RIP Olivia Newton-John

Every performer is unique in their own way. But there are some who are so iconic that it does not take much to conjure up an image of them.

Olivia Newton-John was one of these performers. She passed away today after a decades-long battle with cancer. She was 73.

Remembered for her singing career and for playing Sandy opposite John Travolta in the 1978 movie musical Grease, she was known for her wholesome image and unique singing voice.

It may be surprising to learn that Newton-John was also Jewish via her mother’s side of the family. Her maternal grandfather, Max Born, was a respected mathematician and physicist. Like his colleague, Albert Einstein, Born and his family fled Germany at the start of World War II. They had no idea that they were escaping certain death.

In the words of our mutual ancestors, may her memory be a blessing. Z”l.

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In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer Book Review

Love and hate exist in the same breath. It is merely a matter of which path we choose and the consequences of that decision.

In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer, by Irene Gut Opdyke and edited by Jennifer Armstrong, was published in 2016. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Irene Gut, a Polish Catholic teenager, was living an ordinary life. The oldest of five girls, she is studying to become a nurse.

World War II changed everything. Coerced into working in a German officer’s dining hall, she uses the information she learns to save lives. Upon transferring positions and becoming the housekeeper in a Nazi Major’s home, she hides 12 Jews in the basement. To keep them alive, Irene will have to accomplish the impossible. Even if it means crossing a boundary she would have never considered before.

This book is very good. It proves two things. The first is that one person can make a difference. The second is that love can overcome hate. We just need the will and courage to act on that love.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer is available wherever books are sold.

Jews Don’t Count Book Review

Intersectionality and progress go hand in hand. We cannot make this country and this world better if we only speak to or include certain groups of people.

David Baddiel‘s 2021 book, Jews Don’t Count, takes this racist concept and drops it squarely in the lap of the reader. He speaks about antisemitism on both the right and the left, referring to certain politicians in both the US and the UK. On the right, we are not accepted because we are Jews. On the left, we are seen as the oppressor because the image of the Jew is often of one of Ashkenazi descent (i.e. White). And of course, the issue of Israel is packed in and used as needed.

He also takes on Jewface and the controversy of a non-Jewish performer playing a Jewish character. Particularly when this character is a full-on stereotype without the nuances and humanity that are given to the non-Jewish character.

The problem he points to is loud and clear: if we are to move forward and create a better world, all groups must be included. No one should be left out.

There are only a handful of books that I think everyone should read. Jews Don’t Count is one of them. Especially those of us who are fighting for a future in which we are all equal and judged on our merits, not on our labels.

There was one line that has stayed with me. At this stage of his life, Baddiel is an atheist. He stated that if he were a hidden Jew who was outed during World War II, he would still be killed because he is Jewish. Nothing else would have mattered to the Nazis.

A couple of recent headlines perfectly summed up this idea. Right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro (whom I disagree with about everything) made the following statement about Reform Jews:

“What do you think about what former Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer once said: that Israel should put its political fortune in the Evangelist community rather than in the Reform Jewish community [in the US]?” Segal asked Shapiro, who at just 38 years of age has written 11 books.

“As a matter of blunt fact, that’s true,” Shapiro answered. “It’s an unfortunate reality of life in the United States that Reform Judaism, as a branch, does not see Jewish identity in a serious way, as central.

“It’s a very simple rubric for me: If as a Jew, your values are more in line with same-sex marriage, transgenderism and abortion than they are with, for example, the safety and security of the State of Israel – I have serious questions about how you think about yourself as a Jew,” he continued, receiving a standing ovation.

Then Pennsylvania Senator Doug Mastriano (who is also on the political right) said the following about Shapiro:

“We don’t want people who are atheists. We don’t want people who are Jewish. We don’t want people who are, you know, nonbelievers, agnostic, whatever. This is an explicitly Christian movement because this is an explicitly Christian country.” He also added: “Ben Shapiro is not welcome in the movement unless he repents and accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and savior

It doesn’t matter to Mastriano and his ilk that he and Shapiro have the same beliefs when it comes to this country’s identity and future. It only matters that Ben Shapiro is a Jew.

