Polish-born child Holocaust survivor George Blank, 79, inaugurated a new soccer field for the Yemin Orde youth village in northern Israel on Sunday, dedicating it to the memory of his father and uncle, both avid and well-known Jewish soccer players who perished along with most of their family during the Second World War.
The soccer field is named “Shal‘Hevet”, which means "the flame" in Hebrew. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post in Tel Aviv on Monday, Blank explained that after World War I, when Jews experienced a renaissance and could suddenly participate in fields that were previously not open to them --such as sport-- his father Hersch Tvi and uncle Mordechi, played soccer for the Jewish team of Rzescow in eastern Poland.
“When the young men and women of Yemin Orde play on their new soccer field, I hope they will remember the story of my father and uncle who embraced their opportunities to excel in sports and life, and to represent their Jewish community,” Blank said. “They understood that hard work, sportsmanship, passion and dedication to goals bring success on the soccer field, and on the field of life.”
Sport and art are important components of the therapeutic care and education provided at the village.
“I believe that you will become the next great generation of proud Israelis," Blank told the youth at Sunday's ceremony. "You will become the innovators, the teachers, the builders and the leaders. Each of you is blessed with special and different talents. You are getting a strong education and the foundation to discover yourselves and the world around you. You are living in a great democracy with many challenges and pathways to success. You will succeed because you are also standing on the shoulders of so many young men and women who never had a chance to live full and exceptional lives. You are their representative and you will not disappoint them. So remember our history and most important pursue your greatness."
Blank serves as the Chairman of the Board of Friends of Yemin Orde, the North American philanthropic partner of Yemin Orde Youth Village and Village Way Educational Initiatives and together with his wife Harriet has supported the organization since 1990, after their first visit to the village.
Yemin Orde is located atop Mount Carmel and was founded by immigrants in the early 1950s as a safe haven for Holocaust orphans and immigrant children during the great immigration wave to Israel of that decade.
“I remember so well, [then-director of Yemin Orde Village] Dr Chaim Peri introduced us to a 16 -year-old Ethiopian girl who walked to Israel for three months,” Blank says of his first impressions of the village. “During the walk, the rest of her family died.”
Blank observed the transformation of the girl’s artwork as the months went by in the village, changing from dark and troubled to light and bright work. “You could see her healing, becoming confident and optimistic and when I saw that I fell in love and wanted to play a part in this,” he said.
Blank suffered his own traumatic childhood, losing his father at the age of 3 and having survived the Lvov and Zloczew ghettos with his mother, before hiding for the remainder of the war on a remote farm in Eastern Poland. He says that his own healing was greatly facilitated by the strength and love he received from his mother. “Most of the kids at Yemin Orde don’t have that,” he remarked.
Blank and his wife now travelled from the US -- where they reside in New Hope, PA and Manhattan-- to Israel with their eight grandchildren, which is equivalent to the number of Blank family members murdered in the Holocaust.
He sees the state of Israel as a miracle. "How wonderful it would have been in 1939 if there was state of Israel - unfortunately there wasn't but thank God there is now," he told the Post
Yemin Orde, he said, is a mirror of trouble spots in the Jewish world, reflected by the nationalities of its inhabitants at any given time. Ethiopians have for a long time comprised a significant portion of the youths at the village and in recent years the numbers of French and Ukrainians increased in correspondence with a rise in immigration from those countries. Blank predicts that the coming years will see Venezuelans arriving at the village.
Israel he said, is the big mirror of the pressure points of the Jewish world, and Yemin Orde, the smaller one.
The Blanks have traveled to Israel and visited Yemin Orde Youth Village many times over the decades, strongly empathizing with the Village’s youth's personal stories of triumph over tragedy.
“At Yemin Orde, one sees the successful healing of broken young lives and the creating of proud and productive young adults. Anyone who is concerned about the survival of Israel and the Jewish people, must spend a day at Yemin Orde,” said Blank.“There they will see our future.” His primary task as Chairman of the Board of Friends of Yemin Orde is to bring Americans to Yemin Orde in order to raise support for the village.
He emphasizes that the relationships built between the youths and their educators during their time at the village continues throughout their lives, aiding them when they need help and celebrating their achievements with them.
Blank notes that Yemin Orde graduates can be found in various areas of society, some holding prestigious positions in the IDF, while others have become public officials, lawyers, and architects.
In 2006, the Ministry of Education urged Yemin Orde Youth Village to expand its circle of care to thousands of other at-risk youth throughout Israel, which led to Yemin Orde's Village Way Educational Initiatives, founded by Peri. In this way, Yemin Orde has exported its methodologies to 36 institutions for at-risk students around Israel.
"We now have 1,750 educators trained in the Village Way methodology," Blank said. "We have 14,200 kids who have been involved since 2006 and we’re expanding it to 25,000."
The methodology, he explained, involves responding to youths who are "acting out" with love and understanding rather than with punishment, "until the kid believes the message that you love them and they can trust you."
"I wish I'd known this methodology when I was raising my kids," he laughs.