Original Article Published On The Jewish News Syndicate

His career has included nearly 3,000 at bats, 795 hits, 95 home runs, 397 runs batted in and a lifetime batting average of .268. He now adds member of Team Israel, Israeli citizen and Olympian to his list of accomplishments.

For most parents, having a son play on a Major League Baseball team would be a dream come true. For Danny Valencia’s parents, it isn’t quite enough.

Though proud of his baseball career, which has included playing on eight Major League teams and Team Israel, they also want him to finish his college degree—and to join them for Rosh Hashanah dinner one year. The Valencias are almost batting three for three.

Danny Valencia is well known to baseball fans in the United States and in Israel. The 35-year-old—drafted in the 19th round by the Minnesota Twins in 2006—made his Major League debut with the Twins in 2010 and then played for them, the Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles (twice!), Kansas City Royals, Toronto Blue Jays, Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners.

His impressive career has included nearly 3,000 at bats, 795 hits, 95 home runs, 397 runs batted in and a lifetime batting average of .268.

Valencia can now add member of Team Israel, Israeli citizen and Tokyo 2020 Olympian to his list of accomplishments.

But he cannot (at least, not yet) add college graduate to his credentials.

Valencia began his studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he was Southern Conference Freshman of the Year and second-team all-conference. He transferred to the University of Miami, which was closer to his home and family in Boca Raton, Fla. He took a leave from college when he was drafted by the Twins in 2006.

“I promised my parents I would finish my degree—that was 14 years ago,” says the 35-year-old.

Danny Valencia, Baltimore Orioles vs. Kansas Royals, May 9, 2018. Credit: Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons.
Danny Valencia, Baltimore Orioles vs. Kansas Royals, May 9, 2018. Credit: Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons.

Valencia has been making good on his promise. He is taking four online courses this semester and has seven more courses to complete before earning a degree from the University of Miami.

While he has had a lot on his mind these past five weeks, including making aliyah and traveling with Team Israel to Germany and Italy, he managed to devote time to his online courses. “My family can’t believe it. I have his work ethic!” he jokes, adding that, as he has gotten older, he has gotten better at managing his time and schedule.

‘Playing for more than ourselves’

The move towards permanent Israeli residency has also taught Valencia to be better at managing bureaucracy.

“It was a long process and a lot of hoops to jump through, but it makes sense,” reports Valencia, who along teammates Ty Kelly, Nick Rickles and Ben Wanger became Israeli citizens under Israel’s Law of Return. “There was paperwork, interviews, FBI checks, marriage certificates, postiles, rabbi letters and more. It was a tedious process, but without that, there would be no passport, and we wouldn’t be Israeli citizens. I am happy I did it.”

In between trips to the Interior Ministry, Valencia and his fellow teammates toured their new homeland. They traveled to Jerusalem and to the Dead Sea; they went to Yad Vashem. Valencia makes it a point to say that he was struck by Israel in general, which was followed days later by a trip to Germany.

“It was my first trip to both,” he says. “Yad Vashem was really emotional for all of us. In Germany, we realized it [the Holocaust] all originated here.” Valencia felt the experience taught that “we are playing for more than ourselves.”

With the Boston Red Sox vs. the Baltimore Orioles, Sept. 28, 2012. Credit: Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons.
With the Boston Red Sox vs. the Baltimore Orioles, Sept. 28, 2012. Credit: Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons.

He and his teammates feel that an important part of their mission is to “inspire Israeli kids and to inspire a generation of Jewish athletes. “There are not so many Jewish athletes,” he acknowledges. In Israel, they have led baseball clinics for young ballplayers and found time to work out, even getting “a guy to pitch batting practice.”

Their hard work paid off.

Team Israel stunned the world with their performance, finishing in the top five in the 2019 European Baseball Championship and earning the right to participate in the 2020 Olympics qualifiers. As the winner of that tournament, Israel qualified for the first of the six spots in teams to compete in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Valencia batted .375 in the Olympic qualifying tournament, leading the tournament in runs (7), home runs (3), RBIs (9), walks (5) and slugging percentage (1.000). He also hit a three-run homer in his final at-bat at the tournament in Parma, Italy. That wound up giving Israel a 10-run lead over South Africa.

