Monday, August 24, 2009

Thank you, Jewish Tribune!

The Jewish Tribune

July 2, 2009/

Tamuz 10, 5769

Page 9



Azrieli Foundation aims to preserve Holocaust survivors’ memories

Tevy Pilc

Staff Writer

TORONTO – “I was trembling with terror, unsure of what I should say but suddenly I could hear inside my head what my father said after his interrogation: The pain of a slap on the face will go away but the spoken word will remain,” reads Paul-Henri Rips from E/96: Fate Undecided, where he looked death in the eye in the form of a German soldier after he and the boys in his Belgium school were rounded up. E/96: Fate Undecided is a part of the second series of Holocaust survivor memoirs, published and released by the Azrieli Foundation, a Canadian philanthropic organization founded by Israeli real estate mogul David Azrieli. More than 800 attendees got an increasing rare opportunity to hear Holocaust survivors tell their stories in person at the book launch recently at the Winter Garden Theatre.

The event was hosted by veteran CBC journalist Joe Schlesinger and included a keynote address by Nechama Tec, whose 1993 book Defiance was made into a Hollywood movie of the same name last year.

The memoirs program was established in 2005, with thepurpose of preserving and sharing the memoirs and diaries written by Holocaust survivors who later made their way to Canada. After writing and publishing his own story, Azrieli began collecting personal testimonies, manuscripts and other firsthand accounts of the Holo-caust, which would translate into the 2007 release of the first series of books.

The second features eight volumes with five in English, three in French featuring heart-wrenching tales of enduring the war in ghettos, concentration and labour camps, hiding with non-Jews or in the forest, or by fleeing to the Soviet Union. Readings were delivered in person as well as by living relatives including Lynda Kraar, who read from Album of My Life, which her mother Ann Szedlecki completed shortly before her death four years ago.

“The deterioration of my sweet, dear brother will always be the most painful chapter of my life,” read Kraar, vividly describing the dark days her mother spent caring for her brother, her last living family member, who was sent to a labour camp in the Soviet Union where he contracted tuberculosis, eventually succumbing to it at 23. Knowing the decision would cost her, she took three days off work after his death. She too was sent to labour camp, which she survived and eventually began a new life after immigrating to Canada in 1953.

Naomi Azrieli, the foundation’s executive director, said the program is about more than honouring and remembering the survivors. She spoke about the recent success of the memoirs, despite diminishing numbers of remaining survivors. Like the first series, the new books are made available free to libraries, schools and Holocaust-education programs and at events sponsored by the foundation. They may also be downloaded online for free at

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Thank you, Canadian Jewish News!

Azrieli Foundation publishes 2nd set of Holocaust memoirs
By JANICE ARNOLD, Staff Reporter
Thursday, 18 June 2009

Gathered on stage at the launch of the second series of Holocaust memoirs published by the Azrieli Foundation are, from left, Lynda Kraar, who read from her late mother Ann Szedlecki’s book; Jean-Claude Guédon, reader for author John Freund, far right; and authors Alex Levin and Paul-Henri Rips.
[Robbi Cohen, R.B.C. Productions photo]

MONTREAL — The manuscripts of memoirs by Holocaust survivors living in Canada are being rescued from oblivion under a project sponsored by prominent real estate developer David J. Azrieli, a Polish-born survivor himself.

The project solicits these writings, edits them professionally, translates them if necessary, publishes them as high quality books, and distributes them widely free of charge across Canada, without any cost to the author.

The second series of memoirs, launched in Montreal on June 7 at a gala evening, reflects the widely varying experiences of European Jewry during World War II.

The authors’ origins are in Poland, Belgium, Germany, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere, and they endured the war in ghettos, in concentration and labour camps, hiding with non-Jews or in the forest, or by fleeing to the Soviet Union.

The latest series consists of eight books (one title is available in English and French), and brings to 15 the number of different volumes the foundation has published since the project was launched in 2005.

The new books are Album of My Life by Ann Szedlecki; Under the Yellow & Red Stars by Alex Levin; A Drastic Turn of Destiny by Fred Mann; La fin du printemps by John Freund; Objectif: survivre by Tommy Dick; the Joint Memories from the Abyss/But I Had a Happy Childhood by father and daughter William Tannenzapf and Renate Krakauer; and Paul-Henri Rips’ Matricule E/96 and E/96: Fate Undecided.

All have covers of sepia-toned photos of the authors as children or young adults, trimmed in blue. The texts are illustrated with other pictures, and inside each back cover is a map by leading British Holocaust historian Martin Gilbert showing the estimated number of Jews murdered in each country during the war.

Excerpts from four of the books were read. Linda Kraar read from her mother’s book Album of My Life, which Szedlecki completed shortly before her death four years ago.

Born in the poor tenements of Lodz, Poland in 1925, Szedlecki went to the Soviet Union with her older brother to escape the Nazis, ending up in Siberia, where she recalls hunger, fear and loneliness, as well as the friendships and kindness of strangers. Her brother was falsely accused of spying and sent to a hard labour camp for 2 1/2 years, where he contracted tuberculosis and died at age 23. Szedlecki was sent to a labour camp as a punishment for taking three days off work after her brother’s death. All of her family would perish in the Holocaust. She married soon after the war and the couple immigrated to Canada in 1953. She had her own ladies’ clothing store for 25 years in Toronto and was an active community volunteer.

