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As a young Wehrmacht soldier, Albert Buehler spent years in a Russian prisoner camp after World War II. For reasons unknown to him, two Jewish families independently of each other provided him with preferential medical treatment and food to survive sickness and hunger. Some 60 years later, his son Juergen spearheaded a fundraising campaign to expand an assisted-living facility for Holocaust survivors in Haifa, which was opened yesterday with a festive ceremony attended by Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni, Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav and other dignitaries.

Buehler, who lives in Jerusalem, heads the Israel and Germany branches of the International Christian Embassy, which recently raised some NIS 2 million to buy and renovate a four-story building for the center, enabling it to accommodate up to 80 more residents.

"The numbers that are tattooed on your arms are also tattooed on the hearts of all Jews, certainly on the hearts of all Israelis," Livni told the 50-odd Holocaust survivors who attended the yesterday's ceremony ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day, which starts Sunday night.

In early January, the embassy in Jerusalem gave $25,000 to the Yad Ezer L'Haver charity to purchase the ground floor of a building adjacent to the existing hostel, which currently houses 12 Holocaust survivors in Haifa's Hadar neighborhood. When Juergen Buehler realized the building had three more stories, he decided to raise money to buy them as well.

"In January, when we wanted to do that, the earthquake in Haiti struck and I told my office chief in Stuttgart this will be a tough month for us, because probably most people are giving their money to Haiti to help the needy people there rather than support Israel," the 45-year-old told Anglo File last month.

"But we sent out the [fundraising appeal and] I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the response: within seven days we had all the funds in order to purchase the entire building, and funds continued to pour in so we were able to buy an elevator for the place and pay for some of the renovations." The money was mainly donated by German Christians.

"Today is a special day for all of Haifa, if not all of Israel," said Bill Freedman, the New Jersey-born president of Yad Ezer said yesterday.

'I want to move in'

As of yesterday's ceremony, only the first floor of the new building was finished. "I live in Haifa but I want to move in here," said Josef Kuenstlich, an 84-year-old Polish-born Auschwitz survivor, pointing to the new building. "But there is nowhere to live yet. I'm hoping that soon I can come here, and that there will be some sort of activities, so that I don't have to sit alone all day long. Since my wife died seven years ago, I'm all alone."

Once the construction work is completed within the coming weeks, the new center's refurbished kitchen and dining area will also be able to feed other non-resident Holocaust survivors in the area. More than 850 people - mostly survivors of Nazi death camps in Poland and Germany - have already signed up on the waiting list to apply for a place in the new facility, according to the embassy.

"It is a great privilege for the Christian Embassy, and particularly our German branch, to be involved in a project of this nature," Buehler said. "We cannot bring back the countless victims of the Nazi genocide against the Jews of Europe, but we can bring some comfort and relief to those still with us who suffered greatly in that dark time and even to this day."

Although his father fought for the Nazis in a Wehrmacht uniform, Juergen Buehler said he was proud of his family's stance during the Hitler years. "In a way my parents and grandparents were [among] the few citizens in Germany that belonged to a minority of Christians who at least to some degree spoke up against the Hitler regime," he said. His family expressed outrage at the Jews' treatment in their village and continued buying groceries by them although the Nazis urged them to boycott Jewish businesses, he explained.

Buehler's father was chosen to join the SS, but he and a friend "ran away and escaped on the way to the recruitment center because they didn't want to be part of that," Buehler said. At some point, he was forcibly enrolled in the Wehrmacht and sent to the Russian front, he said. Captured by the Soviets, he spent four and a half years in a prisoner camp near Bryansk, 380 kilometers southwest of Moscow.

"Maybe that is indeed something that motivates me," Buehler said. "He was a prisoner of war as a German soldier in Russia and was one of the few who survived under very difficult circumstances. He says he owes the fact that he came out alive to two Jewish people." The first was the prison doctor: she picked Buehler, who was dying of pneumonia, among hundreds of prisoners to give him "special treatment, nourishment and medication, and so on." He added, "I still don't know until today why she did that."

As a POW, Buehler had to work on a field. A Jewish couple who owned a nearby farm told him he could come over and take potatoes for himself and his friends whenever the guards weren't watching.

"When we were kids my father always told that story and said we should always remember this and be thankful to Jewish people," Buehler recalled. "At a time when Jews had every reason to hate German soldiers, they decided to help this poor fellow and save his life without knowing anything about him. Without these two people I wouldn't be here today."