October 18, 1966 – Aristides de Sousa Mendes Recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” for Helping to Save Jews from the Holocaust

Yad Vashem is the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. In 1963, the Center began a worldwide project to pay tribute to the “Righteous Among the Nations,” or gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

In 1966, Aristides de Sousa Mendes was among the earliest to be so named.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes was born in Portugal in 1885, studied law, and began a career as a consular officer. In 1938 he was assigned to the post of Consul-General of Bordeaux, France, with jurisdiction over the whole of the southwest of France.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes in his 20s or 30s

As Hitler’s occupation swept across Europe, neutral Portugal became one of the Continent’s last escape routes. Refugees hoped to exit France via the southern border into Spain and Portugal, and from there sail overseas. The Portuguese dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar, permitted holders of visas for overseas to transit through Portugal, but closed the borders to refugees without visas.

As Avraham Milgram reports in the Shoah Resource Center document: “Portugal, the Consuls, and the Jewish Refugees, 1938-1941”:

In 1938, ministers, the heads of their offices, the heads of departments, and especially Oliveira Salazar, became aware of the way the Nazis were solving ‘the Jewish question.’”

But Portugal was not without its own anti-semites, and plus it was in the dangerous position of trying to maintain neutrality.

In November, 1939, the Portuguese government sent instructions to all Portuguese consuls throughout Europe delineating the categories of war refugees whom the state considered to be “inconvenient or dangerous.” The dispatch allowed consuls to keep on granting Portuguese transit visas, but in the case of certain categories including “Jews expelled from their countries,” the consuls needed to ask permission in advance from the Foreign Ministry head office in Lisbon.

Moreover, fearing that Jews might stay in Portugal, the Portuguese government began to create difficulties for Jews in France to come to Portugal, even for those holding visas to other countries. Milgram reports that settling in Portugal was forbidden to Jews; however, they were allowed entry as tourists for thirty days. But they had to have documents not only for entering the country but proving they were leaving it as well. Thus, as Milgram details the obstacles, besides the money to buy sea passage, it was first necessary to get an exit visa from Vichy French territory, an entry visa to an overseas country or countries, usually on the American continent, and a Portuguese visa, so that finally a transit visa through Spain could be received.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes, 1940

Some 30,000 refugees, including 10,000 Jews, were desperately trying to obtain a Portuguese visa. Sousa Mendes, a devout Catholic, was determined to help the refugees despite his government’s orders.

Milgram provides the following data:

According to the lists of visas issued in the Bordeaux consulate, Sousa Mendes granted 2,862 visas between January 1 and June 22, 1940. The majority, that is, 1,575 visas, were issued between June 11 and 22, in the last days of his consular career there.”

A rumor about Sousa Mendes’s actions reached Lisbon, which summarily ordered him to return to his homeland at once. But he may have also issued visas in the subposts at which he stopped on his way back to Portugal.

Milgram notes:

…the discrepancy between the reality and the myth of the number of visas granted by Sousa Mendes is great. Nevertheless, we must conclude that the majority of Jews who, in the summer of 1940, succeeded in crossing the Pyrenees and Spain to the Portuguese border, did so thanks to Sousa Mendes.”

Yad Vashem observes that the Portuguese Government dismissed Sousa Mendes from his position in the Foreign Ministry and left him destitute and unable to support his large family. He died penniless in 1954; not until 1988, thanks to external pressure and his children’s efforts, did his government grant him total rehabilitation.

Life saving visa issued by Dr. Aristides de Sousa Mendes on June 19, 1940, bearing the signature of his secretary José Seabra.

April 19, 1943 – Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Under the cover of World War II, Nazi Germany began a genocidal program to deal with “the Jewish problem.” As a first step, the Nazis herded Jews into small ghettos where starvation and disease could take their toll, thus lessening the workload for the extermination camps. On Yom Kippur, October 12, 1940, the Nazis announced the building of Jewish residential quarters in Warsaw. Close to 400,000 Jews (30% of the Warsaw population) were forced to occupy an area consisting of some ten streets (2.4% of the city’s area). (Warsaw’s pre-war Jewish population in 1939 was 393,950 Jews.) Jews were also deported into the ghetto from other places, and the population of the ghetto reached more than half a million people.

