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Two Holocaust survivors, reunited after 80 years apart, tell their tale in a new short documentary

(New York Jewish Week) — In March 2022, Jack Waksal thought he recognized Sam Ron, the keynote speaker at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s annual South Florida dinner in Boca Raton. But he couldn’t quite place him — after all, at 97, Waksal had met thousands of people during his lifetime.

But when Ron said the word “Pionki,” all the memories came rushing back. Ron, formerly known as Shmuel Rakowsk, and Waksal had been best friends as teenagers when they worked side by side making gunpowder at the Pionki labor camp in Poland for nearly a year during the Holocaust. 

Waksal was blown away by the coincidence of meeting Ron again at a gala nearly 79 years after they first became friends half a world away. After Ron’s speech, Waksal made his way over to his table. In a new documentary about their rekindled friendship, “Jack and Sam,” Waksal recalls the first words he spoke to Ron in nearly 80 years: “I said, ‘You’re my brother!’” 

“It is such a beautiful love story,” director Jordan Matthew Horowitz said after a screening Sunday at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York’s Holocaust museum. “It’s a beautiful story of friendship that’s endured so much over such a long period of time.” 

The screening was part of the filmmakers’ push to get the film in front of documentary branch members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as they begin voting on the shortlist of Oscar-nominated short documentaries. (“Jack and Sam” clocks in at 20 minutes.) Around 40 voters, film industry leaders and other documentary filmmakers attended Sunday’s screening, with more expected at a second screening Tuesday at the United Talent Agency offices in Los Angeles.

“Jack and Sam” premiered at Provincetown International Film Festival in June and has since been shown at six film festivals across the globe including at DocNYC last month. Jewish actresses Sarah Silverman and Julianna Margulies signed on as executive producers for the film in October.

“My wish for the film is that everybody sees it, especially right now. I think from sixth grade to 12th grade, this film should be mandatory viewing,” said Margulies in a talkback after Sunday’s screening.  The actress, who starred in the television series “E.R.,” has been outspoken about the rise in antisemitism and Jewish representation in Hollywood in recent years. 

Margulies, who is on the board of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, said she is personal friends with Waksal’s granddaughter and believes that the story in the film is crucial given the antisemitism experienced on and after Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel. (She was also fresh off an apology after making disparaging comments about Black Americans who have not supported Jews after Oct. 7.)

“Right now, it is such a heightened moment. Especially in terms of education and misinformation, it is our absolute responsibility as adults and human beings to make sure that we do everything we can to get these films seen,” she said. “The timing of this is extraordinary. We have to push as hard as we can to show the evidence of what people refuse to believe.”

“Having testimony and recordings of history like this is so important,” said Jack Kliger, the CEO of the museum. Horowitz “has added a lot to the body of the work that will live on for many years and I appreciate that.”

Horowitz said that, as Holocaust survivors number fewer and fewer, the two men’s story was important before Oct. 7. But in the wake of Hamas’ attack on Israel and the international outburst of antisemitism in the nearly two months since, it has become even more relevant. “I had no idea how the world can change so rapidly,” he said.

The film begins with Waksal and Ron narrating the story of their childhoods in Poland over traditional documentary footage of pre-Holocaust European life in cities and ghettos. Both were born in 1924, Waksal in Jedlinsk and Ron in a town near Krakow. They remember Kristallnacht, the Nazi-led pogrom of 1938,  and both lived in ghettos before being moved to labor camps. 

Horowitz enlisted animator Lukas Schrank to recreate Waksal and Ron’s depictions of being transported via cattle cars to labor camps and the details of their lives there, including their harrowing memories of taking their first showers in weeks but not knowing if water or gas would come out of the faucet. 

The film also animates Waksal’s story of escaping the labor camp after hearing that some residents would be moved to Auschwitz. He and a group of 15 others escaped together and lived in a nearby forest for more than six months before the war ended. Only six of the group of 15 survived the whole winter. 

