Every week, 27 year-old Philip Schwartz, one of hundreds of volunteers scattered throughout Israel, dedicates a few hours to a most worthy initiative – volunteering with Holocaust survivors.
Schwartz arrived in Israel eight months ago from Germany to volunteer with Amcha, the largest provider of mental health and social support services for Holocaust survivors in Israel, in collaboration with Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste (Action Reconciliation Service for Peace).
The joint volunteer program, which brings German youth to volunteer in Israel for one year, pairs German volunteers with German-speaking Holocaust survivors.
Schwartz, who also works with Israeli and Palestinian pupils at a school for children with special needs in Jerusalem, said he decided to come to Israel for two main reasons.
“I began learning biblical Hebrew a year and a half ago and because I am interested in the study of the Bible for religious reasons – I am Christian – I also became very interested in Judaism,” he explained. “I came to Israel to get to know Jewish life and Israel, I think it is important.”
He said the second reason was because he feels the study of the Holocaust and of World War II is significant.
“The topic has been important for me for a while. I have never been to Israel before and it is an interesting experience to speak to the people who left Germany or who lived through the Holocaust,” he said.
Currently, he volunteers with four Holocaust survivors, assisting each based on their needs.
“Some are in good shape and others really need my help, and in those cases I get to be there and hear their stories and get a different perspective,” he said.
Schwartz explained that he volunteers with each survivor in different ways – from going on walks, to helping with email correspondence, to just sitting and listening and chatting. He is even helping one survivor write a memoir.
When asked why he felt the need to come to Israel specifically to volunteer with Holocaust survivors, he explained that he feels “regret and responsibility.”
“I inherited the history of my country, my church, my family and I think it is my responsibility to deal with this history in a productive way,” he said.
“I feel guilty not about what, say, my father did in the war, but rather how we are dealing with this history today,” he said. “We didn’t do a very good job with prosecuting people who actually perpetrated the crimes and I feel guilty because it continues today.”
Schwartz said he believes it is important now more than ever to keep the memory alive because of the rise in anti-Semitism and far-right ideology in Europe.
“People are saying stuff in Germany that I thought they would never be able to say again. Ten and 15 years ago there would’ve been a much different reaction to some of the things that are being said now,” he added.
Schwartz is just one of numerous youth who arrive annually from Germany to volunteer in Israel.
Johana Gottesfeld, director of the Amcha Jerusalem branch told The Jerusalem Post that each year Amcha receives around six or seven young Germans who come to Israel to volunteer.
“The program has been running for over 15 years now in collaboration with Ot Kapara (Action Reconciliation Service for Peace),” she said.
“Sühnezeichen means reconciliation, and the next generations, the grandchildren of the Germans, some of whom had Nazi grandparents and great-grandparents, feel the need to do something and in a sense make up for their grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ deeds,” she said.
Gottesfeld explained that the youth come and volunteer with survivors as well as impoverished children, battered women and other groups in need.
“Those who come to Amcha are paired to a survivor and they visit him or her once a week, throughout the year. Many also volunteer in other programs and so they visit many survivors,” she said.
Amcha – “your people” in Hebrew – was a code word that helped Jewish survivors to identify one another in post-war Europe.
Today, the organization provides mental health and social support to nearly 20,000 survivors throughout the country.
Since its establishment in 1987, the Jerusalem-based organization has expanded to operate 14 additional branches, providing psychotherapy and social clubs for Holocaust survivors as well as volunteer services for youth to meet and interact with the survivors.
“In the Jerusalem branch alone we have over 100 volunteers – some are German and other foreigners and many are Israeli,” she said.
Gottesfeld explained that Amcha matches survivor and volunteer, based on the latter’s backgrounds in ways to best benefit the survivor.
Over the years the organization has, through its volunteers, offered meetings in Yiddish, as well as English, drawing, computer and Bible courses at its activity center in Jerusalem.
“This is also very helpful for the survivors, because they spend time together and engage in activities with each other and with our volunteers,” she said.
Gottesfeld added that the majority of those who Amcha assists are remarkable people who have, despite all that they have endured, managed to build and establish a life in Israel.
She said that she takes issue with the media’s emphasis on the poverty of survivors, especially around Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“The media puts a lot of emphasis on poverty and this is not the main or the only characteristic of survivors,” she said.
“These are people that, despite what they went through and despite the emotional trauma they are still going through, built this country. They need dignity and respect and not the emphasis on poverty,” she said.
“For many survivors and for second generations it is very demeaning, because they did everything to bring up their children so that they would not lack anything,” she added.
Still, Gottesfeld said that in her years with the organization, she has found Israeli society to be very respectable and supporting toward survivors.
“There is never a lack of volunteers,” she said. “We have volunteers who are here for 20 years, some with the same survivors. Some [volunteers] leave, but they stay in touch with the survivors.”
Schwartz, one of these dedicated volunteers, has become entwined in the lives of those he visits, recounting their ordeals as well as sharing in their day-to-day life.
He said he hopes that he can continue to volunteer even after his program ends.
“I would like to stay for longer, for another year, if it will be possible,” he said. “If not, I hope to keep in touch and I will definitely come back and visit.”