Bittersweet reunion of 'Righteous Gentiles'

Holocaust-era heroes who risked their lives to save Jews left Europe to make homes in Israel, but their numbers are dwindling.

By ARIEH O’SULLIVAN / THE MEDIA LINE
October 6, 2011 21:17
Righteous Gentiles

Righteous gentiles 311 ML. (photo credit: Medial Line screen shot )

RAMAT YISHAI - Viktor Melenik, an 82-year-old bon vivant with a couple of medals pinned to his lapels, bellows out: “Forget the soup, let’s have wine.”

A half a dozen folks in their 70s and 80s chuckle along in this unusual gathering of unassuming heroes of sorts at a café in northern Israel. Known as “Righteous Gentiles,” they helped saved Jews from persecution and extermination during the Nazi Holocaust.

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While Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial has recognized and honored thousands of these bright lights who risked their lives during the darkness of the Second World War, it is a little known fact that some 130 of these Gentile rescuers chose to move to Israel since then. Today just 21 are left and the most able among them, surrounded by family members and volunteers, are enjoying the warm October sun in Ramat Yishai, the wicked memories of the war long buried.

“Eighteen members of my family, my father, my aunt and another uncle, they saved thousands of people,” says Esther Grinberg, 77, who was herself recognized as a Righteous Gentile for helping her family save Jews in her native Holland. “I never told the stories. I don’t know why. I thought perhaps no one wanted to know or wouldn’t like to hear about it.”

Israel has given honorary citizenship and a small stipend to these Righteous Gentiles.

But it’s sometimes not enough and that is where the organization ATZUM steps in.

Set up about a decade ago to encourage social activism, they took under their wing the Righteous Gentiles who made a life in Israel, pitching in where the state’s welfare ended.

“These people did so much for us, for the Jewish people, for humanity. They risked their lives to save other people in the darkest period in humanity and there is not enough that we can do for them. What we do is a drop in the sea, but it’s important to recognize the good that they did and give back to them,” says Yael Rosen, project coordinator for ATZUM.

The Righteous Gentiles came to Israel over the course of its 63 years for a variety of reasons: either because they had fallen in love with the Jews they had saved, or were persecuted for their actions after the war, or in later decades believed the conditions in the modern state of Israel were better than in Europe.

Viktor Melenik was a young teenager in the Ukraine during the Second World War. He and his family risked their lives smuggling food to Jews and even hid 50 of them.

“At the end of the war I married Faina. She was a Jew and we fell in love at first sight.

All of her family was murdered. We moved to Israel in 1994 and I discovered that I was recognized as a Righteous Gentile,” says Melenik. “When I got here I felt like I immediately belonged and I forgot that I was ever in the Ukraine. Israel is my home and in my heart.”

"Does Israel owe me anything? Certainly not. If anything, I owe Israel. Israel is surrounded by many enemies,” he adds.

Some of the Righteous Gentiles became Israeli for good and for bad. Tzippi Shurani says that her mother, grandmother and two aunts were all declared Righteous Gentiles for saving lives in Czechoslovakia.

“In the first Lebanon War, a (Hezbollah) rocket hit our house in Nahariya but that wasn’t so bad. But the first rocket fired in the Second Lebanon War hit us again and did devastating damage,” says Shurani. “But my mother said she had planted roots here and this is where she wanted to live.”

Aged 93, Mina Tzurovsky was too feeble to make the reunion. But her daughter, Zina, tells how they decided to move to Israel 11 years ago because they had relatives here.

Her father, a Jew, had been in the Red Army and her mother had saved many children by hiding them.

Esther Grinberg says she was first motivated to move to Israel in the late 1940s when she saw photographs of the Jewish immigrants arriving on ships. After training as a nurse she moved here on her own in the 1950s. She said her ancestors were Huguenots, devout Protestants who fled France, and were driven by an inner sense of helping others.

“I just think there are a lot of people walking around here in Israel who were saved by my family that I don’t know. You never know it. Nothing was spoken about it. After the war nobody spoke. My father didn’t return and my uncle didn’t return and another uncle was betrayed." She eventually married an Israeli, converted to Judaism and after she retired she continued her family tradition of helping others by setting up the site of the Righteous Gentiles reunion taking place this week at Nagish Café, which is entirely run by disabled people.

This is the third reunion of Righteous Gentiles organized by ATZUM. Grinberg says she doesn’t feel much in common with the others, since they were from Eastern Europe and she had no common language with them.

Still, ATZUM’s goal is to keep them in touch and help others recognize their contribution.

“ATZUM supplements their state stipend to help cover medical costs and care taker costs, and to mediate them with services and maintain a personal connection,” Rosen says. “They know that someone in Israel visits them and cares about them. We go on home visits. They have adoptive grand children that come and visit them. Someone sends flowers for their birthday and cards to them. That means so much for people, especially for people in the last years of their lives and on their own and with their families abroad.”

When ATZUM started in 2002, there were 65 Righteous Gentiles living in Israel, but now only 21 are still alive plus 9 widow/ers. Their numbers are dwindling every day and yet they are a reminder that there are those who threw in their lot and left Europe to live their lives in the Jewish state, which is arguably the ultimate answer to the Holocaust.


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