Close-up meeting with a Holocaust survivor

President Reuven Rivlin, in the lead-up to Remembrance Day for Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes, hosted Zikaron Basalon for the fourth consecutive year.

April 29, 2019 03:28
3 minute read.
President Reuven Rivlin and Holocaust survivor Yosef Hershkovich

President Reuven Rivlin and Holocaust survivor Yosef Hershkovich. (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)

Some Israelis find the annual Holocaust Day ceremonies at Yad Vashem, Messuah, Yad Mordechai and Kibbutz Lochamei HaGetaot have little emotional resonance. Some participants sit so distant from the speakers that they watch them on giant video screens.

In 2010, Adi Altschuler founded Zikaron BaSalon (Memory in the Living Room) to spark an interest for those with no direct connection to the Holocaust.

The educator’s idea was to bring together a group of people – usually no more than 50 – in a living room or a hall to hear Holocaust survivors recount experience.

On Sunday, President Reuven Rivlin, in advance of Wednesday evening’s Remembrance Day for Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes, hosted a Zikaron BaSalon event for the fourth consecutive year. Noting the Shabbat terrorist attack on worshipers at a synagogue in San Diego, he said: “For Jews, there’s no such thing as ‘Never Again.’”

The Holocaust was not just an historic event, he said. “What happened then obligates us to continue to tell the story.”

Jews were not the only victims of the Holocaust, Rivlin said, and Jews are not the only victims of racism today. Every nation must comprehend the enormity of the atrocities, he said. “Humanity allowed it to happen. We have to hear the story in order to understand and not to forget, because if we forget, it could happen again.”

Rivlin was joined by Holocaust survivor Yosef Hershkovich, 89, who related his story to the 50 teens from youth movements. The oldest of five siblings, and the only one to survive, as a teenager in 1944 he was deported from Sighet, Hungary (today Romania) to Auschwitz.

Fellow Sighet native Elie Wiesel was also sent to Auschwitz, where he was photographed lying with other prisoners in their barrack’s bunk beds. The photograph is on display at Yad Vashem.

Hershkovich’s father Yaakov also survived, as did six of the siblings of his mother Bina Chaya (née Schnitzler). The Hershkovich family owned a restaurant in Transylvania before the war. Although times were tough, nothing prepared the Jews of Sighet for their fate.

The constant uncertainty of wartime restrictions led to their transfer to ghettos in March 1944, when the Germans occupied Hungary. From the temporary ghettos, the Jews were deported by cattle car to Auschwitz and other concentration camps.

The train carriages were bare, he remembered, without even water. Hershkovich was grateful his family was able to celebrate Passover together before being separated by gender. He and brother Yeshayahu Asher remained with their father. Their mother, their sister and two other brothers were immediately gassed.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau, the father and two sons were tattooed, and issued striped prisoners’ pajamas and a threadbare blanket. There were daily selections for the gas chambers. Starvation was rife, and those caught stealing food were executed.

Hershkovich’s brother did not survive the horror. From May 1944 to January 1945, when he was liberated, Hershkovich was imprisoned at Eintrachthutte, an Auschwitz satellite camp. Throughout the deprivations, beatings, cold and hunger, he never lost hope.

In 1947, Hershkovich immigrated to Palestine. He found work in the diamond industry, initially as a polisher and in time became a gem dealer. Raising three daughters, his family today has grown to 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

As the young audience and Rivlin listened with rapt respect, Hershkovich said he was saved by his innate optimism and sense of humor. He never despaired, he said, that his ordeal would one day end, and that he would find freedom in the Land of Israel.

“You don’t know what it is to be stateless,” he told the youth.

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