‘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.”
Communal organisations help make Rosh Hashanah special
With Rosh Hashanah upon us, communal organisations are hard-pressed to make sure that every community member is looked after, but the number of people needing help has spiked since the onset of the pandemic.
The Chevrah Kadisha – which looks after the lion’s share of those in need – has recorded a 35% increase in the amount of financial assistance that it gives families towards living costs. In the Western Cape, Jewish Community Services Cape Town (JCS) recipients have increased more than 100%.
The Jewish Women’s Benevolent Society (JWBS) has also noticed an increase in the number of people in need over the past few years. “With COVID-19, it’s especially hard,” said Maureen Disler, the co-chairperson of the organisation which has survived for more than 127 years. “People have lost their jobs, and some people ask for food vouchers. They haven’t got enough to feed their children.”
The Chevrah Kadisha gives special yom tov meals to the 850 elderly and physically or mentally challenged people living in its residential facilities. However, its wider reach extends to nearly 11 000 people, helping them with living costs, food, healthcare, education, accommodation, and social services throughout the year.
“The Chev is unique in the sheer volume of people it helps, the duration of time that it helps them for, and the diverse range of its activities from cradle to grave,” said Saul Tomson, the chief executive of the largest Jewish welfare organisation on the African continent.
The organisation distributes R5 million every month to families in the community, totalling R60 million for the year. This is a significant increase from pre-COVID-19 times. It’s also involved in education, with nearly R1 million a month going towards 279 children in Jewish schools and remedial schools, as well as 130 university students who are being educated through the Chev’s interest-free student-loan programme.
“Particularly now leading up to Rosh Hashanah, a lot of assistance is being distributed through our COVID-19 emergency release fund,” Tomson said.
Smaller organisations like Yad Aharon & Michael have also been inundated with new requests over the past two years.
“Whereas the number of families who receive weekly food parcels from us stands at about 700, families who aren’t in a position to provide festive meals for Rosh Hashanah through to Sukkot apply for food parcels, which we gladly provide, thereby increasing the number of parcels packed by anything between 20 to 30 plentiful yom tov hampers,” said Alice Friedman, the chief executive of the organisation founded more than 23 years ago.
Ingrid Koor, the chairperson of the Union of Jewish Women (UJW), which assists just more than 100 people over Rosh Hashanah, said, “There are many more people in need as many families have emigrated, leaving elderly people. The economic downturn and COVID-19 have made things more difficult. With, unfortunately, many more elderly passing, our numbers have remained the same for a few years.”
The UJW’s flagship project, Kosher Mobile Meals (KMM), will supply festive cooked kosher Rosh Hashanah meals, plus honey for a hopefully sweeter year. “We will also distribute yom tom joy parcels supplied by the HOD [Hebrew Order of David] consisting of treats and non-perishable food to recipients,” said Koor. “KMM distributes kosher cooked meals to those Jewish elderly over 75 who are unable to cook for themselves.”
For Rosh Hashanah, Yad Aharon & Michael is handing out double portions of seasonal fruit, apples and vegetables, supplemented by meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Its dry goods hampers include honey, grape juice, challahs, and honey cakes in addition to all the basic requirements needed to prepare yom tov meals and usher in a happy and sweet new year.
“I’m confident our families won’t need to shop for extra food for two days of yom tov,” said Friedman. “Our aim is to enable them to enjoy plentiful meals free from worry and anxiety. This is made possible by the community’s renowned generosity.”
JWBS is giving money to its recipients to sweeten their Rosh Hashanah. It also recently gave out activity packs. “People are lonely and isolated, so we’ve given them each an activity pack. They really look forward to it,” said Disler.
This Rosh Hashanah, the JCS’s hampers include round challot, ready-made vegetable soup, roast chicken, pumpkin pie, vegetables, salads, and strawberries.
“Of course, we add in the apples, honey, grape juice, and candles,” said Lauren Cohn, the chairperson of the JCS Tikvah Foodbank Committee. “In addition, we include a Tupperware container filled with teiglach, meringues, dried fruit, and Sparkles. Every food hamper has a special Rosh Hashanah card handmade by children in our local Jewish schools. These food hampers are well thought out, meticulously planned, and beautifully presented with the love, dignity, and respect that we all deserve.”
The JCS is raising funds through the Rosh Hashanah Appeal, which entails sending out e-cards on behalf of the Tikvah Foodbank’s donors. The organisation also relies on volunteers.
“Our Rosh Hashanah and Pesach [fundraising] campaigns are the biggest,” said Friedman. “We have a Rosh Hashanah campaign running at the moment. It’s widely posted on social media, advertised on street poles in suburbs known to be frequented by the Jewish community, and in the SA Jewish Report. We’re also selling beautiful yom tov gifts at various points in Joburg, which is a successful initiative.”
The JWBS phones people to ask for donations as COVID-19 restrictions prevent it from running traditional functions such as theatre shows and golf tournaments.
Since many of the UJW’s recipients don’t have family nearby or the funds to pay for their meals, KMM is run mostly on donations. “We launched a fundraising campaign on social media and via our databases to raise money,” said Koor. “We also phoned people to ask for donations.”
Although the UJW’s principal need is donations, it also needs volunteers to chat to its isolated elderly when it’s safer to do so. “KMM recipients are more isolated since COVID-19,” said Koor. “We used to host elderly people to a Wednesday lunch at our UJW house. These people are sorely missing the social interaction.”
