By Rachel Chasin
Seven high school students became published authors this year, earning a collective $20,000 to help pay for college through the B’nai B’rith Diverse Minds Writing Challenge.
Since 2006 B’nai B’rith International has been promoting tolerance and diversity through this program, which asks high school students to create children’s books that educate young people on the importance of accepting other people’s differences, cultures and ideals.
The student author/illustrators tackle tough topics that resonate with them and hopefully will encourage younger students to be more open-minded, tolerant and accepting.
At the Washington, D.C., award ceremony, on June 7, illustrator Shadra Strickland addressed the finalists and spoke about her professional journey and how perseverance is the only way to achieve one’s goals.
“The dream doesn’t always look the way it does in your head, but trust your gut, believe in yourselves, and keep living the dream,” said Strickland. “Live the most inclusive life that you can. As hard and painful as it is to create, it is also one of the greatest and rarest joys that most people never experience.”
The contest, with the help from outside sponsors, was held this year in four areas along the East Coast: Washington, D.C., New York, South Jersey and the Delmarva Peninsula. First place winners in each city received a $5,000 college scholarship and had their book professionally published.
B’nai B’rith prints thousands of copies of each winning book and donates them to local schools, libraries and places such as Boys and Girls clubs. Winning books are also accessible on iTunes and Amazon as a free download. The books can also be found at the B’nai B’rith website: bnaibrith.org/diverse-minds.
Winners are chosen by a panel of judges from the worlds of education, business, the arts and government, in addition to B’nai B’rith International leaders.
“For the last nearly 30 years, I have traveled the world on behalf of B’nai B’rith, and I have met with world leaders, peoples of all cultures, backgrounds and beliefs, and the worst of what I have seen always stems from a foundation of intolerance, bigotry and narrow-mindedness,” said B’nai B’rith International CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin. “So, it is always heartening to see the idealism, hope and conviction of this next generation and the young people who participate in the Diverse Minds Writing Challenge. It is needed now more than ever, and it is why we at B’nai B’rith are so committed to this program and the substance that it conveys.”
The winning students’ teachers each received $1,000 to use for classroom or organizational materials, and the schools received $500.
Second-place winners received $2,000 college scholarships, and those who placed third received $1,000.
“Since its inception, the Diverse Minds Writing Challenge has given talented students a unique opportunity to spread the message of diversity and inclusion through their own personal lenses and has allowed them to capture the subject in a way that can inspire the younger generations that follow,” said Donna Cooper, region president of Pepco, the electric utility, a subsidiary of Exelon, which sponsored the Washington, D.C., contest.
Ariya Feng, a student at Thomas Wootton High School in Rockville, Md., won the Washington, D.C.-area competition. Her book, “What Makes Me Beautiful,” chronicles a class of children assigned to find a trait that celebrates their unique identities. One child speaks of her dark curly hair. Another talks about his Asperger’s syndrome. A student named Bill tells his classmates that he’s proud that his mom is Mexican and that his dad is Chinese. In the end, the children learn that everyone shines in their own way, and that it’s great to be unique.
“I want to promote tolerance [and] diversity to influence the younger generations, especially because they are going to be our future,” Feng said. “I just really hope that my book shows that race, religion [and gender] shouldn’t be an issue, and everyone should be treated the same. I hope that when people read this they feel like they belong wherever they are.”
Yingchao He and Trinh Nguyen, who wrote and illustrated “I’m Going to Be Me,” were honored with the top prize in the New York contest on June 21 at an award ceremony at the Actors Temple Theatre in Manhattan. In their book, a student named Ralph must make the brave decision to be himself, despite one of his peers teasing him for wanting to dress up as a ballerina for Halloween. Soon, all the children in Ralph’s class learn that they can be whatever they want to be, as long as they are staying true to themselves.
The New York ceremony included a panel discussion. “These Diverse Minds: Tolerance & Inclusion Practices for the Next Generation” focused on equal rights, inclusion and justice and ways to promote these ideas in schools, homes and communities. The panel was sponsored by First Data, a payment technology company; the New York City-area contest was funded by an anonymous donor.
For the Delmarva contest, Carly Palkon and Alexa Scotto, students from Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Del., were recognized at the Delmarva Conference Center on June 5 for their book “Cami’s Secret Talent.” Delmarva Power, a subsidiary of Exelon, sponsored this leg of the contest.
In Palkon and Scotto’s book, a lion named Cami excels at climbing, jumping and swimming, but she is mediocre at running. Cami becomes anxious when she discovers she will have to take a skills test at school that includes running. Eventually, Cami, with the help of her friends, realizes that it’s okay not to be good at something, as long as you try your best.
“Neat and Orderly,” written and illustrated by Naomi Amadoro and Brianna Groch, won the South Jersey contest, which was sponsored by Atlantic City Electric, a subsidiary of Exelon. The authors, who attend Clearview Regional High School in Mullica Hill, N.J., were honored on June 6 at Atlantic City Electric’s regional headquarters.
In their story, classmates Avery and Noah can’t seem to get along. Avery finds Noah annoying and doesn’t understand why he has to have things a certain way. One day, Avery accidentally knocks Noah’s pens onto the floor, which upsets Noah deeply, and Avery doesn’t understand why. Their teacher intervenes and asks Noah to explain to Avery why he needs to have his pens placed perfectly on his desk. Avery soon understands that her classmate has obsessive compulsive disorder, and she becomes more accepting of other people’s differences.
“We believe that it’s very important to accept everyone, both with outward appearances, and also any unseen characteristics such as mental facility,” the authors said.
“With this story, we hope to raise the awareness of mental disorders and help children to understand and accept others for all that they are.”
Since the 2006-2007 school year, B’nai B’rith has published 37 original children’s books (including one in Spanish), awarded more than $300,000 in college scholarships and grants and donated 42,000 books to public schools, libraries and community organizations across the country, including to the TODAY Show’s holiday toy drive.
Submission details and deadlines for next year’s contest will be posted this fall at www.bnaibrith.org/diverse-minds.
By Felice Caspar
During the spring and summer of 2017, golfers around North America have been enjoying events that benefit both B’nai B’rith and their communities. Some have been not-to-miss annual events for decades; others are relatively new. But all are success stories with great, innovative elements and beneficial partnerships in these five communities: Washington, D.C., Detroit, Toronto, Chicago and Denver.
For several years, B’nai B’rith has been proud to be one of the sponsors of “Shot in the Dark,” hosted by the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind (CLB). The fifth annual Shot in the Dark Golf and Dinner Classic was held at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Md., on May 9, with financial support from corporations and organizations, and enthusiastic involvement by local government leaders and media personalities. In addition to the tournament, the event includes an auction, award presentations and a longest-drive contest. But what sets this event apart is the opportunity for golfers who are blind or visually impaired to participate in a golf clinic hosted by nationally renowned blind golfing champions Phil Blackwell, Mark Arnold and Bruce Hooper.
Mark D. Olshan, B’nai B’rith associate executive vice president and Center for Senior Services director, plays in the tournament and also is a member of an interfaith coalition formed by the CLB. Working with other organizations, the CLB offers informative programs on eyesight-related challenges to residents of local senior communities, including B’nai B’rith Homecrest House and nearby Leisure World.
