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Young filmmakers awarded for tale of Holocaust survivor



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It’s not often that twenty-somethings are given the chance to tell a 99-year-old Holocaust survivor’s harrowing story on screen, but clearly Jordy Sank and Gabriella Blumberg had the magic touch. Their film received the Audience Award for best documentary at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival on 11 March 2021.

Sank, the director, and producer Blumberg’s feature-length documentary I Am Here, depicts Ella Blumenthal’s Holocaust testimony as never before.

“It’s an unprecedented time, when you don’t have cinemas and the audience next to you, laughing and crying, so to get the Audience Award is really validating for us,” says Blumberg.

Sank, a Herzlia alumnus, has wanted to make this film since he was a teenager from the moment he met Blumenthal. “I’ve met many Holocaust survivors before, but none were quite like her. I was at a Shabbat dinner, and I remember her telling some really harrowing stories about her experience in the concentration camps. Then a few minutes later, she was dancing and singing. That struck me – that one could go from the pits of hell and come out alive, and still have this positive outlook.”

The film opens with dramatic scenes of antisemitism in the 21st century, including the infamous Charlottesville rally in 2018, emphasising that the discrimination Blumenthal faced is alive and well.. The film uses 2D animation to bring her memories to life, “allowing the audience to be there with her”, says Sank.

This is achieved through beautiful, heart wrenching, but understated scenes. We are there as Blumenthal and her few remaining family members hide in the Warsaw ghetto and watch as it burns to the ground. We are there in the overcrowded cattle car that takes her to Majdanek, and we are taken inside a gas chamber where she thought her final moments would be. In between, Sank allows the audience to join Blumenthal’s intimate 98th birthday celebration, where she laughed, cried, and remembered with her family. Through it all, one gets to know a woman who has an irrepressible zest for life, an unshakeable faith, and endless gratitude.

Blumberg, a King David Linksfield alumnus, and Sank have been passionate about theatre, drama, storytelling, and film since a young age. After studying film and working in the advertising industry, Sank started his own film company. Blumberg, meanwhile, studied at acclaimed London institutions and was working in filmmaking and teaching drama. The two knew each other from Bnei Akiva camp, and when they bumped into each other and Sank shared his aspiration to make a film about Blumenthal’s life, Blumberg immediately wanted to get on board.

The team knew that time was of the essence, and once they had Blumenthal and her family’s agreement, they moved quickly to start filming, beginning in March 2019. A year later, when the pandemic hit, they were already in post-production.

”We felt that it was now or never,” Sank says. “People needed to be inspired by this amazing woman, to hear what she has been through.”

While the film was mostly privately funded, they were also given a grant by the Claims Conference, which backed Oscar-winning Holocaust film, Son of Saul.

For Sank, the toughest scene to direct was “when Ella saw her father for the last time … especially because this was contrasted with beautiful memories from childhood. There was so much raw emotion.”

For Blumberg, the scene where Blumenthal’s niece, Roma, (her only surviving family member) comes to her at Auschwitz and says that they should give up and electrocute themselves on the fence, was heartbreaking and meaningful.

“Ella says no, and she recalls that at that moment ‘the will of survival was awakened in me’. It would have been easy to give up, and to find that strength not only for yourself but for your last family member… it’s remarkable,” she says.

Sank says they wanted to show how full and vibrant Blumenthal’s life is now, as well as the busy, beautiful life which was stolen by the Shoah. One scene of Blumenthal swimming recalls how “she loved to swim ever since she was a young girl. Her brother taught her, and she used to swim in the Vistula River every day in Warsaw.

“In the film, she talks about her first bath after liberation, and she was still swimming almost every day before the pandemic. It epitomises her zest for life,” says Blumberg. “When we were shooting that scene, we said, ‘Do one or two laps, then take a break’. But she insisted on swimming ten laps. She didn’t stop for a second!” says Sank.

Asked about the meaning of the film’s title, I Am Here, Blumberg says, “When she was in the camps, a Nazi saw her tattoo and asked, ‘Why are you still here? There is no one else with your numbers left.’ She is still here … and with this film, her story will continue forever.”

The pair hopes that the film will be a “catalyst for conversation about the danger of discrimination”. In addition, they hope people will be inspired by Ella’s personality. “A year into COVID-19, everyone has experienced trauma, so we hope people will leave the film with her sense of joy and gratitude,” Blumberg says.

