Beginning in the mid-1930s, worldwide efforts were made to bring persecuted Jewish children out of Germany. As Hitler set his sights on conquest, the lives of boys and girls from other nations were put in the Nazis’ path.
Racing against time, the Kindertransport, initiated by religious and nonsectarian humanitarian groups in Britain, aimed at delivering as many German, Polish, Austrian and Czech children as possible out of Eastern Europe before it was too late: a bill passed in Parliament extended safe heaven, to the children alone. Between November 1938 and the September 1939 declaration of war in England, the transit and housing arrangements for 10,000 children and infants in Holland and Britain were coordinated by the Kindertransport committees.
Choosing to remove their families from danger, many Eastern European and German B’nai B’rith members hoped that British lodge members would care for their sons and daughters. The London women’s auxiliaries actually did supervise these children, arranging for accommodations in hostels or farms in the countryside. The Executive Committee in the United States contributed funds for food and clothing. B’nai B’rith would enable many of the older children to resettle in Israel.
Revealing this dramatic narrative through artifacts, dramatization, letters and oral histories, “Kindertransport – Rescuing Children on the Brink of War,” was curated and exhibited in 2018 by Yeshiva University Museum and the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. In July 2021, the display traveled to the Minneapolis American Swedish Institute, where it runs through Oct. 31. The show has been augmented in this venue with a separate exhibit, “The Story is Here,” about the refugee children who came to the Midwest in the 1930s, and an audio component that historically contextualizes the events covered in the show.
On view at the Jewish Museum in Vienna from Nov. 15, 2021, until April 30, 2022, “Without a Home: Kindertransports from Vienna” explores the fate of Austrian children who were sent to England, but also to Holland, France and Belgium, where many became Hitler’s victims. The exhibit also addresses the trauma experienced by the children, thrown in with strangers who were sometimes unkind or worse. They suffered from the long-term effects of parental deprivation, the loss of their childhoods and the guilt they felt at being alive. Today, the sons, daughters and grandchildren of Kindertransport members are actively involved in educating others about the Holocaust and learning about their parent’s memories.
Filmmakers Pamela Sturhoofd and Jessica van Tijin incorporate animation, historic World War II footage and interviews with Kindertransport survivors into their documentary “Truus’ Children,” celebrating the achievements and legacy of courageous Dutch rescuer Geertruida “Truus” Wijsmuller (1896-1978). Singlehandedly bringing children out of Germany from 1933, she led the Austrian Kinderstransport after Norman Bentwich, a B’nai B’rith leader involved with the rescue plan, asked her to meet with the infamous Adolph Eichmann. Thinking she would fail, he allowed her to take children between the ages of five and ten from Nazi occupied territories by train, beginning with a group of 600. Seemingly fearless, as well as formidable, Wijsmuller corralled everyone that she knew into assisting her, whether they were willing or not. Released in 2020, “Truus’ Children” garnered an overwhelming response during its Dutch television premiere in May. It continues to be viewed and discussed via various websites devoted to Jewish history and culture.
Sturhoofd and van Tijin have launched another project, an online digital online archive which will house all the research materials used in the making of “Truus’ Children,” to function as an educational resource and lasting tribute to Wijsmuller’s deeds.
“Even if there were no gas chambers at Iasi, still everything else was there: thousands of Jews perished in countless manners. Everything happened: the terror, the threats, the sealed boxcars, the hunger, the humiliation, the public executions.” —Elie Wiesel
Eighty years ago this summer—between June 28 and July 6, 1941—some 13,000 Jews from Iasi, the eastern capital of Romania, were brutally murdered by shooting and in two death trains on direct orders of wartime dictator General Ion Antonescu. The killings were carried out with zeal and cruelty by Romanian uniformed and civilian officials assisted by common citizens and German military units. No trace of compassion was shown the 35,000 Jews of Iasi (one third of the total wartime population)—not from high-ranking officers and army conscripts, anonymous employees or from officials invested with authority of the state; only a handful of officials and locals were recognized after the war as Righteous Among the Nations for protecting a few hundred Jews in total as the slaughter unfolded.
