Prisoners learn the meaning of freedom through lessons on the Holocaust
"I, too, was a prisoner," Havka Folman-Raban tells some 40 inmates of Tzalmon prison in the lecture hall of the Ghetto Fighters' Museum in western Galilee.
Folman-Raban, a Holocaust survivor and member of Kibbutz Lohamei HaGetaot (ghetto fighters), was invited to relate her personal story to the prisoners, as part of a project to teach the inmates about the Shoah.
"Do you know what a roll call is? They used to wake us at 4 A.M.," she tells the prisoners of her experience in a concentration camp. "We stood in the cold sometimes three-four hours and once someone fainted during the call."
"Our roll call is at 6 A.M.," one prisoner says and some of them laugh.
"Even in suffering one can hang in there and remain human," says Folman-Raban. "It's important for me to convey that to prisoners, to give them strength, hope and understanding that even from the worst situations they can emerge and build a new life."
The project, dubbed "victory of the spirit," was initiated by Nazim Sabiti, commander of the Prison Service's central district. Sabiti, a Druze, was appalled by the ignorance and lack of awareness regarding the Holocaust among the 250 youths in Ofek Prison. "At first I thought of preparing the project for Arabs and other minorities but very soon it transpired that Jewish prisoners haven't studied the Holocaust thoroughly either," Sabiti says.
On November 2006 the first group of inmates from Ofek Prison visited the Ghetto Fighters' Museum. "Two days earlier Benny Sela escaped from the Tel Aviv court parking lot and we almost canceled the tour," Sabiti says.
"There were fears that prisoners might try to escape and that the project would be slammed, but I insisted on going through with it and in taking the prisoners to the museum without handcuffs or prison uniforms. I wanted to give them a feeling of freedom for one day and to enrich their knowledge."
Since then some 1,000 prisoners have taken part in the project, consisting of lectures inside the prison about World War II, the Nazis, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and then culminating with the visit to the museum.
After hearing Folman-Raban's story, the prisoners, dressed in jeans and white T-shirts, are taken through the museum with a guide.
"Today they are very curious, excited, attentive and well-mannered," says Sigal Nir, Tzalmon Prison's education officer, watching the convicts on a break outside the museum.
"We count them constantly with our eyes and it's clear that they appreciate our confidence in them."
"In all honesty for me this is first and foremost a holiday from jail," says a 31-year-old prisoner, enjoying the sunshine and observing the scenery without fences. He is serving a two-year sentence for drug dealing.
"I was glad of the opportunity to study the Holocaust. Going into prison this time was the end of the world for me. This project has exposed me to the horrors of war and I've learned a lot about survival and the spiritual fortitude that helps you through the hard times," he says.
An Arab prisoner in the museum's children's wing, says: "When you see the testimonies you realize the Holocaust cannot be denied and that the message must be - no to racism."
"A child is pure. When you hear a child's laughter or crying you cannot discriminate by nationality, race or sex," he says.