Holocaust Movies, Research Forum

Aida’s Secret: The Heartbreaking Story of Giving Up a Child

The Weiss-Livnat International MA in Holocaust Studies recently hosted director Alon Schwarz to discuss his recent film Aida’s Secrets. The documentary is about the director’s uncle, Izak Szewelewicz, and his adoption in Israel a few years after the end of WWII. Izak was about 3 years old when he was adopted. For years, the family and his village kept a secret from him about his blind brother. On occasion, Izak’s biological mother, Aida, came to visit him in Israel from Canada, where she immigrated to after the war, while his brother Shepsel lived with his father and step-mother in Canada. However, Aida never visited Shepsel, even though they were only a few hours from each other.

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Director, Alon Schwartz, shares with Cohort V. 

Aida grew up in Poland as an orphan, her parents died when she was only 3 years old. When Aida was 14, WWII broke out. As a Pole, she was taken to Germany to work as a forced laborer. When she was 20 years old, the war ended and she made her way to Bergen Belsen displaced persons camp. There she met Grisha, a Polish Jewish man who survived Auschwitz. Seven months later she gave birth to Izak, and 10 months later she gave birth to Shepsel while suffering from Tuberculosis. While at Bergen Belsen, she converted to Judaism. In 1947, the family made plans to immigrate to Canada, but she decided to send Izak to Israel. Meanwhile she, Grisha and Shepsel made a new life in Canada, but this was short lived as she and Grisha separated soon after arrival. After the divorce, Aida tried to immigrate to Israel, but her visa application was denied because her conversion was not recognized. Aida recently passed away, but before her death her she met her son Shepsel, whom she hadn’t seen for decades. Why hadn’t she made an effort to see Shepsel before? As Shepsel developed a relationship with his mother, he tried to ask her this and more questions. While it’s obvious that she cherished this time together with Shepsel, she wouldn’t answer any of her questions. Izak too tried to ask her questions but she wouldn’t answer him, despite their lifelong relationship.  

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Doron Livnat and Arieh Kochavi sit with Cohort V 

Through archival research and some detective work, more questions arose than answers. The film was recently released in Israel and will be released in the United States this summer. We would like to thank Alon Schwarz for visiting and answering some of our questions about the film and sharing the development of the project.

For more information on the film check out their website: http://www.aidassecret.com/


Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website

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Research Forum, Seminars

Attacks on Holocaust survivors and pogroms in post-war Poland – a lecture by Dr. Edyta Gawron of Jagiellonian University

Dr. Edyta Gawron from Jagiellonian University in Krakow is visiting the Weiss-Livnat International MA in Holocaust Studies this week, offering one-on-one time with students who are particularly interested in her research, as well as giving two lectures to our students. She is an assistant professor at the Department of Jewish Studies, as well as the Head of the new Centre for the Study of the History and Culture of Krakow Jews.

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Dr. Edyta Gawron

 

In her first lecture, she discussed Jewish survivors in Poland and Jewish life in Poland after the Holocaust. Before the war, there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland who made up about 10% of the population; only 10% of the Jewish population survived the Holocaust. Approximately 250,000 Jews returned and stayed in Poland, after the war, while roughly 100,000 survivors found homes elsewhere. The majority (50-60%) of Polish Jews survived by fleeing to the USSR, which was by no means a safe haven, however it offered more security for Polish Jews during Nazi occupation. An additional 10% of Polish Jews survived German Nazi camps. 10-18% survived among Poles, meaning they could pass as Aryan, however they needed access to forged identification papers and they needed to remain anonymous: Jewish leaders or any other recognizable or renown Jew could not have survived among Poles. Another minority survived as partisans living in makeshift villages in the forests of Poland, such as the Bielski Otriad. After the war a minority of survivors fled Europe entirely to Asia, South America, Australia, Palestine, and more.

When Jewish survivors returned to Poland, they returned to a culture of survivors: six million Poles died in WWII, meaning that, on average, every Polish family lost as least one family member in the war, while among Jewish survivors on average only one family member survived the war. These survivors of war-torn Poland made for a hostile community for those returning to Poland.

There were challenges in identifying Jewish survivors returning to Poland. Among the surviving community, there was an extreme fear of registering with any Jewish organization because these registries were used by Nazis to round up Jews prior to the Holocaust. Furthermore, many of the survivors were forced to change their names with new identification papers, and giving up what had been their lifeline was difficult and sometimes impossible.

