Holocaust Remembrance Day: Torchlighters and their stories

At this year’s ceremony, six Holocaust survivors – Tova Gutstein; Ben-Zion Raisch; Judith Sohlberg; Robert Bonfil; Efim Gimelshtein; and Malka Rendel – will each light a torch.

 CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Tova Gutstein, Ben-Zion Raisch, Judith Sholberg, Robert Bonfil, Efim Gimelshtein, Malka Rendel. (photo credit: ISAAC HARARI, Yossi Ben David)
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Tova Gutstein, Ben-Zion Raisch, Judith Sholberg, Robert Bonfil, Efim Gimelshtein, Malka Rendel.
(photo credit: ISAAC HARARI, Yossi Ben David)

One of the most poignant elements of the Holocaust Remembrance Day Official State Ceremony is the torchlighting ceremony, which takes place every year at Yad Vashem. The six torches represent the six million Jewish lives extinguished by the German Nazis and their collaborators. 

At this year’s ceremony, six Holocaust survivors – Tova Gutstein; Ben-Zion Raisch; Judith Sohlberg; Robert Bonfil; Efim Gimelshtein; and Malka Rendel – will each light a torch, and a short film will recount their individual heart-wrenching stories of survival and resilience. Their testimonies are a reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust and the mixture of fortune and courage of those who survived. 

Tova Gutstein

Tova (Gitela) Gutstein was born in Warsaw in 1933 to Zanvel and Malka-Mania Alba, the middle of three children of this Yiddish-speaking family. 

When the Warsaw Ghetto was established in October 1940, Tova’s father was sent to forced labor. From the window of her house, Tova saw German soldiers shooting young men and women every day. 

Though only seven, she began to take care of the family’s livelihood. She would leave the ghetto through the sewers and beg for food from local Poles, even though they threatened to hand her over to the Germans. Sometimes she collected produce from the fields. She would tie a rope around her waist, fill her clothes with food, and return to the ghetto via the sewers. 

Captured Jews pulled out of Warsaw Ghetto bunkers are led by German Waffen SS soldiers to 'Umschlagplatz,' the assembly point for deportation.  (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Captured Jews pulled out of Warsaw Ghetto bunkers are led by German Waffen SS soldiers to 'Umschlagplatz,' the assembly point for deportation. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising broke out, Tova was outside the ghetto in search of food. Suddenly, she saw the sky turn red; the ghetto was burning. She ran toward her home. The bombing started, and she saw people falling and houses collapsing. When she reached her house, it was already destroyed and her family was gone. 

Tova managed to reach the forest and was taken in by partisans. They fed and dressed her in the coat and boots of German soldiers, as well as in clothes they took from clotheslines. Tova lived with them in the forest for about a year and a half, and learned Russian and Polish from them. 

When the partisans went on missions, she would climb down into a ditch and the partisans would cover it with branches. One day, the partisans did not return; apparently, they were killed in action against the Germans. 

At the end of the war, Tova emerged from the forest. She waited for her mother at the train station every day for a month. She was eventually sent to the city of Walbrzych, where young Jews took her to an orphanage. After 18 months, she arrived in Germany, where she found her mother, sister and brother in a DP camp in the city of Ulm.

Tova immigrated to Israel in 1948 and became a hospital nurse. Today she is active in helping Holocaust survivors.

Tova and her late husband, Binyamin, have three children, eight grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

Ben-Zion Raisch

Ben-Zion Raisch was born in 1932 in Chernivtsi, Romania (now Ukraine). His parents, Max and Sara, owned a grocery store in the city, and Ben-Zion studied at the local Jewish school. That year, due to antisemitic incidents, his father immigrated to Mandatory Palestine. In 1940, the Soviet Union occupied Chernivtsi. The Russians took over a large part of the family home, and the connection with Max was severed.

In July 1941, the Romanians and the Germans occupied Chernivtsi. Jews were forced to wear a yellow Star of David and were confined to a ghetto. After a few weeks, Ben-Zion, his mother and his little brother Poldy (Peretz) were put on a cattle car and taken to the Marculesti concentration camp, from where they were marched to other ghettos. Many of the prisoners died of cold, hunger and disease. Some were shot by the guards.

The family eventually arrived at the Zhabokrych ghetto, where they entered a house with no door. Three-year-old Poldy was weak with hunger. The next day, he asked for soup. Those were his last words. He died in his mother’s arms.

Ben-Zion began to crawl under the ghetto fences and collect beets that would fall from freight wagons. Despite being whipped by coachmen, he continued to do so in order to survive. In the summer, he worked with Ukrainian villagers. Young Ukrainians beat him and set dogs on him. 

