A Holocaust Survivor makes sure Jews who were killed will not be forgotten


Rae Gawendo’s crown of white hair was combed back from her forehead as she sat at the dining room table in the home of her son Evert in Griswold. Her eyes narrowed when she was asked what it was like to live in the Vilna Ghetto in Lithuania in 1941 where the Nazis forced 40,000 Jews into the space of a several blocks.

“Miserable,” she said.

Gawendo is 102. She was 91 when she first spoke of the nightmare she lived through as a Jew in Europe when Hitler came to power.

She lost everything. Her husband, parents, grandparents and sister were shot and killed by the Nazis and local militia. She survived the Vilna ghetto only to be sent to the Klooga work camp in 1942. She worked in a sawmill there, processing logs for funeral pyres to burn Jews. She survived a liquidation effort by the Nazis as the Russian army approached the camp in September 1944. She was shot, pretended to be dead and lived to tell about it.

Jerry Fischer, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, was instrumental in getting her to finally talk about her experiences. Fischer knew many of the 40 refugee families who arrived in northeastern Connecticut after the war and established chicken farms with the help of the Jewish Agricultural Society. Rae, her husband, Jacob, and their sons Maurice and Evert were one such family, with a farm in Moosup.

“I told Rae it was necessary because the Holocaust was being denied and obscured,” Fischer said. “It was important for survivors to tell their stories because their stories were true.”

Fischer began an “Encountering Survivors” program that went to area schools and churches. Holocaust survivors and children of survivors spoke to high school students about their lives before, during and after the war.

Gawendo finally agreed to speak. On a stage marking a Holocaust commemoration, with Evert at her side, Gawendo spoke about what she lived through.

Fischer will never forget that night. Neither will Evert Gawendo.

“My knees were shaking,” he said. It was the first time he had ever heard his mother talk about her wartime experiences. His father never spoke of it either. “That’s the way it was with first-generation kids,” he said. “None of us heard our parents talk about the war.”

“That night we were standing side by side, holding each other up,” he said.

But it was in the intimate settings of Fischer’s program that Gawendo did even more compelling work with the students. Between five and eight students would meet at her home for three evenings. The first session was about life before the war. During the second session, Gawendo spoke of her life during the war. The last session focused on her life after liberation when she and her second husband came to America.

Tessa Roy was a junior at Wheeler High School when she decided to participate in the program. “It changed my life,” she said. “I knew I wanted to write. Rae helped me realize the kinds of stories I want to tell.” Roy is now a journalist with WPRO in Providence.

Shannon Saglio was teaching Modern World History at Wheeler High School in North Stonington when she got involved in the program. “I told my students that they’d be the last generation to look into the eyes of survivors and hear their stories firsthand,” she said.

Gawendo’s story had a deep impact on Saglio. “To hear a woman talk about the nightmare that happened in a society that was civilized, with highly educated people, to think of the atrocities that happened to her in that setting was so disconcerting,” she said. She called it the normalization of hate.

But it was Gawendo’s strength and tenacity that Saglio remembers. When Gawendo visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as part of the Encountering Survivors program, Saglio, Evert and several students accompanied her. Gawendo became visibly upset as they moved past the exhibits. “There are no pictures of Klooga,” she told her son.

A museum staff member apologized to Gawendo, telling her they didn’t have much information on the camp where she had lived for two years. Gawendo pulled out 72 pictures from her purse and gave them to her.

The pictures are stark records of the truth. A man lies dead, sprawled on the grass after being shot. There is a funeral pyre made of timbers and bodies, five layers high. The dead on the edges lay with their arms and heads hanging down. In some pictures the corpses were laid out side by side after being burned. Some partially burned bodies show arms sticking up, mouths wide open, trunks without legs because they’d been consumed by fire.

“It happened,” Gawendo said. “It happened.”

Those pictures are now in the archives in Washington. In one photograph Gawendo stands with 14 other prisoners. She was one of 85 survivors of a camp that had housed more than 3,000 people. Her witnessing — and her life — are testimonies to the resilience of the human spirit.


