BUCHAREST (JTA) — When Michael Shafir moved to Israel from his native Romania as a teenager in the 1960s, it wasn’t because the Jewish teen was burning with Zionist fervor. Instead, it was the first country that agreed to take him.
“I would have left for wherever there was no communism, because I could no longer live with the feeling that you say one thing outside the house and another at home,” Shafir once said in an interview with Romanian media.
More than four decades later, Shafir would return to the country where he was born, as a professor of international relations. From his post at Babes-Bolyai University, in northwestern Romania, Shafir studied and published extensively on how post-communist right-wing nationalists distorted the past and trivialized or denied the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.
Shafir, who died Nov. 9 at 78, was known in his work and in his personal life for his straightforward and often humorous presentation of difficult truths.
“He was among the first to see the early emergence of nationalism in the [Romanian] communist regime’s politics,” his friend and colleague Liviu Rotman, an Israeli historian of Romanian Jewry, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Rotman said Shafir’s 2004 book “Between denial and trivialization. Holocaust denial in post-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe” represented a “real encyclopedia” of Holocaust denial, as it outlined three forms that Shafir observed in post-communist states — outright, deflective (which “minimizes own-nation participation”) and selective (a combination of the other two). Shafir also took aim at what he called “comparative trivialization” of the Holocaust, or denying its uniqueness by equating it with communist crimes.
“I used to joke with Michael and told him that he produced a Mendeleev Table of Holocaust denial,” Rotman wrote on Facebook after his friend’s death, referring to the formal name for the periodic table that organizes elements according to their characteristics.
Known in Romania for his irreverent sense of humor and his chain smoking, Shafir’s massive figure wearing a trench coat — and occasionally a hat — could often be seen in the threshold of the conferences and events he attended.
“He was a person with an exceptional sense of humor, who always sent his friends jokes, who always found things to laugh about,” Jewish studies scholar Felicia Waldman told JTA.
“He liked to share everything he discovered, everything he thought,” added Waldman, who also recalled Shafir’s “undiplomatic” vehemence. “Sometimes that created problems for him.”
Shafir promoted his ideas in books and scholarly writing and conferences, but also in the Romanian press, where he proved to be a redoubtable polemicist. As a member of the International Commission for the Holocaust in Romania, he worked to make sure that people in his country understood the truth about the Holocaust and Romanian authorities’ collaboration with the Nazi regime. That history was obscured during the communist era and contested after it.
The commission was established by Romanian president Ion Iliescu in 2003 and headed by Romanian-born Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Shafir and his fellow commission members concluded that between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews were murdered in territories under Romanian control during World War II.
In 2004, their report was officially adopted by the Romanian state, which for the first time acknowledged its participation in the destruction of the European Jews.
“Today’s negationism can no longer have the excuse ‘I’ve not read, I’ve haven’t access to information,’” Shafir said in a podcast by the Wiesel Institute in 2021, in which he warns about the crafty and convoluted nature of most contemporary Holocaust denial.
Shafir was still working with the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania at the time of his death, which the institute and his family members confirmed.
Born in Bucharest in 1944, Shafir managed to move to Israel as a teenager in 1961, during one of the periods when Romania relaxed emigration rules for its Jews. He had run afoul of the Communist regime and sought to escape it.
In Israel, Shafir served in the army before moving to Munich, to work as a researcher on audiences at Radio Free Europe, the U.S.-funded radio station for communist Europe. From then on he balanced journalism with academic work: He then returned to Israel, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and English literature at Hebrew University while directing foreign news at the Kol Israel radio station, a position he held until 1982. He had just earned a political science PhD at Hebrew University after writing a thesis on the Romanian intelligentsia under communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Shafir rejoined Radio Free Europe in the mid 1980s and held positions there until well after the fall of the Iron Curtain. His return to Romania and reclamation of his Romanian citizenship in 2005 inspired the country’s progressive left.
“Shafir meant a lot to me; he’s been a reference for his honesty and intellectual courage, and someone capable, like not many others, to review his positions when new data or historical sources asked for it,” Romanian-American software engineer-turned-historian Andrei Ursu told JTA.
Ursu was recently appointed scientific director of the Institute of the Romanian 1989 Revolution, an organization whose mission is to study that year’s Romanian anticommunist revolution. Two of his great-grandparents and a grandfather were killed during the Holocaust.
Ursu — whose father Gheorghe died after being savagely beaten while in politically motivated detention by Romania’s Communist secret police, the infamous Securitate — has been fighting for decades to combat the whitewashing of the Securitate in the country’s public discourse.
He described Shafir as “a person with an endless humor” and “without the exaggerated vanity common to many Romanian intellectuals.” Despite his frail health, Ursu said, Shafir agreed to review part of Ursu’s latest editorial project on the 1989 Romanian anti-communist revolution, “The Fall of a Dictator.”
Like other specialists who collaborated with Shafir, Ursu praised his work ethics and the precision of his sourcing and investigative work.
His media comments and public appearances were frequently peppered with jokes and anecdotes. In 2019, while speaking in an interview about the tens of thousands of Jews whom Ceausescu let emigrate in exchange for cash payments from Israel, Shafir told an old Romanian joke that starts with the Romanian dictator visiting a cooperative producing corn.
“How much do you get for a ton of maize?” Ceausescu asked the apparatchik in charge of the cooperative. “Just that? I get more if I sell 10 Jews.” To which the apparatchik retorts: “Then it’d be good if we start sowing Jews.”
In the interview, Shafir also recalled that the Jewish community headquarters in Bucharest used to display a sign warning gentiles desperate to get a visa to Israel and escape communism that “no conversions are accepted.”
“In the end, a conversion is much less dangerous than crossing the Danube swimming,” Shafir observed.
Although Shafir left Israel, he remained close to his family there and invested in the country’s politics. An activist with Peace Now who defined himself as a “critical Zionist,” Shafir rejected characterizations of Israel as an apartheid state but saw the Israeli continued military presence in the Palestinian territories as incompatible with democracy in the long term.
“He was very much worried about our future here in a country that is drifting to the right,” his daughter, Maurit Beeri, wrote on Facebook after her father’s death. She said he had recently spent time in Israel with his family, including his grandchildren.
Shafir’s body lay in state Nov. 13 at one of his university’s buildings in Cluj, Romania, where he lived with his wife, Aneta Feldman-Shafir.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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