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What Happened: October 7, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: The Israeli-Iranian covert war, Biblical breaking news, a Brooklyn Holocaust survivor’s literary career

The Scroll
October 07, 2021

The Big Story

Today’s edition of The Scroll is guest-edited by Armin Rosen

Things have been getting awfully chippy between Israel and Iran lately. Last week, news emerged of a foiled Iranian plot against Israelis living in Cyprus, possibly involving a gun- and silencer-toting Azerbaijani man traveling on a Russian passport who was arrested by Cypriot anti-terror police — he had apparently been casing a Larnaca apartment complex where many Israelis live. Israel might have been running big-ticket covert efforts of its own against Tehran lately. This week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced that Israel had conducted an operation related to finding out the fate of Ron Arad, the captured Israeli Air Force officer who vanished into Hezbollah custody in Lebanon in 1986 and who might have been held by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps at some point, according to decades of vague and contradictory information. Might the Mossad have recently kidnapped an Iranian general in Syria as part of efforts to locate Arad, as the London-based Arabic online newspaper Rai al-Youm reported on Monday? You can’t believe everything you read in foreign-language websites you’ve never heard of—obviously—but Iran and Israel sure have been behaving as if something’s happening. Jerusalem warned Israel’s embassies around the world about potential Iranian attacks earlier today. Iran, meanwhile, has spent the week feuding with its northern neighbor Azerbaijan over Baku’s close diplomatic and defense ties with Israel, with Iranian-Azeri relations reaching something of a crisis point over Tehran’s “concerns” with Israel’s alleged “presence” in the Caucasus region.

The Rest

-Pottery melted to glass and human remains burned at a temperature higher than any technology of the time could produce have led archeologists to suspect that a meteor strike destroyed an ancient city under excavation in the Jordan Valley some 3,650 years ago. This awesome doom-strike from the heavens, which had the potential to roast everything in a several-hundred-mile radius, would have happened around the same time as several city destructions recorded in the Bible—your Sodoms, your Gomorrahs, etc. Read more:

-A federal judge has suspended Texas’s controversial ban on abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy, a victory for the Biden administration, which had sued Texas in hopes of blocking the law. The ruling makes it more or less inevitable that the Texas law, and thus the future of the constitutional status quo on abortion that’s held since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, will be on the Supreme Court’s agenda sometime in the not-too-distant future.

-The World Health Organization has endorsed the use of a GlaxoSmithKline-developed vaccine that produces an immune response to the deadliest and most widespread of the various malaria pathogens. The WHO’s decision will hasten the vaccine’s use and distribution around the world. Malaria is responsible for a half-million deaths a year, the great majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa. A working malaria vaccine has the potential to be world-changing.

-Two researchers argue that new information about the apparent timeline of likely COVID-19 infections in and around Wuhan in the fall of 2019 casts doubt on the natural origin theory for the novel coronavirus, pointing strongly toward other possibilities. A lab leak, perhaps? Read more:

-U.S. officials revealed that an American special operations unit and an accompanying Marine detachment have been in Taiwan for the past year training ground forces from the autonomous, democratically governed island. The announcement comes just a few days after a wave of Chinese military air incursions into Taiwan’s air-defense zone, and not long after a conversation between president Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart. The communist regime in Beijing considers Taiwan part of its sovereign territory. Read more:

-The debt ceiling crisis is over! Kind of? Senate moderates agreed to a bipartisan compromise today that will spare the U.S. government from default and buy everyone time for some kind of much bigger deal on the Biden infrastructure bill and other fiscal matters—or it’ll at least buy time until early December, after which who even knows.

-The Jerusalem Magistrates’ Courts ruled that Jews can pray quietly on the Temple Mount, as long as they’re not in groups or just aren’t too obvious about it. For activists, it’s the crucial first-ever Israeli acknowledgement of a Jewish right to pray at Judiasm’s holiest site, which is controlled by a Muslim religious trust operating under Jordanian auspices. And for others, the ruling is an intolerable insult to Palestinians and to Muslims in general, and maybe an ominous first step toward yet another eventual and possibly inevitable full-blown crisis over the holy city.

