Alice is up for an Oscar (& The story behind What’s App)

February 20, 2014

Alice Herz-Sommer, before the Holocaust


Below are a few short updates to previous dispatches.

There will be no dispatches in the next 2 weeks while I attend to work and other matters.

* You can comment on this dispatch here: Please also press “Like” on that page.



1. Alice documentary finally to be released, placed on Oscar shortlist
2. Jan Zwartendyk
3. Article in London Times “suggests Jews hijacked memory of WW1”
4. The kid behind What’s app
5. Remembering Iranian poets
6. Circassians protest in Tel Aviv against Sochi Olympics

[Notes below by Tom Gross]


I first wrote about a new film about Alice Herz-Sommer, now aged 110, in 2010. She is the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor and also the world’s oldest concert pianist.

It is a wonderful story – and I am pleased to say that after much delay, the film is now being released, over 3 years later.

“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” which runs for just 38-minutes, has been nominated for best short documentary at the Academy Awards next month.

You can see a clip from the film together with my piece from 2010, here:

“The Lady in Number 6” will be released in over 100 theaters across the United States on Feb. 21 (tomorrow) and subsequently in other countries.



On January 27, 2014, I sent a dispatch titled “Who remembers Jan Zwartendijk?”

That dispatch was sent by a subscriber to this list (David Lewin) to Jan Zwartendijk’s son in the Netherlands, who is a friend of Mr Lewin and is also called Jan Zwartendijk.

Jan Zwartendijk Jr. said he appreciated being able to read the dispatch about his father. Unfortunately, according to his wife, it was one of the final things he did, and he passed away on February 3, 2014.

You can read the dispatch here:



I have noted in previous dispatches how the language of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are increasingly slipping into the mainstream discourse.

A British subscriber to this list sent me the following passage from the Times of London last Saturday.

Some may interpret it as saying that Sebastian Faulks, with his talk of “co-ordinated” “worldwide Jewry” is (most probably subconsciously) using disturbing and inaccurate language. (Faulks, who is a nice man, may not realize this.)

Faulks writes:

“Our memory of the First World War – the Great War – has always been a problem… The Second World War was to be remembered in quite different ways. The most important was that in which worldwide Jewry insisted that the victims of the Nazi Holocaust be enumerated, named and honoured. This admirably energetic memorialisation was co-ordinated across many countries and continues to the present day. An unintended consequence was that it threw a further smokescreen across the events of 1914-18.”



I have noted in previous dispatches that a large number of innovations on the Internet have been the work of Israelis, or Jews with family ties to Israel, such as Sergei Brin, the founder of Google.

Yesterday Facebook bought What’s app, the service that is revolutionizing the way we speak, for $16 billion.

As Wired magazine notes, the main founder of What’s App, Jan Koum, 38, “grew up Jewish and a rebellious little kid” in a tough village outside Kiev. “It was so run-down that our school didn’t even have an inside bathroom,” he says. “ I didn’t have a computer until I was 19 -- but I did have an abacus.”

Koum, then aged 16, and his parents fled anti-Semitism and hardship in Ukraine and sought refuge in the U.S.



In a dispatch last week (Rouhani: Iran’s nuclear program will last “forever” & Iranian women footballers to undergo gender tests”) I noted that the Islamic regime in Iran had once again begun hanging poets. Item 4 here:

This is particularly tragic when one considers that in pre-Islamic ruled Persia poets were held in high esteem, and indeed the Mehr News agency this week runs a photo essay on: “Maghbareolshoara, a tomb containing the remains of more than 400 poets in Tabriz.”

You can see it here: http://



In a recent dispatch (Putin’s “Occupation Olympics” & “Did the age of genocide begin in Sochi?”) I noted the plight of the Circassians:

Since then, a senior executive at CNN who subscribes to this list thanked me for drawing attention to Abkhazia and said he had commissioned a piece for CNN, which ran a few days ago.

And as Ha’aretz notes below, the Circassian community in Israel has started protesting in Tel Aviv against the Sochi Olympics.

