The cupcake seen around the world

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A teen birthday guest drew a swastika on a cupcake at her 14-year-old friend’s birthday party. Photo courtesy of the mom’s Facebook page

On the morning after her 14-year-old  daughter’s birthday sleepover, one Valley woman received a text containing a photo of a cupcake decorated with a swastika.

The photo came from the mother of one her daughter’s guests, who said her daughter felt uncomfortable  the night before when one of the other teens drew the symbol during a cupcake-decorating session. “Imagine my surprise,” said the Valley woman, who has requested that her name not be used. Upon further investigation, she found that two of the girls posted the cupcake photo on Snapchat, along with snarky comments.

“A few of the girls expressed discomfort and offense at the decoration,” the mom told Jewish News via email. “My daughter told the girls she was offended and walked out of the room … Nobody thought it was funny. Another guest decided to smear the cupcake frosting and toss it in the trash. When I came downstairs, I saw several cupcakes decorated with sprinkles and chocolate, but I never saw the swastika one. The girls self-regulated their own party because after the incident, they spent the next few hours doing karaoke, opening presents and just chilling with each other.”

After the party, the birthday girl’s mom posted the cupcake  photo on her Facebook page, with a brief explanation about what happened. By the next day, the cupcake made news around the world.

“I was absolutely surprised by the response to my Facebook post,” said the Valley woman, who works in public relations. “Not at the overwhelming reaction to a swastika on a cupcake – which is just not OK in any situation – but the vitriol at a certain political party. As I stated in my original Facebook post, this was not a political position, but more a statement about the environment we now seem to be living in, where racist, anti-Semitic, and mysoginistic acts or words are being allowed to fly with no huge reaction. Intolerance cannot be normalized regardless of who is in office — the human race will exist long past any one president’s term or terms of office, so let’s not lose our humanity. People still need to be kind and respectful to one another, regardless of color, religion, sex or political position.”

Not only did her Facebook post make international news, but similar to the childhood game of “Telephone,” inaccurate reports were published, such as the story headlined, “Arizona teens bring a cupcake with a swastika in icing to a Jewish girl’s 14th birthday party.”

“This was one cupcake decorated by a 14-year- old,” said the mom. It was thoughtless and insensitive and she thought it was just being funny — but it wasn’t a hate crime nor was she trying to bully my daughter. I dare anyone out there to remember doing stupid things as a teen — we were just fortunate that social media wasn’t around to blow up everything.”

The mom said that her daughters and their friends also learned an invaluable lesson about the power of social media.

“Whereas this story has spread much further than I imagined and even wanted … it also allowed people to quickly see a photo and read a headline and assume a whole lot more than what actually happened. In the end, this was a thoughtless action by a young girl who learned some very important lessons. We all can learn lessons — whether we’re 4 or 14 or 44!”

The parents of the girls who posted the photos “were shocked that this happened and grateful that it had been brought to their attention,” said the mom. “Each parent had a meaningful conversation with their own daughter about the Holocaust, hateful symbolism, intolerance, sensitivity, friendship and standing up for what’s right. My family received heartfelt apologies from the girls who decorated the cupcake, which was enough for me. All the kids learned important lessons stemming from this event.”

Leisah Woldoff is managing editor of Jewish News.

 


You Did Not Win: Reflections on My Relationship with a Holocaust Survivor

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Guest blogger Shauna Stein, right, received the Sonia Minuskin Award for Graduate Scholarship from Minuskin’s son Harold Minuskin, center, and Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, director of Arizona State University’s Jewish Studies Program, left, on April 27. Photo courtesy of Shauna Stein

Guest blogger Shauna Stein is president of the Jewish Law Student Association at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and participated in the first cohort of the Valley Beit Midrash Jewish Leadership Corps. This piece was written Sept. 22, just before Yom Kippur.  

As I write this piece, it is the eve of Yom Kippur. Earlier this afternoon, I received an email from Harold Minuskin, a Holocaust survivor. He informed me that the Polish government recently announced that former Jewish citizens of Poland who survived the Holocaust would be eligible for a small pension for the valuables and property their families lost during that period. To qualify, you must prove that you lived in Poland during the Holocaust. Harold relayed to me that he has applied, since he has about four Polish documents that prove that his family members were in or near their hometown of Zhetel (Zdenciol in Polish) from 1937 to 1945.

Harold has been sending me several thought-provoking materials since I first met him. Harold encourages me to continue my scholarship on this topic.