Plaque marking Canada’s National Holocaust Memorial to be replaced after not mentioning Jews

(JTA) — The plaque marking the opening of Canada’s National Holocaust Monument will be replaced after the original failed to mention that Jews were the majority of the victims.

Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly told the House of Commons on Thursday that the plaque will be replaced, and also reiterated that the monument commemorates the 6 million Jewish people and 5 million other people killed by the Nazis and their supporters during the Holocaust.

“On the day the monument was unveiled, we noticed that the panel at the entrance conspicuously and curiously did not mention Jews,” Martin Sampson, director of communications for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said in a statement, according to the Toronto Star. “We raised our concerns with the government. They were very responsive, acknowledged the error and agreed to correct it immediately.”

The monument was unveiled at the end of last month by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It states that the monument commemorates the “millions of men, women and children murdered during the Holocaust and honours the survivors who persevered and were able to make their way to Canada after one of the darkest chapters in history.”

Trudeau said at the opening of the monument: “Today we reaffirm our unshakeable commitment to fight anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and discrimination in all its forms, and we pay tribute to those who experienced the worst of humanity. We can honor them by fighting hatred with love, and seeking always to see ourselves in each other.”

Canada had been the only Allied power that fought in World War II not to have a national Holocaust memorial.

The more than $7 million cost of the memorial is being split between the government and private donors, and took a decade to build.

Incredible photos of Holocaust survivors from the SS Exodus up for auction.   Journalist Robert Gary’s album of post-Holocaust life in DP camps is one of the highest-quality records to survive

  • Children posing for a photo in hats that read 'Exodus 1947' in a displaced persons camp in Germany, September 1947. (Robert Gary/via JTA)
    Children posing for a photo in hats that read ‘Exodus 1947’ in a displaced persons camp in Germany, September 1947. (Robert Gary/via JTA)
  • Jews repairing fencing at a DP camp in Germany, September 1947. (Robert Gary/via JTA)
    Jews repairing fencing at a DP camp in Germany, September 1947. (Robert Gary/via JTA)
  • Jews dancing in a DP camp in Germany, September 1947. (Robert Gary/via JTA)
    Jews dancing in a DP camp in Germany, September 1947. (Robert Gary/via JTA)
  • A 1947 photo of the fake certificate identifying Robert Gary as a passenger of the SS Exodus. (Courtesy of Kedem Auction House/via JTA)
    A 1947 photo of the fake certificate identifying Robert Gary as a passenger of the SS Exodus. (Courtesy of Kedem Auction House/via JTA)


TEL AVIV (JTA) — In the summer of 1947, when the British turned away the SS Exodus from the shores of Palestine, the world was watching.

Before the eyes of the international media, British troops violently forced the ship’s passengers — most of them Holocaust survivors — onto ships back to Europe. The resulting reports helped turn public opinion in favor of the Zionist movement and against the pro-Arab British policy of limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine.

But much else was happening in the aftermath of World War II, and attention soon shifted elsewhere. Aside from trailblazing photographer and journalist Ruth Gruber, one of the few journalists to stick with the story was Jewish Telegraphic Agency correspondent Robert Gary, who filed a series of reports from displaced persons camps in Germany.

Seventy years later and decades after his death, Gary is again drawing attention to the “Exodus Jews,” albeit mostly in Israel.

An album of 230 of his photos will be sold at the Kedem Auction House in Jerusalem on October 31, and a number of the images reveal the reality inside the camps, where the Jews continued to prepare for life in Palestine under trying conditions.

Some of the photos, which have little to no captioning, capture the haunting similarities of the DP camps to those in which the Nazis interned and killed millions of Jews during the Holocaust, including images of Exodus Jews repairing barbed-wire fences under the watch of guards.

But others show the Jews participating in communal activities and preparing for their hoped-for future in Palestine. In one photo, Zionist emissaries from the territory — young women dressed in white T-shirts and shorts — appear to lead the Exodus Jews in a circular folk dance.