In assessing his family’s reaction to his decision to become an Israeli citizen and play for Team Israel, Valencia reports: “My family was shocked, but they were supportive. They thought it was cool. They were blown away by my effort.”

‘Electricity in the air’

He had been following Team Israel for years, but his Major League responsibilities always precluded his participation on the team. When he realized that he would not be with a Major League team in the summer of 2019, playing for Team Israel became a possibility.

“I had been staying in good shape, and I reached out [to team president Peter Kurz] and said I would be interested in taking part,” he relates. “I joke that it was the best front-office decision he had ever made.”

Seriously, Valencia reports, “I loved it. It was a great group of guys, and I am grateful for the experience.”

And he enjoys the Jewish and Israel touches. “On Friday nights, we had Shabbat dinner with prayers, toasts and breaking bread with the boys.” He is also moved by the pre-game playing of “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem. “We kept our hats on for our national anthem—to show that God is above. We took our hats off for the national anthems of the other countries.”

With the Oakland Athletics vs. the Baltimore Orioles, Aug. 17, 2015. Credit: Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons.
With the Oakland Athletics vs. the Baltimore Orioles, Aug. 17, 2015. Credit: Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons.

Valencia is no stranger to Jewish holidays and traditions.

“I had a normal Jewish upbringing,” he says. “We went to synagogue on the High Holidays; my mother fasted on Yom Kippur. I was around Judaism.” Valencia was born to a Jewish mother and a Cuban father who converted to Judaism. He attended Hebrew school and celebrated his bar mitzvah, recalling being sick during the occasion, saying “I was sniffling the whole time.”

Nevertheless, he notes that it was “a proud moment for both sides of the family.”

Valencia says the hardest part of being on the road for nearly six weeks with Team Israel was being away from 16-month old son, Oliver, and his wife. “We did FaceTime. I am not sure what he understands, but he saw a video of me hitting and got excited!”

Due to the late September ending date of the Olympic qualifiers and the late falling Jewish holidays, Valencia was able to be home for Rosh Hashanah.

“It is the first time ever—home with family,” reports Valencia, happy to celebrate the holiday with parents, aunts and uncles, his wife and son. He admits that “baseball was a major topic of conversation at dinner. They were all ecstatic, and they are trying to find accommodations in Tokyo for the Olympics. It could be the last time I play baseball on that level.”

Kurz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball and the team’s general manager, notes Valencia’s performance on and off the field. “He is a proven Major Leaguer, with nine years of experience. When he joined the team, there was electricity in the air, as he was our anchor and leading hitter. He hit home runs in five straight games, and led by example on the field and off. He is now the leading advocate and spokesperson for the team, and is working hard to get us sponsorships, donations and commercial deals so that the IAB can use those funds to develop the game of baseball in Israel, and we can also provide the team with better conditions to train and practice under.”

He details the many needs still facing the team as they prepare for the Olympics, including bringing some additional players to Israel, bringing all of the players to Israel in the winter, having a two-week pre-Olympic mini-camp in the United States, holding exhibition games against Japanese teams in Japan, purchasing equipment, bringing coaches to Israel and sending scouts look for Olympic opponents. Kurz reports anticipated costs are more than $500,000, and that they are trying to raise needed funds by donations and sponsorships.

In the meantime, Danny Valencia is home with his family in South Florida. He is staying in shape, thinking a lot about the Olympics, spreading the word about fundraising for the team and working to fulfill that “three-parter” his parents wanted … getting closer every day.

