Auschwitz liberation remembered 65 years on – Sydney

January 28, 2010 by Henry Benjamin
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The standing-room only commemoration in Sydney was transported back to the years of the Holocaust to listen to personal reports of life in those most troubling of times.There was a poignant moment early in the proceedings when  M.C. George Foster, President of the Australian Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, asked all who had survived the Shoah to stand.

Survivors stand pic: Henry Benjamin

Eddie Jaku, a survivor and a keynote speaker lit one of six candles, each one in memory of one of the six million who died in the Shoah. The others were lit by his sons Michael and Andre, Michael’s children Danielle-Jaku-Greenfield and Marc and Andre’s daughter Carly. Kaddish was recited by survivor Mendel Gelberman.

Jaku Family lights the candles

Mendel Gelberman

Eddie Jaku

Foster told the meeting that the Russians found more than 7000 emaciated prisoners when they liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 27, 1945…most of whom were Jewish. He added that between 1.3 and 1.5 million victims had lost their lives in the notorious camp, with more than 90% of those Jewish.

Foster commented that there had not been much recorded about the Greek Jews in Auschwitz but Primo Levi had described them as having been “the most compact group in the camp and therefore the most civilised”.

In June 1944, 100 newly arrived Jews from Corfu were ordered to join the Sonderkommandos, the work units which aided the Germans in the killings. They refused and were shot on the spot. In October 1944, 135 Jews from Salonika were involved in an uprising in in 1944 which lead to the destruction of one of the gas chambers. He said that four Jewish women who worked in a factory were identified as those who supplied the explosives for the uprising. The women were hanged by the Germans in January 1945, 21 days before liberation.

At this point, Foster switched his attention to the Turks and Greeks naming many who had risked their lives to save Jews. He spoke of Archbishop Damaskinos who had written pleading letters to the Germans on behalf of the Jewish Greek citizens. When threatened with death by shooting he is alleged to have told the German officer, “Our prelates are hanged. Not shot. Please respect our traditions.”

Eddie Jaku a survivor and a guide at the Jewish Museum was next to speak. He spoke of a typical day in the concentration camp and the 14km round trip every day to work. He said that food was on their minds every minute of the day and that he had survived through a will he did not realise he had…J-Wire videoed Jaku divulging what he believed had helped him to survive ….

The Turkish Consul-General, Mr Renan Skeroglu, spoke next saying Turkey “was one of the few countries in the world where the Jews had never been persecuted and citing support and protection of the Jews during the period of the Inquisition in 1492. He said that Turkish Jews played an integral role in the country in many fields and that his country had done much to help the embattled Jews of Nazi Europe including saving many through the allocation of Turkish passports in Vichy France. But most praise went Selahattin Ulkumen who saved the lives of 45 Jews on the Island of Rhodes by giving them Turkish passports and refusing to give them up.

Nikolaos Oikonomidis, on  behalf of the Greek Consul, elaborated on the story of Archbishop Damaskinos who wrote a letter to Hitler in defiance of orders to give up Greek Jews. He told the meeting that the letter sent to Hitler by the Archbishop remains unique today as no other European leader committed his viewpoint to  the Nazi leader in writing.

Damaskinos wrote:

The Greek Orthodox Church and the Academic World of Greek People Protest against the Persecution… The Greek people were… deeply grieved to learn that the German Occupation Authorities have already started to put into effect a program of gradual deportation of the Greek Jewish community… and that the first groups of deportees are already on their way to Poland…
According to the terms of the armistice, all Greek citizens, without distinction of race or religion, were to be treated equally by the Occupation Authorities. The Greek Jews have proven themselves… valuable contributors to the economic growth of the country [and] law-abiding citizens who fully understand their duties as Greeks. They have made sacrifices for the Greek country, and were always on the front lines of the struggle of the Greek nation to defend its inalienable historical rights…
In our national consciousness, all the children of Mother Greece are an inseparable unity: they are equal members of the national body irrespective of religion… Our holy religion does not recognize superior or inferior qualities based on race or religion, as it is stated: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek’ and thus condemns any attempt to discriminate or create racial or religious differences. Our common fate both in days of glory and in periods of national misfortune forged inseparable bonds between all Greek citizens, without exemption, irrespective of race…
Today we are… deeply concerned with the fate of 60,000 of our fellow citizens who are Jews… we have lived together in both slavery and freedom, and we have come to appreciate their feelings, their brotherly attitude, their economic activity, and most important, their indefectible patriotism…

Damaskinos saved thousands of Jews by issueing fake certificates of baptism.

