He was a hero until he was a monster
עַל אֵלֶּה אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה עֵינִי עֵינִי יֹרְדָה מַּיִם (For this I weep – tears stream from my eyes.) (Eicha/Lamentations 1:16)
It’s this verse, that for so many years I have sung while sitting on the floor in mourning on Tisha B’Av, that came to my mind when reading about the horrific crimes of Chaim Walder and the way in which he caused such harm to so many people.
The background, for those who don’t know, is that he was one of the most important children’s authors in the religious Jewish world of this generation. His books filled bookshelves in much the same way as Julia Donaldson’s books do now, or Dr Seuss or Roald Dahl’s once did.
He was a therapist who specialised in working with children who have suffered trauma and abuse. He was a popular columnist, radio personality, and an example to many of how to help children express themselves and their emotions, to understand and to be understood.
I read his books to my own young children, and was so impressed by the way in which he was able to show the world from a child’s perspective.
He even received the Magen LeYeled/Defender of the Child award from the Israel National Council for the Child in 2003.
Although his work primarily focused on the Haredi community, it went far beyond that. Translated into eight languages and with readers in virtually every Jewish community, he was a hero, a role-model, and a powerful example of how children could be empowered and respected.
Until it was discovered that Walder was a monster. From November last year, increasingly disturbing allegations began to emerge about his sexual abuse of women and children, abuse purportedly going back decades.
The chief rabbi of Tzfat, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, initiated Beth Din proceedings and received damning testimony that uncovered a pattern of such abuse going back decades.
It turned out that he had consistently and systematically abused his access to and position of power and influence with children to assault them in the most terrible way.
Behind the mask of the Defender of the Child was a manipulative predator seeking to harm the most vulnerable among us. Around the same time, Israeli police opened investigations into his wrongdoings. At this point, Walder took his own life to escape the net closing around him.
The way in which all this unfolded was shocking, confusing, and so tragic. First, we must think of his many, many victims, the terrible pain and shame he inflicted upon them, and the way in which their lives were so profoundly affected.
The mental and emotional scars can last a lifetime. One of his victims, Shifra Yocheved Horovitz – only 24 years old – committed suicide a few days ago. Many others will have to come to terms with what was done to them in crimes for which they aren’t guilty and bear no responsibility. However, they so often, nonetheless, hold onto feelings of profound humiliation and guilt. It’s for them that I weep when I think of this terrible affair.
Second, for many – myself included – it has taken a while to truly understand and wrap my head around this. We are living through a time of crisis in trust, when trust in governments, news agencies, and authorities are at a record low.
When hearing these worrying reports, I had to wonder whether it was actually true or whether it had been sensationalised – even fabricated – as he and his defenders claimed?
How could I reconcile the sensitive, understanding, and compassionate voice of Walder’s books with testimony about a serial predator and abuser?
And even if the most terrible thing turned out to be true, what could I do about it anyway?
There are many who were far quicker than I, many who immediately realised the gravity of the situation, who publicly criticised Walder for his crimes and expressed support for his victims and victims of abuse generally. To those I say, thank you.
There are others who are still figuring this out, and others still who remain in support of Walder.
As I said, I believe this is an issue of trust. Do they trust Rabbi Eliyahu and his Beth Din? The many victims and witnesses who have come forward, or those who defend him and believe the case to be libel?
Although more and more rabbonim and leaders in the Jewish world are coming out against Walder and his actions, it’s difficult to tell someone who to trust. However, I do want to address the dynamic around trust, openness, and lashon hara.
In my years as a community rabbi, I have had to deal with several instances of abuse. Although I’m not an expert in this area and careful not to go beyond the limits of my knowledge, I’m grateful to have been able to direct such people towards our community organisations and professionals who deal with such cases.
We are, indeed, blessed with men and women who can handle such cases with the appropriate seriousness and sensitivity, and they should always be our first port of call. They can guide us towards appropriate police reporting and whatever else needs to be done in such situations.
I won’t deny that I’ve also heard accusations about people and organisations which have turned out not to be abuse but the sorts of two-sided conflict that are an unfortunate but prevalent part of human life and interaction.
Nonetheless, when one believes that there is abuse, the first and most important step is to report it. Similarly, if a friend confides that there has been such abuse, one has an obligation to share it with those who can help and who can take action, even if it means breaking that confidence.