Rips’ idyllic childhood as the son of a diamond merchant in Antwerp, Belgium came to an abrupt end with the Nazi invasion when he was 10. He posed as a non-Jew, attending a school in an old castle. Rips narrowly avoided blowing his cover when the Gestapo came for an inspection, and again while in a transit camp. He immigrated to South Africa after the war, and came to Canada in 1997 to be with his children.

Levin, who is from a Polish village near the Soviet border, hid in the forest as a child with his brother after his mother and younger brother were killed. He remembers the constant fear and hunger, but also the routine and sense of camaraderie with others running for their lives. After liberation, he was sent to the Soviet Union as a war orphan and became a military cadet and then an engineer. Since coming to Canada in 1975, he has been a developer and builder.

Freund, born in a town south of Prague, was deported to Terezin, the “showcase” concentration camp, at age 12. A year later, he was transported to Auschwitz where he spent four months, until he and the other surviving inmates were ordered on a death march ahead of the advancing Red Army.

The excerpt from La fin du printemps was read by his friend Jean-Claude Guédon, and described that terrifying journey that only ended when U.S. troops found the starving marchers.

The memoirs project is run by the Azrieli Foundation, in association with York University’s Centre for Jewish Studies. Foundation chair and executive director Naomi Azrieli, David’s daughter, said the project so far has gone a long way towards its goal of bringing personal accounts of the Holocaust to a broad audience, especially a younger generation. These stories often have a greater impact than history texts, she said.

The first series, released in 2007, was well received by libraries and schools and the public.

“I am humbled by the response, from across the country, from people of different origins, who have written to us in French and English, that they are amazed by the stories. Libraries have told us how valuable the books are to their collections, and in schools, the books have been used in history, literature and civics courses. One grade 11 Ontario teacher assigned the reading of the whole first series to her students.”

She read a letter from one student, a girl who said she could identify in many ways with the author, that her close family life was much like hers, but she did not know if she would have the courage to continue on the way she did.

The evening’s guest speaker was Nechama Tec, the author of the 1993 book Defiance about the Bielski brothers, partisans who saved 1,200 Jews by sheltering them in the Belorussian forests. It was the basis of the Hollywood movie of the same name last year.

Tec, a retired sociology professor at the University of Connecticut, was born in Lublin, Poland in 1931, and survived by posing as the niece of a Catholic family.

The event, hosted by television and radio personality Sonia Benezra, opened with the singing by Sharon Azrieli, another daughter of David, of the Yiddish song Dort Baym Breg Fun Veldl (At the Edge of the Forest), a song about the partisans’ heroism, accompanied by violinist Deborah Kirshner.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Monday, June 15, 2009

JOIN ME in fetting my mother's memoir in Toronto this Monday night, June 15. READ about her book HERE:

Happy Birthday, Mum. I know you're smiling down on us.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Thanks, NYC! What a great afternoon of song that was. We invite you to join us next year for another rousing concert of Yiddish song. 

Meantime, please visit our website and buy a CD or our new DVD.

Interested in singing with us? Look for contact info on the website and get in touch.

PS -- We're up to six Canadians now. I say we can double that number by next season.  :)


Monday, May 11, 2009


The Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus presents
“Jewish Heroes, Sung & Unsung”

NEW YORK CITY -- In the footsteps of its sold-out concert last spring, the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus is returning to Symphony Space on Sun, May 31 at 4:30 pm. Tickets are $25 and $15. Founded in 1922, this intergenerational chorus is conducted by Binyumen Schaechter, and will sing a new program from its rich repertoire of Yiddish choral music with English translations provided throughout. He is the son of the widely renowned late Yiddish linguist Mordkhe Schaechter.

Founded in 1922, the chorus boasts members ranging in age from 15 to 85, and has made guest appearances at Alice Tully Hall, Shea Stadium, Ground Zero, the Museum of the City of New York and, most recently, at West Point Military Academy. There are students, grandparents, Canadians, Israelis, gays and straights, most of varying levels of Jewish observance, and even a couple of people who are not Jewish at all, but who are devoted to the music. Some people speak Yiddish, such as the several adult children of Holocaust survivors and late Yiddish poets and thinkers. Some speak no Yiddish. Their collective goal is to breathe life into this historic body of music work and make it live again.

This unlikely army of Yiddish singers gathers once a week at the social hall of a residence for the elderly on the Upper West Side to rehearse its dynamic repertoire, no less diverse and interesting than the singers, from exciting oratorios and comic operettas to labor anthems, beloved folksongs, and popular tunes.

This year's concert will highlight the works of the great Yiddish writers Sholom Aleichem, Dovid Edelstadt, Itsik Manger, and Peretz Miransky; and composers Michl Gelbart, Srul Glick, Mark Zuckerman, and Georg Friedrich Handel. Also in the program will be the rarely heard Wolf Younin/Maurice Rauch cantata Ester Hamalke ("Queen Esther"), featuring tenor soloist Cantor David Berger and pianist Amy Duran.

In addition, Di Shekhter-tekhter ("The Schaechter Daughters"), age 14 and 9, will perform selections from their show "Our Zeydas and Bubbas as Children," with which they have toured three continents over the past year.

This concert is dedicated to the memory of Alice Kogan, long-time irreplaceable JPPC performer and activist.

