Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Israel Gutman Interview: Part 3

The following is the third part of a three-part series of interviews with Israel Gutman.  

In addition to being an historian of the Holocaust, Israel Gutman was a leading fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; a survivor of Auschwitz (where he was a member of the Jewish underground), two other Nazi camps, and the death marches; he helped create Yad Vashem, edited the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, and was a key witness at the Eichmann trial and an important advisor to the Polish post-war government.  

The interviews were conducted by Breindel Lieba Kasher.  The Introduction is by Yehuda Bauer of Yad Vashem.  The interviews were edited by Charles Fishman.  Further information concerning Gutman, Kasher, Fishman, and Bauer appears at the end of the interview.

(You can read the two earlier parts by clicking here: Part 1, Part 2. )

Homeward Bound (1)

We left off in Italy where you were again involved with a kind of underground work, smuggling Jews to Israel.

It was not, and cannot be compared to, underground work during the Nazi period. There was a movement from England and America, to return survivors to their country of origin. The Russian Jews were to be sent back to Russia, Polish Jews back to Poland, and the Lithuanian Jews back to Lithuania. Most of these Jews were, by no means, ready or willing to return to their country of birth. A small minority from the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Hungary returned. The East European Jews from Poland or the Baltic states were not about to do that. The life they once had was destroyed, their families were murdered, and all their belongings were stolen. The Jews had more than enough of this from the Poles, Lithuanians, and Russians. This was why we, in the Underground, worked with illegal immigration. This Underground was no longer like that of the Zionists before the war, idealists building a Jewish homeland. This Underground was a direct result of the war. The Jews understood they had no other way. They had to build a home, a Jewish country. Jews had a right to go to Palestine, despite the quota policies of Great Britain.  This was the reason for the establishment of the Beriha [“flight, escape.”]: Jews from Poland, Austria and Germany went to Italy. From there, they traveled, legally or illegally, to Palestine.  Some people had family in the United States, or South America. They went there to rebuild their lives. The great majority, especially from the youth, came to the conclusion that their new life would be built in Palestine.

People always asked me:“How could any Jew return to Poland after the war?”

Yes, you see, the Jews who returned to Poland after the war were, for the most part, not Jews under German occupation but, rather, Jews who, during the war, fled to Soviet Russia.

Yes, that is true, but I met Jews who were under Nazi occupation, who came from Chelm, Krakow or Lublin, who went through Auschwitz, Majdanek or Sobibór, and yet I found them back in Poland.

A relatively small group of people returned.

 My feeling is that no one really knows about a life, and what one needs to do, especially for the survivors. No one can know why someone needed to go back to the place where, once upon a time, they had a home, a family, and love. No one can know, and no one can judge.

They probably went back with the hope of finding someone from their family, or perhaps, finding some of their belongings.

Or perhaps, they went back to be close to the dead they left?

But they could no longer have had a stable connection to Poland as home. That would be impossible.

So, what did you do?

For me, it was clear; I had nobody, no family in Poland. I was not interested in any of my belongings. I had been a member of a Zionist youth movement, and it was obvious I would go to Israel. I was going, even while I was in Poland, so, it was a realization of what I was always going to do.

What did it entail, your work with illegal immigration to Palestine?

My youth movement, and other youth movements, organized survivors in Poland, Germany, and in Italy. I came to the South of Italy. A colleague and I had the idea of building a kibbutz. The people of Italy were very open, friendly, and warm. There was a vast difference between the Italians and people of Poland or Germany. But, of course, in Italy, there was no place for all of us, so they sent us deep into the south, to a resort area, Bari. We organized ourselves there. I, and a friend, asked the youth among us if they were ready to build a collective life. When we had enough Jewish youth, we began building Kibbutz Aviv [Spring]. This was a very nice time. The members of this kibbutz all journeyed, illegally, to Palestine via Cyprus. I did not go because delegates from Palestine, involved with illegal immigration, decided I should be a part of a group preparing the Aliya movement. From Rome, they sent me to Germany for some time, and to Austria, returning to Italy. I traveled all the time. “Aliya Bet” [illegal immigration #2], all left from Italy to Palestine.

How old were you?

I was 22. I worked all the time, as it was becoming closer to the establishment of the Jewish State. I said, this is my time; now I want to go to Israel. I went a special, illegal way, as did the members of the Haganah, a part of a Jewish brigade, returning home. The English knew nothing of this method of sending people. It was called “Aliya Gimel” [illegal immigration #3]. I arrived in Israel at the very beginning of the state. 

You did not have to land in Cyprus?


What was the first thing you did when you got off the boat?

When I arrived, I wanted to go to a kibbutz. They knew that I belonged to this organization in Italy and Austria, and after a short time I was sent to a young kibbutz. My kibbutz was Lehavot Habashan in the north Galilee.

Where was it?

It was close to the Syrian border. It was a new kibbutz. The majority were young people, from different countries, who had been in Palestine for a long time. I was a part of a small group of newcomers.

What happened to Kibbutz Aviv?

Aviv was sent via Cyprus to Palestine. Those people either became members of different kibbutzim, or a part of them went to live in the cities.

Your kibbutz was not made up of survivors.

No, on the contrary. The majority were not survivors. The majority were children of families who lived a long time in Palestine. 

When you finally arrived in Palestine, after being a Zionist your whole life, how did you feel?

It was a realization of a dream.

How was it, living with people who were not survivors? Could they understand you?

It was a problem for many reasons; there was a question of language, a question of work, a question of a newcomer who had nobody. It was a new lesson in life.

So here you were, this small group of survivors, were you welcomed?

You know, it is not so easy to say that everything was fine, and I was happy to start a life with new people, in a new place, even the climate; all these things had their influences, but it was my home, that was clear. It was not always Gan Eden [The Garden of Eden].

How did the Israelis receive the Jews who came from Europe?