Within the Jewish survivor community there were further challenges of dissonance: those who survived camps felt their suffering was greater than those who had hid or those who were forced laborers in Gulags, and visa versa. Many Jews who were in the USSR had no knowledge of the gas chambers, and those who survived in Poland had no clear idea of the torture of the Gulags. These comparisons and lack of knowledge led to challenges in the organization of Jewish welfare groups and the revival of religious life after the war.

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Dr. Edyta Gawron speaking about “adult orphans.”

Yet, these organizations were desperately needed. All survivors, children and adults, had no one left; there were boarding houses full of children as well as adults, a phenomenon known as “adult orphans.” The Jewish organizations in Poland were needed to provide shelter, as well as food and government representation, all of which were sorely lacking.  These organizations also started the important work of starting the initial database of survivors and those who had perished.

These organizations also provided documentation for post war trials, which were held locally, nationally and internationally depending on the crimes and sometimes perpetrators were tried three times. These trials attempted to offer a sense of justice, which introduced the thought of normality through closure. The perpetrator’s punishment for these trials varied but the most common was exile from the community. Factors of normality included age, whether family members had survived, and the establishment of Jewish religious life. Still, the road to normality was long, and upon return to Poland most Jews still found anti-Semitism prevalent among their communities, and pogroms continued even after the war. (Dr. Gawron spoke more on this in her second lecture, which you can read here.)

After WWII, some 250,000 Jews returned and remained in Poland, and after several mass waves of immigration, only approximately 8,000 Jews remain in Poland today. Despite the numbers, the Jewish community is active within Poland, with many synagogues specifically in Krakow, Warsaw or Lodz hosting Jewish visitors every week, making the community seem larger than it is.

The Jewish Holocaust wasn’t at the forefront of discussion in Poland until after the collapse of communism in 1989, and as a result, Holocaust education was decades behind other perpetrating countries. Scholars, like Dr. Edyta Gawron and her research, continue to better Holocaust education in Poland. We were happy to host her and glean from her knowledge.

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In order from left to right: Anat Bratman-Elhalel (Director of Archives at the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum), Lindsay Shapiro (Cohort IV), and Dr. Edyta Gawron.


Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website

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Seminars, Special Tours

Our Visit to the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum: Creating Normality After the Holocaust

Cohort V just completed our annual 4-day seminar at the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum. The Museum was founded in 1949, by Holocaust survivors that had just moved to Israel. After the war, many survivors returned to Lodz, upon arrival they found themselves homeless and without any material possessions, as their homes had been looted and taken. While in Lodz, a group of survivors that also took part in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising made plans to establish a kibbutz and a Holocaust museum for their friends and family who had perished. The Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum became the world’s first Holocaust Museum, and the only Holocaust museum established solely by survivors.

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Welcoming Cohort V to the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum

When the students arrived at the kibbutz, our hosts organized a tour of the kibbutz, from Tali Shner, the daughter of Holocaust survivors who were part of the founding group. She showed us the first building where the museum had been housed. In the early days of the museum, they slept in tents while the only buildings left by the British Mandate housed artifacts, which demonstrates their dedication to remembrance. Everyone at the kibbutz, originally, were survivors, which posed challenges to finding a normality.

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Out students learning about Kibbutz life.

For example, the kibbutz cook had learned how to cook in a concentration camp. They food that she made was not very good, but she didn’t know how to make it better. After so much complaining from the kibbutz she got up early one day and walked 10km to the next nearest kibbutz. There she learned some from the cook there, and then walked 10km back to make dinner that night for the kibbutz. They worked hard to build a community that was full of life and good things.

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Cohort V on the tour of the Kibbutz

They embraced the kibbutz way of life, with babies and children sleeping apart from their parents in nurseries and in the school buildings themselves. In the evening the children would see their parents for a long dinner. This way of living which was already established by other kibbutzim gave the survivors a sense of normality and a ideological and cultural framework of community. (The first kibbutz in Israel was established in 1909.) Our tour guide told us that most of the young mothers had lost their own mothers in the Holocaust so they didn’t have anyone to ask about how to raise a child. The fact that the kibbutz offered unformed child care was relieving to most parents, while other parents had a difficult time spending such little time with their children, and they eventually left the kibbutz. There was also the constant question of whether or not it was okay for children to hear the story of the Holocaust everyday.

In a way, the Holocaust shaped their daily life. For example, our tour guide told us about a man who was very mean to the children and really everyone around him. When their teacher told them that he had lost his whole family in the Holocaust and he was the only one left, the children understood him and offered him more kindness. Death was their normality. But one the other hand, life and family became the most important things defining their daily life. Antek Zuckerman, founder of the kibbutz, said “We came here to build homes filled with life.”

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At the Elementary School for the Kibbutz children, they had school and slept in this building.


Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website

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