Eli Yerushalmi, the Israeli Embassy’s  Deputy Chef de Mission focused on the current world stating that the it had to make a stand against holocaust deniers and those who espouse racial hatred, singling out Khomani of Iran for special mention. He reinforced the Damaskinos affair once again mentioning that no other church leader in Europe had risen to the defence of the continent’s Jews and praised the effors of Ulkemen for saving 42 Jews on the Island of Rhodes.

The guest speaker was Vic Alhadeff, CEO of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. Alhadeff’s family roots are on the Island of Rhodes.

Alhadeff said that the Jewish community on Rhodes had peaked at 5,000 and “was so rich in tradition, it was dubbed Little Jerusalem”.  In 1938, the island was under the jurisdiction of the Italian government and the anti-Jewish decrees published by Mussolini that year marked the beginning of the end for the small thriving community. Jews could not own businesses, could not teach, could not own property, could not serve in the Italian army and Jewish graves had to to be exhumed. Kosher slaughtering was outlawed and Italians were banned from marrying Jews. Any Jew who had settled in Rhodes within the prior 20 years had to emigrate or face prison.

He told the meeting his father was a 25-yr-old accountant at the time who left the island leaving behind his parents, two sister and his fiancee with the intention of resttling in Rhodesia and bringing the family out at the earliest opportunity. It was not to be. The family and fiancee he left behind were arrested by the authorities and were transported to Auschwitz. From his family, only one sister survived the death camp. There was no trace of his fiancee, Betty Hassan. Letter after letter was returned and finally his father accepted that she had perished. A few years ago, while on holiday in South Africa, his father learned that Betty Hassan had indeed survived and was living in Belgium. Both now grandparents, the former lovers met for an hour at Brussells airport, the first time they had seen each other since they had become engaged.

Alhadeff took the meeting back to the roots of the small Rhodes community which had its foundation in the late 15th century creatied by Jews who had fled the Spanish Inquisition.

He said that there had been six synagogues on the island, a Jewish school and a rabbinical college. Touching on his personal family life, he said that his father had been a translator at the Simon Alhadeff and Sons Bank which employed 500 and had 20 branches on the mainland. Following Mussolini’s decreed, more than 3000 of the 5000 Jews fled from the island immediately ahead of the arrival of Italian forces. The Italians incarcerated the Jews motiviating the Muslim Turkish consul Ulkemen to successfully get forty-two Jews of Turkish origin released and then issing them Turkish passports so they could leave the island, including members of Alhadeff’s family. Alhadeff told the audience that the consul paid a heavy price. The Germans bombed the consulate seriously injuring the consul’s wife who was in the advanced stages of pregnancy. The child was born but the mother died from her injuries seven days later…and her mother committed suicide caused by the grief of her daughter’s death.

He told the meeting of another Turkish diplomat who boarded a train filled with Jews headed for the camps and refused to leave until the Jews were allowed to leave too. And yet  another Turkish diplomat conferred Turkish citizenship on 10,000 Jews trapped in Nazi-occupied France and provided the funds for their transport to Turkey.

Alhadeff related events in Greece following the arrival of Eichman’s deputy in 1943. The deputy ordered the Chief Rabbi of Greece to provide him with the names and addresses of the Jewish community. The Chief Rabbi responded by destroying the records. Archbishop Damaskinos instructed his priests to condemn the Germans in their sermons reminding their parishioners that Jews had participated in Greek life for 200 years. He ordered monasteris and priests to help Jews encouraging them to hide Jews wherever possible.

600 Greek priests were deported by the Nazis for helping Jews.

One of the Jews saved by the Greeks was Yitzchok Persky, father of Simon Persky whose name history will record as Shimon Peres, President of Israel.

Renan Sekeroglu

George Foster

Nikolaos Oikonomidis

Eli Yerushalmi

Vic Alhadeff

Michael Jaku

Michael Jaku, Chair of the Shoah Remembrance Committee, emotionally affected, read a prayer written by the Great Synagogue’s Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence.

Holding back tears, Jaku read the words “we hold the international community to account”.  But the prayer went on to praise those who had helped.

The CEO  of the Jewish Museum, Norman Seligman, closed the meeting.

Vic Alhadeff told J-Wire: “A telephone call from the Polich Consul expressing interest in attending the meeting was greatly appreciated”.

Auschwitz is in Poland.

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