The movie doesn’t cover why Ron didn’t join them; Horowitz cited interviews with Ron, who explained that both staying and leaving carried risks and he found it an impossible choice to make. He instead was moved to Sachsenhausen, another concentration camp, and then was sent on a death march, during which he didn’t eat for more than a week. He was on the march when the American army liberated the group in the spring of 1945

After the war, Waksal moved to Dayton, Ohio, where he lived until 1992 and became a successful owner of a scrapyard. Ron joined B’richa, an underground organization that helped Jewish orphans escape to Palestine. He briefly moved to Israel, and in 1956 settled in Canton, Ohio, about 200 miles from his wartime companion. 

When they retired, both men moved to South Florida, never knowing they had lived and continued to live close to one another. That is, until the U.S. Holocaust Museum dinner in March 2022. After the dinner, Waksal and Ron became close again, visiting each other frequently, updating each other on the last eight decades of their lives and sharing their story at local high schools. 

“It’s like a miracle,” Ron says in the film of his renewed relationship with Waksal.

Horowitz said he began working on the film a year and a half ago, just a few weeks after Ron and Waksal reunited. 

“I actually never thought I would ever make a Holocaust-themed movie,” he said. “I just didn’t feel like there’s anything I could add to the conversation that hasn’t been said many times before. But then when I heard about their story, I was so moved by it.”

Horowitz conducted extensive interviews with both men over the course of 2022. They also both spoke at a screening of the documentary at Florida Atlantic University in August, which Horowitz said was “one of the highlights of my personal and professional career.”

Ron died on Oct. 11 at age 99. Waksal, meanwhile, is 99 and recently attended the March for Israel in Washington, D.C. with his daughter and granddaughter.

“We’re just trying to get as many eyes on this as possible,” Horowitz said. “That’s what Jack wants more than anything. He is so concerned with the state of the world and he feels like he has such valid points to make about it that he’s getting it in front of as many people as possible.”

“As he says, this is why I survived, to tell this story,” Margulies said.

The post Two Holocaust survivors, reunited after 80 years apart, tell their tale in a new short documentary appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Second Synagogue in Tunisia Attacked Since October 7

A screenshot from a video of Tunisian rioters burning the El-Hamma synagogue on Tuesday, Oct. 17. Source: Twitter

A mob set fire to the courtyard of a Tunisian synagogue in the city of Sfax on Sunday, the second such incident since the Israel-Hamas war began in October.

Nobody was injured in the fire — as there are no Jews left in Sfax — and authorities were able to put out the fire before it spread and destroyed the building, but reported showed significant damage to parts of the synagogue.

Israeli Historian Edy Cohen posted a video of the fire and explained that this is yet another example of antisemitism in Tunisia. He argued that “Israel through the Western countries must help Tunisian Jews.”

האנטישמיות בתוניסיה
היום בבוקר נשרף בית כנסת עתיק בתוניסיה .
כתבתי עשרות פוסטים ומאמרים על האנטישמיות הגואה בתוניסיה אשר הגיעה לשיאה לפני פחות משנה כאשר נהרגו שני יהודים בפיגוע של קיצונים.
ישראל באמצעות מדינות המערב חייבת לעזור ליהודי תוניסה.

— אדי כהן Edy Cohen (@DREDYCOHEN) February 26, 2024

In 1948, there were an estimated 105,000 Jews in the country. However, by 1967, that number had declined to 20,000 after many fled to countries such as Israel and France, and today Tunisia is estimated to only have about 1,500 Jews.

This is not the first time an antisemitic mob set fire to a synagogue since Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attack.

On October 17, rioters set fire to the el-Hamma Synagogue, doing considerable damage. People also entered the synagogue and destroyed much of it. The synagogue is not an active place of worship, as there are no Jews left in the city.

Videos from the riot show crowds of people walking in, around, and on top of the synagogue — including at least one person waving a large Palestinian flag.

