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NY Times

Adolfo Kaminski - Forger and hero

An article about Adolfo Kaminski, a remarkable teenager who forged passports to save the lives of thousands by helping them get out of countries under Nazi rule. 

Kaminski's daughter's newly translated biography of her father is available here:

Read the full article:

Watch the video:

Walking the Way of the Survivor

Really enjoyed this interview in the NY Times Book Review that I found in my archives, from 1988! WALKING THE WAY OF THE SURVIVOR: A Talk With Aharon Appelfeld, by Philip Roth.

Read the full article here:

From the article, I've selected the parts that stood out to me. My own notes are in italics:

The arduous journey that landed Appelfeld on the beaches of Tel Aviv in 1946, at the age of 14, seems to have fostered an unappeasable fascination with all uprooted souls. . . Appelfeld is a displaced writer of displaced fiction, who has made of displacement and disorientation a subject uniquely his own sensibility. . . .As unique as the subject is a voice that originates in a wounded consciousness pitched somewhere between amnesia and memory, and that situates the fiction it narrates midway between parable and history.

Appelfeld: I discovered Kafka here in Israel. He spoke to me in my mother tongue, German, not the German of the Germans but the German of the Hapsburg Empire, of Vienna, Prague, and Chernovtsky, with its special tone, which, by the way, the Jews worked hard to create.

. . .Behind the mask of placelessness and homelessness in his work, stood a Jewish man, like me, from a half-assimilated family, whose Jewish values had lost their content, and whose inner space was barren and haunted. The marvelous thing is that the barrenness brought him not to self-denial or self-hatred but rather to a kind of tense curiosity about every Jewish phenomenon, especially the Jews of Eastern Europe, the Yiddish language, the Yiddish theater, Hasidism, Zionism and even the idea of moving to Mandate Palestine. This is the Kafka of his journals, which are no less gripping than his works.

My real world was far beyond the power of imagination, and my task as an artist was not to develop my imagination but to restrain it, and even then it seemed impossible to me, because everything was so unbelievable that one seemed oneself to be fictional.

At first I tried to run away from myself and from my memories, to live a life that was not my own and to write about a life that was not my own. But a hidden feeling told me that I was not allowed to flee from myself, and that if I denied the experience of my childhood in the Holocaust, I would be spiritually deformed.

It is generally agreed, to this day, that Jews are deft, cunning and sophisticated creatures, with the wisdom of the world stored up in them.  But isn’t it fascinating to see how easy it was to fool the Jews?. . . Their blindness and deafness, their obsessive preoccupation with themselves is an integral part of their ingenuousness. The murderers were practical, and they knew just what they wanted. The ingenuous person is always a shlimazl, a clownish victim of misfortune, never hearing the danger signals in time, getting mixed up, tangled up and finally falling in the trap. Those weaknesses charmed me. I fell in love with them. The myth that Jews run the world with their machinations turned out to be somewhat exaggerated.

Assimilated Jews built a structure of humanistic values and looked out on the world from it. They were certain they were no longer Jews, and that what applied to “the Jews” did not apply to them. That strange assurance made them into blind or half-blind creatures. I have always loved assimilated Jews, because that was where the Jewish character, and also, perhaps, Jewish fate, was concentrated with greatest force. (note: This is what is so fascinating to me about the Mendelssohns, Fanny van Arnstein, Heinrich Heine, and Rahel Varnhagen, among the many other converts I have studied)

The need, you might say the necessity to be faithful to myself and to my childhood memories made me a distant, contemplative person.

The non-Jew was frequently viewed in the Jewish imagination as a liberated creature without ancient beliefs or social obligations who lived a natural life on his own soil. The Holocaust, of course, altered somewhat the course of the Jewish imagination. In place of envy came suspicion. Those feelings which had walked in the open descended to the underground.

What has preoccupied me, and continues to perturb me, is this anti-Semitism directed at oneself, an ancient Jewish ailment, which, in modern times, has taken various guises. I grew up in an assimilated Jewish home where German was considered not only a language but also a culture, and the attitude toward German culture was virtually religious. All around us lived masses of Jews who spoke Yiddish, but in our house Yiddish was absolutely forbidden. I grew up with the feeling that anything Jewish was blemished. From my earliest childhood my gaze was directed at the beauty of the non-Jews. They were blond and tall and behaved naturally. They were cultured, and when they didn’t behave in a cultured fashion, at least they behaved naturally.

From my earliest youth I was drawn to non-Jews. They fascinated me with their strangeness, their height, their aloofness. Yet the Jews seemed strange to me too. It took years to understand how much my parents had internalized all the evil they attributed to the Jew, and through them, I did so too. A hard kernel of revulsion was planted within each of us.

Fortunately for me I was blond and didn’t arouse suspicion. (note: This applied to my godmother's brother as well, but did not save him...)

It took me years to draw close to the Jew within me. I had to get rid of many prejudices within me and to meet many Jew in order to find myself within them. Anti-Semitism directed at oneself was an original Jewish creation. I don’t know of any other nation so flooded with self-criticism…The Jewish ability to internalize any critical and condemnatory remark and castigate themselves is one of the marvels of human nature. . . . Only one thing may be said in its favor: it harms no one except those afflicted with it.

