Jewish journo honoured for unmasking ‘monster’
Forty years after his reporting exposed one of the worst war criminals in Dutch history, Hans Knoop is still celebrated in his native Netherlands as a hero.
On November 23, more than a million television viewers watched a public broadcaster’s historical period drama on how Knoop, a Dutch Jewish journalist, unmasked the art collector Pieter Menten in 1976 as a monster who murdered hundreds of Polish Jews and stole their property with help from German Nazis. It was the highest rating for such a production in the Netherlands.
The host of the Netherlands’ most-watched talk show, Jeroen Pauw, last week called Knoop’s discovery “a brilliant, unmatched journalistic achievement”. He recalled how the Knoop exposé led to Menten’s arrest in a country that was profoundly shocked by his ability to escape justice and amass a fortune built on pillage.
But alongside this recognition Knoop, a father of two whose mild manners and amiable expression conceal a steely determination, has paid a heavy personal price for the discovery. Harassed by Menten’s lawyers, supporters and even other journalists, Knoop said the scoop effectively ended his career as a working journalist in a country that many believe has still not fully owned up to its Holocaust-era history.
“Things don’t always go as they should go,” Knoop, 73, told JTA.
Menten, whose belated conviction for war crimes exposed deep flaws in Holland’s ability to try collaborators, eventually served five years of a 10-year sentence – itself a concession to his advanced age – before he died in 1988 at 81. But Knoop said “the Menten affair meant the end of my career as an active journalist.”
While Knoop considers that regrettable, he said it was no surprise.
“As I interviewed witnesses, it became clear that Menten’s modus operandi was to use his influence and fortune to either buy or destroy anyone who accused him of wrongdoing,” Knoop said. “That’s part of the reason he was able to evade justice for so long.”
Menten’s unusual story in Poland began in the 1920s, when he moved there to conduct business, including with many Jewish associates. He lost all his vast property there when the Russians invaded the country’s east in 1939, but regained it when the Nazis took over the territory in 1941. Menten befriended the Nazi occupation forces, tracked down his former associates and murdered them, Knoop reported.
Menten transported war booty to Holland, where after the Second World War he was sentenced to several months in jail for the general charge of “assisting the enemy” over his chumminess with Nazi officers. The multimillionaire art dealer escaped more serious charges by libelling his accusers, but ultimately was exposed after trying to auction off stolen goods.
Knoop, then the editor-in-chief of a medium-circulation weekly owned by the Telegraaf daily, began researching testimonies collected in Israel by the late Haaretz journalist Haviv Cnaan, whose family was among Menten’s victims.
Knoop was warned off the story by people whose own careers were ruined by Menten when they threatened to expose him. He soon realised they were right.
Knoop was forced to quit the Telegraaf daily soon after his investigation was published because, he said, another reporter for the paper “began spying” on Knoop at Menten’s behest. And while he toured the world giving lectures about the Menten case, no other major publication in the Netherlands would hire Knoop “because I had a stamp of my forehead”, he recalled.
The attention given to the Menten affair these days is part of a wave of renewed interest in Holocaust-era complicity in the Netherlands, a country where the efforts of those who saved Jews – Holland has 5 600 Righteous Among the Nations, the world’s second largest tally – have long eclipsed the widespread collaboration that led to the murder of 75 per cent of Dutch Jewry. It is the highest death rate in occupied Western Europe.
Last week, the NRC Handelsblad revealed that most notaries aided the plunder of the Dutch Jews’ property. The revelation followed a scandal in 2014 showing how throughout the 1960s, the government levied fines on Jews who were late paying their property taxes because they were in concentration camps. Such discoveries have prompted repeated but unheeded demands that the government formally apologise for the country’s complicity in the Dutch Jews’ fate.
Knoop encountered some bigotry over his exposure of the Menten affair – one colleague accused him of being overly emotional about the case because Knoop is Jewish – but he attributes his ejection from the journalistic scene to the sectarianism of Dutch publications back when they were affiliated with adversarial parties and groups, including Protestants, Catholics and Socialists.
“If you were a Telegraaf journalist, you couldn’t just switch to another publication in the ’70s,” he said. “You’d be branded. And I was.”
