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Category : In the News

My father, the Nazi-fighting hero that no one’s heard of

Haaretz, By Ofer Aderet | Nov. 15, 2014

Rafael Reiss, one of seven parachutists sent into Nazi-occupied Europe in 1944, was executed and then largely forgotten. Seventy years after his death, his only daughter does not regret his anonymity

Edna Reiss Leshem keeps the mementos from her father, Rafael Reiss, in a large wooden box in her bedroom. He was born 100 years ago last summer, around the outbreak of World War I, and next week will see the 70th anniversary of his death, during the final year of World War II.

Reiss was one of seven young men and women who were sent from Palestine in 1944 to parachute behind enemy lines in Europe, and who died in the course of the mission. A total of 37 volunteers were sent by the British Army and the Jewish community in Palestine to rescue Jews and help the British war effort. These seven lost their lives. Another member of the group, Haviva Reik, is memorialized in the name of a kibbutz (Lehavot Haviva) and the educational center of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement (Givat Haviva). An illegal immigrant ship was also named after her. A third parachutist, Hannah Szenes, who was also murdered 70 years ago this month, became a symbol and a national heroine in the wake of the poems she left. The leader of the group, Enzo Sereni, murdered in November 1944, was commemorated by having a kibbutz named after him (Netzer Sereni).

But Reiss and three other parachutists remained unknown to the general public. Reiss’s daughter, Edna, who was a year old when her father was murdered, does not regret the anonymity. She knows that this was her father’s explicit wish. One of the items in the box of mementos is the last letter her father sent to her and her mother, Naomi. He wrote it on November 19, 1944, in a Slovakian jail, on the last night of his life. The letter was smuggled out of the prison by a partisan fighter and eventually reached Israel. On November 20, Reiss and Reik were put on a truck and driven to a mass grave, where they were shot.

“Dear Naomi, Edna, I have no idea whether this letter will reach you,” Reiss wrote. “Oh, how much I wish it will arrive. I want to part with both of you for all time. All the signs are that I have arrived, if not at the end of my goal, then at all events at the end of my life. It sounds so banal that I can’t help laughing. I have known clearly for quite some time that I will be shot, but still, it’s odd to be sitting here in prison knowing that this is the last evening of my life.”

In the letter, which became his testament, Reiss requested that he not be made a hero after his death. “I am not in the least tired of life, but I have lived long enough for me to be able to part from you before my eternal rest. Please do not take this very tragically. Even though it is about me, you must understand it as though you are hearing about one of millions. It is pleasant for me to know that I will not disappear from the world without leaving traces behind. By that I mean Edna and your love for me.”

He added, “I do not ask for any monument other than that feeling, and I object to the idea of being made a national hero. If anyone knows about the events, it is I who know that no heroism was involved. It always pained me when people thought too much of me, and I have the right to ask that my daughter should know me as I was – for her to know the human person in me, with all his mistakes and faults.”

The conclusion of the letter strikes a dramatic note. “There is a vast stream of people going to their death. Tomorrow I will join them, or more accurately, we will join them, because going with me is Haviva, from Ma’anit in Karkour,” he wrote, referring to Haviva Reik from Kibbutz Ma’anit. “Your photographs accompanied me on my path, and when the going became difficult I took out the pictures and was a bit ‘at home.’ Do not lament me, for I embarked on my path with eyes open. I am sure of myself and do not regret a single step I took.”

‘Where is daddy?’

Seventy years have gone by since then. Naomi, Reiss’s wife, who was left to raise their baby daughter on Kibbutz Sde Nehemia, remarried and became the mother of another son and daughter. She suffered another tragedy when her daughter from her second marriage was killed in a tractor accident. Edna grew up with her half-brother. “I don’t remember my father at all, my memories are from stories I was told,” she said this week while looking at two small photographs placed together in a red frame. One of them shows her father, in uniform, holding her, an infant girl. The other shows her with her father and mother. “At some stage you feel that memory is escaping from you,” she observed, explaining her decision to frame the photos and paste a red heart next to them.

She started to understand that she didn’t have a father when she was three or four. “My mother went away one evening,” Reiss recalls. “The kibbutz children asked me, ‘Why doesn’t your father put you to sleep instead of her?’ I said nothing, but when my mother came back I started to ask her questions: ‘Where is daddy?’ ‘What does it mean to die?’ ‘What is war?’ I gradually created a framework that I could deal with as a girl of that age.”

