Tag Archives: Holocaust

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Descendent of Polish Rescuers Receives Outpouring of Love

Susan Reches Landesman and Henry Reches (left) honored Angieszka Wrobel (middle) with a “shalom” plaque that was presented to her by the Reches’ daughter, Jodi (right). (Photos by David Stuck)

Susan (Reches) Landesman, Henry Reches (left), Charlotte Reches (middle right) and Jodi Reches (right) honored Angieszka Wrobel (middle) with a “shalom” plaque. (Photo by David Stuck)

Excited visitors overflowed a home in Cheswolde on Aug. 26 to honor and thank a descendent of a family of Polish Catholics who laid their lives on the line on behalf of eight persecuted Jews.

Dozens of people lined up to welcome Angieszka Wrobel, 29, at a reception, where they showered her with thanks and appreciation, many saying it was an honor to meet her. The crowd included three generations of the Reches family, plus many neighbors and friends.

In 1942, Genya Staszczak and her sister, Josefa Wrobel, and their families sheltered Saul and Clara Reches, their two little boys, Henry and Mark, Clara’s mother and her uncle and a brother and sister not related to them. For two years, all eight lived in a hole dug in the Staszczak’s barn on a farm in southeastern Poland.

Angieszka is Josefa’s great-granddaughter. Her grandfather and great-uncle, teenagers at the time, brought the hidden families food and an occasional newspaper.

Had they been discovered by the Nazis, everyone in both families would have faced near-certain death.

After the war, the Recheses made their way to the United States, eventually settling in Baltimore. Even as the years passed, the families kept in touch.

Henry and Mark Reches were only 3 and 5 when their family went underground. Mark died of cancer in 1989. Henry remembers bits and pieces of the ordeal.

“Most of [what] I know was told to me by my mother and father. They talked about it in the house, not outside the house,” he said. “They (the Staszczaks and Wrobels) saved our lives. Keeping in touch with them was the least we could do.”

“We have maintained this connection with them for almost 70 years,” said Henry’s daughter, Jodi Reches, who said handwritten letters in Polish have long since given way to English-language email exchanges.

It was Henry Reches who invited Angieszka Wrobel to come visit. He wanted her to see for herself how the brave actions of her family allowed the Recheses to survive and flourish in Baltimore.

Mark Reches’ son, Jeffrey, said he grew up hearing how hard it was for the hidden family and of the difficult conditions they endured.

Wrobel’s visit gave him a new perspective on ordinary Poles who also faced grave danger.

“Her family spent two years hiding the family, dealing with neighbors and store people who might be … questioning them,” Jeffrey Reches said. “You don’t realize the sacrifice they made. And meeting her, even a descendant, it just makes what went on so real. As Jews you always hear about the Jewish side, and it’s so wonderful to hear and appreciate the non-Jewish side and what her family sacrificed in order to save my family.”

Jodi Reches took Wrobel on a tour of Jewish Baltimore, showing her the Talmudical Academy and Ner Israel Rabbinical College. They dropped into the Bais Yaakov School for Girls, where all the teachers in a faculty meeting stood and applauded.

Reches family members have attended each of these schools, and Jodi Reches wanted Wrobel to see firsthand how, as she put it, “We were able to come and have a Jewish education here because of you.”

The rock-star treatment left Wrobel delighted although a little overwhelmed.

“It was amazing,” said Wrobel, an auditor who lives in Amsterdam. “I didn’t expect that standing ovation. It was really great.”

Jodi Reches presented Wrobel with a plaque with “shalom” in Hebrew topped by two doves. She said it’s a
fitting symbol “because they (Wrobel’s ancestors) did not have the hate that others had during the Holocaust. They had peace and love and felt it was their religious duty to save Jews.”

The Staszczak and Wrobel families are honored as Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Israel.

Amy Landsman is a local freelance writer.