The JPPC will be performing at Symphony Space on Sunday, May 31, at 4:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and $15. Symphony Space is located on New York City's Upper West Side, at 2537 Broadway near 95th Street. To buy tickets, visit, or call the Symphony Space box office at 212-864-5400. For more information about the chorus, visit


Bio on the musical director
Binyumen Schaechter, Director

BINYUMEN (BEN) SCHAECHTER (Conductor) is an award-winning composer of musicals and other songs which have been performed on five continents, with his music represented off-Broadway in NAKED BOYS SINGING (one of the longest-running shows in off-Broadway history), PETS! (Dramatic Publishing), THAT'S LIFE! (Outer Critics Circle nomination), TOO JEWISH? (nominated: Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle Awards) and DOUBLE IDENTITY. His music has been recorded on a dozen CDs, including "IT HELPS TO SING ABOUT IT: Songs of Ben Schaechter & Dan Kael" (

As an actor, he was featured with Anna Deveare Smith in her one-woman show in Carnegie Hall. He has also entertained across North America and in Paris in his one-man show, THE SHTETL COMES TO LIFE. More recently, together with elder daughter Reyna, he toured FROM KINAHORA TO CONEY ISLAND, his musical revue about the Jewish experience in America, and with both daughters in OUR ZEYDAS AND BUBBAS AS CHILDREN He provided the translations for the first-ever DVD with Yiddish subtitles, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HANK GREENBERG. He and his 3 sisters all speak only Yiddish with their total of 16 children. He is the son of the late great Yiddish expert, linguist and teacher, Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter.

Attn: Editor – More info.

Here’s our website:

We also have a facebook page, we’re on CD Baby and you can hear us on MySpace at

Here’s some info on Itche Goldberg:

Here’s Miransky’s obit from the NYTimes:

And a few words about Srul Irving Glick:

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Please join me in Montreal
to celebrate the launch of my mother's memoir!

Register immediately:
by email:
by phone: 514-877-9784

Please join me in Toronto
to celebrate the launch of my mother's memoir!

Register immediately:
by email:
by phone: 416-223-0003

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Thank you, Bergen!

Three Bergen Community College Students Awarded
for Literary Excellence
2009-10 Edition of Literary Journal The Labyrinth Debuts

(From left) Yuna Youn (of Palisades Park), Lynda Kraar (of Teaneck) and Amanda Viehmeyer (of Garfield) took home top honors in The Labyrinth’s literary competition.
With the debut of the 2009-10 edition of The Labyrinth, Bergen Community College’s literary journal, 25 student authors can add a new adjective to their portfolios: published.
Student authors submit their creative nonfiction, fiction and poetry pieces to The Labyrinth’s faculty advisers (Bergen professors James Zorn and Dorothy Altman), who work with a student editorial board to select entries from hundreds of submissions for inclusion in the publication.
Student editors then compile and oversee the production of the journal. The 2009-10 edition features 37 works by 25 authors.
At The Labyrinth’s April 30, 2009 launch event, prizes were awarded to the authors of the top works in each of the three submission categories. Two professors from a local university judged the 2009-10 entries: John Parras and Marthe Witte. Parras also attended the journal’s launch event and presented certificates and awards to the honorees.
The winners are:
• Nonfiction – Lynda Kraar (of Teaneck) for “Fashioning My Father After Myself”
• Fiction – Amanda Viehmeyer (of Garfield) for “Etiology”
• Poetry – Yuna Youn (of Palisades Park) for “Blushing Red”
“Both Professor Zorn and I are impressed with the level of writing talent at Bergen Community College and we congratulate the award winners,” Dr. Altman said. “Additionally, we are pleased to announce that we are seeing a rise in enrollment in our creative writing program and are adding additional courses to our curriculum.”
Many of The Labyrinth’s 25 contributors shared their works by reading them aloud at the April 30 launch. The 66-page anthology, The Labyrinth, is available through Bergen’s Department of English.
Bergen Community College is a public two-year coeducational college, enrolling more than 15,000 students in Associate in Arts, Associate in Science, and Associate in Applied Science degree programs and certificate programs. More than 10,000 students are enrolled in non-credit, professional courses through the Division of Continuing Education, the Institute for Learning in Retirement, the Philip J. Ciarco Jr. Learning Center, located at 355 Main Street, Hackensack, and Bergen at the Meadowlands, located at 1280 Wall Street West, Lyndhurst. Information about the College is available at or by phoning the Welcome Center at (201) 447-7200 .

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I was pleasantly surprised to learn this week that I fetched a Best Creative Non-Fiction award for this story. The award was given to me on April 26 at a reception at Bergen Community College. Some of the other pieces that were read were truly something. Get a copy of the Labyrinth (through the English dept. at BCC), which contains my story and the others. The judge was Professor Parras of William Paterson University. My great thanks to him for this honour.

Fashioning my Dad after Myself:

An excerpt from the book

By Lynda Kraar

Voltaire once said, "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him."

Inspired by these words, I spent my entire life inventing my father - giving birth to him and raising him, giving him form and function. I came up with a guy of medium height, irresistibly gorgeous. Dazzling blue eyes, olive skin and golden hair. And on the seventh day I rested.

