Monday, April 26, 2010

The Journey of a Lifetime: my grandmother's escape on the Trans-Siberian railway

My grandmother, Betty Löwenstein (maiden name Ehrlich), escaped Germany by fleeing east and caught one of the last Trans-Siberian trains before the Nazi invasion of Russia. Her aim was to join her brothers in Reading, Pennsylvania. Family legend has it that as she caught the train to leave Germany, a woman handed her a baby to take with her.
The distance from Berlin to Reading is about 6,000 kilometers. The path Betty took to reach her destination was in excess of 24,000 kilometers.
I should add that her husband committed suicide in 1932. Though there may be some question marks over exactly how that happened to him. I have his death certificate here.

My father left Germany on the 28th of August 1939. three days before the invasion of Poland. He was fifteen and flew to Britain - my grandmother told my mother she sent him by plane to ensure that he arrived safely. They were due to meet up and travel together from Britain to the USA, but she was delayed and his departure was urgent. On the day of the invasion she tried to leave Germany for Britain but was turned back as war had been declared. She remained trapped in Germany for another year which she spent trying to obtain visas for a journey out of Europe to the East. 
I don't know when she decided to leave Germany from the East, but in April she got a visa for the USSR, 9 months after the start of the war. In May Germany conquered Holland and Belgium and invaded France (which fell by June 1940). 
On the 10th of May 1940 she got a visa for the USA. Getting a visa for the USA was extremely hard in those days, especially for Jews, but her brothers had migrated a couple of years earlier. 
US Visa, issued May 10 1940

 She got her Japanese visa in Hamburg on July 3rd 1940 and the next day (4th of July) she got a visa for "Manchuko": Japanese-occupied China.

Japanese visa, issued 3 July 1940
My grandmother wrote an account of her journey as part of her citizenship training for the USA and I have attached it as a jpg at the end of this blog. 

In her account, she says she travelled to Koenigsburg, now called Kaliningrad. The left visa page in the image above has her exit stamp and shows she flew from Koenigsburg airport on the 3rd of August 1940 (Wikipedia says it is one of the oldest passenger airports in the world). She flew from there to Moscow because she hadn't managed to obtain a Latvian visa: The USSR had invaded Latvia 5 weeks earlier in  late June 1940. 
I checked this journey on the Eurorail site: They recommend a train to Prague where you take a train to Warsaw, from Warsaw you take a train to Vilnius in Latvia and from there you can get a train to Kaliningrad. It takes two days.
1,000km train ride followed by a 1,000km,  7 hour flight in a thunderstorm  

Soviet visa, issued 11 April 1940

From Moscow she took the Trans-Siberian railway - a 9,000 kilometer journey. She wasn't allowed to take any money out of Germany (there was a ban on Jews taking money or goods) so she paid for the whole thing in advance and was given vouchers to use on the train. Jews who had a visa to leave Germany could count on help from Jewish charities who would pay their travel and provide for them on the way.

The mathematician Kurt Godel followed a similar route at roughly the same time. He wasn't Jewish so he went through Latvia. Who knows maybe they met on the train. My grandmother took the Trans-Manchurian line (see a map) and left the train at Harbin in Manchuko (Japanese occupied China) while Godel seems to have taken another branch which arrived at Vladivostok. The Trans-Siberian took her 9 days. She says conditions on the train were harsh and alleviated only by the incredible scenery (see the modern site).

There were a lot of Jews living in Harbin. One of them was called Olmert and his grandson became prime-minister of Israel. There is a lovely internet exhibition on the Jews of Harbin and there is a museum in Harbin telling the Jewish story.
Manchuko visa, issued 4 July 1940

Betty Lowenstein says there was cholera in Harbin in 1940, and that it was killing 150 people every day. We now know that the Japanese biological warfare program ("Unit 731") was based in Harbin and they were artificially inducing cholera. See

She travelled from Harbin overland for two and a half weeks to "Fusan", which I think is Fusan in South Korea (now called Busan), then Japanese occupied. That's over 1,200 kilometers through Japanese occupied China. A couple of other people who took the route also went this way, so I assume it was a standard route. Apparently there was a single train from Harbin in Northern China which went down to Busan at the the Southern tip of Korea. See