In the winter, he made knitting needles from a barbed-wire fence, and learned to knit. He and his mother made socks, gloves and sweaters for the villagers in exchange for potatoes.

In mid-March 1944, the Red Army occupied the area, and Ben-Zion and his mother returned to Romania. Sara reestablished contact with Max, and in January 1946 Ben-Zion arrived in Israel with his mother. After eight years of separation, Ben-Zion, now 14, barely knew his father.

He became a wireless technician in the IDF; after his military service, he studied electronic engineering at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. He worked in defense technology development.

Ben-Zion and his wife, Charna, have three sons and a daughter, 30 grandchildren and more than 70 great-grandchildren.

Judith Sohlberg

Judith Sohlberg was born in Amsterdam in 1935 to Rosette and Joseph van Dijk. Joseph was a lawyer and active in the Jewish community. 

In September 1943, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Judith and her family were deported to the Westerbork transit camp. Every Tuesday, deportations left Westerbork for the east. Before each deportation, an atmosphere of deathly fear prevailed in the camp. 

Judith and the rest of her family were sent to Bergen-Belsen. As she got off the train, she heard shouts of “Raus!” (“Out”!) and saw Germans with whips and dogs. For hours, Judith and her family stood in formation, day after day, in the snow and the bitter cold. 

Rosette knew German and was therefore taken to work in the German offices. She would steal burnt crusts of bread and secretly bring them to her daughters. Adults covertly kept the children busy. Judith studied arithmetic and embroidery. She and her sister Elisabeth embroidered a challah cover for Shabbat, decorated it with an inscription in Hebrew, and kept dried bread in it. On Passover, the prisoners baked a matzah-like pastry. One uncle wrote a Haggadah from memory, and family members read from it.

When possible, Judith would go to her father’s shack, where she would walk among the sick, smile at them and encourage them to get out of bed because her father told her that whoever did not get up, wouldn’t stay alive.

In April 1945, the family members were put on a train that traveled without a destination, between the adjacent western and eastern fronts. Many of the prisoners died on the train. At one of the stops, Judith and her sister jumped over the dead at the door of the car, took a sack of potatoes and brought it inside. “Those potatoes saved many people on the train,” Judith says. Two weeks later, the Red Army released the prisoners from the train near the town of Trobitz.

Judith arrived in Switzerland, where she met Saul, a classmate who had been hidden with Christian farmers in the Netherlands. Later, the two married and immigrated to Israel in 1959.

Judith and Saul have four children, 24 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren.

Robert Bonfil

Robert (Reuven) Bonfi – born in 1937 in Karditsa, in the Thessaly region of Greece – was the only son of David and Efthymia Allegra (Simcha).

In 1941, Italy occupied Thessaly. Robert fell ill, so his parents took him to Athens under a false identity in order to undergo surgery. At the time, Athens was under German occupation. On the way back to Karditsa, at the train station in Domokos, the Bonfil family saw Jewish forced laborers under the guard of German soldiers. 

One of the Jewish workers asked them for bread. Robert’s father threw him a loaf of bread from the train window, but a German soldier beat the Jew to death with a rifle butt. A German officer then got into the wagon and asked: “Who threw the bread?” Robert was frozen with fear and his mother turned pale, but David replied in broken German: “No one threw bread from this wagon.” The officer left.

At the end of 1943, the Germans arrived in Karditsa. Robert and his mother hid in a coal bunker under the house. His father was at the home of the town’s bishop, Ezekiel, whom he taught French. When German soldiers arrived at the bishop’s house, the bishop took off his cross pendant, hung it around David’s neck, and introduced him to the Germans as his beadle.

Robert and his parents escaped in a donkey cart to the mountain village of Dafnospilia (today Velessi). When the Germans approached the village, members of the Communist underground smuggled the family to Apidea, where the Greek Orthodox Goulas family took the family in. David taught the children of the village arithmetic, and his mother taught them to read and write in Greek.

When German planes bombed Apidea and German troops approached the village, Konstantinos and Vassiliki Goulas hid Robert and his parents in a cabin in the forest and provided them with food. When the Germans retreated, Robert and his parents returned to Karditsa.

Robert married Eva, a Holocaust survivor from Germany, and immigrated with his family to Israel in 1968. He is professor emeritus of Medieval and Renaissance Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

Konstantinos and Vassiliki Goulas were posthumously recognized in 2018 as Righteous Among the Nations. 

Robert and Eva have three children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Efim Gimelshtein

Efim Gimelshtein was born in 1935 in Minsk in the Soviet Union (Belarus) to Mikhail and Rachel Yudovich, traditional Jews who spoke Yiddish at home. His grandparents lived with them. 

