A Quiet Drama Is Taking Place Among ultra-Orthodox Holocaust Survivors

Misgav Lakashish organization providing a supportive environment where ultra-Orthodox survivors can finally open up.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

"Maybe you'll reconsider?" Shoshi Horowitz pleads with her mother, Hanna Glendoar. "We have to fill in a Page of Testimony, and we have to do it now." But Glendoar, aged 85, shrugs her shoulders and once again refuses. "It puts me off a little, I don't know why," she says, immediately adding: "It has no connection to the fact that I'm Haredi."

She can't explain the profound internal obstacle. The information she has is a gold mine for quite a number of people - her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, over 200 people, as evidenced by the family tree hanging in her living room - who have never heard from her in any systematic way what happened to her during "that" period, the Holocaust, and the names of her 44 relatives who were killed, out of a total of 48 before the war. She has never given her testimony for documentation in Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Center, or anywhere else.

Ultra-Orthodox men visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem on Holocaust Remembrance Day.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum / BauBau

She knows that Yad Vashem is working on collecting and finding the names of those who were murdered, and openly admits that it is "neglect" that their researchers are not familiar with the names of her relatives. And still, for now it's enough for her that many of her descendants are named after the victims.

Her refusal to share memories and information from the Holocaust period - mainly with official institutions - is not always comprehensible. But Glendoar feels that she has actually undergone a significant process, and recently broke a hermetic silence of over 50 years - even if only in her close inner circle.

Today, around the Shabbat table, when a granddaughter or grandson expresses interest, something opens up, a small memory comes to light and is saved from oblivion.

At her advanced age, as the head of a huge family - she won't say the precise number of her descendants because it may bring bad luck - she is allowing herself to disclose some of the memories of a girl who celebrated her 18th birthday in the Auschwitz concentration camp with an apple she received as a gift; a girl who was humiliated by a petty and cruel Nazi guard who was to dominate her dreams for years to come; a girl who even after the end of the war faced a difficult and dangerous journey home, to Hungary, before being united with her brother and her second cousin.

She attributes the change mainly to her present stage in life, but a key role was also played by the club of ultra-Orthodox Holocaust survivors that she joined a few years ago - a club that is apparently the only one in the world geared exclusively to the Haredi community.

Thank God that's behind us

A quiet drama is taking place among Haredi Holocaust survivors. The Haredi sector, which is often under attack, and even more so recently, includes, like every sector, survivors who talk and those who remain silent, each with his or her own story. But the group of Haredi women who run Misgav Lakashish, headed by Tamar Shif, understood that Haredi survivors are unique. Some of them feel that they have limited legitimacy for telling the story, and the majority are unaware of their rights, after many years during which government authorities barely worked with Haredi survivors. Shif turned to the Jerusalem Municipality with a request for assistance for them, and the municipality in turn sent her to the non-profit associations.

The organization that took up the challenge was the Jerusalem Foundation, which assists social and welfare projects in the capital, and in recent years has started to allocate large sums of money to the general community of Holocaust survivors in the city. In addition to running clubs for survivors and helping them to receive their rights from the National Insurance Institute and the funds that come from Europe, the foundation started about three years ago to support the projects of the Misgav Lakashish NPO, which are designed for Haredi survivors.

About 400 men and women are involved in the various frameworks operated in the city by Misgav Lakashish - a club for women, a study hall for men in which they study Torah, as well as visits to the homes of housebound women. The volunteer visitors are students from the Bais Yaakov seminary as well as older women who have undergone training in the Haredi department in the School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem.

According to Dr. Idit Dayan, coordinator of welfare at the Jerusalem Foundation, "For years there was silence. The way of dealing with the Holocaust in general - and this is true of all the sectors - was to raise large families. Many survivors see that as their victory. But they didn't talk about the thing itself. One reason for that is that often their survival involved a failure to observe the mitzvot [religious commandments], and there are many Haredim who want to erase that past. Suddenly, after bringing many children into the world, they are willing to talk about the path that brought them where they ended up."

The weekly event in the center of the Kaliv Hasidim, in Jerusalem's Ezrat Torah neighborhood, probably represents the activity of the only Haredi club for Holocaust survivors in the world. Every week, over 70 women attend regularly, for a day of lectures, an exercise class and lunch, which includes a kugel or quiche in the summer, and hot soup in the winter. Shif and club director Ruhami Marenstein, say that here there is almost no open discussion of the Holocaust.

