In memory of Jerry Gotel, z’l

Jerry and aid Dr RosenfeldJerold ‘Jerry’ Gotel, who died in London in October, was a pioneering Jewish educator and historian, who, among other things, helped to return Jewish learning and Jewish culture to the place of its destruction in eastern Europe, and almost single-handedly created Jewish studies in China.

He was born in January 1946 to Holocaust survivors in New York City. He received a Yeshiva education before studying at Brooklyn College, and later at Pembroke College, Oxford, and the Sorbonne in Paris.

It was an unusual path to take for a man raised in the Orthodox world of Yiddishkeit, but Jerold was unusual, and he took New York City with him to Europe; in the 1980s he established an American restaurant on what was then the wasteland of London’s south bank. Visitors to this gloomy area were surprised to see, twinkling from the window of a converted Victorian house, a neon sign: American Bar and Grill. This was Studio Six, the first of his successful restaurants, although East of the Sun, West of the Moon, whose menu was based on a fusion of Asian and eastern European cuisine, inspired by an historical Jewish community living in China – which only he had heard of – was not the success he hoped. But if Jerry dreamt and lost, he laughed; he knew too much history to be hurt by small things.

If restaurants were his business, scholarship was where his heart lay. In the early 1980s, his passion for Jewish history led to his becoming involved with the nascent Spiro Institute, later the London Jewish Cultural Centre (LJCC). His encyclopedic knowledge of traditional Judaism and Jewish history, and his electric personality, made him a superb teacher. As the Spiro Institute developed a Modern Jewish History program at schools such as Eton, Harrow and St Paul’s Boys School, Jerry became integral to its teaching. He taught adults and students all over the country.

Besides teaching British children and adults, Jerold and his colleagues were asked by Sir Martin Gilbert, whose visa had been revoked, if a dozen teachers, each going once a year, could go to Russia and to teach Jewish history to refuseniks. Jerry’s allocated subject was Zionism. He gave lectures in Moscow and St Petersburg in private homes. But he was betrayed and hauled into KGB headquarters where, after an uncomfortable interview, he was told to be a tourist. Jerry’s charisma was often effective in thwarting the bureaucrats of the former Soviet Union. He was proud that his exploits were written up in a Russian newspaper, where he was accused of propagating nationalism amongst the minorities.  He also took children from deprived backgrounds to the death camps, to teach them about prejudice.

As the LJCC developed an overseas program, Jerry was perfectly positioned to become its director. He began to mastermind teacher training about the Shoah in Poland. When the International Task Force for Holocaust Education was created (now known as IHRA), the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office asked Jerry to be part of the British delegation. He pioneered the first ever Task Force seminar. The object was to train teachers in those countries where the Shoah had occurred, but had little education around the subject. This was phenomenally successful; and it took a man of great resilience and optimism to do it. Some of today’s members of the Polish delegation were originally trained by Jerry.

The success of Jerry’s work led to further seminars in the Ukraine and Belarus. The LJCC would bring in experts from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, Yad Vashem, the Wansee House in Berlin, and the Anne Frank House in Holland. Jerry also helped to pioneer the very successful tours program, taking adult students of Jewish history to sites throughout Europe.

There was nobody quite like him, and he was a man to whom strange things happened. In Bialystok, just after the fall of Communism, Jerry was approached by an old man. He had seen that the men of the group were wearing kippot, and began speaking to Jerry in Yiddish. The man told Jerold that he was a Ko’hen, that he had married the Catholic woman who hid him during the war, and insisted that all thirty of the group visit his apartment. In his tiny, modest home, this Jewish man, who had not spoken to another Jew since the war, pronounced the priestly blessing, beneath a portrait of the Pope.

Fifteen years ago, the Hong Kong expatriate Jewish community decided to commemorate Yom Ha’Shoah. They had borrowed exhibits from the Sydney Holocaust Museum, but had no educator. Jerry stepped up, and was surprised to discover that a thousand Chinese people a day were coming to see the exhibition. It was at that time that he met Xu Xin, Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Nanjing. This marked the beginning of Jerry’s last great work.

In the past 17 years, he was at the forefront of Jewish education in China. His legacy at Henan University, where he was an associate professor at the Centre for Jewish Studies, includes more than thirty students with PhDs in Jewish history; twelve with jobs in Chinese universities; the Shalom Library, the biggest collection of books in China on Jewish history; study of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust; and the institution’s Centre for Jewish and Israel Studies, which has become the research base for Israel Studies designated by the Chinese Ministry of Education. Jerry was very proud of his Chinese students, and exceptionally fond of them.

Jerry was a founder trustee of the International Centre for Jewish Studies, created in 2016 to continue and develop this work in China and the wider East Asian region, following the merger of the LJCC into JW3.

Jerry adored his children Jared and Natalie, and was very close to them. Natalie describes her father as “larger than life. He left a powerful impression on everyone who met him.  His passion for knowledge and living made him outspoken, energetic, magnanimous, bold, defiant, inspiring, argumentative and, of course, he was always right. He was never a spectator, always impatient and could not help being the life and soul of many occasions”.