In June 1941, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Efim’s father was recruited into the Red Army and killed in battle.

About a month after the German occupation, the Minsk ghetto was established, and Efim and his family were imprisoned there. He witnessed Jews being murdered by gunfire, hanging and being put into gas vans. In 1943, Pinchas Dobin, Rachel’s brother-in-law, and his sons dug a hiding place under the house next to the Jewish cemetery in the ghetto. The entrance to the hideout, intended for seven people, was through a stove. Pinchas placed food and water in the bunker.

In October 1943, when the Germans began to liquidate the Minsk ghetto, 26 people entered the bunker, including Efim, who was the youngest child there. They sat in almost complete darkness, distinguishing between day and night only by the faint light that entered through a small air hole. Rats tried to gnaw their fingers and toes. 

After their food and water ran out, Efim’s mother would leave the bunker and approach Russian acquaintances for food. Those in hiding began to die of thirst, hunger, weakness and disease, including Efim’s grandmother. They were buried in the floor of the bunker. The soil was removed from the cemetery graves and sprinkled in the bunker, causing the floor to rise. The ceiling became lower and the bunker space kept shrinking. They stayed in the bunker for nine months.

On July 3, 1944, Minsk was liberated, and the group was discovered by Soviet soldiers. Only 13 of the 26 who entered the bunker survived. They did not have the strength to walk, and their vision was impaired due to being in the dark for so many months. Soldiers carried them on stretchers to a hospital. 

Efim was hospitalized for three months. After the war, his mother married Ya’acov Gimelshtein, a partisan whose entire family was murdered in the Holocaust. Ya’acov treated Efim like a son.

In 1992, Efim and his wife, Rivka, immigrated to Israel. He volunteers at Yad Vashem and tells his story to groups of Russian-speaking students. 

Efim and Rivka have two sons and five grandchildren.

Malka Rendel

Malka Rendel, born in 1927 in the Hungarian town of Nagyecsed, was the youngest in an Orthodox family of eight. Malka’s father, David-Aaron Freundlich, died before her birth, and her mother, Sarah, ran the family’s fabric store after his death. Her two older siblings immigrated to Eretz Yisrael before WW II.

Upon entering the town in 1944, the Germans closed Jewish-owned shops, forbade the Jews to trade, and ordered them to wear the yellow star. Malka was assigned the humiliating task of cleaning the street in front of her Hungarian friends.

In May 1944, the Jews of the city were deported to the Mateszalka ghetto. The entire extended family lived in one apartment. Three weeks later, Malka and her family were deported to Auschwitz in a cattle car – a journey of about six days. 

On arrival, Malka tried to grab hold of her mother, but most of the family was sent to one side and Malka and her sisters, Miriam and Rachel, were sent to the other. Her mother gave her two cookies and told her sisters: “Take care of Malka.” Of all the family members, only Malka, Miriam and Rachel survived the selection.

After three months, the girls were sent to the Plaszow concentration camp, where they labored in a quarry carrying stones with their bare hands, in the freezing cold. People around them were constantly killed by rock explosions. The three were returned to Auschwitz and from there they were sent to Neustadt, a factory for weaving parachutes.

On Hanukkah, the women stole oil and threads to light makeshift candles. “It made it feel like home, that they didn’t take everything from us,” Malka says.

As the Red Army approached, Malka and her sisters were forced on a death march to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Prisoners who could not continue walking were shot. At night, they slept in each other’s arms to keep warm. In order to survive, Malka imagined her mother, her home and the foods she used to eat.

Malka and her sisters were transferred to Bergen-Belsen, where Miriam and Rachel died. “That memory still haunts me,” Malka cries. “Mother told them to look after me, and they gave me their bread. If I hadn’t eaten it, maybe they would have survived.

“Sometimes I can’t believe I went through all this. Then I roll up my sleeve and look at the number on my arm, which proves to me that it did happen.”

“Sometimes I can’t believe I went through all this. Then I roll up my sleeve and look at the number on my arm, which proves to me that it did happen.”

Malka Rendel

After liberation, Malka was transferred to Sweden, where she was hospitalized. She took Zionism and Hebrew classes from emissaries who came from Eretz Yisrael, in a school established for the survivors. She became a teacher, and after retirement, she taught Hebrew to new immigrants.

Malka and Yehoshua have three daughters, 11 grandchildren, 36 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandson. 

The official state opening ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day will take place on Tuesday, April 17, at 8 p.m. in Yad Vashem’s Warsaw Ghetto Square. It will be broadcast live via the Yad Vashem website and Facebook page.