“These programs and especially the golf clinics demonstrate that people with vision loss can overcome obstacles and remain active and independent—and even excel in ways they had not dared to imagine,” said Olshan.
Next on the calendar, on June 5, was the Great Lakes Region B’nai B’rith Annual Golf Classic, which the B’nai B’rith community in suburban Detroit has sponsored for 35 years. Golf Classic chairman David Lubin welcomed the 90 golfers, first thanking overall event sponsor, MJS Packaging, and the 32 individual sponsors. Great Lakes Region President Sid Roth recognized local community leaders present, thanked the B’nai B’rith event committee and B’nai B’rith Program Coordinator Bobbie Levine. “Big Al” Muskovitz, a local radio personality, served as the dinner emcee. Rick Sherline and Ilene Lubin, two of the Scholarship Committee chairs, presented Danielle Silverman, Rachel Pesick and Jason Jubas with the 2017 B’nai B’rith Great Lakes Regional College Scholarships.
Proceeds from the tournament fees, silent auction, raffles for a cruise and other prizes, and the festive dinner, which attracts still more participants, are used to support B’nai B’rith International, local BBYO and Hillel, and scholarships.
In just its second year, the B’nai B’rith Canada annual Charity Golf Classic was held on June 13 at the Lebovic Golf Club in Aurora, Ont. The event attracted more than 100 golfers and included an 18-hole tournament and tests of skill, a luncheon buffet, Scotch and beer tastings, and the chance to meet celebrity guests Toronto Maple Leafs star Zach Hyman and NHL greats Rick Vaive, Gary Leeman and Marcel Dionne. The post-tournament dinner was emceed by NHL great and renowned comedian Dennis Hull.
Proceeds from the Golf Classic support B’nai B’rith Canada’s affordable housing and seniors programs, as well as its advocacy efforts fighting racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination in Canada. “It was a great day of golf in support of B’nai B’rith and all the human-rights initiatives we’ve launched across the country,” said B’nai B’rith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn. He also thanked staff, committee members, event sponsors and “countless volunteers” for putting together the event. The event was co-chaired by B’nai B’rith Canada leader David Berger and Marty York, chief media officer.
Mostyn spent most of his day on the “Beat the CEO” hole, where golfers had the opportunity to win prizes if they could outshoot him. A two-year lease on a 2017 Lincoln Navigator provided by the Twin Hills dealership was the much sought-after prize for the hole-in-one contest. But no one left empty-handed. All Classic participants received free golf shoes, courtesy of Footjoy.
Zach Hyman received an exceptionally warm welcome. A former participant in the B’nai B’rith Canada Sports League, NHL rookie Hyman is now a star player for the Maple Leafs. A graduate of the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, Hyman is a proud member of the Jewish community.
NHL Hall-of-Famer Marcel Dionne explained why he supports the Golf Classic. “It’s the fact that B’nai B’rith is involved with so many different charities and is very proactive with seniors. I’ve got a lot of Jewish friends, and they do a lot for the community, so it’s my pleasure to be here,” he said.
Two other golf events were scheduled for this summer. The annual B’nai B’rith Sports Lodge Bill Stein Memorial golf outing was to be held on August 14 at Hawthorn Woods Country Club, in suburban Chicago. “The Bill Stein Memorial golf outing is our signature event of the year,” said Brad Adolph, chair of the tournament and a member of the B’nai B’rith Executive Board of Directors. All proceeds go to college scholarships for Chicago-area students—well over $2 million since1964. “We welcome over 100 players each year and welcome many of our past scholarship recipients to the event,” Adolph said.
B’nai B’rith Denver also planned once again to co-sponsor an annual golf charity tournament with JCC Denver and the Denver Jewish Chamber of Commerce on Aug. 28. The event was to be held at the Valley Country Club, in suburban Centennial. William “Bill” Berger, B’nai B’rith Board of Governors member and Denver Lodge leader, serves as chair.
By Mark D. Olshan
Associate Executive Vice President, B’nai B’rith International
I don’t know if I’ve ever felt invisible. In my professional life, I’ve been noticed, if not always admired; integral, if not always appreciated. I was lucky as a young man to have had a successful time in school, to meet women I liked and who actually liked me. I served in the military in an area that was relatively safe and fascinating.
I’ve been lucky to be a mentor, a friend, a son, a husband, a father and now a grandfather, and yet, I have never really been what you would think of as a caregiver. I have never known what it is like to bear that burden, to try to balance the competing needs of my job and a loved one’s needs. I am lucky that my parents haven’t needed that kind of attention.
But I do know people who have taken on these challenges. When I offer my admiration, they often confide that they feel invisible.
It’s strange how we let that happen, because we see the impact of family caregivers everywhere, every day. We all have friends who rush from work to visit an elderly parent before cooking dinner for their own kids. We know parents who have had to re-imagine their lives when confronted with the truth that a child may never be able to live independently.
I have friends who have had to rethink their own lifestyles when confronted with the illness of a spouse, a parent, or even worse, both parents. I know of women (who still do most of the family caregiving in this country) who have taken care of their own parents and their in-laws, while still working and raising their own kids.
I see them, and I admire them, and, yet, they often feel invisible.
For years, I have been part of a senior advocacy community that has focused (though never enough) on family caregiving without myself really ever having to perform those tasks. I suppose I experience some of it as I begin to watch over my father, making sure he has a way to communicate in case of emergency. But, frankly, it seems like very little compared with what I’ve seen some of my friends go through.
The Perfect Arrangement … Until
Take for instance a good friend, who I will call Barbara. She is a middle-aged woman with three young children. For the first few years of her children’s lives, her parents lived with her, helping to take care of them. It seemed like the perfect multigenerational arrangement—her parents were thrilled to have 24/7 access to the kids, and daycare was essentially free. Basically, her parents were the ones doing the family caregiving.
Then, over the course of one year, both parents became incapacitated by illness and, in the case of her mother, severe dementia. Abruptly, gone were the carefree days of on-call babysitters, replaced instead with paperwork, medical worries, hospitalizations, juggling the competing needs of both kids and her parents!
Barbara looks more or less the same, but she says she feels much older.
Luckily, her job is flexible, allowing her to visit her mother in the nursing home on days when she can work from home, or to await hospital discharges for her father. She often feels as if her life is consumed with worry and care, and more worry. And, I dare say, she is one of the “lucky” ones. She had the knowledge and the wherewithal to access the right tools at the right time. Additionally, she didn’t have to take any unpaid leave, and her spouse has been engaged and supportive.
But I wonder what it would be like for her without the support of her spouse, employer and friends. And yet, many people in her situation simply don’t have those advantages.
The Burdens of Uncompensated Care
AARP estimates that uncompensated care provided by family members for older adults, or for disabled or sick kids, would cost nearly half a trillion dollars if we had to pay other people to do it. Whether we know it or not, as a country, we still rely on families to do this work. But people do this work out of love, and most wouldn’t take money to do it, even if we had it to offer. Yet, they often have other needs we can, and should, be meeting.
So, why is caregiving so hard?
Family caregivers are usually short on time. Many are women in their middle age, which just so happens to be their prime earning years, who often also have children at home (demanding their time) or in college (demanding their money).
Something has to give when there are so many needs and limited time. We do know that it’s the health of the caregiver that most often gets lost. And research shows that caregivers are more likely to become physically ill during the course of the year.
