Romanian Holocaust survivors celebrate bar and bat Mitzvahs

The event was organized by The Claims Conference in conjunction with The Association of Romanian Olim in Haifa and The Western Wall Foundation.

Romanian Holocaust survivors light candles as they celebrate their bat mitzvah at the Western Wall. (photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)
Romanian Holocaust survivors light candles as they celebrate their bat mitzvah at the Western Wall.
(photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)
“I was two-years-old when they shot me in the leg. They killed 14,850 people in those few days; it was a miracle we survived.”
These were the words of Rachel Kivetz, a survivor of the notorious pogrom in Iasi, Romania in which thousands of Jews were murdered by Romanian and German soldiers, members of the Romanian Special Intelligence Service, police, and masses of residents over a two-day period in June 1941.
Kivetz was part of a group of over 50 Romanian Holocaust survivors from Haifa who celebrated their bar and bat mitzvahs at the Western Wall on Thursday.
The event was organized by the Claims Conference in conjunction with the Association of Romanian Olim in Haifa, and the Western Wall Foundation.
The Claims Conference is a nonprofit organization that secures monetary and material compensation for Holocaust survivors around the world, hosts social activities for Holocaust survivors, and focuses on Holocaust education, among other things.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Kivetz said that “There was no treatment at that time,” for her leg “so I lost my toe, and my foot was damaged.”
Today, she limps with the help of a cane. She has had to live with the war wound her entire life.
“My mother and I survived the pogrom and afterwards, my grandmother and other family members ran to the former Soviet Union, but my mother wouldn’t go,” she said.
Kivetz explained that her mother refused to flee, because her father had been rounded up and taken for slave labor on the day of the pogrom.
“He went out to buy bread and as he was leaving the house, they took him,” she recalled. “She was afraid that if we left, my father would come back and would not know where we were; she was afraid to run in case he came back and couldn’t find us.”
Kivetz added that she continued to live with her mother and older sister as WWII raged on. She recalled that they used her father to dig graves for murdered Jews as well, in addition to the hard labor.
“My uncle was put on a death train, which went back and forth through the countryside for days to make the Jews suffer. Many people died of thirst or starvation,” she explained. “The train my uncle was on was stopped by the Red Cross, and he was given water. He was one of the lucky ones to survive.”
For three years, they didn’t know where her father was, but in 1944 when the city was liberated by the Red Army, he finally returned.
“I made aliyah in 1960,” she added.
Asked how she felt celebrating her bat mitzvah, Kivetz said, “I feel like a 12-year-old child again. I feel blessed. It’s just amazing.”
As the celebrations began, the group danced and sang at the Western Wall Plaza, and later stood together to sing an emotional rendition of Hatikvah. There was not a dry eye in sight.
“This is something we do for them for the soul,” explained Yaron Markus, Claims Conference manager of Social Allocations in Israel. “During the Holocaust, they were forced to grow up - from being children into becoming adults just so they could survive. Here they can celebrate this milestone in a special way.
“It’s important for them, and we bring Holocaust survivors from all over the country,” he said, adding that they have between 18 and 20 ceremonies like this annually.
Markus said that the certificates that they get at the end are significant to them, “and I’ve seen some survivors frame it and put it on their wall.”
As the festivities continued, they were then split up into separate groups. The men donned tefillin and prayer shawls, while the women lit candles and recited the Shema prayer.
Several of the women, although not visibly religious, were able to say the prayer by heart.
One of the women told the Post that she remembers saying it with her mother as a child, but had not said it since the Holocaust “where I lost a lot of my faith.”
Despite this, she said that “we continue to go up in strength as the Jewish people; we go forward with strength because we are Am Yisrael Chai - we are living.”
The women were also given a candle holder decorated by a girl celebrating her bat mitzvah this year.
“The girls decorate and paint the candle holders. They keep one and give one to the Holocaust survivors as a way of ensuring a connection between the two generations,” Markus explained.
Dr. Uzi Lobel, who was born in 1936 near Vizhnitz, which is today part of Ukraine but was part of Romania at the time, told the Post that although he was a young child during the war, he still has vivid flashbacks of the horrors he endured.
“I am here because of my mother,” he said. “At the beginning of the war I was inside the ghetto, and later we were all deported to Transnistria - my grandparents, my mother, my brothers and me. We were there from 1941 to 1944.
“My mother and I were the only ones who survived,” Lobel continued. “The rest were killed. I don’t know how we survived, we were starving and freezing - and I remember when the Nazis would come into the factory where we were working and just shoot [people].”
Despite this, Lobel said that his mother did everything she could to keep him alive: “She made every effort to save my life.”
Following the war, it took him over two years to recover, adding that the years after were also extremely difficult for him.
He made aliyah in 1961 and proudly said how he became a beloved teacher and school principal for many years.
Asked how he felt celebrating his bar mitzvah, Lobel said, “I have been so excited to do this for the last three days, it’s wonderful and special.
“It’s emotional for me,” he added.
The event ended with a beautiful party filled with food, dancing, singing and music. The survivors danced around the room, with some overheard saying, “It feels so good to be young again.”