From Busan she sailed to Kobe in Japan. Apparently there was a Jewish community in Kobe and these helped Jews arriving from Germany. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was providing funds for Jewish refugees (though she says nothing about this), so once she got to Kobe she was safe. 
1,250km train ride from Harbin to southern tip of Korea, followed by 500km journey to Kobe
In 2021, a signboard was erected in Kobe commemorating the Jews who escaped through Japan: See also

Betty left Kobe on the 15th of August 1940, arriving in Seattle two weeks later. I found the manifest of the ship she arrived on. It was called the Heian Maru (it has a Wikipedia page) and arrived 29 August 1940, about half the passengers were Jewish refugees. She gave her occupation as 'Housewife' and her nationality as 'German'. Jewish passengers often gave their nationality as "Jew" or "Hebrew". She evidently had a strong German identity, if after all those years of persecution she still called herself a German.
Manifest of the ship she arrived on., look for Betty Lowenstein on the list
The date of her arrival in the USA was exactly one year and one day after her son Heinz arrived in England.
8,000km journey from Kobe to Seattle

From Seattle, Betty got a bus to Reading, Pennsylvania. I looked this bus journey up on the Greyhound website. Today (2010) its a three day journey costing 234 dollars. Greyhound puts the distance as 5,000 kilometers. Seattle is on the Pacific coast while Reading is close to New York on the Atlantic coast.

I assume her brothers were in Reading.
Altogether, the journey of a lifetime. Perhaps one day I can recreate it.
The distance from Berlin to Reading is about 6,000 kilometers. The path Betty took to reach her destination was in excess of 24,000 kilometers. 
 5,000km bus journey across the USA
The text she wrote is undated. She was naturalized in 1946, and the essay appears to have been written as part of her preparations for American citizenship. So it probably dates from between 1941 to 1946 and is reasonably accurate. 
My grandmother with her precise documentation has left something for posterity. Her account of her journey is so remarkable that it should probably be typed and uploaded to the internet.

Betty had sent her son to England on the 28th of August 1939, intending to join him three days later. Instead it took her a year to reach the USA, arriving on the 19th of August 1940. 
In June 1941 Germany invaded the USSR and this route closed. Six months later Japan attacked the USA and the Pacific end must have been cut. 

For further information and account of how her son was saved see This is also a remarkable story. 

This page from the US Holocaust Museum tells how 2,200 Polish Jews escaped over the Trans-Siberian:

A personal account by someone else who followed this route:

Betty Lowenstein's hand-typed account of her journey

More passport photos

Friday, April 16, 2010

Traffic Jams and Motorbikes

A few days ago I took my motorbike down to south Tel-Aviv today to get my seat repaired after someone slashed it.  There is a motorcycle upholsterer down there.  It would never have ocurred to me that such a person existed if I hadn't passed him by at some point.   His name is Sasson and he is one of the old school Russian immigrants. The new school came in the nineties, wear designer clothing and are ultra-cool but Sasson belongs to the generation that arrived in the seventies and grew up revering Stalin, wearing design-free clothes and thought gold teeth were the ultimate in cool. 

I once worked with a systems analyst from Bukhara (a city in Uzbekistan).  He was a charming man with a mouth full of gold teeth and we told him that if he got them replaced it would benefit his career, but he refused.  Apparently he felt taking ones perfectly good gold teeth out was too vain or something. 
Anyway Sasson has a glass eye, gold teeth and motorcycle seats in various states of repair hanging outside his "shop" which is really just a large garage-like room.  I selected the particular brand of fake leather I wanted for my up holstery and he gave me an old one he had lying around to use while he fixed it.  The cost was 200 shekels, or about 55 US dollars.
Today I went back to replace the seat. As I tried to drive to the motorway I found the Police blocking the way.  That happens occasionally in Israel.  Usually because someone has left a suspicious looking package in the road.  Assuming this was the case I got on the motorway from the next entrance where the road is narrow and even with a motorbike you find yourself struggling to get through the unusually heavy traffic.

Sasson only takes cash so I had to find a cashpoint which took a while because the first one I went to was no longer there and the second one was out of service. Only the third one worked.  Having got my new seat I though I would go and have a felafel at a particularly cheap place I like off Allenby and that's where things went badly wrong.  I found myself struggling through extremely heavy traffic.  In town even motorbikes can struggle because they are large and you have to take care not to scratch people and the gaps aren't quite wide enough to fit through.  It  would have been faster on a bicycle. Bicycles can also ignore traffic lights and one way systems in these conditions. 