The stress on caregivers is intense.
In addition to being asked to do more in a day than one person possibly can, caregivers experience a range of emotions—from grief to resentment—and they often don’t even think to reach out for support for themselves.
Walking in Barbara’s Shoes
If you have never been in Barbara’s shoes, think about your daily responsibilities and stresses at work and running your household. Then imagine the situation has changed overnight. Now you are overseeing another to-do list of errands and home maintenance, paying a second pile of bills, and scheduling, re-scheduling and driving to umpteen more medical appointments. Yes, there are many businesses eager to assist, but vetting and booking these takes time you don’t have, and funds that may be scarce. Or, picture a loved one with mobility challenges that demand reconfiguration of their two-story home—or maybe a spare room in your home must be transformed from your sanctuary to a bedroom.
Are you stressed out yet?
In polling women I know who have found themselves wishing they could be cloned to be in two or three places at once, they offered some advice on how friends and family can help. We are all quick to ask, “Is there anything I can do?” But these superwomen don’t relish asking for a helping hand and really don’t want to ask for a favor and be told no. If you offer, follow your expression of concern with a specific idea or two, be it helping with transportation, paperwork, accepting deliveries or assembling or re-arranging furniture. And, be realistic about what you really can do to ease the burden.
Not helpful is when empathy veers into a long conversation about the well-wisher’s own experience in handling these burdens. Or when healthcare staff assume there are other siblings or adult children available to help. In today’s world with smaller families whose members may live far apart, we need to recognize the need for support systems.
If the resources are there, we know that family caregivers can be less stressed and more effective. But resources are spotty and elusive. So we know how to help as family and friends, but what more can we do? As advocates, we can:
But, most of all, we can talk about it. Don’t let family caregivers you know…remain invisible.
Mark D. Olshan, who holds a doctorate in psychology, is the Director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services as well as Associate Executive Vice President of B’nai B’rith International.
By Dina Gold
“Wir wollen raus!” (“We want out!”)
That’s what East German protesters were shouting as they used hammers to chip away at the Berlin Wall in late 1989. I remember it clearly. At home, in London, I watched these momentous events on television—the end of Soviet Union’s control of Eastern Europe and the collapse of Communism.
As East Berliners streamed toward the bright lights of West Berlin, childhood memories flooded back to my grandmother Nellie and the stories she had told. She was long dead, but I vividly recalled trips to art galleries and museums in London with her—usually ending our day in a patisserie opposite Harrods department store. Over coffee and cream cakes, she reminisced about her glamorous life in prewar Berlin, telling me, “When the Wall comes down, and we get back our building in Berlin, we’ll be rich.”
The building she longed to reclaim had been the commercial headquarters of the H. Wolff fur company, founded by my great-great-grandfather Heimann Wolff in 1850. By the early 1900s, it had become one of the largest fur companies in Germany. As a child, my mother was allowed to bounce up and down on the piles of pelts stored in the basement. “You can jump on the rabbit, but you mustn’t jump on the ermine and you mustn’t jump on the mink!” her father warned.
My mother’s childhood had been opulent. The family had lived in a grand villa, at Conradstrasse 1, in the upscale Berlin suburb of Wannsee. Their home was a 10-minute walk from the mansion where, in January 1942, Nazi bureaucrats had held what is now known as the “Wannsee Conference” to coordinate plans for the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.”
In summer 1933, not long after Hitler came to power, Nellie fled with her husband, Herbert Wolff, and three children—my mother being the eldest—to the British Mandate of Palestine. From a life of luxury in prewar Berlin to near penury thereafter, she never gave up hope of one day reclaiming “the building” and being able to live in comfort again. In 1936, aged 14, my mother had been sent alone to high school in England. When war broke out, needing a roof over her head, she became a nurse and worked through the Blitz, the German bombing in 1940 and 1941. Later she went to university, got married, had two children and made a new life for herself.
Moving Forward and Looking Back
The stunning events of 1989 captivated the world. Who would have thought the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe would collapse so fast? Nellie died in 1977, leaving no documents, photos or even an address of the building she had longed for. I asked my mother what she knew. “Forget it,” she’d say. A firm believer in living in the here and now, she had no time for Nellie’s stories—which she viewed as mere fairy tales.
But who was I to “forget” my family history? Had Nellie been a fantasist, or did the building really exist? Was Nellie right saying it had belonged to the family and had the Nazis stolen it? I needed to find out.
It helped that I was a BBC investigative journalist. Finding information was second nature. I talked about it with my husband, Simon, a foreign correspondent with the Financial Times, and we both agreed as journalists, this was a great story.
As luck would have it, in 1990 I was assigned to a small BBC team covering the first post-reunification German elections. A young German researcher was hired to help. Within days, he found a 1920s equivalent of the Yellow Pages with an entry for the H. Wolff fur company and an address—Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin.
In early December 1990, I was in Bonn for the BBC’s live broadcast of the election. Following Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union party’s win, I took a few days leave and flew to Berlin.
After a night in a small hotel, I hailed a cab and gave the address to the driver. Two blocks beyond Checkpoint Charlie, the former main crossing point between the American and Soviet sectors, we stopped in front of a huge building with the German flag fluttering in the wind. Large plaques on the wall declared it was the Berlin office of the Federal Ministry of Transport. It was six stories high and stretched back to Schützenstrasse, the parallel street behind it. Despite its grubby exterior, it was impressive with its distinctive architectural design, including delicate little carvings around the archway at the back.
It was starting to snow, but my red duffel coat and black woolly hat kept me warm. I marched in and asked to speak to whoever was in charge. A senior manager was summoned and asked me what I wanted. “I’ve come to claim my family’s building,” I declared. The man laughed at me! But then I showed him the page from the business directory with the entry “H. Wolff,” who, I explained, was my great-great grandfather. He told me to come inside and wait while he phoned the head office in Bonn.
Twenty minutes later, he returned a changed man. An official at the Transport Ministry in Bonn had told him it was known the building at Krausenstrasse 17/18 had once belonged to Jews, but no one knew if anyone had survived the war. Those who worked there still called it the “Wolff Building” but claimed they didn’t know why. So I told him my story. When I finished, he said: “You must get this building back for your mother; you must.” I then confessed to him that I had no documents to prove ownership, but he replied: “Oh, these documents exist. You have to find them, but they exist.” It was the impetus I needed to get started.
The Battle Begins
And that’s how my six-year legal fight for restitution began. I worked on many stories during my career at the BBC, but this one was personal. The way I saw it, this was my heritage. I was about to make some startling discoveries.
I was fortunate that my husband supported me wholeheartedly in my quest; the rest of my family was far from enthusiastic. My father asked who I thought I was to think I could take on the German government and win.
We had some lucky breaks. Most significant was that the building survived the war intact. Many in central Berlin were flattened by Allied bombing or so badly damaged they had to be knocked down. (The next-door neighbor, Krausenstrasse 16, had taken a direct hit and, in December 1990, was a mere pile of rubble. Today it is a parking lot.)
There were three key legal issues in mounting a claim for restitution:
Had the building been owned by the Wolff family—as Nellie had always claimed—or had it been rented? Secondly, was the building, in legal terms, forcibly sold during the Nazi era? Thirdly, was my mother an inheritor?