I believe that survivors who went to the States had greater problems. The Jews, however, in Israel, did not fully understand what happened in Europe. They did not know what sort of people we were, why we survived, what happened over there. They worried about if we would fit in and be like the others, after years in the camps, without family, with all our struggles. They worried about the effect we would have on the others. It was disappointing. But, when I think about those of us who were involved with rescue work, those of us who remained in Poland and other countries, we ourselves had doubts about the effect those years we spent under the Germans, and in the camps, had on us. We wondered how we would be able to have normal lives, fit into a normal society. The newcomers had so many doubts, and the oldtimers were also in conflict.  They did not make it easy. There was not full cooperation.

Of course the survivors found it difficult to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and begin again in a foreign land. Wasn’t it the obligation of the Israelis to welcome their brothers and sisters, and help ease their difficult adjustment, any way possible?

You know, those survivors who had some family here, found it easier; but for those of us who were alone, who had to begin to live again, to start a new life, everything was new, and it was hard. It was very complicated and difficult; but, when I think about it today, I come to the conclusion that there was never another group of immigrants like that. 
After a short time we became a natural part of the country. I see immigrants from Morocco or, now, immigrants from Russia; after many years, they still have a specific character as newcomers, separate from the society. It was not the case with the survivors. After a short time, a year, two years, three years, we fit in with everyone else in society.


I think so. The young people learned quickly. They learned the language, they met their partners and friends. They learned to work. They were patriots.

The Jews who went to America remained immigrants, but the Jews who came to Israel were coming to their homeland. Therefore, didn’t they deserve to be welcomed with open arms?

Yes, the United States was a country of immigrants, but there was a very large difference between the Jews who had already been in America for many years and those Jews who came after the Second World War. The older immigrants felt they were Americans. The newcomers, from the beginning, never fit in to American society. They remained foreigners.

The newcomers to Israel, the survivors, after a short time, became part of society, everyone building a new state. They began to feel Israel was their country, and they belonged here, no less than anyone else. It was, however, difficult because the Sabras had their specific way of life, but the Sabras were also different from their elders, their parents. When we speak of the older generation, the survivors were quickly able to unite and build a home together. 

God, Tradition, and Yiddishe Ta’am

When you were growing up, you said, “Shabbos was Shabbos.” Your father went to a shteible [A place to pray]. You were traditional Jews.


Do you feel you have kept any of that tradition?

Yes, but even when I was young, I was different than my father. I went to a different school. I was a Jew. This was clear. I cannot imagine my life not as a Jew. But I belonged to another generation, very interested in Polish culture and literature.

All members of Hashomer Hatzair were not religious — is that right?

Yes, absolutely.

Was one of the requirements not to believe in God?

Yes, this was how we felt, before the war. But, you know, it was very difficult to believe in God, in the Warsaw Ghetto, in the Camps. The first question each Jew asked himself was, If this is my God, and I am close to him, and I believe in the one God, where is my God? Look what happened to his people. This is the question I do not have any answers for. I am not religious. I can only imagine the difficulty, the great problems, religious people had trying to answer this. You know, there are people who, because of the tradition they were raised in, because of their children, continued to believe after the war, but it is impossible to think they did not ask the basic question, If there is a God, where was he during this tragedy? I don’t know what the answer is. Perhaps there is no answer at all. Perhaps it was more important for some people to pass down the idea, ‘What my father was, so am I.’ In any case, there was no place to be religious in a ghetto. There was nothing kosher, no synagogue to attend; no, religion could no longer be a part of the life, and no one could find any hope in belief. Not only did the Jews lose more people than any other nation, but the first Jews taken were the believers, the Polish Jews, the first victims.

There were, however, religious people in the ghettos. I was wondering if you saw anyone who was religious in the barracks?

Anyone who says there were religious people in the barracks is telling stories. In the barracks, a very small group of people believed with all their heart. I told you about the group I was involved with, the Underground in Auschwitz. Only after the war did I learn a few among them had been religious. In the camp, they never told me.

Did you see anyone in the camps doing anything in terms of religiosity?

One person, he did not eat. So he died. Today, people tell different stories. Besides the very few who, against all odds, remained believers, anyone with any sense could not, as a prisoner in camp, behave, eat and work as a believer.
Well you know, I read Rebbe Shapira, the Esh Kodesh [the Sacred Fire], The Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto. He said something that interested me, something I found revolutionary. To paraphrase:‘ The Nazis could take everything from you, but the one thing they could never take was your connection to God.’

The truth is that the Rabbis, the leaders, most of them, left. They went away. Only a few great human beings remained. The majority left. Yes, after the war, when life returned to normal behavior, belief changed. I know, for many people, religion is strong and important in their lives.  I don’t like the made-up stories. In my opinion, we have to tell ourselves, and others, the full truth.

You spoke of the days in Warsaw, when there were so many Jews, they spoke Yiddish, read Yiddish newspapers, went to Yiddish theater, prayed at little shteibeles. Prayers were heard in the alleyways, on cobblestone streets; Jews walked with their own rhythm. There was a Jewish life and a Yiddisher Ta’am [an essence of Jewishness].

Jewish life was different. I like to be among Jews. I am a Jew. When I am in other countries with people who are not Jews, I feel I am not with my own. I have a feeling of “the other,” but, for me, the most important thing is to be a good human being.

When I think of Yiddishe Ta’am, I feel sad that there seems to be so little Yiddishkeit
[an essence that was Jewishness]. There isn’t even Yiddish any more.

Yes, for me, the Jewish language had something in it that no other language had. This is a loss, but —

This is a big loss.

Yes, and we can never get it back, and it had something in it that was so important, “chuchma” [a wisdom], something original.

Yes, Yiddish was the heart of the Jewish People. This is something of what I call ta’am.

Perhaps this is Jewish ta’am. You are right. This is a loss in the same way as we lost the generations of Jews.


