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Behind the banner of The Slovak Brotherhood: "For God and Nation!" (Photo: mjj)

[The following post appeared March 14 on The Mantle. It was republished March 19 on “Roma Transitions.”]

BRATISLAVAOn the first sunny Saturday of spring, we stroll across downtown Bratislava to a friend’s afternoon party. Suddenly, the chanting of men echoes off the buildings. Several Slovak cops come into view, with arms crossed, eyeing the situation. The din grows louder, headed our way.

“Must be football fans,” I think. “Is there a World Cup qualifier?”

No, another kind of hooligan, as the sunlight shimmers off a couple hundred shaved heads. It’s the “Slovak Brotherhood” – or Slovenksa Pospolitost, also known as “Slovak Togetherness.” While the Brotherhood agitates against “parasites” — Gypsies, Hungarians, Jews, etc. — they don’t boast nearly the visibility of the Czech Republic’s “Workers’ Social Justice Party,” nor the appeal of extremist colleagues to the south, the “Hungarian Guard.” (That uniformed paramilitary is now menacing Roma villagers in Hungary’s Heves County, a region I profiled last year for its far-right support.)

As fish-out-of-water expats in Bratislava, this sort of happenstance sure keeps life interesting for us. Here we are, enjoying Slovakia’s pleasant capital on a sleepy weekend, as our two sons race and weave on their scooters, undisturbed. The next minute, we find ourselves anxiously wading through a skinhead demonstration. Ah, Central Europe.

On this day, we stumble upon the Brotherhood’s annual march to commemorate the 1939 creation of Slovakia’s Nazi puppet-state. Led by the Catholic priest, Jozef Tiso, Slovakia went along with Hitler’s plans and deported tens of thousands of Jews to Auschwitz. Tiso was hanged in 1947 for his collaboration.

These young fascists take “boneheadedness to new levels of delusion,” says David Keys, an English friend who teaches 20th-century history in Bratislava. “They have to create a reading of history in which the Thousand Year Nazi racial hierarchy would have allotted Slovakia a privileged position forever shoulder to shoulder with Nazi Germany as a nation of honorary Aryans, and disregard every utterance Hitler ever made about Slavs, and every action taken against Czechs, Poles, Russians, Yugoslavs and indeed Slovak resisters.”

So here’s the Brotherhood, chanting allegiance to Tiso, whose rehabilitation has been a cause célèbre for Slovakia’s far-right. Especially, Jan Slota and his Slovak National Party, which until 2010 was for four years part of the ruling coalition. I see no counter-protest, though I later learn that an anti-fascist event, “Enough of Silence,” was sponsored the night before.

Without a camera, I fumble for my IPhone. Emboldened by the proximity of police — I’m always at my bravest with cops around — I inch closer to snap a few shots. My wife scurries along with the kids. Once I catch up, I give my sons a brief lesson on World War II – and the right to free speech today.

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[The following Postcard was republished Feb. 24, 2011, in the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia. It was originally published March 2004 in JTA.]

By Michael J. Jordan

The artist, circa 1920, from "Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater"

VITEBSK, Belarus — There’s no business like Chagall business. At least, not in the hometown of the legendary artist.

Shunned by the Soviet authorities for his leaving the “worker’s paradise” of the Soviet Union for the artistic incubator of Paris, Marc Chagall has undergone a remarkable posthumous rehabilitation in his Belarussian birthplace.

The charming provincial city of Vitebsk, an inspiration for much of the artist’s oeuvre — like his floating, dreamlike images of wood rooftops, barnyard animals and bearded fiddlers — is not only a must-see for Jewish tourists, it’s said to be a cornerstone of national tourism. Located 120 miles northeast of Minsk, the capital, Vitebsk draws German and Japanese tourists and countless foreign art students.

Hordes of schoolchildren tour the museum within the refurbished Chagall family homestead. The museum was opened in 1992 and has since been accompanied by annual “Chagall Days,” featuring music, exhibitions, lectures and poetry readings. It’s quite a turnaround for an artist revered by some, scorned by others as a symbol of dissent, and long banned from public discourse.

