Ancient Rome’s Emperor Titus isn’t a name that comes up at Holocaust events. Yet on March 5th, at the Fellowships at Auschwitz Ethical Leadership Awards Gala (FASPE) held at Manhattan’s Espace, 92 year old Marian Turski, survivor of the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, two death marches, and Theresienstadt, used this first century Roman to illustrate a moral conundrum involving historical evidence of the Warsaw Ghetto and linked it with FASPE’s role as ethical explorers.
Turski, a writer, the deputy chair of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, and the chair of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, was there to accept FASPE’s posthumous award on behalf of Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oneg Shabbas team, heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto. Surprising the guests—including Poland’s consul general Maciej Golubiewski—Turski asked, “Has anyone been to Rome, to the Forum Romana?” Turski then presented a discourse on the Arch of Titus, drawing parallels between the Romans and the Nazis—who liked to document their victories over the Jews.
Analyzing the role of ethics in WWII is the core mission of FASPE, the brainchild of its founder and chair, David Goldman. Dinner Chair and emcee, Dr. Isaac Herschkopf, child of Auschwitz survivors, explained, “My parents and their generation never joked about Auschwitz, they had one word to say—’Gdenk, Zachor, Remember.’ However, remembering is not enough it’s never enough. At a time when facts have somehow become subjective, FASPE searches for eternal truths. At a time where some try to outlaw allusions to any complicity in the Holocaust, FASPE transcends politics. And when the Holocaust is trivialized by labeling political adversaries Nazis, FASPE chooses hyperbole, focusing on ethics rather than melodrama.”
Its fellowship programs in Law, Business, Medicine, Journalism, and Seminary approach the study of the Holocaust in an intensive two-week program with a curriculum designed jointly by Yale, Columbia and Georgetown Universities. Now entering its ninth year, FASPE challenges graduate students and future leaders from different cultures and faiths to recognize and confront their ethical responsibilities in their chosen professions by analyzing decisions and actions of Nazi-era professionals and the part the various professions played in the measures that led to mass murder and the extermination itself. Participants study historical cases while visiting notorious sites of Holocaust history, including Wansee, outside Berlin, where the Endlosung der Judenfrage, or the Final Solution to the Jewish question, was formulated and codified, or the Brandenburg Center, where the first gas extermination experiments were conducted. And as Hershkopf stressed, “It is only by touching the rich soil of Auschwitz and Birkenau fertilized by the nitrogenous ashes of millions of Jews that we can begin to understand the consequences of losing our moral compass.”
Though five Holocaust Survivors were present, including Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Roman Kent, and Sigmund Rolat, the sad reality is that most Holocaust survivors and those who defeated the Nazis are no longer here. This year’s award winner, Ringelblum was a historian and social activist, murdered in 1944 along with his wife and young son. He and the Oneg Shabbas Team were recognized for “the clandestine archive that he organized to record every aspect of life and death in the [Warsaw] Ghetto,” said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the chief curator of the core exhibition at the POLIN Museum. “Ringleblum and the Oneg Shabbas team met secretly in a building on Saturdays, hence their code name ‘Joyous Sabbath.’ They were in a race with death, and knew that if they did not seize the moment, the present would have no future as history. During the great deportation of 300,000 Jews from Warsaw to Treblinka in the summer of 1942, they rushed to pack the thousands of documents into metal boxes and bury them. Included were their last wills and testaments. The archive was recovered from the rubble of the Ghetto just after the war and is housed at the Jewish Historical Institute, one of the few buildings to survive the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto.”
Accepting the award, Turski said, “I would like to share some ethical issues which touched me, Barbara, and all those who prepared the core exhibition on the Holocaust at the POLIN Museum and the space dedicated to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. There is a set of photos taken, ordered by General Stroop who commanded the German Army Unit to crush the Ghetto Uprising. He made this so-called Bildersuche—a photo report sent to Himmler, to Hitler with 54-56 pictures, well known to the entire world—like Jews getting out of the Ghetto (hands raised), Jewish children jumping into the fire—and he did it just to present his victory over the Jews. He, this strong General, his victory over the Jews.”
However, as Turski explained, this series of photos turned into a J’accuse flash point before the exhibit opened in 2017. “Some outstanding Jewish intellectuals from different countries, when they visited this section, they accused me, they asked me ‘what are you doing, he did it to make fun of us, he’s deriding us and you put it in your museum. Is it ethical?’ This is a very important question and I’ll tell you, we had to go with it because they were right, but on the other hand, I’ll tell you how I responded.”
Holding up a picture he said, “There is the famous Titus Arch composed of two reliefs. One of them is his triumph over Judea and you see a parade of Jewish slaves in chains and this is in order to present to the Roman people, I am the Caesar, I am the victor and they are the slaves. And should we use it? Yes. Because this is the only way we found out how was the Menorah in the Jewish Temple and which musical instruments were used in the Temple. So you see, sometimes you need even to crush some ethical doubts or maybe to find a solution. This is very important solution.”
Musing about the Ringelblum Archives, Turski stressed, “to have this great source of how we lived, some say how we died. NO, how we looked before being murdered. this is evidence of what happened to the Jewish fate. How important is this source of knowledge, of how we lived this is the evidence of it.”
Consul general Golubiewski expressed pride at giving “honorary patronage to this magnificent event that honors the memory of a Pole and a Jew. In 1939, close to 400,000 Jews of the total 3.5 million, lived in Warsaw. Jewish life was of astounding cultural and political diversity. Ringelblum’s archives and the exhibition that were officially opened by Poland’s President Andre Duda in November last year in Warsaw, do not just describe the Jewish life in German occupied Poland, but simply described Poland at that time and are Poland’s historical treasure I believe. Ringelblum wrote that he was saved from the Germans by Poles twice, but he and those Poles who hid him were also betrayed by a Pole, shot by the Germans together with the Poles who gave him shelter.”
Karen Leon is a photographer, cartoonist, and illustrator. Her photos regularly accompanied Masha Leon’s columns in The Forward and Tablet.