She Survived Auschwitz, He Fought for the IDF - Yet Both Are Bound by Loss and Rebirth

A Holocaust survivor and one of Israel's most iconic soldiers discover they share a past - and future - that are deeply intertwined.

They are the unlikeliest of pairs. But fate, somehow, decided to bring them together.

She is a survivor of Auschwitz who came to Israel by way of Australia. He is a native of Budapest who appears in the iconic Micha Bar Am photograph depicting one of the first Israeli soldiers to arrive at the Western Wall following the city's liberation on June 7, 1967.

This famous photograph of Hartman at the Western Wall.
Micha Bar Am/Courtesy of Jehuda Hartman

At first glance, 89-year-old Lilly Stern and 67-year-old Jehuda Hartman would appear to close an historic circle. Their riveting recollections of death, rebirth and renewal are a stark reflection of the nation's somber - some would say bipolar - mood during this month-long, annual rite of passage that began with Thursday's observance of Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, and which continues with Memorial Day and Independence Day on April 25-26, respectively, and Jerusalem Day on May 20.

Yet incredibly, there is more that links these individuals in their unique symbiosis, as they both recently discovered.

Survivor Lilly Stern, left, with former IDF soldier Jehuda Hartman.
Dudu Bachar

"Lilly's husband took refuge in the Uveghaz from the Hungarian fascists and the Nazis," said Hartman, pointing to a picture of Budapest's famed Glass House, where thousands of Jews found shelter and were ultimately rescued due to the efforts of the Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz.

Hartman's family was there, including his uncle, Fabian Herskovits, a renowned teacher and rabbi. "I was there, too," Hartman adds, almost matter-of-factly. "In my mother's womb."

Born in Bratislava, now the capital city of Slovakia, in 1923, Stern was raised in a Zionist-orthodox home on a 400-acre property her parents leased from Hungarian nobility in the small Hungarian village of Fu'ss. Deep sighs punctuate Stern's narrative as she segues from memories of her childhood to the rise of the Nazis and their occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. Her eyes well up with tears and her voice cracks as she describes the last time she saw her mother and niece. They, along with her father, three brothers and a brother-in-law, were all murdered during the Holocaust, in addition to scores of relatives. A first cousin, Miriam Rosenthal, was one of seven mothers who gave birth to babies who survived the notorious Dachau concentration camp.

Stern spent 13 months in Auschwitz, where the Nazis branded her left arm with the tattoo that included a number and a triangle signaling her among the first group of Hungarian Jews to be deported. She was accused by the Nazis of being a "political prisoner," she says.

"We moved a heap of stones from one pile, then to another, and back to the original heap," Stern says of Auschwitz. "We did it for no good reason. It was just to punish us."

She recalls being taunted by female Slovak prisoners about being sent to the showers for gassing. "But it never happened," says Stern, who was 20 years old at the time. "There was a selection, but I was thought to be in good condition. So they kept me alive and put me in hard labor."

Following her transfer to the Parshnitz concentration camp in the territory of Silecia, Stern was liberated by the Russians on May 9, 1945. She would meet her husband in the Hungarian town Duna Szrba in 1945, and recalls dancing the hora in 1948 atop the National Theater in her native Bratislava on the eve of Israel's founding.

That same year she immigrated to Australia, where she operated a guest house in Hepburn Springs before running a catering business in Melbourne. She would remain there for three decades before arriving with her husband in Israel in the late 1970s.

Now widowed, a grandmother of five and great-grandmother of nine, Stern founded the English chapter of Emunah - The National Religious Women's Organization, in Rehovot, where she has lived for more than three decades. She retrieves from another room the framed certificate of appreciation she received from the organization, which once boasted 120 members during its heyday in the 1970s. "I am proud of my work for Emunah," says Stern. "We supported many institutions."

Hartman, also a resident of Rehovot, knows things could have turned out very differently. His pregnant mother was spared the fate of other Hungarian Jews who were shot on the banks of the River Danube. Born in Budapest, Jehuda would immigrate to Israel in 1950, spending his formative years in what was then the divided city of Jerusalem. On the fateful day of June 7, 1967, he was a 22-year-old gunner in the paratrooper's brigade of the Israel Defense Forces.

Next week on Israel's annual observance of Memorial Day - 45 years after the Battle for Jerusalem - Hartman will recall those in his unit who paid the ultimate price. "As a young soldier, I remember worrying whether I would survive another day," recalls Hartman, whose granddaughter, Sharon, will celebrate her bat mitzvah next week at Ammunition Hill, where her grandfather took part in the battle for Jerusalem.

Now researching Jewish responses to anti-Semitism in Hungary during the century preceding the Holocaust for a doctoral thesis at Bar-Ilan University, Hartman has found in Stern the ultimate living resource.

Though their families have known each other for years - Stern knew Hartman's mother, Leah, who died in 2010 at the age of 97 - only recently did Hartman consider turning to Stern for assistance in reading Hungarian. "I thought she could help me," he recalls. "We began to exchange ideas, and the relationship developed from there."

Both Hartman and Stern appear to have found meaning in a partnership bound up by loss and national rebirth.

"Lilly is very curious, very intellectual," says Hartman, a father of four and grandfather of 15, who also has a PhD in mathematics from the University of California at Los Angeles. "I now visit her once a week. We read 19th-century Jewish archival sources together in Hungarian."

During a recent visit, Stern and Hartman analyzed the early manifestations of Hungarian anti-Semitism among its aristocracy.

"Jehuda has taught me things about Hungary that I never knew or was not interested enough to know when I was younger," Stern confides.

An elegantly dressed woman who radiates a warm smile, Stern says she learned only recently of Hartman's historic encounter with the Western Wall. It has inspired her, she says, but it doesn't change much.

"It makes me even more proud to know him," she says. "But I already thought the world of him."

Asked how she managed to survive Auschwitz, Stern replies, "That is the question that no one can answer. If you believe in miracles, then that's exactly what it is. Humanly and medically, there is simply no explanation."