French Holocaust survivors celebrate bar, bat mitzvahs at Western Wall

‘I am doing this in memory of my family who died in the Shoah.’

Holocaust survivor Jacques Innedjian wears a tallit and tefillin as he celebrates his bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. (photo credit: REOUVEN FITOUSSI)
Holocaust survivor Jacques Innedjian wears a tallit and tefillin as he celebrates his bar mitzvah at the Western Wall.
(photo credit: REOUVEN FITOUSSI)
“I’m doing this for my mother – she was taken to Auschwitz and she never came home.”
These were the words of Holocaust survivor Jacques Innedjian, who was celebrating his bar mitzvah for the first time as a man in his late 80s.
Innedjian was one of 80 French Holocaust survivors – many of whom were either orphaned or hidden during the Shoah – celebrating their bar and bat mitzvahs for the first time. The trip to Israel was organized by the Jewish Agency’s educational arm Israel Experience and France’s United Jewish Social Fund in Israel (FSJU).
Innedjian told The Jerusalem Post that he can’t describe the feelings he had about celebrating his bar mitzvah at the Western Wall.
“It’s a feeling that is shaking my entire body,” he said, showing his arm with a number tattooed on it. “This number was my mother’s number – it’s the only thing I have left of her. I tattooed her number onto my arm so that she will be with me wherever I go.
“I am the rarest of victims – I am the child of two genocides,” he continued. “My father’s family were victims of the Armenian Genocide and my mother was murdered in the Holocaust.”
He added that his father had lost his twin brother during the Armenian Genocide.
After his mother was taken to Auschwitz, Innedjian was hidden.
“I don’t remember where I was hidden or even where I came from… I can’t talk about this more, I don’t want to cry,” he said as tears welled up in his eyes. “It’s all too emotional for me.”
For Innedjian, it was always a dream to visit Israel. “And there is a part of me that hopes while I’m here, I die here too.”
He said that for years he has tried to move on from his loss.
“I know my mother would have wanted me to move on with my life – to study, to live and to do everything that all people do, but I was never able to move past the trauma,” he said.
For Amar Joseph, putting on tefillin at the Western Wall was a “moment of magic for me,” on his first trip to Israel.
“It’s all very overwhelming and emotional for me – I’ve come here in memory of my family, to memorialize them and the way they were murdered in the Holocaust,” he said.
Joseph said that keeping the Jewish tradition alive is extremely important, and helps “to preserve the memory of my family.”
He recalled that his aunt and uncle were sent to Auschwitz “and they never came back,” while he was hidden. Just before the end of the war, he was caught and sent to the Drancy transit camp in Paris.
“But thankfully, we were happily liberated three months later,” Joseph said.
As part of the day’s events, the group was given a special tour of the underground Western Wall tunnels. Despite being in their 80s and 90s, many trudged through the rocky paths with ease.
Afterward, the men were taken to the Kotel to be bar mitzvahed, while the women were taken to the women's side to learn about the importance of a bat mitzvah, to celebrate the milestone, and to write notes to place in the wall.
Tears streamed down the women’s faces as they celebrated and prayed at the Western Wall, many for the first time in their lives.
Several of the women spoke of their heart-wrenching stories from the Holocaust, with some saying it was too painful to talk about their experiences.
Rose Coneon was deeply moved by the experience.
“There is something electric in the air, you can really feel it,” she said. “Whenever there is a ceremony for France somewhere in the world, I get very emotional, and here I feel the same because I am connecting to my Judaism, my roots.”
Coneon said that as a young girl during the Holocaust, she went with her parents to the south of France.
“We traveled on foot to a small village near Toulouse,” she said. “I was hidden with my cousin and my grandparents, while my parents and my aunt and uncle hiked through the mountains into Spain and joined the resistance in Algeria.”
Asked about her experiences, she recalled how as a seven-year-old in hiding they did not have anything to eat or play with.
“There was hardly any food or games, and we couldn’t go to school,” she said, adding that the people hiding them managed to get clothes from the Red Cross for them.
“It was very hard to remember,” Coneon added, as she gazed at the Western Wall, “but I feel so blessed to be here.”
Born in 1937, Miriam Szmuel’s family fled to Paris from Poland just before the war broke out.
“I was hidden away by a family – they saved me,” she said. “I’m standing here because of them.”
For Szmuel, “it is impossible not to be touched when visiting the Western Wall… it’s very moving to be here.”
When she was returned to her parents after the Holocaust, Szmuel said it was hard in the beginning to connect with them because “they were like strangers to me. I suddenly had to call them mama and papa and I didn’t know them. They were also very sad because my father lost his entire family. My mother’s sister went through Auschwitz and she lived with us, and my uncle’s wife and three children were also murdered.”
Despite the deep psychological effect this had on her, Szmuel got married.
“I am a mother and grandmother,” she said triumphantly. “And still to this day I am working as a Yiddish teacher.”
Israel Experience director-general Amos Hermon explained regarding the trip that the "Israeli experience is always very enthusiastic about organizing such groups. The purpose of these trips is to give the participants a complete and quality vision of the country and to give them an Israeli experience worthy of the name," he said.
He added that the Jewish Agency brought the group to Israel because “We will continue operating among Jewish communities to locate Holocaust survivors and their families, giving them the opportunity to transmit their stories to younger generations.”
Myriam Fedida director of FSJU Israel said that "Andre Katz and his team from Passerelles, the FSJU's department accompanying and supporting Holocaust survivors and hidden children, has realized the amazing project of bringing 80 of them to Israel," adding that, "we worked closely with Israel Experience to ensure them an amazing experience in Israel."