The Holocaust belongs to the type of enormous experience which reduces one to silence. Any utterance, any statement, any “answer” is tiny, meaningless and occasionally ridiculous. Even the greatest of answers seems petty.

The survivors have undergone experiences that no one else has undergone, and others expect some message from them, some key to understanding the human world – a human example. But they, of course, cannot begin to fulfill the great tasks imposed upon them, so theirs are clandestine lives of flight and hiding.

Learning from the past

An article about the film, "Defying the Nazis," that I blogged about this past Wednesday, appeared in the New York Times two days ago:

The article makes explicit the parallels between today's refugee crisis and the crisis of the 1930s, when many people including my godmother, father, and family members were trying to get visas to get out of Germany and needed sponsors to lend a helping hand on the other side of the sea. My father was able to migrate to the United States with the help of an organization here; my godmother's brother was not so lucky. This life-or-death situation is the reality of countless refugees today.

From the article:

“There are parallels,” notes Artemis Joukowsky, a grandson of the Sharps who conceived of the film and worked on it with Burns. “The vitriol in public speech, the xenophobia, the accusing of Muslims of all of our problems — these are similar to the anti-Semitism of the 1930s and ’40s.”

The Sharps’ story is a reminder that in the last great refugee crisis, in the 1930s and ’40s, the United States denied visas to most Jews. We feared the economic burden and worried that their ranks might include spies. It was the Nazis who committed genocide, but the U.S. and other countries also bear moral responsibility for refusing to help desperate people.

That’s a thought world leaders should reflect on as they gather in New York to discuss today’s refugee crisis — and they might find inspiration from those like the Sharps who saw the humanity in refugees and are today honored because of it.

"We can’t look forward until we can look back"

I wanted to share this review by Ron Rosenbaum in the NY Times Book Review, September 24, 2006: "Giving Death a Face," about Daniel Mendelsohn's book “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million”

Read the full review here:

From the article:

"The Holocaust is so big, the scale of it is so gigantic, so enormous, that it becomes easy to think of it as something mechanical. Anonymous. But everything that happened, happened because someone made a decision. To pull a trigger, to flip a switch, to close a cattle car door, to hide, to betray."

How do you tell the story of the Holocaust in a way that encompasses both its vast geopolitical and its intimately personal dimensions?

Mendelsohn’s initial quest begins with normal, if death-inflected, genealogical curiosity. The fact that his begins with a physical resemblance to one of the Lost suggests that an important aspect of the obsession is a search for his own identity, his face in the face of the Loss. The tears he provoked as a child grow in this saga into a meditation upon “the tears of things”; the sorrow of one family becomes the sorrow of us all.

. . . Not knowing certain stories, being ignorant of intricate histories that, unbeknownst to us, frame the present, can be a grave mistake.”

Mendelsohn sees the episode of Lot’s wife as a warning that “regret for what we have lost, for the pasts we have to abandon, often poisons any attempt to make a new life.” For those compelled to look “back at what has been, rather than forward in to the future, the great danger is tears, the unstoppable weeping the Greeks…knew was not only a pain, but a narcotic pleasure, too: a mournful contemplation so flawless, so crystalline, that it can, in the end, immobilize you.”

We can’t look forward until we can look back, until we know how we came to be who we are – until we know what we have lost.

Mendelsohn writes: “Whatever we see in museums, the artifacts and the evidence, can give us only the dimmest comprehension of what the event itself was like. . . We must be careful when we try to envision ‘what it was like.’ 

Reinhard Selten, a Nobel prize-winner with a life story similar to my father's...

September 4th, 2016 in the NY Times "Reinhard Selten, Won Nobel in Economics"

Reading this resonated with me, thinking about my father... Thankfully he was able to be an apprentice, albeit, undercover. His employer took a risk hiring him. His menial work came later, in the forced labor camp. He also paid very close attention to political matters, while listening to BBC, "illegally" during the war. He remained a BBC listener and a public radio supporter, making fresh bread and sharing with it with fellow volunteers during the fund raising drives, when he helped with the phones at WNYC. He maintained strong political opinions, emphasizing to us how important it is to have civil liberties and independence from government.

From the article:

Reinhard Selten, who was expelled from school in Germany when he was 14 because he was half Jewish, but returned after World War ll to study mathematics and became the country's first and only Nobel winner for economics, died on August 23 in Poznan, Poland. He was 85.
Reinhard Justus Reginald Selten was born on October 5, 1930, in what was then Breslau, Germany, and is now Wroclaw, Poland. His father, Adolfo Selten, a blind bookseller with a third grade education, was Jewish. His mother, the former Kathe Luther, was Protestant.

The couple decided that they would let Reinhard decide on a religion for himself, but as the Nazis began imposing laws against Jews, they had him baptized. His father died in 1942.

In his official Nobel biography, Professor Selten recalled that despite the baptism he was not only dismissed from high school as a son of a Jew but was also denied the opportunity to learn a trade. He was relegated to menial labor.

"My situation as a member of an officially despised minority forced me to pay close attention to political matters very early in my life," he wrote. "Moreover, I found myself in opposition to the political views shared by the vast majority of the population.

"I had to learn to trust my own judgment rather than official propaganda or public opinion. This was a strong influence on my intellectual development. My continuing interest in politics and public affairs was one of the reasons why I began to be interested in economics in my last high school years."