Iasi provided fertile ground for this atrocity, having the dubious distinction of being the birthplace of both the violently anti-Semitic Christian National Defense League and its genocidal Iron Guard offshoot that painted all Jews as Bolshevik agents, factors of dissolution of the Romanian state, enemy aliens and parasites on the Romanian nation. The Iasi Pogrom was the most infamous event in the history of the Holocaust in Romania and one of the most savage mass murders of Jews during World War II, surpassed only by the Romanian army’s October 1941 massacre of 20,000 Jews in Odessa and one carried out by the Germans in September 1941 in Babyn Yar. Still, the Holocaust in Romania—in which over half of Romania’s 800,000 Jews perished in a reign of terror that started even before the Nazi’s Final Solution went into effect—remains unknown to many, although the Iasi Pogrom is by far the best-documented event in the history of the Holocaust in Romania.
The pogrom was the natural culmination of centuries of state and popular anti-Semitism and fervent nationalist bigotry, manifested in no fewer than 196 restrictive laws against the country’s Jewish inhabitants passed between 1867 and 1913 alone. Indeed, the litany of persecutions and discriminatory actions against the Jews is too extensive to detail in this article. Romania was the last country in Europe to grant citizenship and emancipation to its Jews—in its 1923 constitution that adopted undertakings made in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference following World War I and offered the hope of a better future for long-suffering Romania Jewry, but that was not to be. Fascism took grip of the country between the wars, and the country’s Jews were the victims of numerous atrocities, including the adoption of the Nuremburg Laws and the deportation of all Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina to the notorious region of Transnistria, where tens of thousands perished. I cannot overlook this opportunity to pay homage to leaders of the Jewish community—including President Wilhelm Filderman, Yitzhak Artzi and Fred Saraga who endangered their lives, traveling from Bucharest to Transnistria to bring material support to the deportees and rescuing thousands—mainly children and youths—and who posthumously received the Jewish Rescuers Citation, presented by the B’nai B’rith World Center and the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust.
The Romanian government officially recognized responsibility for the Holocaust of the Jews in Romania and the territories under its administration during World War II in 2004, but not before a public uproar over statements made by then-President Ion Iliescu a year earlier that "The Holocaust was not unique to the Jewish population in Europe. Many others, including Poles, died in the same way." These comments triggered the establishment of the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, headed by Romanian Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, that presented its shocking final report in 2004, which concluded that “Romanian authorities were the main perpetrators of this Holocaust, in both its planning and implementation.” Since then, the Romanian government has clearly turned a corner in its recognition of the role its forbearers played in the tragedy of Romanian Jewry during the Holocaust. The 80th anniversary events—including an academic conference held at the Iasi University with the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania entitled “Remembrance, Acknowledgement, Oblivion,” commemorative ceremonies at three cemeteries where victims of the pogrom are interred in mass graves, a solemn concert and the inauguration of a museum on the pogrom housed at the former central police station where many of the summary shootings took place—were sponsored by the municipal, regional and national governments, with appropriate participation.
My visit to Romania as B’nai B’rith International’s representative to these events was something of a homecoming. My mother’s family came from Iasi to the United States in 1913 and family lore has it that my grandfather received a medal from the King of Romania for establishing the first umbrella factory there. Walking the streets and visiting the two remaining synagogues—out of 136 that operated before the war—allowed me to conjure up visions of this once vibrant Jewish community, the vigor it showed over the centuries and the Torah scholars, intellectuals, business leaders and common Jews it produced. My visit to the evocative Great Synagogue—built in 1671 and the oldest Jewish house of worship in Romania—was made particularly personal when Jewish Community President Benjamina Vladcovschi explained that, like all synagogues in the city, it served a particular guild; in its case the tailors’ (schneiders’) guild. Today, Vladcovschi leads a community that has dwindled to only some 200 individuals, most elderly, but strives to keep the candle alive.