So Knoop set up a successful PR agency – it was one of the first in the Netherlands – which he ran alongside his activities, often pro bono, as a spokesman for Jewish organisations and as a pro-Israel columnist, among other positions.
Still, Knoop is best known for his crucial role in bringing to Menten to justice despite several death threats by the wealthy art dealer.
Knoop says he has no doubt Menten would have had him killed if he could get away with it. And while the Menten affair exposed problems in the Dutch justice system, “I knew that I was protected because if anything would’ve happened to me, all the arrows would point at Menten”, Knoop said.
Menten’s Jewish victims, regarded by the Nazis as sub-humans earmarked for annihilation, had no such protection under the German occupation. Menten hounded former associates even after they fled their former homes.
Wearing SS uniforms provided to him by his friends – he was officially neither a Nazi nor a soldier – he executed his enemies by firing squad, sometimes making their relatives watch as he commanded the gruesome event from an armchair with a wave of his hand.
The special war crimes tribunal found him guilty in the mass murder of 20 to 30 people, mainly Jews in the Polish village of Podhorodze in July 1941.
The unusual nature of Menten’s story – he is perhaps the only civilian known to have committed mass murder on that scale during the Second World War purely for financial gain – and the testimonies against him at first sounded far-fetched to Knoop, a sceptical and cool-headed journalist.
He was led to further doubt their veracity by Menten’s proclaimed willingness to confront his accusers and feigned openness to Knoop in interviews.
“I thought, ‘this is not the behaviour of a guilty man’,” Knoop recalled.
But he reconsidered when Menten tried to bribe him to bury the story, and after Cnaan, the Haaretz journalist, offered eyewitness testimony of Menten’s crimes.
From then on, Knoop didn’t let Menten out of his sight until he was in prison. Knoop even traced Menten in Switzerland, where Menten escaped the Netherlands to avoid going to prison. Knoop was there when the Swiss police arrested Menten ahead of his extradition.
“I believe Menten was always a monster,” Knoop said, “but he took off the mask only when the circumstances allowed it.” (JTA)
Chassidic lego on offer
An American Jewish mother came up with the idea to build a Star Wars-inspired Lego shul – including the Legovitcher Rebbe and chassidim. She is trying to crowdfund her “Beis Death Star”, titling her episode “The Brickovicher Rebbe Returns”. In the illustration the Legovitcher Rebbe is seen leading his chassidim into battle…
Tobey Finklestein dreamed up the idea and she’s trying to make it something with which other parents and kids can have fun with. She started a Kickstarter (online crowdfunding) appeal to pay for the project and have it on the market by Pesach. The self-described “Jewish-Asian tiger mom” said she came up with the idea after her 10-year-old came asking for the “Lego Death Star”.
Now he is likely to get a Jewish version of it.
Those who donate (a minimum of $18) to help build the first intergalactic shul – Beis Death Star Kochav Chaim – will be rewarded with their “very own Brickovicker Chasid,” she says.
A Brickover Rebbe
So far just $333 has been pledged by 11 backers towards Toby’s goal of raising $1 200. The offer expires on March 26.
Funders each get their own, unique Chassid, built of Lego bricks, says Tobey. Not only that, she also promises to throw in extras for the bigger backers. These include:
- A fly rubber streimel compatible with most Lego minifig heads and a custom torso assembly bearing the “Chassid” logo
- A personalised certificate of lifetime membership to Beis Death Star Kochav Chaim, including:
- An invitation to our Chanukahs Habayis (inauguration)
- A mission from the Brickovicker Rebbe
- Self-determination of your Brickovickers Special Power
- Discounted High Holiday seats
- Access to the Brickovicker community on Facebook to share the exploits of Brickovickers far and wide, received when you order your Brickovicker and become a founding backer ($18+):
Tobey says her goal is to have a little fun with her family, build and disseminate her own woman-owned and operated sect of Chassidim, and generate enough revenue to build the first intergalactic shul with her kids.
Dershowitz hopes Trump will make him proud
Prominent Jewish commentator on Israel, lawyer and academic, Alan Dershowitz, a lifelong Democrat, said in Detroit last week that his “greatest hope is that four years from now I’ll be proud to cast a vote for Donald Trump. As a patriotic American I want him to succeed.
“I can predict exactly what will happen in the next four years. It will be unpredictable. That is both Trump’s strength and his weakness,” he said at the city’s Temple Bet El.