-Eighteen former NBA players have been indicted for allegedly defrauding a combined $4 million from the league’s medical benefits program. None of those charged were stars back in their playing days, but there are a few familiar names in there: Darius Miles and Sebastian Telfair hung around the association for a while despite being two of their eras’ more iconic draft busts, and Tony Allen was one of the league’s best defensive players for a time. Fraud is bad and illegal of course, but the case seems destined to renew debate on what sports leagues owe to athletes who put their body and mind on the lines for a few short years of adding value to a multi-billion-dollar enterprise—and still wind up broke or close to it in the end.

-It took a Chris Taylor walk-off for the 106-win L.A. Dodgers to prevail over the disgusting St. Louis Cardinals in last night’s single-elimination National League Wild Card game. For those in the New York area, the much better use of one’s Wednesday night was attending a Bushwick concert showcasing talent from Los Angeles-based Tablet contributor Jeff Weiss’s record label, POW Recordings. Some Fatboi Sharif, in case you weren’t there:

The Back Pages

In Out of the Fog, historical detective Brian Berger digs through newspaper columns, clippings, and other clues to bring readers the fascinating, scandalous, and forgotten tales of the past. In this installment: “Rediscovering a Survivor: Sarah Birk Berkowitz.

In August 1944, 19-year-old Sarah Bick, her mother, Cipa, and her adolescent siblings Jacob and Mirka were removed from the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, to Auschwitz concentration camp. Two years earlier in Lodz, the family patriarch, Solomon Bick, had died from malnutrition and disease. Now, after being marched from the cattle car and briefly examined by a Nazi official, the remaining Bicks were separated. Frail-looking Cipa and Mirka were directed left; the more robust Jacob was sent to the right, with the men. Sarah never saw her family again, and she would soon learn from a Polish political prisoner about the gas chambers. Sarah herself was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, which she survived, and which was liberated by the British army on April 15, 1945.

Two decades later, she was Sarah Birk Berkowitz, of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and the subject of a 14 February 1965 New York World-Telegram headlined, “Death Camps Memory Explodes in Mother’s Book.” The occasion was the arrival of her memoir, Where Are My Brothers?—written in Yiddish and then translated by Sarah herself, with assistance, into English—published by Helios Books, of Manhattan. Sarah’s new surname came from her husband, Morris, a furrier and fellow survivor from Czechoslovakia, whom she met while she was recovering from tuberculosis in Sweden. They married in July 1946 and had their first daughter, Cecelia, the following April. Though their emigration was complicated by visa issues, the Berkowitz family was together in Brooklyn by the end of 1947, with an apartment near Sarah’s Aunt Masha, one of her mother’s sisters who’d left Poland before the war. Two more daughters, Florence and Shelly, followed.

Where Are My Brothers? received little attention. That the World-Telegram, apparently alone among New York dailies, did notice isn’t too surprising. Since the 1955 demise of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the paper’s Brooklyn edition—which included what was at the time an unusual number of bylined woman reporters—had produced much of the best journalism about the borough. The weekly Williamsburg News printed a publicity release about the book. But that was about all the notice it got. There would be no paperback. Helios Books would go out of business. For all of Sarah’s determination, her work remained largely unknown. 

But it wasn’t entirely unknown. Where Are My Brothers? first reemerged when it was quoted in Holocaust scholar Terence Des Pres’ landmark 1976 book, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps.

In 1979, Sarah traveled to Poland with her daughter Florence to see what remained of the Jewish community there. This trip was chronicled in her second book, Under the Ashes, which Shengold Publishers brought out in 1984. Its reception was muted, but such are the vagaries of small-press publishing, particularly in an era by then replete with “Holocaust” literature stars.

In 1986, Sarah appeared on Channel 9 WOR television in New York, where she was interviewed by renowned Brooklyn college professor of Judaica Studies and Holocaust scholar Yaffa Eliach.

In September 1989, Sara and Morris were interviewed by sociologist William Helmreich for what became Helmreich’s 1992 book, Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America. (A transcript of their conversation is available online via the United States Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.)

Sarah Berkowitz died in 2018, at the age 94. In April 2020, Florence Berkowitz-Siegelberg, still of Brooklyn, wrote about her parents’ efforts to receive reparations from Germany for The Times of Israel.

Tablet’s afternoon newsletter edited by Jacob Siegel.

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