En Tunisie, la synagogue d’El Hamma a été détruite et incendiée hier soir par des centaines d’émeutiers, sans la moindre intervention policière. De nombreuses vidéos sur TikTok et Facebook. Et pas la moindre mention dans les médias nationaux

— Joseph Hirsch (@josephhirsch5) October 18, 2023

The riot was precipitated by false reports that Israel had bombed Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza, resulting in more than 500 casualties. News outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post uncritically reported the story.

Later, reports from those same outlets, along with human rights groups, suggested that a rocket launched by Palestinian terrorists malfunctioned and hit the parking lot of the hospital, killing dozens. U.S. and Israeli intelligence also conclude this is what took place.

But the damage of the initial reporting was done, whipping much of the Arab world into a frenzy, resulting in huge protests and — in this case — mob violence.

Just a year prior to the war, there was a deadly terrorist attack against the El Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba, where the vast majority of Tunisia’s Jews live. The terrorist opened fire on security guards, killing two and injuring six. He also shot at Jews at the synagogue, two of whom were killed and another four were injured.

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From Ground Zero to the Gaza Border: US Medical Doctors Volunteer In Israel

A Hanukkiyah, a candlestick used during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, stands on the remains of a burnt windowsill, following a deadly infiltration by Hamas terrorists from the Gaza Strip, in Kibbutz Be’eri in southern Israel, Oct. 17, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

On September 12, 2001, Dr. Marc Wilkenfeld, a specialist in occupational medicine, was treating victims of terror at a site that would later become known as Ground Zero. More than 22 years later, Wilkenfeld found himself 6,000 miles away from Ground Zero treating terror victims in Israel. 

Wilkenfeld took leave of his job for two weeks to volunteer with IL-USDocAID, an initiative that was established in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attacks on October 7, in which more than 1200 people were murdered and 253 were abducted to Gaza. 

The project, a joint partnership between Israel’s Health Ministry and the Israel Economic Mission to the US, came in response to the sudden duress suffered by Israel’s health system from soaring casualties and the deployment of thousands of medical staff members, who serve in the IDF as reserve soldiers, to the frontlines.

Wilkenfeld said he was driven to come to Israel after seeing reports of mobilization efforts by Israeli civilians, some as early as October 7 itself. The idea of Israelis who were told to stay in their safe rooms rushing to help first responders wherever they could compelled him to action. 

“In America, you feel helpless. What are you going to do? The ability to go here and even play a small role, just to give some advice medically – it’s a beautiful thing,” he told The Algemeiner.

Wilkenfeld took his family with him, who volunteered by cooking for soldiers while he was treating people. 

In Israel, Wilkenfeld experienced many firsts. Despite 30 years of being active in the medical profession, including at the scenes of terror attacks, it was the first time he had ever encountered an ambulance station pockmarked by shrapnel and ambulances riddled with bullet holes. 

Visiting physicians are given a choice to volunteer with paramedics in ambulances or work directly inside hospitals. 

When you have a doctor in the ambulance there’s more you can do as a paramedic,” Wilkenfeld said. “It also gives real strength for the paramedics to know that people want to come and give help.”

Wilkenfeld said the visit taught him not to pay too much attention to misinformation about Israel. 

“I didn’t learn too much about medicine, but I learned a lot about Israel,” he said. “You read in the press that Israel is an apartheid state. But from a medical perspective it’s precisely the opposite.”

During his time in the country, Wilkenfeld said that all the patients he treated received the same medical care, from the “arab in east Jerusalem” to the “major rabbi from Har Nof,” an ultra-Orthodox suburb.  

He noted, however, that working in Jerusalem was vastly different from the south, which suffered the brunt of the onslaught, where people are still in an acute state of shock. 