Turning to the Middle East, Dershowitz said: “The primary obstacle to peace is the Palestinians’ unwillingness to recognise Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.
“(Former President Barack) Obama was wrong when he said that Israel was created because of the Holocaust. Israel was created because of Zionism, a movement that long predated the Holocaust.
“I think President Obama honestly believes that he has done what is good for Israel. He is wrong. Jimmy Carter hates Israel. He is anti-Israel. President Obama is not. But the Security Council Resolution is just dumb. They could have taken the Jewish areas of Jerusalem out of the resolution, but they didn’t.”
The four main settlement blocs could all be incorporated into Israel and traded for other land. The farther-flung settlements were a provocation, but the settlements were not the primary obstacle to peace.
“In the last eight years Israel’s military has remained strong and it has maintained a qualitative edge over other armies. The US supported Israel when it went into Gaza. Nobody should call Barack Obama anti-Israel. Nobody should call Barack Obama anti-Semitic.”
He said nobody yet knows what Obama’s role would be as a former president. Some former leaders have had immensely positive roles after their terms. It was important for Israel to try to increase its ties to China, Russia, Africa, South America…
“We have a great weapon, emet, truth. We need to teach our children not the propaganda, but the nuances, the complexities and they will be prepared to make the case for Israel,” he stressed.
“The case for moving the embassy is strengthened by the Security Council Resolution. The threat of violence should not deter us. That encourages more acts of violence.”
Americans should take a stepped approach – state the policy of moving its embassy to west Jerusalem and talk to Arab allies about it. It should not just be moved now.
The American Jewish advocacy group, J Street, had “moved left of the hard left in Israel. They supported the UN Security Council Resolution. Nobody in Israel supported the UN resolution. It declares the Kotel and the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem to be occupied territory. I do not consider J Street to be a pro-Israel organisation.”
Dershowitz had strong words for the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement (BDS).
“No university in the US will accept BDS, because we will fight fire with fire. If you implement BDS against Israel, we’ll implement BDS against your university.”
By courtesy of Detroit’s Temple Beth El Assistant Rabbi Megan Brudney and Cantor Rachel Gottlieb Kalmowitz
- Former South African Tessa Goldberg was the Beth El executive director for many years.
Berlin highlights divide among German Jewry
Even before the deadly attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, Jews in Germany were divided in their approach to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Muslim countries since 2014.
Citing a Jewish moral duty to aid the displaced, many Jewish organisations, synagogue groups and individuals have rallied to help the newcomers, including asylum seekers fleeing the civil war in Syria. But some Jews have warned that the influx of immigrants risks importing to Germany the homicidal anti-Semitism of Muslim extremists who attacked Jewish targets in France, Belgium, Denmark and beyond.
In Monday’s attack, a man described by the Islamic State terrorist group as one if its “soldiers” killed 12 people and wounded 48 by plowing a stolen truck through the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church market. While police hunt for suspects, the attack is likely to further polarise competing views on Muslim immigration in German society in general – especially among Jews who fear they will be among those targeted by Islamists here.
Following the attack, whose perpetrator is presumed to be at large, the top priority is to take on “this army of Muslims from the wildest part of the earth,” said Pavel Feinstein, a member of Berlin’s Jewish community who supports the far-right Alternative for Germany party, whose manifesto from April declares that “Islam is not part of Germany.” AfD, as the party is known, also is accused of being a hotbed for anti-Semites.
Feinstein, 56, told JTA that he came to espouse the AfD view after hearing the slogan “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas” being chanted at an anti-Israel demonstration two years ago in Berlin.
“They weren’t just Islamists, they were also normal Muslims, students and so on,” he recalled. “And no one was charged or punished.
“Up to then I felt at home in Berlin. And now this feeling is gone.”
The hostility expressed by Feinstein, an artist who immigrated to Germany from the former Soviet Union with his family in 1980, may be more common among Russian-speaking Jews, who constitute the largest of the three contingents that make up Germany’s present-day Jewish population of some 200 000. And such views are likely to only harden after the attack, in which one Israeli was wounded. His wife remained missing on Wednesday and was feared to be among the dead.