It is not a loss only because I was so close to these people, and this was what I spoke in my home, with my friends, and my family, but also because they were very clever people. They had so much potential. The Poles had a theory about the Jews. They said the Jews were poor so they didn’t have a clue about modern life. I say to them, please, look what happened to these same Jews who went to the States. They became a part of a sophisticated world, people who won Nobel Prizes, people who were a part of the building of modern technology. Not only were they not the problem, they could have been the people who changed your life, but they refuse to  understand this.
Yes, and Yiddishkeit was murdered with the Yidden [the Jews]. The only Yiddish used now is with the Hassidim, and this Yiddish is only a small part of the Yiddish world that was in Poland.

Each day I am looking at the news in the television. They are presenting the people. There are Jewish murderers and robbers and all. What kind of ta’am is this?

I am not talking about that. I understand that. I am talking about a Jewishness that existed before the war, a world that is described by Sholom Aleichem, Peretz, and Chaim Grade, a world that left almost no traces.

We try to imagine all the Jews who were murdered as people who had great neshumas [souls], great believers.


With great morals.


It is not true.

I am not thinking of that. I just mean that our people, unlike any other, did not go gently into the abyss. The Shoah murdered our people and our past. When they took away our grandparents, they erased all the secrets they would have passed down to us, their recipes and rhythms, footprints we could have followed, looking for our own way. We were born on the other side of an endless void, between here and there. Assimilation, among the Jews, was not a natural dissolving and evolving process, from one generation to the next. It was a violent cut that left us in total darkness. We, the generations after, stumble in the emptiness, for some idea of where we came from, to help us figure out who we are and where we are going  . . .  And "ta'am” was pushed into the ovens with our people, and it will be impossible for the generations after to have any inkling of that Jewish world that was. 

Perhaps. All this was also primitive. There were people who were not a part of a modern life and the modern life changed everything.

But our change, unlike other people’s, was not a gradual, natural process.

This is right, but it happened, not only because of the Holocaust. Change happened when a Jew from a small town in Poland went to the United States.

Okay, that was natural. 

The truth is, the change that appeared in the States was greater than what happened in Warsaw.  Modern life changed Jewishness, as it had been, in the small towns, in a very close human society. Then it was stronger and deeper. What you call ‘Jewish ta’am’ changed with modern society. That was normal. It had to happen. It was not just because of the Holocaust.

I can’t say I agree with that because nothing was normal. This was not assimilation. The old world was gone, as if it never existed; the earth swallowed up the ashes of our people. The generation after continues on shaky ground. Don’t you find it sad that no one reads the Yiddish writers any more?

They don’t read them because they no longer understand the old Jewish life. In the modern world, no one reads the great writers, like Balzac. The average person no longer reads Balzac because society has changed, and the youth no longer feel a part of or interested in the old way.  It has to do with cultural development.

So you mean to say that the Jewish people don’t have more of a gap in the continuity of their roots than the other nations?

I am not able to tell you. I am a Jew and I cannot imagine myself among other nations. I spent a year in the States and I had no ambition to remain there or assimilate into another society. I am a Jew. I live in Israel. I don’t know if Israel is better than any other nation. I am a Jew, but I don’t know if we are better people than other human beings. It is just that this Jewishness, it is ours. 

February 2007

Homeward Bound (2)

How could Israel have behaved better toward the survivors?

Well, it was difficult for the people to deal with the immigrants, but for the survivors it was more difficult. We had to begin a new life in a new country, with all our memories, with our feeling of aloneness. What happens to human beings who existed for years under constant torture, and then it finally ends? What happens to a man when he begins to feel the pain of his past? His future is overwhelming. We had no family and our whole world, everyone, no longer existed. In the camps, all attention was concentrated on one thing, how to survive each minute. There was no possibility to think of the normal things a young man would be interested in like work, politics, culture, building Israel. 

How does one build a life after so many years of brokenness? How does it happen? Was it because you were young?

This was perhaps the most important thing. I was young. Young people want to live. I did not know what it was like to have a normal life, to grow up with parents. I had to become a man on my own. It helped that I came to the place of my dreams. It was far more difficult for the middle-aged, people who had a life, a wife or husband, children over there and lost them. For these people, it was often impossible to start over. I also think it was easier for us survivors who came to Israel, than for those who immigrated to the United States.

I had a close friend. We planned to go to kibbutz together. He was from Warsaw. We were together in Auschwitz. We made it, this long way, together. It was clear, when I saw him again, in Austria, that we would continue our dream and join a kibbutz. I went back to Italy. He stayed in Austria. He married a young woman. His wife had her family in the States. They settled in New York. For a long time, for years and years, I mean almost twenty years, I broke my connection with him. I could not forgive him for not coming to Israel. It broke our friendship.
The first time I went to the States, I was no longer a member of a kibbutz. I was living in Jerusalem. I was a professor at Hebrew University. I was older. You know, when you are older, you begin to understand things differently. You have more experience. I decided I wanted to find my friend. I wrote to him.

What was his name?

Finkelstein, and the funny thing is, his son, Norman Finkelstein, is a famous author. In my opinion, he wrote anti- Jewish, anti-Israeli books.

I went to New York and I met him. It was unbelievable. He no longer lived with his family. He had three sons, but he lived alone. I compared our lives, the differences between us. When we met in Austria, we were the same young men from Warsaw; there was no difference. We shared almost every idea. In New York, he never could assimilate. He was unhappy with his family, unhappy with his way of life. I understood each person had his own unique story.  I could accept the path he chose was different than mine.
My father, and all of the Yiddish writers from Europe, never fit into American society. They remained outsiders. They spoke Yiddish. They all called me their “Yiddishe tuchter”[Jewish daughter]. I didn’t understand why I belonged to all of them. I didn’t know about the million and a half Jewish children murdered.

Did the survivors in Israel help one another adjust?

You know, the survivors were, to some extent, organized. I found this small group of survivors who were involved with the Underground in Auschwitz. They lived in Tel Aviv and Haifa. I wrote my first book about Auschwitz with them.

What was the name of the book you wrote?

“Ana shim V’Efer” [“People and Ashes”].

In what year was that written?

It was in 1949.

On the kibbutz, did people ask you to tell them what happened during the war, or were you not prepared to tell them?

