Two German-born sisters in their nineties began the first full day of the rest of their lives Thursday, settling into an Israeli senior citizens home after negotiating a tortuous path that brought them from Holland, the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp and suburban New York City.
Irma Haas, 97, and Hilde Meyer, 94, arrived at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv Wednesday after spending 58 years in the United States, all in metropolitan New York.
They traveled to Israel together with about 200 other new American immigrants, on a special flight organized by Nefesh B'Nefesh, a partnership between donors and the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency that helps U.S. Jews relocate.
On Thursday they appeared bright and smiling in their new home in Jerusalem, their barely lined faces reflecting implacable optimism.
"I feel very good to be in Israel," said Haas, whose piecing eyes and sprightly manner belie her age. "I already feel at home."
A cousin, Judy Marcus, related the sisters' improbable life stories, filling in the blanks when excitement temporarily overcame their normally reliable memories.
Marcus said the pair left their homes in Hesse state in western Germany in 1938 and went to Holland shortly after Kristallnacht - the "night of broken glass" - when Nazi gangs attacked Jewish homes and property and destroyed synagogues throughout the country.
Marcus said the sisters were deported from Amsterdam to the Bergen-Belsen camp after the Nazi conquest of Holland, and they were on a train bound for the Auschwitz death camp in 1945 when Russian forces liberated them.
Marcus said the sisters' strong religious faith - they were brought up in a strictly observant Jewish household - was the key to surviving their ordeal.
"It took two strong women to get through Bergen-Belsen," she said. "The depth of their religious commitment gave them everything they needed to persevere."
Marcus said the sisters arrived to New York City in 1946 and found work there, Haas as a kindergarten teacher and Meyer as a secretary. She said they moved into the same Englewood, New Jersey home in 1978, shortly after the deaths of their German-Jewish husbands.
"The two of them stayed there together all those years," Marcus said. "But in 2003, when Hilde was hospitalized for a fall, they realized they needed assisted living because they were no longer capable of taking care of themselves."
Marcus said the sisters' decision to come to Israel had been a natural one.
"They were familiar with a senior citizens home in Jerusalem," she said. "It caters to religiously observant people, and has many other German-Jewish refugees. So the choice was an easy one."
On Thursday, Haas and Meyer were quickly adjusting to their new surroundings, relaxing after lunch in the home's communal dining room.
Haas said she was already looking forward to learning Hebrew, a new language to add to her existing German, Dutch and English.
"It may not be easy, particularly at my advanced age," she said. "But I will do the best I can."