The Jewish cemetery of Iasi, where the earliest tombstone dates to 1467 and some 10,000 victims of the pogrom are buried in a mass grave, tells the storied history of Romanian Jewry. There, near the stage where about a dozen dignitaries spoke—including Israeli ambassador David Saranga; Alexandru Muraru, special representative of the Romanian government for promoting memory policies, combating anti-Semitism and xenophobia; and Romanian Jewish Community President Silviu Vexler—hundreds of graves of Jewish soldiers who died fighting for Romania in World War I greet all those who enter this transformational site. Waiting in sweltering 40-degree-centigrade heat to take my turn to speak at the Targu Frumos cemetery, 28 kilometers west of Iasi, where 570 victims of the Iasi-Calrasi death train are buried under a mass slab of concrete, I could not help but relive the agony of the train’s 2,500 victims, 1,400 of whom died enroute from thirst, hunger and suffocation during the train’s seven-day journey. Following presentations by representatives of the Council of Europe and the German government, I spoke about B’nai B’rith’s long history in Romania, going back to 1873 when International President Benjamine Pixotto was appointed U.S. consul to Romania by U.S. President Grant at the urging of B’nai B’rith, with the express intention of helping the Jewish community overcome oppressive discrimination and anti-Semitism. 13 lodges had been established by 1887. These were closed by order of the Goga-Cuza regime in 1937 but continued to operate clandestinely until 1948, when B’nai B’rith Romania President Akiva Ornstein was arrested and tortured in jail, where he died in 1954. I appealed to all those exposed to the pervasive evidence of this bloodthirsty massacre to commit themselves to support the State of Israel as a homeland and haven for Jews, despite any parochial criticism of Israeli state action, and to ensure that such an atrocity could never happen again.
May the memory of the Great Iasi Pogrom victims be a blessing.
As we experience the trajectory of anti-Semitism in history and during one’s own life, it’s natural to feel hopeless. Hate will endure, but it’s still possible to celebrate and enjoy the efforts made to acknowledge the legacy of the Jewish people, as well as to take pride in the end result: contributions that improved life for all.
The city of Goerlitz in Saxony, a part of East Germany after World War II, had a Jewish population between 600 and 700 in 1888, when its B’nai B’rith Victoria Lodge first met. Fewer Jews were living there when a new synagogue opened in 1911. Adopted from the basilica plan, the structure was far from standard, boasting attractive modern additions. Contributing to its unique visual interest was a centrally located structure containing a space which congregants used. Its tiled, domed roof had been topped with a Star of David mounted on a pole. A then-cutting-edge feature of the building was the Art Nouveau and Secessionist elements applied to the exterior and places in the sanctuary. Yet, even in 1911, few of the assimilated Goerlitz Jews worshiped there.
Only 300 Jews remained in Goerlitz when the Nazis set the synagogue ablaze on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938. Thanks to the local firemen who disobeyed orders and extinguished the fire, it was the only synagogue in Saxony to survive. Farm animals roamed the damaged structure for years after the war, but eventually the East German government repurposed the space for public events. Genuine preservation efforts only began after the 1991 reunification. Now, thanks to efforts by Goerlitz’s 30-member Jewish community, its Christian groups and civic associations, the synagogue has been brought back to life. Known as the Cultural Forum Synagogue Goerlitz, it’s intended for both worship and performing arts, and its July 2021 opening was celebrated with a stellar concert, attended by German political leaders, clergy and other notables. Speakers included the prime minister of Saxony, Rabbi Akiva Weingarten of Dresden and the Mayor of Goerlitz.
Millions of euros for the 30-year project came from government grants, foundations and several anonymous philanthropists. Alex Jacobowitz, a cantor and president of the Goerlitz Jewish community, will pay to re-enforce the domed roof to support the Star of David. Parts of the synagogue, including the Exodus verse formerly inscribed on the lintel over the entryway—“And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them”—intentionally remain in disrepair to evoke Kristallnacht. Jacobowitz, the historian of the Goerlitz Synagogue, has observed: “I have always found it important that the synagogue has continued to show its scars …”
As much as London was pivotal to the history of Zionism for its important Jewish leaders and as the location of the signing of the Balfour Declaration, the city of Manchester is even more connected with the genesis and the fruition of this important event. In the years before World War I, Zionist leader and German émigré Chaim Weizmann, teaching at Manchester University, served as the first president of the city’s constantly growing B’nai B’rith lodge. Its members—both emigres that had come to join him, and wealthy and influential merchants and manufacturers native to this industrial city—were all supporters of Weizman’s mission, the creation of a Jewish homeland. More than any other Jewish leader in England, it was his efforts that culminated in the signing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917.