“I’ve seen almost a thousand 9/11 responders, the responders in Sderot have the same look in their eyes,” he said of the southern Israeli city in which at least 50 civilians and 20 police officers were murdered. “They talk about the bodies in the ambulance station, about how to prioritize patients, that they haven’t slept in weeks.”

He also said that meeting with the families of hostages left him with a “terrible sadness,” rendering him speechless. Leaning on his medical expertise, however, eventually allowed Wilkenfeld to find his own voice to console them.

“It’s not possible to live in southern Israel and not have PTSD,” he said. 

Wilkenfeld returned to his job in New York, where he serves as chief of occupational medicine and clinical assistant professor at NYU-Langone in Long Island, with a somber sense of the realities facing Israel.

He is already working to recruit more volunteers for the project if war should come to Israel again.

If there is a next time, God forbid, now we can mobilize,” he said. “Now we know who to talk to, where things are.”

Parting ways with the Israeli medical personnel he worked alongside, Wilkenfeld was struck by their sacrifice amidst incomprehensible conditions.

“I leave and they have to live with this.” At the end of the day, he said, “they did much more for me than I did for them.”

To find out more about volunteering as a medic in Israel, click on the following link: IL-USDocAID:

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Israel’s Operation in Rafah Must Proceed

An UNRWA aid truck at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Photo: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

The IDF is operating in the Gaza Strip to implement the directives of the political echelon. The objectives the cabinet defined for the army at a meeting on October 16, 2023, are: toppling the Hamas regime and destroying its military and governmental capabilities, removing the terrorist threat from the Gaza Strip, creating conditions for the return of the hostages, and defending the borders of the state and its citizens while removing the security threat from Gaza, and leaving the IDF full freedom of action without restrictions on the use of force. The IDF is succeeding in systematically dismantling Hamas, although the fighting in Gaza is fierce and exacting painful costs. After more than four months of war, the IDF has taken control of the northern Gaza Strip and has full operational freedom of action in the area. The forces operate in a variety of ways to continue cleansing Hamas infrastructure — above and below ground. Progress has also been made in Khan Yunis, where the IDF is eliminating terrorists and destroying their infrastructure.

Hamas is deeply embedded in the population of the Gaza Strip. Not only do Hamas terrorists receive support and assistance from the population, some of the “civilian” population has intensified resistance and taken up arms against IDF forces. The event of Simchat Torah when a barbaric mob joined the Nukhba terrorists in carrying out the massacre in Gaza border communities, was not exceptional. In fact, this is a “popular” war with the participation of civilians. The Gaza Strip has seen the emergence of a generation whose sole goal is to kill and exterminate Jews. In the face of this resistance, the IDF is succeeding in advancing methodically and systematically.

Recently, questions have been raised as to whether Israel needs to extend operations to Rafah and the Philadelphi Corridor. The prime minister has already said on several occasions that this war will not end until the IDF operates in Rafah and takes over the Philadelphi Corridor. An operation in this arena is of great importance for several reasons. First, it is Hamas’ last organized stronghold in the Gaza Strip, and the elimination of Hamas’ military capabilities will not be achieved without the destruction of the battalions stationed there. Second, Israel must remove Hamas’ governmental capabilities in this area. Third, in order to free hostages, it is essential to reach the areas where they are held.

As we saw in the operation to rescue Fernando Simon Merman and Luis Hare, some of the hostages are being held in the Rafah area. Moreover, we need to realize that Israeli communities in areas opposite Rafah will not return to their homes if operational Hamas battalions are on the other side of the border. Finally, the border between Gaza and Egypt — the Philadelphi Corridor — still operates as a conduit for the entry of weapons into the Strip through a network of tunnels. The IDF will have to eliminate this smuggling route.

With the IDF’s advance in Khan Yunis, a chorus of countries began to announce their opposition to an IDF operation in Rafah, in most cases due to their concern for the large population of displaced persons in the Rafah area. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Feb. 12, 2024, that, “the Israelis have a commitment, an obligation to make sure that they can provide for the safety of innocent Palestinian people that are there [in Rafah].” He added that the US doesn’t “want to see any forced relocation of people out of Gaza … we support and continue to support an extended humanitarian pause.”