Beginning in the summer of 1942, the first mass deportations of Jews from the ghetto to the extermination camps began. The number of deportees averaged about 5,000-7,000 people daily, and reached a high of 13,000. At first, ghetto factory workers, Jewish police, Judenrat members, hospital workers and their families were spared, but they were also periodically subject to deportation. Only 35,000 were allowed to remain in the ghetto at one time.

Children in the Warsaw Ghetto

[Regarding the Judenrat, as the Jewish Virtual Library explains:

“As far back as 1933, Nazi policy makers had discussed establishing Jewish-led institutions to carry out anti-Jewish policies. . . . These councils of Jewish elders, (Judenrat; plural: Judenräte), were responsible for organizing the orderly deportation to the death camps, for detailing the number and occupations of the Jews in the ghettos, for distributing food and medical supplies, and for communicating the orders of the ghetto Nazi masters. . . . As ghetto life settled into a ‘routine,’ the Judenrat took on the functions of local government, providing police and fire protection, postal services, sanitation, transportation, food and fuel distribution, and housing, for example.”]

Jewish residents of the ghetto shopping in a vegetable street market.

A second wave of deportations to the Treblinka extermination camp began on January 18, 1943, during which many factory workers and hospital personnel were taken. Unexpected Jewish armed resistance, however, forced the Nazis to retreat from the ghetto after four days of deportations.

Jews who were concentrated in the Warsaw Ghetto knew that their last remnants were slated for evacuation and death on Hitler’s birthday, April 20, 1943. Thus, on April 19, 1943, some 750 Jews – ragged, starving and barely armed – began firing at Hitler’s soldiers with smuggled guns, Molotov cocktails, and hand grenades. On the fifth day of battle, they issued a proclamation to the Polish population outside the ghetto walls:

“Let it be known that every threshold in the ghetto has been and will continue to be a fortress, that we may all perish in this struggle, but we will not surrender.”

They did not inflict more than a few hundred German casualties, but diverted over 2,000 German troops for some six weeks, and inspired many other Jews to acts of resistance.

On May 8, 1943, the Germans discovered their main command post, located at Miła 18 Street. (From thence comes the name of Leon Uris’s novel about the uprising, Mila 18.) Most of the leadership and dozens of remaining fighters were killed, while others committed mass suicide by ingesting cyanide. The suppression of the uprising officially ended on May 16, 1943. Approximately 13,000 Jews were killed in the ghetto during the uprising. Of the remaining 50,000 residents, most were captured and shipped to concentration and extermination camps, in particular to Treblinka.

Hirsh Glick (1920-1944), a poet and partisan in the Vilna Ghetto, wrote the Partisan Hymn when he heard about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It became the battle hymn of the underground Jewish resistance movement. It was written in Yiddish, and is widely known by its Yiddish title, “Zog Nit Keyn Mol!” An English translation is shown below.

Never say that you are going your last way,
Though lead-filled skies above blot out the blue of day.
The hour for which we long will certainly appear.
The earth shall thunder ‘neath our tread that we are here!

From lands of green palm trees to lands all white with snow,
We are coming with our pain and with our woe,
And where’er a spurt of our blood did drop,
Our courage will again sprout from that spot.

For us the morning sun will radiate the day,
And the enemy and past will fade away,
But should the dawn delay or sunrise wait too long.
Then let all future generations sing this song.

This song was written with our blood and not with lead,
This is no song of free birds flying overhead,
But a people amid crumbling walls did stand,
They stood and sang this song with rifles held in hand.

(Translated by Elliot Palevsky)

You can see additional rare photos of Warsaw Ghetto life here and here.

January 22, 1941 – Atrocities Against Jews in Bucharest, Romania

Romania had a long history of vehement anti-Semitism even before the Nazis came to power. In fact, after World War I, as William I. Brustein and Ryan D. King report in “Balkan Anti-Semitism: The Cases of Bulgaria and Romania before the Holocaust,” East European Politics and Societies, Vol. 18, No. 3, pages 430–454:

Romanian anti-Semitism during the interwar period served as a principal recruiting theme for such popular and notorious political parties as the League of National Christian Defense, which preached the physical liquidation of the Jews; the Iron Guard [a far-right ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic movement]. . . which in the December 1937 national elections obtained 16 percent of the popular vote (making it the third strongest party); and the National Christian Party (PNC) . . . which in the same election garnered more than 9 percent of the national vote.”

