ERIC KARLAN PAYS TRIBUTE TO DANISH HOLOCAUST RESCUERS FOR HIS BAR MITZVAH -- HON. TOM LANTOS (Extensions of Remarks - October 13, 2000)
HON. TOM LANTOS OF CALIFORNIA IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES Thursday, October 12, 2000
- Mr. LANTOS. Mr. Speaker, I would like to bring to the attention of our colleagues an outstanding young man--14 year old Eric Karlan, who in his short life has already made important decisions that can serve as a model for others to follow. His outstanding academic record, his musical gifts, his athletic prowess, his social activism, and the leadership roles he fulfills are by themselves exceptional achievements for a 14 year old.
- But what impresses me most about Eric, Mr. Speaker, is his willingness to acknowledge and honor what is best in the history of humanity and to demonstrate his appreciation for what is a truly heroic legacy. I am referring to Eric's decision to celebrate his coming to manhood through the Bar Mitzvah ritual by going to Denmark to visit important historic sites as an expression of his gratitude to the Danish people for rescuing almost the entire Jewish community of Denmark from extermination by the Nazis during World War Two.
- Mr. Speaker, Bar Mitzvah celebrations have too often become showpieces of affluence, more extravagant than meaningful. Eric's decision to honor this occasion with simple dignity, remembering the suffering and hardships of his own people and paying respect to those Danes who came to their rescue in a time of greatest need, was indeed a wise and noble choice, and it demonstrates extraordinary character and maturity in one so young.
Mr. Speaker, I commend Eric for the intelligent choices he has already made in his life, for his dedication to genuine values, for his wisdom in following in the footsteps of those who light a candle in the darkness of the world, and for his understanding and appreciation of true heroism. Mr. Speaker, I ask that excerpts of Eric's moving description of his journey of discovery in the footsteps of Danish heroes be placed in the RECORD.
MY BAR MITZVAH IN DENMARK (By Eric Karlan)
My family has always had a reputation for doing unconventional things. When I received my Bar Mitzvah date at the age of 11, I was told that I wouldn't be getting a big party or presents like everyone else. My parents said I would be able to pick a meaningful place to visit, and select a charity for any Bar Mitzvah money I might receive. I wanted to choose a place that would give me a unique Bar Mitzvah experience.
I read a book called Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. I learned that the Danish people saved all but 116 of the approximately 8,000 Jews in Denmark by helping them escape to neutral Sweden during the Holocaust. This book was instantly a favorite of mine. It was then that I decided for my Bar Mitzvah I was going to research this story, and Denmark would be the destination for my trip.
My parents gave me the opportunity to work with a modern orthodox Rabbi, David Kalb. Instead of studying the Torah portion that was near my birthday date, Rabbi Kalb helped me select a portion that was related to my trip. For our explanatory style service, I chose Beshallach, the story of the Parting of the Red Sea. We picked this story because it was uplifting, involved hope, and most importantly dealt with the liberation and freedom of the Jewish people. I connected this to the story of the Danish Resistance and how they brought the Jews from the clutches of the Nazis into freedom. Both of those stories shared positive and miraculous attributes. And both stories shared the water as the avenue to freedom. In the Midrash, Shemot Rabah, there is a story about how the Red Sea did not part until Nachshon Ben Aminadav, walked neck deep into the water. This makes a major statement that no one can expect miracles to happen unless someone takes the first step. The Danish people took the first step and a miracle occurred; all the Danish Jews were transported to Sweden secretly within a matter of days. In fact, there is a Disney movie called ``Miracle at Midnight'' that tells the story.
Together, the Rabbi and I retraced the Rescue Route and learned more and more about the Exodus of the Danish Jews going to Sweden and what risks were taken. We also learned how leadership can have such a huge impact on the people. King Christian X and the Danish Bishop played an important role, setting a superb example for the Danes and leading them to do the right thing when they were surrounded by evil.
We arrived early on a Wednesday morning in Denmark and immediately started to learn new things about the Danish experience during the Holocaust. As we were telling the driver on our way to the hotel about what we were doing in Denmark, he told us another very powerful story about Denmark's leadership. One day, a Nazi officer came to King Christian X and told him that if any soldier were to put up the Danish flag the next morning, he would be shot on the spot. The King replied that he would be that soldier, and from that day on, the flag of Denmark flew every day for the rest of the war.
