AN East St Kilda grandfather paused on Yom Hashoah to reflect on memories of his father and mother, whose heroism in rescuing other Jews in the Holocaust was honoured at a ceremony in Israel this week.
Willy Eckstein recalled the selfless deeds of his father Yona Eckstein, dubbed the Guardian Angel of Bratislava, and his mother Michal, who sheltered, fed and nursed Jews hiding from the Nazis in Slovakia.
When World War II broke out, Yona had been a wrestler with Hakoah in the Slovakian city and his sporting credentials gave him ties to local officials, which he used to gain leniency for his clandestine rescue activities, some also carried out with his brother Samo.
Eckstein’s actions touched thousands over some 30 months during 1942-44. He distributed food to Jewish prisoners and hidden Jews, and information vital for their survival. He hosted Polish orphans, arranging their escape to pre-state Israel. He protected Jews who fled to Slovakia from Auschwitz. He helped Polish Jews reach the relative safety of Hungary and he hid Jews in bunkers, including one he dug under his basement.
In 1943 he was imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo but refused to give information on the whereabouts of four Polish Jews. Michal was also ordered to reveal their names but refused, even under torture. The Ecksteins survived, as did the four whose names they withheld.
After the war, Yona began arranging for Jewish refugees to emigrate to Israel, but the new communist regime in Czechoslovakia did not approve and issued an arrest warrant. He tried to make it to Israel, but was thwarted by the War of Independence, so the Ecksteins, with their son Willy, settled in Australia.
Willy remembers his father, the proprietor of a kosher poultry shop in St Kilda, was revered in Melbourne by a small circle of Jews he had aided. Yona died in 1971.
But hearing of his parents’ heroism did not make a huge impression on him until he met two of the survivors. A chance encounter with a woman on a flight to London moved him deeply. “When she discovered I was Eckstein’s son, she rose from her seat and hugged me, saying ‘Without him I’d be dead’.”
The Melbourne jeweller also visited a jewellery wholesaler in Los Angeles, who had been gruff, but when it turned out he was Eckstein’s son, the man became emotional. “He said ‘Take whatever you want, take the whole store, and don’t pay me, because your father fed me and nursed me back to life after the war’.”
On April 28, Yom Hashoah, Willy’s sister Gerta in Israel attended the 12th annual commemoration of Jews who showed exemplary heroism during the Holocaust. The ceremony, organised by B’nai B’rith and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, was held at the Martyrs’ Forest near Jerusalem. Some 200 border patrol cadets formed an honour guard and 200 high-school students joined Jewish rescuers and survivors.
Since the establishment of the Jewish Rescuers Citation in 2011, 70 awards have been presented to rescuers who operated in France, Germany, Holland and Hungary.
GROUPS representing Australia’s Holocaust survivor community have responded angrily to a Jews for Jesus video, which depicts Jesus Christ being sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
The video, entitled That Jew Died For You, and released just days before Yom Hashoah, is displayed on the homepage of the Jews for Jesus Australia website and has attracted more than 1.3 million views on YouTube, sparking outrage around the world.
The clip shows an actor dressed as Jesus and bearing a large wooden cross at the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gates at the entrance to Auschwitz. He is sent to the “showers” by a Nazi SS officer, who proclaims, “Just another Jew”.
Bob Mendelsohn of Jews for Jesus Australia (JFJA) told The AJN on Tuesday that the film was not intended to trivialise the Holocaust or offend survivors and said he would consider removing it from the website.
“I will consider [removing the video from the website],” Mendelsohn said. “Our whole point is to communicate and if that’s preventing communication then I’ll do whatever I have to to help people listen to what we’re really trying to say.”
“[The video is] not being used to promote Jews for Jesus. What we’re saying is that Jesus, the Jewish messiah, died for our sins, rose from the dead. Our intention was far from to disturb or cause more angst.”
But according to executive director of Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre Warren Fineberg, the video does just that.
“This video, broadcast at that time of the year when Klal Yisrael mourns the victims of the Shoah is an unconscionable affront, in particular to the survivors of the Holocaust and is a blot on the memory of the victims” Fineberg said.
“To conflate the Holocaust with the Christian belief of the suffering of Jesus does an injustice to Jews and Christians and the many others who were persecuted and murdered at the hands of the Nazis.”
George Foster, president of the Association of Holocaust Survivors and Descendants in Sydney, called for the film to be removed from the JFJA website, saying it was inflammatory and would cause Holocaust survivors “distress”.
“Using the Holocaust as a vehicle, is, I think, appalling really,” he said.
“I’m sure survivors would be quite distressed at the conflation of Jesus with the Holocaust. They would see it as perhaps as a trivialisation of their experience.”
At the time The AJN went to press, the video was still on the JFJA homepage.