The new government elected in 1937 not only approved of official anti-Semitic laws, but, as Brustein and King write, “largely acquiesced to widespread anti-Semitic violence in the country, particularly during the interwar period, and anti-Semitism on the eve of WWII was nearly as rampant in Romania as in Germany.”

On September 6, 1940, King Carol abdicated, and Ion Antonescu, who had been minister of defense in the previous government, came to power. His government included ministers from the ranks of the Iron Guard. Romania was declared a Nationalist-Legionary State (the members of the Iron Guard styled themselves “legionnaires”). As the Virtual Jewish History Library explains:

The ‘legionary police’ was organized on Nazi lines with the help of the S.S. and the S.D. There followed a period of anti-Semitic terrorism that lasted for five months. It began with the confiscation of Jewish-owned shops, together with the posting of signs marked ‘Jewish shop’ and picketing by the green-shirted ‘legionary police.’”

Romania in 1942

The period of terror reached its height with the arrest and torture of Jewish leaders by bands of legionnaires. They also confiscated money from their victims, which threw the Romanian economy in turmoil. Therefore Antonescu tried on several occasions to stem the wave of terrorism.

On January 21, 1941, the Iron Guard members revolted against Antonescu and attempted to seize power and carry out its anti-Semitic program in full. They began with a pogrom on Bucharest Jews, looting and burning Jewish homes and synagogues.

The next day, up to 200 Jews in Bucharest (reports of the numbers vary widely) were rounded up by the Iron Guard, put into trucks, and taken to the slaughterhouse. There they were forced to undress and led to the chopping blocks. They were tortured and killed. Some were stuffed down the manholes to the sewers used to carry animal remains. Others were hung like cattle from the slaughterhouse iron hooks, and tagged with signs reading “kosher meat.”

The Legionnaires also killed Jews outside of the slaughterhouse. For example, they drove ninety Jews to the nearby Jilava forest, made them strip, and shot them from a two-foot distance. Afterwards, they ripped gold teeth out of the mouths of the bodies. This pogrom was also said to have introduced the chapter of mass abuse of Jewish women, who were sometimes raped in the presence of their families.

As a result of these anti-semitic riots that took place over the period of January 21-23, 1,274 businesses, shops, workshops and homes were badly damaged or destroyed. Some 200 trucks were filled with looted items, not including money and jewelry. Some synagogues escaped being set aflame only because the Guard did not have enough fuel.

Because Ion Antonescu saw the Iron Guard as a threat to his own power, he had the action investigated. The secretary of Mihai Antonescu, Romania’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister during World War II, confirmed the military prosecutor’s description of what happened at the abattoir and added that some of the victims were hooked up while still alive, to allow the torturers to “chop up” their bodies. Ion Antonescu fired the persons responsible for the terror acts and used the army to destroy the Iron Guard.

Ion Antonescu

Antonescu was not, however, in any way sympathetic to Jews, but was just using the situation to consolidate his own power. He went on to enforce policies responsible for the deaths of as many as 400,000 people, most of them Bessarabian, Ukrainian and Romanian Jews. The regime’s complicity in the Holocaust combined pogroms and mass murders with ethnic cleansing, systematic deportations, and widespread criminal negligence. Following the war, Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and executed.

After the war, most of the surviving Jews in Romania emigrated to Israel. Modern-day Romania hosts a modest Jewish population; in the 2011 census, 3,271 declared themselves to be Jewish. But although most of the Jews are gone, anti-Semitism is still alive and well in Romania.

Jewish cemeteries continue to be vandalized in Romania, and in 2016 the Bucharest State Jewish Theatre was also broken into and its costumes and decor damaged.

According to a 2014 report by the Center for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism, 65 websites in Romanian, as well as other Romanian blogs and online publications, spread anti-semitism, and 27 are constantly updated.