A more stark encounter occurred in 1952, when her father’s remains were brought to Israel along with those of Haviva Reik. A few years earlier, the two had been buried in the military section of a cemetery in Prague, at first beneath a cross, later replaced by a Star of David. After the necessary authorizations were obtained, a delegation from Israel flew to Prague to bring the remains of the two parachutists home. An El Al plane carried them on the return journey, for burial on Mount Herzl, in Jerusalem.

“I was nine,” Edna Reiss Leshem says. “I remember the coffin, which was first taken to Kibbutz Sde Nehemia. We prepared a large wreath of carnations, because mom said that was the flower dad loved best. An uncle lifted me up so I could place the wreath on the coffin, which was in the kibbutz dining room with an honor guard of kibbutz members.”

The choir at the ceremony was conducted by Yehuda Sharett, brother of Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister. The next day, on the way to Jerusalem, the coffin passed by the village of Rosh Pina. “I saw women weeping along the roadside. I asked my mother why they were crying if they didn’t know him,” she related.

Edna, who lost her father when she was still an infant, would later be in charge of the delivery room at Poriya Hospital, in Tiberias. “It’s an amazing profession, one that helps women at the most meaningful moments of their life,” she noted. She herself is the mother of four sons, and has eight grandchildren. They are “scattered around the world,” she said. The eldest son, who inherited his grandfather’s good hands, is a carpenter in Berlin. The others live in Florida, Holland and Canada.

The box with her father’s mementos is like a time capsule for her. There are dozens of photographs of Rafi Reiss. They track the course of his life from Budapest, where he was born, via Nove Zamky, in Slovakia, where the family moved when he was a boy; then to Bratislava, where he began medical studies in 1932 and where he joined a Zionist student organization; the illegal immigrants ship on which he reached Palestine in 1939; Atlit detention camp, where he was incarcerated by the British for a year; agricultural training before settling on Kvutzat Huliyot, which later became Kibbutz Sde Nehemia; courses in the pre-state Haganah and Palmah militias, where he became a parachutist; and training in Egypt before leaving for Europe.

In addition to the photographs, the wooden box also contains Reiss’s letters and personal belongings. All of them are testimony to his dramatic life after he left Palestine, as documented in a book by the writer and Palmah member Tehila Ofer and Zeev Ofer (“Haviva Reick: a Kibbutz Pioneer’s Mission and Fall Behind Nazi Lines,” 2014.

Reiss parachuted into Yugoslavia in the summer of 1944, in territory held by Josip Tito’s partisans. Subsequently, after the capture of Hannah Szenes, Reiss, Reik and others were sent to the mountains of Slovakia, from where they planned to enter Hungary. On the way, they helped Jews who had remained in Nazi-occupied Europe.

From his mission he wrote to his family: “If I ever doubted the value of this mission compared to the danger it entails, today all those thoughts have disappeared without a trace. Can you understand what it means for these unfortunates to see someone who is coming to them from security, from freedom, from the Land of Israel, and only for them, only to offer them help, to be with them! The faith and the hope that our sheer presence stirred amid this downtrodden Jewry make up for the dangers this mission involves.” He was too late to save his mother, who was sent to the camps; and finally he, too, fell into the hands of the Germans.

Fragments of his life are preserved in that box in the home of his only child. There is a calendar carved from wood on which he drew Snow White’s seven dwarfs and sent to his daughter as a present. Buttons from his coat. Pins, medals and certificates he received. A compass. His Histadrut labor federation membership, and souvenirs he sent from Egypt.

“For quite a long time, we visited his grave once a year, but over time the custom faded away. These days I prefer to sit at home with pictures and not with stones,” Rafi Reiss’s daughter said this week, as the 70th anniversary of his death approached.

Survey: More than half of Poland’s teens search anti-Semitic, pro-Hitler websites

By Haaretz | Nov. 13, 2014

The survey, which was conducted by the Warsaw University Center for Research on Prejudice, also found that 14 percent of the survey participants acknowledged that racist hate speech was common in Poland.

Over half of Poland’s young people access anti-Semitic Internet sites that praise Hitler and Nazism, the Fox News website reported, citing a Warsaw University study.