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Understanding And Intuition

From the second-floor window frame, by the red flowers, Chana Staiman’s father, Harry, and his brother, Otto, sometimes dangled their feet. (Photos Chana Staiman)

From the second-floor window frame, by the red flowers, Chana Staiman’s father, Harry, and his brother, Otto, sometimes dangled their feet. (Photos Chana Staiman)

As a girl in Seattle, Anne Bush evinced little interest in the Holocaust, even though her father, Harry, was a survivor whose mother, sister and brother-in-law had been murdered.

But as a mother in Baltimore, by then known as Chana Staiman, she gradually was drawn to the period, spurred in part by her elder son, Avi, who as a boy read incessantly on the Holocaust — to the extent, Staiman said, that she considered “taking him to see someone” for counseling.

By then, Harry Bush had died, and Staiman came to regret not having engaged him in conversations about the Holocaust or his pre-war youth.

So in late July, to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary, Staiman and her husband, Jeremy, traveled to Prague from their home in Israel. She wanted to take in the city that had shaped the character of her father, who grew up in the Czech capital as Jindrich Busch.

The Staimans set out from Beit Shemesh, where they have lived since 2011 (Chana works as an ultrasound technologist and Jeremy owns a graphic-design firm), not knowing what they would find.

By the end of their five days in Prague, Staiman had located many sites associated with her father’s youth, including the second-floor window frame from which the young Jindrich and his brother, Otto, dangled their feet after being sent to their room as punishment. The Staimans also visited Terezin, the fortress turned concentration camp 40 miles north of Prague, where Staiman’s fat-her was incarcerated. The Nazis later infamously duped the International Red Cross into deeming the camp a model Jewish settlement.

And they saw the fulcrum for the two portions of Bush’s European life: the assembly point from where he was deported and from which his idyllic upbringing in Prague ended.

To find these places, she relied on strangers in Prague — and on a cousin back in Seattle with whom she hadn’t been in touch for decades.

Staiman reached Prague familiar with the basic facts of her father’s Holocaust-era life: his arrest in a movie theater for not wearing the required Star of David; his being sent to Terezin at age 21; his forced labor in the nearby Usti nad Labem region and at the Kladno coal mine; and his transport to the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.

083013_understanding_and_intuition2Late in the war, he survived an Allied bombing of a transport train and a German death march. In the latter, the prisoners were abandoned by fleeing guards, so he found shelter in a barn in Magdeburg, Germany, where he was liberated by Russian troops in 1945.

Staiman knew the street name of the Prague apartment and its location in a then-Jewish area but not the address. Her cousin, Andrea Harrison, who was raised in the city before moving to the United States in 1967, had informed her before the trip that the apartment was in the city’s 7th District on a busy street called Obrancu Miru, across from a pharmacy and down the block from a church.

Over the years, the street had been renamed Milady Horakove and reassigned to the 10th District. The owner of a kosher restaurant in Prague where the Staimans dined told them of the district’s change, which helped in locating the correct street. The Staimans went to the building, No. 965, in the Letna neighborhood.

An old woman would admit them to the foyer only briefly, so the couple made do with taking photographs of the exterior. The Staimans then went to see a plaque that memorialized the Jews rounded up there.

“It was very sobering to be in the place where the family was brought before being sent to Terezin,” Jeremy Staiman emailed the couple’s adult sons in Israel. “We looked up and down the street and tried to picture what had happened there.”

The next day, they took a taxi to see Terezin. With them was Pavel Stransky, 92, a tour guide who had been sent there on the very same transport, on Dec. 4, 1941, that included Harry Bush. Harry’s sister, Margareta, and her husband, Leopold Raber, would be deported from Terezin to the Treblinka extermination camp, and Harry and his mother, Elsa, to Auschwitz.

The Staimans’ stay in Prague also included some nice times. They attended services at the 13th-century Altneuschul and other historic synagogues, walked across the bridges spanning the Vltava River, toured the Prague Castle and strolled in the Wallenstein Gardens.

