Healing the Wounds

German Christians serve Holocaust survivors in northern Israel.

healing ced 88 (photo credit: )
healing ced 88
(photo credit: )
In northern Israel, not far from the Lebanese border, sits the quiet little town of Shave Tzion. Quiet, that is, until recently. With the outbreak of hostilities between Hizbullah and Israel last month, local residents found themselves squarely in the cross-fire, as several Katyusha rockets slammed into the small community and the noise of nearby fighting reverberated around the clock. Nonetheless, this quaint village on the shores of the Mediterranean has tried to carry on as best it could. Among the locals riding out the storm are an unusual group of German Christian volunteers who run a unique vacation guesthouse just for Holocaust survivors. Called Tzedakah ("righteousness" in Hebrew), the organization operates two such havens for survivors of the Shoah set among manicured gardens in northern Israel: The Beit El guesthouse in Shave Tzion and the Beit Eliezer retirement home in nearby Ma'alot, which has also been targeted by repeated rocket attacks. THE IDEA for the homes originated in the German town of Maisenbach, where a Christian couple, Friedrich and Luise Nothacker, founded a guesthouse in 1936. After the Second World War, Friedrich opened the vacation spot for free to Holocaust survivors as an act of kindness toward those who had suffered so much under the Nazis. He called it "pouring oil into the inflicted wounds." In 1956, an English woman who had lost family in the Holocaust and had first inspired the Nothackers with the idea of a guesthouse for survivors came to visit them in Germany and decided to open something similar in Israel. She rented a small apartment in Haifa and let it be known that Holocaust survivors were welcome to come for a free vacation. She died in 1959, and the Nothackers came to Israel to carry the idea further. They bought and renovated a guesthouse in Nahariya and formally opened Beit El in 1960. For several years they received a steady number of guests, until the facility simply proved too small. So in 1969, they moved to Shave Tzion and opened the guesthouse used to this day, staffed by young volunteers from Germany and Austria. In normal summers, about 10 groups of 42 survivors come for free 10-day vacations. They enjoy walking on the beach, meals in the spacious dining hall, arts and crafts and sharing biblical readings with the Beit El staff. There is a four-year waiting period to join one of these groups, and many survivors are now well into their 80s. But there are also survivors who are only in their early sixties, so Beit El expects to be operating well into the next decade. Over the years, it became clear that many of the elderly guests needed more year-round care, so an additional facility called Beit Eliezer was opened in Ma'alot in 1979. The property was bought and renovated by Tzedakah, and in 1984 the first full-time patient came to the nursing home. Today, the 24-bed facility is run by 35 full-time volunteers and a few part-time staff who faithfully serve the aging residents. AT BOTH places, the Jewish feasts are celebrated and the Friday night Shabbat meal features the reading of the weekly Torah portion, singing of Shabbat songs and the recital of Shabbat prayers. Because neither facility charges for its services, the volunteers are an indispensable part of the operations. In Europe, high school graduates customarily take a year off before going on to university. Most Tzedakah volunteers spend that year working for free while their classmates are at the beach or travelling. In the end, they feel they gain more through their work in a faith-based environment where they can grow in their own walk with the Lord. "It is remarkable that we as Germans can care for Holocaust survivors and have a personal relationship with them," Helene, a 21-year-old nurse from Bonn, recently told The Christian Edition. "I want to serve the Lord, and He said we should comfort His people Israel." "I came to Israel because I feel an affinity to the people God chose as His own, and His covenant with them is still valid today," said Christopher, 19. "I learned here that the Jewish people have a desire for peace above all; a life of peace is only possible with the God of the Bible." "I came to Tzedakah because the people that were tortured and persecuted by the Nazis go to my heart," said Tina, a 28-year-old nurse from Heidelberg. "While working here I have learned to depend completely on God, for with my own strength I could never do the work. Almost daily I experience the fact that God answers prayer, sometimes immediately." Before the recent crisis, there were concerns about Hizbullah rockets flying over the border, and the occasional alert and trip to the air raid shelter, but the staff were not overly worried. Then suddenly, the daily routine was shattered. Still, the volunteers are undeterred and are trying to carry on. The vacation home has been forced to cancel scheduled visits by groups of survivors this summer. But the nursing home, which is open year-round, is still fully operational, despite the difficulties posed by daily alerts and missile strikes. Judith, who just completed her university studies, arrived in Israel the day the war began. "Thank God we were not hit by a Katyusha, although many landed close by. We often heard the landings and smelled the smoke. We regarded this as the answer to our prayers for protection," she said. Since the beginning of the conflict, three volunteers have left, but only because their time was up and their flights home were already booked. Judith insists that "they had a hard time leaving us in this situation. Even though some parents want their kids to return to Germany, and we are free to leave, nobody really sees this as an option. Staying is an opportunity to bear witness of our faith and our solidarity with Israel." In that same time, two new volunteers arrived and three more are waiting in Germany to come. The residents of the nursing home have taken it all in stride. The doctor comes once a week to look after them, and food is still delivered daily. It has even been possible to celebrate Erev Shabbat together - the highlight of the week. Judith believes the hardest part of her work is trying to comfort elderly survivors who have already been through so many trials, and are now once again being terrorized. But she has hope. "I trust that God is in control, and that He knows when the weapons will fall silent. I believe that He can perform the miracle of a quick end, but if not, this will also turn out for the good."