BEERSHEBA– Israelis officially pause to think about the Jewish lives lost to the Nazi regime once a year on ‘Yom Hashoah,’ Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In recent years the state has also recognized the contribution made by veterans who fought with the Allied armies against Germany during World War II. But many survivors and veterans – the largest contingent being former Soviet soldiers – are living out their old age with limited financial security and in isolation for the remaining 364 days of the year.
Recently, a group of volunteers decided to do their part to redress this situation by restoring a community center for disabled Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba.
A word with a specific connotation in Israel, ‘Sayeret’ - Hebrew for “unit” - refers to specialist elements in the military like Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s equivalent to America’s Navy Seals or British SAS.
Sayeret Ma’assim Tovim (Good Deeds Unit), on the other hand, is a different type of organization altogether.
A charitable venture founded by Aviram Sharon and Nofar Valensi, ‘the Sayeret’ seeks to improve the lives of needy people with quick, high-impact projects. Using little more than Facebook, a splash of paint, and the time and effort of volunteers, the group has been busy since its founding four years ago.
"An individual’s desire to help others and to contribute to society is the motivation behind the charity," Sharon, 38, told The Media Line. “The vast majority of people have the need to do something but they just don’t have the time,” he explained. To Sharon, who grew up with volunteerism as part of his childhood, quick projects that allow volunteers to see the fruits of their labor was the answer to this problem.
“We get a call from the field about someone who needs assistance, we come in full force, do the job, and we get out. Hence the name ‘Sayeret,’" explained the marketing consultant in fluent American-accented English, his sentences liberally dotted with Hebrew expressions.
The latest project, partly organized by 'Adopt a Safta' - a charity that cares for Holocaust survivors - was a building used by elderly people as a social venue and a place to receive assistance with bureaucracy or to use a computer. Over two hundred people use the center, all of them either men who fought on the Russian front, their widows, or survivors from the Nazi death camps, many with mobility issues.
“These people helped build Israel… (and) they are so happy that people stop their routine for one day which is not (just) Memorial Day,” Sharon said in a short speech to the volunteers who had gathered to work. About twenty-five people had taken up the call to help, many of them Israelis but others new immigrants from countries including the Netherlands, England, France, Chile and the United States. In addition to Valensi, an interior designer, the workers included two contractors with decorating experience, but most of the volunteers were amateurs when it came to renovating and gardening. But that didn’t seem to slow things down.
As work got underway, the atmosphere was a combination of channeled chaos, good fun and hard labor. While some volunteers were toiling in the garden beneath the hot sun, a buffet of cookies and drinks was set up inside. “We’re Jews, we eat before we do anything,” observed a young Dutch volunteer with an eye on the table. The quick meal out of the way, the volunteers got into their work and were quickly dirty, sweaty and splattered with paint.
Growing up as a Jew in Europe, in the French city of Nice, Celine Attal, 30, said she was very aware of the Holocaust from lessons at school, depictions in the movies and even from first-hand accounts by survivors. “But I’ve never had a chance to actually help them. I was just receiving from them, receiving information but never giving back,” Attal told The Media Line, a paintbrush in hand.
Both the timing and the cause were factors for Arran Landis, 45, to make his first voyage into volunteering with Sayeret Ma’assim Tovim. “I’ve thought about it but the weekend always creeps up on you: social plans, a party, or the beach – there is always the beach,” Landis laughed, as he hacked at weeds in the center's garden.
But the thought of elderly Holocaust survivors lacking basic comforts and financial security was strong motivation, the business developer whose grandfather came from the Ukraine and who was the sole survivor from his side of the family, said. “The building is also for veterans from the war, Russian veterans, and they didn’t have it easy at all,” Landis explained.
Prior to its decoration, the club was in a catastrophic condition, with peeling walls and a decrepit garden because, “people our age can’t maintain it properly,” Vitaly Polanob, 93, said. One of the 75 war veterans who make use of the facility, Polanob served in the Red Army during the Second World War and fought at the Battle of Berlin, Nazi Germany’s last stand.
Although veterans from the war have been recognized by the Israeli government with a status and rights similar to Holocaust survivors, society is unaware of the role played by men like himself in the conflict, Polanob explained. The collective memory is instead focused on the Jewish Holocaust, he said.
“I understand the importance of the memory of the Holocaust, but not many (Israelis) know that there were many Jews who fought and fell as warriors against the Nazis,” the former soldier said.
With projects like Sayeret Ma’assim Tovim it is possible that a few more young Israelis will discover details of this dark period of history, while at the same time making the lives of the older generation a little more comfortable.
There are nearly 200,000 survivors from the Holocaust living in Israel at the moment. As many as 500,000 Jews fought as members of the Soviet Army, 7,000 of whom continue to live in Israel today.