Dr. Marius Cazan, Researcher at the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania reported:

At the level of the Romanian society there is still little known of the Holocaust in Romania. In [a recent] survey, only 68% of those interviews have heard of the Holocaust. Out of these, only 33% knew that the Holocaust happened in Romania as well. When they were asked to identify the main responsible for the Holocaust in Romania, 55% indicated Germany and only 22% did correctly identify the Antonescu government. It is extremely worrisome the percentage of those who consider the Jews are the most responsible for the Holocaust in Romania (7%), with a significant growth since the 2015 survey when only 1% of the respondents indicated the Jews are the ones to blame for the Holocaust in Romania. Although additional research is necessary in order to explain, with arguments, this growth, the link it has with the negationism and antisemitism that still prevail in certain segments of the Romanian society is unequivocally. The online environment and especially the social networks are the main space for hate speech and extremist messages to develop and start getting an audience.”

January 19, 1945 – Soviet Army Liberated Lodz Ghetto in German-Occupied Polish Territory

On November 7, 1939, Lodz was incorporated into the Third Reich and the Nazi’s changed its name to Litzmannstadt (“Litzmann’s city”) – named after a German general who died while attempting to conquer Lodz in World War I.

The Nazis wanted Jews concentrated in one area to facilitate their transfer and/or elimination. A couple of ghettos had already been established in other parts of Polish territory, but with much smaller Jewish populations. Lodz had a Jewish population estimated at 230,000, living throughout the city.

On February 8, 1940, the order to establish the Lodz ghetto was announced. An area of only 4.3 square kilometers was designated and Jews from throughout the city were ordered to move into the sectioned off area. The Jews were packed tightly within the confines of the ghetto with an average of 3.5 people per room. In April a fence went up surrounding the ghetto and on May 1, 1940, only eight months after the German invasion, the Lodz ghetto was officially sealed.

A German postcard showing the entrance to the Lodz ghetto. The sign reads "Jewish residential area—entry forbidden." Lodz, Poland, 1940-1941. — US Holocaust Memorial Museum

A German postcard showing the entrance to the Lodz ghetto. The sign reads “Jewish residential area—entry forbidden.” Lodz, Poland, 1940-1941.
— US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Nazis decided to have the Jews to pay for their own food, security, sewage removal, and all other expenses incurred by their continuing incarceration. They also appointed one Jew responsible for the ghetto administration. The Nazis chose 62-year-old Mordekchai Chaim Rumkowski.

Chaim Rumkowski in Lodz Ghetto

Chaim Rumkowski in Lodz Ghetto

With 230,000 people confined to a very small area that had no farmland, food quickly became a problem. Rumkowski believed that if the ghetto became an extremely useful workforce, then the Jews would be needed by the Nazis and thus, the Nazis would make sure that the ghetto received food.

On April 5, 1940, Rumkowski petitioned the Nazi authorities requesting permission for his work plan. The Nazis eventually agreed that they would deliver raw materials, Jews would make the final products, and the Nazis would pay in food, but in an amount and on a schedule they determined.

Rumkowski immediately began setting up factories and all those able and willing to work were found jobs. The food entered the ghetto in bulk and distributed by Rumkowski’s officials. This consolidated Rumkowski’s power in the ghetto, since everyone’s survival was now dependent on his dispersal of food, of which there was very little.

Jewish children working in the Lodz Ghetto

Jewish children working in the Lodz Ghetto

As ghetto residents continued to starve, they became increasingly suspicious of Rumkowski and his officials, who appeared well nourished and healthy in spite of the rampant disease and hunger throughout the ghetto. When dissenters of the Rumkowski rule voiced their opinions, Rumkowski made speeches labeling them traitors to the cause. Rumkowski believed that these people were a direct threat to his work ethic and punished them further. When the Nazis later gave Rumkowski the job of naming residents for deportations, dissidents were the first to go.

Children in the Lodz Ghetto 1941

Children in the Lodz Ghetto 1941

Adding to the tensions were the daily arrivals of additional people. In the fall of 1941, 20,000 Jews from other areas of the Reich and 5,000 Roma were transferred to the Lodz ghetto.

Deportations to death camps began in January, 1942. Rumkowksi and his officials had been ordered in December to compile lists of those slated to go, beginning with 10,000 names. Approximately one thousand people per day left on the trains. These people were taken to the Chelmno death camp and gassed by carbon monoxide in trucks. By January 19, 1942, 10,003 people had been deported. By April 2, another 34,073 had been sent to Chelmno. In September 1942, everyone unable to work was to be deported, including the sick, the elderly, and children.

