Letter February 24, 2006

Published February 24, 2006, issue of February 24, 2006.
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Boxing Champ Herman Donchin Stood Proud

Like Barney Ross, my late father, Herman “Curley” Donchin, was a Jewish boxer and later a wrestler (“Elegy for a Fighter,” January 27). In 1927 he won a Golden Gloves medal from the New York Daily News.

My father later went into professional wrestling, engaging in bouts all over the country and in Canada and Mexico. In 1938 he won the Junior Heavyweight World Championship, which he held for a year.

A 1911 immigrant to Jersey City, N.J., from Lund, Sweden, at age 4, he learned quickly how to fight off antisemitic bullies, thus sowing the seeds of what was to become his career for a major part of his life. Unlike Ross, my father did not try to keep his occupation from his family or from anyone else. His family members were proud of him and enjoyed attending his matches whenever he fought in Jersey City.

Like Ross, however, my father was descended from rabbinic royalty, being a descendant of King David by 103 generations and in more recent times a relative of renowned rabbis from Europe.

As Ross biographer Douglas Century points out about Jewish fighters in general, the ethnic angle was indeed “a large factor in crowd appeal.” My father was identified as “Jewish Champion of Champions,” “Jewish Idol” and the like. One photo I have of him during his wrestling days shows him wearing a shirt with an image of the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments.

His mat career ended in 1940, when he joined the Jersey City Police Department. He retired years later, with the rank of inspector.

Interestingly, during the time that my father was in charge of the department’s juvenile bureau, Ross invited him and my mother, Lily Stambovsky Donchin, to attend Floyd Patterson’s first defense of his heavyweight title. Ross’s invitation was in appreciation of my father’s help in interceding for a juvenile offender.

Paul Buhle’s review of Century’s book gave me a push to dig into some old articles and pictures, and in the process take a great trip into the past.

Gertrude Donchin Chityat

Boca Raton, Fla.

City of Munich Has Faced Its Nazi Past

As a citizen of Munich, I read Gavriel Rosenfeld’s February 10 arts and culture article with much surprise (“Munich Evokes the Past in Future Museum”). First of all, I do not immediately think of Steven Spielberg’s anti-Israeli movie when I hear the word “Munich.” But what really surprised me about the article was the one-sided portrayal of Munich’s engagement with the past.

It never has occurred to me that the city has a reputation for evading its Nazi past. To my mind, neither the city council nor the State of Bavaria has — at least as long as I can remember — tried to draw the curtain over the fact that Munich was the “capital of the movement,” as Rosenfeld puts it.

Munich’s engagement with the past is well documented in a permanent exhibition at the Stadtmuseum, “Nationalsozialismus in München” — an exhibition that unfortunately is not mentioned in the article. And we are currently building a new synagogue and a Jewish community center with a substantially enlarged Jewish museum that certainly will address the Nazi period.

What made me wince more than anything else, though, were the references made to the Christian Democrats. Neither Franz-Joseph Strauss nor Helmut Kohl ever tried to normalize Germany’s Nazi past. It was Strauss who, out of a feeling of historical responsibility, supported Israel with weapons when most countries in the world turned their back on the Jewish state.

And you hardly can find a politician who had more historical consciousness than Kohl, himself a historian who had studied the consequences of World War II. All his major speeches addressed German responsibility for the war. And although conservatism’s role in the rise of the Nazis is well documented, it must not be forgotten that Bavarian conservatism in particular, in tandem with Roman Catholicism, had a history of resistance against Nazi rule.

Pascal Fischer

Munich, Germany

KGB To Blame for Babel Story Being Incomplete

As a specialist in Russian literature who has taught and studied Isaac Babel for years, I was puzzled by Ilan Stavans’s January 20 review of Jerome Charyn’s “Savage Shorthand: The Life and Death of Isaac Babel” (“A Babel Biographer Chases His Moving Target”).

After citing a statement from Charyn that Babel’s “entire life is about evasion, about manufacturing myth,” Stavans proceeds to air his own long-standing annoyance with this major Soviet Jewish writer who, somehow, left the puzzle of his life “incomplete” because he, Babel, “wanted it to be forever incomplete.” Short of accusing Babel of a writer’s perversity, Stavans himself appears surprisingly and almost willfully ignorant of history.

When Babel was arrested in 1938 and subsequently murdered by the KGB, his writings were confiscated from his apartment. Babel’s life was cut short quite unexpectedly in that notoriously cruel time in Soviet Stalinist history, while he was in the middle of many proj- ects. Unfortunately, a lot of this material has been lost forever because the KGB did not quite file and preserve the papers properly in their vast basements — hence, the “incompleteness” that Stavans attributes to Babel.

Greta Slobin

Visiting Professor

Wesleyan University

Middletown, Conn.

Fellow Inmates Helped Wiesel Survive Shoah

The January 20 article on Oprah Winfrey’s selection of Elie Wiesel’s “Night” for her Book Club was on the mark (“Six Million Little Pieces?”). Any memoir is a reconstruction shaped by purpose and audience rather than a direct statement of memory — and even Wiesel’s “Night” is not an exception.

“Night” focuses primarily on the relation of father and son in Auschwitz and in Buchenwald. When Wiesel loses his father in January 1945 at Buchenwald, he drifts into a listlessness and fog, from which he emerged only after liberation. He recalls in “Night” only the terrible final days of the camp, in April 1945, when the Nazis sought to evacuate Jewish prisoners and then all prisoners.

Wiesel writes of his relation with his father, the presence or absence of God, and his own survival and its meaning. He does not describe the social context in which he existed during the final months. The barracks, his place in the camp, his relation to others — other prisoners, Jews, boys — remain murky.

What is omitted in “Night”is that the 16-year- old was placed in a special barracks created by the clandestine underground as part of a strategy of saving youth. Block 66 was located in the deepest part of the disease-infested little camp and beyond the normal Nazi S.S. gaze. It was overseen by Czech Communist Antonin Kalina and by his deputy, Gustav Schiller, a Polish Jewish Communist.

Schiller, who appears in “Night,” was a rough father figure who was by Polish-Jewish boys but feared by Hungarian and Rumanian Jewish boys. After January 1945, the underground concentrated all children and youth that could be fit into this windowless barracks — more than 600 in total. Younger children were protected elsewhere. When the U.S. Third Army arrived April 11, 1945, more than 900 children and youth were found among 21,000 remaining prisoners.

Wiesel since has acknowledged the role played by the clandestine underground but did not attend to it in “Night.” Fellow barracks members recall being protected from work and getting extra food. They recall efforts by their mentors to raise their horizons. They also recall heroic intervention by Kalina or by Schiller during the final days to protect them.

Even then, many boys were lined up at the gate, to be led out April 10. However, American planes flew overhead, sirens sounded, the guards ran and Kalina, who was with them, ordered the boys back to the barracks. They were still in the barracks the next day when units of the U.S. Third Army broke through the barbed-wire fences.

Wiesel’s “Night” is about becoming alone. But Wiesel was also among hundreds of children and youth aided by a purposeful effort at rescue inside a concentration camp.

Kenneth Waltzer

Professor of Jewish Studies

Michigan State University

East Lansing, Mich.

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