State of the Union / When Zvi Met Regina

Over 60 years ago, two broken Holocaust survivors came to Israel to pick up the pieces and start again. When they met while living on the same kibbutz, they decided to take the journey together.

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Zvi

Helmut Steinitz was born on the first of June, 1927 to German Jewish parents in Poznan, Poland. His dad, a professor of languages, taught English, German and French in the local German high school. His mother played the piano, sang sweetly, and collected Chinese and Japanese sculptures. They spoke German at home and had a live-in nanny.

There was no Shabbat at the Steinitz home. No Passover Seders. No nothing. But still, in 1936, Helmut’s dad was forced into retirement, because he was a Jew. Three years later, the family was kicked out of their home and found themselves fleeing east as refugees. They stayed with an uncle in Krakow, and then later moved into the city’s crowded ghetto, where they were allocated a kitchen space as their new home.

On May 31, 1942, in the main communal building of the ghetto, the Steinitzs, like the rest of the Jews in the ghetto, lined up behind a row of wooden desks. Helmut, standing directly behind his father and younger brother, looked at the face of the Gestapo officer sitting at the desk in front of him. Something within him, stronger than him, took over. He slipped out of his line and into the next one over.

The next day, Helmut’s 15th birthday, was the last time he saw his family. He walked them over to the transport collection site. His father, so he believes, was shot by an SS guard in front of his mother that very day, when he yelled “murderers” at the SS guards. His mother and brother were killed in the gas chambers of Belzec.

Helmut stayed behind in the kitchen, living on his own for months and making it through two other selections, until the ghetto was dismantled and he was sent to the Plaszow concentration camp. What he remembers most from there, he says, was the sounds of a repeated cycle: men and women reciting the Sh’ma Yisrael prayer, followed by shootings and then quiet.

Next came Auschwitz, where he was a slave laborer at a Siemens factory. When that camp was evacuated, in January 1945, Helmut set off on a death march, dragging himself through the snow in his wood shoes to Gliwice, from which he was taken by open train to Buchenwald. Then came Sachsenhausen – and yet another death march.

“I was starving,” he says. “I was suffering. The angel of death was in charge everywhere.”

In early May 1945, a month before his 18th birthday, Helmut was liberated by the American forces. He had no family. No formal education. And nowhere to go. He changed his name to Zvi, and soon set sail for Palestine, together with a group of refugees he joined along the way. They arrived in the country in March of 1946, with nothing but small knapsacks on their backs. Zvi learned some farming basics on Kibbutz Afikim, and then moved to what would eventually be called Netzer Sereni, a new kibbutz founded by Holocaust survivors.

Regina

Regina Anders arrived at that same kibbutz two years later. Born in 1930 in Berlin, she and her twin sister Ruth survived the war, first in an orphanage, and later in hiding in the German capital. Their mother died of tuberculosis. Their father managed to escape to the US, and later remarried there. Their two older brothers also survived – one made it out on the kindertransport to England. The other lived through Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, and came, like Zvi, to help found Netzer Sereni.

After the war, Regina and Ruth stayed in Berlin, working as caretakers in a Jewish orphanage and taking classes at night school to catch up on years they had missed.

“I’m optimistic by nature," Regina says. "Sometimes without reason. And after the release, I was happy. I came back to life. I liked to sing. And do theater and recite poetry.” Regina even had a boyfriend: her first. He was a music student from Lodz, who had spent the war in Russia and who would take her to the opera. “I don’t know if it was love,” she says. “He was ten years older and like a dad for me.”

Eventually, though, the girls decided to leave Europe behind. With the help of Zionist organizations, they set out to join their brother, whom they hadn't seen in eight years, in the new state of Israel.

“They were a sensation on the kibbutz,” says Zvi. “Twins, and well, just girls. There were so few there, and particularly few young ones.”

The boys at the kibbutz, meanwhile, did not impress the pretty twins much. “They were in sandals and short khaki pants," says Regina. "We had come from three years in Berlin where people knew how to dress.”

“I did not think I had even the smallest chance with her," says Zvi. "They were such lovely, happy girls. They liked to play." Not that he was in a playful mood. “I had lost so much, it was beginning to be clear to me that there was nothing to make up for that. I could not get happy.”

Love

But the girl with a sparkle in her eye, and the broken young man did fall in love.

It started with the radio. After work in the fields, Zvi, who had loved listening to Schubert and Beethoven back in his parents’ home in Poznan, spent hours listening to classical music on the small radio he kept in his room. One day Regina, who had to go through Zvi’s room to get to her own, asked if she could sit and listen too.

They soon moved from music to books, and found they loved the same writers and poets. They spent late afternoons reading Dostoyevsky and long Shabbats discussing Stefan Zweig or reciting Goethe, Schiller or Heinrich Heine.