His background had made him a wanderer, but he loved London, where he died, in October.

 

 

 

Why ICJS? – a short film

“Our work in China has produced concrete results, because it’s reached hundreds of Chinese teachers and academics”, says ICJS founder trustee, the late Jerry Gotel, in a short film about the aims and work of the International Centre for Jewish Studies.

“The main focus”, explains Joanna Millan, ICJS’s chair, is currently to “run conferences in Chinese universities about Jewish studies, history and culture, including the Nazi Holocaust.”

Herself a survivor of the Holocaust, Joanna observes that, as a result of learning about the Holocaust, Chinese teachers feel better equipped to speak about traumas that their own people have endured: “The fact that I talk about what happened to me gives them permission to talk about what happened to them”, she says.

Trudy Gold, also a trustee says that: “As a result of our conferences, we’ve created a whole cadre of Chinese academics and intellectuals who feel incredibly positive towards the Jews.”

For Jerry, the connection between Jews and Chinese occurs in the insights they gain from a deeper understanding of each other’s culture: “The Chinese are looking for answers as to how they can function in the modern world without losing touch with their traditions”.

 

Remembering John Rabe, ‘the good man of Nanking’

JohnRabe

On 10 December 1937, the Japanese army invaded Nanjing. It would not take long before Japanese troops embarked on the now infamous Rape of Nanjing – eight weeks of looting, rape and killing that left tens of thousands of Chinese civilians dead.

The unlikely rescuer of thousands of Chinese during those dark, terrible weeks was Siemens branch manager and local Nazi party official, John Rabe.

Fearing the consequences of invasion, Rabe (pronounced Rah-bay) and a small group of westerners had, one month earlier, set up an ‘International Committee for the Nanking Security Zone’. The zone was a four-square kilometre safe area in the western part of the city, which included foreign embassies and Nanjing University, in which food and shelter could be provided for Chinese civilians. John Rabe was elected chairman of the committee in the hope that a Nazi might influence the Japanese military command.

Rabe did indeed manage to persuade the Japanese government not to attack parts of the city that did not contain Chinese military forces, and were also partially successful in persuading the Chinese government to move all their troops out of the area.

When the invasion was launched, Siemens ordered Rabe to leave the city; he chose to stay and defiantly opened his premises to 650 refugees. During the weeks that followed, Rabe and the committee’s efforts would provide refuge for some 200,000 Chinese non-combatants.

Rabe recorded his personal account of the atrocities in a 1,200-page diary. He tells of people who were shot, doused with gasoline and burned alive. In an entry dated 17 December, he writes:

“In one of the houses in the narrow street behind my garden wall, a woman was raped, and then wounded in the neck with a bayonet. I managed to get an ambulance so we can take her to Kulou Hospital… Last night up to 1,000 women and girls are said to have been raped, about 100 girls at Ginling Girls College alone. You hear nothing but rape. If husbands or brothers intervene, they’re shot. What you hear and see on all sides is the brutality and bestiality of the Japanese soldiers.”

The diary also contains Rabe’s reflections about the personal choice he has made: “There is a question of morality here…I cannot bring myself for now to betray the trust these people have put in me, and it is touching to see how they believe in me.”

John Rabe left Nanjing in 1938 and returned to Germany in February. Still an enthusiastic Nazi, he gave a lecture in Germany shortly after his return, in which he explained that: “Although I feel tremendous sympathy for the suffering of China, I am still, above all, pro-German and I believe not only in the correctness of our political system but, as an organizer of the party, I am behind the system 100 percent.”

Rabe’s faith in the Nazi system was not however to be reciprocated. He wrote to Hitler, begging him to persuade Japan to stop the violence. The letter was intercepted by the Gestapo; Rabe was arrested, interrogated and ordered to keep silent on the subject. His documents and photographs of the massacres were destroyed.

Rabe spent the remaining war years working for Siemens. After the war, he was arrested – first by the Soviets and then by the British. He was denounced for his Nazi party membership, stripped of his work permit and made to undergo a lengthy de-Nazification process in the hope of regaining permission to work. Unable to work and with his savings depleted, Rabe and his family were reduced to poverty and malnutrition. Finally, in June 1946, he was declared ‘de-Nazified’ for his humanitarian acts in China. The investigation had proved draining, and Rabe died of a stroke in 1950.

It is only in recent years has John Rabe’s story become known and his contribution fully appreciated. In 1997, his tombstone was moved from Berlin to Nanjing where it was given a place of honour at the massacre memorial site. In 1998, his diaries were translated into English and published in US under the title, The Good Man of Nanking. Most of those who have written about Rabe draw a parallel with Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who protected Jews, in recognition of his courage and humanity in the face of cruelty.

For Rabe himself, the choice had been a simple one. In a diary entry dated 10 December 1937, he writes: “If you can do good, why hesitate?”