Though this article triggers many emotions and thoughts, I am choosing to write about an important cognitive strength that my correspondence with Harold Minuskin has taught me over the course of the summer: the power of wanting to live and the power of a positive outlook on life.

My relationship with Harold Minuskin began at the end of April when he read a piece that I had written for a law school course on moral leadership. I wrote about Tuvia Bielski and other Jewish partisans who exhibited great perseverance and other leadership strengths during the Holocaust. (Tuvia Bielski’s character was played by Daniel Craig in the 2008 movie,  “Defiance.”)

Harold survived the Holocaust because of the great perseverance of his mother, Sonia Minuskin, and other Jewish partisans led by Hershel Kaplinsky in the Lenin Atriad in Nazi-occupied forests. It was a true and complete honor when Harold awarded me with a scholarship, in honor of his mother.

Harold attended the scholarship reception with his wife. He carried a big brown box, printed with my name in red Hebrew letters, and tied with string. The box was filled with books on the Holocaust. Shortly after I received my award, Harold whispered to me, “Now is your chance to ask questions. I will be having heart surgery soon.”

I felt a huge responsibility to help spread education about the Holocaust. All these months, I had an opportunity to write more about a topic I feel passionately about, yet I did not begin writing until this very moment. Honestly, however, I also felt overwhelmed. I selfishly thought to myself, “I have no time and I don’t even know where to start. I have law school finals, an internship starting soon, a clinic, summer school, etc.”

During the summer, however, I had an opportunity to read the book that Harold translated on behalf of his mother. He told me how awful he felt that his mother was never able to see the finished product, or see the book published. He relayed to me that it was too emotionally painful to relive all those memories and that he blamed himself for not working through it faster.

As I read the book, I realized what an amazing hero Harold’s mother was, and how Harold’s mother never really received recognition for what she did.

Harold’s mother had two little babies, Harold and his little brother. No one wanted Harold’s mother to hide with them, and no peasants were willing to hide her with two little baby boys, at the risk that their crying might give away their hiding place to the adversaries. I cannot even begin to imagine what agony Harold’s mother went through, and what great internal conflicts she had within herself. In her memoirs, Harold’s mother recounts how peasants thought she was crazy yelling at herself when she struggled with the decision to not abandon her babies, who were so eager to live. She said that what kept her going was seeing the desire to live in her babies’ eyes, when they stared at her. Quite simply, it was perseverance and the desire to live that kept them going.

Harold said the following to me, which gave me shivers:

“Just imagine that you are all alone with two very young children. You are trying to hide and escape from people that want to kill you because you are a Jew. You only have the clothing you are wearing. Even non-Jews who have known your family for many years shun you because they fear for their lives. No one is willing to help, to provide scraps of food or water.”

At one time, Harold’s mother wanted to give away her infant son to nuns. She thought to herself, “At least, one of us will survive if he is raised as a Christian child.” However, Harold’s mother changed her mind and was committed to survival. Essentially, failure was not even an option in her mind.

At that point, Harold’s mother had already witnessed the slaughter of most of her family and friends. Harold’s mother and her two boys were now in the ghetto where there was hunger and death all around them. The Germans created an atmosphere of death and reprisals for the slightest offense.

One example written in Harold’s mother’s memoirs is when the Jews of Zhetel were standing in line to give up their valuables. One Jewish woman was arbitrarily selected by one of the German guards. She was accused of withholding some valuables. Of course, this was not true. Nevertheless, the German guard persisted that the woman was holding back some of her family’s valuables. No amount of pleading would help this poor woman. The German guard pulled out his pistol and shot her in view of the rest of the Jews who were standing in line. Thus, the Germans continuously created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.

Writing this simply gives me goose bumps. We have so many frivolous things that we worry about in life. Harold survived and is here with us today because for days his mother, his brother and grandmother and other family members hid underneath a toilet behind their house. Harold’s father was smart enough to dig a deep hole underneath the toilet, as he knew that the sophisticated German soldiers would not want to look under a toilet. When Harold and his brother were dehydrated and thirsty as they were hiding there, Harold’s mother moistened Harold’s lips and Harold’s little brother’s lips with urine from their grandmother.

Harold spent the first several years of his life in the forest. Harold’s mother wrote in her memoirs that the Soviet Partisans would spend time with the little boys because it would bring them joy to remember their own families. When the Soviet Partisans would ask the little boys what a bicycle was, the little boys would point to a squirrel. Their lives were so far removed from the society they once knew.

