Gertruda’s Oath


Gertruda’s Oath by Ram Oren is a beautiful account of a true Holocaust story.

In 1938 Warsaw, Gertruda Bablinska sees a job ad that will change her life for ever. Jacob and Lydia Stolowitzky, a wealthy Jewish couple, are looking for a nanny for their two-year old son. Influenced by the antisemitism which permeates Poland, Gertruda is reluctant to accept the job but she desperately needs the money. She soon grows fond of Michael and becomes devoted to the family who employ her.

A year later the war breaks out and Jacob Stolowitzky is stranded in Paris. His wife Lydia is persuaded to leave Warsaw and flee to Vilna where the Jews hope thy will be safer in a Lithuania which is under Russian rule. Lydia’s health deteriorates and on her deathbed she asks Gertruda to promise that she will raise Michael as her son and eventually take him to Israel.

The book also focuses on Karl Rink an ordinary German who is married to Mira, a Jewish woman. They have a daughter and lead a quiet and happy life until Karl is laid off. Lured by Nazi rhetoric and the hope for a better life, Rink naively accepts an invitation to join the SS. He won’t listen to his wife’s fears and prefers to believe that soon everything will be back to normal.

One day Karl Rink is sent for by the Nazi hierarchy who demand that he divorce his wife but Karl loves her and doesn’t obey. When Mira disappears, he realizes it is high time to send his young daughter to a kibbutz in Israell and get her out of the country before it is too late. Troubled by his conscience, Karl Rink does what he little can to make life easier for the Jews he comes into contact with, one of whom turns out to be Michael.

The story develops and we follow Gertruda’s determination to be true to her word and find a safe place for Michael to grow up. Near the end, personal life story meets History when the two embark on Exodus 47.

As well as being a powerful account of Gertruda’s struggle to keep her promise, Gertruda’s Oath is a book about the choices ordinary human beings are faced with and how theses very choices can turn them into heroes.

Planning, Planning


At this time of year we more or less know what groups we’ll teach next year. I’ll still teach my two business classes as well as a group of 10th graders (the first year of high school in France) and one group of 12th graders.

While I am supervising exams I am also trying to plan a few units for that group. Their textbook is a bit old-fashioned so I need to read other books, visit websites and collect ideas for next year.

Here is what I have come up with so far:

– One unit on recent black history through articles, memoirs and an NPR recording. I have chosen to focus on the following issues. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, The Little Rock Nine, the painting The problem we all live with by Norman Rockwell and Rosa Parks. Maybe we’ll read an extract fom The Help.

– A few stories taken from True Tales of American Life. The selection is divided into various sections – animals, objects, families, slapstick, strangers, war, love, death, dreams and meditation. The idea is to get the student to read a couple of stories from the object section and then to get them to write their own about an object that is dear to them.

– An episode from The Wire, season four, an article about the series and one blog post by Rabbi Fink

I’d also like to work on the Jews who emigrated to the USA after WW2 through personal stories and/or fiction. Can anyone recommend books I could read and where I could find excerpts to share with my students?

The Pity of It All


The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 by Amos Elon is an extremely informative account of German Jewish history from the arrival of Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin to Hitler’s being appointed chancellor by President Hindenburg.

Amos Elon focuses on influential Jews while giving a detailed picture of the political background behind these well-known figures.

The book starts with the German Enlightment, which was not very enlightened as far as Jews were concerned, before dealing with the rise of Germany as a nation and international power. It shows how a handful of Jewish intellectuals, political reformers and artists contributed to the shaping of Germany as a modern nation despite the pervading anti-Semitic conservatism of the time.

This book reads like a story of unrequited love. The Jews adopted German culture with almost fanatical devotion to its music, literature, art and philosophy. This culminated in 1914 with their almost unanimous backing of the German aggression and their patriotic enthusiasm for war.

Unfortunately this did not prevent the Germans, as a people, to conclude that the Jews were responsible for all their problems and turn against them very soon after the German defeat in 1918. A feeling that gradually led to Hitler’s accession to power.

The Pity of It All is a scholarly yet entirely readable book and I higly recommend it.

Oasis of Peace

This is the nickname that was given to the French village of Dieuleufit in the Drôme during WWII when it served as a haven for fleeing refugees, most of them Jews.

The OSE, a French Jewish humanitarian organization, sent dozens of children to this village where they were hidden by Marguerite Soubeyran, the head mistress of the Beauvallon school, or by local people. As in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, most of these people were Protestants.

We stopped in this village on our way to the South of France yesterday. It is a very picturesque place and as the weather was beautiful we spent some time walking through the village. The Protestant community there is still quite strong. I read their church notice and it was quite interesting to see that they have links with the Jewish community in Valence and that they have Hebrew lessons at different levels for their parishioners.

A number of the villagers were declared Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

The King’s Speech



Like a lot of people at the moment, I have seen The King’s Speech. It is a great movie starring outstanding actors, namely Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter.

I had never heard about George VI’s stammer until a few weeks before the film as released but now the Internet is full of stories that relate it as well as archives about his friendship with his speec h herapist Lionel Logue..

Although we get a lot of foreign films in France, most of them are dubbed rather than subtitled. When the film was first shown here, it was only in French and the linguist in me had no desire whatsoever to hear the king of England speak French! However my frustration must have rippled to such an extent that this week now the original version (with subtitles) can be seen once a day.