But is it not the case that trust, confidentiality, and respect for human dignity are cornerstones of Judaism, and that such reporting can undermine these?
There are a few answers to this question. First, there is nothing more important than the value of life. The Torah tells us, “לֹא תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל דַּם רֵעֶךָ אֲנִי ה” (Do not go as a talebearer amongst your people, and do not stand by while the blood of your fellow is shed – I am Hashem.) (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:16)
The same verse that warns us against lashon hara warns us against standing by when someone is in danger, and as we see from the late Shifra Yocheved Horovitz of blessed memory as well as far too many others, abuse kills.
It’s our duty to protect and help people, even when that means losing the trust of victims who feel too ashamed to speak out, or challenging the reputations of the highly respected. As a friend of mine said, “The laws of lashon hara weren’t given to protect criminals.”
The verse with which I began this article, the sadness and the weeping, continues. “כִּי רָחַק מִמֶּנּי מְנַחֵם” (For the comforter is far from me.) Who can comfort us in the wake of such a tragedy? How can we find meaning or consolation? That’s beyond me.
I have removed Walder’s books from my shul and my home, but it seems like a small gesture.
I speak to my children about appropriate and inappropriate touching. At home, we have a “no-secrets” policy – there’s no such thing as a secret that you cannot tell mom and dad. I do these things, as I was taught by professionals who deal in these matters, in the same way that I teach them about crossing the road – with all due seriousness, but without panic. And I write this article.
Perhaps we can find some measure of comfort in creating a healthier community dynamic and conversation about abuse, one in which the victims are empowered to speak and to act, and one in which we take them very seriously indeed.
Hashem yerachem – may Hashem have compassion upon His children.
- Rabbi Sam Thurgood is the rabbi at Beit Midrash Morasha @ Arthur’s Road.
Lithuania, admit it, my grandfather was a monster
The woman I thought I was prior to beginning my research for The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Discovered My Grandfather Was a War Criminal no longer exists.
That woman was proud to be a Lithuanian, basking in the can-do attitude of the people who overcame so much to be who they are today – a free and independent nation that’s part of the European Union and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation).
While growing up in Chicago in a Lithuanian community, I was raised to love Lithuania and to do all I could to help the country that was then occupied by the Soviet Union. It’s one of the reasons I decided to become a journalist – it fed my fantasy of writing about this small country so the rest of the world could hear about it.
I started out as the granddaughter of Jonas Noreika, a Lithuanian hero who fought against the Communists in 1941 and won, and who fought again against the Communists in 1946, and lost.
He was arrested by the KGB, taken to their prison, tortured, and then shot twice in the back of the skull. Having died a martyr for Lithuania’s freedom, he has a school and streets named after him as well as the Cross of the Vytis, the highest honour anyone can receive posthumously.
As a young girl, I believed my grandfather to be one of the most splendid heroes of all time. As an adolescent, I was proud to be connected to his glorious name. But then, as an adult, the unspeakable truth of my grandfather’s role in Lithuania’s Holocaust was revealed to me.
It started out as just a whisper of a rumour that Jonas Noreika was involved in killing Jews, and eventually, I reluctantly confirmed that it was much more than hearsay.
I looked at countless documents, spoke to his colleagues and family members, and pieced his life together, careful to take note of what was going on around him while he was in charge. To my dismay, I concluded that everywhere he was in charge during the Nazi occupation, thousands of Jews were murdered.
The woman I have become after diligently conducting an investigation into my grandfather’s life is radically different. Today, I have come to accept that I’m the granddaughter of a Lithuanian monster, one who participated in the murder of 8 000 to 15 000 Jews in Plungė, Telšiai, and the district of Šiauliai.
While in Plungė, he was the komandantas (commander), and ordered the killing of 2 000 Jews. He was also in charge in Telšiai, and sanctioned the killing of 2 000 Jews there. While governor of the Šiauliai district, he facilitated the murder of 4 000 Jews as well as working to distribute their property.
The government of Lithuania is engaged in Holocaust denial and revisionism, and heralds him as a national hero. He enjoys mythological status in the country. An intricate web of lies has been written about him while totally negating his horrendous deeds. What the government of Lithuania has done regarding my own grandfather is one of the greatest criminal cover-ups in history.