No matter where they went, Staiman said, she felt her father’s spirit. He had always felt warmly toward the city and had even returned for a visit late in life. Prague helped shape his jovial, outgoing personality, which she bel-ieved acc-ounted for his success as a scrap-metal dealer.

Such ponderings beat thinking of his last days in Hawaii, where he’d acquired a lethal virus while on vacation in 1995. In the hospital there, he hallucinated that the Nazis were coming to kidnap his children.

Walking through Prague, Staiman couldn’t help thinking, “Dad would be so happy we did this. He would have been extremely overjoyed at us retracing his [early] life.”

Yehuda Bauer, an academic adviser to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, says individuals react differently during ancestral journeys such as Staiman’s, and they can be meaningful.

Such visits are “certainly interesting and for many people, important,” said Bauer, a Prague native. “If it adds understanding or intuition about what happened, that’s fine; that’s very good.”

In Staiman’s case, visiting Prague also is helping repair a breach in her extended family. She had long been out of contact with Harrison before consulting her prior to the Prague trip. One reason for the drift was religious: Her family branch is Jewish; Harrison’s is Catholic.

“I’m happy to have reconnected with someone from my family, Jewish or not,” Staiman said. “We have the same history. I’m extremely sorry we had not been in touch all these years, but now we will be.”

Email Hillel Kuttler at seekingkin@jta.org if you would like “Seeking Kin” to write about your search for long-lost relatives and friends. Please include the principal facts and your contact information in a brief email. “Seeking Kin” is sponsored by Bryna Shuchat and Joshua Landes and family in loving memory of their mother and grandmother, Miriam Shuchat, a lifelong uniter of the Jewish people.

Hitler wines - 08.13.2013

Hitler Wines Spark Outcry From Tourists

An Italian winery selling a line of Nazi and fascist wines has outraged both tourists and Jewish human rights organizations. Under the label known as the Historical Line, the winemaker Vini Lunardelli’s series celebrates the lives of such personalities in world political history including Che Guevara, Churchill, Napoleon, Marx, Mussolini, and Hitler.

Hitler wines - 08.13.2013The Hitler label features over 20 different images of Adolf Hitler – more than any other leader in the wine series featured on the company’s website – in various salutes and poses with Nazi slogans such as Heil Hitler and Mein Kampf. Other Nazi figures that the Vini Lunardelli wines feature is Rudolf Hess and notorious SS Officer Heinrich Himmler, who organized mass murder of Jews during the Third Reich.

A Norwegian couple vacationing in northeastern Italy this week said they were shocked to find the controversial wines being sold there, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph. And an American couple, Matthew and Cindy Hirsch, in northern Italy, were also disturbed to find the wines sold in a local Italian supermarket during a vacation last year in Garda. Cindy Hirsch’s father was a Holocaust survivor, whose parents and other family members were killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

“I was shocked,” Mrs. Hirsch told the Daily Telegraph last year. “It is not only an affront to Jews, even if my husband and I are Jewish. It is an affront to humanity as a whole.”

After the Norwegian couple initial shock a week ago, the LA-based human rights group, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, released a statement denouncing the selling of these wine products and called for their boycott.

“The Wiesenthal Center denounces the marketing of these products and urges wine distributors in Italy and around the world to send the only message the owner of this firm might understand that they choose not to do any business with someone using the Nazi mass murderer as a blatant marketing tool.”

The Wiesenthal center has been protesting the selling of the Hitler wines since the line came out in 1995.

Half of the Vini Lunardelli company’s wine production is dedicated to the Historical Line which has 50 different historical personalities and has become a cult object among collectors according to the company’s website. The website also notes that the Historical Line has garnered the wine company a lot of attention “from the media all over the world both for the originality of the idea and for the quality of wines.”

The direct manager and creator of the line at the wine company, Andrea Lunardelli, told Tazpit News Agency, that the Historical Line started off as a joke in response to a request from one of the company’s customers and that now the company sells many bottles.

