old city on the way to the hostel

Blug, Wadia, and Michael, three amazing students from the Netherlands staying at my hostel. These young guys were full of personality and insight and were great fun to chat with

These chairs are the memorial to the Krakow Ghetto found on the outskirt of Kazimeriz the Jewish Quarter. The chairs represent the furniture the Jews brought that didn't fit into their small apartments as they were ordered into the ghetto. The chairs seem scattered throughout the square and face in different directions pointing towards possible destinations including Auschwitz and Palestine.

Krakow's ghetto wall was shaped like a tombstone (notice the curved top). The man who built the wall knew the fate that was in store for the ghetto residents

The Remah Synagogue is the oldest active (Orthodox) synagogue in Krakow from the 1500's. Orthodox Yeshivah boys come to pray here and at the Rabbi Yom Tov's grave.

The renowned Rabbi Yom Tov's Tombstone in the Remuh Cemetery. Notice the small scrolls on the stone - it's said if you write a wish and place it here it will be 'express-ed' to G-d since this Rabbi was so holy. His tomb is next to Yossele the Miser, the richest man in Krakow who was known to be miserly until his death when all the poor who had received anonymous allowances no longer did. In fact it was Yossele who had annonymously cared for them. And yes, I wrote a wish!

A view of the barracks inside the camp

Suitcases from Auschwitz. I didn't really want to take any pictures at the camp. Some pictures/images are famous: hair, piles of shoes, but it was these suitcases that hit me as reminders of the hope and optimism packed as Jews and others arrived.

These tracks show where the trains stopped in the camp as prisoners were unloaded and separated into groups - to work or to the chambers

The place for trendy nightlife is the former Jewish Quarter: Kazimeriz (Like New York City's former Jewish area, the Lower East Side, and Budapest's former Jewish QuarterThis main square was filled with restaurants, pretzel vendors, and as many locals as tourists

Krakow was untouched during the war. This traditional synagogue is one of seven in the city

I liked the message: all diferent all equal

Sign for July festival that brings thousands (of NY and Israeli Jews) to listen to music

Auschwitz Thoughts: From unimaginable to awe

There are a few ‘must do’s in Krakow:  Auschwitz -Birkenau, Schindler’s Factory, and the Salt Mines, each reminders of the city’s past.  They also show the range of power mankind is capable of.  Although I’m in Budapest now, I had to share a few wide ranging and encompassing thoughts.

UNESCO Heritage site

Salt mine in Krakow

Krakow is a beautiful medieval city, complete with a castle, moat and never-ending winding streets.  Go back even further in time (about 700 years), 15 minutes away, and, about 500 steps beneath the surface to see what man took from the earth and the beauty he left in thanks.   The Salt Mines.  It amazes me people found salt all while uncovering its value.  Not to mention digging deep into the earth to satisfy man’s insatiable hunger for it.  This mine is unique:  as miners dug deeper and deeper in to the earth, they left their own messages through carvings of appreciation and beauty – maybe equivalent to today’s tagging and graffiti.

We reached this cavernous room  500 steps beneath the surface  by initially winding down 36o dizzying wooden steps.    Salt was so precious it became the root of the word salary.  People were (literally) paid in salt.  Our route to this  cathedral was on floors of salt,  encased in walls of salt and past small cathedrals made of, and carved into the salt.  The religious scenes were carved by miners out of love. Which religion?  You wouldn’t know it by my writing but  Krakow and this region of Galicia is strongly rooted in Catholicism.  My lasting impression of  the beauty and grandeur of this UNESCO heritage site is that this is a great symbol and reminder of the beauty mankind is capable of creating.

But mankind is complicated and easily seduced by greed, fear, loneliness and the need to comply with Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest’ in horrific ways nature seems unable to mimic.  Only 40 miles away from the depth of man’s beauty is another reminder of  mankind’s emotions.  This one focused on the cruel and unimaginable crimes mankind can create and impose on its fellow members.

Gate to hell; Auswitch

Work is freedom though there was no freedom from work here

This gate is the symbol of Auschwitz.   Though like most  things in life, can’t be captured by a picture.  Walk through this gate, through the camp barracks, crematorium, unloading platform at Birkenau and to the underground gas chambers and crematorium.  Steady yourself for the bombarding emotions of horror, sadness, loss, outrage, and, disbelief.

While standing on the unloading and selection platform in Birkenau and on the land where in winter women were forced to run naked in wooden clogs through the mud to take cold showers,  I ask myself again:

What creates enough hatred to disarm any semblance of a moral compass?

It’s a cold drizzly day, and certainly this hallowed ground, this cemetery must only have weather as sad as its story.  I’m cold in my layers of Polartec while thinking about my sore feet.  I  know in an hour I’ll be sitting in a warm bus sipping hot tea.   My cousin Sue says she always carries food in vestigial memory of those who got a cup of dirty water for dinner after working for 12 hours.   Hunger  is a feeling we may have when we haven’t eaten for a few hours.  I’m in tears as I walk around, bloated with emotions caused by the Nazi’s hunger for destruction.  Or rather to stave off their own fear.

What else can I feel other than outrage and horror except disbelief?