I am only touching upon a hair of what happened, or the small amount of what I heard from my encounters with Harold. After the war, Harold, his brother and his parents returned to their home. It was used as an office for German soldiers during the war. None of their valuables, furniture or clothes remained in the home. One time, Harold’s mother even saw a fellow villager wearing her scarf that was taken from her home during the war.

Anti-Semitism still persisted. Harold’s parents engaged in the black market to make ends meet, and the surrounding villagers  coveted their earnings. Harold’s family ultimately immigrated to the United States, and they resided in New York. Harold’s family would attend social events with Tuvia Bielski (the man, who initially inspired me to write about moral leadership during the Holocaust) and his family. Harold also sent me a picture of his cousin who had a picture taken with Bielski.

During our correspondence, Harold told me that during the later years when they lived in New York, his mother never missed a party. He told me, “She was the life of the party. She enjoyed herself as if to make up for all the bad years. Despite everything, my mother had a positive outlook on life.”

I think that Harold’s mother passed on a very positive quality to her son. A few weeks ago, Harold sent me an email that brightened my day. He wrote: “It has been a little over 3 months since my open heart surgery… I forced myself to begin walking, 1/2 mile each day at first. Now I am up to 1 mile each morning… When I was discharged I looked like one of the ghetto people; I had lost lots of weight. Now, I am gaining back at the rate of about 2 lbs each week. I should be good as new in another 3 months.”

With all this being said, why did Harold’s email today compel me to write this piece?

I think that the important takeaway is for the world to know that time and time again, wicked people have tried to wipe out, destroy and obliterate the Jewish religion, race, people and culture. However, at the end of the day, one thing is certain. They have not obstructed our desire to live, our commitment to living life and to all of life’s possibilities. We still clutch to our identities and we still fight for our rights. Moreover, the struggles of our ancestors made us stronger and made us persevere.

Essentially, these wicked people did not win. They lost the game.

I am forever thankful for what Harold has taught me. Harold has taught me to embrace life and to encourage others to think about concepts that might be difficult to acknowledge.

May you be inscribed in the book of life, this eve of Yom Kippur.


‘Marking the New Year’ at Yad Vashem

In a new online exhibit, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, presents a glimpse into some of the ways that Jews marked the High Holidays before, during and immediately after the Holocaust.

“Marking the New Year” – click here to see it in English – features approximately 50 items from Yad Vashem’s collections, including greeting cards, documents, religious artifacts and testimonies – all relating to the Jewish New Year.

Featured items include Rosh Hashanah cards written by children in the Bergen-Belsen camp, a shofar that survived the war and a Jewish calendar that includes illustrations by a man who did not survive the Holocaust. May their memory never be forgotten.

The exhibit is featured in English, Hebrew and Spanish.


‘Propaganda’: When words aid and abet killing

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Many of us were brought up on that old schoolyard defense against insults. However, time and again, the answer to the question “Do Words Kill?” is a qualified yes.

If you haven’t been to see the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s traveling exhibit “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” at the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix, time is getting short. The exhibit runs through this Sunday, June 1, and these thoughts are prompted by that fact and last weekend’s  gains by wildly anti-Semitic forces in the European Union.

I’ve been processing what I heard while attending “Do Words Kill? Hate Speech, Propaganda, and Incitement to Genocide” on May 7 at Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix with about 100 other people and here are some highlights gleaned from the panel of experts on hand – Steve Luckert, curator of the traveling “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda”; Mike Abramowitz, director of the USHMM’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide; Elizabeth “Barry” White, of the center; and Len Downie Jr., former executive editor of the Washington Post and now an educator at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School.

The whole topic of dangerous speech is difficult for Americans, who are used to First Amendment protections and so “they’re entitled to their opinion” is often used to brush off lies and hatred.

The occasion for the program was the exhibit upstairs at the library, which is open till June 1, that looked at the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda in enabling the genocide against Jews and methodical murder of other targeted groups, as well.

“The Holocaust started with propaganda,” said Abramowitz, the moderator of the discussion. Talking about why the Holocaust museum put the exhibit on the road and about the efforts of the USHMM’s National Institute for Holocaust Education, he said, “Young people are our most important audience” and that the exhibit and discussion where intended to help develop critical thinking skills in an era when “denial is so prevalent.”

Asked how we recognize what makes speech dangerous, White said that it’s a contextual judgment, involving the speaker, the audience, the speech itself and the social-historical context.

Luckert talked about the way the Nazi propaganda machine created “an alluring vision of a national community” while defining “groups of people who did not belong.”

Such propaganda “transforms those groups from citizens to pariahs” and by dehumanizing and blaming those groups for various ills provides a government or other organized group to offer a “solution” like Hitler’s: “Let the state take care of it.”

Downie pointed out the difficulty surrounding simple press coverage of issues and how words create impressions that may not be accurate or factual. “When do you call someone a terrorist or a militant?” he asked. Journalists face similar questions about including race as an element of reporting, he said.

Abramowitz interjected that while the Rwandan genocide was brewing, local radio commentators were calling the Tutsis (the victims of the genocide perpetrated by the Hutu majority) “cockroaches” on the air.

Luckert compared and contrasted the German society of the Nazis and the Rwandan society surrounding the genocide of the Tutsis. While Germany was highly literate and Rwanda was mostly illiterate, radio played a role in fomenting both genocides, presenting the propaganda in ways that were entertaining and appealed to young people.

“By the time the killing started, the damage had already been done,” White said.

“We are in a dangerous time right now,” Downie said. “We need to call people out on lies.”

White talked about how good faith efforts can reduce ethnic violence, citing Kenya, which had a history of violence surrounding elections. In 2007, ethnic violence erupted in Kenya over the disputed results, including false rumors spread via cellphone and texting that incited violence. The violence prompted a national effort to cool the temperature of dangerous speech surrounding the nation’s politics and in the 2013 election, “There was no outbreak of mass violence … Kenyans understood the risk and were committed to avoid another outbreak.”

There was no ultimate conclusion, but the panelists made it clear that we should all be skeptical of messages we hear and counter falsehoods when we can.

The program and exhibition are made possible in part by Amy and Andrew Cohn, the Rosenbluth Family Foundation, and Barry and Barbara Zemel.

The exhibition was underwritten in part by grants from Katharine M. and Leo S. Ullman and the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation, with additional support from the Lester Robbins and Sheila Johnson Robbins Traveling and Special Exhibitions Fund, established in 1990.

— Salvatore Caputo


They have names

An art professor with whom I once studied suggested that you don’t really know the thing you are observing until you can name it. For instance, order can be brought to the riot of parts under your vehicle’s hood, once you know that this thing here is the carburetor and that thing there is the alternator.

Likewise, while we think of the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis in World War II with tremendous sadness and anger at the slaughter, we feel the loss more profoundly when we know the name of an individual. Knowing that name makes the reality more concrete, more knowable, more real.

I’m thinking about these things because on International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27), Yad Vashem, which has been on a mission to document the names of the entire 6 million,  sent an email to mark the day.

“For years people assumed that the Nazis kept meticulous lists of all the Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust,” the email says. “But the reality is that few names of individuals were documented, and many people were simply killed with no one to record that they had once lived.  For the past 6 decades, Yad Vashem has been working to bring their names back from oblivion.  Combining information submitted by Holocaust survivors, next generation descendants or relatives of Holocaust victims with data gleaned from archives scattered across the globe, Yad Vashem, which literally means ‘a memorial and a name’ has been able to recover the names and identities of 4.3 million of the 6 million victims. It is a colossal effort that continues around the clock and around the world: volunteers meet with survivors to help them fill in Pages of Testimony in memory of their loved ones; volunteers and staff gather names from memorials and cemeteries; archivists and language experts pore over documents in a dozen languages to seek out the names; and digitization experts ensure that all the material is accessible.  The names are kept in the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, are accessible online in the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names on Yad Vashem’s website, and are recorded in the Book of Names unveiled by Yad Vashem in Auschwitz–Birkenau this summer.”

(The email also points recipients to a short video about Yad Vashem’s efforts.)

If Yad Vashem succeeds in this task, it will be quite an achievement. There can be no adequate memorial to all the murdered. There isn’t any one person who can truly remember those names, who can truly know each individual’s journey through that dark period. Yet finding all their names is the key to learning those individual stories, how they individually related to that great, churning engine that was the European Jewish community. We may not be able to know many of them in any depth, but the promise of Yad Vashem is that, when the task is complete, we’d be able to name ANY one of them without exception. To leave none of them nameless, to name them in our prayers and memories is to know them and to retrieve some light from the awful darkness of the Holocaust.