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Long lost WWII-era Soviet songs brought to life in Israel
By ARON HELLER | Tue, July 9, 2019 08:40 EDT
TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — In a musty basement hall of an unassuming building nestled among modern high-rises in the heart of Tel Aviv, a few hundred spectators are kindly requested to turn off their cellphones. What makes the typical scene surreal is that they are asked to do so in Yiddish — the playful, lyrical language of Diaspora European Jews.
In its first performance in Israel, a Grammy-nominated concert had arrived to play the lost songs of lost Jews in a nearly lost language. More than 70 years after the purged poems of Holocaust survivors, victims and Jewish Red Army soldiers were first composed and curated, a Canadian historian has brought back to life works thought to be long gone.
The result is “Yiddish Glory,” a collection of songs describing the harrowing World War II experience of Soviet Jews. Even amid the horrors of the Holocaust, Jewish musicians created a vibrant cultural life in camps and ghettos, with the arts providing a refuge, a sense of meaning and even a form of resistance.
“The last thing a lot of Yiddish speaking people did was to write a song,” said Anna Shternshis, the University of Toronto professor behind the project. “Before Yiddish was killed, it was sung.”
As the war raged, a group of Soviet Jewish ethnomusicologists led by Moisei Beregovsky recorded hundreds of Yiddish songs detailing the Holocaust and Jewish resistance to fascism as part of an effort to preserve the fast-diminishing Jewish culture of the 1940s. Beregovsky planned to publish an anthology after the war, but the project was shut down in 1949 at the height of Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge and Beregovsky was arrested on suspicion of promoting Jewish nationalism. His documents were seized and he died thinking his work had been destroyed.
Only after the fall of the Soviet Union did a librarian stumble upon 15 unmarked boxes containing the collection. She catalogued them, but it was another decade before Shternshis came upon the trove of handwritten poems in the Ukrainian National Library as she was conducting research for her dissertation on prewar Jewish culture in the Soviet Union.
Instead of writing what she called “another boring book,” Shternshis decided to put them to song with the help of Russian-American musician Psoy Korolenko, who was responsible for what he called “melodic solutions” to the newly discovered lyrics.
While some of the poems had suggested notes, Korolenko had to tap into his musical knowledge of the times to create appropriate tunes for the others. He called their unusual collaboration “musical archaeology,” and believed the original authors would be proud to see their works come to life.
“These are not private diaries. These are songs. Songs are supposed to be sung before people,” he said before the Tel Aviv performance. “These people were not expecting anyone to hear them ever because they were preparing to die.”
Shternshis says the songs themselves depict the times in graphic detail — describing, for instance, what Jews wished to do to German soldiers — and for their hatred of Hitler and praise of Stalin, who only years later would turn on his own Jewish population.
The concert opened with “Babi Yar,” based on a likely eyewitness account of the notorious 1941 massacre of more than 33,000 Jews in a ravine outside Kiev that became a symbol of Nazi evil.
“What hardships we’ve endured! What kind of great evil decree is this?” reads the poem. “Oh, from this misfortune, so many have fled. The ones left are lying in Babi Yar.”
“Yoshke From Odessa” tells the story of a Jewish soldier in the Red Army — one of half a million — who slices his enemies into pieces like a butcher. “My Machine Gun” invokes the pride another otherwise helpless Jew felt at being armed, set against a Klezmer tune.
Such songs were later used as evidence against Beregovsky, who was punished for focusing on the Jewish victims of the Nazis, instead of the communist narrative that all Soviet citizens were equal victims. Of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, 2.4 million were killed on Soviet soil. An additional 300,000 either died in combat or during evacuation, Shternshis said.
“I think about these people who so rarely get to tell their stories in their own words. It’s always translated and purified and explained. But here I don’t touch them. This is what they say. I just let them speak,” she said. “It’s interesting to bring someone back from the dead.”