Blumenthal says she feels “honoured and humbled that my life story has been recorded. While the film focuses on my life, I feel privileged to be able to represent the millions who perished and perhaps I can in some small way speak for them too.

“It’s very difficult for me to re-live my experience, which is why it took me so long to be able to share it,” she says. “But seeing it on screen made me feel proud and also made me wonder how I actually managed to survive and then go on to raise a family and live a normal life. It also made me realise that even though Hitler tried to destroy us, we are here, stronger than ever.”

Blumenthal says she enjoyed making the film. “There were many full days and many different locations. But I had a lot of fun with the crew, and I even had nicknames for each one of them. Jordy made me feel so comfortable and relaxed, so it was easier for me to re-live my life story.”

She hopes the message will be passed from generation to generation. “Antisemitism is rampant at the moment, so it’s important that we counter it. I also would like people to see that understanding and love are necessary in place of hate and bigotry. In that way, it’s possible to live a life filled with joy and happiness no matter the difficulties one encounters.”

Her take on the title is that, “Throughout my life and during the darkest times, I would always say that I was grateful to be here, and to be spared. Every morning, I’m thankful for another day. This mantra eventually became the obvious choice for the film’s title.”

  • The film is showing on film festival circuits. To find out when it will be released locally, follow @sankturyfilms on Instagram and Facebook.

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  1. Rhona Dick

    Mar 18, 2021 at 10:25 am

    Cannot wait to see this movie!
    Thank you Jordy and crew for making this movie and mazeltov on winning the award.

  2. Sue Blumberg

    Mar 18, 2021 at 11:13 am

    Ella Blumenthal is truly a remarkable women.
    Jordy,Gabriella and team have highleted her zest and meaning for life in a compelling documentary.
    I congratulate the team and am grateful that Ella shared her journey in order to promote love and understanding between different races and cultures.

  3. Estelle Ezekowitz

    Mar 29, 2021 at 8:24 am

    First saw Ella Blumental with her carer arrive at the Virgin Active Club Green Point for her regular Sunday morning swim (before lockdown)- I used to watch her and was amazed how well she could swim. Did then not know that she was a Holocaust survivor. At a later stage met her and sat next to her at Ladies Circle at the Camps Bay Shul listening to her many sad stories. Have also read the book on her life. At a Club in Green Point played tennis against her daughter and husband – 2 excellent tennis players. Congratulations to the team for sharing her journey and reminding us that age 99 is never too old. Your award has been well earned. Hashem has the perfect plan and purpose for our lives. Looking forward to seeing the movie.

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BDS boycott ‘creating divisions among ordinary South Africans’



“I felt targeted because I’m Jewish. It’s antisemitic,” said a businessman affected by an alleged boycott of companies purported to support Israel.

A group of 300 South African hardware stores supposedly cancelled contracts with “SA-based suppliers and companies that have relations with or who have shown support for Israel”. The executive director of Africa4Palestine (formerly Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) South Africa), Muhammed Desai, last week described the boycott as “heartwarming”.

“Many people have been pressured by their community to be part of a boycott and cause harm,” said this businessman, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This affects ordinary South Africans because it destroys long-term business relationships.”

Although there has been an impact on his company, it seems not many businesses have felt the impact of the boycott. Other suppliers listed by Desai told the SA Jewish Report that no contracts had been cancelled. “None of our relationships or sales into any of the hardware stores in South Africa have been compromised,” said one supplier, who asked not to be named.

“I can state categorically that this has had no impact on our business,” said another supplier who wanted to remain anonymous. “Our order book is full.”

“As the ‘rainbow nation’, this is just aggressively encouraging divisions that were never there before,” said the first businessman. “People are making business decisions based on religion rather than good business principles. These enforced divisions are what worry me more than anything. What happened to the South Africa that we know? This radical stance is completely nonsensical,” he said.

Desai went on to declare, “Today, standing with Israel, having ties with Israel, or serving in the Israeli military have all, correctly, become similar to, in the past, having stood with apartheid South Africa or with Nazi Germany. To stand with Israel today is now synonymous with saying, ‘I stand with Germany’ during the Holocaust or declaring, ‘I stand with South Africa’ during apartheid.”

He said Africa4Palestine welcomed “this ethical position as a morally sound example to other stores in South Africa and the African continent to emulate so that we can truly create apartheid-Israeli-free zones. Your efforts have served as another great blow to those who believe they can support the Israeli regime on the one hand, and take money and profits from principled and moral South African people.”

