Trouble in Israel

West bank settlementA few days ago, the right-wing Israeli political organization “Im Tirtzu” published a slick video clip in which it accused by name four Israeli members of human rights organizations of being “moles” operated by foreign countries to sabotage Israel’s counter-terror efforts (The Times of Israel).  The NGO human rights organizations may receive grants from countries and individuals outside of Israel to promote peace and understanding, but that hardly makes them foreign moles.  In fact, Im Tirtzu, which supports settlements in the occupied West Bank and other Israeli right-wing organizations are themselves funded largely by right-wing U.S. (a foreign country) contributions (Haaretz).

The four individuals portrayed in the Im Tirtzu video work for the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Breaking the Silence featuring Israeli soldiers testifying about malpractices and alleged crimes committed by IDF troops against Palestinians; the Center for Defense of the Individual, which represents Palestinians under Israeli occupation; and B’Tselem, which documents human rights abuses in the territories. (Haaretz)

By naming and showing their faces in the video clip, Im Tirtzu is endangering the lives of these four individuals, using hate speech and inciting their members and the public at large.  But that’s not it.  This is part of an overall campaign by the Israeli extreme right which includes proposed new laws, such as the “transparency law” directed against NGOs.  “These NGOs challenge the authority of the government that has been elected by the people,” said the author of the proposed “transparency law”.  This sounds like Russia, Uganda, China, Egypt, Kyrgyzstan or Burundi (The Washington Post), hardly a group of democratic and desirable countries…

There is trouble in Israel…  Tensions between secular, religious, Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews are not new, but they are escalating to a point never seen before.  Racism, which led so many Jews to death chambers, is now a real problem in Israel as well. About 60,000 Africans have immigrated there since 2006, fleeing unrest in their home countries. In Israel, these migrants have faced intense racism and persecution by right-wing politicians and activists, and have been branded as “infiltrators”.

Israel is split between a secular, liberal, modern, and economically thriving half, living alongside an ultra-Orthodox, observant, nationalist, and poorer half.  Nearly 70 years after Israel’s independence, the country is debating the meaning of its very existence: is Israel a (religious) Jewish State or a modern country where Jews and Arabs live together?  Is Israel a refuge for the Jews or a country from which they radiate?   Is Israel Auschwitz or Sinai?

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Pain, suffering and anguish

In my previous post, I talked about the Jewish cantor who officiated in Liege, Belgium, where I grew up. I did some research for that article which led me to the Holocaust Survivors and Victims Database of the U.S. Holocaust Museum (USHM).  I went back to the USHM database to see if I could find out more about my extended family.  

Jewish children of the Lodz Ghetto working fot the Germans (photo Mendel Grossman)

Jewish children of the Lodz Ghetto working for the Germans (photo Mendel Grossman)

My family came, by-and-large, from Zdunska Wola (Z-W), in Poland, about 60 kilometers from Lodz. About half of the population of Z-W was Jewish before the War, or about 10,000 people.  The Lodz area was a major center of Jewish life before WWII. In the spring of 1940, a ghetto was formed by the Nazis on the outskirts of the city. On August 23-24, 1942,  the Z-W ghetto was liquidated. One thousand able-bodied Jews were sent to the Lodz ghetto, 550 Jews were shot dead on the spot in the Jewish Cemetery, and between 6,000 and 8,000 were transported to the death camp at Chelmno.   Many others had already fled to Lodz, and found themselves with about 250,000 other Jews in the Lodz Ghetto, under the control of the German Gestapo.

And so I started to search the databases, using my grandmother’s maiden name of Olej, because it is a relatively uncommon name which makes it easier to spot potential family members.  First I searched for the last name, then recognized some first names and checked them against research I had done before and data I had received from long distance relatives.  Records came back from the Ghetto register of 240,000 names. Then data came back from people deported to Chelmno with their transport (train) number.  Data came back from those who had perished in the camps… and my heart started beating faster.

Lajb1The Ghetto register contained addresses, scrupulously maintained by the Gestapo.  I used the address as a search parameter, and suddenly, entire Olej families started to appear.  These were brothers and sisters of my grandmother, or her uncles and aunts, and their kids.  Lajb Olej was one of two kids of Estera Malka Olej. There was no man at this precise address as far as I could tell, so Estera was probably raising her two kids by herself.  Her husband may have been selected for hard labor and sent away.  Lajb was born in 1938 and died of typhoid in 1941.  

I moved from family to family, my heart beating faster and faster.  Now, I almost felt as if I were there, with them, in the Ghetto. My eyes stared at Lajb’s record for several minutes, several long minutes, unable to move away, as if I was acknowledging his existence when few others probably have.  My grandmother had moved out of Poland with her husband on her way to Argentina years before the war. They stopped in Belgium and never left.  I only knew of a brother of hers who lived in Brazil and sent me collector stamps once in a while.   

I turned to a USHM database that lists the names and residences of Jews in Liege, my home town, almost 1,500 of them.  There too, I was able to visualize entire families using common addresses, like my uncle Abraham who lost his wife and four children to the Holocaust (Max, Jeanne, Flora and Daniel) and my Aunt Ruja, Abraham’s sister in law, who lost her husband and three of her children (Samuel, Flora and Henri). Abraham and Ruja lived together after the war, with the ghosts of nine of their loved ones.

Folks like me, sons and daughters of Jews who survived the Holocaust, are exceptions to the millions who perished. This exploration into the USHM databases has given me a much more personal appreciation not only for the incredible slaughter of Jews during WWII, but also for the immense suffering, pain and anguish they suffered along the way.