I did not know what to want or expect from another human being in terms of emotion and intellect. As an only child, I did not understand, know or care about intimacy or feelings. I only knew how to entertain myself, and when bored, how to find something that could entertain me. This would become my modus operandi as I grew up. Years later, after I grew breasts and got my period, I would bed, marry and divorce men who matched that description perfectly. But this is not about me - this is about my father.

My mother detested my father, but not enough to leave their so-called life together. It was entirely mutual. Neither of them could get over an event that happened so long ago that there was no longer any sense in raising it. What happened back there was of no interest to me - I had one mission and one mission alone: to build myself a father. The fact that they were finding great fulfillment in vengeance, abuse and sadomasochism might have been interesting to the neighbours, but I had bigger things on my plate.

The clay from which I molded Dad had a few natural elements of its own: He was a nervous man with a short fuse. He had been a prize boxer as a kid but retired after he broke another kid's jaw, although the taste for blood never left him. He was a clotheshorse with a penchant for fast cars. Not one to tolerate the cheap crap that was being manufactured and sold as menswear, he made most of his own clothes - suits, pants and jackets. He had a way of charming women and keeping them around despite his domestic circumstances. He brooded a lot. He had his own bedroom. His sleep was fitful. He had nightmares. He would awaken, screaming. He kept an axe under the bed and a stash of money between the mattresses. He had no books, no notebooks, no pens: just a stubby little pencil that he sharpened with a kitchen knife over the sink.

You couldn't pin him down, my dad. He carried himself like a prince, but he brawled like a street fighter. You could keep him around polite company, but not for very long. You could see in his beautiful eyes that he was capable - very capable - of going over the edge.

What choice did I have? As self-appointed alchemist, I carefully measured out doses of fiction intermingled with fact. My father would be a creative soul. He would write, draw and sing. Some ingredients were based on the early things that I remember best about him - his love for operatic tenors, his expertise at creating clothing patterns and then executing them with perfection. He was great at drawing caricatures, an art form that would carry over to me, and which would eventually have me threatened with expulsion from school.

I willed my father to come home and read to me; to adore me; to listen to me; to fuss over me and take me to the corner store for an ice cream cone.

That's how it might have gone down; however, Divine Intervention came in the form of my mother, who could simply never forgive him for cheating on her with a German girl in the first year of their marriage, and who would never stop loving him until the day she died. For those two sins he paid and paid and paid. And so did she. Thus, it was no surprise to me when, on his death bed, Dad asked me, "Where's Mum?"

I thought about it. I could have said, "Oh, Dad, we didn't have the heart to tell you that she died two years ago. She was so sick, poor Mother! The Almighty (Blessed be He!) took her from her sick bed in the living room of our house in the middle of the holy of holy nights, the Sabbath. The Sabbath, Dad! She was a saint! You blew it!"

Instead, I gave him the one answer that drove him crazy, that he hated to hear - the answer that stirred his toxic mind to caustic rage: "She's at the Y."

From that pathetic little cot, with all the fire and bile and piss he could muster, he gave me that look that I remembered from the first - rabid eyes filled with venom, like a cobra ready to strike, eyes that were now in their nineties and defied the slowdown of his other vital parts. In that moment, in his eyes, how well I remembered Dad.

In October, 1994, my father came to visit us in Teaneck, New Jersey. We had fled Manhattan after the birth of my second baby the previous January. Mom thought it was a great idea for Dad to see his granddaughter for the first time. My then-husband, Seamus, was the star crime reporter at the Bergen Record. We felt the ticking of the clock with the new baby in the house, and we realized that Dad was not getting any younger. The visit presented two perfect opportunities - Dad would be able to buy a hank of superwool to make himself a pair of pants, and we could tape an interview with him each night of his visit.

As a child, either I was absent the day Dad talked about his family, or else too indoctrinated by my mother to pay attention to his words. He had come from a huge family - a very old Polish family that had stayed in the region of Radom for centuries. You could recognize the clans because they all shared the same first names - all named for the long-departed patriarchs and matriarchs.

Every morning during his visit we took Dad to Butterflake bakery for a fresh rye bread, and then to the supermarket for cold cuts. When Dad asked me for an iron so that he could press his shirt and pants, I produced whatever I had in the house. After his bitter protests, we had to go out and buy a real steam iron. Mine, apparently, was for sissies. He had to have his Nescafe, real butter and real jam preserves. The food I had prepared was too nutritious, too colourful. Dad was from the "sauté until grey" school of cooking. Meat had to be overcooked and bland, as did potatoes and all manner of root vegetables. He had no patience for whole wheat anything, fresh fruits or roughage - "Grass is for sheep. I'm a man!" Every so often, when Miriam - four at the time - would get on his nerves, I would see the guy I remembered come out. I did my best to make sure she stayed out of his way and that she did not run with scissors when he was around.

The next night, as we taped the second interview, I learned that Dad might have been beaten by his father as a child. His father never got over the loss of a little girl who died of tuberculosis. No other child was good enough for him. Certainly, his mother was accustomed to the beatings. She might have sent my father, her fair-haired, beautiful child, to live with relatives in the city of Lodz, then a burgeoning, tuberculosis-breeding industrial center like the Lower East Side. It was clear that my father was not a scholar. By the time he was in his teens he was officially illiterate. He compensated by fine-tuning his street instincts, and he went into the world of trade with a vengeance. He described his glory days in the 1930s as a young man living alone in the big city.