I found a 1910 edition of a German architectural magazine with photos and an article about how, in 1908 my great grandfather Victor Wolff (Nellie’s father-in-law) bought land in central Berlin, in the heart of the once-thriving Jewish fashion district, and built the new headquarters of the H. Wolff fur business.
There were plenty of adventures in the course of digging up evidence. One of the most exciting was speeding across East Berlin in a taxi to track down a young lawyer living in a dirty tenement block who, acting on behalf of a New York property developer interested in bidding for the building, had a copy of the land registry document charting ownership of Krausenstrasse 17/18. In those days, ordinary members of the public could not access records in the Grundbuch (Land Registry)—only lawyers could. Spotting a chance to make some easy money, he demanded $200 to part with the precious notarized papers. Simon handed him the cash and we made a swift exit from his apartment. The money had bought us decisive evidence. We were elated. Nellie had been right.
The documents revealed that the Wolff family had indeed owned the property and that in 1937 the Victoria Insurance Co., claiming incorrectly that mortgage payments weren’t being made, foreclosed on the mortgage and handed the building straight to the Reichsbahn (German Railways) without putting it up for auction to the highest bidder. This was all too common and yet perfectly legal given Nazi anti-Semitic laws. That this was blatant persecution became crystal clear when I discovered that the owners of Krausenstrasse 19/20 (immediately next door) had received over 40 percent more per square meter after defaulting on their mortgage. These people had been Prussians—not Jews.
Following the Paper Trail
In November 1948, the Communist Soviet authorities had put an addendum to the Land Registry document stating unequivocally that the building had been taken from Jews and should not be sold until its ownership was clarified. Indeed, in 1948, the Soviet occupation government actually classified the Victoria insurance company as “Nazi and war-criminals” (Nazi und Kriegsverbrecher). From the end of the 1940s until 1990, this had been the headquarters of the East German Railways.
The British National Archives held a 1944 War Office booklet, marked “Confidential” and entitled “Who’s Who in Nazi Germany,” listing the Victoria’s chairman, Kurt Hamann, as one of the key personalities in Hitler’s regime.
The political gymnastics of Hamann were extraordinary. Under his leadership, the Victoria had deprived the Wolff family of the building so that the Reichsbahn could have it for a particular reason. Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, was redesigning central Berlin, and the Railways needed somewhere to house the architects enacting his plans to make Berlin the Führer’s grand capital. Other parts of the Reichsbahn later transported millions of Jews to the death camps.
I discovered much more about Hamann and the Victoria Insurance Company. During the Nazi era, the Victoria had been complicit in Nazi crimes, foreclosing on multiple Jewish-owned properties across Berlin. Even worse, it was part of a consortium insuring SS-owned slave labor workshops at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Stutthof concentration camps. The Victoria omits any mention of such unsavory details from its published histories. Hamann continued as chairman of the company until 1968, and, we discovered, in 1953, he was awarded West Germany’s highest civilian honor—the Federal Cross of Merit.
Hamann was such a respectable figure that, in 1979, the Victoria established a foundation in his name at the University of Mannheim in southern Germany. The Victoria is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the ERGO Insurance Group, itself owned by Munich Re, one of the world’s premier reinsurers.
Proving whether my mother was a legal inheritor meant finding birth, marriage and death certificates and, crucially, wills. The German reputation for punctilious record keeping proved correct. Although it took time and effort, all the necessary documents could be found in various local courts, proving, yet again, that Nellie had been right all along. She was a named inheritor, as was my mother in her own right.
The German Concession
In 1996, the German government conceded that the 1937 so-called “sale” would not have occurred had the Nazis not come to power. Legally, it was ours again. By then, it housed the new German Ministry of Transport, and the government wanted to retain ownership. My mother and her siblings accepted payment of the full market value, $14 million.
After reading “Stolen Legacy” and learning of my discoveries, Mannheim University President Ernst-Ludwig von Thadden told me in June 2016 that he was considering shutting down the foundation. That hasn’t happened, yet. But in February this year, he informed me he had commissioned an historian—at a cost of $21,000—to investigate Hamann’s life. That report, due in August, will inform the university’s decision on the future of the foundation.
Today the building is home to the German Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety. Last July I achieved a long-held ambition—to have a plaque affixed to the front entrance. The back archway to the building on Schützenstrasse is still adorned with the original carvings, dating to 1910.
Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse
edition published November 2016
By Rita Rubin
To use an overworked real estate term, the house at 77 Prof. Dondersstraat, a tree-lined thoroughfare in the Dutch city of Tilburg, had “good bones.”
Built in 1927, the spacious home was designed in the “Hague Style,” a restrained interpretation of Art Deco characterized by strong lines. It had oak and mahogany parquet floors and oak shutters. Its leaded glass windows resembled the work of the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian in the 1920s—geometric designs composed of straight vertical and horizontal lines with only a few spots of color. The dining room opened onto a terrace and garden.
But the house was more than 70 years old and in disrepair when historian Arnoud-Jan Bijsterveld and his spouse, anesthesiologist Hans Harbers, bought it in 2000. As they prepared to update their home, the couple obtained a copy of the original building plans from the municipality of Tilburg. Bijsterveld couldn’t help but notice the name of the original owner in one corner: M.H. Polak.
For Bijsterveld, the name was the starting point of a quest. He knew that Polak was one of the most common Jewish family names in the Netherlands. He wondered what had been the fate of the Jews who had eaten in his dining room and enjoyed a view of the garden from his terrace? Did they perish in the Holocaust, as did more than two-thirds of the 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands in 1940? If the house had been seized by the Nazis, had the Polak family been fully compensated after the war?
As a historian born and raised in the Netherlands, he had to find out. His research culminated in the publication last December of the aptly titled book “House of Memories: Uncovering the Past of a Dutch Jewish Family.” He might have added a subtitle—“and the Present”—as he has also reached out to surviving family members and their descendants.
“What’s unusual is that this man wrote a book,” says Judith Gerson, a Holocaust scholar at Rutgers University. “There are many published memoirs of the Holocaust that are family histories. But the fact that the author is able to place the story in the house and use the house as a vehicle to tell the story, that strikes me as exceptional.”
Explains Bijsterveld, 55: “The history of the Dutch Jews has been part of my upbringing. My grandparents spoke a lot about their war experience.” His late mother talked about a kindergarten classmate in her convent-run school—a Jewish girl who, to evade the Nazis, assumed a new name and identity. “This is not just the Anne Frank story. It’s wider.”
Bijsterveld is a medievalist, not a Holocaust scholar, so he turned to his colleagues for help in tracking down information about the family. One, Jan Bader, was writing a book about the history of Jewish cemeteries in the region. It turns out that Bader had studied the life of Alfred Polak, a Zionist in Tilburg who was the brother of Max Henri “Hans” Polak, the man whose name Bijsterveld had noticed on the house plans. The men were partners in a leather hides company.
Bader told him that the Polak families had escaped to New York in 1940 and suggested he talk with Ernst Elzas, one of the few Jews still living in Tilburg after the war, which he survived by going into hiding.
It turned out that Elzas had gone to school with Bertram Polak, the popular only son and eldest child of Hans Polak and his wife Bertha. From Elzas, Bijsterveld learned that Bertram had been killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942. He was 24. He had been separated from his family because of his military service, and, when he returned home in May 1940, he found a vacant house. He tried to escape with three friends, but they were all betrayed and murdered.