Shay Mendelovich, a researcher at Kedem, said he expects there to be a lot of interest in the album, which is being sold by an anonymous collector who bought it from the Gary family. Mendelovich predicted it could be sold for as much as $10,000.

“The photos are pretty unique,” he said. “There were other people in these camps. But Robert Gary was one of the few who had a camera and knew how to take pictures.”


Between 1945 and 1952, more than 250,000 Jews lived in displaced persons camps and urban centers in Germany, Austria and Italy that were overseen by Allied authorities and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Despite having been liberated from the Nazi camps, they continued to languish in Europe under guard and behind barbed wire.

Gary was an American Jewish reporter who JTA sent to Europe to cover the aftermath of WWII. He detailed the living conditions in the camps more than a year before the Exodus journey: inadequate food; cold, crowded rooms; violence by guards and mind-numbing boredom. But he reported in September 1946 that the greatest concern among Jews was escaping Europe, preferably for Palestine.

“Certainly the DPs are sensitive to the material things and sound off when things go bad [which is as it should be], but above all this is their natural desire to start a new life elsewhere for the bulk in Palestine, for others, in the US and other lands,” he wrote. “Get any group of DPs together and they’ll keep you busy with the number one question: When are we leaving?”

In July 1947, more than 4,500 Jews from the camps boarded the Exodus in France and set sail for Palestine without legal immigration certificates. They hoped to join the hundreds of thousands of Jews building a pro-Jewish state.

Organized by the Haganah, a Zionist paramilitary force in Palestine, the mission was the largest of dozens of mostly failed attempts at illegal Jewish immigration during the decades of British administration of the territory following World War I. The British largely sought to limit the arrival of Jews to Palestine out of deference to the often violent opposition of its Arab majority.

The Haganah had outfitted and manned the Exodus in hopes of outmaneuvering the British Navy and unloading the passengers on the beach. But near the end of its weeklong voyage, the British intercepted the ship off the shore of Palestine and brought it into the Haifa port. Troops removed resisting passengers there, injuring dozens and killing three, and loaded them on three ships back to Europe.


Even after two months on the Exodus, the passengers resisted setting foot back on the continent. When the British finally forced them ashore in September 1947 and into two displaced persons camps in occupied northern Germany — Poppendorf and Am Stau — many sang the Zionist anthem “Hatikvah” in protest. An unexploded time bomb, apparently designed to go off after the passengers were ashore, was later found on one of the ships.

The widely reported events won worldwide sympathy for European Jews and their national aspirations. An American newspaper headlined a story about the Exodus “Back to the Reich.” The Yugoslav delegate from the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine called the affair “the best possible evidence we have for allowing Jews into Palestine.”

Later, the Exodus achieved legendary status, most famously as the inspiration and namesake of the 1958 best-seller by Leon Uris and the 1960 film starring Paul Newman. Some, including former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, credited the Exodus with a major role in the foundation of the State of Israel in May 1948.

Gary, who was stationed in Munich, had close ties to Zionist activists; he reported early and often on the continuing plight of the Exodus Jews in the camps. His dispatches highlighted their continued challenges, including malnutrition, and unabated longing to immigrate to Palestine.

In a report from Poppendorf days after the Exodus Jews arrived, Gary said the dark running joke in the camp was that the alternative to Palestine was simple: “Everyone would choose a tree from which to hang himself.”

“The Jews of Germany demand and expect a chance to start life anew under reasonably secure circumstances,” he wrote. “They feel these places exist mainly in Palestine and the US. And they are determined to get there, either by legal or illegal means, or just by plain old fashioned patience.”

Pnina Drori, who later became Gary’s wife, was among the emissaries that the Jewish Agency for Israel sent to the camps from Palestine to prepare the Jews for aliyah. As a kindergarten teacher, she taught the children Hebrew and Zionist songs. Other emissaries, she said, offered military training in preparation for the escalating battles with the Arab majority in Palestine.

“In the photos, you see a lot of young people in shorts and kind of Israeli clothes,” she said. “We were getting them ready for Israeli life, both good and bad. You have to remember Israel was at war at the time.”


