Deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau at 19 and moved from one concentration camp to another for nearly two years, Lea Fuchs could not have imagined, even in her wildest dreams, that within a mere six years she would have survived the horrors, returned to civilization and settled in the new Jewish state with her English husband, a doctor, and two small children.
In 1944 the charmed life of a wealthy and respected Orthodox family ended abruptly when she and her fellow Jews were rounded up from the ghetto of Nagyvarad in Transylvania and deported. At war's end she was one of only two survivors of her extended family, having lost parents, grandparents, siblings and cousins.
How she met her husband, Prof. Mark Chayen, is another story, recounted in her memoirs, From the Depths I Call, published in 2000. He was a medical officer in the British army, engaged to her cousin. The cousin perished, but Lea took her place and became the love of his life, as he was to her. Sadly Mark died four years ago and today Lea lives in a retirement home and is kept busy writing, and seeing her three children, 13 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
"We decided to move to Israel within five years of our marriage in 1946," recalls Lea. "We had a very comfortable life in England, living in Leigh-on-Sea on the Essex coast. But I felt if I had stayed alive it was for a purpose - to settle in Israel and raise my children there."
In 1950 they traveled to London to arrange their aliya through the Jewish Agency. The emissary was so negative that Lea had to complain about him. He implied that they were mad to want to go and leave England.
"Have you any idea how terrible things are in Israel?" he said. "You'll be longing for England."
Undeterred they sold their house, car and small dinghy, and booked their flight on the now defunct BOAC airline.
The flight, with two little boys, was uneventful, and they had booked two double rooms for the first night at a hotel in Lod at which they arrived in the middle of the night. More like a doss-house than a hotel, they happily left it the next day for the drive to Jerusalem, where they had rented an apartment. Mark had already visited a few weeks before to arrange a job at Hadassah Hospital, and they had bought an apartment which would not be ready for many months, although, of course, it had been promised to coincide with their arrival.
The two children were put into kindergarten and the Chayens had to get down to the serious business of living without the benefit of absorption centers or ulpanim as there are today. The older boy, David, was particularly confused and asked his mother why the "nanny" had so many other children to look after, unlike the one he had had at home. And being English, so soon after the end of the Mandate, added to the difficulties of being fully accepted.
Mark began working as an anesthesiologist, while Lea tried to become an Israeli housewife. Everything was rationed, and as soon as she received her coupons she set off to the local corner grocery to buy some basics, like rice and sugar.
She quickly discovered that you had to bring your own containers, as paper bags were not available.
"I'd brought a length of beautiful Irish linen to make a tablecloth and instead I cut it up and made it into bags," she recalls.
Cooking was done on a primus stove, the smell was terrible and all the food tasted of paraffin. Then, a few months after settling in, their two containers arrived and she now had a gas cooker and a refrigerator.
"Nobody told us we would have nothing to put into it," she says.
The two containers each had gaping holes and many missing items. But she happily took delivery of 200 rolls of toilet paper (Israelis in 1951 were still using torn-up newspaper), light bulbs, some coffee - all the tea had vanished - egg powder and even some precious nail polish.
Somehow Lea had to learn to provide food for her family in spite of all the shortages.
"Every two weeks we were allowed to buy 200 grams of meat, and once I bought a live chicken in the market which I had to take to the shohet to be slaughtered. After that it needed cleaning, and I just couldn't do it, it nauseated me. Mark did it in the end."
Fresh fruit and vegetables were rare and even for a few measly carrots she had to produce her coupons. Being very idealistic, they refused to buy anything on the thriving black market.
The children soon outgrew the clothing and shoes they had brought with them and she had to buy locally, although she remembers that the quality was appalling.
Occasionally, if Mark had a night off, they would go to the cinema or out for a cup of coffee at Atara.
"Mostly people entertained at home," she recalls. "We made a concoction which we used to call 'liver paste.' We would chop up fried onions with a few carrots, tomatoes, sometimes an egg and as much as 250 grams of fresh yeast. It was amazing how tasty it seemed then.
"If someone had brought a bottle of wine, they waited for the bottle to be finished so they could take it back and get the deposit."
As a girl growing up in a religious family, she had had a private Hebrew tutor. When they first married, she and Mark decided that on the long Shabbat walk to his parents they would speak only Hebrew to each other in preparation for their aliya.
"At first there was dead silence," she recalls with a smile.
They both had basic Hebrew and Lea also knew German.
"If Hebrew didn't work, I tried to twist my German into Yiddish," she says.
"The buses had fleas in them. I never sat down or allowed the children to. And the manners of the people. It wasn't snobbery; I just couldn't bear the rough way people spoke to each other."
BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL
"It has given me back my backbone. I'm not afraid to tell people off if I see something that upsets me, like someone littering. I feel the need to teach and improve behavior. I know this place is mine by divine right."
LIFE SINCE ALIYA
Another child, a daughter, was born here and Mark became a distinguished professor of anesthesiology. Lea did voluntary work for many years and the couple were very active in the settler movement of the 1970s and even moved into Elon Moreh for a few months.