Team Israel, now headed to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, at the quarter finals. Photo by Margo Sugarman.
Team Israel, now headed to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, at the quarter finals. Photo by Margo Sugarman.
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LifeTown
10 Microlab Rd, Livingston, NJ 07039
(973) 251-0200
https://www.lifetown.com/
founder/director: Rabbi Zalman and Toba Grossbaum: Faygie Levy-director of communications
Zalman@fcnj.com

“53,000 square foot complex which provides recreational, educational,
therapeutic and social opportunities for children, teens and adults with disabilities, their families and the larger community. The centerpiece of Life Town, known as the “Life Village,” an 11,000 square foot village, where people with disabilities gain real-world experiences such as withdrawing money from a bank, budgeting, crossing the street, making basic purchases, going to a doctor or dentist, andworking. Some of the many community partners, where participants gain shopping and working experience include ShopRite, RWJ Barnabas Health, Jeff and Charlie’s Pet Shop, Sarah Jane Florals, Team Gear Clothing, Ahuva’s Art and Hobby and Village Copy Center.”

Howard Blas’ Chabad.org article:
https://howardblas.com/2019/08/26/it-takes-a-lifetown-n-j-project-a-model-for-inclusive-community-building/

Background/My Visit:

When I was visiting Soul Café and Soul Center in Detroit, MI as part of this project, my hosts suggested I also visit LifeTown Detroit. I was impressed with the Friendship Circle building upstairs and LifeTown downstairs. When I shared just how impressed I was, I was told, “Just wait—this is nothing! Wait til you see the new LifeTown being built in Livingston, NJ!” I
therefore made plans to visit. At the time of the visit, LifeTown was a work in progress—a construction site a few weeks away from completion. Rabbi Grossbaum and Faygie Levy, the director of communications, spent several hours patiently, carefully and enthusiastically explaining every room of the new complex. They noted that New Jersey and this county in particular have (according to the CDC) the highest rates of autism in the country. There has been great enthusiasm for an “all under one roof” multi service center where families can receive therapies, participate in recreational programs, swim, play flag football, attend Shabbatons and family workshops, and learn and practice life and vocational training skills in Village. There is great excitement from nearby schools and school districts as well as from
various departments at Rutgers University. All see great potential for collaboration and training. As of December, 2018, the building had received its certificate of occupancy and had begun offering programs and activities on a limited basis. They will gradually move to full operation.

Overview:

A 53,000 square-foot complex in Livingston, New Jersey, known as Life Town which provides recreational, educational, therapeutic and social opportunities for children, teens and adults with disabilities, their families and the larger community.
Grossbaum, CEO and founder, is quick to point out that Life Town was built with an awareness that “New Jersey, especially northern New Jersey, is the epi-center of the autism world. According to the CDC, we have the highest concentration in the US of people with autism.” Grossbaum continues, “The goal of Life Town is to make the world a more welcoming place, integrating people with special needs in to daily life. Life Town is a model for people with special needs and all kids—when they play together on the playground, for example, they naturally come together and don’t notice differences.” Life Town will host all of the Friendship Circle programs, where teen volunteers and people with disabilities regularly participate in
inclusive programming.
Perhaps the most striking features of Life Town is its extensive programming and attention to detail. Each room, hallway, program and activity strives to meet the wide range of current and anticipated future needs of the various communities it will serve. Participants will gain valuable social, interpersonal and recreational experience through activities in the aquatic center including a zero-entry pool, giant water table and water-activity room; a therapeutic activity wing, designed to mimic a natural park and beach setting, includes specialized activity rooms,
indoor and outdoor playgrounds and more; a sensory wall with panels for engaging and exploring through the various senses; a Snoezelen room offers a controlled multi-sensory, therapeutic environment; a gymnasium for recreational activities and sports leagues, including basketball,volleyball and tennis—even a three lane bowling alley! The gym is equipped with sound-absorbent walls and ceiling enabling individuals with sensory issues to more easily participate in sports. And the 2,500 square foot youth center house the early childhood center, dance and music Studio, and birthday center.