I was not very prepared to tell them, and they were not waiting for my story. It was a new kibbutz. In some way, each of us was in a new place. The difference was, some came from Haifa, Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem, and some came from Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Mauthausen. This was the difference.

Hashomer Hatzair was affiliated with the Socialists. Is that correct?

First of all, kibbutz life was a collective life. It was a Socialist life.

Did most kibbutzim identify with Communism?

Until some time, to some degree, yes.

Until when?

Hashomer Hatzair never identified with Communism, never at all. But Communism was a hope, until it became clear what was happening in Soviet Russia, and the policies of Stalin. It took years to gain this clarity. When we finally understood, Hashomer Hatzair, all the society, no longer affiliated with Soviet Russia.

You spoke about the difference of going from Europe to Israel, as opposed to America. My parents were Communists in America. The Communists’ political activities in America took on a different form than here in Israel.

The difference was that America, for the most part, was never close to living in a Communist society. Here in Israel, from every point of view, our society identified with the ideology. Almost the whole kibbutz movement was built with the ideology.

My father also belonged to Hashomer Hatzair in Poland. In New York, he wrote for the Freiheit, a left wing Yiddish newspaper. In l952, when his friends, Yiddish writers living in Russia, were murdered, my father quit the party, and quit the paper. What was shocking for me was how my parents, who were intellectuals and dreamers, substituted one messiah, religion, for a political messiah, mother Russia. They made such a big mistake.

Yes, it was a dream. To believe this was simply an illusion; it was a great shock.

My parents, and the others who believed in a world where all men and women, regardless of race or religion, should be treated equally, followed a murderer, Stalin. Communism, dressed in doctrines of peace, left a trail full of blood.

Little by little, every Jew began to understand this ideology, and the truth of what was behind the regime was absolutely two different things.


So, how did you fall in love? Where did you meet your wife?

My wife, I met on the kibbutz. She was from Switzerland. She was not a survivor. I started to work. I worked the fields. I was very happy doing physical work. It was not hard for me, even though the work was not easy. 

I have interviewed many survivors. Most survivors I asked said they would only marry other survivors. They felt, only someone who went through what they did could possibly understand.

I read books so I knew what was happening politically, and culturally. I forced myself to read books in Hebrew only. It was not easy, but I felt it was necessary. I had no other choice but to learn the language. After only a short time, I was able to read and write in Hebrew.

But how do two people, one a survivor, and one not, understand each other?

This was not a great problem because everyone knew some language to communicate in.

I am not talking about language. I mean able to understand where you came from, what you endured.

It was a stable problem.

What does that mean, a stable problem?

The differences, coming from different countries, we did not think about this.
I don’t mean different countries; I mean coming from the camps. Can someone who was not a survivor really understand you? That is what I am asking.

We were not in a time or place to think about this. We were busy with our day-to-day problems, as members of a kibbutz. Until today, I do not think my children know exactly what happened to me or who my parents were. They were not interested. I was also not interested in telling them the tragic story. I suppose today they know. They know my friends from Europe. They know from the books I wrote, but they do not have any special interest in this.

It is very complicated, this idea. Everyone was quiet. No one really said anything.

I don’t think so. On the contrary. Not my children, but my grandchildren are very, very interested. In the university, where I was a teacher for so many years, I saw the young students interested in the past. I taught them. They read books. They read diaries. They wanted to know everything. In Israel, the breaking point was the Eichmann trial. Until this time, there was no great interest, except to hear stories of  the uprising or things of a heroic nature. Zionism interested them more. The tragedies were not spoken about until after the Eichmann trial. When the simple people spoke out and told what happened to their families, the people were able to grasp the individual, the human being, and not only see us as the millions without faces. This changed their understanding. This understanding still exists today. The interest today is much stronger than when I first came to Israel.

I think when the survivors first came, they were too close to what had just happened to them. Heartbroken, they did not, or were not able to, open up and speak to their children. And the children were afraid to ask painful questions. Even when I sit here with you today, I feel bad asking you to go back and speak about such terrible times. 

They had a false image; every person had the same, identical story, as if there were only one story. As a matter of fact, each human being had a story. When this was understood, everything changed. Today, schools teach this and students are interested in learning.

I just want to say, I don’t think your children were uninterested. I think it was a dynamic —  survivors not speaking, and children not wanting to dredge up sad memories.

There are families where parents not only told them continually what happened but, when they gave their children food, they said, “Eat because we were starving!” There were people like this. Perhaps I belonged to the other group, the ones who tried never to do this.
 End of January 2007

Oral Torah: Giving it Over
I am still thinking of the last time we spoke. You said that Hashomer Hatzair was a left wing, non-religious movement. You came to the land of Israel where democratic socialism, even Communism, fit in with the philosophy of the state, and the kibbutz movements. Is that right?

Yes, as a matter of fact Hashomer Hatzair never had any connection to communism. On the contrary, Hashomer Hatzair was the most active youth movement, from point of view of friendship, of organizing social activities. Hashomer Hatzair was, first of all, a Zionist movement. It had a utopian belief — friendship, peace, and equality for all. It was not a party; it was a day-to-day, living movement. 

When I was growing up, the Jewish youth of Poland were built around Hashomer Hatzair and two other main movements. Each of these movements had a special orientation toward political life, social life, and religious life. Agudat Israel was a religious movement that included 30 to 35% of the Jews.

The Bund was a political movement. They were traditional, but not religious. The Bund had a Socialist philosophy. These Jews were anti-religious. The belief that all Jews in Poland were religious, speaking of the time before the war — well, that was not true. The Second World War was not a great time for belief. The Jewish mothers and fathers lost their faith. There is a well-known expression, “From your mouth to God’s ear,” and, to our regret, in this time, the mouth of the Jew was filled with tragedy, each and every day, and there was no sign giving us a feeling that God was listening. There were, of course Jews who remained religious, but the majority began to feel religion was a theory, a belief, the will of human beings, but not a reality. 

