Two Coincidences: Holocaust in Belgrade, and Jack Ruby and the Death of Lee Harvey Oswald (3 cents)

1. The Holocaust in Serbia. One of the films shown at the Jewish film festival in DC last week was “When Day Breaks”, a drama set in contemporary and Nazi Belgrade. A somewhat shy, aging choral conductor, Brankov, is called into the offices of the Jewish Museum in Belgrade (a place where he presumably has never before been) and presented with an old metal box, containing some photos and letters and a piece of unfinished music called “When Day Breaks”, which had been unearthed from the Belgrade Fairgrounds, which had served as a camp for Jews, pre-execution, during the early 1940s. He is told that the box was recently discovered by some workers repairing a water main break, and that it was placed there by his parents, who name was Weiss. He is told that the letter states that their two year old son had been placed with the Brankovs, non-Jews, to be hidden for the duration of the war. This is a big shock to Weiss, who gets over his disbelief by visiting both his older “brother”, who knew the story but was sworn to secrecy, and an old Jewish resident of the city who had known both the Weiss’s and the Brankovs.

I can’t say that I found the film (apparently based on the true story of a friend of the director’s) to be very good, although the premise was interesting, and some of the acting first class, but it did have some interesting old footage of the Fairgrounds. I have never been to Belgrade, but apparently the city borders the Sava River, and the fairgrounds are located across the river from the center of the city. Opened in the late 1930s as a place of recreation (it sort of looked like a somewhat larger version of Glen Echo Park in suburban Washington), with a large number of white, or off-white, Bauhaus style (?) buildings, broad paths and green lawns, it was only a few years before it was used, instead, as a temporary camp for Jews who were removed from the city (Belgrade’s Jewish population at the time was not very large, perhaps 8000), housed within view of downtown, and then exterminated. The film footage showed the Fairgrounds during its few years of operation, with early 20th century European elegance.

Today, the Fairgrounds apparently still exist, but were not re-opened as a recreational site. Instead the buildings fell into ruin, with some slum-like dwellings built which were still occupied by people (often emigrants to the city) with no economic means whatsoever. Most people in Belgrade, including those living in the Fairgrounds, have no idea of the history of the area. At least, that is what the film portrays.

Two weeks ago, I knew nothing about the Nazi period in Yugoslavia. But then I chanced (at that really is the appropriate word) upon a novel by David Albahari, a Serbian-Jewish writer now living in Canada called “Gotz and Meyer”. I recommend the book highly. Gotz and Meyer are two German soldiers, assigned to the Fairgrounds in Belgrade, and drivers of a large truck which is used to take prisoners from the Fairgrounds, and drive them around the city, while the truck filled with carbon monoxide, dumping the now dead passengers at a site where other prisoners (Serbs this time, not Jews apparently) put them into the mass graves which they had dug. Not an appealing story, to be sure. The novel, told from the point of view of a Jewish academic of Serbian background who is researching his family tree, learning about the fate of Belgrade’s Jewish population during the years of World War II, focuses on these two drivers (he has learned their names in his research) and on what they might have been thinking as they went about their task. It is a surprisingly good book – and short, only 165 pages in the edition I have, and (you have to admit this is original) contains only one, very long paragraph.

The coincidence of my reading the book and seeing the film occurred to me. The era they both portray is an identical one, with only a few discrepancies (one being that, in the book, the prisoners at the Fairgrounds are mainly women, children and the elderly, the men having been shot before, but in the film, men and women are prisoners in the camp). The truck driven by the Gotz and Meyer is carefully described in the book and, in the film, in the archival footage, there it was. Very interesting.

2. The death of John F. Kennedy. We are coming upon the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination later in 2013 (November 21, I believe), and it looks like there will be attention once more on his murderer, Lee Harvey Oswald, and on Owald’s killer, Jack Ruby. Recently, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., for example, came out with a statement that he believes that Oswald did not act alone, and that the Warren Commission did a terrible job of investigating both Kennedy’s and Oswald’s deaths.

“Who Was Jack Ruby?” was written by reporter Seth Kantor, who had been based in Dallas, knew Ruby and was present at the time Kennedy was killed, and who firmly believed that the Warren Commission did a terrible job investigating the crimes and that the decisions that Ruby and Oswald had no connection, and that its conclusion that they each acted independently and on their own was premature at best.

He discusses Ruby’s Chicago background and his connection with underworld, the relationship between the Chicago and Dallas underworlds, the connections between the Kennedys and the underworld, mob connections in Chicago and Havana, the relationship of Oswald to Cuba, the trips made by Ruby to Cuba, and much more, showing what aspects of these topics were looked into by the Commission and which ones were ignored. He talks about the role of the CIA and the FBI and how certain topics were deemed off-limits to the Commission because of agency involvement. He talks about the shortcomings of the organization and staffing of the Warren Commission.

Kantor talks a lot about the activities of the mob, and this means he speaks a lot about Jewish mobsters, and the list of Jewish mobsters in endless, including:
Meyer Lansky, Jake Lansky, Martin Fox, Pedro Fox, Rudy Eichenbaum, Abe Weinstein, Barney Weinstein, Frank Goldstein, Alex Gruber, Hyman Rubenstein, Lenny (Leonard Levine) Patrick, Irwin Weiner, David Yaras, Jake (Greasy Thumb) Guzik, Barney Baker, Bernard Weissman, Abe Attel, Mickey Cohen, Bugsy Siegel, Barney Rasofsky, Jimmy Weinberg, Ralph Paul, Harry Siedband, Elmer Solomon, Harry Haller, and more. Who were all these people. And, assuming that a comparable Jewish mafia does not exist today, where are their children and grandchildren?

At any rate, the Kantor book is, I know, difficult to find, and probably largely forgotten (it was written in 1978 and Kantor is no longer living), but my guess is that you will hear about it again in this 50th anniversary year.

And, the fact that I was reading this book when I heard the comments by Robert Kennedy, Jr. is, I think, the second coincidence.

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