Although Manchester’s reputation as a working-class city held true for many decades, gentrification has been impacting its changing neighborhoods. Dating to 1874, its oldest synagogue, located in a warehouse enclave, served as the Manchester Jewish Museum.
Funded by a two-year Capital Development Project, the synagogue/museum was restored and the museum space was expanded into a newly constructed adjacent building, highlighted by an attractive exterior fabricated in weather resistant, patinated steel. The eight-pointed star motifs punched into the façade, intended to welcome people of all backgrounds into the museum, also serve to emanate shafts of light from the museum’s interior. Its weathered, shed-like appearance harmonizes with neighboring warehouse buildings.
In addition to revamped exhibits and innovative spaces including a kitchen for interactive cuisine demonstrations, the museum has partnered with the 2021 Manchester International Festival to commission Turner Prize-winning British artist Laure Prouvost’s “The long waited, weighted gathering,” a site-specific installation fusing video, sound, and fine and decorative arts together with found objects from the synagogue and textiles woven by Manchester’s women congregants, which can be viewed this summer in the women’s gallery. Prouvost wanted her vision to meld to “the beautiful textures and architecture, to the history of this amazing place. I was inspired by the ideas of ceremonies and rituals that we bring from histories.”
The effects of the May 2021 continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been felt around the world. With the rise of criticism against the Jewish state, a predictable wave of anti-Semitism has followed. Beyond the anonymous fringe population that spouts anti-Semitism unabashedly on the internet, a new population has emerged; it is made up of individuals who have a face—my friends, my classmates and even my teachers—and who are hiding behind Israeli politics to marginalize the Jewish community.
I had already left campus when the new wave of anti-Israel “activism” hit social media. I opened my profiles on Instagram and Twitter, and overwhelmingly found my peers reposting one-sided infographics about the conflict on their stories. Then came a very popular addition to posts: “From the river to the sea,” the Hamas terrorist group’s motto which strives for not only the eradication of Israel, but also of all Jewish people. The virality of the subject quickly turned from Pro-Palestinian to anti-Jewish, from rewriting the history of the state’s establishment to comparing Israel’s discrimination of Palestinian citizens to the Nazi regime committing the atrocities of the Holocaust.
I asked some Jewish college students for their own perspective on the issue, as well as their experience of online anti-Semitism translating to its presence at their schools. Jake Egelberg, a sophomore at Northeastern University, responded “Why should Israel be wiped off the map for discriminatory policies, while countries like Yemen, Iraq, Myanmar, China and Sudan are actively committing genocides?” and shared his own experience after publicly supporting the Jewish state.
Jake writes for his school newspaper and published an op-ed in March 2021 titled “The anti-Semitism of the Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement” for the Huntington News. The article was an elaboration of the criticism that the BDS movement singles out Israel’s political record as the world’s only Jewish state, and thus promotes anti-Semitic messaging. Jake faced a strong backlash on his posts sharing the story, including personal attacks. Huntington News elected to take down its promotions of the article on twitter, a first for the paper despite controversies surrounding other pieces going against mainstream opinions at the university.
“I worry which of the strangers around me thinks I support genocide. I fear that one day, one of these people will act on their belief,” he wrote in response to his situation. I share his worry. With the exponential rise of anti-Semitic attacks worldwide, these fears are not unfounded. Just a few weeks ago, a rabbi was stabbed outside a Jewish school by a college student in Brighton, a neighborhood west of the Northeastern campus in Boston.
It is still difficult for me to understand why all these people—people I know—continue to support a biased narrative that encourages anti-Semitic hate crimes while excusing the violent actions and violations of the other parties to the conflict. I’ve come to question whether I should be worried about going back to campus in the fall as a Jewish student. Can I mention to an acquaintance that a large part of my family was born, raised and lives in Israel? Should I hide the fact that I am hoping to do a Birthright trip to the country with my Hillel Chapter in the spring?