The centerpiece of Life Town, known as the “Life Village,” is a simulated, town square with streets, traffic lights, a park, sidewalks and shops. Participants gain valuable independent living skills as they navigate the 11,000 square foot village. The real-world experiences of the village
reinforce classroom skills learned on such topics as budgeting, problem solving and time management.
Participants begin their visit by withdrawing money from Regal Bank. They walk and travel in mini Audi cars (from DCH Millburn Audi) and learn to follow crosswalks and traffic signals. They then have opportunities to visit sometimes hard-to-navigate, sensory overloaded places as a movie theater (free popcorn!), doctor and dental offices, grocery store, pet shop, book store, hair salon and a pet shop. Some of the many community partners include ShopRite, RWJ Barnabas Health, Jeff and Charlie’s Pet Shop, Sarah Jane Florals, Team Gear Clothing, Ahuva’s Art and Hobby and Village Copy Center.
Participants also obtain real-world job training through such in-village work opportunities as stocking shelves in the grocery store, serving snacks, making copies and laundering towels at the Wash and Fold, for use in the aquatic center. Grossbaum proudly points, out, “Every job is a real job with an end purpose (“no packing and unpacking”)-maintenance, office, etc. Parents are welcome to can browse in the Words Bookstore (founded by the parent of a child with autism, with a larger branch in Maplewood), sip a cup of coffee, have a business meeting, or socialize with other parents.
The LifeTown experience extends to the hallways and corridors, where thoughtful planning decisions included providing soothing, interactive music, large windows with natural light, and colorful stripes on the walls and floors, leading participants from the map to a specific room.
Even the colors were chosen in consultant with experts in the field. Grossbaum notes, “The colors are primary but not childish and chosen to not be triggers for people with autism.” Once at a given room, the stripes “come to life” with a decorative design that indicates which activities can be found in that space.

The hallway itself and various alcoves feature many thoughtful, meaningful touches. A living memorial which strives to teach visitors about the bravery, devotion and faith of the 1.2 million children who died during the Holocaust. Visitors can “pledge” to do a mitzvah in memory of a child who was killed. A nearby alphabet wall teaches the alphabet in such languages as Braille, ASL, English, Hebrew and Mandarin and to demonstrate how we all communicate the same message but in different forms and modes of communication.
Friendship Circle and Life Town participants will create a collage made of tiles intended to create a message of hope. They will also create additional interchangeable art displays.
Other special rooms include a parents’ lounge, a volunteer lounge, an easily divided multi- purpose room for classes, lectures, and after-school programs, and a synagogue with a “real Kotel” which, in conjunction with a nearby hotel, will allow Life Town to offer Shabbatons and family educational weekends.

Lessons Learned/Challenges/Advice:

-it is possible to begin making the world a more welcoming place through providing natural experiences for people with and without disabilities to interact.
-Experiences in childhood and early adulthood with disabilities sometimes leads to pursuing careers in such fields as OT, PT and speech and language therapy.
-provide jobs which are “real” and have an end purpose (“no packing then unpacking”) i.e. maintenance, office work, laundry, making copies.
-it is important to create a sense of community for everyone—participants, siblings, volunteers, parents and the community—offering a wide range of activities and flexible spaces helps achieve this goal.

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Original Article Published On The Jewish Imagine Magazine

In 20 short years, Israel, the Start Up Nation, is on the road to becoming Israel, the Accessible Start Up Nation.

Thanks to two Israeli presidents, a determined IDF Lieutenant-Colonel paralyzed in a Cobra helicopter crash, the Access Israel organization, and the newly formed Friends of Access Israel (FAISR), the world now looks to Israel as a model in accessibility, services and sensitivity to people with disabilities.

When Yuval Wagner was a child, he and his siblings helped take care of a father who used a wheelchair. They often carried him, as Israel was not accessible at the time. Wagner grew up and served as an Israel Air Force combat pilot. In 1987, at the age of 22, he and his squad were on a training exercise. The helicopter’s rotor malfunctioned, and all on board were killed—except for Wagner—he became a person with quadriplegia.

Access Israel Founder Yuval Wagner being interviewed
in front of a Cobra helicopter
Access Israel Founder Yuval Wagner being interviewed
in front of a Cobra helicopter

Following a long rehabilitation, Wagner returned to the Air Force, completed his degree in business management, got married and started a family. In the late 1990’s, the Wagners were excited to go on a vacation in the north of Israel. His wife made calls to make certain the accommodations were accessible. When Wagner arrived, he learned that the bathroom was not accessible.