Bijsterveld met Elzas in 2003. He found more information about Bertram in the central database of Shoah victims at Yad Vashem, but his attempts to locate and connect with surviving family members were unsuccessful. In 2005, he put aside his search.
His interest was rekindled in 2010—the year Elzas died—when the first “stumbling stones” were laid in Tilburg. The bronze stumbling stones, embedded in front of homes formerly occupied by Jews, serve as individual memorials to Holocaust victims.
“When I embarked on my search for the Polak family... I feared that not much would be left in the sense of living memories and material documents and objects,” 70 years after the Polaks had left the Netherlands, he writes in the prologue of his book. “What and who could be left to know who these people had been, what had happened to them, and how their lives had been before, during, and after the Holocaust?”
Medievalist Meets Genealogist
Enter Steve Jaron, 38, who lives in his native Pittsburgh. He became interested in family history at age 13 on his first trip to Israel, where he met relatives of his maternal grandmother, Judith Rothstein-Polak. An assignment for a college class to make a family tree led him to explore his ancestry.
In September 2010, he noticed that someone named Arnoud-Jan Bijsterveld had recently posted information on an online profile of Bertram Polak, his grandmother’s first cousin. The profile was part of a website called the Joods (Jewish) Monument, maintained by Amsterdam’s Jewish Cultural Quarter, which includes the Jewish Historical Museum and the National Holocaust Museum.
The Joods Monument is a digital tribute to the more than 104,000 Dutch Jews who were persecuted and died during the Holocaust.
Jaron wondered whether this Bijsterveld fellow might be a long-lost relative. They exchanged emails, and the genealogist introduced the historian to the rest of his family. That included his grandmother Judith and her two older sisters, Adah Cohn-Polak and Edith Spitz-Polak, who had made aliyah after fleeing the Netherlands with their parents, Alfred and Fien. The sisters had lived with their parents two doors down from Bertram’s family and immigrated to Israel. “I was very close to my uncle’s family,” recalls Judith, a sharp 93-year-old widow who lives in Pittsburgh. “They were like sisters and a brother. We were in and out of each other’s houses.”
Jaron also put Bijsterveld in touch with his great aunt Constance “Connie” Victor-Polak, Bertram’s half-sister, the only child of Hans Polak and his second wife, Charlotte Elias, more than 20 years his junior. Connie, who now lives in Philadelphia, was born in New York in 1941, when her father was 53.
“From very early on, I knew that they had escaped. I knew there had to be relatives somewhere,” Bijsterveld says of Bertram’s family. “It was only after Steve Jaron contacted me that I found out there were so many relatives. It was very overwhelming. As a medievalist, you never experience the people you research. From the very first moment, they allowed me to ask everything. “
Of course, as Judith’s sister Adah told him, “We first checked you out on the Internet.”
Bertram’s relatives were full of questions. “Sometimes it’s easier if an outsider starts to do the research,” Bijsterveld says. “I’m really grateful to this family. They allowed me to do that, and they shared anything they knew.”
Connie Victor-Polak calls Bijsterveld “a blessing.” “This is his field, history, so he knows how to research. We’ve been very fortunate in that the cousins who lived through this all have very sharp minds with great memories of details.”
Hans died at age 54 in 1942, when Connie was only a year old. “My supposition is that he died of a broken heart. Obviously, father must have been very close to Bertram. He was the prince of the family. My father apparently sent [Bertram] money and a ticket for a ship from London to America, and that ticket was returned.” That must have been when her father’s worst fears about his son were realized, she said. Connie’s mother never remarried. She died in 1991 at the age of 80.
No one talked about Bertram when Connie was growing up. She didn’t learn about him until she was a teenager and one of her sisters mentioned him. He would have been more than 20 years older than she was. The next-born, Connie’s sister Florentine, was three years younger than Bertram, and their twin sisters, Louise and Leonie, were two years younger than Florentine. Louise and Leonie died of heart disease at age 45 and 32, respectively.
Beri Kravitz, the youngest of Judith’s three daughters, was always surprised by her mother’s and aunts’ lack of bitterness about their war experiences. “She would talk more about, oh, this is what it was like in school, or this is how we celebrated the holidays. Kind of the fond memories. A little bit melancholy, but never bitter. I don’t understand how they could be like that.”
But then the 52-year-old Kravitz, a mother of four who lives in suburban Washington, D.C., answers her own question. “The story that we always grew up with, the narrative of our family, is we were so fortunate. We have this huge family in Israel. We really survived this largely intact.”
After the war, ownership of the houses of the late Hans Polak and his brother, Alfred Polak, was rapidly restored to their families. Both houses had been rented out to help solve the severe housing shortage. In 1947, Alfred and his wife, Fien, moved back into their home at 73 Prof. Dondersstraat. They remained there until Alfred’s death in 1956, at 72, after which Fien joined Adah and Edith and their families in Israel.
A Mezuzah and a Stumbling Stone
As soon as he realized that a Jewish family had built his home, Bijsterveld bought a mezuzah to attach near the front door. Given that the family’s name was Polak, he selected a replica of a 19th-century Polish mezuzah from New York’s Jewish Museum. “There is no scroll in it, to symbolize that the Jewish identity was no longer there,” Bijsterveld says.
A mezuzah wasn’t enough, though. Even before he found Bertram’s family, he began investigating what it would take to get a stumbling stone installed in the brick sidewalk in front of his house to memorialize the young man.
Stumbling stones, or “Stolpersteine,” were conceived by a non-Jewish German artist named Gunter Demnig to honor anyone, Jewish or not, who was persecuted or murdered by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. The name of the mini-monuments reportedly refers to an anti-Semitic German saying that predates the Holocaust. When a non-Jew stumbled on a protruding stone, he or she would say, “a Jew was probably buried here.”
Each 4-inch-square stone bears a brass plate with the heading “Here Lived” and an individual’s name; birth year; date of arrest, if applicable; the name of the camp in which they were detained; the year in which they were deported to a concentration camp; and the date of their murder. The stones are usually placed in the sidewalk in front of the last place the individual lived by choice. More than 60,000 stumbling stones have been laid in more than 1,800 places in 21 countries.
Florentine Piel-Polak, the oldest of Hans Polak’s daughters, died eight days before the April 2011 ceremony marking the installation of Bertram’s stumbling stone in front of 77 Prof. Dondersstraat. Florentine was nearly 90 and suffered from Alzheimer’s, so she did not know about the Dutch historian who worked so hard to help preserve the memory of her older brother.
Bertram’s stumbling stone was laid by his nephew, Alfred “Fred” Piel, Florentine’s only child, assisted by two of his Aunt Connie’s grandchildren. The ceremony marked the first time the 62-year-old Fred, an internist in Springfield, Mass., had ever met his mother’s cousins or any of their children or grandchildren. And before that trip to Tilburg, he had met Judith only once, when he was a child.
“Both my wife and I were just totally entranced with these three women,” Fred recalls, noting that he felt “an instant connection” with them and their families, as he did with Bijsterveld and Harbers, his spouse. Bijsterveld’s research into the Polak family, leading up to the stumbling stone ceremony for Bertram, was documented in a 2012 short Dutch film called “Here Was Bertram,” which can be viewed on YouTube.