The next day we heard about his wife, Genia, whose name I inscribed on his headstone at the cemetery because I was so certain this woman did not have a single relative who survived the Nazis. Genia was pregnant, and Dad was smuggling outside the ghetto walls with a few contacts he had there. He would sneak through the elaborate sewer system and come up through a manhole on the Nazi side. It was very quick. One or two Poles would be there, and the trade would be done. The whole tragic lot of them could have been murdered on the spot if they were found out. Then Dad slipped back into the sewer and came up a manhole that was located near a convent that bordered the ghetto. In 1942, during the worst of the ghetto liquidations, and with a pregnant wife, Dad was busted by a Jewish cop and put on a deportation list.

It was already a miracle that he was not rounded up and shot, as so many others were. It was even more miraculous that he outwitted the authorities who tried to send him into the trucks that were killing loads of Jews with carbon monoxide poisoning as they were being transported to the crematoria and pits that were designed expressly to do away with dead Jewish waste. My lucky father ended up in Auschwitz after some hard time at the Poznan labour camp. There he encountered his old friend Morris who worked in the kitchen. He would eventually get Dad a job there, too. While most prisoners were dying of starvation, my father did not do too badly. Touched by the finger of God once again. No wonder my mother hated him so.

"It wasn't too bad," Dad would say.

"It wasn't too bad," my mother would mock. My mother, who had lost everyone from her little clan and blew her chance for restitution and reclamation by signing the wrong document at the wrong time. She was never able to appeal her claim. On the other hand, Dad received slave labour cheques and restitution from Germany that sometimes totalled tens of thousands of dollars. In addition, there were some family members around, even if they did not talk to each other. Let the record reflect that some did - I do not want to piss off those cousins and risk losing them, too.

It was inevitable - I had to grow up. I had to knock down the Dad that I had created. I had to accept the fact that nothing was extraordinary in Dad's life except everything. He did not belong to me - he belonged to the world. Dad had a heart attack in the weeks before his retirement from the sweatshop where he worked, along with scores of other Holocaust survivors who had come to Canada, their new homeland which begrudgingly accepted them in the 1950s. The doctors opened him up, and he had a heart attack on the table so they closed him back up again without finishing the job. A few weeks later he fell out of the cherry tree in the backyard because he did not want the birds to kill off his harvest.

Throughout his life he won at the slots. He went to Florida for months every winter where he shacked up with his Ukrainian girlfriend from Chicago whom I heard about from friends of my parents who saw them together. She knitted for him two sweaters which he wore until he died. Even in his last days, when I'd ask, "Dad, where did you get those beautiful sweaters?" he would answer with a furtive grin, "I got 'em." His brain was mush, he was soiling himself, he did not know what day it was, but he was going to guard his friend's honour until his last gasp.

Mom stewed in the meantime, grappling with her own sexual identity. Dad never stopped playing cards with his gang. He never stopped fighting and occasionally giving someone the taste of his killer left hook to the jaw. He was no longer permitted to drive. He continued to make his own clothes, trim his nose hairs and wear a tie every day.

My mother was in complete denial that there was anything wrong with Dad, although it was clear to my family that he was losing it. For twenty years we had told her that he was forgetful, that he was leaving the stove on, and that he allowed the asshole cokehead neighbor to rip him off for $11,000 for a roofing job that was never done. The sonofabitch just kept coming over and asking him for payment, because they knew Dad didn't remember anything from one day to the next. The bastard even drove Dad to the bank for the cash withdrawal-- $1,000 on a weekly basis, for eleven weeks straight. Nope, said Mum. This was only a ploy to piss her off - her words - because he hated it that she went to the Y. Poor Mom, she so desperately wanted Dad's attention.

After a lifetime of neglecting her health, the cancer that had silently thrived in her colon for at least a decade metastasized. No two ways about it - eleven years Dad's junior, a community activist and our matriarch, my mother was going to check out first. There was no time for drama. My husband Marty and I came up with a plan: Dad needed to be put into an eldercare facility.

That good time did not last very long. The morning Mom died, May 7, 2005, I took Dad out to our favourite restaurant, intent on never telling him what had happened, and prayed that none of her old friends would approach us, asking how my mum was doing:

"She died a few hours ago. Dad, can you please pass the salt?"

The next day we celebrated Mother's Day at the Mount Sinai cemetery where we feted my mother with a well attended, dignified send-off. Meanwhile, Dad was charming the nice Filipino women who worked there on the weekends.

The world was different now. Our family continued to visit him, to put him in the car and listen to his favourite Jan Peerce or Mario Lanza recordings: "Now, that's a singer," he would say.

We took him out for real food. He allowed me to take him to the second-hand clothing store where I bought him a wardrobe of matching separates, all the best name brands. Even at the age of 93 I could not stand the thought of seeing him wearing shmattas. There was nothing wrong with his eyes. He liked the Banana Republic chino tailoring. There was a little excitement when his roomie, an old cadger and one-time tailor named Sam, took his gigantic shears and ripped the pants to shreds to make them smaller, hand-stitching them in the back. Should these guys even have scissors and needles? The attendants confiscated the entire cache.