He was frustrated, angry and determined. In 1999, he dashed off a letter to Israel’s President at the time, Ezer Weizman, a former combat pilot, commander of the Israeli Air Force and Minister of Defense. Weizman, the 7th president of Israel, invited Wagner to meet in person, where he apologized for Israel’s lack of accessibility, ordered him to start an NGO (non-governmental organization) to provide accessibility for the disabled and elderly, and invited Wagner to attend an official opening of the soon-to-be new organization in the main hall of the president’s residence.

Yuval Wagner of Access Israel opens the 20th Anniversary Program
at Beit Hanasi, President Rivlin’s home
Yuval Wagner of Access Israel opens the 20th Anniversary Program
at Beit Hanasi, President Rivlin’s home

The new organization would be known as Access Israel. The organization continues to grow, evolve, and lead the way for accessibility in Israel and around the world.

“We are the only Israeli organization that focuses on accessibility and inclusion—not only for people in wheelchairs, not only for people who are blind or who have hearing impairments—but for all kinds of disabilities and in all fields of life,” reported Wagner. Access Israel strives to integrate people with disabilities into all parts of Israeli society by focusing on dignity, equal rights, and maximum independence.

President Rivlin learning how to sign I love you.
President Rivlin learning how to sign I love you.

The organization has dramatically improved accessibility for thousands of Israelis, by promoting accessible environments, increasing awareness, and helping draft laws and regulations. Access Israel has helped make it possible for wheelchair users to access such tourist attractions as the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall.

Alan T. Brown, the Director of Public Impact for the Reeve Foundation in the United States and a person with quadriplegia, can attest to Jerusalem and Israel’s efforts to increase accessibility. Several years ago, Brown met Access Israel CEO Michal Rimon, expressed his desire to visit Israel, and shared concerns about lack of accessibility. Rimon enthusiastically invited Brown to Israel where he experienced accessibility first hand. “Something like this has to be done in America—something that is proactive and aggressive in attaining accessibility for all. I even went on the tour under the Kotel walls in a wheelchair!”

Lifelong friends Alan Brown of The Reeve Foundation (sitting) and Jamie Lassner of FAISR share a moment together at the Kotel
Lifelong friends Alan Brown of The Reeve Foundation (sitting) and Jamie Lassner of FAISR share a moment together at the Kotel

Brown experienced Israel’s advances in both physical accessibility and in leading the way in changing attitudes towards people with disabilities. “I am amazed at how Israel is using more than ramps to include the disabled. They are also doing it through corporate sensitivity training.”

Brown contacted his lifelong friend, Jamie Lassner and said, “In Israel they do it with much more dignity and we need to bring that worldwide. Jamie, are you in?” Brown and Lassner have been instrumental in starting Friends of Access Israel, which will help share the work of Access Israel more widely, and will help Wagner realize his goal of having the world view Israel as the Accessible Startup Nation.

A recent gathering in Jerusalem celebrated the 20th anniversary of Access Israel. Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, members of Knesset, Access Israel staff and supporters, and leaders of the newly created Friends of Access Israel celebrated the organization’s strides in services, technology, education and advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities.

Two women try to eat blindfolded at a recent FAISR sensativity dinner at NYU
Two women try to eat blindfolded at a recent FAISR sensativity dinner at NYU

Rivlin congratulated Wagner and Access Israel for their “tenacity, futuristic vision, and drive for making Israel one of the most accessible countries in the world.” He acknowledged that the organization is improving the lives of people worldwide and spoke personally about how his late wife, who became disabled later in life, and benefitted from the work of Access Israel.

Michal Rimon addressed the gathering, “When I joined Access Israel 12 years ago, we were a small organization with a big goal—to break through barriers and enable people with disabilities to dream and fulfil their dreams.” Rimon, Wagner, and CFO Rani Benjamini have consulted internationally on accessibility and have shared the work of Access Israel at conferences in Russia, Spain, Latvia, Austria, and Ecuador. It is one of four organizations which advise the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRDP).