“But we never want to do politics or to eulogize Hitler and his men or Mussolini or to offend someone,” Lunardelli responded in an e-mail to Tazpit on Monday. She also added that most of the buyers of the Hitler wines are German, but that there are orders from Austria and Eastern Europe as well.

Lunardelli also stated the Italian wine company, based in Udine, had removed Nazi symbols like the swastika and the SS symbol from the labels, and that it doesn’t use racist phrases but only nationalist phrases.

“Enough is enough,” said the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s, Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper of the Hitler wines, which have been sold widely across Italy for nearly 20 years. “We first protested the marketing of ‘Führerwein’ in 1995. Now an expanded line of wines that demean, diminish and mock Hitler’s victims are promoted on a slick website.”

 Anav Silverman writes for Tazpit News Agency.

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Rethinking Roosevelt

072613_rethinking_roosevelt1In their recently released book, “FDR and the Jews”, Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, both history professors at American University, utilize hundreds of new sources and years of historical research to present a balanced view of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Breitman had previously written about Roosevelt but was frustrated by the lack of documentation available, as Roosevelt famously did not allow for written records of his meetings.

In the mid-1990s, papers from Sumner Wells, Roosevelt’s under secretary of state, were donated to the Roosevelt Library. This was the opportunity Breitman had been looking for. His research led him to Wells’ diary and an entry in April 1938 in which he wrote that FDR wanted to get the Jews out of Europe.

“Now, I have to do the book,” he thought.

When his literary agent suggested an approach that he estimated would take him 10 years to complete alone, he turned to AU colleague Allan J. Lichtman for help.

“I was not easily convinced,” said Lichtman, who thought the story on FDR and the Jews had been told. Breitman convinced him that while the story had been told, it was incomplete and not historically sound. No one had looked at FDR’s relationship with the Jews for the entirety of his life. And, some of the books were written by authors who were not professional historians.

“[Historical research] is hard, ted-ious, lonely work,” said Lichtman. “It’s not for everyone.”

“A lot of previous work was political argument disguised as history to prove a point,” he continued. He cauti-oned against reading history backward and looking at events through a contemporary lens.

“Jews, at the time, were Roosevelt’s biggest supporters,” said Breitman.

“Overwhelmingly,” echoed Lichtman.

“But the predominate view of FDR and Jews today is negative,” said Breitman.

There are those who “hold out everything negative and ignore the positive,” said Lichtman. Using the same standards, “We could prove Abe Lincoln was a racist and didn’t do enough.”

The authors also compared FDR to his political rivals at the time, much in the way people living then would have.

It’s easy to say “he should have done something else,” said Lichtman. “Everything can be perfect in hindsight.”

The writers put Roosevelt’s decisions in the greater context of what was happening both nationally and globally. Decisions on the Holocaust were not made in a bubble but had to be balanced against economic strife at home and a world war abroad.

According to Breitman, there are two symbols of alleged American indifference to the Holocaust: the SS St. Louis and the decision not to bomb Auschwitz. “Both are off,” especially, if one “doesn’t understand historical constraints.”

In November 1938, after Kristallnacht, with U.S. immigration quotas for Jews full, Roosevelt pushed Latin American countries to take the immigrants.

“Americans were against more immigration, and FDR was advised that Congress was not only opposed to opening up immigration, it was inclined to cut it even further,” explained Breitman.

FDR made a ruling that German and Austrian Jews in the U.S. on visitors’ visas could stay. For this, he got flack from Congress.

He instructed Wells that finding a place for Jewish immigrants was high priority. Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt, the only sitting Jewish American ambassador, met with foreign ministers in Latin America and emphasized that it was very important to America that they allow the Jews in.

FDR personally met with Cuban strongman Col. Fulgencio Batista in the hope that Cuba would accommodate more German Jews. Batista had been seeking a reduction from the U.S. in the sugar tariff. So perhaps it was no surprise that days later, Batista would announce during a speech in New York City that Cuba was pleased to help FDR with the terrible situation in Europe.