Gary was one of the few journalists who continued visiting the DP camps in the weeks after the Exodus Jews returned to Europe. Somehow he even obtained a fake certificate identifying him as one of the former passengers of the ship. But by late September 1947, JTA reported that British authorities had tired of Gary’s critical coverage and barred him from entry.

“The fact that Gary and [New York newspaper PM reporter Maurice] Pearlman were the only correspondents still assigned to the story, and had remained at the camps, aroused the authorities, who charged that they ‘were snooping about too much,’” according to the report.

Israel declared independence in May 1948, and after Great Britain recognized the Jewish state in January 1949, it finally sent most of the remaining Exodus passengers to the new Jewish state. Nearly all the DP camps in Europe were closed by 1952 and the Jews dispersed around the world, most to Israel and the United States.

Gary soon immigrated to Israel, too. He married Drori in 1949, months after meeting her at a Hanukkah party at the Jewish Agency’s headquarters in Munich, and the couple moved to Jerusalem, where they had two daughters. Robert Gary took a job at The Jerusalem Post and later worked for the British news agency Reuters. Pnina Gary, now 90, continued her acting career.

She said her husband always carried a camera with him when he was reporting, and their home was filled with photo albums.

Decades after Robert Gary died at the age of 67 in Tel Aviv in 1987, Pnina Gary wrote and starred in a hit play, “An Israeli Love Story.” It is based on her real-life romance with the first man she was supposed to marry, who was killed by local Arabs in an ambush on their kibbutz.

“We knew life wouldn’t be easy in Israel,” she said. “That’s not why anyone comes here.”

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Belgian Holocaust denier ordered to visit concentration camps and write about them

By Derek Hawkins, Washington Post, September 25, 2017.  Click for full report.


Laurent Louis, then a far-right lawmaker and chamber member, performs the controversial “quenelle” gesture at a security check in Brussels in 2014. (AFP)
A court in Brussels has ordered a former Belgian lawmaker to visit five Nazi concentration camps and write about his experiences as punishment for publicly denying the Holocaust, a crime in Belgium.

Laurent Louis, a far-right politician and self-proclaimed “anti-Zionist,” was convicted of Holocaust denial in 2015 after he wrote blog posts publicly doubting whether Jews were killed en masse in Nazi gas chambers during the Second World War. He received a roughly $20,000 fine and a six-month suspended prison sentence.

But recently, the Brussels Court of Appeal put the prison sentence on hold and instead ordered him to take one trip per year for the next five years to Nazi death camps, including the infamous Auschwitz, which was run by Nazi Germany in Poland, Agence France Press reported.

Following each visit he must write at least 50 lines describing what he saw in the camps and “the feelings he experienced,” according to AFP. He is required to submit the texts to the court and post them on his personal Facebook account, where he has about 50,000 followers.

More than a dozen countries in Europe have passed laws banning Nazism and outlawing various degrees of Holocaust denial. Promoting the Holocaust, minimizing its impact or denying it outright are illegal under a 1995 Belgian law and punishable by fines and prison time.

Louis, a 37-year-old who served in Belgium’s parliament 2010 to 2014, cheered the sentence as a “total victory” in Facebookposts but offered his apologies to “those who were hurt by my words.”

“All that I have left to do is do the reports from the death camps. No doubt the court recognized my talents as a writer,” wrote Louis, who recently self-published a book on his political views.

“More seriously, I will abide by the court’s ruling and go and repent every year in a death camp,” he continued. “In addition to being very instructive and very powerful on the human level, this will be an opportunity also to denounce current genocides.”

During his roughly four years in Belgium’s Chamber of Representatives, Louis seemed to take pride in being a political insurgent. He was voted in as a member of the country’s center-right conservative party but was kicked out after just a few months amid tension with its leadership. He briefly joined the country’s Islamic party but was booted there after trying to proclaim himself party president. He went on to found the far-right Debout Les Belges! (Belgians, Rise Up!) movement.

