Yom Kippur, 1944 by Leon Thorne

September 9th, 2021


Each year since my liberation in 1944, I rise in my Synagogue on Yom Kippur and recite The Mourner’s Kaddish in memory of a man who I saw only twice in my life.  I do not know much about him; I never even learned his name, but I came to consider the story which he told me, and the request he made of me only hours before his death as a last will and testament which he desperately wanted me to carry out.

I met him in the fall of l942 at the Janov labor camp, where more than 300,000 Jews were to perish before the war was over.  When I was there, the camp had 12,000 inmates, whereas the accommodations had been designed for barely 5,000.  The barracks were so jammed with humanity that there was no room to sit, much less to stretch out on the floor.  As a result, many of the inmates, including myself, preferred to spend the nights outdoors, even when the weather was cold, as it was on that damp and chilly night, three days after Rosh HaShanah.  I felt one of my fellow inmates huddle close to me in the dark for whatever heat my emaciated body had to offer.  Each person has his own way of reacting when he feels he has reached the end of the road.  I wanted nothing more than to be left alone, to sit without moving and to let my mind go blank.  But the man beside me appeared to be driven by a compulsion to talk, regardless of whether or not anyone else would listen.  Speaking in a faultless German with the merest trace of a Czech accent, he told me his story.

Before the war, he had lived in Bruenn, a large city in Czechoslovakia, where he had owned a bank and much real estate.  Along with countless other Jews, he had been deported by the Nazis to Poland.  It had all seemed very strange to him, for until that time he had not been much of a Jew at all.  In fact, he had despised his Judaism and had been convinced that the sooner the Jews forgot their Jewishness, the better it would be for everyone.  Accordingly, he had his two daughters baptized in the Catholic faith when they were born.  For some reason which he never explained to me, he and his wife had not formally converted, but they had accompanied their children to church every Sunday and stayed with them throughout the service.

I must say that, at first, I scarcely listened to the man’s recital.  I did not even turn my head in his direction.  What was the sense of this confession?  What was there to talk about?  By this time, I told myself, not only his wife, but even his children, little Jews whom all the baptismal water in the world could never have turned into Aryans, had probably been killed.  Before long, he, too, would be dead – and how much time did I have left myself?  Surely, there was never a time when talking made less sense than on that cold autumn night, when everything seemed about to come to an end.

But then, as if he had been able to read my thoughts, the former banker from Bruenn began to explain why he felt the need to tell me – to tell someone – the story of his life.  He was aware of the fate that lay in store for him.  Now, before he was killed by the Nazi murderers, he wanted to atone for the sins which he felt he had committed against his religion and his people.  How could he be able to do that in this place and at this time?  Why, it was all very simple.  He would draw up a last will and testament.  He had graduated from law school, he told me, so he should certainly know how to do that properly.

Since he had no one left in the world, this will would leave his entire estate to the Jewish community in Palestine.  True, the Nazis had taken his property, but he was convinced that, eventually, they would lose the war, and the money that could be realized from his houses and chateaus in Czechoslovakia would come in very handy when the war survivors rebuilt the homeland of the Jewish people in Palestine.  This way he would atone for his past indifference to the fate of his people and for his former violent opposition to Zionism.  Then, too, his will would include a clause to the effect that, on one day each year, someone should stand up in the synagogue and recite the mourner’s Kaddish for himself, his wife and his two children.  The fact that his children had been baptized at birth made no difference, he said.  In his will, he would declare them posthumous converts to the Jewish faith; surely such an act would be in accordance with Jewish law.  After all, despite their baptism, his two daughters had been murdered because they had been Jews.

He fell silent for a few minutes.  It seemed to me that he was weeping quietly.  Then he began to speak again, with increased intensity.  In order to make his will, he said, he needed only two things:  first, a piece of paper on which to write it, and second, a person to whom he could entrust the document.  He already had a pencil, he told me, holding up a stub so tiny that I could hardly see it between his thumb and index finger.

He proposed to name the World Zionist Organization as his executor.  They would surely know how to dispose of his assets in the best interests of the Jewish people.

“But to whom can you give your will to keep until the war is over and it can be sent to the World Zionist Organization?”  I asked.  “How do you know that any Jew in this place will be still be alive then?”

“I will give it to you for safekeeping,” the banker replied without another moment’s thought.  “If and when the time comes that you are about to die, you will turn it over to someone else whom you consider honest and reliable, with instructions that when he feels that his time has come, he, too, will turn it over to someone who is likely to outlive him.  Look, I know that I can’t last much longer.  Even if they don’t kill me, I will die in a few days.  I am at the end of my strength.  Now if I could find some paper, write out my will and hand it over to you, I would be able to die in peace.”

I turned toward him and for the first time saw his face by the light of a weak bulb outside the barracks.  He looked not much older than forty, but his long, thin face was a mask of agony.  Yet, despite his filthy prisoners’ rage, his matter hair and the stubble that grew thick on his hollow cheeks.