-- Tom Gross


Circassians protest in Tel Aviv against Sochi Olympics
Members of the minority community demonstrate at the Russian embassy, recalling the 1864 massacre in their erstwhile capital.
By Roy Arad
Feb 18, 2014

About 100 members of Israel’s Circassian community demonstrated outside the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv Monday morning to protest the holding of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Sochi was the Circassians’ historical capital, and became a bloody symbol of the century-long Russian-Circassian war that ended 150 years ago in their mass slaughter – Circassians estimate the death toll at 1.5 million people – and expulsion.

The protesters, some wearing the traditional yellow boots of the community and others in Reeboks, chanted slogans such as “Wake up, world, the Circassians won’t keep silent any more” and “Free Circassia” in Circassian, Hebrew and English. Some waved signs and posters recalling the defeat, which the world has forgotten in favor of the wars and disasters of the 20th century.

The colorful demonstration about an ancient, unfamiliar subject involving the crimes of czarist Russia, with green flags resembling those of a yacht club and protesters in traditional garb, complete with daggers, provoked smiles from most of the passersby on Hayarkon Street. Some paused to take a photograph with their iPhones before moving on.

One of the organizers of the demonstration – one of several taking place around the world during the Olympic Games – is David Shugan, 32, of Kafr Kama, who works in the town’s Circassian Museum. Around his wrist is a white plastic bracelet; his wife had just given birth, and he came straight from the hospital so as not to miss the protest.

Shugan calls himself a “seventh-generation” survivor of the massacre, and says he would like to return to Circassia. “If they let us go back, many would,” he said. “Sochi is Circassian land. This is our moral right, and this is our cry of pain over our genocide. At the opening ceremony of the Olympics, they didn’t mention the Circassians, but they mentioned Greek mythology. I didn’t watch the games, and I won’t,” Shugan said.

The 100 demonstrators constituted a significant proportion of the 4,000 or so Circassians in Israel. The Circassian diaspora marks May 21, the date Czar Alexander II declared victory, as Genocide Memorial Day.

Salwa Harun Nafsu, 53, wore orange sunglasses. She is a wedding deejay, specializing in Circassian and Middle Eastern popular music. She is a distant relative of Izat Nafsu, an Israeli army officer from the community who in the 1980s was accused of espionage. He confessed under torture by the Shin Bet security service and was convicted on the basis of false testimony and his confession. After serving seven and a half years of an 18-year prison term he was exonerated. Harun Nafsu related with pride that she learned her profession at a school in Tel Aviv.

“More important to me than the Sochi and the mochi is for Russians to see what democracy is, that it’s possible to demonstrate at their embassy without being removed,” she said.

Harun Nafsu doesn’t dream of returning to her lost homeland. “I wouldn’t leave Israel,” she said. “But it’s important for the Russians to know. They perpetrated something like your Holocaust on us.”

The issue of the Circassian genocide was dormant for years before it was suddenly revived, a few years ago, she said. “Once, they didn’t talk about this,” she said, adding that “the media and the Internet and Facebook” has sparked awareness.

Above us, in the Sheraton Hotel, an African cleaner polished the railing of the balcony nearest the demonstrators again and again, for long minutes, even though it was already sparkling. She was presumably curious about the colorful gathering but didn’t want to be accused of idleness.

The great African disaster is happening now. We need to respect the catastrophes of the past, but the gray, charmless politics of the present, devoid of colorful banners, is always more important. Even though the idea isn’t popular in a country like Israel, where the giant shadow of the past is always present, in my view, traumas of the past should be taken in small doses.

Today, more than 300,000 Russians live in Sochi, and they paid no notice to the cries of “Sochi is ours, not yours” hurled at the Russian embassy.

On the other hand, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, such demonstrations are treated with much less equanimity. The Tel Aviv organizers said that Circassian demonstrators in Russia were violently dispersed by the Russian police; their vehicles were confiscated and dozens were arrested.

In his kippa and tzitzit, or ritual fringes, Avraham Shmulevich, the only Jew, stood out from the Circassian demonstrators. He says he fell in love with the Circassian issue about 10 years ago. He writes articles about the Caucasus, and as a former conscientious objector he identifies with the Circassians’ battle against the Russian establishment.

He calls the Caucasus “the Balkans of our times” and fears that just as World War I began in the Balkans, the next world war will begin in the Caucasus. “The Circassians’ situation in the Soviet Union was very similar to that of the Jews,” Shmulevich said.

Then he took up the green Circassian flag and waved it proudly at the passing cars on Hayarkon Street.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.