President Rivlin welcomes his guests from NYC
President Rivlin welcomes his guests from NYC

Rimon is excited to collaborate with FAISR and its Executive Director, Jamie Lassner. This new organization has already launched a well-attended sensitivity training dinner at NYU, cohosted by Realize Israel. They are planning such programs as Accessibility Accelerating Sensitivity Training Trips to several North American cities, Accessible Group Tours of Israel, Expeditions and The FAISR Accessibility Accelerator Tech Conference. Through these initiatives, organization leaders will travel to communities in the US to increase awareness of accessibility and inclusion, they will offer accessible Israel trips, climb Mount Kilimanjaro and host a conference which promotes accessible Israeli technologies.

Guests receive a warm blessing from President Rivlin
Guests receive a warm blessing from President Rivlin

Jamie Lassner served for several years as Director of Student Life at Magen David Yeshivah Elementary School. He learned of the work of Access Israel through Brown and through a visit to Israel last summer.

“I was amazed by the global difference they were making with their proactive strategies and programs. They had no global boundaries and a robust all-inclusive mission to gain equality and access for all disabled and elderly persons,” said Lassner who then decided to create FAISR. “As they say, the rest is history!” Lassner and board members Alan Brown and Abraham Eisenstat, friends from their many years, credit their late fathers for inspiring their work with FAISR. “They always made sure that all individuals coming into their community felt welcome.”

President Rivlin laughs with his guests
President Rivlin laughs with his guests

Rimon looks forward to collaborating with her American counterparts. “We also can’t ignore a sense of Israeli pride as we serve as an example to the whole world and unite on a common global issue. We have already learned a lot from our FAISR partners and find ourselves looking towards the future with great excitement at the vital things we will accomplish together.”
Wagner added, “L’Chaim and Ya’alah” (onward) on our joint global goal to change the quality of life for the biggest minority of the world—the disabled. Together we are going to do amazing things for accessibility and inclusion, both in Israel and America.”

At the 20th Anniversary gathering, FAISR received a welcome endorsement from President Rivlin. “Our friends from abroad, from the United States—Welcome! We appreciate very much what you are doing, because this is a humanitarian need for everyone to respect human beings as human beings, not only as an Israeli or American, Brit, or Russian. We appreciate your cooperation and partnership. G-d Bless You!”

FAISR is a non-profit United States based 501-3C organization. You can follow then on Instagram: @f.Aisr, or on facebook: faisr.Org. For more info, email info@faisr.Org

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Original Article Published On The Jewish News Syndicate

A small but intransigent film team is working to reveal that “national memorials to murderers lie feet away from the graves of their victims. The glorification of so-called war ‘heroes’ with Jewish blood on their hands is in full swing across the Baltic States.”

Eugene Levin’s connection to Latvia keeps getting deeper and more personal. A native of the Eastern European nation, he is making a documentary about a little-known chapter in history where Latvia “closed its eyes,” and allowed Jews to be murdered by Germans and fellow countrymen.

A Boston-area ultrasound technician, Levin came to the United States in 1989. He learned a great deal about the Latvian Holocaust experience from his grandfather, who died in 2013 at the age of 93. “He was the only survivor of 19 in his family,” reports Levin. “He lost everything. He owned seven houses, which we tried to get back. He was ignored and footballed. He got nothing.”

Levin goes back to Latvia once a year “to visit the mass graves of the Jews.”

On a 2012 trip, he noticed what he describes as “a monument 15 feet away from the mass graves of the Jews, written on granite with gold letters, with the inscription, “You gave your life in the fight for Communist oppression of Latvia.’ He then found out that one of the names on the name plaque was Vilis Tunkelis, the person who was in charge of the execution of the Akniste Jews.  The memorial might have been considered a fitting tribute had Levin not delved further to uncover a more complex story of Latvian involvement in the murder of the Jews and of Latvian/German collaboration.

He recounts the history of the Russians and Germans in Latvia, and of the local Latvians during World War II, noting that the Russians occupied Latvia in 1940.

A montage for “Baltic Truth” documentary. Photo by Jeff Hoffman.
A montage for “Baltic Truth” documentary. Photo by Jeff Hoffman.

“The Russians took all the property of the Jews, and then one year later, the local Latvians killed all the Jews. By 1942, most of the Jews were wiped out. And the Latvian state received all of the Jewish property and justified it.”