The project is also part of current attempts to resurrect the Yiddish language. Much of the world’s Yiddish speakers perished in the Holocaust and those who survived often refrained from speaking it publicly again because of anti-Semitism. In the Soviet Union, it was viewed suspiciously.
Even in the new state of Israel, the language was discouraged, as early Zionists sought to rally the new nation around modern Hebrew and leave the symbols of the Diaspora behind. It has mostly survived in pockets of the ultra-Orthodox community and has recently enjoyed a revival among secular progressives who’ve created cultural organizations and launched a Yiddish theater.
“Yiddish never fully stopped. It always went on,” said Korolenko, who regaled the audience with his nostalgic singing and piano playing. “Yiddish has never been a dead language, even in the 20th century when it was in so much danger.”
For Shternshis, holding the performance in Israel had extra significance.
“The people who sang these songs all dreamt of Israel, but nearly none got to see it created,” she said. “They couldn’t make it, but their music made it.”
Follow Heller at www.twitter.com/aronhellerap
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1 Justice Department, 2 views on sex charges against Epstein
By CURT ANDERSON | Tue, July 9, 2019 08:44 EDT
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — There is only one Justice Department, but two of its largest U.S. attorneys’ offices came to vastly different conclusions about what to do with financier Jeffrey Epstein over allegations he sexually molested dozens of underage girls.
Eleven years ago, Miami U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta — now President Donald Trump’s labor secretary — approved an extraordinary secret agreement in which Epstein pleaded guilty to lesser state charges rather than face much tougher federal prosecution on charges he sexually abused underage girls at his homes in Florida and New York from 2002 through 2005.
On Monday, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman announced the indictment of Epstein, 66, on sex trafficking and conspiracy charges stemming from at least some of the same conduct that was covered in the agreement over a decade ago. Epstein, who served 13 months after his 2008 Florida plea deal, is now looking at 45 years behind bars if convicted in New York.
Epstein pleaded not guilty Monday to the new charges and is being held until a bail hearing next week. Prosecutors want him detained until the case is resolved, contending he is a flight risk because of his extraordinary wealth.
It’s highly unusual for one federal prosecutor to pass on an indictment only to have another located elsewhere to determine otherwise, defense attorneys say. And Epstein’s lawyers argued Monday that the previous deal more than covers the new charges brought, and therefore their client cannot be prosecuted. But federal prosecutors in New York said the deal made in Miami does not apply to them.
“A 10-year-old prosecution like this one by a different district is extremely rare and dangerous, even if the previous plea agreement is later viewed as a really bad one,” said David O. Markus, a prominent Miami defense attorney not involved in the case. “We have one federal government, and defendants and their lawyers should be able to trust that a deal is a deal.”
The allegations are that abuse occurred in both Palm Beach, Florida, and New York, but that has been publicly known for years, though authorities say there are some crimes specific to New York.
But at a Monday court hearing, Epstein attorney Reid Weingarten dismissed the idea that the new indictment would reveal anything new: “This is ancient stuff. This is essentially a redo. “
The non-prosecution agreement notes that Epstein “seeks to resolve globally” the entire case against him. There is some debate about that.
Berman credited what he called “investigative journalism” — certainly referring to a series last fall on the Epstein case by the Miami Herald — for providing his office with an avenue to take on the case. He also said the agreement signed by South Florida prosecutors and Epstein does not apply in New York.
“Too often adults in our society have turned a blind eye to the type of criminal behavior alleged here. We have seen the excuses,” said William Sweeney, head of the FBI’s New York field office.
The current head of the Justice Department, William Barr, declined to comment and said he has recused himself from the case because he once worked for a law firm that once represented Epstein. He didn’t name the firm.
Under the 2008 agreement, Epstein pleaded guilty to state prostitution-related charges and was allowed to go to his office during the day while he served his sentence. He also registered as a sex offender and agreed to pay millions of dollars to dozens of his victims.
But he didn’t have to face a federal indictment in Florida that would have meant a much longer prison sentence, possibly even life.