In 2014, Louis accused then-prime minister Elio Di Rupo of being a pedophile in a speech in parliament. He was later convicted of slander and received an eight-month suspended prison sentence.

He has a long track record of inflammatory and conspiratorial remarks about Jews and Israel. He argued on Facebook and in Parliament that Zionists had bankrolled the extermination of Jews by the Nazis, saying“the Holocaust was set up and financed by the pioneers of Zionism.” He once trampled an Israeli flag during a demonstration in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And he is fond of giving the “quenelle,” a gesture similar to the Nazi salute that is popular among neo-Nazis in France.

Members of Parliament and outside organizations have repeatedly condemned Louis as anti-Semitic, and advocacy groups have filed a complaints saying his remarks were an incitement to violence.

The Belgian League Against anti-Semitism was among the plaintiffs in Louis’s trial. When he was convicted of Holocaust denial in 2015, the judge ruled that he made multiple statements downplaying the atrocities committed by Nazis in World War II and criticized his conduct in the courtroom.

“During his trial, Mr. Louis seemed to think he was in parliament rather than in a court of law,” the judge said, according to the Times of Israel. “He expressed little regret toward the people he offended and offers little evidence in the way of correcting his ways.”

Louis’s sentence is unusual but not unheard-of. In 2013, a court in Hungary ordered a Holocaust denier to visit Auschwitz, the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Budapest or Israel’s Yad Vashem and write about the trip. The man was convicted of carrying a sign in public that read “the Holocaust never happened” in Hebrew. It was the first punishment issued under Hungary’s Holocaust denial law, which took effect in 2010, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Such a prosecution is virtually unfathomable in the United States, where Holocaust denial and other forms of controversial speech enjoy sweeping protections under the First Amendment.

But a judge handed down a sentence not unlike Louis’s earlier this year to five teenage boys who spray painted a historic black school in Ashburn, Va., with swastikas and racist graffiti. Rather than give the boys jail time or community service, the judge ordered them to read books by black, Jewish and Afghan authors, write a research paper on hate speech and visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Zuzana Ruzickova: Harpsichordist and Holocaust survivor dies at 90

Zuzana RuzickovaImage copyrightALAMY
Image captionThe Czech musician became internationally famous for her recordings of Bach

One of the world’s leading harpsichordists, Zuzana Ruzickova, who survived three Nazi concentration camps including Auschwitz, has died aged 90.

Mrs Ruzickova passed away in a Prague hospital on Wednesday afternoon.

Despite living in totalitarian communist Czechoslovakia, she had a breakthrough in 1956 when she won a major international music composition.

Becoming an acclaimed global musician, she was best known for her interpretations of Bach.

Born to a Jewish family in then-Czechoslovakia in 1927, Mrs Ruzickova told the BBC in December that her love of music helped her survive the war.

“I was not a strong child, but I was in love with music from the beginning,” she said.

She had to stop studying music after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939.

Zuzana Ruzickova and her parents

Mrs Ruzickova’s family were then deported to the Theresienstadt (Terezin) labour camp in 1942. Her grandparents and her father later died in the camp, along with tens of thousands of other Jewish inmates.

The teenager was then transported to Auschwitz, and later forced to carry out slave labour in Hamburg before being moved to Bergen-Belsen. After the war she returned to her native Czechoslovakia with her gravely ill mother.

Her hands were badly damaged during her three-year ordeal. But she told the BBC that she practised the piano for 12 hours a day to make up for lost time.

Despite being under repressive surveillance upon her return, she was allowed by the government to perform at competitions and concerts around the world because she became a lucrative source of foreign currency for the state.

Between 1965 and 1975 she became the first person to record Bach’s complete works for keyboard.

Zuzana RuzickovaImage copyrightUNKNOWN

Mrs Ruzickova had to stop performing in public in 2006 at the age of 79. Her husband, composer Viktor Kalabis, died the same year.

In her final years was unable to play at all because of nerve damage from cancer and chemotherapy treatment.

A documentary about her life was released earlier this year.

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