I was considering not burying my parents next to each other until there was once again a Divine Intervention, this time not from my mother, but from God. Not to be outdone by the righteous woman who earned the privilege of been called up on the holy Sabbath, Dad passed away on September 15, 2007. It was the Sabbath of Return - the really big, important Sabbath that occurs between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. That would have pissed off my mother to no end. Do the faithful ever get to see God this close up? The Almighty made it by far the most festive holiday that Dad had ever experienced, and the most heartfelt one for those of us who were at his side, waiting and wondering about what He has in store for us.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Excerpt from
by Ann Szedlecki
(my late mother)

Dear Friends,

OMG, it’s happening! The kick-off for the Azrieli Foundation memoir series is fast approaching with book launchs in Montreal and Toronto. My mum’s memoir will be part of that series. I will keep you posted on actual dates/places for the events.

NB: It is sixty-six years almost to the day since my mother's brother, Shoel Frajlich, succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of twenty-two in a Siberian hospital. The passage below describes the period of anguish, loneliness and despair of my then-eighteen-year-old mother during the ordeal of her brother's illness and passing.

Here’s the link for more info on the Azrieli Foundation Holocaust memoirs project.

Write me privately for more info.


Excerpt from
by Ann Szedlecki


The deterioration of my dear, sweet brother, and how I handled it, will always be the most painful chapter of my life. It's something I will never get over.

One morning in the autumn of 1942 I came back to the dorm after working the night shift and found my brother Shoel sitting on the stairs. He had been there all night in the bitter cold. One of the girls, Eva Goldberg, had thrown him out because she was afraid of contracting his tuberculosis. This picture will stay with me until my dying day. Eva is dead now, but I can neither forgive her nor forget what she did. Maybe she even hastened his death. I find it extremely difficult to write about it even now.

Shoel had been released from the hard labour camp after two and a half years. I couldn't believe it was the same Shoel. The beautiful winter coat that was new when we left Poland and fitted him so well now hung on his wasted body. His blue eyes were sunken in their sockets. He had endured such horrific, inhuman torture. At the time I didn't realize how sick he was, with no known cure. It wasn't just his lungs but the whole body that was consumed. He was in and out of hospitals. There was a time when he stayed with me in the dormitory which I shared with the other girls. He had no other place to stay. I shared my food with him and even used the same utensils although he was coughing up blood. I easily could have become infected with the disease myself, but I did not think about it at all.

The last time Shoel was admitted to hospital was sometime in February, 1943. We were in the same city, but I could not help him much. I found a job in the mine's cafeteria washing dishes and peeling potatoes. There were thousands of bowls. Miners worked two shifts of twelve hours each. At least my work provided me with some food. I worked a twenty-four-hour shift and then I had forty-eight hours free. I went to see my brother. While we carried on a conversation he became silent and kept his eyes closed. His eyelids were translucent. I panicked, but he opened his eyes and said, "I'm not dead yet."

On my last visit, Shoel shared with me his only last wishes.

"I want to come home, have a piece of white bread and butter, a glass of tea with lemon, kiss our mother good-bye, and die."

Just before I left, he asked me to take his clothes with me, along with some money.

"No, Shoel," I said, "I'll come back after my next shift. I'll pick up your things then."

There was no phone to inquire about him, and of course, I couldn't take time off to see him.

On Thursday, March 18, 1943, when my shift was over and I was ready to go to the hospital, a messenger came with the news that Shoel had passed away a few hours earlier.

A nurse there told me that his last words were, "Is my sister here?"

Even though I wasn't there when he took his last breath, these painful words would always ring in my ears. He died alone.

With my last connection gone, I became an orphan. Of all the things he had wished for on his death bed, all Shoel got was a lonely death. There was no piece of bread and butter; no glass of tea with lemon. Nor did he get to kiss our dear mother, whose fate we did not know.

A few days before he died I had a disturbing dream:

I am walking up the dark, wooden staircase, hanging on the shaky wooden banister for dear life. When I reach the third floor, I take off the key that hangs from an oval ring. I open the door and let myself in. The kitchen is in semi-darkness lit only by the light from the next room.

I enter and what I see, or what I assume I see, is my family, sitting around a table covered with a white tablecloth. Our silver candlesticks, one still slightly bent, candles are shining bright…food is on the table.

I realize it must be Friday night - the Sabbath. I can only see my mother. The others are just shadows.

I'm standing in the doorway and my mother says, "Come in. Why are you standing there? Sit down and eat."

I continue standing.

"Where is my son Shoel?," she asks.

"He'll be here soon," I reply.

My mother's face becomes very sad, and very quietly, through tears, she says, "No, he will never come back!" Her mournful crying was breaking my heart.

I awoke, my face wet with tears. I knew she was right. I knew the meaning of my dream, no matter how hard I tried to reject the interpretation.

I couldn't make myself view Shoel's body, never having seen a corpse in my life. There's another thing for which I will never forgive myself, until my dying day.

The vultures had descended: The things he wanted me to take home disappeared. It didn't matter to me anyway. I lost the last connection with my family - the last link gone. I was desperately alone, lonely and poor. Nobody offered to help arrange his burial. I took three days off from work without permission. That eventually landed me in a hard labour camp for six months.

Finally it was left to the city to look after this matter. Ten days after his death, during a very heavy snowfall, I was allowed by my friend Hela Picksman to stand in the window of her apartment and watch the sled carrying my brother's body to the cemetery where he would be buried in an unmarked grave.