My father was Polish, mother was from Hungarian Hassidim. In America, they were  Communists who fought for workers’ rights and civil rights. Mother was anti- religious, anti-nationalistic, anti- Zionist. My parents did not speak about the Shoah. Most of my generation in America did not learn Yiddish, or Hebrew. My question is, what would make this next generation Jewish? If you live in Israel, whatever you choose to follow or not, you are a part of the Jewish nation. But what would tie the generation after, my generation, living in the Diaspora, to feeling Jewish? One had to have roots passed down. If not nationalists, not religious, not traditional, what, prey tell, is one left with?

First of all, we had a culture in Europe, a folk culture. We were not anti-religious; we just did not believe in mitzvoth, doing something specific to connect you to God. We did not believe God made a daily account of what a Jew did. Much of the religious practices seemed childish. My orientation —  and I have a strong sentiment to Jewish tradition and Jewish behavior — is to be a good, moral man. This is very important to me, and I try to live my life as such, as far as I am able. A person who claims to be religious who is not menshlich [an upright person] in regard to the Arabs, whose chauvinism is so strong that he believes he is entitled to everything over another, well, I don’t believe in this way. 

There are some Jews who are so religious, like some of the Haredim [ultra orthodox], they go off to Iran. They think there is only one way to be Jewish, to behave exactly like them; and one who does not think and behave like them is not really Jewish. There are also extreme Zionists who believe that any Jews outside of Israel are not really Jewish. I am a Zionist. I cannot think of living outside of Israel. As a member of Hashomer Hatzair, we undertook the building of this country. It was very hard work and sacrifice. This was not the achievement of the religious people. It was the achievement of the Zionists, who clearly understood that, as Jews, we had no other way. And this is, perhaps, the ta’am you were speaking of: the good feeling of being among Jews, which is also my feeling.

Do you know Felek Scharf?


Once  we were walking in Krakow together. We were talking about Yiddishkeit. We were saying there was not much of it left in the world.

Felek Scharf, I knew him very well. We spent a long time together. He was a Jew, but his family was not Jewish.

His wife . . .

Wife and children . . .

And he was bemoaning the feeling that his family didn’t really know him.

He was crying about it, but he did nothing about it. A wife is not chosen from heaven.

Unless you are religious.

I tell you, he was a real Zionist in Krakow. Of course he had a great sympathy. All he did, he did with sympathy. He also had a great sympathy for Poles. Until the end, I wondered which of his sympathies were stronger —  his connection with the Poles or with the Jews? I am also very close to Polish culture. I have many friends who are Poles. But, for me, it is clear that they belong to another country, another nation. I know very well the difference between a Pole and a Jew, in the eyes of the Poles. I have to say, my friends who are Poles, are really close to me, but I know the difference that lies between them and me. I am a Jew. I was not 100% sure that Scharf understood this difference. There were times when we thought similarly. Every time we spoke, we were close. But among the Poles, he was a Pole. Not like me. Among Poles, I am always a Jew. Our Jewish history, and what happened to our Jewish People, this is always so close to me, it lives in me, it keeps me different from them. 

The last time I saw Felek, he said, “There is no sense to come to Poland any more; all my energy I will give only to Israel.”

Yes, one time he felt that; the other time, he could change his mind.

I think I understand Felek. He left Poland in l938. Despite the fact that he knew and felt the horrors of the war, he left before it. His memories of his childhood left him longing for, as he called it, “my Krakow.” You, on the other hand, went through the horrors of the war. You saw exactly what it was, to be a Jew in Warsaw. You saw Polish people turn on their Jewish neighbors. Poland, your home and the country of your birth, died with the Jewish people. What do you think Felek meant when he said, “There is very little Yiddishkeit left in this world?”

This is not just for the Jews. You must take in to account a universal change. The fact that we live in a world with television and the possibility to know what is going on all over the world.  Almost every good book in English gets translated into Hebrew. The generations are different.  Once there was a kind of closed limitations that made vast differences between societies. This has changed absolutely. This is less national ta’am and more ta’am of an international, universalistic, meaning. I don’t know, but if it is with friendship and understanding and a common will to build a new kind of society, it could be a positive thing.

You said you did not speak to your children about Shoah.

Yes, it is only one part of the fact. It is true. I tried not to tell them too much, not to inundate them with my suffering. Still, when a friend of mine came to visit, he asked my daughter if I told her anything about the Shoah. She said, “He does not have to tell me. I see all the books in my home. I see what he wrote and, from time to time, I hear him speaking. I know enough of his past.” 

It was impossible to build a normal life after the war and to raise a family under the influence of all the tragic things that befell me. I wanted my children to grow up free men and women, to look positively toward the future. On the other hand, in order to build a new world, a Jew must always remember what happened to their People.

Did your silence include not speaking of your parents, their grandparents, their aunts, your sisters? Did you talk to them about the family you, and they, lost?

Of course, they knew about them but, for instance, my wife was from Switzerland. They were a small family. She was the only daughter, and I was the only survivor from my family. Our children had only their parents for family. Our life was on the kibbutz. It was a collective. It did not build family connections. This influenced the childrens’ character and affected how they felt about family, and that was a pity, but this was not just my experience but also the results of the life of this whole Israeli generation.

I had a picture of my grandmother on my bedroom wall. No one told me that she was murdered; they simply said she died. You told me that during the war, Jewish life was so unique because the Jewish family kept together.

You are right, but what happened to the family was the result of the war.

Even the memory of who was in the family was erased.
It is not a question of memory. It is a question of continuation. You cannot build sentiments or connections by telling stories.

But if you have nothing else?

The breakdown of family was also the result of the way we are living today, in comparison to the past. I told you about the modern society; feelings, behaviors, and our relations to the family changed.

You are right, perhaps, but it is a fact even in Israel today — the relationship between brothers and sisters —  it is cold, it is not like the past. People who had a great sentiment for tradition and the past felt they lost so much, but there is a different reality today.

I have almost no one from my youth in Warsaw, but I have friends who were with me in Auschwitz. Most of the time, we spoke together of family life and the past, but look, I have no connection with my best friend’s children.

