On the patio of Nagish CafÃ©, a blind man is drinking coffee with a friend who has arrived in an electric wheelchair. Inside, I'm having lunch with the Righteous Among the Nations, a group of women who all risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. We're in Ramat Yishai, a small town in the Jezreel Valley, emerald green this winter from abundant rain.
Over the past weeks, the probability that we will need to release so many of our malevolent enemies to free Gilad Schalit has weighed heavy on us. In addition, I've just finished reading Operation Last Chance, Ephraim Zuroff's biographical account of his work as a Nazi hunter. Despite the worthy cause, too often mass murderers of our people have succeeded in living out their lives without having to face justice.
In contrast to those evil persons, I am privileged to be surrounded by these living examples of righteousness and valor. A voluntary organization called ATZUM has initiated the gathering. Officially recognized Righteous Among the Nations are entitled to citizenship in Israel. Over the decades since World War II, 100 rescuers have taken advantage of this right and have moved here. Many have passed away, but currently the country is home to a surviving 29 rescuers and nine widow/ers of surviving rescuers. They were youngsters when their parents stood against the tide of anti-Semitism, risking their children to save strangers.
FORMER NAZIS, according to Zuroff, cannot resist opportunities to boast of their past deeds despite the risk involved. The Righteous are exactly the opposite. Ask them why they or their parents saved Jews, and they proffer a simple answer: "It was simply the right thing to do."
And the children?
"If a child was caught, chances were less that we'd be shot," explains Lydia Ivnovana Galita, who grew up in a village near Odessa. At age 12, she waited for dark and then carried food to Jews in hiding in a storeroom. Near Lvov, Jaroslawa Lewicki remembers packing the food in her schoolbag with supplies, walking past the Nazis, and delivering it to a bunker where her family is credited with saving 25 Jews, while hiding two more in their home. She was only nine.
ATZUM volunteers provide services for these aging heroes, making sure they get the health and welfare benefits provided under National Insurance, visiting them and hosting gatherings. They speak little Hebrew. Meeting is getting harder. The youngest rescuer is 74; the oldest is 97.
TODAY'S MEETING place, which has drawn rescuers from the North, is taking place in the country's first cafÃ© run by persons with disabilities. The name of the restaurant is a play on words in Hebrew: "Nagish" means both "we will serve" and "accessible."
Physically, mentally, emotionally challenged men and women work at the cafÃ©. They've been involved in planning the layout with its nonslip tile floors and wide doorways. They cook and serve the quiches, soups and salads that make it a popular venue for locals to do lunch or host parties.
"We wanted something pretty and with good food that could compete on its own merits," says Hester Grinberg-Boissevain, who is the connection between Nagish CafÃ© and today's lunch guests. She is both one of the project's prime movers and a Righteous Among the Nations.
Born in Amsterdam, Grinberg-Boissevain and her twin brother Charles were the youngest of six children of Sonia and Robert Lucas Boissevain. Finances forced them first to move to a family cottage on the seacoast in Zandvoort, but their home was taken over and destroyed by the Nazis, and they took refuge in an uncle's home in Haarlem. In March, 1943, her father brought a Jewish family for dinner at their home in Haarlem. They stayed for two years and two months.
"Never, ever tell a secret or a story to anyone," was her father's command. "Even one story to one person can be fatal for all."
Several months after he brought home the Goldbergs, Robert Boissevain, having been active in the resistance, was forced to go into hiding himself. He was caught and tortured and deported to Buchenwald.
SONIA BOISSEVAIN was left alone to care for her own six children and the four hiding Jews. In the frigid Dutch winter, there was no electricity or heating and very little food. She'd read somewhere that their famous Dutch tulips were a source of nutrition, and sent one of her sons, 13, to drag home 400 kilograms of tulip bulbs. The tulips kept them alive.
On April 12, 1945 - Robert and Sonia's wedding anniversary - the Americans came to liberate Buchenwald.
"Come, let us go and meet them at the entrance," Robert Boissevain reportedly told his fellow inmates. On his way there, he collapsed and never reached the fence. Despite the torture, he'd died without revealing any stories to the Germans.
"After the war, we didn't talk about what had happened in Holland," said Grinberg-Boissevain. She studied nursing. When she saw the newsreels of the sick and emaciated Jewish immigrants on crowded ships arriving at transit camps or on the shores of Israel, she decided to set sail herself and help. She eventually converted to Judaism, changed her name from Hester to Esther, married a Jewish man and brought up two children in Israel. For most of her career, she worked as a nurse in Ramat Yishai. When she retired, she helped launch the Nagish CafÃ© project. What better place could there be for a meeting of such good people?
ACCORDING TO ATZUM's project director, Yael Rosen, there are three reasons Righteous move to Israel. Some come to enjoy better living conditions, but others have married survivors, convert and come here, or identify with the cause of those they've saved and not their own countries where the atrocities took place.
"When teaching about the courage and strength of Righteous Among the Nations, we focus both on their lives during the Shoah, and the lives they later established in Israel, why they came and how they built their lives in the Jewish state."
Seventeen members of Grinberg-Boissevain's family served in the resistance during the war. Seventeen men and women work at Nagish CafÃ©. Says Grinberg-Boissevain, "Life goes on and we were part of it."