A destitute girl sits on the curb of a street of the Lodz ghetto sm

On June 10, 1944, Heinrich Himmler ordered the final liquidation of the ghetto. Since the Nazis had decided to close the Chelmno death camp because Soviet troops were getting close, the remaining transports went to Auschwitz.

On August 4, 1944, a last transport of 74,000 Jews from Lodz was sent out from the ghetto on its way to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. A few remaining workers were retained by the Nazis to finish confiscating materials and valuables out of the ghetto, but everyone else had to go, including Rumkowski and his family.

On January 19, 1945, the Soviet Army liberated the ghetto. Only 877 Jews remained from the more than 245,000 who were interned in the ghetto since its opening in 1939.

Food pails and dishes left behind by ghetto residents who had been deported to death camps. 1944. Henryk Ross/Art Gallery of Ontario

September 6, 1939 – Nazis Arrive in Krakow, Poland and Begin Attack on Krakow’s Jews

Founded before the end of the first millennium, the city of Krakow is located today in southern Poland. It was and still is one of Poland’s most important cities. As the Holocaust Encyclopedia reports, the first recorded presence of Jews residing in Krakow dates from the early 13th century. 55,515 Krakow residents identified themselves as Jews in the Polish census of 1931; on the eve of World War II some 56,000 Jews resided in Krakow, almost one-quarter of a total population of about 250,000.

By November 1939, the Jewish population of Krakow had grown to approximately 70,000, reflecting the arrival of Jews deported from the District Wartheland (a part of German-occupied Poland that was directly annexed to the so-called Greater German Reich).

On this day in history, Nazis arrived in Krakow and began issuing restrictions on Jews, including depriving them of state pensions, imposing compulsory disclosure of foreign bank deposits, demanding people between the age of 14 to 60 embark on forced labor, ordering all Jews to wear identifying stars of David, and banning them from public transport.

In May 1940, the Germans began to expel Jews from Krakow to the neighboring countryside. By March 1941, the SS and police had expelled more than 55,000 Jews, leaving about 15,000 Jews in Krakow.

In early March 1941, the Germans ordered Jews to move into a ghetto, “for sanitary and public order reasons.” The ghetto was situated in Podgorze, located in the south of Krakow. As one writer opines, “Kraków Ghetto was established for the purpose of exploitation, terror, and persecution of local Polish Jews, as well as the staging area for separating the “able workers” from those who would later be deemed unworthy of life.”

Resident of Krakow Ghetto

Between 15,000 and 20,000 Jews lived within the ghetto boundaries, which were enclosed by barbed-wire fences and, in places, by a stone wall.

The ten-foot-high wall was installed across the ghetto’s confines, and the Jews within the ghetto were ordered to construct it. The walls were crowned with arches to resemble their tombstones.

Jews at forced labor constructing the wall around the Krakow ghetto. Krakow, Poland, 1941. —Instytut Pamieci Narodowej

It was standard for four families to share one flat. The average person had two square meters of space. Conditions were made worse by a second transit in October 1941, when a further 6,000 Jews from nearby villages were forced into the ghetto.

As the Holocaust Encyclopedia notes:

The Germans established several factories inside the ghetto . . . where they deployed Jews at forced labor. Several hundred Jews were also employed in factories and forced-labor projects outside the ghetto. Among the businesses utilizing Jewish forced laborers was the firm German Enamel Products (Deutsche Emalwarenfabrik), owned by Oskar Schindler, located in Podgorze, and later moved to Plaszow.”

The SS and police planned the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto for mid-March 1943, in accordance with the Himmler’s order in October 1942 to complete the murder of the Jews residing in the Generalgouvernement area.

The Holocaust Encyclopedia reports:

On March 13-14, 1943, the SS and police carried out the operation, shooting some 2,000 Jews in the ghetto. The SS transferred another 2,000 Jews—those capable of work and the surviving members of the Jewish Council and the Jewish police force (Ordnungsdienst)—to the Plaszow forced-labor camp, and the rest of the Jews, approximately 3,000, to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center in two transports, arriving on March 13 and March 16. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, the camp authorities selected 549 persons from the two transports (499 men and 50 women) to be registered as prisoners and murdered the others, approximately 2,450, in the gas chambers.”