It is another load of guilt that I carry, because he was not buried in accordance with Jewish law, which proscribes burial within twenty-four hours and a mourning period of seven days. Shoel was a Cohen, a noble descendant of the Jewish high priests of the Temple, worthy of the highest burial rites.

I could not go with him for his final send-off. I had no shoes or warm clothes. Silently I said my goodbye when the sled disappeared from view. Hela interrupted the saddest moment of my life by asking me to leave her home, because she did not want her husband finding me there. She made me feel like a leper. I was a sorry sight, and not a very clean one.

It has been many years since the day Shoel died. But the grief and guilt is as raw as ever. If anything, I think about him even more often now. At least I know when to light the yahrzeit candle: the eleventh day of Adar II, 5703. He is the only member of the family whose date of death and approximate place of burial I know.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Songs of Love needs your help

We associate love with this time of year and Valentine's Day. Maybe gifts are a little bit harder to buy in the current economy. I don't want to belabour that point, but I would like to ask your help with a very special non-profit organization that is dear to my me and whose founder is very close to my heart. A donation to Songs of Love is the right gift to give this Valentine's Day.

John Belzer, founder of Songs of Love, has been providing customized songs for sick children for years. I am proud to call John my friend, and I urge you to visit the Songs of Love website and learn more about him and how his vision came to be.

Each song is written by a songwriter who has an information sheet on the child that describes their likes/dislikes, their friends and family, even a beloved pet, television show, type of music or food, book, etc. The songwriter then writes a song for that child, and incorporates all the pertinent information -- not the easiest thing to do.

I contributed a song for a little girl named Amanda, and I personally know the joy that this work brings into the lives of the child, and especially to their family and loved ones. I talk about Songs of Love everywhere I go, to anyone who'll listen! It is my personal desire to see them continue to do their good works and not to worry about the financials.

Please visit the Songs of Love website now and see for yourself. Here's John's appeal. Please give generously!

I also encourage you to check out some of the Songs of Love YouTubes, such as this one (get out your handkerchiefs):

Check out this segment on CBS 60 Minutes and GET INVOLVED!


Sunday, January 04, 2009

So good I had to repeat it here - Ron Kampeas's piece for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Gaza, the fridge in Gilo and moral responsibility

For some relief from the misery of Israel’s south and Gaza, here’s a joke from the second Intifada.

An American Jew at a party in New York tells an Israeli friend, “I’d love to visit, but it’s just too dangerous.” The Israeli protests: “Don’t believe what you see in the papers! Come, come, it’s safer than Brooklyn. Just avoid Jerusalem.”

A Jerusalemite listening in interjects: “What are you talking about, Jerusalem is as safe as Ramat Aviv. Except for Gilo, of course, but who goes to Gilo?”

“I happen to live in Gilo, bub,” a third man says. “It’s as boring as a suburb should be – as long as you keep away from Rehov Ha’anafa, across from the gunmen in Beit Jala-“

Ma pitom* Rehov Haanafa,” a girl says from across the room. “My parents live there, and I go every Shabbat, and I’m a certified coward. Forget about it, come to Rehov Ha’anafa, as long as you avoid 422, naturally-“

“422?!?” shouts the bartender. “422 is like a day in the park. A wonderful building, and I should know, my girlfriend lives there. Everyone knows 422 is fine, except for the miskenim in 10-B.”

Miskenim?” says the guy slumped in the corner, waking up. “I’ll give you miskenim, ya’ mamzer. We’re just fine in 10-B and everyone is invited next Shabbat to prove it. Keep out of the kitchen, is all.”

“The kitchen?” an older woman huffs. “As if you even know what it looks like. The kitchen is safe as can be,” she says, “As long as you don’t stand next to the fridge.”

And so on.

I know, some relief.

It’s hard to get around the dilemma this war poses, especially as refracted through the know-nothingism permeating commentary on the web and in the newspapers.

I’m Israeli, I lived there 15 years, a lot of them in an apartment like 422-10-B, facing a Palestinian village, and I don’t have answers. I wish I had the confidence of those who do.

But I only have questions. It’s all I can come up with, a whittling down, perhaps, of my (take your pick) self-confidence/moral centeredness/arrogance after way too many years of asking them.

So here are a few:

For the dimestore analysts who talk about Israel’s compunction for disproportionate response, as if it were somehow inherently Israeli: What is the worth of conclusions drawn only from selective data? I mean, if Israel’s response is “disproportionate” (to what, by the way? No one ever posits a “proportionate” response) what was it for those long periods since Israel’s withdrawal in 2005 that it did not respond at all? If there is some deep moral flaw in the Israeli character that naturally disposes to disproportionality, why isn’t it triggered each time a rocket lands in Sderot? And thousands have. This question first occurred to me during the Lebanon war in 2006, when the same sighs of “how Israeli” arose after a cross-border Hezbollah raid triggered aerial assaults and then a ground operation; the (willful?) amnesia struck me: Israel had suffered exactly such a raid in the summer of 2000, yet had NOT responded in kind. What did that say about Israel’s alleged trigger-happiness? And about Hezbollah’s recklessness (along the lines of “fool me once,” etc.)? If there’s one there’s one thing I’ve learned in 20 years as a reporter, it is that ascribing an inherent, immutable quality to a body as organic as a nation or a people is cheap anti-intellectualism at best and probably something far, far worse.