Anyway I struggled to my 10 shekel felafel (3 dollars) and then struggled to get out of the city because the Police had cordoned off major exit roads.  What was going on?  For a moment I thought maybe there were some bombs going off but then a fellow motorcyclist explained.  It seems the Police in Israel haven't had enough action in recent years so they decided to make pretend.  In the middle of the rush hour they closed down major intersections and pretended there was a big terror attack taking place.  Tel-Aviv is pretty congested at the best of times but today was total chaos. Even on a motorcycle it took me twice as long as it should have done and spending your time struggling to slowly slalom round cars with a 200 kilogram motorcycle is no fun.  At least the temperature was a bearable 24 degrees centigrade.  In a couple of months it will be a lot hotter.   Actually I think you could have an Olympic sport involving Vespa drivers slaloming round moving cars. 

As I finally got into my neighbourhood I saw a police car whiz by on the empty road they had cordoned off.  Number M2.  M is for Mishtara (Police) so M2 is the second in command.  I bet he'd pay a lot of money just to have the numberplate M1. 

Friday, April 2, 2010

A fine democracy: Why Israel shouldn't change its voting system

Attack the Israeli political system and no one will disagree with you. While all but a few loonies agree that democracy (pretty much any democracy) is preferable to dictatorship  (of any sort) most people who bother to voice an opinion will tell you that the Israeli proprtional representation system is flawed.
All political systems are flawed, presumably because human beings are flawed, and democracies, whichever mechanism they use to take decisions, have flaws that reflect the different methods they use.

In ancient Athens everyone gathered in a stadium and the majority of decisions were taken using a one man one vote system.  If you ignore the fact that women, slaves and children didn't vote it was still problematic because large groups of people are prone to behave like football fans and get over excited or follow demagogues.  This way makes it hard to take quick decisions or deal with the kind of society where everybody has to work: you need slaves and wives who can free you to spend all day hanging out in the stadium voting and watching football.

Most of the people who don't like the Israeli system want Israel to be more like other countries and these people tend to assume that if we use another countries political system then we will be more like that country, for example if Israel had a presidential system then we would have a seat on the security council and could bomb Iraq and Iran at will.  The truth is we would still be a two bit little country that pisses the hell out of everyone else and just because Netanyahu is called "Mr President" wont turn him into Ben-Gurion or Clintonת. 
In fact the US system has major problems.  The men who designed it, back in 1776, were trying to ensure no dictators took over and they made the country virtually ungovernable with two parliaments (congress and the senate), a president and supreme court none of which can take orders from the other.  The result 225 years later is that it is impossible to give the Americans decent health care or stop them buying guns.  In addition the US system of directlly electing the president means that the country is periodically ruled by men like George Bush who, if he were given countrol of a small country with many enemies, could cause a major disaster.  

British Jews like say, Bernard Lewis, naturally prefer a system like Britain's. According to the British Daily Telegraph this week, Israel's electoral system is a major barrier to Middle East peace. Presumably they prefer the Syrian system where 99.9% vote for one party.   In this case the assumption is that if we make each member of Knesset represent a constituency then things would improve. Members of Knesset would address each other as "the honourable member for Umm El-Fahm north", instead of having 120 seats in the Knesset one would have about 60 and it would always look full (the British parliament has 646 members fighting for 440 available places to sit), we would have a seat on the security council and could rule India and most of the Middle East without actually having to have the natives in Parliament.  Ideally we would also play more cricket.
The advantage of the British system is that (like in Israel) the elected representatives control who is the prime minister, so George Bush is unlikely to get elected or stay in power.  On the other hand a poorly educated, unelected and very rich elderly woman (eg the Queen) actually decides which memeber of parliament should be the prime minister and the British have a second parliament full of unelected "lords" whose great-great-grandmother had an affair with the monarch resulting in great-great-grand daddy getting a nice piece of turf to play cricket on.  Oh and grandpa had extensive slave plantations in the Carribean and ruled Kenya.  I guess in Israel a House of Lords would be full of retired generals, ex-members of knesset, rabbis and businessman who paid for the privelege (as they do in Britain).  It hardly sounds like a great deal. 

In Britain people have been trying for years to change the system which makes it impossible for anybody except members of the two main parties to get elected.  40% of Britons don't bother to vote (turnout is lower then in Israel) and many of the votes of those who do bother don't count.  British governments get huge majorities although in practice only a minority of the population has voted for them. One side effect of this is that every ten years the British elect a government who spends the next decade undoing everything their predecessors did and that's how the country looks.  Its hardly a great success.  

