From starvation in Auschwitz to pomegranates in Kfar Haroeh

Why an old pomegranate tree means so much to Holocaust survivor and educator Hanna Rosner Bar-Yesha.

September 28, 2008 17:46
From starvation in Auschwitz to pomegranates in Kfar Haroeh

pomegranate 88. (photo credit: )


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Hanna Rosner, a 14-year-old Holocaust survivor, stood mesmerized. It was the summer of 1946, her first Shabbat in the land of Israel, and Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neria was explaining the symbolism of the pomegranates growing in his garden. They would be eaten on Rosh Hashana and hung from the walls as a Succot decorations. It was six weeks before the holidays, and Hanna was being hidden from the British in Kfar Haroeh, along with several dozen other "illegal" immigrants. It goes without saying there were no pomegranates in Auschwitz, but even during the childhood of Hanna Rosner (today Hanna Bar-Yesha) in the town of Ungvar, Slovakia/Ukraine, a pomegranate was something she could only read about in the Bible, hear tinkling from silver synagogue ornaments, or learn about from an uncle who moved to Tel Aviv. But until that Shabbat, she never actually gotten to see this rosy red fruit and eat its juicy seeds. Her childhood in Ungvar was calm and cheerful. She recalls pre-war Friday night Shabbat dinners. "My family would have Friday night dinner at home. Then we and all my relatives - cousins, aunts, uncles - would converge at my grandparents, where we would sing Shabbat songs and recite birkat hamazon after dessert." Her happy childhood was halted as the family was rounded up in the spring of 1944. They were first sent to the Ungvar ghetto in a brick factory, and then to concentration camps. At 12, she was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. "I was six or seven months in Birkenau with my mother. I was terrified that we would be separated, and suddenly my mother was gone. I'll never forget that small door through which my mother passed the last time I saw her." The only remembrance was a small towel her mother had embroidered. In 1945 she was forced on a "death march" to Theresienstadt, from where she was liberated in May. "I thought to myself: 'I am now free. I am actually free to do whatever I want.' But I had nowhere to go. I had no one. Where could I go? There was no one to guide me. I was completely detached. I belonged to no one. I had just turned 13. At that moment I decided to come to Eretz Israel because I wanted to belong to someone, and also to my nation." Only she and one aunt, of some 70 members of her extended family, had survived. Her aunt emigrated to the US, but Hanna decided to join a group of religious survivors in Budapest who were to be smuggled into pre-State Israel, then under the British Mandate. The British were patrolling the shores from Tel Aviv to Haifa to prevent "illegal" immigrants from entering. Meanwhile, the aliya bet activists outfitted a rickety French cargo ship to accommodate immigrants. On the eve of the Tisha Be'Av fast, August 6, the ship picked up Hanna and the others waiting on the Italian coast. In order to take in as many survivors as possible, they were asked to throw all their possessions overboard. The precious embroidered towel from her mother went into the sea with the few possessions Hanna had in her ragtag valise, but all 183 survivors were able to squeeze into the hold. It was risky to embark on a so-called "illegal" boat and try to sneak into Eretz Yisrael. The organizers took measures to avoid being caught. They sailed under a French flag. The huge white sails billowed over a deck they kept empty so no one could see the passengers. A British destroyer and a surveillance plane saw their boat but suspected nothing. The ruse worked, but at the expense of the passengers. They were packed so tightly in the belly of the boat that the only time they could pray in a minyan was for the evening Ma'ariv prayers, when they were allowed, under cover of darkness, to come up to the deck. The crew were non-Jewish sailors from France, and the naval officers were aliya bet activists from Eretz Israel. One of the latter, Yonatan Kinnereti, was from a non-observant Jewish family, and had come from Germany in 1939 to a kibbutz. Not knowing about the fast of Tisha Be'Av, he did not understand why on this broiling day the passengers were refusing to eat or drink. He thought it was some kind of strike, until they explained. He was afraid to speak to the passengers in his native German because the language conjured up bad memories for them, so he tried broken German, which he thought sounded like Yiddish. They took enough provisions for the five-day trip, but the voyage took twice that long because a teenager from the crew fell overboard and they stopped for several days to try to find him, finally concluding that there was no hope in the shark-infested waters. Running out of food and drink, Hanna remembers imbibing milk concentrate diluted with sea water. Finally, on Friday August 16, 1946 the ship was able to sneak close to the shoreline near Caesaria. Three small boats - named Tirza, Rivka and Dov - rowed out to unload the passengers. Once on the beach, Hanna and the others were told to run for their lives to avoid detection. The organizers planned to hide the group in the nearby religious moshav of Kfar Haroeh for Shabbat. Hanna had remembered that before the Germans occupied Slovakia, an uncle had come on aliya. Now, in Kfar Haroeh she had no street address, but wrote a note to "Yitzhak Rosner, Tel Aviv" and sent it with someone who was going there. She was not allowed to state her whereabouts or reveal the success of her illegal journey, because she was still being hidden from the British officials. One of the most vivid memories Hanna relates of her first, sweet Shabbat in the land of milk and honey - and pomegranates - was of the late Rabbi Neria, who founded the Bnei Akiva high-school yeshiva in Kfar Haroeh. He showed Hanna and the other new immigrants a huge tree next to his front door which had rich green leaves and was pregnant with plump pomegranates (the tree still bears fruit today). Neria pointed to the crown opposite the stem - one reason that crowns for Torah scrolls are called rimonim, pomegranates. He explained that each fruit is said to contain 613 seeds, symbolizing the 613 mitzvot, and for this reason is one of the "requests" we make to the Almighty on Rosh Hashana. "May it be Your will that our merits increase and be as numerous as the seeds of the pomegranate." Some people eat it only on the second night of Rosh Hashana, using it as a "new fruit" over which to say the shehehiyanu blessing. In biblical times, the pomegranate was used for making wine and seasonings, in addition to its function as a dye. It is one of the "seven species" with which the Land of Israel is blessed, along with wheat, barley, grapes, figs, olives and dates, and was found on ancient shekel coins and synagogue mosaics. Standing there in the summer of 1946, Hanna saw and held a real, live pomegranate for the first time. The next day, Sunday, a bus came up the dusty road to their "hideout." The Jewish grapevine had worked: among those alighting was a man strikingly similar to her father. She was overcome by emotion as she recognized her uncle. Hanna's uncle and his wife provided a home for Hanna, and later enrolled her in the religious high school at Mikve Israel. She participated in the 1948 War of Independence, married Chaim Weltfreud Bar-Yesha, and established her own family. Her late husband was the much-admired founding administrator of the Or Etzion yeshiva high school. She and her husband were among the founders of a religious kibbutz, Masuot Yitzhak. Bar-Yesha is now retired, after several decades as principal of a high school in Merkaz Shapira, near Ashkelon. Bar-Yesha has two daughters, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. She has accompanied over a dozen groups of teenagers on visits to Poland to witness the concentration camps and the once-vibrant centers of Jewish community life. After her retirement she has been recalled into action to take responsibility for a group of several dozen new immigrants from Ethiopia. Her life has come full circle. Recently, Yad Vashem made an hour-long movie called "She was there, and she told me," retracing her story as she takes us from her home and synagogue in Ungvar to Auschwitz and on to Israel. The disc will be available from Yad Vashem soon; meanwhile, parts of it can be seen on Yad Vashem's website For Hanna Rosner Bar-Yesha, the pomegranate is not just a succulent symbol of the New Year, but an edible reminder of a new start in life. Shira Leibowitz Schmidt is a writer and translator affiliated with the Zachor Center for Holocaust Education Jerusalem.

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