The Alois Brunner test


I was going through family stuff this weekend, and, this being the age of Internets, one thing led to another and I found out I’m distantly related to Olivier Assayas, the Cahiers du Cinema type who directed "Carlos" …

Anyway. I also read more closely an account of my grandmother’s family by a second cousin, e-mailed just a couple of years ago.

My grandmother, nee Oro Assayas, was from Salonika. She had 10 brothers and sisters who survived childhood.

So this is how history works, slo-mo: My grandmother was a teenager staying with family in Istanbul. She met my (much older) grandfather, flirting with him as he opened his electric goods shop each day, across from the apartment where she was staying. She got married and stayed in Istanbul.

Other siblings and relatives moved to France (Olivier!) Others stayed in Salonika, which eventually became part of Greece.

Two major cataclysms — the First and Second World Wars — moved, then tore apart my family. My parents never discussed this much, the loss of their aunts and uncles and cousins, I always presumed because the consequences for Ashkenazi Jews seemed so much more dire; at least in Turkey, immediate families were left unscarred by the Holocaust.

But my grandmother, marrying at 16 (around 1919) in what was essentially one country (the remainders of the Ottoman Empire) found herself in one country (Turkey) and her beloved sisters and brothers in another (Greece) within a few years.

My grandmother in Istanbul, in 1919, in a postcard she sent to her family in Salonika:

And then, in 1941, the Nazis occupied Salonika and at least two of her siblings were deported to Auschwitz.

Alois Brunner organized the deportation of the city’s 46,000 Jews — 95 percent of the Jewish population of what once was a Jewish center. Those who survived scattered, blended in, to Canada, to Israel, to Turkey, to Greece, to France, to the Cahiers du Cinema.

Survival, assimilation, isn’t all bad, you know. Olivier was married for a while to Maggie Cheung. He has good memories, I’m sure. And I now have a dinner table anecdote.


Listen to my cousin Claire describe the kitchen skills of my great aunt Lucie (who survived, and died in 1966 of cancer:)

Elle savait tout faire, elle faisait tout divinement bien. Sans avoir jamais l’air d’y toucher. Depuis que Lucie est morte, personne n’égalera jamais la perfection absolue d’une certaine cuisine salonicienne. Entre autres, le riz.

There was a rice dish, a Salonika rice dish.

Lucie, Claire says, made it best.

Who’s making it now?

Anyway. Alois Brunner fled to Syria. The Assad family protected him for … forever. He was last seen in 2001. In a status report on Nazi war crimes released today, the Simon Wiesenthal Center lists him as  most wanted.

There’s a lot of speculation about what the Arab Spring will bring — greater democracy? Chaos? Islamism? Hardships for Israel, at least in the short run?

In the short run: No one, not even the giddiest optimist, is predicting a peace and stability dividend. Hostility to Israel — to Jews — seems too deeply embedded.

But here and there, democracy’s transcendent value — decency — is emerging. In the Egyptian women and soldiers who rescued Lara Logan. In the Egyptian nationalists who have rallied behind a pro-Israel blogger.

In the solidarity and courage permeating uprisings in Libya, in Tunisia, in Yemen, in Bahrain — and in Syria.

And so too is emerging the transcendent value of repression: Fear and its application.

In the crowds who assaulted Logan, in the authorities who jailed the blogger, in the dead peopling the streets of Daraa and Tripoli and Manama and even in Cairo and Tunis.

I have a small suggestion to whomever ousts the Assads from Damascus, if that ever happens.

Peace, overtures, long leisurely drives from Haifa to Damascus — okay, it’s not going to happen in the short run.

But, geez, I’d like to know what happened to Alois Brunner.

And if he’s alive, I’d like him handed over.

That would be a sure and immediate sign that decency is prevailing.

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