It should be remembered that as far as the United States is concerned, the operation in Rafah could interfere with the process it is trying to advance, the essence of which is the cessation of hostilities and agreement (or coercion on Israel) to bring the Palestinian Authority into the Gaza Strip, and thus enable the advancement of normalization with Saudi Arabia. It wants to do all this in a timetable that could give President Biden an achievement to present to the American electorate ahead of the presidential elections in November. Needless to say, this American desire does not correspond at all with the reality in the region and with the Israeli public’s position on the Palestinian Authority.

United Kingdom Foreign Secretary David Cameron said (Feb. 10, 2024) that the UK was “deeply concerned” about the possibility of military action in Rafah. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also said he was “deeply concerned about the loss of civilian life in Gaza and the potentially devastating humanitarian impact of a military incursion into Rafah.” French President Emmanuel Macron went further when he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about France’s “firm opposition to an Israeli offensive in Rafah, which could only lead to a humanitarian disaster of a new magnitude, as to any forced displacement of populations.” According to reports, Macron added that Israeli military action “would constitute violations of the international humanitarian law and would pose an additional risk of regional escalation.”

It should be noted that the number of non-combatant casualties in the Gaza Strip is among the lowest in the world when compared to all the wars in urban areas in the past hundred years. Even if we believe the reports of the Hamas-run Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza, the ratio of civilian casualties is 1.3 non-combatants for each Hamas terrorist killed. This contrasts with a ratio of 5-7 non-combatants for every dead combatant in other urban battles where a large civilian population was present. The non-combatant casualty ratio in Gaza is particularly low because the IDF developed combat methods that have enabled it to dismantle Hamas while preserving the lives of civilians in the Gaza Strip in a way that no country has succeeded in doing (or did not even try or never wanted to succeed in doing so in the first place) in urban warfare in recent decades.

Egypt, for its part on the other hand, opposes the operation because it fears that the border will be breached and many Palestinians will flock into the Sinai Peninsula. Egyptian media even went so far as to claim that relations with Israel could be damaged if this happened. Egypt should be reminded of its laxity in preventing the strengthening of Hamas in the Gaza Strip due to the passage of weapons into Gaza through the Rafah crossing or through the tunnel network under the Philadelphi Corridor.

There has also been criticism of the IDF for not operating simultaneously in both the southern and northern Gaza Strip — but it is indeed easy to criticize those who actually do the work. The IDF, which has been severely curtailed in recent decades, found itself going to war with a very small order of battle given the challenges faced in Gaza. It was also necessary to direct some of the forces to Judea and Samaria and to defend the northern front. The IDF has thus been forced to manage the army’s resources, including reserves, in a way that will enable it to conduct a prolonged campaign. As a result, it also had to prioritize operations within the Gaza campaign itself.

The operation in Rafah is necessary and inevitable. So too is cutting off Hamas’ smuggling route along the Philadelphi Corridor. The IDF will have to create for itself complete operational freedom of action for decades to come in Gaza in order to eliminate any possibility of a rebuilding of terrorist capabilities there. There will also have to be a long process of de-Hamasification. Operating in Rafah and other terrorist centers in Gaza is an essential component in achieving the goals of the war, and as we have learned from the long months of fighting, the IDF will be able to carry out this operation successfully while maintaining the norms of international humanitarian law.

Gabi Siboni was director of the military and strategic affairs program, and the cyber research program, of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) from 2006-2020, where he founded academic journals on these matters. He serves as a senior consultant to the IDF and other Israeli security organizations and the security industry. He holds a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in engineering from Tel Aviv University and a Ph.D. in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) from Ben-Gurion University. A version of this article was originally published by The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. 

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