And before you start nodding, what is a “proportionate” response then? Why is 20 percent civilian deaths acceptable? Who deems it so? Supposedly, that’s comparable to Afghanistan; Is the NATO operation in Afghanistan something we (we Israelis) want to emulate? Does the storing of weapons in civilian areas justify the risk of taking children’s lives? Is anyone making these decisions asking these questions? What is the acceptable risk factor? Loose talk of “collateral damage” is, well, meaningless. No, worse, it has meaning: The relativization of human life.

And speaking of meaning, what do these knee-jerk calls for a cease-fire and a return to the peace process mean? What peace process involved Hamas? This is a group that since 2006 has had an opportunity to set up a functioning Islamist state. Think of it: Had Gaza run smoothly and Hamas maintained the peace, how could the Israeli leadership have resisted recognizing its governance? How could Israel plausibly resist relinquishing governance and land in the West Bank? And releasing prisoners? The pressure would have been internal as well: Occupation uncoupled from security is profoundly unpopular in Israel. And think of the regional repercussions: If Israel could accommodate Islamism in Gaza, how could Egypt and Jordan resist within their borders? I simply don’t see any other sequence arising out of a peaceful mini-state in Gaza. Yet Hamas seemed determined to smash this golden opportunity, apparently because killing Israeli civilians matters more to it than, well, survival. And yes, I know about the privations caused by Israel’s U.S.-backed blockade – triggered, after all, by democratic elections – but somehow, Hamas managed to smuggle in materiel enough to manufacture hundreds of rockets, including long-range missiles; it might have been smuggling in food and medicine and fuel. And, again, a peaceful Gaza would have created pressure enough for Israel to lift its embargoes – if pressure was needed. My sense is that the Olmert government would have done so of its own accord had peace prevailed. So what does Israel do about the arms buildup just miles from Ashkelon, less than an hour’s leisurely drive from Tel Aviv? And yes, the rocket fire has radically diminished during the ceasefire - proof that Hamas can indeed rein it in - but the smuggling intensified (the proof is now in the longrange rockets reaching Beersheba and Ashkelon.) Who would regard an ceasefire coupled with arms buildup as a true "ceasefire"? Is a ceasefire really the right answer? What about smarter fire?

And speaking of smarter fire and smarter embargoes: Just as the fire is “proportionate,” Israeli and pro-Israel spokesmen will insist that the embargoes are necessitated by the smuggling and, God forbid, are not collective punishment. Please forgive the hard nudge and the broad wink. As Dennis Ross and others have written, a greater commitment of Israeli manpower at security checkpoints would substantially mitigate against arming terrorists while providing relief to civilians; yet Israel has never made this a priority. And Gaza’s civilians are suffering commensurately. Israeli officials don’t often publicly acknowledge collective punishment (it’s against the law), but any veteran of military service in the territories – okay, this veteran of military service in the territories will tell you – it is routinely used to justify shutting down a village where trouble has occurred. (“We’re going to squeeze them a little, and they’ll give up the bad guys, or at least force them to go somewhere else so it won’t be our problem” is how I remember one commander explaining it in the Bureij refugee camp an eon ago.) Yitzhak Rabin, not one to suffer legal niceties gladly, bluntly made the same case more than once for broader operations. Leave aside for a moment the moral question – what is the usefulness of collective punishment? After 40 years of its intermittent use, are the Palestinians more quiescent? Has it ever been effective in the territories? Anyone heard of summud? I can think of only one instance where it had limited effect: Operation Accountabilty in 1993, where Rabin made clear he was creating an internal refugee crisis in Lebanon to pressure the government into reining in Hezbollah. But that was Lebanon. Has it ever worked on the Palestinians? And back to the moral question: How is pressuring civilians to effect policy changes not terrorism (albeit of a less lethal kind than that practiced by Hamas)?

And speaking of civilians caught in the crossfire – what is so extraordinary about this little war that it merits enhanced attention from the president-elect, from the media, from the teenager stuffing “People” into your groceries bag? Editor and Publisher’s Greg Mitchell has wondered aloud why the sufferings of the Palestinians have not merited greater coverage by the media and “liberal bloggers” (coulda fooled me). The implication is that we’re all cowering for fear of repercussions from the teeth-gnashing, gut-clawing “Israel lobby” monster. (JTA's report is here.) The suffering has merited multiple-day front-page coverage; is the same true of eastern Congo? Of Abkhazia? Of Pakistan’s border provinces? The follow-up evasion to this usually is that Israel’s conflicts are not isolated, they threaten to engulf the region, etc. etc., yet that does not seem true in this case; if anything, Israel’s neighbors are making a new art of thumb-twiddling in hopes of seeing an Islamist movement crushed.

But that doesn’t absolve us – us Jews, us Israelis – from asking questions. It is a war waged in our name. It is a war we have been asked to defend, as American Jews, and if we have an obligation to defend Israel, we have a right to ask hard questions, and not just in chambers. The hoary old emotional blackmail - “Israel knows best, its government is on the front line” - is still dead, buried by its most strident advocates the minute they turned on Oslo. The Israeli standing by the fridge in Ashdod - and the Palestinian standing in the kitchen in Khan Yunis - deserve no less.

*Ma pitom, literally, “What, suddenly,” is one of those transient, untranslatable idioms that means something different from use to use – in this case, “What are you talking about?” “Miskenim” means “poor slobs” and “ya’, mamzer” means exactly that.