The results of the survey were presented to the Polish parliament earlier this month, reviving attention to hate speech legislation and sparking concern among members of the small remaining Polish Jewish community.

The survey, which was conducted by the Warsaw University Center for Research on Prejudice, also found that 14 percent of the survey participants acknowledged that racist hate speech was common in Poland.

Fully 21 percent of young people polled and 19 percent of Polish adult participants in the survey opposed the banning of hate speech, however. “What is most important for me is that so many young people accept hate speech,” the center’s director, Michael Bilewicz, told FoxNews.com in a telephone interview.

“In fact, more than adults. And the young are the future of Poland.” Bilewicz said the courts in Poland are failing to enforce laws against hate speech, which in turn makes the problem worse. “Judges must maintain the fine balance between protecting free speech and banning rhetoric designed to incite hate,” he said.

Bilewicz, who co-authored the study and is an assistant professor at Warsaw University, said that the poll surveyed 653 Polish young people between the ages of 16 and 18 and also polled a group of 1,007 adults.

“Contrary to what might be expected, it is the young who often display anti-democratic and xenophobic attitudes on a mass scale today,” Rafal Pankowsi, a political science professor at Warsaw’s Collegium Civitas, said.

But Holocaust survivor Sigmund Rolat, a major benefactor of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, countered that, as he sees it, Jews live a safer existence and are more well-accepted in Poland than in Western Europe. The new opinion survey, the report says, overly emphasized the views of a bigoted minority.

But an earlier survey of Warsaw high school students also seems to reflect substantial prejudice against Jews on the part of Polish young people. The poll, released in April by the same Warsaw University institute, found that 44 percent of the students did not even want a Jewish neighbor.

‘The Nazis Next Door,’ by Eric Lichtblau

The New York Times, By DEBORAH E. LIPSTADT OCT. 31, 2014

In the wake of World War II, America recruited a few leading German scientists in order to advance our space and military programs and to keep these valuable assets from falling into Soviet hands. This is the broadly accepted script about Nazis in America. In fact, as Eric Lichtblau, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The New York Times, relates in “The Nazis Next Door,” we welcomed approximately 10,000 Nazis, some of whom had played pivotal roles in the genocide.

While portions of this story are not new — see Annie Jacobsen’s book “Operation Paperclip,” for example — Licht¬blau offers additional archival information in all its infuriating detail. (He conducted some of his research at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, on whose supervisory committee I serve. I had no role in his selection as a fellow at the center.)

America began reaching out to leading Nazis months before the Germans surrendered. In March 1945, while the war still raged, the American spy chief Allen Dulles conducted a friendly fireside chat in the library of a Zurich apartment with the Nazi general Karl Wolff, the closest associate of the SS leader Heinrich Himm¬ler for much of the war. The Scotch-¬lubricated conversation convinced Dulles that Wolff, despite his ties to Himmler and his role as a leader of the Waffen SS, was a moderate who deserved protection. When prosecutors sought to try Wolff, one of the highest-ranking SS leaders to survive, at Nuremberg, Dulles worked to have his name removed from the list of defendants. While Wolff was in Allied custody, he was permitted to take a yacht trip, spend time with his family and carry a gun. Nonetheless, he complained that what he endured was “much more inhumane than the extermination of the Jews.” He said the Jews had been gassed in a few seconds, while he did not know how long he would be held. (His imprisonment lasted four years.)

While Jews languished in the camps after Germany’s defeat (“We felt like so much surplus junk,” one survivor said), the United States gathered up Nazi scientists. Had only leading scientists been enlisted, it would have been distasteful if understandable. But of the more than 1,600 scientists brought over, some had pedestrian skills. Others had developed the chemicals for the gas chambers, or conducted experiments on concentration camp prisoners. Even the State Department protested.

But we did not stop with scientists. The C.I.A. and the F.B.I. sought out spies and informants who had participated in genocide. For these agencies, engaging in murder was acceptable as long as the recruits did not lie about their record. Ultimately, most of these “informants” never provided any valuable information. Some even offered bogus reports.

But these intelligence agencies remained their greatest protectors. In the 1980s, when the Justice Department began to hunt war criminals who had lied in order to enter this country, both agencies actively obstructed the investigations. They were also protected by White House officials such as Pat Buchanan, then a top aide to Ronald Reagan, who denounced the Justice Department’s “revenge obsessed” and “hairy-chested Nazi hunters” as dupes of the Soviets. And the largest group of Nazis who entered America simply slipped in through “the back door,” according to Lichtblau. They gamed the system and immigrated as “refugees,” starting new lives as thousands of people perished in the Allied camps.