"Our political activity made us unpopular. People in Tel Aviv or Ramat Gan, where we lived, crossed the road not to have to say hello," she says.
ADVICE TO NEW IMMIGRANTS
"Come with your eyes wide open. And if you really want to feel you're living in Israel, don't settle in an Anglo town but try to mix with Israelis. Otherwise, what's the point in coming?
"Realize and accept the difficulties. Looking back, although it was hard, we had a luxury aliya compared to the thousands who were in tents which collapsed in the rain.
"To succeed here, you have to feel that it's a tremendous privilege as well as a duty to come, to live here. You should try to put your own stamp on the country and try to help and improve things in some way."
How the Internet allowed a Holocaust survivor to thank her Bronze Star-winner savior
On Monday, November 6, 2005, an e-mail arrived at two Jerusalem Post computers; one to editor-in-chief David Horovitz and a copy to Saul Singer.
The sender, David Cmelik, of Iowa, asked for help in tracing a concentration camp survivor, Lea Fuchs Chayen. All he knew was that she was a survivor of the Salzwedel labor camp which his father, Frank J. Cmelik, helped to liberate as a US serviceman in the spring of 1945 and that she had contributed several articles to the paper on her experiences.
Quite how he made the connection and discovered the name of one of the girls his father helped to free was not clear but could be put down to the wonders of the Internet. If he had typed in Salzwedel on Web site, he would have found an article by Lea written on May 20, 2005, and might have followed this up by finding more articles she wrote.
In any case, the editors passed the e-mail to Judy Montagu, another Post staffer, who instantly recognized the name. She had struck up a firm friendship with Lea and encouraged her to write her autobiography From the Depths I Call.
She forwarded the letter to Lea and so began an extraordinary exchange of e-mails between the son and the survivor in which two octogenarians reconnect after 61 years and remember a time in which part of humanity descended to bestiality and another came to restore the victims to life. It is a story one can read only through a blur of tears.
In his first e-mail David Cmelik explained that he was the son of Frank Cmelik, who was a rifleman in third platoon, Company E, 334th regiment, 84th Division, Ninth Army. This division was subsequently recognized as a liberating unit by the US Army's Center for Military History and the United States Holocaust Museum.
Although not the first regiment to arrive, it came early enough to witness the camp burning down and to try and save the skeletal women who survived, including Lea Fuchs Chayen.
The moment Lea received this e-mail, she was overcome with excitement. At long last she would be able to thank someone who, like all the American soldiers, had addressed her as "miss" when she was, in her words, barely identifiable as a human being. She had even written to the Pentagon to try to get some names to be able to thank them, but was told this was not possible.
In the quaint slang she must have picked up in 1946 when she married and came to England, she referred to them as "these wonderful chaps." She wrote to Frank, whose job had been to care for the survivors, escorting them to the dining hall of the converted Luftwaffe camp which temporarily housed them, while also supervising the German POWs who, in a supreme irony, were made to cook for the women who, weeks before, had been starving.
In her first communication to Frank, Lea recalled how, one bright sunny Saturday, she came out of the hut where other girls were lying and vomiting blood and she saw a US tank outside the gate. An officer jumped down, broke open the gate and shouted, "You are free." She tried to tell her companions but no words came. Then she saw the SS officers with their hands in the air. An American soldier said to her, "Come on, miss, would you like to drink something or eat something? Everything will be all right, you will see."
The soldiers, Frank among them, were kind and gentle. All the girls wanted to do was take hot showers. They had not seen soap in more than a year.
Lea ended her letter with an invitation to visit her in Israel.
In the next e-mail, David explained that his father was about to receive the Bronze Star which should have been awarded in 1945 in recognition of his army service but for some reason was overlooked. Now finally, he was to receive it. He wrote that Lea and her fellow survivors were the reason it was all worthwhile.
"As someone not alive during this terrible tragedy, I just hope that we can learn from the mistakes of the past. God bless you and yours," he wrote.
Lea sent Frank a copy of her book. She dedicated it to "one of my liberators from HELL on April 14, 1945."
In her next e-mail, Lea congratulated Frank on receiving the Bronze Star and told him a little of her life since liberation, of her marriage, move to Israel and of her three children, her two doctor sons and her artist daughter. She referred to her "tribe," her 13 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and three more on the way.
"I lived with my late husband for 56 glorious years," she wrote.
David Cmelik wrote back with some of his own personal details. He is an attorney but a public defender, appointed by the court to represent "outcasts of society."
"All are human beings but society has a way of marginalizing them. I cannot help but believe my desire to assist those less fortunate is due to my upbringing... a function of my father's experiences, in war and peace," he wrote.
On December 18, Lea sent David an e-mail with her address in Kfar Saba, so Frank could write a personal letter. She thanked him yet again for the chance he gave her to thank all her liberators. Both the elderly Jewish survivor and the younger American soldier's son have a shared belief that nothing is by chance or accident and everything that happened was by divine intervention.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>