Naturally most of the people who want Israel's system to change are anglo-saxons.  They want Israel to be more like home and assume that because their system has worked for a long time it is a great model. Since the war the Germans have had a great system, half proportional representation and half constituencies, but for some reason nobody wants a democracy like Germany.  Ironically nobody suggests we use the Dutch system which has been in use since 1917 (Holland is one of the world's oldest democracies).  There is a good reason for that:  the system we use IS the Dutch system and nobody thinks there's anything wrong with Holland's democracy.

In my opinion there are two points being missed here.  Firstly the British and American systems have evolved over time and are not simply the result of a great piece of constitutional engineering and secondly, the Israeli system is pretty good. Basically there are no magic solutions to the Israeli political system (or for that matter to the conflict with the Palestinians).

The British system has evolved over time.  Britain has no constitution and the system is a mixture of tradition and continual fine adjusting, the society has evolved with the system and the two are matched.  Changes are made gradually and carefully and that, in my opinion, is how things should be done. In 1996 a radical attempt at reform was made in Israel by having Prime Ministers directly elected to "reduce the bargaining power of small parties". What happened was the opposite, voters chose a Prime Minister they wanted and then were free to vote for their particular special interest party.  So not only was the system undermined, the result was the opposite of the intention. Overnight the main two parties lost about a third of their vote.  The new system was abandoned but the parties have never recovered.  The number of special interest parties multiplied and that is the way the system remains.  I am optimistic that the situation will return to what it was over the next few elections, but as you can see change takes decades to take effect, people do not change overnight just because the method of election changes overnight.

Although the American system was designed by a few old men, it has been subject to continual gentle adjusting (constitutional amendments) and no radical changes.  Society and electoral system have evolved together and the democratic system, for all its flaws, is highly stable.

The Israeli system is not nearly as bad as it is portrayed.  Israeli governments were dominated by the Labour party for twenty five years and over the sixty odd years of Israel's existence it has arguably beem more stable then most countries. The National Religious Party was part of coalitions for decades and Shas has been in most governments over the last twenty five years.  Israel has survived continual war, mass emmigration and terror with little damage to democracy.  I doubt Britain could survive that long without the collapse of democracy. The Israeli system has been able to rapidly adjust to the fast changing structure of society. The one million Russians who migrated in 1991 are today representated by the 12 seats of Lieberman. Incidentally Russians also want Israel to be more like Russia.  Unlike the anglo-saxons who want their election system emulated, Russians have no such desire (obviously Russian democracy is no great shakes) but many would like us to handle Gaza the way the Russians handle Chechnya.  They too, presumably, think that behaving like Russia will lead to a seat on the security council, a sputnik and the right to invade Afghanistan.
In a country at war decisions need to be made by consensus and that is what happens in Israel.  Most major sections of society are represented in the Knesset and their opinions brought to bear when making decisions.  It isn't easy but it shouldn't be. We all need to agree before we make major changes and our society is composed of some radically different segments.

Finally one should note that the Israeli system was not invented in 1948.  It started in 1920 (one could argue that Israel is one of the world's longest standing democracies), when the Yishuv in "Palestine" (as the British called it) created a council to manage its affairs and raise and allocate funds.  This was in accordance with the terms of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine and from 1928 the British recognized the authority of the "Vaad Leumi" (National Committee).  They chose proportional system as a fair way of establishing the relative strengths of parties with radically different agendas.  It is also the same system used by the World Zionist Organization, which held its first elections in about 1900 and, until 1939 had more members then the Yishuv. 

In 1948 there was no need to develop new democratic institutions: everything was in place. The Israeli political system has quite literally evolved with the society and state and it is a terribly dangerous ploy to try and radically redesign such an effective time-tested system. A bit like having a heart transplant. You only do things like that if the patient is terminally ill.  

If we need to make fine adjustments to the Israeli political system, what should we do?

 Well at present you need a low minimum of votes (threshold) to get a party elected: the equivalent of two seats.  That should be that you need the a minimual support of four seats to get elected (in Germany the figure is 5%). I say that despite being a supporter of the Green Movement which I am sure will, for the first time, scrape into the Knesset in the next elections (it may do better).

Recreating ancient kingdoms: Arab Nationalism vs Zionism.

Although Zionism and Arab Nationalism are at loggerheads over Palestine (or perhaps Southern Syria), the two have a certain amount in common...