“My sister was a little jealous,” admits Regina. “She said he was sad – maybe even depressed. But this did not stop my falling in love. We became closer. We had culture in common, but also suffering. We had both suffered and we both had a desire to be loved.”

Months passed though, and Zvi never kissed Regina.

“I felt she was playing with me,” admits Zvi. “One day she was close. The next day distant. That’s how girls are, I guess. But I did not know girls.” There had been one girl he had had a crush on once, back in the ghetto in Krakow, but she was deported. And he was 14 anyway. There had been no one since. He had never kissed a girl.

Regina waited patiently. And waited. And finally decided to take matters into her own hands.

It happened, finally, in her room. The two were standing next to each other and Regina just leaned over, and gently kissed Zvi on the mouth. Zvi, in response, fell faint to the ground.

“There are some reactions you can’t explain. And that’s what happened. It had to do with my heart,” says Zvi. “You have to understand something. A person who loses everyone dear to them and has been lacking in love for so long, is like a thorn in the field. You are so lonely. And suddenly, she reached out to me. I was released.”

A few months later, in the heat of August, Regina and Zvi were married. There was no party, no lunch, no singing and no dancing. Everyone showed up in their work clothes and toasted the new couple with some biscuits and wine donated by the kibbutz committee. Regina wore a simple white dress, put on a shawl, and cried the entire time she was under the chuppah.

“I missed my mother and I felt so sad for Zvi’s loneliness. My sister said, ‘Don’t cry’ but I could not stop,” says Regina, her eyes welling up with tears all over again, 63 years later. “I was scared that there was too much sadness. That we would never have a happy life.”

Life

But life has been happy, they say, sitting in their small apartment in Ramat Aviv, eating cheesecake. Zvi shows off photos of their two grandchildren. Regina sets off in search of the plaques of appreciation Zvi received from his workplace.

“On the kibbutz, lots of young couples got married quickly. In some part, because that’s when you got your own room," says Regina. "Otherwise you lived in dorms, or in tents or shacks. Some of the couples stayed on the kibbutz, some left and some, by now, have died – but one thing I can tell you is, they all stayed together. No one got divorced.”

For many Holocaust survivors, she continues, marriage was "not just about sex and love.” There was that, of course, she says, with a grin, but there was more. “It was about understanding where we had come from and love of a culture lost. And it was about wanting to build a state too. It was important to us for this country to happen. We had a common goal.”

“And family,” adds Zvi, repeating a theme he has returned to over and over again. “I had friends, but it's not the same thing as the embrace of a wife.”

They named their firstborn, who is 60 today, Amichai, or “my people live” in Hebrew. It was a trip of a name for a little Sabra kid, they agree, smiling, but everyone called him Ami. Their daughter they named Shlomit, for Zvi’s mother.

The past six decades have seen them through much change: They left the kibbutz, where communal life had never really suited Regina, for a small dusty development town near Holon, where they paid six lira a month rent and had to walk through sand dunes to get to the nearest bus station. Later they moved to Rishon Letzion and finally, with the help of a bank loan, to Ramat Aviv, in the days when there was not yet a university here, and certainly no fancy mall. Zvi saved his money and bought Regina a small gas burner for cooking when they moved in.

Regina completed a three year professional nursing degree and eventually became the deputy head of Assaf Harofe Hospital’s children’s ward. Zvi, a farmer on the kibbutz, became a gardener, which he hated, and then an agriculture instructor, which was all right. Later, he found his way into the flower export business, rising up in the Agrexco company, and even spending several years in Holland as their senior representative there. When he retired at age 70, he turned to writing, penning five books in German, English and Hebrew, all about his own personal Holocaust.

Alone is for stones

Sure, there have been disagreements along the way, the couple admit easily, along with misunderstandings and even disappointments. “That is what life together is,” says Regina. But they are good at compromising, they say, and good at communicating, and they trust one another. They tell each other, says Zvi, “everything that is in our hearts.” The only secrets he ever kept from her, he says, was when he was saving up for the gas stove, and another time, when he saved up to buy her a watch for her birthday.

“Regina has a character that I don’t have – she can give love and give of herself in hugs and kisses. She was like this when we met, and it has never ended. It was not something obvious to me. I had trouble expressing myself,” he says. “But I always wanted to please her in return.”

“I always know my husband is on my side,” says Regina. “I could tell he was a serious person with whom I would always feel secure. I had had enough bad things happening to me. I wanted something I could count on. I wanted love that would last.”

"Allein soll seine ein Stein,” says Zvi. It’s a German saying, he explains, meaning something like “alone – that is what a stone can be.” A person is different, he says, glancing gently at his wife. A person should not be alone in this world.

"I had had enough bad things happening to me," says Regina. "I wanted something I could count on. I wanted love that would last."Credit: Moti Milrod
They tell each other "everything that is in our hearts," says Zvi. Credit: Moti Milrod

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