The only way to stop this kind of thinking is to stand together. Until we do, the ideals that our founders believed in will be just that.

Do I recommend it? Without a doubt.

Jews Don’t Count is available wherever books are sold.

I Have a Huge Problem With the Claim that Anne Frank Had “White Privilege”

White privilege is a serious problem, both in the historical sense and in our modern era. The idea that one’s skin tone dictates our opportunities or lack thereof is, unfortunately, in 2022, a problem that we are still wrestling with.

Earlier this week, there was a debate on Twitter as to whether or not Anne Frank had “white privilege“. The person who made this statement is either uneducated about the Holocaust or is deciding to twist the historical facts to fit their own perspective.

Of course, she was white. As were all of the millions of Ashkenazi Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and their co-conspirators. Their skin color meant shit, they were only seen as the other because they were Jewish.

This assertion spits on the memory of Frank and is a harsh reminder of why the Holocaust must not be forgotten.

May Anne’s memory be a blessing and may we truly for once, learn from the past. Z”l.

The Last Checkmate: A Novel Book Review

When we talk about the Holocaust, we sometimes forget The Righteous Among the Nations. These are non-Jews who put their lives and safety aside to save their Jewish neighbors.

The Last Checkmate: A Novel, by Gabriella Saab, was published last year. Maria Florkowska, a Polish-Catholic teenage girl, has been forced to grow up quickly. The only connection to her life before World War II is her love of chess. A member of the Polish underground, Maria, along with the rest of her family, is caught by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz.

After her parents and siblings are murdered, Maria is initially stuck in an emotional cycle of grief and anger. When one of the camp’s commanders notices that she plays chess well, he decides to use her skill to entertain the guards. This opens the door to doing everything she can to get him transferred to another camp. When they met again at the war’s end, Maria challenges him to one more game, not knowing the outcome.

I truly enjoyed this book. If nothing, Maria is proof that there are good people in this world. It also shows that when it seems darkest, there is always some spark to keep us going. I love Maria’s sass, I love her intelligence, and I love her fight to stay alive.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely?

The Last Checkmate: A Novel is available wherever books are sold.

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Should a 101-Year-Old Former Nazi Spend His Final Days in Jail?

There are always opportunities to learn from the past. But, in order to do so, we must be willing to open our eyes to the mistakes made by our forebears.

On Tuesday, a 101-year-old former Nazi in Germany was found guilty of the murders of 3,518 innocent people in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He will spend the next five years in jail.

There are two arguments that come from this case. The first is that he is an old man who has breached the century mark. At his age, he might not last five months in prison, much less five years.

The second is that he, like his cohorts, has blood on his hands. Though he was not responsible for everyone who died at Nazi hands, this conviction is still justice served. In my mind, five years is nothing compared to the persecution, starvation, and torture that the victims experienced, it is still something.

This man (whose identity is being kept from the public) was able to live a long and full life. The people he had a hand in killing were denied that opportunity simply because of who they were and what they believed. The message from this conviction is loud and clear. Anyone who participated and is still alive will get their day in court.

Though we cannot go back in time and prevent the death of millions, we can ensure that they are never forgotten and their murderers are seen for what they are.

May their memories be a blessing. Z”L.

Eternal Book Review

Growing up is never simple. We are often faced with challenges that force us to make difficult choices or face a reality that we would prefer not to.

Eternal, by Lisa Scottoline, was published earlier this year. Growing up in Rome, Marco, Sandro, and Elisabetta have been best friends since they were young. Marco is the son of a former cyclist and ardent follower of Benito Mussolini. Elisabetta was raised in an artistically inclined family, Her dream is to become a novelist. Sandro is Jewish and a promising mathematics genius.

Two major events upend the world as they know it: World War II and their teenage years. Marco loves Elisabetta. But Elisabetta loves Sandro. As their love triangle intensifies, so does the fascist government and the increasing influence of Nazi Germany.

