As the siren to commemorate Yom Hashoah sounded throughout Israel on Tuesday morning, 1,600 volunteers in Jerusalem stood outside the homes of Holocaust survivors marking a moment of silence together for Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 21.

With new challenges to this year’s commemorations in light of coronavirus restrictions, the Jerusalem Municipality, in partnership with Lev Echad, the Israeli Scouts and Hitorerut in Jerusalem, gifted its Holocaust survivors with a plant—a sign of life and growth—and an Israeli flag.

As the volunteers stood side by side with survivors in the initiative titled “Yachad Le’Dorot” (“Together for Generations”), they made sure to observe proper social distancing with many wearing face masks.

Jerusalem resident Yoni Mann, 32, participated in the volunteer activity, assigned to the home of Varvika Shabo, who lives next door to his brother and sister-in-law, Naim and Chana Shabo, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Katamonim. Mann stood aside him and his son, Tzion, as the siren rang.

“I felt chills,” Mann told JNS of the moment of silence.

“I replayed images in my mind of our people being persecuted. Towards the end of the siren, I felt pride and hope—pride in our country, Israel, and in the Israel Defense Forces, which stands up for Jews worldwide, and hope in the collective Jewish future and in the resiliency of our nation,” he said. ”Nowhere else in the world does an entire country come to a complete standstill while the two-minute siren blares in remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust. The security of our people is now in our hands; from here on out, we control our own destiny.”

Naim Shabo and his wife, Chana, in Jerusalem on Yom Hashoah, April 21, 2020. Photo by Eliana Rudee.

The Shabo family, Mann learned, came from Baghdad during the “Farhud” pogroms carried out in Iraq against the Jewish population in the city on June 1-2, 1941, which left 180 Jews murdered, 1,000 injured and 900 homes destroyed. The anti-Semitic attacks began after pro-Nazi ruler Rashid Ali was defeated by the British, with anti-Jewish, conspiratorial propaganda being routinely broadcasted by radio and graphitized throughout the city.

During the Farhud, the Shabo family’s shared-home was looted, and they witnessed the brutal stabbing and murder of a neighboring man in their home (in Iraq, families would each rent out a room in a large home), as he resisted giving his infant’s blanket to an Arab looter.

Surviving the traumatic pogroms, the family was airlifted to Israel as part of the ‘Operation Ezra and Nehemiah’ in 1951, where 120,000 to 130,000 Iraqi Jews were brought to Israel as part of an “aliyah of rescue.”

“The Shabo family’s story sheds light on a lesser known story of the Holocaust—the pogroms against the Jews in Iraq as the pro-Nazi Iraqi regime was toppled,” Mann told JNS. “It was difficult hearing Chana tell the story of her family being attacked and witnessing the murder of a neighbor.”

After a tearful Varvika stood for the moment of silence, he expressed feeling “a bit good, and a bit not.”

“There is no question that it feels good to have people to come and stand here,” his son told JNS.

Chana similarly related that “it feels really good” to have a young volunteer come and stand by her side during Yom Hashoah. “We have our land, and that is enough for us. In Iraq, no one would even look at us,” she told JNS.

Yoni Mann gives a plant and flag to Varvika Shabo, pictured next to his son Tzion, in Jerusalem on Yom Hashoah, April 21, 2020. Photo by Eliana Rudee.

‘You are not alone, your nation is here with you’

Mann reflected on his participation in the volunteer activity, explaining, “I was taught that you don’t leave family behind, especially when they need you most. These corona times have left many survivors alone for extended amounts of time due to quarantine. Many feel like they are not seen. If I could convey the message, even the slightest bit, that ‘you are seen, you are remembered, you are not alone, your nation is here with you, we are one family,’ it would have been all worth it.”

“It’s important,” he continued, “that we never forget our past—that future generations keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, and we hold deep in our heart our Jewish identity, which the Nazis tried to erase. We must continue sharing and educating future generations. Soon, there will be no survivors left, and the authenticity of our suffering will come into question. It is our responsibility to stand by survivors and share their stories.”

Mann gifted the flags and plants to the survivors with a message written on them from the mayor of Jerusalem, Moshe Lion, reminding the survivors that “even over walls of despair, seeds of hope can be planted … from the ashes of Auschwitz that we built Jerusalem, so, too, will we tackle the challenges of our current generation with the same determination, as a strong and free people in our land.”

According to Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hasson-Nahoum, in the past month the municipality has organized a volunteer network 15,000-strong, delivering 12,500 meals, as well as medicine, to elderly in the city to show them that “even though they may be stuck in their homes, they are not alone.”

“We haven’t forgotten you, we haven’t forgotten what you went through, and we solute you,” Fleur Hasson-Nahou relayed to JNS.

“People don’t realize how many Holocaust survivors are still here, living on their street,” she added. “It is a wonderful connection to the generations to see them face to face.”

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