(March 30, 2016 / JNS)
Marta Wise. Yosef Lefkowitz. Rena Quint. Behind every Holocaust survivor’s name, there is a story. And for the roughly 240,000 survivors living in Israel today, each story’s ending bespeaks the most poetic of justices.
“When I made aliyah in the middle of the war in Gaza in 2014, everyone asked if I was afraid to come,” says Jose (Yosef) Lefkowitz. “But I told them, after everything I’ve been through, what will happen to all of Israel will happen to me. I’m not afraid.”
Born 89 years ago in Krakow, by bar mitzvah age Lefkowitz was working alongside the men in a forced labor camp, eventually surviving Auschwitz, Mauthausen, and a dozen other concentration camps.
After liberation, Lefkowitz lived in Austria and Germany, where he was involved in Nazi hunting (“and got some biggies”), and in Poland, where he traveled the countryside freeing hidden Jewish children from Polish homes, before moving to Argentina. North America was next—“I wanted to give my children a real Jewish education,” he says—first in New York and then Montreal. He made aliyah two years ago, joining his grandson, who is serving in the Israeli army.
“I always wanted to do it, but there was always a reason not to,” Lefkowitz says. “After my wife died, I finally decided if I am not going now I will never go. I knew that, in all the other countries I was just the wandering Jew. Here I would be at home.”
For Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the chief rabbi of Israel from 1993-2003, Israel became home when he was still in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
“I was 8 and inside the fence, and my brother, who was 11 years older, stood outside the fence,” Lau tells JNS.org. “‘If a miracle happens and you survive this terrible thing, there is only one place to go and that is Eretz Yisroel’ (the land of Israel), he told me. ‘Say it after me: ’Eretz Yisroel.’ I had never heard the words before, but I said them and I never forgot them.”
While most of the rest of their family members were killed, the two Lau brothers in June 1945 were among the first group of Holocaust survivors to arrive in what would soon become the State of Israel.
Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees—from the Holocaust or other crises—have decided to set the remainder of their life’s chapters in Israel, often seeing grandchildren they never thought they’d live to have grow up in a Jewish state they never thought they’d live to see.
Marta Wise in one of them. At 10, she was taken from her home in Czechoslovakia. Not only did she and her older sister survive Auschwitz-Birkenau (almost unheard of for children), but also Josef Mengele’s medical experiment block. After the war, Wise moved to Australia, where she became a historian, from where she made aliyah to Jerusalem 18 years ago, and where she continues to share her story with groups and volunteer at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.
“Here, our story is part of the culture of Israel,” says Wise. “Once a woman showed me the number on her arm—it was just one number off from my sister or me. We must have been in line together at Auschwitz. It reminded me that we are not a minority here and can speaking openly.”
One place where English-speaking survivors come together is Café Europa, a weekly program sponsored by the Municipality of Jerusalem. “We have 120 people on our list and I get to hear all their stories,” says Debbie Shalom, the social worker who runs the program. “What amazes me is no two are exactly alike. But they’re all happy to be here; they say that being in Israel they finally feel at peace.”
Besides uniting kindred souls, another function of the group is to provide information about the benefits Holocaust survivors are entitled to, from German reparations to Polish pensions to the free pharmaceuticals Israel provides them.
But as the older survivors reach the end of their lives, there are fewer left to give testimony, and that job is increasingly falling to those who were hidden children and never experienced the terrors of a concentration camp.
“I’m telling my story more and more,” sighs Lefkowitz. “I don’t like it or want it but people want to know and there are fewer of us now who can tell it.”
Yet the demand for storytelling, he says, is escalating since arriving in Israel.
“Here they are directly involved—I am telling their story,” he says. “If I were just an ordinary gentile, I would never believe that such a thing could happen, that some nobody could be an angel of death and kill us for no reason. But Jews? We know it’s possible because it happened to us.”
Rena Quint, 80, who survived Bergen-Belsen and was sent to recuperate in a hospital in Sweden, reports that she is in more demand these days as a speaker—in part because she is in Israel. “This didn’t happen nearly as much in Brooklyn,” she says. “I had a Jewish life there, but much different. In the States you can’t escape Christmas. Here you can’t escape Purim. There’s a carnival in front of my house. It’s a whole rich Jewish life.”
The best “revenge” for the Holocaust, she adds, is her descendants, including 22 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren—and two more on the way.
But who will testify when the witnesses are gone? “As the survivors depart from us,” says Simmy Allen, a Yad Vashem spokesman, “we are creating movies and other ways to present testimonies.” Efforts are intensifying at the museum and other institutions around the world to collect testimonies and names—Yad Vashem, for instance, has 4.7 million victims’ names in its database and continues to add more.
Even as they depart, survivors are still arriving—in Israel.
“Aliyah is the final closing of the loop of Jewish history,” says Marc Rosenberg, director of pre-aliyah for Nefesh B’Nefesh, which helps Diaspora Jews move to Israel.
Each time a planeload of new olim (immigrants to Israel) arrive, hundreds of Israelis turn out to welcome them. “But on one recent arrival, after everyone else had deplaned, nobody needed to tell the crowd that the elderly couple being brought in in wheelchairs were Holocaust survivors. They all just seemed to know. And they surrounded them in a special embrace, singing and cheering them the whole way,” Rosenberg says.
The numbers also tell the story, adds Rosenberg: 6 million dead, more than 6 million Jews now in Israel. “It’s a symbol of our people’s continuity,” he says. “Here, survivors don’t have to try to explain what they lived through. They’re among people who know and understand because their story is our own. As survivors in Israel, they are the bookends of modern Jewish history.”
“When my husband asked me to marry him I told him it was conditional on coming to Israel,” says Wise. “It took us 40 years to get here, like the Jews in the wilderness but we made it. Look, Australia is a wonderful country but this is a different thing being here where people understand. The soul speaks at the end.”
For Rabbi Lau, the soul does not speak alone.
“For survivors, we know we are in our home,” he says. “In spite of all the obstacles, all the problems here, God almighty has shown us very clearly where we are supposed to be. Why else would we have won all seven wars in the last 68 years? Because God is telling us, ‘Yidden (Jews), go home.’”
“When you’re old and a survivor, people say, ‘You’ve gone there to die,’” says Lefkowitz. “But I say, ‘No, after everything I’ve been through, I’ve come here to live, until the end of the day.’”