Asked what advice she has for those wanting to help others on Rosh Hashanah, Friedman said, “Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the three elements which Hashem takes into account when finalising our verdict for the coming year. I’m fully cognisant that everybody is financially stretched, but helping those in our midst who cannot celebrate Rosh Hashanah and the chaggim without our assistance is a communal responsibility. Treating the needy with sensitivity, kindness, and empathy underpins Yad Aharon’s brand of chesed, and addressing the harsh reality of hunger and destitution in our midst forms an integral part of our mission.”
Hudaco-ORT helps disabled entrepreneurs
ORT South Africa hosted a ceremony on 12 August for 10 entrepreneurs who it assisted to obtained SETA qualifications to help them start their own businesses.
The potential and existing entrepreneurs were assisted by Hudaco-ORT to obtain National Qualifications Framework (NQF) level 2 new venture creation qualifications, assisting them to start and grow their business ventures.
Hudaco-ORT helps people with disabilities by facilitating their completion of the NQF level 2 qualifications, which equips them to capitalise on opportunities. The beneficiaries received their Sector Education Training Authority (SETA) certificates at the ceremony.
“We often unintentionally consume ourselves with what’s considered the norm rather than focusing on our own uniqueness,” Hudaco-ORT said. “People with disabilities are the epitome of uniqueness, forming a vital part of society and reminding us to value our own strengths and weaknesses.”
Said, beneficiary Mncedisi Bengu, “It was a surprise. I was fairly happy and shocked at the same time. I didn’t think I would be successful. My teacher, Sarah Malape, gave me an experience that I had never had in my life. She taught me to respect myself and other people, and to be myself.”
On receiving his certificate, he said, “I’m excited. At my home, they gonna [sic] be happy for me, and say, ‘Wow you did it.’”
Said another beneficiary, Sthembile Gumede, “I’m so happy, and my grandmother is happy for me. I wish I learnt more because I like books.”
ORT SA wishes all the beneficiaries of the Hudaco-ORT Project well in their future endeavours, and is grateful to Hudaco for partnering with it to make a difference in people’s lives.
Rabbi and craftsman perfect the art of charity
Two people from two different backgrounds – Rabbi David Masinter and artist Leonard Nyathi – have come together with the goals of teaching, educating, uplifting, and spreading the message about the need for charity around the globe.
Masinter, the rabbi of Chabad House in Johannesburg and the founder of the fundraiser Miracle Drive, was looking for a good craftsman who could also teach in the most destitute areas.
He came across Nyathi, a master craftsman whose business struggled before Miracle Drive recognised his talents and commissioned custom artworks.
Masinter told Nyathi, “Let’s identify the artists, bring them together, train them, and I will buy in a whole bunch.”
Encouraged, Nyathi started working with Masinter. “We worked as a team, an unusual team,” says Masinter. “The only thing we have in common is that we both like to teach.”
They started hiring and training underprivileged people. “We normally hire street kids and people with disabilities,” says Nyathi. “We also give training to people that don’t have an education. The rabbi and I decided to employ people so that they could make a living.”
Masinter says they found underprivileged artists in the most remote areas, and improved their skills. “When you find a skill within a person, you improve not only that skill but every other aspect as well,” he says.
Nyathi and the other artists are turning Jewish objects into what Masinter calls “African art”. All the artworks are handcrafted and hand painted – from ceramic mezuzah cases and ceramic dreidels to ceramic arks and a set of three ceramic grating plates (meat, parev, and dairy). It can all be purchased on the online Gallery of Goodness and Kindness, set up due to COVID-19. According to Masinter, they also “have a whole bunch” of non-Jewish products.
“The gallery online is only the beginning,” says Masinter. “We are building a proper gallery like the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art – a proper beautiful online gallery to promote South African art, underprivileged and other artists, one that can bring a smile to people’s faces.”
Asked if they have a marketing and sales strategy, Masinter says, “A hundred percent. That’s why this thing is going global. We also doing displays in different shopping centres, and we are taking it overseas.”
Nyathi is thankful for Masinter’s help. Now, he and the other artists can afford to pay their rent and support their families. “If it wasn’t for Shabbat, we were going to close this business,” Nyathi says.
When people praise his artwork, Nyathi says he feels “over the moon” and “recognised” in his heart.
Asked where the funding comes from for the materials, Masinter says, “Where required, I will do the funding, but the idea is to make it self-sustainable. This thing is global. We have already got orders from overseas. We are changing our world for good. Everyone should be energised by this. We can do much more.”
Masinter believes every Jew is obligated to uplift the spiritual and material welfare not only of every Jew, but also non-Jews as well.
“Therefore, we cannot live as South Africans only focusing on Jewish things when we have a fortune of programmes, from kids programmes to teenage programmes, to senior-citizen feeding programmes. We have to worry about everybody. You can’t live in a country where millions of people are living in squalor and say, ‘It’s not our problem’. The way to [help] is through job creation, and this project is helping with that. We have 21 libraries in the city in underprivileged areas. We have the whole learning programme for primary school children. We have a job-creation programme, and now during COVID-19, we went into this programme, which is self-explanatory. A rabbi and an artist have come together to turn the world upside down for good, with one thing in common, a passion for art and education.”
Masinter’s charitable work is based on two philosophies, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime” and “You don’t have to stay down, you can uplift everybody.”
Asked how long he has been doing his charitable work, he says, “I’m a Chabad rabbi. Every Chabad rabbi does charitable work. We don’t talk about the past. It’s about what we could be doing. You must energise people to copy what we are doing. We can’t sit here with millions of people living in squalor. We should all be asking what are we doing to assist welfare in this country, Jewish and non-Jewish.”• The Gallery of Goodness and Kindness can be found at: https://www.chabadsouthafrica.org/templates/articlecco
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