Chagall is now a symbol of another kind, says Vitebsk native Arkady Shulman, a Jewish journalist and amateur Chagall historian.

“Any person who emigrated was denounced as a traitor,” says Shulman, who helped establish the Chagall museum and is chief editor of Mishpoha magazine. “People didn’t know his pictures, but they knew his name, and that he was against the system. Today, more people know his art, but he’s become a symbol of a boy from a small town who became world famous.”

(more…)

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[The following appeared April 20 in The Mantle.]
 
MOSONMAGYAROVAR, Hungary – The Hungarian restaurateur in a Harley Davidson jacket wants you to know he’s not a fascist. Nor a racist. And certainly no anti-Semite. He has a Jewish friend, he says, and expresses sympathy for his Holocaust-surviving father.

“Zsuzsa!” he suddenly calls out to one of his restaurant workers – a Romani woman wearing a white cap, t-shirt and apron. “How do you feel here?” he asks tenderly, touching her shoulder. “Does anyone bother you?”

“No, never!” she says, flashing a smile, but with a look of understandable bewilderment.

“That’s good,” he says. “Sorry to interrupt you.”

As she walks off, the restaurateur leans in, lowers his voice. “And she’s one hundred percent Gypsy,” he says. “If I’m a Nazi, why would I hire Gypsies?”

Miklos and Maria Kraz, in the doorway of their shop, like the new right-wing combo. (Photo: mjj)

With his anti-racist bona fides out of the way, the man dives back into the topic at hand.

“Why do we never hear about Slovak criminals, or German criminals, or Greek criminals,” he asks, “but we only hear about Gypsy criminals and Jewish criminals?”

The businessman is a zealous supporter of Jobbik, the hard-right party that for two solid years has demonized the Roma and Jewish minorities, who comprise some 500,000 and 100,000, respectively, of a population of 10 million.

The Jobbik message strikes a chord. On April 11, the party raked in a stunning 17 percent of the vote in national elections – a record high for such parties in ex-Communist Eastern Europe, especially the 10 that are now members of the European Union. (more…)

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BRATISLAVA – I was too young to appreciate his human-rights work at the time, but my uncle’s sudden death encouraged me to revisit the remarkable efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry. His obituary, from The Miami Herald:

Dr. Robert Wolf | `Driven’ dentist gave care to needy

Dr. Robert “Bob” Wolf, a man who always asked “What can I do for you?” died of cardiac arrest at his North Miami-Dade home Saturday, his family said. He was 77.

As chief director of Community Smiles, a nonprofit organization that provides dental care for the needy in Miami-Dade County, Wolf made people smile with his work in dentistry and his wry sense of humor.

“He was very driven,” said his daughter, Caryn Wolf, 51, who lives in Oakland, Calif. “Other guys were golfing, and he was running around trying to get kids dental care.”

Wolf’s volunteer work began in the 1970s, when he and his wife, Myriam, became involved with the South Florida Conference on Soviet Jewry. He was chairman of the organization for eight years in the 1970s, lobbying Congress to allow Jews in the former Soviet Union to enter the Unites States and Israel.

Wolf’s work continued when he and his wife helped establish a chapter of the Association for the Advancement of the Mentally Handicapped in Miami-Dade County to benefit their son, Eric, who is developmentally disabled.

“It helped me get a job. It helped me get out on my own,” said Eric, 50, who lives on his own in North Miami Beach. “He helped out a lot of people.”

(more…)

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This restored synagogue in Samorin, Slovakia, today houses an art exhibit. (Photo: mjj)

This restored synagogue in Samorin, Slovakia, today houses an art exhibit. (Photo: mjj)

The region’s Jewish communities are now largely gone, but a growing movement seeks to restore and protect the synagogues, cemeteries, and other remaining landmarks.