Acosta has defended the deal as appropriate under the circumstances. He also has noted how his prosecutors persisted in securing a conviction despite tremendous pressure from the defense, which included high-profile attorneys such as Kenneth Starr, Alan Dershowitz and Roy Black. They all have denied wrongdoing.
“One member of the defense team warned me that the office’s excess zeal in forcing a good man to serve time in jail might be the subject of a book if we continued,” Acosta wrote in a letter he made public after the non-prosecution agreement finally was revealed in a civil case. “Defense counsel investigated individual prosecutors and their families.”
Starr and others involved in Epstein’s defense in the Florida case wrote in a March letter to The New York Times that the deal was proper and fully reviewed at high levels of the Justice Department.
“An agreement rather than a trial is how over 97 percent of federal cases get resolved, through negotiations by two teams of experienced professionals,” Starr and the others wrote. “The case lacked the credible and compelling proof that is required by federal criminal statutes.”
Two victims have sued the federal government contending that prosecutors in Florida violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by failing to consult with or even inform them of Epstein’s deal. The Justice Department in that case — through prosecutors in the Atlanta U.S. attorney’s office — recently defended the plea agreement as proper. A judge, however, said it violated the victims’ act and is considering whether to void it.
Berman, the Manhattan U.S. attorney, however, said the victims whose cases remain unresolved were a key reason his office decided to pursue the indictment.
“They deserve their day in court. We are proud to be standing up for them by bringing this indictment,” Berman said.
Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Miamicurt
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Gaza’s traditional crafts industries rapidly disappearing
By FARES AKRAM and KHALIL HAMRA | Wed, July 10, 2019 02:52 EDT
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — When Gazans think of better economic times, images of clay pottery, colorful glassware, bamboo furniture and ancient frame looms weaving bright rugs and mats all come to mind.
For decades, these traditional crafts defined the economy of the coastal Palestinian enclave, employing thousands of people and exporting across the region. Today, the industries are almost non-existent.
While such professions have shrunk worldwide in the face of globalization and Chinese mass production, Gazan business owners say Israel’s 12-year blockade of the territory has accelerated the trend.
“We have been economically damaged. We are staying, but things are really difficult,” said Abed Abu Sido, one of Gaza’s last glassmakers, as he flipped through a glossy catalog of his products.
At his quiet workshop, layers of dust covered the few remaining glass artifacts, requiring him to scrub them to reveal their colors. Cardboard boxes of unfinished products and materials were stacked floor-to-ceiling.
Abu Sido opened his business in the 1980s, selling many of his items to vendors in the popular marketplace of Jerusalem’s Old City. In his heyday, he said he took part in exhibitions in Europe.
That changed after 2007, when the Hamas militant group overran Gaza, and Israel and Egypt responded by sealing Gaza’s borders. Abu Sido laid off his 15 workers and ceased operations the following year.
Israel says the blockade is needed to contain Hamas and prevent it from arming. But the closure, repeated rounds of fighting with Israel and a power struggle with the rival Palestinian Authority in the West Bank have hit Gaza hard.
Israel has greatly restricted exports and limited imports of raw materials. With unemployment over 50%, demand from the local market is weak. Israel blames the situation on Hamas, an armed group that opposes Israel’s existence.
In recent months, Israel has launched a number of “pilot” programs to allow Gaza businesses to export. But business owners say that after so many years of being unable to export, they have lost their former business partners and cannot simply restart operations.
Not far from Abu Sido’s workshop is Khalaf’s Carpentry, known for making prized cane and bamboo furniture.
Its living room sets, recliners, dining tables and chairs were once shipped to markets in the West Bank, Israel, Persian Gulf and America. The business flourished from 1975 until the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000.
Things worsened after the blockade, and owner Tareq Khalaf said he began laying off his 30 full-time workers. Now he has just five part-timers.