I promised to do as he wished.  He asked me what my name was.  I told him, and at the same time assured him that he was not necessarily at the end of his endurance that within ourselves we have secret reservoir of strength which we are not even aware of until we need to draw upon them.   Nevertheless, I said I would do my best to find a scrap of paper for his last will and testament when I went out on my labor detail the next morning.

When we parted before dawn to return for roll-call, we agreed to meet again at that same place.  I would surely have the paper for him.

As fate willed it, we were not able to keep our rendezvous.  Several days later, early in the morning, our battalion passed through the gate of the camp on the way to an “outside” work assignment.  Suddenly, I heard a voice calling my name.  I turned around; it came from somewhere behind the fence near the gate, the place where they kept the inmates who were to be shot that morning, after the others had gone out on their labor details.  There I saw him again, the banker from Bruenn.  Our eyes met, and he gestured with his hand as if he wanted to write.

“Remember?” he shouted to me through the fence.  “Paper!  Paper for the will!”  The guard beside me shoved me forward.  As I moved away, I could still hear the banker behind me, crying mournfully “Kaddish!  Kaddish!  Remember, Thorne!  Say Kaddish for my children!”


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Rest in Peace Liba Augenfeld

March 15th, 2018

Rest in Peace Liba Augenfeld. Liba fought bravely as a partisan in Vilna during the second World War. You may read an excerpt of her story here.

Below reads some Funeral information for Liba Augenfeld. You may view the entire obituary here.

Funeral Service: Monday, March 12, 2018 at 12:00 PM
Paperman & Sons
Shiva: Monday, March 12, 2018 to
Friday, March 16, 20186800 Macdonald Ave., Côte Saint-Luc, H3X 3Z2
Shiva Details: Shiva hours: 1:00 to 4:00 and 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. ending Friday.
Cemetery: Baron De Hirsch
Donations: Jewish Public Library, (514) 345-2627, ext.:3332.

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Forays into Yiddish: A Freylekhn Purim! / A Happy Purim!

March 10th, 2017

March 12th is approaching and the Jewish holiday of Purim is upon us. Marked on the 15th of Adar in the Hewbrew Calendar, it commemorates the defeat of Haman’s plot to massacre the Jews as recorded in the book of Esther.

Here is a collection of various songs, images and recipes in honor of the holiday from Yiddish translator and blogger Rivka Schiller. Most items have a direct link to the Yiddish and Yiddish speaking world dating back before World War II.

We wish you all a א פריילעכן פורים – Freylekhn Purim – Happy Purim!


Jewish DP children perform in a Purim play in the Cremona displaced persons camp. Cremona, Italy (DP Camp), c. 1947. (Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed 3-6-17).



לחיים פון דער מגילה/Lekhaim fun der Megile/L’chaim from the Megillah (courtesy of YouTube, accessed 3-6-17).




דער ניגון פון דער מגילה/Der nign fun der Megile/The Melody of the Megillah (courtesy of YouTube, accessed 3-6-17). 


המןטאשן/Homentashn/Hamantashen (traditional three-cornered Purim pastry with a filling) sung by Theodore Bikel (courtesy of YouTube, accessed 3-6-17). 

Jewish DP children perform in a Purim play in the Cremona displaced persons camp. Cremona, Italy (DP Camp), c. 1947. (Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed 3-6-17).

Poster announcing “A Great Purim Ball Dance” to include a “wind orchestra” and scheduled for 8:00 pm in Vilna, on Friday the 18th of March [1927]. (Courtesy of the YIVO Institute, accessed 3-5-17).

My Mother’s (Miriam Schiller’s) Homentash Recipe

1 stick butter

1 cup sugar
1 egg
2 Tbs. orange juice
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
Filling of choice (e.g., poppy seed, prune, apricot, strawberry, etc.)


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (175 degrees C). Grease cookie sheets.

2. Combine wet ingredients in a large bowl. In a separate bowl combine dry ingredients. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients until dough comes together. Place dough in refrigerator for at least 1 hour. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough out to ¼ inch in thickness. Cut into circles using cookie cutter or round-edged drinking glass. Place cookies on greased cookie sheets. Fill with desired filling and pinch edges of cookies to form three corners.

3. Bake for 12-15 minutes in preheated oven or until lightly browned.

The finished result should look something like this:

(Courtesy of Tori Avey, accessed 3-6-17).

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French Underground Railroad, Moving African Migrants

November 11th, 2016


Photo courtesy of Pierre Terdjman (The New York Times)

Flashes of the past aren’t hard to see if you don’t close your eyes. Many French see past injustices repeat in the quaint train stations of rural southern France as African migrants are rounded up and sent back to Italy where they will most likely be again deported. The scene was too much for some as “smartly dressed passengers averted their gaze.” Part of the local French population see it as their civic responsibility to turn in any migrants to the authorities while others disobey their government and fight for those who have no money, no common language and simply want to escape whatever misfortune lies behind them. Sadly, it seems misfortune is just as universal as man’s desperate battle to stop it.
“Either I close my eyes, or I don’t,” says one French migrant smuggler, an echo of Desmond Tutu’s reflection, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Read the New York Times story here.


