By: ICEJ staff 
Haifa Home residents are able to eat together again.

In the last week of February, the community dining hall at the ICEJ’s Haifa Home for Holocaust Survivors was re-opened. After a year of eating separately at home due to corona health rules, the day finally arrived that everyone had waited for so long. The dining room was buzzing with the sounds of happy voices; people greeting each other with excitement and elation at the fact that they could enjoy dining together again. Having to dress up and walk to the dining room and see the smiling familiar faces of friends, adds to making happier and healthier residents. 

Only those residents who had received their full doses of vaccinations were allowed into the room, which was almost everyone. Then, at the beginning of March, we also started to serve the evening meal in the dining hall. Residents were overjoyed at the new look of the room, as we were able to buy new dining chairs that are much more comfortable for our aging residents and which also give some colour to the hall. 

Pesach with Dignity 

Yudit Setz with Israeli top chef Benny Bezza.

The Pesach celebration, which marks Israel’s redemption from slavery in Egypt and freedom to serve God, had an additional meaning this year. Unlike last year, this year families and friends could again gather around the Passover Seder table. Sadly though, many Holocaust survivors are home-bound and do not have family to go celebrate this important festival with. 
Recognising this need, the ICEJ joined hands with an initiative called: “Pesach with Dignity”. Five top Israeli chefs gave of their time and brought their co-workers along to cook a gourmet meal in a large kitchen at a hotel in Tel Aviv. 
“I’m always trying to join a project that reaches out to those in need’, said top Israeli chef Benny Bezza. “This year it is an honour to be part of this wonderful initiative. We will work as long as it takes so that thousands of people will be able to enjoy a nice meal during Pesach.”  

Volunteers from all walks of life helped to distribute the delicious meals to the homes of Holocaust survivors all over Israel. At least 1,000 survivors enjoyed a delicious, cooked meal this Pesach through this special project. 

Residents become Celebs  

A film crew from Israeli TV or Reuters or some other media outlet is a fairly common sight at the Haifa Home. Yet just before Israel’s annual Holocaust Memorial Day on the 8th of April, there was a rush of TV channels and journalists visiting the Home to hear stories from the residents about their lives and to catch a glimpse of their daily life in the Home.  

Debora Wanner with Fanny, in Ha’artez.

These stories were then featured on television and in newspapers in a very special way on Yom HaShoah. For instance, the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz published an especially warm article entitled “German volunteers in Israel find themselves ‘welcomed and even loved’ by Holocaust survivors”. Referring to the ICEJ’s three German Christian volunteers serving at the Home (Debora Wanner, Natalia Ochs and Kerstin Hoffman), the report quoted survivors as expressing deep appreciation for their love and care. 
“I am happy I can speak to her, not everyone knows German”, 93-year-old Sophie Leibowitz told Ha’aretz about her German Christian nurse Natalie Ochs. “They are not guilty of anything. It was their parents or grandparents. It’s been almost 80 years. We’re already past that here in Israel… We don’t think about their religion. We need their help, and they help us.” 
Meanwhile, another survivor, 92-year-old Fanny Zelekovic, said of Debora Wanner: “She is like family, like a sister. She has a heart of gold.”     

When asked what she thought of all the media attention, resident Naomi answered: “It is not that I am in any way looking for media attention for myself, but I feel it as my obligation to share my story. We are the last that have gone through it and can give witness.”  

A film crew from Channel 13 in Israel also came to film segments for a special two-hour telethon held to raise money for the Haifa Home. For the occasion, Vesna Bühler was on hand to give the first concert in the Home since Covid-19 hit the country. Being together and hearing the sound of beautiful music was like a balm to the souls of our residents. After the concert, they expressed their thanks to Vesna and her husband, ICEJ President Dr. Jürgen Bühler, for being there. They also shared their hearts about the difficult year we had all passed through and the blessing our ICEJ team has been for them. 

Remembering the Holocaust 

It is sad to see the numbers dwindling of the remaining community of Holocaust survivors in Israel. In the past year since Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day in 2020, records show that 14,264 registered Holocaust survivors have died. That is about 41 who die every day. Presently, 31,000 are older than 90 years old and more than 900 are over 100 years in age. Roughly 25% live under the poverty line. 

We still have the privilege of knowing them and taking care of some of them. 

Our Haifa Home residents are invited to many different places to talk about their past during this time of remembering the Holocaust. Even though it is very difficult to share about the trauma in their lives, it weighs heavily on their shoulders, knowing that they are the last witnesses. “If we do not do it, who will remember?” Mordechai, a survivor from Poland, recently exclaimed. 

Vesna Buhler and her worship team perform at the Haifa Home.

The heaviness on Yom HaShoah, Israel’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, is tangible in the air. At 10:00 AM, the siren is heard all over Israel and the nation pauses and stands to remember the six million Jews who perished in the Nazi genocide.  It is a very difficult day for the survivors, but as Sofie – a survivor from Transnistria – said: “It’s like we go to visit the grave of our parents, who perished. It is a time to be together and to remember. We need it.” 

On Yom HaShoah this year, a solemn ceremony was held once again in the street outside our Haifa Home and those attending included hundreds of local survivors and their families, as well as Israeli cabinet minister Eli Cohen, Members of the Knesset, dignitaries from Haifa, and many soldiers and police.  

Yudit Setz, ICEJ coordinator at the Haifa Home, was invited to be the first speaker and she spoke to the heart of the survivors with words of embrace on this difficult day. 
I know that even after about 80 years, the pain of loss is still very deep every day with you. Thank you so much for sharing your story these past few days on TV, radio, for school classes and army units. I know how hard it is for you. You are our last witnesses, and the next generations need to hear and learn from you in order to appreciate this beautiful country even more and protect it…. As ICEJ we will continue to stand with you and take care of you. We will continue to teach the next generations about the Holocaust and the lessons from it, so we can stand for what is right and fight against the growing antisemitism. May God help us all.”  

Yudit Setz speaking on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

After the ceremony, our residents engaged with groups of IDF soldiers. Naomi, a survivor from Romania, said: “It so helps us, all this attention. It makes this difficult day easier, so we don’t have to sit alone with our memories at home behind the TV.” 
Please help support the ICEJ’s continuing hands-on work and care for Holocaust survivors in Israel. 

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