We are told over and over that though Jews heard about Auschwitz (and the other camps) they didn’t believe it was possible such places could exist.  Understandable – how could any feeling human being believe humankind capable of such acts?   Sadly,  this is part of mankind’s legacy.  Sadly this demonstrates the cunning, artful planning, and, exacting implementation  wasted on horrific deliberate and hateful genocide.

There’s sadness and heartbreak over the lost beauty and potential of the brilliant (more than) one  and a half million Jews who were killed here.  Imagine how different the world might be if those souls had lived.

Yet another emotion fills me as I walk and listen to our guide:  Awe.  I can’t help but be filled with  Awe, respect and pride.   Really.  I know it sounds strange.  Imagine:  That people with numbers tattooed to their forearms (and this was the only camp with tattoos) endured, survived, and went on to thrive. 

Victor Frankel in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ along with others wrote about this enduring ability of man to survive.  Standing in the cold drizzle through stark barracks and looking at the concrete bunks dusted with straw as a mattress and hearing about how bodily fluids drizzled from the top to the bottom third bunk,   I can only repeat what my mother says:  ‘The greatest miracle of all is that there are still Jews in the world.”

Books, movies, talks have shared many stories.  And as Survivors are nearing the end of their lives, even more stories are fortunately being told.   I think each and every one of us can never read or see enough.  They say Auschwitz is a place everyone should visit.  It is. These days a sign at the entrance proclaim children under 14 should NOT visit.  Clearly this sign was absent from 1941 – 1945.  (Several hundred babies were born here and some 27 are still alive – How is that for a miracle!).

When I was in Krakow’s Jewish Quarter, entering the active Orthodox Remuh Synagogue, I saw a group of Yeshiva boys leaving, dragging suitcases behind them.  Surprised, I turned to Klaudia.   Before I opened my mouth to ask about them, she let me know they were probably from New York or Israel.

Entering the crematorium in Auschwitz, the sound of men singing the Mourner’s prayer seemed both appropriate and haunting.  Inside the farthest corner of this space stood these same Yeshiva boochers (I know I misspelled that) fervently swaying and praying.  My guide told me this is the only time she has seen men praying there.

Schindler’s Factory, which most of us know from the movie Schindler’s List, is  a ten minute walk from the Jewish Quarter.  It  is  now a state of the art interactive museum about Krakow’s German occupation.  Pictures of the the lucky Jews selected to live and work in the factory welcome visitors at the beginning of the exhibit.    I look carefully at each one, wondering if I’ll see a face reminding me of others I know.

While there is so much to write about – in fact whole books have been written that I know I can’t do justice to any of it right now .  I will mention there is a lot of controversy about Oscar Schindler’s character and motive in helping Jews.  My feeling:  screw motives!  Forget he was a womanizer, gambler, drinker.  After the war, he moved to Argentina (paid for by the Jewish community) with his wife and two of his lovers.

Bottom line:  He saved Jewish lives  and for that he is to be commended and celebrated.

It may seem Krakow’s Jewish history is seeped in the past.  Not at all true!  The Jewish community here is proud of its four synagogues/groups representing its 100 (or 200) Jews.  If you are thinking that is a lot of groups for a few people I agree.  Perhaps this is the quintessential Jewish option considering the ‘joke’ for the need of at least two synagogues:  ‘One to pray in, the other I’ll never step foot in.”

As I wrote about a few days ago, yes there are lots of options:  everyone needs to participate.   Participation may be attending free Friday night dinners at the Jewish Culture Center (JCC) built by Prince Charles.  Anna Gulinska, the JCC’s program manager told me after dinner people go out for drinks  at Mechanoff, one of the trendy bars in the neighborhood.   Those who are observant and can’t carry money during Shabbat pay their bar tabs on Sunday.  Gotta love it!

Anna is a symbol of Judaism’s resurgence in Poland.  To begin with: she isn’t  Jewish. Her interest in  Jewish studies began in high school in Tarnoff.   Before the war, 40 % of the population was Jewish, now represented and remembered by the overgrown cemeteries, ruined synagogues and street names in Hebrew.   Intrigued (which says a lot about her)  she entered a contest for high school students.   She interviewed a Jewish woman, who was rescued from the ghetto by a Polish guard, who fell in love with her.  Yes, another miraculous story.  This guard rescued both her and her 2 sisters.  He later refused any honor from Yad Vashem – he saved for love .

This woman  is now 92 and living in Krakow.  She is glad Anna is interested in Jewish history since her grandchildren are not.  Anna stresses that the strength of the community is in the living ,in the present.   Not the ghosts of the past.  She hopes  people walk away remembering that Jewish culture has been and is an important part of Polish history for thousands of years.  She stressed this history needs to be preserved.  Personally I think it is wonderful she is there to contribute to celebrating this next chapter.

There is one more conversation I want to share, but not today.  Swavick Postuske, a Krakow’ Jewish Studies student was hanging around the JCC.  He stood out for two reasons – he is young and he was wearing a yarmulke!   Although he kept saying his English was bad, we talked for over an hour.   I want to give justice to his stories which are amazing as you can imagine!