Lichtblau brings ample investigative skills and an elegant writing style to this unsavory but important story. “The Nazis Next Door” is a captivating book rooted in first-rate research.

How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men
By Eric Lichtblau
Illustrated. 266 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $28.

Deborah E. Lipstadt is a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University. Her most recent book is “The Eichmann Trial.”

New Warsaw memorial to honor Poles who saved Jews during Holocaust

In this 1943 photo, a group of Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops after an uprising in the Jewish quarter. Photo by AP

Haaretz, By, David Green, October 12, 2014 – JTA | Sep. 9

Monument, which will be erected on the location of the Warsaw Ghetto, will be financed entirely by Jews in Israel and other countries.

Organizers have announced a design competition for a memorial in Warsaw to Poles who saved Jews during World War II.

Polish-born Holocaust survivor and philanthropist Sigmund Rolat, of the Remembrance and Future Foundation, announced the competition at a news conference in Warsaw on Monday.

Rolat said the designs would be judged by an international jury and the winner will be announced in April. The memorial is scheduled to be dedicated in the fall of 2015. (more…)

This Day in Jewish History / The Nazis tell Warsaw’s Jews they’ll be imprisoned in the ghetto

The Warsaw Ghetto wall near Lubomirski Palace, May 24, 1941. Photo by Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons

Haaretz, By David B. Green | Oct. 12, 2014

By 1943, more than 300,000 residents of the ghetto would be killed, many at Treblinka.

October 12, 1940, is the day the German occupiers of Warsaw informed the city’s Jews they were to be confined to a ghetto. Slightly less than a month later, on November 16, the Warsaw Ghetto was sealed off. At its peak, the small enclave was home to some 400,000 people.

On the eve of World War II, the Jews of Warsaw had numbered about 375,000, around 30 percent of the overall population of 1.25 million. That number rose to 450,000 after the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, as refugees poured into the city. (more…)

How the Holocaust slowly reached the front page of Haaretz

Haaretz report from October 8, 1942, headline reading: “Planning the annihilation of Europe’s Jews?” Photo by Haaretz archives

Haaretz, By Ofer Aderet | Oct. 8, 2014 | 4:40 PM

In an era when news reporting was far more cumbersome, it took time before the horrific reality sunk in.

Seventy-two years ago this week, on Thursday October 8, 1942, the first report of the extermination of Europe’s Jews appeared on page 2 of Haaretz under the headline “Plotting to annihilate all of Europe’s Jews?” A month later, the reports had reached the front page.

The article, whose byline was listed as Palcor, the news agency of the Jewish Agency, stated: “Reports are growing from reliable non-Jewish sources that the entire process of the deportation to Eastern Europe of Jews from Germany and the various countries it has occupied is not intended at all to employ the deportees as forced labor, but rather to execute them en masse.” (more…)

Toys that tell the story of the Holocaust’s youngest victims

Haaretz, By Dafna Arad | Oct. 2, 2014

Dolls at the Yad Vashem exhibit on toys during the Holocaust, September 2014. Photo by Emil Salman

A 1996 exhibit at Yad Vashem, “No Child’s Play: Children in the Holocaust: Creativity and Play,” was supposed to be temporary. It would include children’s artifacts from the Holocaust like dolls, toys and drawings.

The title was taken from the book “Rules of Life: A Childhood of Dignity” by Janusz Korczak, the Polish-Jewish pediatrician famous for accompanying the orphans under his care to Treblinka.

The exhibit was supposed to be open for three months, but it’s still there, maybe because it’s painful to close an exhibit that touches the hearts of young ones. Included are children’s descriptions of the toys they played with during the Holocaust – toys that their parents improvised or that they made themselves. There are also teddy bears and board games. (more…)

Ken Burns & PBS Whitewash FDR on the Holocaust: Who Shut America’s Doors to Jewish Refugees?

by Rafael Medoff

(Dr. Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, www.WymanInstitute.org and author of 15 books about the Holocaust and Jewish history.)