Though Israel has lifted the ban on some furniture exports, Khalaf said his clients moved to other suppliers long ago. Hamas taxes on raw materials have added another obstacle.
“This is a traditional Palestinian profession. The official authorities should make it a priority,” he said. “They have to support this industry.”
Thousands of unsold clay bowls, pots, vases and jugs sit in the yard of the Atallah pottery workshop. On a recent day, three employees shaped clay on the wheel, while two others mixed mud. Khairi Atallah, the pottery maker, said this is all that remains of the 50 workers he once employed.
Atallah said he can’t export to the West Bank and Israel, which absorbed up to 90% of his pottery before the blockade.
“The income is no longer enough to get by,” he said. He said he keeps operating because his father doesn’t want the generations-old business to close during his lifetime.
Mahmoud Sawaf, 73, believes he is the last weaver in Gaza. With the territory closed to tourists, international aid workers are the only people keeping him afloat. Cheaper straw mats have flooded Gaza, and local residents can’t afford his handmade carpets. But the foreigners still buy them.
“Even at this age I continue to work,” he said. “I will not give up and quit.”
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Virginia is now election battleground in fight over gun laws
By ALAN SUDERMAN and SARAH RANKIN 06:35 EDT
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Deep-pocketed interest groups and activists on both sides of the long-running fight over gun laws are gearing up for a major clash in Virginia, now a key election battleground in the issue after Republicans on Tuesday adjourned a special legislative session called by the governor to consider gun-control measures in the wake of a mass shooting.
The state’s off-year election will be closely watched because Virginia is the only state where control of the Legislature is up for grabs in 2019. Republicans currently hold a narrow majority.
GOP lawmakers abruptly ended the session after less than two hours and postponed any movement on gun laws until after the November election. Democrats and gun-control advocates vowed to force them from office.
“If these ‘leaders’ won’t enact solutions that their own constituents are demanding, then we’re going to fight tooth and nail for representatives who will,” Kris Brown, president of the Brady gun-control group, said in a statement.
Scores of gun-control advocates gathered Tuesday outside the Capitol, jeering at Republicans like House Speaker Kirk Cox. Meanwhile, hundreds of gun-rights supporters filed through a legislative office building to meet with lawmakers and in a show of force against stricter gun laws.
National Rifle Association spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen called it “deja vu in Virginia.”
“The gun control lobby says this every election cycle, and time and time again the hundreds of thousands of Virginians who support their fundamental right to self-defense go to the polls,” she said. “…This year the gun control lobby is screaming louder than ever in an effort to distract voters” from scandals involving top Democrats.
Virginia is generally considered a gun-friendly state and is home to NRA’s headquarters. The General Assembly has rejected numerous gun-control bills — including several proposed for the special session — year after year.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun-control group made a splash at the tail end of the 2015 legislative elections by announcing it was spending $2.2 million in two open state Senate races to help the Democratic candidates.
Republicans were shocked at the amount the billionaire’s group was putting into Virginia, but the spending did not appear to make much difference. One Bloomberg-backed candidate won in a Northern Virginia district that has voted reliably Democratic by large margins in past elections while the other Democratic nominee lost in pivotal swing-seat in the Richmond area.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam summoned the Republican-led Legislature to the Capitol to address gun violence in the wake of the May 31 attack that killed a dozen people in Virginia Beach. He put forward a package of eight gun-control measures and called for “votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers” in response to the massacre.
Republicans said it was Northam, still dealing with the fallout of a blackface scandal that almost drove him from office, who had acted improperly. They assigned the state’s bipartisan crime commission to study policy proposals that might have prevented the shooting.
“Quite frankly, we need to take a little bit deeper look at these issues and actually do something rather than stage manage a vote in which we’re just trying to embarrass each other,” state Sen. Mark Obenshain said.
Richard Keene, a 51-year-old gun owner from Chesterfield, said the session turned out to be “a lot of hype for nothing.”
