Sunday, June 28, 2009

Survivors and Obama

President Barak Obama is viewed with suspicion in Israel, according to most reports, especially among the Holocaust survivors. “I don’t know what he’s going to do, so I’m a little suspicious,” said Prof. David Halivni Weiss, 82, who survived the Wolfsberg subcamp during the Holocaust.

Professor HaLivni was commenting after meeting another survivor who it turned out had been in the same camp at the same time. Halivni went to meet the other man last Wednesday, and the two shared common threads of their experiences.

Zolly Schwimmer, 94, still has a firm grip on his long-term memory. He had set up a panel of papers taped to the dining room wall of his Netanya, Israel apartment, including what he claims is the only sketch of the outline of the camp.

Both men remembered the tin plates they carried for what little food they ate. Prof. Halivni, a Talmud scholar and Israel Prize winner, recalled a scan the SS guards used. “It was the potato peelers job. They said anyone who wanted to could peel potatoes. That sounded like a good job, a bit of potato to eat, even a peel. So I volunteered. And I was in line when one of the Kapos, who was from my home town, pulled me out of line.

I didn’t like that. So I volunteered again, and again he pulled me out of line. Later I found out he’d saved my life because there was no potato peeling job. It was a ruse. They took the volunteers out and shot them.”

Why did he think the guard saved him? “I think it was because I was an Eloui (child prodigy) in our town. That’s the only reason. Otherwise I didn’t really know him.”

Prof. Halvni was 16 when he was taken to the camps. Zolly Schwimmer was 29. Scwhimmer says he is used as a fact checker by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, and also the Holocaust Museum in Washington. “Some of the stories
About the camps are made up,” he said. “People remember what they want, and just keep repeating it.”

According to the men during the High Holidays a small minyan formed in a room using a prayer book, “Machzor” made up by one of the prisoners, who wrote what prayers he remembered on the inside of an abandoned paper sack that held the cement they used to build the underground ammunition bunkers.

The two disagreed if it were Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, but Schwimmer said he was inside the room, while Halivni said he was kept outside because he was young. Still, prayers in the camps was something unusual.

Prof. Halivini also lectures on faith and the Holocaust. How could someone keep their faith in such an environment. The Holocaust, he said, taught him to be more critical of what man writes, not as accepting just because it is written down. This line of critical thinking is what distinguished him from most other orthodox Jewish Talmudists.

Both Zolly Schwimmer and David HaLivni married Holocaust survivors. Livni’s had passed away, but Mrs. Schiwmmer was busy setting the table for lunch, with potato salad, tuna, and other items. Fluent in Hebrew Mrs. Schwimmer told one of the luncheon guests she’d been in Auchwitz for a year and that her barracks were within meters of the crematorium.

At night some of the Kapos would come to an opening of the fence and yell the names of the families that were exterminated that day, so the information could be passed on to those who knew them. To this day, she said, she still wakes up with nightmares.

People like Schwimmer and HaLivni have learned to be suspicious of peoples’ intentions. There is clearly no comparison between President Obama and fascism, but just the hint of
Showing anti-Jewish bias is enough to make these men, as intelligent as they are, wary.

Some time back a contributor wrote about the ‘survival gene.’ Clearly, with experiences like those undergone by Mr. Schwimmer and Dr. Halivni, it’s no wonder that gene isn’t honed to a fine edge, and their survival antennae twitching as news pours out of Washington and other countries, like Iran.

Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu is being criticized for making entreaties to Hamas in efforts to restart the cease-fire agreements. The critics come from the Kadima party, more liberal than Netanyahu’s Likud, which makes the comments somewhat ironic, according to pundits.

Netanyahu is, analysts say, responding to the lead set by President Obama to try to get some movement in the Middle East peace process. Recently former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, viewed by some as an anti-Semite, and others as a well meaning but naïve liberal, visited Gaza. Then came George Mitchell, the State Department’s special envoy to the Middle East.

Following these visits suddenly the press was filled with reports of the eminent release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was captured three years ago and is reportedly being held in Gaza. Reports of his imminent release have surfaced every few months over the last few years, but never were more than talk.

Some point out that if Hamas would release Shalit it would be a sign of good faith; something the Israelis would use to mollify critics of any Obama peace initiative. While the papers recently said the release was imminent, Hamas leaders have denied such a release. Shalit has been the carrot dangled before the Israelis for three years, and nothing seems to have changed.

Some observers say that if Obama really had gained power with the Arabs from his Cairo Speech then he could pressure Hamas to release Shalit, just as he is pressuring Israel to freeze settlements and restart peace talks. But Obama, say the critics, seems more interested in making highly publicized demands of a pliable Israel than an obdurate Hamas.

Dennis Ross has been promoted from Special Envoy to the Middle East in the State Department to Middle East adviser in the White House. Ross recently published a book “Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East” with former Jerusalem Post editor David Makovsky, now senior fellow and director of the Washington Institute's Project on the Middle East Peace Process.

The book takes the position that a settlement freeze or settlements in general were a red herring, and not the crux of the Middle East’s problems. Perhaps, some say, once Ross is in the White House he can pass on this message to President Obama. Others say Ross was only appointed to guard Obama’s flank from attacks by the pro-Israeli voices.

On the Syrian front, the statements swing between bellicose threats of war to regain the Golan Heights, to moderate messages that Syria is prepared to seriously negotiate peace with Israel.

In Lebanon Saad Hariri, a sunni Musliim, is the new Premier who replaces political ally Fouad Sinioras , in a power-sharing agreement. Hariri is the first son of the slain Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri, blown up by a car bomb in 2005 in Beriut.

Both Syria and Hezbollah are suspected in the attack. Yesterday, Photos of the younger Hariri talking with Hizbollah strongman Sheik Nasrallah, were on the news. How this coalition will play out is something out of a Shakespearean play with all the court intrigues going on behind the backs of the prime players. Hariri and his later father were both prime movers in the pressuring Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. The younger Hariri has also been critical of Iranian influence in Lebanon.

With so many Holocaust survivors, and children of Holocaust survivors, in Israel, it’s no wonder that all of the machinations of the various parties in the middle east are looked up on with suspicion by those with bitter experience of power gone mad.

One observer stresses that President Obama means well, has surrounded himself with intelligent and liberal-minded advisers, including more than a few Jews; and says he only hopes that President Obama can keep a balance between what needs to be done to bring peace and what the temptations of appeasement could mean to Israel.

On the bright side, the World Bank has commissioned a feasibility study meant to finish in 2010 of a pipe or canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The pipe would not only refill the quickly evaporating Dead Sea but also supply water to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian authority.

If nothing else this shows that the possibility of peaceful cooperation is possible. That’s assuming the canal ever starts to bring water from one sea to another, or if it won’t get stalled somewhere along the line much as the peace process and even the release of Gilad Shalit.