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Two New Beginnings and a Sad Ending

“This is my first day on the job,” said Arye Mekel, Israel’s new consul general to New York, at the August 16 preview screening of Margarethe von Trotta’s film, “Rosenstrasse,” at the Center for Jewish History. “The movie is a reflection of [how] human courage can make a significant difference.”

“This is [also] my first official evening,” declared Hans-Dieter Stell, Germany’s new deputy consul general in New York. “We’re here to live with you… work with you, not only for the past, but for the future.” Annette Insdorf, director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University, expressed regret that “Rosenstrasse”… “with its issues of resistance and rescue came after the updating of my book’s second edition, ‘Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust’ (Cambridge University Press).”

Upping the emotional ante that evening, Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn Films, said: “I’m here both as distributor and one who saw my own survival reflected in the film…. I was 9 years old when I came to the U.S. in 1949. Ikh bin geven an alter man eyder mayn bar mitzvah. (I was an old man before my bar mitzvah.) People are eager to forget and deny the existence of the Holocaust” Gottlieb said. “Shame on the media for claiming there is ‘Holocaust overload.’ It is hard for me and many Jews — survivors or children of survivors — to forget it happened at the hands of the Germans.”

Later, during our Yiddish-sprinkled chat, Gottlieb, whose mother was from Dombrowicz and father from Klesov (where he was born), told me how he was hidden from the Nazis in Polish forests. “I can’t forget or forgive the loss of my father, baby brother, grandparents, aunts, uncles and dozens of children” said Gottlieb who, as a child, was spirited from Russia via Czechoslovakia to the United States sector of Germany, where he lived in four different displaced persons camps.

After he and Samuel Goldwyn first saw the film in Toronto in 2003, Gottlieb recalled, “we sat there speechless…in tears. Twenty minutes later I said, ‘This is a film we need to distribute’… “Rosenstrasse”…this little-known story, of inspiration, of love, needed to be told…. I thought how many Jews may have been saved if [like the hundreds of Aryan wives protesting their Jewish husbands’ arrest in “Rosenstrasse”] thousands… had protested.”

After seeing “Rosenstrasse,” Nechama Tec, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and the author of “Resilience and Courage: Women, Men and the Holocaust” (Yale University Press), who had been a “hidden child” in Poland, told me: “I was very moved by the film…. It was not trivialized.”

However, I was appalled by New York Times critic Manohla Dargis categorizing“Rosenstrasse” as “yet another story of that already suspect subgenre of gentiles rescuing Jews” and “…that movies about gentiles saving Jews, including this one, seem more interested in acts of rescue than the profound if less overtly cinematic acts of survival.”

How could Dargis disregard the connection between rescue and survival? Like tens of thousands of survivors, I give thanks to gentile intervention: a German soldier who told my mother and me when to bypass a Nazi patrol; a Catholic peasant woman who risked her life to hide us from the Nazis in her hut;,and finally, the against-his government’s-orders life-saving visa (#1882) issued by Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara (which rescued us along with 6,000 other Jews whose descendants now number nearly 50,000). Suspect subgenre indeed!

After my father’s 1940 arrest by the NKVD in Vilno, in a panic akin to that of Lena Fischer (Katja Riemann) in “Rosenstrasse,” my mother pleaded at the Soviet komisariat: “Where have you taken my husband?” And like Lena and the 8-year-old Ruth (Svea Lohde) in the film, my mother and I would stand for days outside of Vilno’s Lukishki prison hoping for word of my father’s whereabouts. As in “Rosenstrasse,” we were not alone. There were other women seeking word of their husbands’ whereabouts. Among them was 20/21-year old Aliza Begin. (Decades later I learned that my father, Matzei Bernstein, and Aliza Begin’s husband, Menachem Begin, had shared the same Lukishki prison cell.)

* * *|

Back from the Anti-Defamation League-sponsored and French Foreign Ministry-paid trip to France, Stan Aizenstark and Arielle Devine — fluent French speakers and ADL Young Associates Division alumni — reported on their findings to the 160 guests at the August 10 discussion at ADL headquarters.

Apropos the “new” antisemitism in France, Devine noted: “It is a commonly accepted fact in the government and among the vast majority of people we met with in France, though seldom publicly declared, that France’s new wave of antisemitism is coming from a segment of France’s Arab and Muslim community…. Israel has been painted as the ultimate enemy… Jews have become the surrogates for Israel.” She noted that “this does not mean that the ‘old’ antisemitism of the far-right has gone away. It very much still exists.”

“The far left is obsessed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Devine reported. “Among the far left there is a pro-Palestinian hysteria…. Many French cities with large Muslim/Arab populations are ruled by far-left/communist mayors.… These cities have Palestinian twin cities, Palestinian alliance groups, Palestinian rallies, Palestinian film festivals. And we were told that each time there is an official act that is pro-Palestinian, an antisemitic act follows.”

Aizenstark cited the particularly lenient tendency in the French judiciary in the prosecution and punishment of cases involving antisemitism. Still he touted the positive efforts taken by the French government, ending on a slightly optimistic note: that there is a moderate and growing — although “still too soft and limited” — Muslim voice; that a middle class is beginning to develop among the French Muslim population, “especially among the women.”

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