Holocaust

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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Survivors, liberators, diplomats and March of the Living alum gather for remembrance event.

Neshama Carlebach and Eli Rubenstein remember exactly where they were standing in 1998 when Judy Weissenberg Cohen uttered a moving address to a large group of teenagers from Canada attending the 11th March of the Living in Poland. A line in Weissenberg Cohen’s speech describing her Nazi experience in Hungary, which poignantly became known as “The Last Time I Saw My Mother,” painfully notes, “I never had a chance to say goodbye to my mother. We didn’t know we had to say goodbye. And I am an old woman today and I have never made peace with the fact I never had that last hug and kiss. They say when you listen to a witness, you become a witness.”

Carlebach and Rubenstein have both become witnesses. Singer Carlebach, about to attend and sing at her second March of the Living, recalls her first visit to Poland and the march from Auschwitz to Birkenau in memory of Nazi victims.

“I was decimated…I was so completely destroyed by what I was seeing…” In the Rama Synagogue in Krakow, Carlebach “finally understood” and spontaneously stood up to sing the well-known Krakow Niggun, composed by her late father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. The niggun (wordless melody), which moves from slow and mournful to upbeat and celebratory, was inspired by a dream Carlebach had on a visit to Auschwitz. He was reportedly so sad that he fell asleep and had a dream in which naked Jewish prisoners were going to their deaths—and were suddenly transformed into people wearing white clothes, with big smiles on their faces. “Until then, I didn’t take my work as a healer seriously. You become a witness. I was there. I feel it even now speaking to you!”

Rubenstein, National Director of March of the Living Canada, is also co-curator of the March of the Living exhibit which premiered at the United Nations in New York City on January 28 —one day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, an annual day of commemoration established by the United Nations.

The title of the exhibit, “When you Listen to a Witness, You Become a Witness,” comes from Weissenberg Cohen’s poem of 1998.

Sara Jaskiel, a Brooklyn-based graphic artist and designer, found the work of assembling and curating the exhibit “moving, overwhelming and meaningful.”

She recounts, “You think of each person and what happened, and you want to raise sensitivities.”

Jaskiel is particularly pleased with the “Death March” photograph she was able to assemble, which served as the backdrop for the musical performances and speeches at the January 28 ceremony.

“I did research and found photographs—from the Death March and from a March of the Living—taken at the same angle. It is as if they are parallel—in a row.. I was able to synthesize the photos.”

The moving photo, which all attendees received in the form of poster, depicts a black and white photo of Jews during the Holocaust and a color photo of Jews on the March of the Living walking “together” from Auschwitz to Birkenau.

Rubenstein, Carlebach, survivors, liberators and dignitaries participated in the January 28 premiere. The evening began with guests viewing the exhibit of photos and poems and socializing over wine and kosher hor d’oeuvres.

What initially seemed like an unusual start to an evening devoted to the Holocaust actually nicely fit with both the theme which each speaker echoed—memory and hope. The formal program began with 2012 March of the Living alumna, Sara Diamond, singing “Eli Eli.”

Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, the UN’s Under Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information welcomed the guests, noting, “We at the United Nations feel privileged to host this exhibit at UN headquarters as part of our Holocaust Remembrance activities.”

The speakers included Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dr. Shmuel Rosenman, chairman of March of the Living International, Shlomo Grofman, vice chair, Dr. Naomi Azrieli, chair and CEO of the Azrieli Foundation, which publishes survivor memoirs, and Max Glauben, survivor.

Max Glauben tells his story of survival (photo credit: Howard Blas)

The particularly upbeat Glauben, born in Warsaw in 1928, spoke to the Times of Israel before the ceremony, described the exhibit as “a wonderful display” and said he was pleased that it is being housed at the United Nations.

In his public remarks, he recounted his personal story of survival and thanked the liberators in the audience. He also singled out attendee, Israeli Eli Yablonek, and his guide dog, Glen. Yablonek is blind and does not have a left arm. “Eli came on the March of the Living in 2012—with his dog. It shows that the same animals Nazis used to attack people could be used to do good.”

Rick Carrier, liberator 

One liberator of Buchenwald, Army Combat Engineer Frederick (Rick) Carrier, dressed in his World War II uniform, recounted in a pre-ceremony interview, “I saw prisoners trying to squeeze through a small gap at the bottom of a fence and I reached for my wire cutters. I cut a big hole in the barbed wire fence.” Carrier, now 90, notes that he didn’t realize the people were Jewish Holocaust survivors.

“We were fighting a war—they never told us anything. We didn’t have any knowledge. They were just awful looking when we discovered them.” Carrier proudly showed off the medals he received when he attended last year’s March of the Living.

Following the address by Prosor, where he commented that “The March of the Living is to remind us as much about life as about loss, and triumph as much as tragedy,” Carrier’s voice could be heard shouting out, “Yeah!”

In an interview with the Times of Israel following the ceremony, Prosor highlighted the significance of the evening’s event.

“This all takes place at the UN—a place where, most days of the year, people don’t unite. But [International Holocaust Remembrance Day on] January 27 brings people from all counties, backgrounds and religions together in understanding.”

Prosor elaborated, “Education about tolerance and acceptance of others is absolutely crucial to creating a different and better society for the future.” When asked who the ambassador would like to bring to see the exhibit, he replied, “school students, the younger generation — so they can be more tolerant.”

Asked which world leaders and countries should attend the exhibit, Prosor noted proudly, “Several ambassadors — perhaps four or five — have come so far. They were touched and will educate others.” He concluded, “It is no coincidence that the Hungarian ambassador attended. He came out publicly to take responsibility for what Hungary did to Jews during the Holocaust.”

On January 23, several days after the Hungarian Jewish community accused the government of Hungary of engaging in Holocaust revisionism, Hungary’s United Nations Ambassador Csaba Korosi, at an event sponsored by the UN Department of Public Information for NGOs, reported, “We owe an apology to the victims because the Hungarian state was guilty for the Holocaust.”

Hungary has come a long way since the day one Hungarian Jew, Judy Weissenberg Cohen, last saw her mother.

(Source: http://www.timesofisrael.com)

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