Deportation of Jews from the Ghetto, March 1943

Although there had been resistance groups in the ghetto, the German authorities succeeded in their massive manhunt to find and eradicate the fighters. Some ghetto fighters escaped and attempted to join partisan groups active in the Krakow region, but the Jewish underground fighters suffered heavy losses. In the fall of 1944 the remnants of the resistance left Poland, crossing into neighboring Slovakia and then into Hungary, where they joined with Jewish resistance groups in Budapest.

In total, it is estimated that some 65,000 Polish Jews who lived in Cracow and its immediate vicinity were murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War, obliterating Jewish life and culture as it had existed before the War completely.

The fate of the ghetto was depicted in the film “Schindler’s List,” although some aspects of the history were changed for artistic reasons.

A column of Jews forced to march through the streets of Krakow during the final liquidation of the ghetto. Krakow, Poland, 1943. —Instytut Pamieci Narodowej; US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Gumkowski Jerzy Tomaszewski

After the war, some 4,282 Jews resurfaced in Krakow. By early 1946, Polish Jews returning from the Soviet Union swelled the Jewish population of the city to approximately 10,000. But pogroms in August 1945 and throughout 1946 as well as number of murders of individual Jews led to the emigration of many of the surviving Krakow Jews. By the early 1990s, only a few hundred Jews remained.

August 4, 1944 – Anne Frank Was Captured

Recently uncovered documents show that Otto Frank repeatedly sought help to get to the United States prior to the capture of the family by the Nazis, but to no avail; the U.S. would not grant a visa.

On this sad date in 1944, 15-year-old Anne Frank was discovered by the Nazi police hiding in a tiny attic room above her father Otto’s factory in Amsterdam, Holland. She and her family and four others were living in a secret annex concealed behind a moveable bookcase.

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In the annex, Anne started to write regularly in a diary that she had been given for her 13th birthday. Early on, she observed the weekly trainloads of Jews taken from the city:

“We assume that most of them are being murdered. The English radio says they’re being gassed. Perhaps that’s the quickest way to die.”

And in fact, more than 100,000 Dutch Jews – 70 percent of the community – were deported to concentration camps in Germany. Most were gassed upon arrival.

Anne and the others had been in hiding for 25 months. No one knows for sure who betrayed them to the Nazis, but it is believed to have been a former business associate of Otto’s.

[New research suggests that the German Security Service may not have been looking for hidden Jews when they found Anne and the seven others hiding with her. Rather, they might have been investigating other activities at the office and simply stumbled across the hidden families by chance, according to historians at the Anne Frank House, the museum in Amsterdam dedicated to preserving the “Secret Annex” where Frank, her sister, her parents and four other Jews spent more than two years in hiding.]

After their capture, Anne and her sister Margot were taken to the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. In March, 1945, both girls succumbed to typhus, just a few weeks before the camp was liberated by the British Army.

Miep Gies, one of Otto’s employees who helped the Franks, found Anne’s diary on the day of the arrest and secreted it for the remainder of the war.

Miep Gies, who worked as Otto Frank’s secretary at Opekta, his trading company in gelling agents for making jam.

Miep Gies, who worked as Otto Frank’s secretary at Opekta, his trading company in gelling agents for making jam.

Otto managed to survive the war, and upon his return to Amsterdam, Miep gave him the diary. In her diary, Otto read that Anne had planned – after the war – to publish a book about the time she spent in the Secret Annex. She had even edited and rewritten a large portion of her original diary. Initially, Otto Frank was uncertain what to do but he finally decided to fulfill his daughter’s wish.

Otto Frank, the only one to survive the concentration camps, died in 1980. Anne’s diary, now translated into over 30 languages, still lives on.

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She is perhaps most well-known for one of her last entries, less than three weeks before her capture:

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Review of “The Children of Teheran” film about children saved from the Holocaust by Dalia Guttman, David Tour, and Yehuda Kaveh

The film tells the story of a group of children fleeing occupied Europe from the Holocaust and their eventual settlement in Palestine.

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In 1939, as the Nazis moved into Poland, thousands of Jews escaped eastward, toward Russia. The Russian army, no fan of either Poles or Jews, sent the refugees to Siberia. From there, many decided to try to head south, to Samarkand in Uzbekistan. In spite of the milder climate, there was simply no food for them, and many died of starvation and disease.