If the language of boycotting Jewish businesses and creating “Israeli-free zones” sounds familiar, that’s because it is. South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) National Director Wendy Kahn said, “In his congratulatory letter to the boycotters, Desai compares Israel to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The irony of his use of Holocaust terminology is also not lost on us Jews. Nazi Germany also came to our minds when we read this letter. We remember that the Holocaust began with the boycotting of Jewish businesses.

“We aren’t fooled by his couching of words or references to those who ‘have relations with or who have shown support for Israel’ and those ‘standing with Israel, having ties with Israel’. What he actually means is Jews. According to the University of Cape Town’s Kaplan Centre study in 2019, 90% of South African Jews support Israel, so invariably, what Desai is calling for is the boycott of Jewish businesses.

“The delight that he takes in potentially destroying these Jewish businesses is gut-wrenching, not least because of the fragile and precarious economic climate in South Africa. Will Desai and the BDS organisations rejoice in the jobs lost by these businesses?

“His so-called victory of boycotts of Jewish business won’t have an impact on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. All these threats achieve is attempted intimidation of local South African Jews who hold an opinion different to BDS. The South African Jewish community won’t be intimidated. It’s effect will be only to harm South African businesses trying desperately to survive and retain jobs,” Kahn said.

“Our Constitution states that everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, and opinion. There’s no rider that excludes Jews and people who have a connection to Israel. Nor does it call for the destruction of livelihoods of people for daring to believe differently.”

Desai issued a statement saying that the accusation of antisemitism was “a deliberate misrepresentation”, but then reiterated that “we welcome South Africans shunning, boycotting, and ending relations with suppliers and companies that are trading with, have links to, or are supportive of Israel”.

In response to the SAJBD’s statement on the matter, published on Facebook, Africa4Palestine’s Bram Hanekom wrote, “The 300 hardware stores can buy the things they need from other South African owned and ethical businesses.”

Benji Shulman, the director of public diplomacy at the South African Zionist Federation, noted that “the boycott of Jewish businesses has a long history in the BDS movement going back more than a decade, with Jewish businesses or those with Jewish management frequently targeted. What’s more, commercial boycotts against Israel have been a complete failure internationally. Since the boycott movement started, trade between Israel and South Africa has actually increased on average.

“BDS has many other failed boycott attempts,” he said. “One that comes to mind is the failed Woolworths ‘tomato’ boycott, which also produced zero results, other than a pig’s head placed in the kosher section of a supermarket. BDS may be trying to intimidate smaller Jewish businesses, but as yet, it hasn’t shown any signs that it has the capability of undertaking a full-fledged boycott campaign.”

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SAZF takes on Judge Desai for his conduct



The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) has predictably come in for some heavy criticism by the anti-Israel lobby for lodging a complaint against retired Judge Siraj Desai with the Judicial Conduct Committee (JCC).

Last week, the SAZF lodged a complaint with the JCC against the judge, who recently took up the position of the Legal Services Ombudsman.

The SAZF said Desai’s actions and conduct over many years was plainly in breach of the code of judicial conduct and “entirely unbecoming of a judicial officer”.

This was a bombshell complaint against Desai, who is a well-known social activist and respected jurist described by many as the “people’s judge”.

The detailed complaint against him spans many years from 2009 till the present, highlighting Desai’s actions and conduct connecting him to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and the pro-Palestinian movement.

The SAZF said that Desai’s alleged misconduct included his involvement in political controversy, misusing the prestige of his judicial office to advance his personal political interests, failing to recuse himself in a case in which he was obviously conflicted, and involving himself in activities that used the position of his judicial office to promote a partisan political cause.

Desai, who served the legal profession for 43 years, retired as a Western Cape High Court judge last year, and almost immediately accepted the ombud position having been appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa. The objective of the ombud is to advance and safeguard the integrity of the legal profession in South Africa But more importantly, it’s to ensure fair, efficient, and effective investigation of complaints of alleged misconduct by legal practitioners.

Former Judge Rex van Schalkwyk of the Rule of Law Project told the SA Jewish Report, “This isn’t about whether one is pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. Did Judge Desai conform with the ethics that constrain him as a judge? Having looked at the complaint, there is at least a case that needs to be answered. Judge Desai must give an explanation about his conduct. It’s legitimate for this issue to have been brought to the professional body of the JSC [Judicial Service Commission] and to be dealt with specifically in accordance with the principle of law not in accordance with the political issues which will cloud the complaint.”