Cuba charged $500 for tourist visas. By May 1939, there were 5,000 to 6,000 German and Austrian refugees in Cuba.

But, as the St. Louis sailed, Cuba, under pressure from Cuban anti-Semites, changed its policies. The 22 passengers with Cuban immigration visas were allowed in. Those with tourist visas were not.

At the time, FDR was very sick. The situation was being handled by the state department. Permitting the passengers to disembark in Miami, even temporarily, would have, according to the book, “ruined FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy and undermined America’s standing in Latin America” at a time when war was approaching.

According to Breitman and Lichtman, Treasury Secretary Morgenthau intervened and had the Coast Guard quietly track the St. Louis while he negotiated with other countries. Transcripts of phone calls between Morgenthau and Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Morgenthau and the Coast Guard commander, “made it plain that the point of this tracking was to keep alive the chance to find a solution.”

Popular culture, as seen in movies like “The Voyage of the Damned,” add to the fiction that the Coast Guard was attempting to prevent passengers from landing in the U.S. The authors make clear the complexity of the situation: “They could not legally enter the United States without jumping ahead of other Jews on the waiting list. They could not enter as visitors without a place of return. The administration’s political calculus was almost as clear as the legal situation. If the president tried to evade immigration laws, his opponents in Congress would exploit his vulnerability to reduce chances of revising the Neutrality Acts [laws passed in the 1930s to keep the U.S. out of war].”

“People think FDR sent them to death camps, but there weren’t death camps then. There wasn’t a war then,” explained Lichtman.

“He couldn’t violate the law, and he couldn’t allow them to jump those on the waiting list,” added Breitman. “Either way was a big problem.”

According to Lichtman, FDR was facing having to mobilize an isolationist Congress and public and motivate them for war. “The last thing he wanted was a fight in Congress on immigration.”

Ultimately, Belgium, the Netherlands, England and France accepted the refugees who thought they had been saved. It was only after Belg-ium, the Netherlands and France were taken over by the Nazis that the passengers were taken to the camps.

The decision not to bomb Ausch-witz, both historians said, was also considered and rejected by other countries, including Great Britain. Said Breitman, “The Nazis killed before and after the death camps. Bombing [Auschwitz] would have made killing less efficient.”

“At best,” added Lichtman, “it would have affected the edges of the Holocaust.”

What was more effective was Roosevelt’s War Refugee Board, which
according to the authors, saved an estimated 200,000.

“The War Refugee Board was the only organization set up by a government anywhere in the world to rescue Jews,” said Lichtman.

In the end, the authors argue FDR must be judged for the time in which he lived.

“All these decisions were made under extreme uncertainty. We had an army smaller than Belgium,” said Lichtman.

The U.S., following common practice in those days, had ramped down its military following World War I. In the 1930s, we were demobilized except for the Navy and that was only because of commerce.

He continued: “The U.S. of the 1930s is not the U.S. of today.”

It was only by the end of the war that the U.S. achieved the status of a major world military power.

“People want a moral exemplar,” concluded Breitman.

“Presidents are not saints,” agreed Lichtman. “To be a successful president, you have to be supremely political. It’s easy for those who are out of power to criticize.”

See accompanying article, The Holocaust messenger who confronted FDR

Meredith Jacobs is managing editor of JT’s sister publication, Washington Jewish Week.

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The Holocaust Messenger Who Confronted FDR

Jan Karski, a Catholic, brought President Roosevelt face to face with the Holocaust with his first-person accounts. (Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.)

Jan Karski, a Catholic, brought President Roosevelt face to face with the Holocaust with his first-person accounts.
(Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.)

Seventy years ago on July 28, an eyewitness to the Nazi atrocities against Europe’s Jews brought the horrifying news directly to the most powerful man on earth. It was the moment that President Franklin D. Roosevelt came face to face with the Holocaust.

By the time he was 26, Polish underground member Jan Karski had been imprisoned by the Soviets, had been tortured by the Gestapo and had nearly drown while escaping from a hospital in German-occupied Slovakia. After all he suffered, it would have been understandable if Karski had ended his service at that point.