With the rise in tensions and violence toward Israel and Jewish people in the past months, it is unclear what the return to campus means for Jewish students like me. With universities like Pomona College beginning to refuse funding to mainstream Jewish organizations like Hillel and Chabad, safe spaces for our community on college campuses are actively threatened. Whether or not individual Jewish students support Israel, the criticisms against the state affect all of our safety and security at schools across the country. And the extent of student activism for minority groups seems to end at the Jewish community, right when it’s needed most.
Dianne Strauss works as a summer intern with B’nai B’rith International. She attends Johns Hopkins University as a rising Sophomore.
This past month we celebrated Flag Day, observed on June 14 since 1916 as the anniversary of the Stars and Stripes. The date was to coincide with the 14th of June, 1777, to honor the resolution that ordered the creation of the flag by the Second Continental Congress. The flag of the United States was to be 13 alternating red and white stripes and include 13 white stars, white on a blue background.
The flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner” is preserved at the Smithsonian, was created in 1813 and flew over Fort McHenry. There is detailed history of its creation and how it became an inspiration to Sir Francis Scott Key’s poem, which became the inspiration for our national anthem.
The flag is treated with reverence by its citizens, especially those who have served under it in the armed forces. There is always a sense of pride as the American flag is raised over a winner of a medal at the Olympics. We will be watching to see that happen, along with hoping to hear the national anthem played many times as the athletes compete in Japan this summer.
Flags and banners are part of our heritage as Jews. We remember waving them as children on Simchat Torah, celebrating the ending and beginning of reading of the Torah. In Parshas Bamidbar, we find a description of the tribes of Israel after the exodus from Egypt. It is their second year in the desert and begins with taking a census of the assembly and the designation of the leaders of the tribes. Each of these tribes would camp by their banner according to the insignias of their father’s household. They would find their territory designated by a geographic location in the east, west, north and south and would include their banners, distinguished by the color of their tribe’s flag. Their flag color corresponded to their stone color on the Kohan Gadol’s breastplate.
In B’nai B’rith we have banners with the symbol of the B’nai B’rith menorah--our insignia--and the year of our founding proudly displayed. Lodges and units have their own banner, with their name and number shown along with the B’nai B’rith menorah logo. Their names are tributes to Jewish history or a special community leader. It also may identify their physical location. They are our signposts for B’nai B’rith around the world.
If these banners could talk, they would tell of the times they have been proudly carried at rallies and protests. They have served at parades to support Israel and other causes for the Jewish community. They appear in ballrooms and meeting rooms as part of events that are held by B’nai B’rith. I recall the room filled to capacity at district conventions with delegates, surrounded by their district, lodge and council banners hung around the border as décor. I also remember the flag parade at the B’nai B’rith International conventions, when the flags representing the delegations from around the world were brought into the ballroom as part of the opening ceremonies. The internationality continues to bring this visual to B’nai B’rith when we host ambassadors from other countries to address our gatherings. The flag of their country is proudly displayed alongside the American and Israel flags.
As our hearts break for the victims of the Surfside, Florida building collapse, we were proud to see the arrival of the IDF’s search and rescue team to help American workers and other international teams with the recovery efforts. They are the experts in engineering and have been to other disasters around the world, proudly wearing the flag of Israel on their sleeves.
We are proud of the B’nai B’rith South Florida Unit president, Gina Strauss, and her dedicated team, who collected and delivered supplies for the families and first responders.
On the same day, the Isadore Garsek Lodge in Fort Worth, Texas was honored by KRLD News Radio 1080 as a “difference maker” for feeding first responders at fire stations, police departments and hospitals and 911 operators during the pandemic. A photo of the B’nai B’rith volunteers posing with their banner shows their pride and commitment to the mission of B’nai B’rith. Long may their banner be the representation of the mission to make a difference in the world in the name of B’nai B’rith.
B'nai B'rith International has widely respected experts in the fields of: