‘Checkmate’ as chess table returns to Jewish hands
“At this Jewish table, the murders of our families were planned,” says activist Grant Gochin, who has campaigned relentlessly for Lithuania to acknowledge its role in the Holocaust. “The table was stolen from a Jewish family by murderers and thieves and the main murderer is Lithuania’s national hero. SS officers played chess at this table. After 80 years, it’s back in Jewish hands.”
Gochin, who is an ex-South African and lives in California, bought the table from the descendants of Jonas Noreika, a notorious Nazi collaborator who played a major role in the annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry. Noreika worked in the shtetls where many South African Jewish families come from. They were at the mercy of his cruelty, which he exercised with brutality and efficiency. There were almost no survivors.
Gochin says that when the table was finally in his possession, he wanted to cry. “It’s a simple chess table, but it acknowledges and memorialises the Jewish families taken away from us. It shows that the wheels of justice turn slowly, but they do turn.”
Announcing the news on Facebook that he had bought the table, Gochin wrote, “This chess table was owned by Leibas and Rocha Orlanskis. It was in their home on Vaizganto 11, in Plunge, Lithuania. The Jews were thrown out of their homes and all possessions were stolen by Lithuanians. The genocidal Lithuanian murderer, Jonas Noreika, took possession of this house and acquired the furnishings in 1941, including this chess table. He played chess on this table with his SS buddies.
“The murders of countless Jews were discussed at this table, including presumably those of my own relatives. Eighty years since this table was stolen from its Jewish owners, I have now purchased it back from relatives of the Noreika family. It now belongs to me. The table will go to a museum where its story can be told, as an artefact of genocide. Life is an extraordinary journey. I’m profoundly moved by the circle of history.”
Gochin told the SA Jewish Report that the Orlanskis had been a prominent Jewish family whose home was opposite the town’s shul. The house was callously taken by Noreika and his family, where he also stole all of their possessions. Importantly, his ownership of the table and takeover of the Jewish house places him firmly at the site of the annihilation of Plunge’s Jews.
He was just one of many Lithuanians who took Jewish homes and property. From the house, he had a front row seat to the Jews being imprisoned in their own synagogue in horrific conditions before being taken to their deaths.
“I’m angry that they murdered our families but are still using their possessions,” he says. “We have nothing tangible from the victims. They were murdered and their property was plundered. Lithuanians took over their houses and held auctions to sell their possessions, pocketing the proceeds. Who knows how many Jewish items remain in Lithuania? The country has never come clean about the scale of atrocity and robbery.”
The Orlanskis may have escaped to Siberia and survived the Shoah, but most of Plunge’s residents weren’t so lucky. They were murdered in mass graves in a forest outside the town in late June and July of 1941 – exactly 80 years ago.
“Noreika took the table with him as he moved a number of times. He was apparently a great chess player, and it was a prized possession. He wasn’t just a murderer, but a thief,” says Gochin.
In her book The Nazi’s Granddaughter, which exposes Noreika’s heinous deeds, his granddaughter, Sylvia Foti, writes about how she first came across the chess table when researching his life in Lithuania. Relatives “recalled the fine furniture [at the house in Plunge], especially a round table engraved with a chess pattern”. She was told that “uncle Jonas loved to play chess. Everyone who visited admired that chess table and the handsome chess pieces sitting on top.” She goes on to describe her horror at finding out that he took over the house of Jews right by the shul where they were imprisoned.
“Yes, it’s ironic that the table is now in the possession of a Jew,” says Gochin. “It shows how history has been inverted, and Lithuania honours its murderers as national heroes.”
While we can never bring our families back, Gochin wanted to turn the tide of history and own the table as a symbol of what was lost, and stand up to Lithuania’s Holocaust denial. “Noreika still has relatives in Lithuania who were in possession of this table. I had a local friend go in and offer in excess of the value of the table.”
He did it “because this table is evidence of a crime, and evidence needs to be preserved. It’s now in a safe place [in Lithuania]. I’m looking for a final custodian that will protect it from anyone who wouldn’t want it to exist.” He says it’s unlikely he will transport it all the way to South Africa, but he would consider a museum or educational institution in Lithuania “to teach Lithuanians what their grandparents did”, or in the United States (US).
For him, it’s a bittersweet moment of victory in a long and thankless fight. “At the end of the day, it’s evidence. They [Lithuania] have lied so much, that the most miniscule piece of evidence is a victory. The table represents how even the most simple of things were stolen. The plunder and rape was so complete, that this one tangible piece allows us to identify history. So yes, it’s a victory – against the Lithuanians that did the murdering, and against today’s Lithuanians that deny these crimes.”
While he has allowed himself a triumphant moment, his battle is far from over. Gochin has spent the past 25 years documenting and restoring signs of Jewish life in Lithuania. He has restored more than 50 abandoned and neglected Jewish cemeteries, and has written a book about his family’s history in Lithuania. He works tirelessly to expose Holocaust revisionism within the Lithuanian government.
It entails spending countless hours combating fake news in all spheres, lobbying governments and institutions, writing hard-hitting opinion pieces, giving talks, and shining a light on Lithuania’s Holocaust crimes wherever he can. He has made such a nuisance of himself, he doubts he will ever be allowed back into Lithuania. It’s therefore unlikely that he will see and touch the table in person unless he brings it to the US.
However, he remains focused, dedicated and motivated. “Think of your grandparents being victimised that way. When it’s your family, you can’t stop. You can’t stand by. I’m not able to.”
COVID-19 denialists cause headache for doctors
Though the fourth wave of COVID-19 has been mild, those who deny they have the virus have caused a headache for doctors because invariably, they help it to spread.
Experts are aware that many didn’t test for COVID-19 as it might have ruined their holiday. It wouldn’t have been a problem if they had isolated themselves, they say, however, many chose to ignore their symptoms, spreading the virus further.
“Denialists are a big headache,” says Dr Solly Lison, a Cape Town-based family physician, “so ventilation and small groups are essential. Having a window open when you are driving is also crucial.”
Lison has seen statistics indicating that the number of new cases has been declining at a slower rate in the Western Cape than it did in Gauteng. “Maybe that’s because people from Gauteng were here in the Western Cape [for their holidays],” he says.
Hatzolah’s statistics show that the number of new cases has been progressively decreasing over the past four weeks in Gauteng. In the week of 10 December 2021, 714 new cases were recorded, while 63 have been registered this week.
Currently, Hatzolah has 174 active cases, six COVID-19 patients in hospital, and 16 COVID-19 patients on home oxygen. Most of its cases have been occurred in the 20 to 60 age group.
“From what we are seeing at the moment, the symptoms seem to be a lot milder than previous variants,” says Darren Kahn, the executive general manager of Hatzolah Medical Rescue. “We do notice that vaccinated patients [who land up on oxygen] are certainly coming off oxygen a lot quicker than those who haven’t been vaccinated. But in general, people are certainly not as ill as they were previously.”
Kahn believes many haven’t joined the Hatzolah programme during this wave because they aren’t so sick.
“Omicron, which dominates in South Africa, is highly transmissible but less virulent, causing far less morbidity and very low actual direct mortality,” says Professor Efraim Kramer, a leading international expert in emergency medicine with a specialty in mass gatherings. “It will, as expected, spread globally, which is good because it gives those infected a natural immunity without severe illness.
“Therefore, with Omicron, we are learning to live and cohabit with it, like every winter flu. Of those who do get infected, some are mildly symptomatic, others are asymptomatic, but both spread the virus,” he says.
“The only large factor is vaccination, and that’s a personal choice. So, should we all carry on as normally as we can with Omicron, with or without the virus, and get on with our lives? Yes. It’s not a case of denying it, it’s a case of living with this uninvited guest in our daily lives.”
Dr Daniel Israel, a family practitioner in Johannesburg, says, “The Omicron variant peaked in Gauteng over the holidays, and we saw larger numbers than we had in the third wave. That proves the contagiousness of it. From what we are seeing as GPs, serious patients and admissions have been few and far between. Our practice alone has had three admissions, two of which were unvaccinated.”
He and Lison agree that many didn’t test because they didn’t want it to ruin their holiday.
Lison puts this down to the cost of the tests and the many false negatives recorded. He says the latter is a result of “people immediately testing after being in contact with somebody who had COVID-19. That’s the wrong thing to do. You’re going to get reliable positive results only on day five or six.”
Doctors agree that the wave is dissipating.
“The epidemic curve should reach baseline within the next 10 days to two weeks in Gauteng, and perhaps slightly later in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal,” says Professor Barry Schoub.
Schoub, who chairs the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Vaccines, says the fourth wave was almost entirely driven by the Omicron variant in South Africa and ranked as the most extensive in terms of numbers of individuals infected, but it was significantly milder than preceding waves.
He says more than 90% of severe cases of COVID-19 in the fourth wave were in unvaccinated individuals. He and other experts agree that though Omicron is a vastly milder variant, it’s not harmless, especially for the unvaccinated.
Says, Lison, “They aren’t getting the chest infections to the degree they did before, and they are feeling better quicker.”
“Hospitals were much busier in December 2020,” says Lison. “There were many more PUIS [persons under investigation] who were dropping oxygen levels at that time. [Now] we don’t have to ensure that they get oxygen. They are coping better.”
Lison agrees that “people aren’t testing” when they show symptoms, and are often just isolating. He’s concerned that “people aren’t covering their noses” and that neck gaiters are “useless”.
“It stops you spitting as you speak, but you will get infected through it, and you will pass the infection through it as well. You need to wear a minimum three-layer mask covering your nose.”
The outlook for 2022 with regard to new variants is unclear, Schoub says, but it’s reassuring that “the great majority of the South African population do have antibodies to the virus, and this partly contributed to the relative mildness of the fourth wave. Hopefully, this will also contribute to ameliorating the effects of subsequent variants which may arise in the course of the year.
“Unfortunately, more than 50% of individuals in South Africa still haven’t been vaccinated. It’s imperative that every effort needs to be made to increase vaccine coverage in the population if we hope to bring the pandemic under control.”
From pandemic to “twindemic” as global cases soar
As South Africans heave a sigh of relief at the improving COVID-19 situation, other nations are recording record infection levels, reporting new variants, and even worrying about the rise of a “twindemic”.
Although Israel has been mustering record morbidity levels amid the Omicron-driven wave, new coronavirus guidelines for Israeli schools came into force on the weekend with vaccination rates no longer a factor in whether classes can meet in person.
The country had been adopting a “traffic light” plan, in which the vaccination rate of each class determined if students attended school in-person or remotely.
A bigger stir has been caused by a woman in Israel being diagnosed with “flurona” at the start of January. However, this condition has been around for at least two years. Flurona is just the term for having COVID-19 and flu at the same time.
Strict measures to control the spread of coronavirus were expected to prevent flu transmission, which appears to have largely held true for 2020. Efforts to track flu cases face challenges, as flu tests are scarce and the illness can be confused with others, including COVID-19.
Israel is noticing flu spikes this winter after historically low case levels last year. After hitting record lows as coronavirus surged, flu cases in the United States (US) are rising this year. Europe’s flu season, meanwhile, is just starting.
Although Australia successfully contained outbreaks of coronavirus, about 86 000 of the 1.1 million cases it has amassed since the beginning of the pandemic have occurred in the past two weeks. It’s now getting close to attaining record levels of COVID-19 infections following the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
Several countries in Europe have already achieved that feat. On Wednesday, 12 December, daily cases in Germany (80 000) and Bulgaria (7 062) hit record levels, while Turkey logged a record level of more than 74 000 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday.
In contrast, on 12 January, the United Kingdom (UK) reported that COVID-19 cases fell nearly 45% from the previous week in what was the biggest drop since the arrival of Omicron. Professor David Heymann, an epidemiologist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, claimed that the UK would be the first country in the northern hemisphere to tame the pandemic.
The picture isn’t so rosy in the US, where COVID-19 hospitalisations reached a record high on Monday, as a surge in infections strained health systems in several states. On Tuesday, the Indiana health department reported that more people were hospitalised with COVID-19 in its state than at any other point in the pandemic, and Oklahoma reported record-high numbers of new COVID-19 cases on the weekend.
Faring north, the Canadian province of Quebec, facing a new wave of infections, has announced plans to impose a “health tax” on residents who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccination for non-medical reasons.
In terms of new variants, a Cyprus researcher recently discovered Deltacron, a reported new variant of COVID-19. It apparently combines the Delta and Omicron variants.
And, according to scientists in France, the new B.1.640.2 variant, named IHU, could be stronger than the Omicron variant. IHU has been detected in a vaccinated man who travelled to Cameroon, the host of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations. Researchers say this doesn’t mean IHU originated in the central African country.
Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have passed 310.5 million globally, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of confirmed deaths has now passed 5.49 million. More than 9.46 billion vaccination doses have been administered globally, according to Our World in Data.
‘It’s about respect,’ couple says on seven decades of marriage
Israel and Vera (nee Wilkov) Bulafkin were high-school sweethearts when they first fell in love, and it has remained a romance for the ages as they celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary last week.
“Israel is 92 [born in 1929] and Vera is 91 [born in 1930],” says their son-in-law, Stanley Pincus. “Israel is from Krugersdorp and Vera from Randfontein. They met at Krugersdorp High School in Standard 6 [Grade 8]. It was love at first sight, and they got married on 6 January 1952 at the Berea Shul in Johannesburg.”
Israel is a pharmacist who ran a pharmacy called Medicine Chest in Northcliff. Vera worked with him throughout the time that they ran that business until they retired some time ago. They lived in Krugersdorp all their lives until they moved to Johannesburg about two years ago to be with their children. They have three children, Helene Pincus, Alan Bulafkin, and Malcolm Bulafkin (all married), eight grandchildren (four of whom are married), and three great grandchildren.
The couple say the secret to a successful marriage is “essentially to respect each other. Try not to argue much, but if you have an argument, don’t go to bed until you resolve the issue. Always put your spouse first!”
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