That is too bad. I don’t have anyone from my immediate family, a father or mother, brother, but I told my children, as much as I could, about them.

I told them.

Yes, you gave them some kind of a connection?

I will tell you, I was with my youngest daughter in Poland. I took her with me to Warsaw. We were in some places in Krakow. Then we went to Auschwitz. For her, it was something unbelievable. It was cold. It was winter. It was snowing. It was impossible to walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau, but she insisted, so I took her there. I told her everything that happened.  On this visit, while she was there, she was very affected by the place and what I told her. On the other hand, for her, it was something that happened a long time ago, and her life existed today, a part of a whole other society, in another country. What I told her did not radically change her life.

I can’t believe that. I think it did, no matter what.

It is a fact.

I can’t believe it, I don’t believe it.

It is a fact.

March 7, 2007

Who is Jewish?

Many times throughout this interview, when I mentioned someone who is Jewish by birth, your response was, “Oh, he is not really Jewish.” What do you mean? How do you define Jewish identity today?

Jewish identity today is quite different. Of course the Jewish identity today has to include the state of Israel. In other countries, Jews live in an almost identical way to the non-Jews of the country. They do not have a specific way of living, as did the Jews in Poland, who were isolated, in their own groups, living in small villages. The Jewish “ kehilah ” (community) was absolutely different, and separate from the rest of the people of the country. Jewish children were educated in Jewish schools. Jewish life was a different way of life.

Do you think these differences exist anymore?

I don’t know. There are groups in the United States, but these are mainly made up of religious Jews. In other places, Jews are assimilated, living, more or less, like the other people in their country.

And when you say someone who was born Jewish is not really Jewish, what do you mean?
Some people are Jews, as I am a Pole. They were born that way. In their daily life, in their family life, they are not Jewish. Their children do not consider themselves Jewish. They do not go to Jewish schools. They are not living in Jewish communities. They have no Jewish orientation. These people, I feel, are not Jewish. Living in Israel, it is quite a different matter. You can be religious or not, but you know you are a Jew.

So if you live in Israel you have no problem with Jewish identity. For those who live in Boiberik [far away], like Europe or America . . .

It is a great problem.

Who is a Jew who is not from Israel?

It is a problem for the future. I am skeptical. First of all, what percentages of the Jews today marry non-Jews? In some countries, perhaps 50 per cent? In the future, in a few generations, perhaps the percentage will be higher. I have no answer.

(A telephone conversation with Professor Gutman. )

The Eichmann Trial

How were you chosen to give testimony at the Eichmann trial?

Gideon Hausner was looking for people who were in Majdanek, and he was having difficulty.   Abba Kovner told him, “You have Israel. He is the right man.”

Was that the first time a door opened for the public to know what happened?

I had written two books before I got to Jerusalem. It was before I started my scholarly work. The first book was on Auschwitz. The second book was about Mordecai Anielewicz. These books  were very popular and widely read.

Can you describe your feelings, seeing Eichmann?

It was a strong and difficult feeling. The entire trial was not easy. From the first moment of the trial, I knew this was an historical event. The Eichmann trial changed the way the Israeli people viewed what had happened, especially the younger generation who could not understand the meaning of the Holocaust. They were under the impression that the Jews of the Diaspora were slaves who were not ready to struggle and fight. They believed we were another kind of people, very different from the society here in Israel. We were considered another kind of human being.  This view changed during the trial. They were, for the first time, able to listen to simple human beings, not Antek, Zivia, Kovner, and not I, but rather, the stories of mothers and fathers who lost their families. They began to comprehend a little of what it meant to be in the Holocaust.  Never before had there been such a catastrophic event of such magnitude. They began to get a glimpse of how such a tragedy affected the survivors.

I began to get a better understanding of how to present the story of the Holocaust, how to help others, especially the young people, understand. This was important. Because of the trial, I was moved to write a textbook: “The History of the Holocaust.” It is used in middle schools.

What were your feelings on Hannah Arendt’s book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem?”

Hannah Arendt was not Jewish and not human. She only wrote from some political orientation.  She was anti-Zionist. I wrote an article opposing her views.

There is a danger when people get so caught up in their politics that they remove themselves from feeling.

They believe they are wiser, and know better than everyone else.

You did not go to the Demjanjuk trial, did you?


Do you believe that time could make a survivor forget the face of his torturer?
That I cannot answer. It is different from man to man. 

Did you ever meet Toivi Blatt?

Yes, I met him two times.

Did you know that he was a witness against his SS commander, Frenzel, from Sobibór? During the break, Toivi made perhaps the only interview between a survivor and his SS commander. 

Yes, I know the story. He wrote a book.

He asked Frenzel: “Are you a religious person? Do you attend Church?”

And Frenzel responded, “Yes, very often.”

“Do you have any conflict regarding your religious belief and your political activity,” Toivi asked.

“No, we were German Christians [a Nazi- supported section of the Evangelical Church]; all of my children were christened, like myself. My brother studied theology. My wife and myself, not every Sunday because of the children, but every second or third, we always attended church.”

“And you have not, as a Christian, any problems with your past?” asked Toivi.

And he answered immediately, “I have nothing to hide.”

How can you understand this?

Yes, it is clear; there are people who go to the church like they eat breakfast in the morning. It is not something that changes their mentality or morality. A great part of the generation of Germans during Hitler’s time was built on super-patriotism, and the belief that the German nation was better than all other nations of the world and that the Germans had the right, as the most important nation, to be the rulers of mankind. Their racism ran deep.

Do you believe, that if the Church came out against the Shoah, there could not have been any Shoah?

I don’t know. I can not say what would have happened if the Church did come out against the Shoah, but I do know it was their obligation to do so, and they did not.

Poland is such a Christian country. Although we cannot know what would have been, can’t we assume the Polish people would have felt guilty committing crimes against the Jewish People, if the Church had condemned such actions and called them sinful?