The SAZF has been lambasted for the complaint, which it lodged on 10 June, by members of Africa4Palestine and the South African BDS Coalition. They have set up a Facebook page called “Hands off Judge Desai”.

The anti-Israel lobbyists described the complaint as “spurious” and “baseless”, and called it a “vengeful attack”. Africa4Palestine criticised the “questionable” timing of the complaint, saying that it was an attempt to distract from its complaint lodged against the country’s outgoing Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

Last Friday, 11 June, the JCC appeal panel said it was continuing its deliberations on Mogoeng Mogoeng’s appeal against a misconduct finding for his remarks about Israel brought by Africa4Palestine.

Earlier this year, the JCC found that Mogoeng had contravened the code of judicial conduct with comments made during a webinar in June last year and subsequently at a prayer meeting where he declared that he would never apologise for the views he expressed. In the webinar, hosted by the Jerusalem Post, he said he believed South Africa would do well to consider adopting a more objective stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said “hatred” of the Jewish state could “attract unprecedented curses upon our nation”.

In his March ruling, Judge Phineas Mojapelo stressed that “judges are to stay out of politics”.

The South African BDS Coalition said the SAZF’s complaint against Desai was in “retaliation for the failure to secure a seat at the Constitutional Court by Judge Unterhalter” accusing him of being an “apologist for Zionism”. Earlier this year, the SA BDS Coalition demanded that Unterhalter not be selected to the Constitutional Court for his association with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

Rolene Marks, SAZF’s legal forum spokesperson said, “At issue here, is the role that judges play in our society. The reason that there is a judicial code of conduct is that judges need to be seen not to be promoting political causes since they may have to rule on them at some stage. However, it’s clear through his comments that although Judge Desai is entitled to his views in terms of freedom of speech, he is bound by the judicial code of conduct, and his actions fall outside of that.”

According to the SAZF, last year, Desai while being interviewed on an Iranian YouTube channel, made “inappropriate comments” likening Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini to President Nelson Mandela.

“To compare a world-renowned peacemaker like President Mandela to the despotic founding leader of a regime notorious for its disregard of human rights, and which is responsible for gross human rights violations, including torture and violence against thousands of people, is an insult to the people of South Africa, the Constitution, and our democratic institutions,” the statement said.

It added that Desai also made “several other shocking remarks” during the interview regarding foreign policy, including referring to the United States – an important trading and diplomatic partner of South Africa – as the “great Satan” which demonstrated that Desai had “engaged in conduct incompatible with his status as a judge of the high court.”

According to the SAZF, Desai has a long history of endorsing and promoting the anti-Israel political lobby.

In 2009, Desai was part of a South African delegation of pro-Palestinian activists that was to take part in a protest known as “the Gaza Freedom March” organised by the Palestine Solidarity Alliance. It was during this time that the Cairo Declaration was signed which was a call for a global movement for Palestinian rights and a boycott of Israel. The SAZF said Desai “lent his stature as a judge to the drafting and issuing of the declaration”.

In 2015, he gave an order in a review application brought by pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist organisations and activists against the City of Cape Town. There is allegedly no record in the judgment of him having disclosed his interest in BDS to the parties in that case, according to the complaint.

In 2018, Desai welcomed Hamas during its visit to South Africa and said, “We hope to make an intellectual contribution to the resolution of the Palestinian issue, but we take our leadership from you, you are the leadership on the ground.”

“This, despite the fact that the Hamas charter includes direct calls for violence against Jewish people and the destruction of the state of Israel. Using the prestige of the judicial office to publicly promote an extremist organisation is clearly contrary to the precepts underlying the judicial code of conduct,” said the complaint.

“Judge Desai has long conducted himself well outside the realms of the judicial code,” said the SAZF. “It’s therefore crucial for maintaining public confidence in the judiciary that manifest judicial misconduct is called to account.”

Desai told News24 through his spokesperson, Professor Usuf Chikte, that he was “unapologetic in his stance in condemnation of apartheid Israel”.

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Kacev heads up Jewish education network that will benefit SA



The former director of the South African Board of Jewish Education, Rabbi Craig Kacev, has been selected as pedagogical director of a new project called the Global Jewish Education Resource Centre, in partnership with Israel’s Diaspora Affairs ministry.