We visited the Bispebjerg Hospital, where over 2,000 Jews passed en route to Sweden. The head nurse told us that to hold the Jews in the hospital secretly was tough. To start, they had to register the Jews under Christian names. Next, they would make them look pale by putting powder on their faces and make them sick by drugging them. She told us that doctors found out that there was an informer, so they locked him up in the psychiatric ward. After the meeting we toured the hospital and the meaningful places there.
As we reached one of the doors, the nurse told us a fascinating, scary story. Every door with a lock had 16 square panes of glass on it. On each of the doors, one of the panes of glass was different because when the Nazis broke into the hospital, they punched through the glass so they could stick their hand through and unlock the door.
Finally, we reached an office where the chief surgeon used to work. The office was on the third floor of the building where we were told that when one of the doctors tried to escape out the window, he was shot and fell to his death. After thanking the nurse, we asked where we could find out even more information and we were directed straight to the hospital chapel.
At the chapel, we met with one of the people who worked there. He told us how Jews escaped out of the hospital and on to the next part of the Rescue Route. He said they would have fake funeral processions and Jews were transported out of the chapel right under the Nazis' noses. Before leaving the hospital's premises, we learned about some underground tunnels that the doctors now use for work. During the war though they made great hiding places.
After this, we went to the Grundtvig Church of the Lutheran Church of Denmark. When the Jews were in need, Grundtvig Church played a key role in helping them. When the Nazis declared martial law, the bishop of the church explained the situation, almost all Christians agreed to help the Jews. They helped hide the Jews in their homes and the church, and during the two-year period in which the Jews were in Sweden, Grundtvig Church hid Torah scrolls and other Jewish family valuables. After leaving the Grundtvig Church, we made our way to the beautiful Church of Denmark. This church also played a key role in helping the Jewish people. During the occupation, this church's bishop played Hatikvah, now known as Israel's national anthem, on the church bells. Like Grundtvig, the Church of Denmark hid Jews, Torah scrolls and other Jewish valuables.
We had to start early Thursday morning for the long 30-mile car ride up the coast to visit all the fishing ports where the Jews escaped. The first fishing port we came to was Niva, a port where a large number of Jews were sent. To get to Niva, the Jews had to take trains where they had to sit in the same cars as Nazis without them knowing. When they reached the port, they were held in a large tile factory where they were hidden or acted as workers. At night, there was, and still is, a tile path that leads from the factory to the port itself that the Jews followed to get to the boats safely.
Next up the coast was Sletten, where Sweden is never farther than two to four miles away. After that was Snekkersten, a port that had the second most Jews depart from. Here we had a quick memorial service in honor of H.C. Thomsen, an owner of an inn who hid Jews. He was caught and executed at a concentration camp, so in his memory and in memory of those like him, we held the memorial service in front of a rock, which was marked with a plaque honoring him and surrounded by flowers.
We continued up the coast to pass or stop at more small fishing ports like Elsinore and Hornbaeck. As we drove up the coastline, Sweden was never out of sight. You can only imagine how frustrating that was for the Danish Jews to have freedom less than five miles away, yet you could die from hypothermia just by trying to swim across the water. Finally, at the tip of the coast, we reached Gilleleje, the site where the most Jews left and where the most Jews were caught. We visited a small church where more than half the captured Jews in all of Denmark were caught. The church hid 80 Jews in the attic, when an informer tipped off the Nazis and 79 were caught and sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt.
From Gilleleje we returned to Copenhagen where a recently completed ten-mile bridge goes across the water to Sweden. We decided that touching Swedish soil would be a symbolic end to the morning since that is where the Jews escaped to from the fishing ports. We crossed the bridge by car, got our passports stamped, and returned to the hotel.
We awoke to a gorgeous Friday morning, the day of my Bar Mitzvah. I was very excited and eager to start the service. The decision for where my Bar Mitzvah would be held was made a few days before. It would be in Mindelunden, a memorial park right outside the city where 106 Resistance members were killed. It was hard to believe that brutal executions had ever happened at such a beautiful place. As we walked in, there was a long wall of plaques with all the people's names that had been killed, with a little information about them.
Farther on, we found the graveyard. It was an unbelievable site. There was a magnificent statue near the back with a Resistor holding up one of his fallen comrades. In front of the statue were 106 graves, each with a marble plaque on top identifying the person and their life span. One of the graves is now covered in heather because later that man was identified as a traitor. We had a memorial service for all the fallen resistors at the site.
Past the graveyard we found the execution pit. In the pit were three stakes and a plaque. This was a very scary sight and only my mom and my brother went past the plaque to touch the stakes. We still hadn't done the Bar Mitzvah service and the decision of where it should be held was still undecided.