Truth and reconciliation
As a practicing Catholic, I simply had to do the right thing – write the truth no matter how painful and shameful it was. My greatest hope is that this book will light the flame of truth for Lithuania to recognise the terrible history of the Shoah as it unfolded in 1941.
Once this is truly recognised, and it will take time, it will allow the crucial healing process to begin for all Lithuanians. True reconciliation between Lithuanians and Jews can be based only on truth.
I know that I’m not responsible for my family and national guilt. Nonetheless, I feel humiliation, guilt, remorse, and overwhelming sadness.
I promise I’ll do everything I can to make certain that the truth about my grandfather will be the only story of his life. The little girl that never met her grandfather but was raised to idolise him is now grown up and willing to tell the truth.
I implore the Lithuanian government to do the same. The cover-up and rewriting of history must be brought to an end.
United Nations report on Holocaust denial
In a related development, The United Nations General Assembly released a report on Holocaust denial on 13 January 2022. Lithuania signed this report, thus agreeing to the following points:
- To reaffirm its resolution 60/7 of 1 November 2005 that remembrance of the Holocaust is a key component of the prevention of further acts of genocide, and to recall that ignoring the historical facts of those terrible events increases the risk that they will be repeated;
- To note that distortion and/or denial of the Holocaust refers, inter alia, to intentional efforts to excuse or minimise the impact of the Holocaust or its principal elements, including collaborators and allies of Nazi Germany; and
- To urge all member states to reject without any reservation any denial or distortion of the Holocaust as a historical event, either in full or in part, or any activities to this end.
My hope is that Lithuania will stop excusing and minimising my grandfather’s role in the Holocaust as a collaborator of Nazi Germany who worked enthusiastically to murder thousands of Jews under his watch.
- Silvia Foti is author of the memoir, The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Discovered My Grandfather Was a War Criminal, released by Regnery History in March 2021. The paperback is coming out with a new title in June 2022: Storm in the Land of Rain: A Mother’s Dying Wish Becomes Her Daughter’s Nightmare. The book is also being released in Lithuanian in February 2022 during the Vilnius Book Fair, titled Vėtra Lietaus šalyje: Jono Noreikos anukės pasakojimai.
If there were distinctions for character, we would have a full house
Matric results. Words that conjure up a plethora of emotions within the Jewish community – the students, their families, teachers, and many excited onlookers. It’s these results that are the culmination of a 12-year journey through the schooling system, representing graduation from one phase of life to the next. For many students, it’s these results that dictate the career path they take. High stakes indeed.
This has been the status quo of matric for decades. It would have been inconceivable two years ago how the educational landscape would change and how matric students would have faced this most important year compounded with additional challenges unlike any group before them. The class of 2021 had their entire Grade 11 and Grade 12 years within a pandemic which was disruptive to say the least. Unpredictable educationally, unsettling socially, and often traumatic emotionally. These results are historic. These students have made history.
Though the results are a testament to the immense talent we have in our community and the superb instruction in the Jewish school system, they speak volumes about the tenacity, will, resilience, and commitment of our youth. They reveal the real success of matric, which is often overlooked.
Matric isn’t a factory for results that adorn the papers and gives parents nachas and schools pride. Matric is a training ground for character development.
This generation is often derided as lazy, self-centred, entitled, and fickle. They are immersed in their screens and their social lives take place primarily in the virtual realm, robbing them – so we say – of meaningful, deep relationships and the ability to connect.
However, perhaps we’re viewing them and the importance of school through a distorted lens. Perhaps this matric class and this generation have the exact temperament and skill set needed to progress, lead, and change our world. Particularly a post-pandemic world.
The pandemic has thrust the world into a state of flux. Our new reality of unpredictability has exposed the fallibility and frailty of governments and industry leaders as they scramble for solutions to contain and reassure their anxious populations and stakeholders. The systems and processes that provided security and predictability for so long no longer do so.
Another critical failing that has been exposed over the past two years is inequality. Rich nations have monopolised vaccine supplies to the detriment of poorer countries. Wealthier citizens have had the ability to respond to the educational, financial, and social consequences of COVID-19, while those below the poverty line continue to languish in its wake with little sign of redemption from these hardships.