For the first time, there will be one organisation liaising with Jewish schools throughout the world, creating a global Jewish education network.

The initiative includes a global educational and professional network that will work with experts and providers across all continents and in different languages. It will pioneer the development of educational content, training of teachers, support of school leadership, building of virtual platforms to share ideas and initiatives, and the provision of professional consulting services to individual schools.

The need for this initiative was recognised during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many communities in the diaspora were struggling to cope with the closure of schools and the transition to virtual learning while facing a shortage of Jewish Studies teachers and high-quality curriculum resources.

The initiative will include the creation of connections and dialogue between Jewish school students, teachers, and principals around the world. The initiative is in partnership with Herzog College, Israel’s leading academic college for teacher education in the religious sector. It’s renowned for its expertise in teacher training, professional development, and designing innovative digital content.

Kacev made aliyah earlier this year. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Israel, he says “this new initiative, in response to the impact of the pandemic, has goals uniquely linked to what schools have experienced over the past year and a half. It also seeks to capitalise on the past for the benefit of Jewish schools in the future. The initiative seeks to make a difference in areas of leadership, teachers, and content, with a focus on enhancing Jewish learning.

“That said, it’s also intended to respond to current trends such as distance learning, social and emotional needs, project-based learning, and other areas where schools need support. Herzog College brings a team of high-level educators doing research and teaching in many spheres, and we hope to ensure that schools around the world benefit from this expertise. We don’t claim to know everything, nor do we intend to be an organisation that forces solutions on schools. This is intended to be a platform that provides support. Working with as many partners in the field, it aims to serve each school in its areas of need.”

Kacev says he took the role on “with much trepidation. The responsibility is substantial, and the pressure to bring an offering that adds value to as many Jewish schools as possible around the world isn’t to be underestimated.”

As director of pedagogy, he will be guiding the educational team on the approach and content that it will use in teacher education, content development, and student engagement opportunities.

“While we will start with a few offerings, this will grow rather quickly. There are many existing organisations developing content or offering services to the field. I hope to work with as many of these as possible to bring their expertise to a larger audience, and then have the Global Resource Centre bring its added offering to the field. We are also hoping to develop more cost-effective models for schools to access high-quality content.”

Kacev says he was drawn to the role because, “having dedicated myself to Jewish education for the past 25 years, this is where I wanted to remain. Now, I will be able to bring all that I learned along the way to Jewish schools across the globe. I have a sense of many of the common needs across the Jewish educational world, and I’m learning about the specific needs in each country. I believe that I bring a broad and deep understanding of Jewish education, together with the experience of working on a large scale. One quickly learns that if systems are developed correctly then even if the platform or organisation is huge, the customer feels that their needs are being met. We hope to achieve that on a substantial scale for schools and especially Jewish educators around the world.”

On the importance and uniqueness of this project, he says, “There are many providers in the field and many countries have umbrella organisations serving their Jewish schools. But there is no one organisation that is looking to provide a global address for all that’s available while developing meta-curricula, worldwide teacher networks, and looking to harness the substantial expertise in the field for the benefit of all. This is also an initiative that Israel is investing in, and will continue to invest in with substantial funds, together with philanthropists around the world interested in Jewish education.”

At a ceremony last week, Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich signed a 38 million shekel (R160 million) agreement with Herzog College to lead the two-year project.

So, how soon will the project reach Jewish schools in South Africa? “Whatever part of the offering goes live after the chaggim in October 2021 will be available to all Jewish schools around the world,” says Kacev. “Teachers will be able to find content, get assistance in finding specific content, join worldwide networks on many topics moderated by experts in their fields, and join the ongoing online courses. As the project develops, there will be specific initiatives together with Jewish schools in South Africa based on their needs and requests.”

Regarding the specific challenges facing South African Jewish schools that the project can assist with, Kacev says, “South Africa, like many other places could benefit from ongoing teacher education, opportunities for educational leaders to share with colleagues and learn from experts around the world, and high-quality curriculum content and materials. The extent to which the Jewish schools stand to benefit from the initiative will depend on their proactive use of the resource centre.

“That said, I have a special place in my heart for South Africa, and hope to ensure that they do benefit from all that the initiative offers. There will also be opportunities for schools to benefit from additional investment in our area of responsibility if there is partner funding from the community. We hope to find that sort of support over time, as has been the case in Europe and South America to date.”

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