Colin Firth is perfect for the role as both a monarch in the making and a man who suffers greatly due to his speech impediment. Whenever he speaks we see him struggle and suffer with him.

The scenes where the king confronts his unorthodox and uncompromising therapist, are very entertaining. I can also very well imagine that some would be perfect for use in a language class.

Last, but not least, Helena Bonham Carter is a convincing and supportive wife as well as a credible queen-to-be. Like her husband, she is fully aware of how important it was for him to appear as a strong regal figure when both the country and Europe were in such turmoil.

If you are interested in knowing more about the story behind the story, here are a few links:
The film official website
The real speech
The WSJ interviews Mark Logue, Lionel Logue’s granson

Judaism in a Nutshell



Prior to a chapter on Jews in Medieval Europe (England for me, France and Germany for my history colleague), I tought it would be wise to revise or introduce a few basics about Judaism.

I have settled on a matching exercise: the students will have to match 31 terms and their definitions. I have also added a few pictures. I realize however that it is not easy to select the words and notions I want them to understand and remember.

If you were in my shoes, what terms would you have chosen?

Looking for a Jewish Hero


Those of you who follow me on Facebook may already know that I am looking for ideas concerning a new project for my 10th graders.

The students will have to name a newly-built school (in the US) after someone famous. Each group will present their choices and the class will vote. I’d like to include at least one Jew in the examples we’ll work on before they do their own research. Because of their History curriculum I’d prefer those heroes to have been born in Europe prior to migrating to the USA.

All suggestions are welcome.

Jewish History in Hamburg (part 2)

A number of illustrious people and families lived in Hamburg over the centuries and are buried in the Jewish cemetery.

When I visited, Inga, a young German student who works as a guide at the cemetery, mentioned one in particular. Thus the famous Glückel of Hameln (1646-1724) was born, grew up and lived in Hamburg until 1700 when she remarried and moved to France. She is called of Hameln (and not of Hamburg) as it is where her husband came from. Although Glückel herself is buried in Metz, a number of her relatives’ tombs can still be seen today.


Mordechai’s tombstone in the middle

Mordechai, her maternal uncle, who died of the plague is interred there and his tomb is easily identifiable as it faces the other way so that people could see what he died of.


Mata, Glückel’s grandmother

Glückel’s grandmother’s tomb – this lady was called Mata – stands near Mordechai while her own daughter’s tomb is just in its front.


Little Mata’s tombstone, with Glückel’s grandmother’s behind on the left

Here is what Glückel wrote in her memoirs about her daughter’s death:

My daughter Mattie, peace unto her, was in her third year, and a more beautiful and clever child was nowhere to be seen. Not only did we love her, but everyone who saw her and heard her speak was delighted with her. But the dear Lord loved her more. When she entered her third year, her hands and feet suddenly swelled. Although we had many doctors and much medecine, it suited Him to take her to Himself after four weeks of great suffering, and left as our portion heartache and suffering. My husband and I mourned indescribably and I feared greatly that I had sinned against the Almighty by mourning too much, not heeding the story of Reb Jochanan, as will follow. I forgot that there were greater punishments, as I was to find out later. We were both so grieved that we were ill for some time.


Glückel’s husband tombstone

Her husband – Chaym – died in 1689, and Glückel, who had already been involved in his business, took over and managed it by herself.

More about Glückel and her family here.

Jewish History in Hamburg (part I)


Pottery that belonged to Sephardic Jews

Like in Amsterdam, the first Jews to settle in Hamburg were Portuguese and Spanish conversos in the 1580s. They were merchants and at first were welcome because of their commercial connections in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, where other conversos had settled.

When it became clear that they were Jews who practised their religion, some of the citizens demanded their expulsion, but the city council, pointing to the economic benefits increasing from their presence, opposed the measure. Some of these settlers took part in the founding of the Bank of Hamburg in 1619.


Sephardic tombstones

In 1611, the Jews of Hamburg acquired a plot of land in Altona (jst outside the city bounds then) to be used as burial grounds. This cemetery was closed in 1869 along with all the cemeteries in the inner city of Hamburg. Because of its hstorical significance this burial place was officially classified in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1960 and is open to visitors three afternoons a week.


Ashkenazic tombstones

Sephardic Jews as well as Ashkenazim are buried there. The Sephardic tombs are easily identified as the tombstones are lying flat and the epitaphs are in Hebrew and Portuguese or Hebrew and Spanish. Ashkenazic tombstones on the other hand stand erect and the epitaphs are in Hebrew only.

Kosher Dining-Room


This is not exactly a photo but rather the photo of a sepia poster that I saw in the Ballinstadt Museum in Hamburg.

At the turn of the 20th century, transporting immigrants to the New World had become a very lucrative business and competition was fierce between the different European ports. Therefore each company advertized its service to lure potential customers. This poster is part of a campaign by the Hamburg America Line to attract Jewish travelers.

In fact this company was the only one to offer kosher meals to the Jewish passengers both before they set off (as pictured here) and on board. It probably helped that the general director of the company, Albert Ballin, was Jewish.The food was supervized by a local rabbi and 3,000 meals could be served within one hour. However the plates and dishes were not put on a tablecloth but directly on the table. The tablecloth here seems to have been used solely for the purpose of the advert.

For sepia shots from all over the world, visit Sepia Scenes.