This is the context in which our superb class of 2021 is graduating. A world that’s confused, rudderless, and deeply unequal.
When I reflect on my matric experience, it looked fundamentally different to that experienced by students today. I worked hard, but not as hard as them. Acceptance to the course of my choice was a virtual guarantee, not because I was smart, but because there was little competition and there weren’t rigorous quota requirements. I recognised that we were privileged to have attended excellent schools like King David, but I don’t think I was aware of South Africa’s complexity and the challenges it would face as a new democracy. There was a sense of optimism for the future.
Today’s matric students in our Jewish schools work harder then all those that came before them. They face stiffer competition, quota systems, a tougher job market, and a world of uncertainty. They constantly push themselves to achieve greater results, often experiencing tremendous pressure, to ensure that they increase their chances of future success (we will leave discussions about extra-lessons for another time). They have navigated a pandemic and managed to learn online, socialise, and collaborate online – something that has no precedent in modern times.
They have grown up in South Africa, a country in desperate need of leadership. The headlines of corruption, state capture, poverty, inequality, and poor service delivery have been their reading material and Shabbat table talk. They are aware of and encounter this reality daily.
It’s with this perspective that I believe that today’s students are poised to make their mark on society – aided by their matric experience and what it is at its core.
Their social-media exposure has increased the social challenges they have faced, but also, paradoxically, it has helped to develop character. They have been exposed to the entire world – its opportunities and shortcomings – and are more in touch with trends in technology, business, social welfare, (and selfie technique), all in the palm of their hands, more than their parents ever were.
The combination of tenacity and determination needed to pass matric in the face of historic obstacles, the rapid development of digital skills, a flexible mindset, and the awareness of the problems the world faces have truly created – by default and design – a group of young people who have the skills to be the future leaders of our world.
We need a new generation of leaders who understand the digital world and its unlimited promise. Leaders who are empathetic to the plight of others, who are moral and ethical. Leaders who are entrepreneurial and flexible. Leaders who aren’t afraid to work hard, who roll up their sleeves to get the job done.
It’s hard to predict what matric might look like in the future once this pandemic has left us. What we can know with certainty is that our students will need to work harder than ever before, and they will need to be supported by their families and our schools to do so. They will need to increase their skills in the digital sphere and in entrepreneurship, to have more opportunities to do outreach, and more opportunities to develop character and empathy.
Our students have developed these skills on their journey through our Jewish schools, but particularly in matric. While their amazing results are the metric for their hard work and the dedication of their teachers and parents, there’s sadly no objective measure of the character, empathy, and flexibility they have gained over the course of this year. We cannot give them distinctions for being outstanding people of immense potential – but if we could they would get a full house.
Rabbi Chanina in the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 3:14) says, “Whoever is fear of sin precedes their wisdom, then their wisdom will last. If their wisdom precedes their fear of sin, their wisdom will fade.” These wise words indicate that in the eyes of the Torah, character and ethical behaviour are both a prerequisite for and the foundation of sustained wisdom. Only results built upon character have lasting value.
I have often been asked whether matric is easier now than it was back then due to the high number of distinctions. I believe that it’s harder than ever. Our kids from this oft-derided generation are just better than we were in more ways than we realise.
- Rabbi Ricky Seeff is the general director of the South African Board of Jewish Education and former principal of King David Primary School Victory Park.
Israel’s path from dream to fear and back again
The dream was simple: Israel’s victory in the 1967 war would lead to victory over war itself.
Many back then believed that the trajectory of the Jewish people would undergo an enlightened shift after the 1967 Six-Day War. The Golan Heights, as well as Judea and Samaria and the Sinai Peninsula, were now in Israel’s hands. Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, which had previously held these territories, now demanded their return. Many saw this desire on the side of the Arabs as an opportunity for the Israelis: for the first time in history, we held solid bargaining chips that if acted upon wisely, could be traded in as part of a peace agreement. The dream was simple: Israel’s victory in the war would lead to victory over war itself.
Peace was thought to alter not just Israel’s fate but also the fate of the Jewish people. Israel would cease to be an isolated state, rather becoming an integral part of the Middle East, and once completely integrated, would also be fully accepted by Europe and the entire West.
