An Emotional Night Of Film And Discussion
The courage of survivors telling their stories on film, and the talent of filmmakers bringing those stories to light, were highlighted in an evening of movies and conversation, sponsored by the Claims Conference and the Paley Center for Media in New York City.
“We who are determined that the world will not forget, do not forget,” former “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel, who is the son of German-Jewish parents who fled Nazi Germany, and served as moderator of the program, told the sold-out audience in December. “But all too often, those whom we are trying to remind of what happened not only don’t have interest but are in denial.”
Segments of four new films — “Bogdan’s Journey,” “1945,” “116 Cameras” and “Sierakowiak’s Diary” — were screened, each unfolding a story of the Holocaust from a different perspective. (These films were supported in part by a grant from the Claims Conference’s Film Grant program.) Following each film, a panel of filmmakers, scholars and survivors – including Eva Schloss, Roman Kent, Jehuda Evron and Francoise Teitelbaum – engaged in a far-reaching discussion, adding personal, historical and cinematic context. With Koppel asking probing questions, they touched on, among other subjects, the complex nature of memory and the urgency of educating younger generations. One panelist referred to the films as sacred documents.
“We have seen four extraordinary works. The mere fact that they have been produced is cause for optimism,” Koppel said.
A Forgotten Family Member Returned
A young girl’s lost silver pendant made international news when it was found during an excavation of the Sobibor extermination camp in 2016. Since then, the owner of the nameless pendant has been identified, and last fall her surviving family members from all over the world gathered to honor and remember her.
The girl, Karolina Cohn, lived in Frankfurt before she was deported in 1941 in a cattle car to Minsk where she was imprisoned in the ghetto. On Nov. 13, 2017, the Claims Conference organized the laying of a stumbling stone — known as a “Stolpersteine,” a brass memorial plaque embedded in the pavement in front of the Nazi victim’s last known address — in Frankfurt, for Karolina Cohn and her family.
Connecting the pendant with Karolina Cohn took extensive research: When the pendant was unearthed, archaeologists discovered that it was engraved with the Hebrew words Mazal Tov, the date “3 July 1929” and “Frankfurt AM.” The mystery deepened when it was discovered that Anne Frank, who was born in Frankfurt just three weeks before July 3, 1929, had owned a similar silver pendant. With the help of information obtained from Frankfurt deportation lists and the victims´ database in Yad Vashem, funded by the Claims Conference, ownership of the pendant was traced to Karolina Cohn. Further, Karolina’s birth certificate, located at the Frankfurt Registry Office, confirmed this finding.
The Claims Conference funded a film about the excavation, which provided evidence for the location of the gas chambers, “The Sobibor Documentation Project.”
Karolina Cohn, who is one of 1.5 million Jewish children murdered in the Shoah, received no burial, and there is no gravestone for her in any cemetery. But this marker in front of the former Cohn home – a tangible memorial – reminds the world that Karolina existed, that she mattered, that she was loved.
New Information Access For Survivors
Still, more than 70 years after the end of the war, survivors are newly gaining access to information about their families.
At last winter’s annual World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants conference in Jerusalem, Deb Kram, the client outreach manager for the Claims Conference, met Rose Raport, who had been hidden on a Polish farm while her parents and brothers were taken away and murdered in Auschwitz. Rose was very young at the time and had forgotten her brother’s name. Kram introduced her to a Yad Vashem representative who was able to access German archival material (digitized with funding from the Claims Conference). For Raport, the moment turned into a small miracle, as she recovered a buried memory, that she had another brother. Now, she is able to recite those names when she lights memorial candles.
For 29 years, Child Survivor Conferences have provided a sense of community to survivors, who have opportunities to share their experiences with others from similar backgrounds, who understand them as no one else can. The conferences include guest speakers, educational and cultural sessions, therapeutic workshops and updates on eligibility requirements for programs and services for survivors.
Ambassador Colette Avital, a Holocaust survivor and board member of the Claims Conference, spoke about the continued struggle for survivors’ rights in Israel and about Holocaust education, urging the “responsibility of remembering.”
The participants, who come from the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, Croatia, Germany, Australia, as well from across the United States, Canada and Israel, describe the event as a special family reunion.
Three Cities, One Night: A Chanukah Tradition Begins
While there are several dates on the calendar designated for Holocaust remembrance, the Claims Conference initiated a new effort to establish a night of Chanukah in honor of Holocaust surviviors.
Last December, at the first annual Chanukah International Holocaust Survivors Night, the Claims Conference brought 300 survivors to the Kotel in Jerusalem. It was a powerful moment signifying light over darkness, the struggle of the many over the few, the miracle of the survival of the powerless against the mighty.
Simultaneously, survivors gathered in Berlin and New York. Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble hosted Holocaust survivors in a celebration and at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, survivors were honored. Claims Conferences officials note that Jews were not able to commemorate Chanukah or any holiday during the Shoah, and the organization is committed to enhancing their celebration, and honoring them, in future years.
At the celebration at the Kotel, Abraham Biderman, vice president of the Claims Conference, said, “The Claims Conference is about the survivors, and has always been about helping survivors live in dignity, especially now, as they age. Nothing is more important than passing it along to survivors who endured so much. We hope this light will serve as a light for future generations as they celebrate Chanukah and remember survivors.”
In years to come, the Claims Conference plans to continue and expand this tradition.
Algerian Jews Recognized For The First Time
In February 2018, the Claims Conference announced that, for the first time, as a result of Claims Conference negotiations, Jews who resided in Algeria between July 1940 and November 1942, and suffered from Nazi persecution, may be eligible for payment through the Claims Conference Hardship Fund.
Julius Berman, president of the Claims Conference, said, “This is a long overdue recognition for a large group of Jews in Algeria who suffered anti-Jewish measures by Nazi allies like the Vichy Regime. Algerian Jews were subjected to restrictions on education, political life, participation in civil society and employment. Additionally, French citizenship was abolished, singling them out only because they were Jews.”
Claims Conference Wins Hard-Fought Battle On Behalf Of Iasi Survivors
The Claims Conference was able to announce a hard-won success: As a result of the Claims Conference’s ongoing negotiations with the German government, Holocaust survivors who lived in Iasi will receive a monthly pension in recognition of their suffering.
In Iasi, a city in eastern Romania, more than 13,000 Jews were murdered in pogroms and on death trains between June 28 and June 30, 1941. This year, Iasi survivors living around the world are receiving a compensation pension.
Legislative Victories For Survivors
Today, the world has little time left to ensure a small measure of justice for survivors for their looted property. The World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), which advocates for the recovery of Jewish properties seized during the Holocaust, helped lead the way to a unanimous U.S. Senate win recently with the passage of the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act, requiring the State Department to report on the progress of countries in helping people identify and reclaim properties wrongfully seized during World War II and its aftermath.
“The bipartisan effort, initiated by lawmakers from across the political spectrum, is a profound statement about the importance to the United States of countries addressing the history of the systematic looting of Jewish assets during the Holocaust,” said Gideon Taylor, Chair of Operations for the World Jewish Restitution Organization.
The Claims Conference and other leading Jewish organizations in the United States, Israel and Europe are members of WJRO. For information on property restitution go to: www.wjro.org.il