Of course, but the church in Poland had no great influence. The main problem was the Vatican, but, also, the church in Poland did nothing. The Church did nothing, or almost nothing. Pope Pius the 12th, from the beginning, did not speak out against the Nazis. Not only did he do nothing; more than this, he believed the main problem was the communists, not the Nazis.

Just as we have a responsibility to remember the history of our people, what do you think is the responsibility of Christians, and Germans, after the war?

You have a change. Religion, unlike politics, does not change easily. It is more difficult to change a person’s beliefs. The Polish Pope had the courage to admit to the responsibility that belonged to the Germans and the Polish people during the Holocaust. So there were some changes in the opinions and policies of the Church. It really was a lesson for humankind that, during the Holocaust, the Church sided with the strong people against the weak. When the Church was called on to fulfill its role in the period, it did nothing.

The Church edicts and the doctrines of Martin Luther were laden with antisemitism, prerequisites to Hitler.

Yes, they are, in some way, guilty. They played a part in the development of antisemitism. On the other hand, Nazism, and Hitler, were not antisemites because of the Church doctrines. They used the influence of the long period of antisemitism by the Church, but the Nazis, themselves, were not really believers.

Do you think there will always be antisemitism in the world?

Not always; you cannot say that. Antisemitism was different at different times, in different countries. There are times of strong antisemitism, and there are times with less.

Why, since the beginning of time, do people hate the Jews?

You know, people are people. We are people, too.

But why have the Jews been singled out?

In life, there has always been people who do positive deeds, and others who do negative deeds, and those who are on the side of the negative, they need a scapegoat and the Jews became, from a historical point of view, such a target of hatred. It is a fact that the Jews in the Diaspora represented “the other,” different from the majority.

But in Germany, the Jews were assimilated. It was not like in Poland, where many Jews looked so strange. In Germany, the Jews looked like everyone else, did they not?

Yes. The hatred in Germany was political, and not a part of the daily life like it was in Poland.

Yad Vashem

How did you first get to work at Yad Vashem?

I came to Yad Vashem at the beginning, from the 70’s. I left the kibbutz and came here. I went to Jerusalem with my family. In the kibbutz, you had no possibility to build a family life. I started to work here for an income, but, from the first moment, it was not work; it was my obligation. I felt I had to do something because of my past. This is the reason I began working here and studied at the university. In the university, it was not really I who decided to dedicate myself to the subject of Shoah. My professors told me, you are fine in everything you are studying, but you will be better than others in giving over the history of the Shoah; you have to take this on. And so I decided, little by little, to devote myself to research, writing, and teaching.

What do you think about the high technology of Holocaust museums and Yad Vashem? It is certainly unrecognizable from the Yad Vashem you began in.

Yes, I don’t influence the development and technical side of the coin. What I did mostly was to try to present, and help others understand, this period of time.

Are the changes pleasing to you?

In my opinion, the modern way is not about the contents; it is only the system, and the new system could help to present things like films and music, which are all very important. You know, when you are working on the subject for so many years, you cannot be satisfied. For each thing you have done, other questions present themselves. I do not have the feeling I have done everything I should have done, but I tried to do my best.

Well, I think you are one of the greatest Jewish historians. You said that the Shoah made such an effect on humanityto show how something like this should never happen again. What I wonder and worry about is if Shoah showed how the world remained silent, that no one did anything. Perhaps the Shoah showed you could get away with atrocities, such as in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur? Who really cares? Is that what they saw?

Things are so complicated. It is impossible to know the answer. One thing is clear: in the period of the Nazis, it was not only Germany that was guilty; all of Europe was guilty, and that is a fact.  The destruction of the Jews . . . it was a kind of destruction of humankind. It was the first time such a thing happened in the world, and if it happened once, we cannot say that such a thing is impossible again. Our main obligation should be to prevent it. Because it did happen, we must do everything to teach the new generations to be wiser and remember the cruel experience, so there is not another catastrophe. On the other hand, there is a big problem in the world today.

The problem is that the ability to kill is not only in the hands of the countries’ commanders or soldiers; it is in the hands of simple people, who are the worst section of humankind. They have the possibility to kill with the methods and techniques that, before, were only in the hands of the state. This is a great problem for Jews, and for Israel.

How do you deal with deniers of the Shoah?

I don’t take them seriously. The deniers are the same people who once believed in the blood libels, blaming Jews for things that cost them a lot of lives. But, today, the Holocaust has been so well documented, by Jews and non-Jews, so many details written, it can, perhaps, be denied by some types of people, but not by the majority. This would be impossible.

So what are we to do about Iran today, the Iran that has a figurehead who speaks about the genocide of the Jewish People?

Iran is a danger. Their plan is a political plan, to liquidate a country, Israel. We have to do everything we can do to prevent this. We are happy to have the United States as a friend of Israel. They are a great help for the security of Israel.


But there is a great danger to make any comparison with the Holocaust. The Arabs have real conflicts with us. They say they were here; that this is their country. I don’t agree with them, and this country, it is ours. But the Holocaust, it was without any sense, without any logic, without any reason.

 I think that we are a country made up of many people who are living with traumas from so many wars, bombs, buses blowing up, a difficult economy, and the hardships that come with living in this land. When you came to Israel, you had such patriotism and idealism one doesn’t feel today. We do not have faith in our leaders.

Why are so many Jews coming from France?

You know, Israel is not a simple country today because Israel is a place for Jews who suffered in Soviet Russia, in Argentina; Jews who became the victims of persecution could come here. This is the meaning of Zionism. This is the meaning of the country; Israel is the answer for the Jewish situation in the Diaspora, and the tragedy that happened then, and now. It is, to some extent, the same story of what is happening in France. The basis for Zionism, more than politically, is clearly to be a home where Jews are welcome, especially when they are unwelcome in other countries.

Did you see Polanski’s film, “The Pianist”?

