Prison Holocaust ceremony focuses on rehabilitation, drawing lessons from past

Holocaust can be used to teach moral and social ideas to Jewish and Arab prisoners alike, head of the education branch of Ayalon prison says.

Inmates observe Holocaust Remembrance Day at Ayalon Prison (photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
Inmates observe Holocaust Remembrance Day at Ayalon Prison
(photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
The words of this Holocaust survivor, describing their fear upon liberation at the end of the war, were brought to life on stage Thursday morning by a man doing 9 years for a string of armed robberies. A few minutes after reading the survivor’s testimony, “David” would play the keyboard in the inmate band, as a female prison guard sang “Life is Beautiful."
The Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Ayalon Prison on Thursday was a rather strange affair – most remembrance events don’t have a guard doing a head count every few minutes and typically the testimonies of Holocaust survivors are not read out by hardened criminals serving time for some of the most serious and violent crimes in the Israeli penal code. Still, the event - and others held at prisons across the country - showed efforts by the Israel Prison Service (IPS) to maintain inmates’ sense of attachment to society, and how they believe that the messages behind Holocaust Memorial Day can help in prisoner rehabilitation.
For David, much of the emphasis of learning about the stories of Holocaust survivors is about “the pain they felt after release. How they lost their children, their families, everything and managed to get back to life.”
He and others said that these stories of suffering help put in perspective the difficulties of prison life and readjusting to society, though no one appeared to be making a comparison between innocent victims of the Holocaust and inmates jailed for victimizing their fellow citizens and breaking the law.
The message was also reflected in the banner above the stage at the ceremony, which read “the pain of liberation and returning to life”, the theme of this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.
David’s grandparents were from Libya, and though the Holocaust doesn’t figure in his family history or that of many other prisoners – especially Arab prisoners – he said that they were able to take something from the Holocaust workshops held at the prison over the past month, regardless of their family background.
The event may hit a bit closer to home for Chief Superintendent Miri Afek, the head of the education branch of Ayalon prison and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, including a grandmother who was liberated from Transnistria, then under Romanian occupation. To Afek the Holocaust has two main messages for prisoners. First, there’s the message that whatever they did, even if they’re serving a life sentence, they’re still part of Israeli society and its days of mourning. The second message was a bit harder to grasp, and dealt with the loss of humanity, the way that everyday Germans became murderers and accomplices to murder. The message appeared to be that even apparently normal people can be capable of the worst crimes, the idea being that even the worst criminals are still human beings and can change.
“We need to teach them about rehabilitation and that it’s possible. Also, that even if they’re here [in prison] they’re still part of the society,” Afik said, adding that the Holocaust can be used to teach moral and social ideas to Jewish and Arab prisoners alike.
Altogether there are some 670 inmates at Ayalon Prison and they include some of the most violent offenders in Israel, including ones serving life sentences for murder. Including the inmate band on stage, about 40 prisoners attended the ceremony held on the prison’s basketball court, along with around the same number of prison staff. A prison service official said that the inmates don’t receive any sort of early release or good behavior credit for attending, joking “if that was the case the whole prison would be here.”
The location was only a short walk from the site within the prison where SS Lt. Colonel Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust, was hanged on May 31st, 1962.
Junior Commissioner Shoham Yosef, the commander of Ayalon Prison, said he doesn’t think the memorial day is lost on prisoners who are not Jewish, or that it has a stronger impact on Ashkenazi prisoners more than Mizrahi inmates.
He also said that he believes all of them can internalize the rehabilitation message.
“This people are prisoners and it’s our job to protect society from them. But we can’t forget that they’ll get out soon and need to be part of society again.”