Feinstein’s sentiment seems less prevalent among Jews who grew up after the Second World War in a society whose youth were taught to reject any semblance of the murderous Nazi xenophobia and anti-Semitism. His rhetoric seems to be even rarer among the 7 500 Israelis living in Berlin, some of whom say they left for Germany partly over what they see as Israel’s rising nationalism.
To be sure, many Russian-speaking Jews, including Sergey Lagodinsky, a Green Party politician and member of the Berlin Jewish Community Council, do not subscribe to Feinstein’s embrace of a far-right vision. Meanwhile, among Jews with deeper roots in Germany, many speak openly and clearly of the risks connected to massive immigration from Arab countries, as do some of Berlin’s Israeli Jews.
Jews of all backgrounds here tend to be “sceptical” of the wisdom of letting in large numbers of Muslims, as has been the policy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Lagodinsky said. But Russian-speaking Jews in Germany generally express this “through a more populist way”, including by “engaging with populist parties and ideas”, he added.
Russian speakers of all religions, who make up a large minority of several million people in Germany, are not the only ones showing a proclivity to populism amid what some pundits are calling Germany’s immigration crisis.
On the eve of a big election year in this country, the immigration issue is bolstering AfD, which the mainstream representatives of Jews in Germany reject for the xenophobic and sometimes anti-Semitic rhetoric of some of its members.
While the AfD missed the 5 per cent mark needed to enter parliament in the last federal elections in 2013, polls from before the market attack predicted the party would win 16 per cent of the vote next year. The party currently holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, up from five a year ago.
Against this background, terrorist attacks may well cost the centrist Merkel her post and send Germany swinging harder to the right than it has in decades. Her decision in 2015 to allow into Germany 800 000 immigrants from the Middle East has already come under attack even inside her own party amid a string of incidents involving that population – including last summer’s brutal axe attack in Würzburg by a 17-year-old from Afghanistan.
Commenting on the attack, the Berlin director of the American Jewish Committee, Deidre Berger, told JTA that she was worried about the “more than 100 000 unaccompanied minors” among the asylum seekers who “are highly susceptible to the easy answers of radical Islamist ideology.”
Such events have also brought to a head tensions over this issue within the Jewish community, where some members describe the influx of Muslim immigrants as an existential threat.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany, which is the country’s main Jewish umbrella group and has also organised activities to assist Middle Eastern asylum seekers, has warned against a rightward tilt as an answer to the terrorist threat. And Charlotte Knobloch, 84 – a child survivor and head of the Munich and Bavarian Jewish communal organizations – told JTA that the AfD is “totally out of the question for Jewish people”.
On the other hand, in October 2015, the council’s president, Josef Schuster, said in a widely read interview with Die Welt that “there is now fear that with people of Arab origins, anti-Semitism in Germany could increase. I share this concern.” Schuster said the issue should be addressed by emphasising integration initiatives among the newcomers. He also said he supported a magnanimous policy toward asylum seekers, though he added that “eventually” a quota would have to be agreed upon.
But his remarks exposed him to heated criticism by some Israelis In Berlin. Several dozen of them, along with non-Israeli activists, protested Schuster’s remarks at a rally in November 2015 outside the council’s offices, carrying posters of Anne Frank and of the biblical quote “Love Thy Neighbour”.
“I cannot stand by when the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany assumes a far-right position, supports limiting refugee quotas and instrumentalises anti-Semitism, homophobia and sexism while pretending to speak for ‘the Jews’ in Germany,” wrote Shaked Shapir in Berlin’s Hebrew-language magazine, Spitz, which devoted an entire edition to discussing Schuster’s 2015 remarks.
German officials have been careful not to speculate as to whether the church market attack is connected to radical Islam, as many here believe. The caution appealed to some Israelis in Berlin, who contrasted it with what they regard as a tendency to jump to conclusions in Israel.
“We like the fact that in Berlin it is more calm. They are still investigating, and we will wait,” said Ido Porat, who lives here with his wife and their two small children.
While most Jews in Germany don’t see the influx of migrants from Middle Eastern countries as an invasion, the issue is nonetheless particularly divisive to their communities, according to the German Jewish historian Michael Wolffsohn.
“Every conscious Jew knows or remembers what refugee problems are all about,” he said. “At the same time every conscious Jew knows that many Muslims are more hostile to Jews than, say, Eskimos.”
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