I was not enthusiastic about this film. The pianist was not a Jew from the point of view of his self-orientation. Polanski was a Pole, assimilated, among Poles, and was interested in being a Jew. The whole story of what happened to the Jews as a nation was not shown; only the pianist seemed to be portrayed: an individual case, the only victim. One has a right to present his story but, for me, it was not a true story because the true story was a Jewish tragedy that was not presented in this film.

Here it is again. You say, “He was not a Jew.” Is it because he did not affiliate with Jews, or identify as Jewish?

He was a Jew in the eyes of the non-Jews. He was not a Jew, from the point of view of his own Jewish feelings, in terms of how he viewed himself.

So could you describe ta’am as a feeling of belonging to the Jewish People?

You can say this is ta’am, yes, the feeling of belonging or the feeling, I am one of many Jews. I am a part of the Jewish history and the Jewish situation is a part of me. Yes, this is the meaning of being Jewish. There could be a Jew who is absolutely not a Jew, but for the fact that he was born Jewish.

So what made you give me your interview; do you have anything to say about that? Was there any reason?

You are very interested in things that I am interested in. That is the reason.

But when I first saw you, you did not know me at all. I asked you for an interview. You agreed.  Later on, I heard that you don’t really give interviews.

I generally do not give interviews. Most people who give many interviews, they are, first of all, interested in themselves. I am not interested in making a name for myself, or making money. I am interested in sharing my views and telling the story I must tell. From time to time, when I know this will be possible, not to speak about myself, but to make clear what I think and wish to teach others — then I agree. I had the feeling this interview would not be commercial. It would be more solid.

But how did you get that feeling?

I don’t know.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

More or less, we covered everything.

Thank you.

Thank you.         

The End of March 2007 at Yad Vashem


Biographical Note for Professor Israel Gutman (1923-2013)

Professor Gutman was Academic Advisor to Yad Vashem and Deputy Chairman of the International Auschwitz Council. Born in Warsaw in 1923, he belonged to the Jewish underground in the Warsaw Ghetto and the Jewish Fighting Organization (ŻOB) during the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. From 5 May 1943 until 5 May 1945, he was a prisoner in Majdanek, Auschwitz, and Mauthausen concentration camps. 

From 1945 to 1971, he was an active member of the She’erit Hapletah, and was one of the founders of the Aviv Kibbutz in Italy. He moved to Mandate Palestine following the war and was a member of Kibbutz Lehavot Habashan. He was one of the founders of the Anielewicz Remembrance Center, Moreshet. After receiving his MA and PhD degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he held the Max and Rita Haber Chair in Modern Jewish History. He testified at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. 

Dr. Gutman was a member of the Yad Vashem Academic Committee and the Executive Committee of the International Institute for Holocaust Research and was also a member of the Academic Research Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His numerous publications include: The Jews of Poland Between Two World Wars; Unequal Victims:  Poles and Jews During World War Two; The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-1943; Resistance:  The Warsaw Ghetto UprisingAnatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp; and Nazi Europe and the Final Solution. He received the Salonika Prize for Literature, the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Studies, and the Polish Unification Prize.

Background Note for Breindel Lieba Kasher

Father was from Poland. Mother was Hungarian. My parents came to America before the war. When I was growing up, New York City was filled with immigrants. I felt it differently than the other kids on the block. I felt we had a secret: a whole world was missing, yet totally present. When my parents spoke about that world, they put their heads together and whispered in Yiddish. Our language was full of euphemisms: Grandmother was “gone,” Uncle Morris and Hedwig “went underground,” and Ruthie “had a hard life,” so we couldn't judge her. I was named after her mother who “disappeared,” and maybe that was why her father, Uncle Herman, who sat at the kitchen table with a glass of tea and an arm full of numbers, was so sad he never spoke. I can not say why, but at 5, I decided I was going “back” to visit Poland. When I was old enough to do it, I traveled for over a decade through eastern Europe. In the emptiness, I found survivors and recorded their stories.

When the opportunity to interview Israel Gutman came, I was teaching at the International School at Yad Vashem. That day, Professor Gutman was speaking about the Ringleblum diaries. When I heard him, I sat at the edge of my seat. Without thinking, I went up to him afterwards and asked if I could interview him. Our recorded interviews took place at Yad Vashem on October 26, 1999; November 9, 1999; November 15, 1999; January 9, 2007; the end of January, 2007; March 2007; and the end of March, 2007.

Biographical Note for Yehuda Bauer

Yehuda Bauer is Professor Emeritus of History and Holocaust Studies at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Academic Advisor to Yad Vashem.  Bauer is fluent in Czech, Slovak, German, Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, and Polish.  He was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1926.  His family migrated to Israel in 1939. After completing high school in Haifa, he attended Cardiff University in Wales on a British scholarship. 

Upon returning to Israel, he joined Kibbutz Shoval and began his graduate studies at Hebrew University.  He received his PhD in 1960 for a thesis on the British Mandate of Palestine. The following year, he began teaching at the Institute for Contemporary Jewry at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  He was the founding editor of the Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Bauer has written numerous articles and books on the Holocaust and on Genocide. In 1998, he was awarded the Israel Prize, the highest civilian award in Israel, and in 2001 he was elected a member of the Israeli Academy of Science. Dr. Bauer has served as advisor to the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, and as senior advisor to the Swedish Government on the International Forum on Genocide Prevention.  

Biographical Note for Charles Fishman

Charles Fishman (www.charlesfishman.com) is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of English and Humanities at Farmingdale State College, where he created and directed the Visiting Writers Program in 1979 and the Distinguished Speakers Program in 2001. His books include The Death Mazurka, which was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and In the Language of Women (2011), recipient of the Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. The revised, second edition of his anthology, Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust, was published in 2007 by Time Being Books, which released his Selected Poems, In the Path of Lightning, in August, 2012. Fishman is poetry editor of Prism: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators and, with Smita Sahay of Mumbai, India, is co-editing Veils, Halos and Shackles: International Poetry on the Abuse and Oppression of Women. With John Guzlowski, he co-edits the blog, Writing the Holocaust (http://writingtheholocaust.blogspot.com/ ).

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