For seven consecutive nights in September, PBS aired the latest Ken Burns documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.” Millions of Americans watched the latest compelling Burns production, which masterfully interspersed old film footage with the actual words of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt, spoken, in character, by Edward Herrmann, Meryl Streep, and other outstanding actors. It was great entertainment. But when it came to the topic of FDR’s response to the Nazi persecution of Europe’s Jews, “The Roosevelts” was fatally flawed. (more…)

Europe’s Anti-Semitism Comes Out of the Shadows

New York Times, By Jim Yardley, Sept 23, 2014

SARCELLES, France — From the immigrant enclaves of the Parisian suburbs to the drizzly bureaucratic city of Brussels to the industrial heartland of Germany, Europe’s old demon returned this summer. “Death to the Jews!” shouted protesters at pro-Palestinian rallies in Belgium and France. “Gas the Jews!” yelled marchers at a similar protest in Germany.

The ugly threats were surpassed by uglier violence. Four people were fatally shot in May at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. A Jewish-owned pharmacy in this Paris suburb was destroyed in July by youths protesting Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. A synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany, was attacked with firebombs. A Swedish Jew was beaten with iron pipes. The list goes on. (more…)

This Day in Jewish History / Kalisz Statute gives Polish Jews landmark civil rights protections

Haaretz, By David B. Green, September 8, 2014

Charter issued in 1264 has been described as one of the first attempts at delineating ‘human rights’ in the modern sense of the phrase.

Great Synagogue in Kalisz known as Wielka Synagoga, 1914Photo by Wikimedia Commons

On September 8, 1264, Boleslau the Pious, duke of Greater Poland, issued the General Charter of Jewish Liberties. Better known as the Kalisz Statute, the charter contained a set of 36 conditions mandating the rights and privileges of the Jewish community of Poland.

Boleslau (born about 1224, died 1279), was the son of Wladyslaw Odonic, who, together with his brother Przmesyl, gradually reconquered the lands lost by their father, and between 1257 and 1273 was the duke of Greater Poland and Poznan. During his reign, parts of Poland were invaded – and despoiled – by the Mongols. The duke invited Jews and others from Germany to Poland to help rebuild it. His charter can be seen as part of an effort to make the Jews feel welcome and secure, at a time when such forces as the church were looking to limit their ability to integrate into society.

Nonetheless, the Kalisz Statute was far-reaching in the guarantees it offered the Jews, and has even been described as one of the first attempts at delineating “human rights” in the modern sense of the phrase.

Although based on similar charters that had been issued in the recent past in Austria (1244) and Bohemia (1254), the Kalisz Statute was the most far-reaching. Its 36 points, presented in Latin, guaranteed Jews the right to govern their own internal affairs, and to adjudicate matters in Jewish courts, except in cases that involved Christians and Jews, which were to be heard in a royal tribunal rather than an ecclesiastical court. Someone who murdered a Jew would be subject to “the proper sentence,” plus confiscation of all his property, and “wherever a Jew shall pass through our territory, no one shall offer any hindrance to him or molest or trouble him.”

Not only that, but Christians were forbidden from vandalizing synagogues or Jewish cemeteries, and faced punishment if they did. And if a Jew were to cry out for help in the night, and his Christian neighbors failed to come to his aid, “or heed the cry, every neighboring Christian shall be responsible to pay thirty shillings.”

‘Refrain from the blood’

Other clauses dealt with the conditions under which Jews could make loans, and the measures they could take when a loan went unredeemed. Another forbade Christians, “According to the ordinances of the pope, in the name of our Holy Father,” from accusing Jews of killing Christian children for their blood, “since according to the precept of their law, all Jews refrain from any blood.” Anybody who did wish to make such an accusation was obligated to produce three Christian witnesses and three Jewish witnesses to the crime for it to be proven.

The terms of the Kalisz Statute were confirmed by subsequent Polish kings into the 16th century, and served as a basis for Jewish privileges in Poland and Lithuania until the end of the 18th century. They also led to backlash by church officials, who in various periods and towns tried to impose different restrictions – e.g., segregated housing, wearing of identifying clothing or symbols, prohibition on the holding of public office – but generally with limited success.

In the 1920s, the artist Arthur Szyk, a proud Polish Jew, created a series of illuminated miniature paintings depicting Jewish life in Poland, accompanied by the text of the Kalisz Statute, in seven languages. Today, the originals of the miniatures are in the collection of the Jewish Museum, New York.