Israel’s Education Ministry vs. Chana, a Holocaust Survivor

Chana, 85, fell and cracked her skull while serving as a 'living witness' to students visiting concentration camps in Poland. The state says she was careless.

Orly Vilnai
Orly Vilnai
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A joint Israeli-Arab youth delegation visits the Majdanek concentration camp, Poland, January 23, 1012.Credit: Courtesy of Amal
Orly Vilnai
Orly Vilnai

The recourse to black humor in connection to this hair-raising story seems nearly inevitable. “I came close to saying my mother died in a death camp,” he says, “even though I was born long after that cursed war.” The speaker’s mother is Chana, an 85-year-old survivor of the Majdanek concentration camp, and the events she describes in her lawsuit against the Education Ministry department that organizes school trips to Poland are disturbing to hear.

In late March of 2011, Chana accompanied a group of students from an Israeli school on their trip to Majdanek, in order to serve as a “living witness” and talk to them about her time there. The ministry’s Poland department arranged for her participation.

As her son tells it, his mother was a very active, passionate woman, who felt it important to share her story with young people, until an accident on the last day of the trip changed her life.

Chana remembers the biting cold of that day, and remembers beginning to descend the stairs of the podium of the memorial outside Majdanek, after the students had already retreated to the warmth of the bus. She does not remember slipping, falling and seriously injuring her head. She laid there, unconscious, until trip leaders took a head-count on the bus, realized that Chana was missing and went back to the memorial. The group’s doctor had her rushed to the hospital in Lublin, where she regained consciousness only two days later. She remained hospitalized for three weeks in Poland and three more weeks at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital. The son, who flew to Poland after the accident, made the arrangements to bring her back to Israel.

Thus, a new layer of trauma was added to the horrors that Chana had experienced in the same place 60 years ago. In the same place where she lost her family, and barely survived herself, she nearly died. CT scans showed cerebral edema, or fluid in the brain, as well as cracks in her skull and internal bleeding. After recovering from her injuries, Chana begun a long process of rehabilitation. Since leaving the hospital, her family says, she now needs help around the house. From an active, passionate woman, she is now close to needing custodial care.

More than three years have passed, and Chana’s family refuse to forgive those they hold responsible for her injury. Although the insurance policy provided by the Education Ministry covered her medical expenses and her return to Israel, as well her son’s travel expenses, they say the damage goes well beyond that, and is ongoing. They are suing the insurance company and the Education Ministry for hundreds of thousands of shekels.

“There’s no doubt the defendant was negligent toward the plaintiff. The accident was a result of the defendant’s failure to provide the plaintiff with proper escort and care,” the lawsuit states, adding, “The defendant turned a blind eye to the possible dangers of bringing an elderly Holocaust survivor to the scene of the atrocities.” Attached to the claim were medical records, signed by numerous physicians. One wrote, “The plaintiff still has blood and fluid in her brain, which causes significant post-trauma damage to the brain … Chana is disabled during her daily life and unable to function, suffers from headaches and loss of balance and is at constant risk of falling and further injury.”

In its statement of defense the Education Ministry, represented by the Moshe Abadi law firm, argued that the documents attached to the lawsuit, including the medical documents, were inadmissible and false. In effect, the only thing the defendants admit is that Chana is in fact a Holocaust survivor.

They deny all other claims, including their responsibility for the accident: “The plaintiff is an intelligent adult, who chose freely to join the trip to Poland. She did not require any kind of escort, and if the supposed accident did occur, it occurred due to her own negligence, as she did not pay attention to where she was going or her steps. In any case, the responsibility lies with the plaintiff and not the defendant … the plaintiff was not alert, did not use caution to prevent the accident and acted in ways that any reasonable person would not act, nor did she call for help.”

The law firm told Haaretz that the language used in the statement of defense was standard boilerplate, common court rhetoric. The lawyers later admitted that they do in fact recognize Chana’s accident as fact, and said the parties are negotiating over an out-of-court settlement.

Chana’s family, however, is not backing down. They say the Education Ministry’s offer is so low as to be insulting and does not take into account the physical and emotional harm suffered by Chana nor the money spent by her family on transportation, treatments and repairs to teeth broken in the fall, among other things.

“The Education Ministry is leaving it all up to an 85-year-old woman: she should manage, on her own, in the snow in Poland, where things are difficult for her to begin with,” said Chana’s son.

“My mother felt a sense of purpose regarding this trip. The statement of defense makes it seem as if she volunteered to go, as if she is responsible, as if they were doing her a favor by bringing her along. The idea that my mother, with her tattooed arm, could be cross-examined in an Israeli court of law over an incident at a concentration camp makes my skin crawl. Perhaps it would be the last hearing in which a Holocaust survivor testifies about things they suffered at a concentration camp, but this time, from an entirely different angle.”

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