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PARTISANS OF VILNA to screen at the Washington Jewish Film Festival

April 11th, 2016

We are excited to announce that Partisans of Vilna will be screening at the Washington Jewish Film Festival on April 25th! The producer, Aviva Kempner, will be in attendance for a Q&A.

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PARTISANS OF VILNA to screen at the Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin, October 1st through November 9th

October 8th, 2015

The Ciesla Foundation is proud to announce that the new digitized version of Partisans of Vilna will be shown at the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art Collection in Berlin, among a series dedicated to the remembrance of the victims of National Socialism. I will be going to Berlin, where I was born, to present the film. Almost 30 years ago director Josh Waletzky and I premiered the film at the Berlin Film Festival.


Below is more information about the event:


(directed by Josh Waletzky, USA 1986)

October 31
Potsdamer Straße 2, 10785 Berlin, Germany
7:00PM Cinema 1

Special Guest: Producer Aviva Kempner, in a discussion with Ulrich Gregor

The film is an account of armed resistance and internal struggles in the Vilna ghetto. Many of the Jewish partisans were students, who were young, well-educated and independent, and banded together with Russian, Polish and Lithuanian groups in the surrounding woods. Here too though, they experienced anti-Semitism and resentment. The film contains 40 interviews with former resistance fighters, as well as archive material from 1933–1944. Traditional songs and Yiddish interpretations of well-known partisan songs play an important role in the film.

Click here for more information.

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Director Aviva Kempner scheduled to speak at Book Talk

February 3rd, 2015

On Sunday February 8th at 1:00pm, notable filmmaker and founder of the Washington Jewish Film Festival will speak alongside authors Menachem Z. Rosensaft and Michael Brenner. They will have a discussion about the book God, Faith and Identity from the Ashes, an anthology of testaments from 88 children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors by written by Rosensaft. This year marks 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Panelists will talk about the legacy’s impact on their personal lives.

The Book Talk will take place at the Politics and Prose Bookstore (5015 Connecticut Ave N.W., Washington DC).

Erica Marshall, Winter Intern

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Armenian genocide came before the Holocaust

December 8th, 2014

Next year, 2015, will mark the 100th anniversary of the Turkish genocide in Armenia. Vilnius, the cultural and financial capital of Lithuania, known as Vilna in Yiddish, was run by the Russian tsars until 1914. During the First World War, Vilna was occupied by Germans. At the close of the War, it became the capital of the new free country of Lithuania.

The White House will display a controversial historical artifact known as the Armenian Orphan Rug. The rug was woven by Armenian orphans in the 1920s and presented to President Calvin Coolidge in 1925, in gratitude to the U.S. for aiding Armenians the 1915 genocide, in which 1 million to 1.5 million lost their lives. Armenian groups hope that the display of the artifact, will be accompanied by the official U.S. usage of the term “genocide” in discussion of the atrocities. To date, sensitive relations with modern Turkey have prevented such a designation. The rug was to have been exhibited at a Smithsonian Institution event in December, which was canceled when White House decided against releasing it.

Partisans of Vilna chronicles the 20,000 to 30,000 Lithuanian and Polish Jews who fought in resistance to the holocaust that threatened their city in the early 1940’s. As ethnic cleansing is unfortunately still with us, it is hoped the conversation surrounding this cultural acquisition by the White House, will serve as a reminder that no genocide, whether suffered by Armenians, Native Americans, or Eastern European Jews, should be brushed under the proverbial rug.

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“We Are Here” sings for those without a voice

November 26th, 2014

In her recent Washington Post op-ed regarding Jews’ place in Poland’s history, Anne Applebaum notes that Jewish partisans during the Second World War often sang a song that ended with the words Mir senen do!, meaning “We are here!” The song became the anthem of their resistance. In August we blogged about author Ellen Cassedy’s book about Lithuanian resistance, We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press).

Applebaum writes:

Certainly the insistent declaration “we are here” isn’t part of any big nation’s national anthem. Americans sing about “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” The British sing “God save the Queen.” The French sing, “The day of glory has arrived.” None of them sing in order to prove that they haven’t been wiped out. But those who live in geographically insecure nations can perhaps empathize with one another somewhat better.

Read more at The Washington Post.

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Helen Bamber, anti-torture activist, passes away

August 27th, 2014

From The Washington Post:

Helen Bamber, who at 19 traveled alone to post-World War II Germany to care for former inmates of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and became one of the world’s most relentless advocates for the victims of war, genocide and torture, died Aug. 21 in London. She was 89.

She was a courageous woman. It’s too bad there were not more like her. Read more of Adam Bernstein’s obituary of Bamber at The Washington Post.

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