By taking destiny into our own hands, Jews’ two-millennia-long estrangement from humanity would finally come to an end, and we would be accepted into the family of nations.
However, it appeared there was another way to reap the benefits of victory. Israel could settle the land rather than exchanging it for peace. Many felt this would transform Jewish history from the bottom up. According to this perspective, a nation isn’t connected to itself when it lives outside of its own land. In other words, there will be a crack in the nation’s soul if the nation’s present doesn’t unfold in the same places as its history.
The early memories of the Jewish people were forged in places like Jerusalem, Nablus, Hebron, and Nazareth, and Israel’s triumph in the 1967 war allowed Jews to return to these areas of the historic homeland. This would establish a living link between the past and the present, and was seen as a process allowing the Jewish people’s wounded and traumatised psyche to heal. It was thought that repairing the nation and settling on ancient soil would also cure the future.
The conflicting ideas behind these two dreams is noticeable, yet they were both supported by a fundamental agreement. Both parties felt that by properly leveraging wartime victory, they could alter the future of the Jewish people.
They had one more thing in common: they were both proven incorrect.
This isn’t a statement to be taken lightly. Israel’s inability to achieve peace by no means fell solely at the feet of the Jewish state. In fact one could argue successfully that continued Palestinian rejection of any two-state solution on offer is what has led to the status quo. Regardless of one’s view, as time passed, these dreams began to fade and more and more Israelis broke free from these two beliefs.
So, what happened to the dreams? To begin with, both the Israeli left and right shifted. Many on the left gave up hope that a peaceful diplomatic solution to the Middle East’s problems was on the horizon. The right was likewise altered. The majority of the right no longer thinks that settlement, even if it fulfils prophecies, will result in tomorrow’s redemption.
There’s another distinct difference – the “blame-game”. Ever since the Second Intifada, many on the left have talked less about peace and more about the harm done by the occupation. Also ever since the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the right has talked less about redemption and more about the security threat.
Essentially, in spite of your views on settlement, solution, peace, and security, which traditionally placed you on one side of the aisle or the other, today’s divisions are often based on who is deemed more responsible and essentially to blame for the conflict.
The left’s prevalent position today is that if Israel remains in the territories and continues to govern over a Palestinian civilian population, it will suffer three consequences: moral degradation, diplomatic isolation, and demographic loss.
Most demographers anticipate that the day will soon come when Jews will no longer form a majority in Israeli-controlled territory. Hence, once the Jews become a minority in their own land, it will cease to be their land.
The right frequently responds to this demographic argument with denial, citing alternate demographers which estimate that the Jewish majority isn’t in jeopardy. Even if that’s true, and Palestinians account for “just” 40% of the country’s population, it would be difficult to designate such a country as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
In other words, the desire to cling to the land of Israel defies the self-definition of the state of Israel. One is inclined to admit that this argument possesses tremendous weight.
It’s fascinating to observe how the right and left have become mirror images of each other. The right no longer believes that settling the land will bring redemption, but says withdrawing will bring disaster. The left no longer believes that withdrawing from the territories will bring redemption, but says remaining there will bring disaster. The left and right have undergone similar processes: they have both moved from dreams to fears.
However, new processes have begun to form, the Abraham Accords for one. Those at the centre of the “dreams and fears” debacle seem to have found mutual ground by attempting to replace paralysis with pragmatism.
Though this is based less on a romanticised vision of peace or redemption and rather economics and mutual agreement of the military threat Iran poses to the region, this too, if acted upon wisely, could lead to Israel becoming a fully integrated and accepted part of the Middle East.
As divided as Israeli politics appears, one finds a basic consensus in the needs, desires, and demands of the everyday person on the street regardless of their affiliation.
So, perhaps the dreams aren’t dead but in a process of renewal. Maybe they’re less philosophical and more based on realism, which could be argued is a positive step. Maybe the romantic dreams lie not in political ideology but in the daily exchanges and normalisation between Israeli and Arab citizens from countries that currently constitute the Abraham Accords, and in the hope that more will join soon.
- Samuel Hyde is a political writer based in Tel Aviv, Israel. As an op-ed columnist he has been published in publications both within Israel, the United States, and South Africa focusing on topics such as Israel’s political climate, antisemitism, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the Jewish world, conflict resolution, and Jewish pluralism.
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