Florentine had fallen out of touch with her cousins after marrying Fred’s father, Kurt Piel, a non-Jewish native of Germany who immigrated to the United States in 1929 and worked as a barkeeper. “Although she always identified as a Jew culturally, she stopped identifying as a Jew religiously,” says Fred, who was baptized as a baby and confirmed in the Congregational Church when he was 13. While Florentine was their only Jewish grandparent, two of Fred’s three sons have taken Birthright trips to Israel.
Fred’s father served in the U.S. Army during the war, while his paternal grandfather was a German soldier. “In some ways, I’m obsessed by the war in Europe. Half of my family was doing these horrible things to the other half of my family. It was always very much in my mind that I had this uncle who
As the years pass, fewer remember the flesh-and-blood Bertram, the young man who preferred sports to books and named his dog “Tarzan.” His cousin Edith suffered a stroke in December 2015 and died two days later. Adah’s husband, Alfred Cohn, had survived the Monowitz concentration camp; he died last November at 95.
To make sure that Polak descendants will be able to read about their ancestors, Bijsterveld wrote “House of Memories” in English, although he plans to write an abridged version in Dutch.
The original English version is more than 600 heavily footnoted pages long and filled with photos. “At some point, you really have to say stop, and I reached that point about a year and a half ago,” Bijsterveld says. “This will be the book that will end up on all the relatives’ bookshelves. This has to include everything.”
By Jen Lovy
All photos by Jen Lovy
In 1978, Carol Moss wrote to her daughter Marsha Moss Linehan right after a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. She described the beauty of the land, the strength of the Israeli people and the powerful connection she felt to the country. She concluded the note with: “My dream is for you to one day see the land of Israel.”
Linehan, who lives in San Diego, speculated that her mother knew she was dying when she penned the note. She passed away the following year. Linehan held on to the letter and clung to her mother’s dream for 35 years. Then, for her 60th birthday, she planned a trip to Israel.
“I was able to fulfill the dream on the most meaningful trip I’ve ever taken,” said Linehan. In 2013, she and her husband, Bob, went on a highly subsidized trip for travelers 55 and older who had never been to Israel. Like many older adults, Linehan had several reasons she’d never gone. Safety, distance and expense topped that list.
Last year, in its annual survey of American Jewish opinion, the American Jewish Committee found that 51 percent of U.S. adults ages 30 to 49 had never been to Israel. The statistics were the same for those 65 and older. Fifty-seven percent of adults 50 to 64 said they had never been there. For those in the 18 to 29 age range, 48 percent reported not visiting Israel.
Yet, trip organizers hear from many who would like to go. This seems to be especially true among those with children who have been to Israel with organizations like Birthright Israel. Since 1999, Birthright has brought more than 500,000 travelers the ages 18 to 26 to Israel—at no cost to the participant.
While Birthright is the largest organization of its kind, there are other free or heavily subsidized travel opportunities for those in their late teens, 20s and even for travelers in their early 30s. For those in their mid-30s and beyond, opportunities are scarce. Yet, in recent years, organizations have emerged with the resources and desire to take a wider age range of adults on subsidized trips.
Funding for these subsidized trips comes from individual donors and foundations that see value in sending older adults to Israel.
After the Honeymoon
“It’s a very significant investment, and donors may be less willing to invest in older people, where the return on investment might be over a shorter time span,” said Michael Wise, co-founder of Honeymoon Israel, a relatively new organization that brings couples to Israel.
“Maybe there is the feeling that it’s too late for adults and that our young adults are the ones making major choices,” said Lori Palatnik, founding director of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP), an organization that has brought more than 10,000 mothers to Israel since 2009. “I think they have forgotten that older people are still making choices about where we put our time and resources. Don’t write us off. We still hold the purse strings and influence choices.”
Palatnik feels that her organization “hit the bull’s eye” by targeting mothers of children 18 and younger. “If you can inspire the mother, she will inspire the whole family and that’s a tremendous investment in the Jewish family and the Jewish community.”
Naomi Derner, a divorced mother of two from Portland, said Judaism was clearly missing from her family. Aside from knowing they were Jewish, her children, ages 10 and 12, had almost no involvement with religion. When the last of her grandparents (all Holocaust survivors) died, she realized she needed to change that.
Shortly after embarking on her spiritual journey, Derner learned about JWRP and applied for the trip through Portland Kollel, the local sponsoring organization. Each participating city has at least one sponsoring organization that selects and brings members from its community as well as contributes 15 percent of the cost for each participant.
Since returning last December, Derner and her children make a point of having a Shabbat dinner, often with friends she met on the trip, and they have become more involved in the Portland Jewish community.
Derner said the subsidy—$3,000 per participant—was a factor in her decision to go. “A lot of us with school-age kids don’t have that kind of disposable cash, and what a trip like this would have cost could very easily be a vacation budget for an entire family,” she said.
“Taking away the financial burden gives a woman the incentive she needs to leave her children and take time off from work [for the eight-day trip]. We needed to take away any objection they’d have to going,” says Palatnik. “Financially, some of these women can afford the trip but they wouldn’t have otherwise prioritized going to Israel.”
Too Old for Birthright
The JWRP and Honeymoon Israel are the two largest organizations bringing visitors who are too old for Birthright (and programs like it) to Israel. While JWRP participants are responsible for airfare and a $99 registration fee, Honeymoon Israel costs a couple $1,800 and includes the flight.
A number of local Jewish Federations are taking groups to Israel by reaching out to young and emerging leaders, business professionals and, in some cases, intermarried couples. These trips generally target those typically in their late 20s and 30s who are beyond Birthright.
Israel Next Dor, another Federation program, is a young leadership program of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley Federation, and Israel 360 is a program serving the Philadelphia community. Both offer intensive Israel experiences for those of 27 to 35 (although Philadelphia’s has taken individuals as old as 40). The trips cost participants approximately $360, includes airfare, and they must attend several pre- and post-trip meetings.
“As a Jewish community, we worry about our future and we need the commitment of professional volunteers. Visiting Israel helps inspire people to become more connected to the community,” said Aaron Gorodzinsky, director of outreach and community relations for the Lehigh Valley Federation. “In the post-Birthright world we live in, most people between the ages of 27 and 35 have been to Israel but are hungry and curious to go back again.”
“We’ve learned that Birthright is wonderful, amazing and can be a life-changing experience, but it’s not going to solve all our problems,” said Wise, who is based in Buffalo. He co-founded Honeymoon Israel as a way to welcome interfaith couples into Judaism by targeting those who haven’t necessarily discussed the role religion will play in their family.
Jennifer Shaeffer Fraiman, 35, isn’t Jewish. Her husband Joe, 38, is and has, what his wife describes as, a “pretty deep connection to Israel.” Fraiman said almost everything she knew about Israel came from him. When they returned from their Honeymoon Israel experience in February, Fraiman felt more informed about Israeli culture and politics and a deeper connection to Judaism. “Before, Israel was his,” she said. “Now it’s mine, too, and that has united us.”
In 2014, Honeymoon Israel got the financial push it needed when the Boston-based One8 Foundation (formerly the Jacobson Family Foundation) provided more than $1 million in seed money.