Levin then describes the relationship between the Russians, Latvians and Germans. “The Latvians here were fighting on the German side against the Soviet Occupation and against the Russians. The Germans are treated like heroes. There is even a SS Waffen Parade every March 16 in Riga—this goes back 25 years!” Levin is most disturbed that the Latvians have “closed their eyes on the history of these people.”

He now wants to share this story with a wider audience, believing that his grandfather is “a small example of a bigger picture.” He has teamed up with veteran Hollywood filmmaker, producer and cinematographer Jeffrey Hoffman. The two met quite serendipitously when Hoffman was working on”4 Million Bullets: The Untold Fight for Survival,” a documentary about Israel’s War of Independence

Hoffman says, “I noticed a Porsche Cayenne with an Israeli flag sitting outside of a doctors’ office. It was ballsy. I had to meet this guy!” And so he left a note on the windshield.

Levin wound up calling, and the two met. “Eugene tells me the story of his grandfather in the Baltics,” recalls Hoffman. “It was fascinating.”

From left: Jeff Hoffman, director and cameraman; Vadim Repeckis, sound; and Andres Hramcovs interview a survivor of “Operation Winterzauber” in Rosica, Belarus. Credit: Courtesy.

‘Not apologizing for their crimes’

The two quickly teamed up and began working on the documentary film, “Baltic Truth.” Initial tasks included working with a scriptwriter in Riga; starting to raise money; and in the past six months, filming in Boston, Toronto, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus. They have thus far interviewed historians, authors, politicians, professors and survivors.

“There are not many survivors,” laments Levin.

His team includes Hoffman, writer Andrejs Hramcovs and two people in Latvia: writer Andreys Hramcovs and Vadims Repeckis behind the camera/photography, editing, sound and graphics.

“One of our first interviews was with [author and journalist] Ruta Vanagaite,” reports Levin with great excitement. “We sat with her for four hours. She used to be a bestselling writer in Lithuania.” (Vanagaite is known for “Our People: Journey With an Enemy,” co-authored with Israeli Nazi-hunter and Holocaust historian Efraim Zuroff. The book examines the role of Lithuanians in Holocaust crimes.)

“When she found out that one of her family members was involved” in the aforementioned atrocities and wound up reporting that Lithuanians were an integral part of the Nazi killing machine, “she became a persona non grata,” says Levin.

Interviewing Rabbi Menachem Barkahan of the Riga Great Synagogue Memorial in Riga, Latvia. Photo by Jeff Hoffman.

Levin notes that she used archives in her research, which was public information. “THIS is the Baltics today,” he says.

The team has visited the Ponary forest in Vilnius, where more than 100,000 people—mostly Jews, Poles and Russians—were executed by German SD and SS, and their Lithuanian collaborators, in what has been called the “Ponary massacre.”

“The Baltic States were independent during the war. Germany and Russia had a deal. They fought each other, (then) wiped out the Jews in the middle. The worst were the locals,” says Hoffman.

The murders took place between July 1941 and August 1944 near the railway station at Ponary. Some 70,000 Jews were murdered there, along with as many as 20,000 Poles and 8,000 Russian POWs.

“In Lithuania, 230,000 Jews were killed in the first six months of the war by locals,” says Levin. “There are over 200 sites in Lithuania alone that are considered mass graves.”

Leven and Hoffman believe they have uncovered an important story that needs to be widely told. They feel that the story of the Lithuanians and Latvians—and their willingness to acknowledge what happened during the war—differs greatly from the story of the Germans.

“The Germans admit it, say they are sorry, and are trying to fix it. The Lithuanians and Latvians are so proud of their national history. They are rewriting it. They are not apologizing for their crimes,” says Levin.

He and Hoffman are working on a trailer for the film and are in the process of applying for additional funding through the Claims Conference Film Grants. They very reason they are making it, they explain, is that “today, national memorials to the murderers lie feet away from the graves of their victims. Today, glorification of so-called war ‘heroes’ with Jewish blood on their hands is in full swing across the Baltic States, where history is being rewritten and distorted.”

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