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
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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.
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.
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
“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.
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
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
"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
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.