“I’m a little disappointed in everyone, actually,” he said. “I don’t feel like the common, normal person, the normal American, is represented anymore. It’s frustrating.”
The special session got off to a chaotic start, with the Republican Senate majority leader averting a mutiny in the GOP caucus by publicly disavowing a gun-control bill he proposed only a day earlier.
On Monday, the leader, Tommy Norment, shocked fellow Republicans by filing surprise legislation to broadly ban guns in any government building statewide. That prompted an immediate backlash in the GOP caucus, which controls the chamber by a slim 20-19 advantage. His top vote-counter, Sen. Bill Stanley, resigned as majority whip in protest.
But the departure did not last long. Stanley said Norment apologized and asked Stanley to reconsider his resignation. The caucus quickly restored him to his position, and Norment announced that he would throw out his own bill.
After the adjournment, Northam issued a statement saying it was “shameful and disappointing” that Republicans “refuse to do their jobs and take immediate action to save lives.”
The Virginia Beach attack began when a civil engineer opened fire on his co-workers and others. Police said DeWayne Craddock used two semi-automatic handguns, a silencer and extended ammunition magazines to kill 12 people at a municipal building. Craddock was then killed in a gunbattle with police.
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Saudi princess tried in absentia for alleged Paris beating
By NICOLAS VAUX-MONTAGNY | Tue, July 9, 2019 04:37 EDT
PARIS (AP) — The only daughter of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman was put on trial in absentia Tuesday in Paris for allegedly ordering her bodyguard to strike a plumber she suspected of taking photos and video at the Saudi royal family’s apartment in the French capital.
Prosecutors allege Princess Hessa bint Salman became enraged when she saw the plumber allegedly capturing her image, fearing the pictures could be used to harm her as the Saudi monarch’s daughter due to her country’s conservative traditions.
She left France shortly after the September 2016 incident and was not present for the one-day trial. A warrant for her arrest had been issued in December 2017.
The princess’ lawyer said she was not present because correspondence was sent to the Paris address, not to the royal palace in Saudi Arabia. Bint Salman, who is the older half-sister of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has denied the allegations through her lawyer.
The princess is charged with complicity in violence and sequestration and theft of the plumber’s telephone. The body guard, Rani Saida, is charged with violence and sequestration and theft. The plumber was allegedly held for three hours at the residence on a posh avenue near the Champs-Elysees.
The presiding judge, quoting from prosecution evidence, said the princess allegedly told her bodyguard to disparage the workman, calling him a “dog who doesn’t deserve to live.”
The French-Egyptian plumber, Ashraf Eid — also not present at the trial — told Paris police the bodyguard tied him up at the princess’ bidding after he photographed a room to help in returning furniture to its original layout once he finished his work.
“The princess noticed that her face was reflected in the bathroom and that she had been filmed. She called me a dog and called her bodyguard saying in Arabic, ‘This one, take his phone. He filmed me,'” Eid reported to police investigators.
Eid said the bodyguard broke his phone and made him kiss the Saudi princess’ feet while his hands were bound behind his back.
Saida denied being physically aggressive, but said it is widely known that no one is supposed to photograph the princess and alleged Eid “knew very well what he had done.”
“There are 20 or 30 witnesses inside the apartment who can testify that at no time was (the workman) touched,” he said, adding that breaking Eid’s phone was “the biggest mistake.”
“It deprives us showing that this gentleman took videos intentionally,” Saidi said.
The prosecutor asked the court to convict the princess and sought a six-month suspended sentence and a 5,000-euro fine. He sought an eight-month suspended sentence for the bodyguard plus a 5,000-euros fine.
The princess “is the authority” at the residence, the prosecutor said. “She is at the origin of what happened.”
Violence was medically proven and sequestration was “manifest,” he argued.
The princess’ lawyer, Emmanuel Moyne, said his client should be acquitted, saying that in her absence “you can have her say anything.”
The verdict is expected at a later date.
Associated Press writers Thomas Adamson and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.