Some 40 Holocaust survivors on Monday celebrated their bnei mitzvot 70 years late at the Western Wall as part of an initiative organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Israel.

The event, which included family, friends and army officers, was part of a project initiated by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation in cooperation with the JDCIsrael and the Welfare and Social Services Ministry.

Before the religious ceremony, survivors toured the Generations Center exhibit near the Western Wall, which deals with the history of the Jewish people over 3,500 years.

One of the survivors, Shaul Gorka, originally from Poland, read from the Torah at the ceremony.

Gorka escaped the Nazis with his mother and six brothers into the forests of Poland, where they all lived for two full years sheltered in a dugout. They regularly snuck into neighboring villages in order to get food.

“We were seven brothers; four were killed during the war,” he recalled. “I don’t remember Dad; he contracted typhus after being taken to forced labor and died.”

Gorka’s mother and her children managed to survive in the forests until the Russian army arrived.

“I remember after the war, the JDC in Europe helped us with food, medicines and clothing,” he said.

“When the country was founded, we had the option to come to Israel or move to America. We decided to come to Israel; it was clear to us that after what we went through we must establish a state.”

As he read from the Torah with his tefillin on, Gorka’s wife Malka was on hand to share with him the moment he described as “one of the most emotional” of his life.

“For years, I did not talk about what we went through in the Holocaust,” he admitted.

“It hurts to remember, but as you get older, you want your children to know the story of your life,” he continued.

“Although I am a traditional man and I have already put on tefillin before the Western Wall, this time is emotional and important for me. Not everyone had the right to this moment [that] I do.”

The ceremony was followed by a dinner party with friends and families where each of the survivors received a certificate commemorating their bar mitzva.

Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz said the event “points to a deep connection between an eternal people and its legacy,” and represents “tangible evidence for the eternity of the Jewish people.”

“It is our duty to remember these important days and transfer them to future generations,” he continued.

JDC-Israel CEO Arnon Mantver stressed that “the connection between the JDC and Holocaust survivors began during World War II in the rescue of Jews from the horrors of war and by helping survivors make aliya to the young State of Israel.”

“This is just symbolic that the JDC also accompanies them through this emotional closure,” Mantver added.

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