While JWRP is heavily funded by private donors and foundations, it has received support from the Israeli government. During its first year, the JWRP sent three groups of 100 women each to Israel and, with each passing year, increased its numbers. The Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs noticed and offered to provide substantial funding if the JWRP could double its numbers and also bring groups from Eastern Europe. The JWRP met those goals, and $5.1 million (22 percent of its budget) now comes from the Israeli government.
Not all subsidized trips for older adults succeed. For example, Stacy Wasserman of Thousand Oaks, Calif., took $500,000 she inherited from her father and created L’Dor V’Dor (From Generation to Generation), a nonprofit organization designed to give those 55 and older their first Israel experience.
From 2011 and 2016, Wasserman took seven groups to Israel, with more than 300 participants. But her efforts to find support among individual donors and foundations proved unsuccessful. When funding ran out, she ended the program.
During its short existence, L’Dor V’Dor participants, including Marsha Moss Linehan, spent 12 days visiting popular sites, such as Masada, the Western Wall, the Dead Sea and the Knesset. Travelers were asked to cover the cost of their airfare. L’Dor V’Dor paid the rest.
“There is a whole generation of people out there who never had the opportunity, because there was no Birthright. Now they have children and grandchildren who have been there,” Wasserman added. “Giving them the opportunity to go allows them the chance to connect with the younger generations though Israel.”
While the trips’ goals can vary, their format and purpose are similar. Groups travel from the same city so they can participate in pre and post-trip meetings, develop cohesion and return inspired to become more involved in their communities and forge a stronger connection to Israel and Judaism.
Honeymoon Israel, for those ages 25 to 40, reaches out to couples with at least one Jewish partner trying to figure out what role religion is going to play in their lives, how they plan to raise a family and who they are as a family, according to Wise.
One of the goals of Honeymoon Israel is to change the Israeli perception on intermarriage. “We’re trying to show others that intermarriage isn’t the end of the Jewish people,” said Wise. “We have to stop defining intermarriage as a problem and face it as a reality of what America is about and say to the Jewish world intermarriage does not equal assimilation.”
The JWRP, on the other hand, targets women because of the strong effect mothers have on their families. Over half the women who travel to Israel with JWRP had never been there before. The other half, jokes Palatnik, went when they were 17 and talked about how “cute the soldiers were. When they go back as mothers, they have a whole different mindset.”
If the mothers envied their children’s opportunities in Israel, the husbands felt the same about their wives. Four years ago the JWRP sent its first men’s trip. Since then, more than 3,000 dads have had a JWRP Israel experience. Unlike the women, who get a $3,000 subsidy, the men receive $1,850. The trips also boost the Israeli economy.
Last year, the JWRP alone spent $8.3 million on expenses such as hotels, buses, food and tour operators. “That’s not counting the economic impact created by the families who go back to Israel with their children, those who celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah there or the 12 families who made aliyah after a JWRP experience,” said Palatnik.
“Any time you bring people to Israel there is going to be a positive economic impact,” said Jill Daly, director of the Midwest Region of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. “Travelers who are older generally have more disposable income than those in college or just out of school.”
Last March, 41 teams from the United States and Canada traveled to a bowling alley in suburban Detroit for the 76th annual B’nai B’rith Bowling Association Sectional Tournament. For three days, 164 B’nai B’rith bowlers descended on 300 Bowl, in Waterford, Mich., to compete for high honors in a sport that dates to ancient Egypt.
Archie’s Army, from Detroit, emerged as the winning team. Steve Lotzloff, Ryan Columbus, Jeff Berlin and Eric Goldberg made up the “army.” But the event featured many other impressive players and scores, including a perfect 300 rolled by David Shanbaum and a 299 by Noah Cohen, both also from Detroit.
Howard Waxer, the tournament co-chair and president of the Detroit B’nai B’rith Bowling Association, pronounced it “the best tournament Detroit’s ever held.”
And while the scores certainly count, the number of attendees—the largest in six years—also impressed. Bowlers came from Hamilton, Ontario; Pittsburgh; Rochester, N.Y.; Columbus, Ohio; Kansas City, Mo.; Chicago, New Orleans and Denver.
“It’s cool when you see all these people come from all over,” said Gary Klinger, athletic director of the Great Lakes Region.
Klinger has B’nai B’rith bowling in his blood; his father was not only a bowler himself but the tournament director and league secretary for the bowling association.
The B’nai B’rith Bowling Association, host of the tournament, formed in 1939, became an umbrella organization for leagues across the country. Its first tournament, in 1941, was also in Detroit. Over the years, the association kept growing. At its peak, in the 1960s and 1970s, it had 20,000 bowlers. League dues from across the country have raised thousands of dollars for B’nai B’rith programs, events and even for the organization’s original Washington, D.C., headquarters. Today, the association has 25 leagues in the United States and Canada.
“It all started with a group of guys, bowling in mostly Midwest cities,” said Mark Sperling, executive secretary of the B’nai B’rith Bowling Association since 1979. “They came together for fellowship.”
That fellowship continues, as members come out not only to bowl but also to participate in the annual banquet, where they hear about the state of their association and B’nai B’rith in general.
During the recent banquet, Steve Zorn, co-chair of B’nai B’rith’s Participation Committee, spoke to attendees about better integrating B’nai B’rith bowling with the rest of the organization. Zorn was a league member for 10 years.
“It was a very good experience,” Zorn said. “I bowled on a team with my son and three sons-in-law.”
The location of the next tournament has yet to be decided, but the smart money is on Las Vegas, where it has been held about every four years. If you’d like to find out more about joining a league, please email Howard Waxer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Taylor Schwink
For a week in 2016, I’d wake up, check my email and find it loaded with pictures from the other side of the world. The Japanese government had invited the B'nai B'rith Young Leadership Network to participate in the Kakehashi Project – “Japan’s Friendship Ties.” A group of B’nai B’rith volunteers would be going to build bridges between Japan and the United States. Back at B’nai B’rith International headquarters, I was tasked with posting these marvelous pictures, but not without a smidge of jealousy.
A year later, I was the one taking the pictures. B’nai B’rith was again invited to participate in the Kakehashi Project, and I had the privilege of joining the 12-member delegation from Chicago, Denver, Detroit, New York City, South Florida and Washington D.C., documenting the trip that started in Tokyo, continued on to Hiroshima and Kobe, and returned to Tokyo over the span of a week.
The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs sponsored the trip, and on the first day gave us a crash course in Japanese history and foreign policy. We discussed the famed “Article Nine” of their constitution that renounces “war as a sovereign right of the nation,” troubles with North Korea and views on China.
On the second day, we left behind the boardrooms of the foreign ministry to fly to Hiroshima. The bus from the airport dropped us off in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome, the twisted, surviving structure from America’s bombing of the city on Aug. 6, 1945, hastening the end of World War II.
The entire afternoon was a humbling experience, touring the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park grounds, visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and even speaking with an atomic bomb survivor. The woman we met was a child living on the edge of town and attending school when three B-29 Superfortress bombers flew overhead, one carrying the atomic payload. She described scenes of death and chaos, as no one had any idea what was happening. She thought the sun had fallen out of the sky.
Before leaving on the trip, many people jokingly asked, “Are there Jews in Japan?” When you think of countries with Jewish communities, Japan is certainly not at the top of that list. But there is a small Jewish presence, with two communities located in Tokyo and Kobe. Kobe is a city of immigrants, and the Jews from all parts of the world tie seamlessly into the fabric of a town that comprises every group, from Chinese, Americans and Western Europeans to Indians and Muslims.