Some of the Jewish parents, trying to save their children, left them in local Polish orphanages in Samarkand. They hoped to find their children after the war if they survived.

In 1942, the Stalin-Sikorsky Agreement was signed between the Polish government in exile and the Soviet government, calling for the recruitment of Polish refugees into the Polish army to fight alongside the Allies (which included Russia). This army, known as the Anders Army, was to be sent to the battlefields of the Middle East through Tehran.

The Christian Polish orphanages were allowed to send children with the army to journey to the Middle East. Some 1,000 children made their way by train from the orphanages in the Soviet Union to the Caspian Sea port of Krasnovodsk (now called Türkmenbaşy), in Turkmenistan. From there, they boarded vessels that took them across the southern part of the Caspian to the Iranian port of Bandar-e Pahlavi (renamed Bandar-e Anzali after the Islamic Revolution). Others took an overland route to Pahlavi. Eventually they reached Tehran. There they were crowded into tents, in poor sanitary conditions with starvation rations.

Refugee tents in Iran

Refugee tents in Iran

When word of the children’s arrival in Tehran reached Palestine, the Jewish Agency sent Israeli emissaries to care for them and to bring back as many Jewish children from the Christian orphanages as possible. They had heard reports that the religious authorities were trying to convert the children. They also knew by then that these could be the last Jewish children from Europe to be alive when the Holocaust was over.

Several months later after intensive diplomatic efforts, the British authorities (reluctant to alienate the Arabs by allowing too many Jews into Palestine) granted certificates to the children to enter Israel in early January 1943. The children and their escorts left Persia through the Karachi Sea to India, and from there, after several days of travel through the minefields of the Indian Ocean, they reached Suez. On February 18, 1943, the train bearing 861 of “the children from Tehran” arrived in Atlit, to a camp established by the British Mandatory government in the 1930s. From there they continued to various kibbutzim in Israel, where their travels finally ended. Six months later, on August 28, another 100 children reached Atlit, having traveled overland, through Iraq.

Young Holocaust survivors arriving at Atlit in 1945.

Although most of the children had come from religious families in Poland, hundreds ended up living in nonreligious settlements, which caused a great deal of controversy in Israel at the time. But they were alive, and they represented hope, or “hatikvah” (the name of the Israeli National Anthem).

The movie features some of these children, now old, and their reminiscences of that time. All interviews are simultaneously translated into English. This is not as powerful a movie as Shoah (the nine-hour film completed by Claude Lanzmann in 1985 about the Holocaust, or Shoah), but it is an extremely interesting episode of Holocaust history that has not gotten much exposure in the Western press. Recommended if you already have background on the Holocaust and seek to round out your knowledge.

Arrival in Israel

Arrival in Israel

You can see a trailer for the film on youtube.

June 24, 1941 – The German Army Occupies Vilna

As the Holocaust Museum online site explains:

Under the terms of the German-Soviet Pact, Vilna, along with the rest of eastern Poland, was occupied by Soviet forces in late September 1939. In October 1939, the Soviet Union transferred the Vilna region to Lithuania. The population of the city was 200,000 at this time, including over 55,000 Jews. In addition, some 12,000-15,000 Jewish refugees from German-occupied Poland found refuge in the city. Soviet forces occupied Lithuania in June 1940 and in August 1940 incorporated Vilna, along with the rest of Lithuania, into the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked Soviet forces in eastern Europe. The German army occupied Vilna on June 24, 1941, the third day after the invasion.”

German occupation of Lithuania during WWII

German occupation of Lithuania during WWII

The destruction of the Vilna Jewry began soon thereafter.

Vilna was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” It was an important center of the Jewish Enlightenment and had a number of famous institutes of research and education, including the Jewish Scientific Institute, YIVO. The book Stronger Than Iron reports on the fate of Vilna Jews from the moment the Germans came in June, 1941 until the Soviet liberation in September, 1944. Some seventy thousand Jews died. The author notes that “by the most optimistic assessment only one thousand Jews [of Vilna] survived.”

I have read quite a few books written by Holocaust survivors, but I think this one stands out because of the astute observation skills of the narrator, who was a prominent member of the Jewish community in Vilna, Lithuania. (The book was originally written in Yiddish by Theodore Balberyszki, and translated into English by his son Mendel.)