At first glance, it looks like any senior citizens' club. On second glance, one discovers the stories about encounters between women who decades earlier shared the same hut in the concentration camp. The women sit around tables, sip coffee and listen very attentively to the lecture. They are thrilled by the attitude of the lecturers, the volunteers and the directors. Sometimes, the tables are divided spontaneously according to origin - a table of Romanians, another of Hungarians, and another of Poles; and there is also a table where the women prefer speaking Yiddish rather than Hebrew among themselves.

Shif says that the underlying fact here is that the women here are linked to one another by their connection to the Holocaust. For many of them, this is a fact that was suppressed with great effort and for many years. She says that over the years, they had trouble deciding how to approach the subject of the Holocaust.

"Once, we invited a psychologist to talk about the Holocaust. She showed a film about the Holocaust and that aroused tremendous bitterness among several women, some of whom left in the middle. We weren't sure how to continue, and we found that we don't want to force the subject on them. It's clear that the prevailing atmosphere is the Holocaust.

"I went through what Jews went through, not the nicest things. Thank God we were saved and thank God we made a home. What we get here is a wonderful thing. The women don't complain. Sometimes we recall what we went through, but we don't talk about it too much."

Rachel, who asks not to have her last name published, says she didn't tell everyone about her experiences during the Holocaust: "Only to those who wanted to hear, not everyone is willing to hear. Anyone who wanted to hear said, 'Grandma, write it all down, soon there won't be anyone left to tell us.' I told them that they're invited to write down what I tell them, but I didn't tell much. Why go back to that after so many years? So many things happen, God sends us so many trials. Why do I need to go back to what happened over 60 years ago?"

Rachel Potash, on the other hand, the daughter of a Hungarian rabbinical family, said: "I tell a lot. I was a little girl of six in the Holocaust. My father believed in 'Remember what Amalek did to you,' and secondly he believed that children should know what their parents went through. It's not necessarily Haredim. Not everyone who has experienced terrible things has the emotional strength to tell, and they don't want the children to know what their parents went through or even to hear about such weighty and difficult things. To this day, if I dream about the Holocaust, I get up in the morning as though I haven't slept for a second. But I tell the grandchildren very often, they always want to hear."

What can't be told to the family

For years, it looked as though the family's support was so strong that no frameworks were created to treat the survivors apart from the family, with the exception of serious problems," explains Holocaust scholar Esther Farbstein, director of the Holocaust Education Center at the Women's College in Jerusalem. "But in their twilight years, the Haredi survivors understand that they can't rely on the family framework alone."

Farbstein says that the Haredi element that isolates the survivors from non-Haredi survivors is also important. "It's hard for them to talk about their faith with others, because they were supported by their faith," she said. "Many Haredim are preoccupied with their mission, which stems from the very fact that they survived. Haredi survivors are always asking: Why did I survive. That's not a question that all the survivors ask."

Farbstein claims that the clearest illustration of the need of the Haredi community to discuss the reality of the Holocaust is the discourse surrounding the observance of mitzvot in the Holocaust, which, she says, is tainted by ignorance. "It's impossible to understand the subject of observing the mitzvot in the Holocaust without understanding what really happened there," she says. "Anyone asking about observance of the mitzvot is causing many of the survivors to seclude themselves and to be on the defensive. There was an important rebbetzin [a rabbi's wife], a Holocaust survivor, who for a long time agreed to host students who asked her about the Holocaust. In the end, she told me that she couldn't stand it any more. The girls asked her questions like: 'If there was no water, how did you do netilat yadayim [the ritual handwashing before eating]?'"

That stopped her from talking, and it's ignorance that creates that situation.

Leah Shahar, who coordinates the programs for Haredi Holocaust survivors in Misgav Lakashish, tells about the initial suspicions of the families: "When we send a volunteer to a woman at home, I call first in order to coordinate the visit. In many cases, the family agrees to have a volunteer come to the house, but warns me that the volunteer shouldn't dare ask anything about the Holocaust and shouldn't dare to bring Pages of Testimony from Yad Vashem.

"We had such a case about two years ago, with a woman whose children hadn't heard a word from her about the Holocaust. They knew that she had a number on her arm, and that's it. The female volunteer came to her home, sat in the room with her, and the woman immediately opened up about everything on her own initiative. For four and a half hours, she told the volunteer the story that she had concealed, from beginning to end. The children stood outside the door in shock, at one point they brought the volunteer and pen and paper so she would write it down.

"When the woman died, a year ago, the one who told them their mother's life story was that volunteer."



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