While walking back from the execution pit, we passed an open field with a tree near the side. Since the tree was approximately halfway between the pit and the graveyard, the choice was made that the Bar Mitzvah would be under the tree. The service lasted about fifteen minutes and included my Torah portion, some prayers, texts that Rabbi Kalb (who had a Notre Dame hat on) personally selected, and the Israeli national anthem ``Hatikvah.'' It was a wonderful service and ended with the Rabbi picking me up on his shoulders and dancing around.
Our congressman, Jim Maloney, had arranged a meeting for us with the United States Ambassador to Denmark to discuss my Bar Mitzvah experience. After passing through the gates of the embassy and getting our passports checked, we were finally greeted and led up to the Ambassador's office. The Ambassador's name is Richard Swett. We found out later that his in-laws were survivors of the Holocaust.
Another man from New York named Gabriel Erem, owner of the magazine Lifestyles, was already there and wanted to stay to hear about my experience. Gabriel had heard about my story and seemed very interested. We sat down in the office and I started to explain everything that had led up to the trip and how it had been going so far. We retraced the Rescue Route on the maps the Ambassador had up in his office and told almost all the stories we learned. Questions were exchanged from both sides about the Bar Mitzvah. A while later it was time to go, but not before we got one more surprise. The Ambassador had extra tickets to the Danish premiere of ``The Last Days,'' a documentary film made by Steven Spielberg about five survivors of the Holocaust.
The Grand Theater was busy with people coming to see the premiere. We started to talk to the people in front of us and soon found out that when they were three and four, they were two of the Jews who were taken by boat to Sweden. A few minutes later, the Ambassador entered and went up to the podium to make his opening speech. He mentioned lots of important people, the survivors that were present that night, his co-workers, his wife and in-laws, etc. And then near the end of the speech, he spoke about my story and me. As soon as he finished my story, he introduced me and had me stand up in front of all the people. That made my night! Soon after the moment of glory, the documentary began.
The documentary was very impressive and moving. After it ended, the survivors all went up to the podium and made a little speech. As we stood up to leave, Renee Firestone, one of the four survivors present that night came up to wish me ``Mazel Tav.'' After meeting her, a man came up to introduce himself to me. He was not one of the survivors, but a student in Copenhagen at the time of the war who rowed Jews to Sweden in October of 1943. His name was Munch Nielsen, and I didn't realize I already knew about him till my Rabbi told me so. In some of our notes, we had quotes from him. This was very cool. Following that, we met up with Gabriel Erem, who introduced us to Congressman Tom Lantos, the Ambassador's father-in-law, and another one of the survivors in the movie. After a quick chat, we all went to the reception.
The first thing I wanted to do was go over and thank the Ambassador for making my Bar Mitzvah day the best. I went over to him and his whole expression changed. A nice smile came over his face and he told me to follow him because there were some people he wanted me to meet. First he introduced me to the Israeli Ambassador in Copenhagen. The next person I met was his mother-in-law Mrs. Annette Lantos. She was also a survivor of the Holocaust, but she was not in the documentary. She was very sweet and made a big fuss over what I was doing.
Then the Ambassador introduced me to Irene Weisberg-Zisblatt. As soon as she saw me, she smiled and said, ``It is such an honor to meet you.'' I responded the same way and we both laughed. Out of everyone, she was the coolest and the most interested in my story. Around her neck were diamonds in the shape of a teardrop. In the movie, she said that those diamonds were from her mother and anytime the Nazis went to check if any of the prisoners had anything, she would swallow them, and then when she went to the bathroom, she would fish them back out, clean them off in the mud and swallow them again. And now, they were around her neck in real life, which was very hard to believe. Irene, the Rabbi and his wife, my family and myself all talked for the longest time.
People started to leave and my exciting day started to come to a close. We wrapped up our conversation with Irene, said good night to the Rabbi and his wife, and headed back to the hotel after a perfect ending to a great Bar Mitzvah day. Imagine celebrating your Bar Mitzvah one morning in a World War II Resistance memorial park and ending the day with actual survivors that eluded Nazi death.
I can't speak for other countries, but I know in America the schools only teach the negative and scary things about the Holocaust. Even though that was really what most of the Holocaust was, the Denmark story should be taught everywhere as well. It is positive and uplifting, gives hope and sets the example for remarkable leadership, brotherhood, and respect for humanity. The Danes should be admired for their gallantry and I am glad I did what I did for my Bar Mitzvah.