Horror Turns to Triumph as Shoah Survivors Meet IDF Troops

Flower for a Survivor project gives the young and the old a chance to remember the Jewish past together.

Elimelech Simkhovich rises excitedly to greet Nir, a top-level air force commander, in the library at an old-age home in Haifa. It's been two years since they last embraced.

Simkhovich - born in Grodno, Poland (today Belarus) - is in his mid-80s, a Holocaust survivor who lost his sister and mother during World War II.

Nir (his last name has been withheld) is the grandson of a Ukrainian-born survivor. His grandfather, David Zuckerman, fought with the partisans during the war and afterward, in Israel, became Simkhovich's best friend. They prayed together at Haifa's Neve Sha'anan synagogue, exchanged war stories and raised large, healthy families.

Nir's meeting with his grandfather's aging friend was arranged through the project Perah Lanitzol ("Flower for a Survivor"), which pairs Israel Defense Forces soldiers for meetings with survivors across the country. The initiative is a joint effort of the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, the IDF Education and Youth Corps and the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum at Kibbutz Lohamei Haghetaot.

"I was grandma and grandpa's first grandchild," Nir recalls. "I had a very special link with my grandfather."

Over the years he heard countless stories from his grandfather about the war, about the family that vanished entirely, about fighting in the partisans with a handful of good friends who posed as German soldiers and tried to sabotage the Nazi army.

"My experience as a child was collecting stories," Nir says. "It was only when I went through a commanders' course on the Holocaust and traveled with the army to Poland that I was exposed to things grandpa didn't want to talk about, like the humiliation he endured. It's hard for me to come to terms with the hell he went through."

Simkhovich, who goes by the nickname Meilech, has known Nir since the officer was a child, and was the first person the officer informed when his grandfather died three years ago. Still, Nir says, "I had never heard about the suffering Meilech endured during the war. When I see him, I see my grandfather. One of my grandfather's friends in the partisans who now lives in the United States asked me once if I understood the significance of becoming an officer in the Israeli army. 'We were dirt - we were worth nothing,' he told me. 'But from one of us came an officer in the Israel Defense Forces.'"

Nir recalls that even when his grandfather's health was failing, he traveled to his grandson's military ceremony in southern Israel to pin on his lieutenant colonel epaulet.

"He told me that for him the fact that his grandson had become a squadron leader in the air force was unbelievable," he says. "That was his victory."