Albert Shaltiel, the founder of the ILAI Fund, a nonprofit created to assist underprivileged special- needs, sick and disabled children, regards the chance to participate as invited guests in this year’s wreath-laying ceremony at Holocaust Remembrance Day as a small vindication of those who were murdered as a result of the Nazi’s Aktion T4.
“T4 is an abbreviation of Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin, the location of a Nazi department set up in 1940 [although the authorization for Aktion T4 was backdated by Hitler to September 1, 1939] to select the handicapped, the ill and the weak, whether mentally or physically, for mass murder by means of gassing – thus murdering 200,000 people. Once the Nazis saw how successful the killing system was, they went on to apply to at least a further million able-bodied people of sound minds who were murdered by means of the infamous Zyklon B gas in mock shower rooms at extermination camps,” Shaltiel explains.
Shaltiel has attended the event as a member of the public for years and, with his wife Yael and son Ilai, follows the ceremony by visiting Holocaust survivors that he has personal relationships with, and finishes the day at Yad Vashem.
Last year, at the ceremony, he approached the director of Official Visits for Ceremonies in the Commemoration and Community Relations Department, Shoshi Rozen, requesting that the ILAI Fund be represented among the invited guests in 2018.
“More than 200,000 handicapped people were killed by the Nazis
; I felt that the handicapped should also be represented at the Holocaust memorial ceremony,” he says.
Shaltiel and Yael began their involvement with special- needs children when, after several years of attempting to conceive a child and unsuccessful fertility treatments, they began to consider adoption. Visiting a handicapped children’s home in Haifa, they became aware of the many needs such children have and of the limited resources available to many of the parents.
The experience spurred them to turn to friends and relatives in an effort to raise funds to cover the needs of the most extreme cases.
“We were put in touch with single parents living below the poverty line and raising sick or handicapped children and we were able to cover essentials that the state or health funds did not.”
The couple connects the efforts they made on behalf of these children with what Shaltiel considers “the miracle” of the birth of their son Ilai in 2005. His birth heralded the official foundation of the ILAI Fund – which does not distinguish between Jewish, Druse, Christian and Muslim children – as an expression of gratitude for this turn in their family fortune.
Ilai is now 13 years old.
“He is a smart, active and caring boy, thank God,” says his father. “He is a master painter and a winner of Bible competitions. He loves sports and is popular among his fellow students and well-liked by his teachers.
We are so very blessed.”
SHALTIEL’S CONNECTION to the horrors of the Nazi era is not only at the level of his empathy for those who are handicapped or ill. Born in Iran, at the age of 9 he began to experience the horrors of the 1978 Islamic Revolution, when fear and random arrests changed the once buoyant society into a reign of terror. He has clear memories of tanks in the streets and the suffocating smell of burning tires.
He fled the country in 1987, arriving in the US in 1988, living first in New York City and subsequently in Beverley Hills. It was there that, “looking for answers and the truth,” he developed an interest in the teachings of the Kabbala, and renewed his practice of Judaism, eventually immigrating to Israel in 1998. Shaltiel met his wife Yael in Tel Aviv in the year 2000, at a Y2K singles’ event. As it happens, both spouses were born in 1969 at the Dr. Sapir Jewish Hospital and Charity Center in Tehran.
Hailing from one of Tehran’s wealthy Jewish neighborhoods, he attended the Otsar Hatorah elementary school. “The school instilled me with the Jewish values of loving kindness and charity, which I saw reflected in my home,” he says.
“In early 1979, after Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was exiled and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamist regime came to power, people were publicly whipped for wearing clothes or even hairstyles that were considered immodest,” he says. “We could no longer travel to Israel, and Zionism and America were considered the devil.”
Growing up under the new Islamist regime, he attended the Alliance High School “until it completely lost its Jewish character and I was forced into paramilitary exercises. It was then, at age 16, that I decided to fly to the Iranian border and escape through Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Landing in the border town of Zahedan, Shaltiel was arrested by Islamic security forces who blindfolded and tortured him, attempting to pry from him the name of the person who had arranged his escape.
“The name they wanted me to betray was that of my father’s best friend, so even under the worst of tortures I just could not give him up,” he says.
After six weeks of torture, Shaltiel was jailed, together with a couple of dozen Baluchi tribesmen, who were compassionate and friendly to the young man. This period lasted three weeks, until one morning Shaltiel was woken by gunshots and a truck crashing through the prison walls. This was a rescue operation by other Baluchi tribesmen. He was liberated along with them and able to return to Tehran, where he stayed in a safe house until he renewed his escape a week later.
For two months, he followed an “underground railroad,” traveling at night and hiding close to villages or in caves along the way during daylight. The journey was dangerous and complicated, across deserts and mountains on a truck carrying opium, weapons and a lot of cash, stopping at times to bribe armed robbers – and eventually by camel, motorcycle and on foot.
Arriving in Vienna in 1987, Shaltiel waited a year for a visa to the US, where he was finally able to join his brother.
Today, the Shaltiels live in Modi’in
and view themselves as blessed with an extended family that includes all of the 770 children that they have so far been able to help via the ILAI Fund. Shaltiel personally pays home visits to assess the children’s needs (which range from handicaps and potentially terminal or chronic illnesses to disabilities due to accidents or terrorism) and maintains personal relationships with all of the families.
“Even after so many years of working with these special children, every child awakens a new pain inside me and sometimes I still cry for them. A child is a child. I see my role as doing the best I can to help each one develop to his or her full potential,” he says.