Instead, he chose to risk his life again in order to alert the Free World about Hitler’s mass murder of European Jewry.

Karski, who was Catholic, was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, as the Nazis were deporting hundreds of thousands of Warsaw’s Jews to the gas chambers of Treblinka. Walking through the ghetto, he saw corpses piled in the gutter, emaciated children clothed in rags, and dazed men and women slumped against decrepit buildings.

When gunfire suddenly erupted, Karski’s comrades hurried him into a nearby apartment. He watched as two uniformed teenagers with pistols came down the street. “They are here for the ‘Jew hunt,’” Karski was told. Hitler Youth members would amuse themselves by venturing into the Jewish part of the city and by shooting people at random.

Days later, Karski and a compatriot, disguised as Ukrainian militiamen, took a six-hour train ride to a site in southeastern Poland called Izbica. It was a “sorting station.” When Jews were shipped to a death camp, Karski learned, the Germans would first take them to Izbica, rob them of their last belongings and then send them off to the gas chambers.

Determined to tell the world what he had seen, Karski made his way across occupied Belgium, Germany and France, his life in danger every step of the way. Thanks to an injection from a sympathetic dentist that swelled his jaw, Karski was able to avoid conversations that might have revealed his Polish identity. From France, he hiked across the Pyrenees into Spain and then traveled to London.

British officials were chilly. Foreign Minister Anthony Eden showed little interest in Karski’s account of the slaughter of the Jews, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent word that he was too busy to meet the Polish courier at all. Karski headed for Washington. On July 28, 1943, he met with President Roosevelt in the Oval Office for more than an hour.

Karski began by describing the activities of the Polish underground. The president listened with fascination, asked questions and offered unsolicited advice, some of it a bit eccentric—such as his idea of putting skis on small airplanes to fly underground messengers between England and Poland during the winter.

Then Karski turned to the plight of the Jews.

This was not the first time FDR heard about the mass murder of Eur-ope’s Jews. For nearly a year, detailed reports about the killings had been reaching the White House. In fact, when American Jewish leaders had their very first meeting with the president on this subject, in December 1942, FDR told them he was already “well acquainted” with the massacres they described. But the meeting with Karski was the first time President Roosevelt encountered an actual eyewitness to the killings.

Despite Karski’s harrowing first-person account of the atrocities, the president was not moved. FDR was, as Karski politely described it, “rather noncommittal.”

Roosevelt viewed the suffering of the Jews as just another unfortunate aspect of what civilians suffer in every war. He did not believe it was justified for the U.S. to use any resources to rescue Jews from the Nazis. Nor did he want to have to deal with large numbers of rescued Jewish refugees, clamoring to be admitted to the United States.

Ironically, though, just six weeks earlier, the Roosevelt administration had established a U.S. government commission “for the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in Europe.”

As he rose to leave the Oval Office, Karski asked the president if there was any message he wanted to send to those suffering under the Nazi jackboot. The president leaned back, his trademark cigarette holder balanced in one hand, and said, “Tell them we shall win this war!”

Despite President Roosevelt’s lack of interest in the fate of the Jews, Karski did not lose heart. In the months to follow, he authored a harrowing book-length account of the situation in Hitler’s Europe, called “Story of a Secret State,” and delivered hundreds of lectures throughout the United States about his experiences.

The story of Karski’s efforts to alert the world about the Holocaust has begun to gain public attention, especially in schools. It was included in a recent series of animated shorts about America’s response to the Holocaust (www.They SpokeOut.com), created by The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and Disney Educational Productions. And at a White House ceremony earlier this year, Karski was posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was a fitting tribute to a man whose life symbolized the need to speak out when — as President Barack Obama recently put it —”so many others stood silent.”

See accompanying article, Rethinking Roosevelt

Rafael Medoff, Ph.D., is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C. His latest book is “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.”