Soon, they will all be tested. As a Jew, Sandro’s world becomes ever restricted by the antisemitic Nazi race laws. Marco gets involved in local government and Elisabetta must fend for herself. Everything and everyone they know will become unrecognizable, forcing all of them into adulthood and the complications that arise from this transition.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a reminder that the Holocaust extended to the whole of Europe. The Jews of Southern Europe were a target as much as their Central and Eastern Europe co-religionists. What was different was that Rome’s non-Jewish community did not wholeheartedly accept the ideology of the German invaders. There were many who maintained friendships with their Jewish friends and neighbors while helping them in whatever way they could.

Though it is not a quick read, it is well worth the time it takes to complete the novel. I was quickly engrossed in the tale and the changing relationship between the main characters.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

Eternal is available wherever books are sold.

The Redhead of Auschwitz: A True Story Book Review

To be the descendent of a Holocaust survivor is to grow up with a trauma that stretches well beyond the first generation. They have a unique responsibility to tell the stories of their loved ones that sometimes feel more pressing than those of us whose direct families were out of harm’s way during the war.

The Redhead of Auschwitz: A True Story, by Nechama Birnbaum, was published at the end of last year. The book tells the story of her late grandmother, Rosie Greenstein. Though Rosie was often told that her red hair was undesirable, she believed that it was an asset. Though her family was poor, Rosie’s childhood was idyllic. Raised by her widowed mother, she dreamed of her wedding day and future husband.

That dream came crashing down in 1944. The Jews of Hungary were forced out of their homes and sent directly to Auschwitz. The only thing that is keeping her alive is her fierce spirit and the will to survive in the face of all-encompassing death.

This biography is written in such a way that every gruesome and horrific detail is hard to ignore or forget. The narrative flashes between two different time periods until the story converges: Rosie’s life before the war and her time in the death camp. What I got from the book was more than a granddaughter’s love for her grandmother. It was pride in the strength that was passed down through the generations and families that come into the world since the end of the war.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely. P.S. I also recommend following the corresponding Instagram account.

The Redhead of Auschwitz: A True Story is available wherever books are sold.

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This Light Between Us: A Novel of World War II Book Review

From afar, it may seem that America was the superhero who swooped in to save the day during World War II. The reality is that our country has its own sins to grapple with from the era, i.e. the internment of Japanese-Americans.

This Light Between Us: A Novel of World War II, by Andrew Fukuda, was published last year. In 1935, two ten-year-olds become penpals. Alex Maki, from Bainbridge Island, is the son of Japanese immigrants. He believes that the person on the other end of the letter, Charlie Levy from Paris is a boy. When Charlie reveals that she is a girl, he does not initially react well. But she persists and they eventually become good friends.

Their lives are both upended by World War II. After Pearl Harbor, Alex, his family and hundreds of thousands of other Japanese-Americans are forced out of their homes and into interment camps. For the next few years, his home is the Manzanar War Relocation Center. Because she is Jewish, Charlie must grapple with tightning noose that is coming over close to her neck and every neck of of Jewish person in Europe.

This book is really good. What kept me reading was the relationship that changed as the protaganists grew up and faced challenges that would destroy many adults. The details make the narrative jump off the page and hook the reader until very end. It is a marvelous read that hilights a dark time in our history that is not even a century old.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

This Light Between Us: A Novel of World War II is avaliable wherever books are sold.

I Was A Doctor In Auschwitz Book Review

As we get farther away from 1945, those who lived through and can speak to the first-hand events of World War II and the Holocaust are leaving us in greater numbers. It is, therefore (in my humble opinion), incumbent on the living generation to tell share the stories of those who lived through this horrific time.

I Was A Doctor In Auschwitz, by Gisela Perl, was published in 1948. It was one of the first memoirs from a survivor of the Final Solution, Perl was a gynecologist whose entire family was deported from Hungary to Auschwitz. Cruelly forced to “practice” medicine, she did her best to save as many lives as possible when death was ever-present. She leaves no gruesome and violent detail unturned. The bloodlust and sadism of her captors were endless, they took immense pleasure in torturing the prisoners and depriving them of every aspect of humanity.

If I were to generate a list of books that we should all read, this one would be near the top of the list. It is in your face and heartbreaking. If the only way to prevent another Holocaust is to share the narratives of those who lived through it, then this memoir should be on everyone’s TBR list.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

I Was A Doctor In Auschwitz is available wherever books are sold.

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