As you read about the amazing sequence of events that led both Theodore and his son to live in spite of all they endured, you will understand how rare and crucial this eyewitness account actually is.

One of two ghettos for Jews established by the Nazis in Vilna

One of two ghettos for Jews established by the Nazis in Vilna

Mendel Balberyszski, in his Preface, explains the title of this book:

“My book is entitled Stronger Than Iron, for a human being had to be stronger than iron to endure the savage brutality and hatred of the Germans and their Lithuanian helpers, who were determined to implement a policy of the extermination of Vilna Jewry.

One had to be tough as iron to absorb the blows of the ‘good’ German during the slave labor; to survive when the body was swollen from hunger; to overcome disease and lice and to work from dawn till night in rain, snow, blizzards, winds, frost and heat.

“One had to be tough as iron not to collapse physically as well as morally when witnessing the pain of an old mother, of one’s wife and most importantly of one’s little children who all of a sudden, from a beautiful, cultured, materially secure life, were thrown into the abyss of need, confinement, dirt, hunger and horrible suffering.”

Evaluation: I will say that, in spite of having read many survivor accounts, I found this book riveting. If you are at all interested in this genre, this is a book you won’t want to miss.

Note: There is a good article on Vilna Jewry and what happened to them on the online site of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, here.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Gefen Books, 2011

September 26, 1941- Final Destruction of Jews in Eishishok in Lithuania

Eishishok (or Ejszyszki) used to be one of the oldest Jewish communities in Lithuania. The founding families of Jewish Eishyshok were believed to have come from a sect dating from eighth-century Babylonia, which by the eleventh century had shifted one of its centers from the Middle East to Europe.

Before the Holocaust, the Jewish population of Eishyshok was approximately 3,500. Contemporary Eishyshok is a town without Jews.

The Germans arrived in Eishistok in June of 1941, collecting and confiscating Jewish valuables, and initiating a program of abuse and humiliation. On September 21, an SS mobile killing squad arrived, accompanied by Lithuanian volunteers. Four thousand jews from both Eishistok and the surrounding area were herded into three synagogues. On September 25, the men were led in groups of 250 to the old Jewish cemetery, ordered to undress at the edge of open pits, and shot by Lithuanian guards. The next day, on this day in history, the women and children were shot near the Christian cemetery. As the U.S. Holocaust Memorial reports:

Nine hundred years of Jewish life and culture in Eishishok came to an end in two days.”

A book on this community, There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok by Yaffa Eliach, was a 1998 Finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction.

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July 8, 1941 – Ion Antonescu of Romania Exhorts His Ministers to Have No Mercy on Jews

Ion Antonescu was the Prime Minister of Romania during most of World War II. An anti-semite, he entered Romania into an alliance with Nazi Germany. His close friend (but no relation) Mihai Antonescu served as Vice President of the Council of Ministers.

On July 3, 1941, Mihai Antonescu delivered a speech at the Ministry of the Interior later published in a brochure under the title “Directives and Guidelines Given to the Civilian Inspectors and Pretors sent to Bessarabia and Bukovina.” In the Tenth Directive, designs for the Jewish population are put forth:

We are now at the moment in time most favorable to ethnic liberation, national revision and the purification of our nation from all those elements alien to her soul, which have grown like weeds, darkening her future. In order that this unique moment not be lost, we must be implacable.”

Less than a week later, on this day in history, Ion Antonescu added important clarifications to Mihai’s directives. At a Cabinet meeting, he addressed his ministers:

I beg you, be implacable. Saccharine and vaporous humanitarianism have no place here. At the risk of being misunderstood by some traditionalists who may still be among you, I am for the forced migration of the entire Jewish element from Bessarabia and Bukovina, which must be thrown over the border. I also favor the forced migration of the Ukrainian element, which has nothing to seek here at this time.

. . . You must be merciless… I do not know when, after how many centuries, the Romanian nation will again enjoy this total freedom of action, with the possibility for ethnic purification and national revision. This is the hour when we are masters on our territory. Let it be used! I do not mind if history judges us barbarians. . . . There are no other favorable moments in our history. If need be, shoot with machine guns, and I say that there is no law. . . . I take full legal responsibility and I tell you, there is no law!”

After the war, both Antonescus were convicted of war crimes and executed.

Ion Antonescu

Ion Antonescu