 

 

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, June 25, 2009

 

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – For architectural historian Maros Borsky, the story begins five years ago.

 

He was documenting the synagogues of Slovakia, which, like the rest of post-Holocaust Eastern Europe, saw its countryside depopulated of Jews, with most provincial synagogues abandoned. Slovakia itself has seen a war-time community of 137,000 shrink to some 3,000 Jews today, with only five of 100-plus synagogues functioning.

 

In the course of his work, Mr. Borsky came across a donor who wanted to renovate a rural synagogue. But which one?

 

“I realized it’s important to create an audience for these synagogues, for Jews, non-Jews, locals, and tourists to learn there once was a community here – and what happened to it,” he says.

 

The result of Borsky’s work, the “Slovak Jewish Heritage Route” will soon connect 23 restored synagogues.

 

The Slovak project will be just one of scores discussed this weekend in Prague as representatives from 49 countries convene for the landmark Holocaust-Era Assets Conference. The agenda ranges from charting the progress made in returning Nazi-looted artwork and restituting Jewish property to caring for elderly survivors of the camps. (more…)

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The 2009 Durban Review Conference will be held on U.N. grounds in Geneva (above), where security will be far tighter than in 2001. (Photo: mjj)

The 2009 Durban Review Conference will be held on U.N. grounds in Geneva (above), where security will be far tighter than in 2001. (Photo: mjj)

 

By Michael J. Jordan · April 6, 2009

 BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA (JTA) — Eight years ago, at the first U.N. World Conference Against Racism, pro-Israel activists endured a week of hate-filled insults, pamphlets, posters and marches in the streets of Durban, South Africa.

 When they finally marched out of a forum that branded Israel genocidal and racist like Apartheid South Africa, keffiyah-clad antagonists serenaded them with chants of “Free, free, Palestine!”

 Overwhelmed, activists vowed to prepare better the next time. That chance comes later this month: the Durban Review Conference will be held April 20-24 in the Swiss city of Geneva.

Palestinian supporters will hold another large street demonstration and brainstorm ways to strengthen their Israel-is-apartheid movement. But this time around Jewish groups are, among other things, sponsoring a pro-Israel rally, co-sponsoring a human-rights event that will feature Martin Luther King III and others, and organizing a Holocaust commemoration just outside the gates of the bucolic U.N. compound in Geneva.

 

“Some have told me the reactions now are like post-traumatic stress syndrome, because the community was so traumatized by what happened in 2001,” says Felice Gaer, who attended Durban as director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights. “Jewish tradition teaches us to repair the world, not turn our back on the world. So why will Jewish groups be in Geneva? To bear witness, fight back and repair the world.” (more…)

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unrwalogoDuring the recent war in Gaza, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees repeated a pattern of bias that I documented three years ago in a five-part, award-winning series.

 

BRATISLAVA – Criticism is mounting that a UN probe of Israel’s attacks on its own facilities in Gaza is too limited, and should be widened to investigate attacks on both Israeli and Palestinian civilians.

 

The UN “Board of Inquiry” findings are expected any day, and pro-Israel advocates expect no surprises – especially since the key source is UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees.

 

In February, Amnesty International, which pro-Israel advocates critics describe as no friend of the Jewish state, opened criticism of the narrow mandate. “What is needed,” said Amnesty’s Irene Khan, “is a comprehensive international investigation that looks at all alleged violations of international law – by Israel, by Hamas and by other Palestinian armed groups involved in the conflict.”

 

Then on March 16, 16 respected war-crimes investigators and judges sent an open letter to the U.N. Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, further chastising the world body – and added that a broadened investigation should recommend for prosecution “those responsible for gross violations.”

 

“It is not only the UN personnel that deserve truth and justice, but Palestinians and Israelis themselves,” wrote one signatory, Prof. William A. Schabas, former member of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

 

Even if the investigation were expanded, Israel’s defenders would balk at the main witness: UNRWA. (more…)

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