In Tokyo, we attended Shabbat services and dinner with a congregation that consisted mostly of American and Canadian expatriates. In a world marred with anti-Semitism, it was fascinating to learn that the Japanese people have no real concept of such discrimination. Throughout the trip, our guides would explain the idea in Japanese for people unfamiliar with
While our Young Leadership delegation toured Japan, the Israeli baseball team was making a run of its own there through the World Baseball Classic. The team won all of its first-round games, setting up a second round date at the Tokyo Dome against Cuba—the same day we were slated to return to America.
Following a friendly and illuminating meeting at the Israeli embassy, we were given tickets to the game, and some delegation members persuaded our guides to rearrange the schedule and reroute the bus. With only hours remaining in the trip, our last stop was to cheer on the Israeli national team—in a game they’d go on to win 4-1. It was an appropriate and exciting end to our trip—one that yielded invaluable knowledge, cultural understanding, friendships, memories—and pictures—to last a lifetime.
By Rachel Chasin
The Holocaust is remembered at B’nai B’rith International throughout the year. But annually on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), B’nai B’rith holds a program across the country. It’s called “Unto Every Person There is a Name.”
Since 1989, B’nai B’rith has been the North American sponsor of the Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority) program that honors and remembers the victims of the Shoah.
A Yad Vashem database provides a list of Holocaust victims, and participants honor them by reading their names aloud and stating where they were born and died.
Every year, the program has a theme decided by an international committee, and this year’s theme was “Restoring Their Identities: The Fate of the Individual during the Holocaust.” B’nai B’rith World Center Director Alan Schneider represents B’nai B’rith on this committee.
B’nai B’rith regions and lodges coordinate with synagogues and Jewish community centers across the nation to make “Unto Every Person There is a Name” a part of their Holocaust commemorations. The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington held a remembrance event at Washington Hebrew Congregation in Potomac, Md., where survivor Marsha Tishler told of living in a displaced persons camp. The JCRC of Greater Washington asked those attending to send in additional names they wanted read aloud.
“You look at these lists of names and you see that a whole family has been wiped out. If it weren’t for this program these names wouldn’t be mentioned; there is no family left to remember them—they’re gone, [and this is a way] to remember the victims,” said Rhonda Love, B’nai B’rith International vice president of programming and director of the Center of Community Action and Center of Jewish Identity.
Names are often read in conjunction with other remembrance programs—with some events lasting overnight.
B’nai B’rith and Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi), a Jewish fraternity, collaborate to bring “Unto Every Person There is a Name” to university campuses as part of AEPi’s own Holocaust Remembrance Day program, called “We Walk to Remember.”
That program began in 2006 at New York University, and, since then, more than 100 campuses across North America, Israel and Europe have participated in this event. AEPi brothers and other volunteers walk silently across their campuses wearing a “Never Forget” sticker provided by B’nai B’rith.
B’nai B’rith also supplies pamphlets to AEPi to distribute, on the importance of Yom Hashoah and how this year’s theme relates to the Holocaust.
“Watching young people take on the responsibility is really very important, because it is getting harder for the survivors. The next generations need to bear witness, to make sure to never forget,” Love said. “They are stepping up.”
The number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling. These programs ensure society remembers the Shoah and the horrors its victims faced.
By Sam Seifman
Today, if you see Helene Sender walking around her hometown of Flushing, Queens, chances are you’ll see her with her camera, taking photos of the people in her neighborhood. But she hasn’t always been as passionate about photography as she is today. Her professional career had a very different start.
Her story actually begins in the Bronx, and, although she has traveled around the world, she has lived in New York City her entire life. After receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from Hunter College, CUNY, she worked as a research assistant in an adult education program for the unemployed and underemployed and then in therapeutic drug rehabilitation in Manhattan. She decided not to pursue research, and transitioned to the garment industry, where she worked in customer service and management for 15 years.
All Photos by Helene Sender
Her career took another turn when she began working in the medical field. She ultimately secured a position with the New York Blood Center (NYBC) as an executive assistant. Within a few years, she became the program coordinator in the education department. Helene was also a voluntary bone marrow and stem cell courier for NYBC’s Special Donors Program during those 10 years.
Upon retirement from NYBC, Helene continued transporting lifesaving bone marrow and stem cells throughout the United States and around the world for the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) until age 70, when she was retired as a courier. She loved sharing her stories with friends and staff at NMDP, but they wanted more.
“[My friends] kept pushing me to show them photos of my travels,” Helene says. So, she bought herself a camera.
Originally she used a big digital single-lens reflex camera, but it was too cumbersome to carry a large camera and lenses, so she moved to a smaller “point and shoot” camera. Today, Helene is an active member of the Flushing Camera Club, which allows her to share her photos and see the work of others. One day, she hopes to display her work publicly.
“I’ve always been drawn to the arts and music,” Helene said. She often attends jazz concerts at Flushing Town Hall, where she is a member; she is also a long-standing member of the Museum of Modern Art, in Manhattan.
Just because Helene has retired doesn’t mean that she’s staying at home. She has traveled to and has taken photographs throughout Europe and the Middle East, including Israel, Cyprus, Germany and Poland.
Helene’s father, a house painter who shared her artistic eye, immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1925 at 23. Traveling to Poland for the first time was daunting for her since so many of her father’s family were victims of the Holocaust. She has thus far been to Krakow, Warsaw and Poznán, where she visited the ghetto areas and memorials. She spoke with many young Poles and found that they were open to discussing occupied Poland’s collaboration with the Nazis. They also spoke about Poland’s largely unsuccessful efforts to get Jews to return; a very small Jewish population presently resides in what used to be the old Jewish quarter of Krakow.
Although her father and her American-born mother raised her in a secular household, Helene feels deeply connected to her Jewish identity. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, she served as a volunteer in Israel where she was assigned to an army camp in the Negev desert. She describes this as a “transforming experience.” There, she peeled potatoes and painted offices to keep the soldiers free to deal with security risks.
“I wanted the Israeli people to know that there were people that cared and were willing to risk their lives for them,” she said. Helene visits Israel often and will visit this year. Helene believes that in Israel and around the world, “It’s important that we care about and reach out to all people in need.”
One of the ways she has put these words into action is by naming B’nai B’rith International as a beneficiary in her will. Specifically, Helene is establishing an endowment fund with the interest going to whichever program B’nai B’rith determines is the most in need at the time.
“I’ve always been supportive of the work that B’nai B’rith does. To take a stand against persecution of all people is what ‘never again’ means to me,” Helene said. “Your work is incredibly important in these times as we witness the increase of genocide, fear, discrimination and anti-Semitism around the world.”
“Helene has been a longtime friend and supporter of B’nai B’rith,” says Marna Schoen, director of Planned Giving. “But when she called to discuss a way to create a legacy through a planned gift, I got to know her much better. I loved the stories of her travels, and when she described herself as a ‘street photographer,’ I asked to see her photos. I was floored. She is able to capture a very special moment in time and the personality of her subject. That same appreciation for the subjects of her art is apparent in her giving. By establishing an endowment fund, she will, in perpetuity, be helping those in need, whoever they are or wherever they may live. She’s leaving quite a legacy, and B’nai B’rith is honored to be a part of it.”