Assisted living: German Christians aid Holocaust survivors

A helping hand from German Christians for Haifa’s Holocaust survivors gives those in poverty a chance to live with dignity.

assistd living 311 (photo credit: Lela Gilbert)
assistd living 311
(photo credit: Lela Gilbert)
On a breezy morning in Haifa, beneath billowing clouds, a four-story structure is enclosed in scaffolding and adorned with signs in both Hebrew and English: This hostel for Holocaust survivors was established with the generous help of the Christian Embassy. Construction workers scurry in and out, and groups of senior men and women watch all the activity with subdued curiosity. In the midst of the building site, the sounds of hammering, drilling and shouting are almost deafening as cement is spread, flooring is laid, and instructions are shouted – in German.
When a sprightly, smiling elderly man enters the building, he is hardly noticed at first. But before long, a group gathers around him, soon to be engaged in a lively conversation. Although he seems to be a gifted storyteller, in all the noise it’s hard to hear what he is saying. Then suddenly he rolls up his sleeve, displaying the fading blue number tattooed on his forearm.
Yosef Kunstlich is 84 years old. He came to Israel fromPoland in 1945, but his route was tragically circuitous, passingthrough the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He remembers beingmarched through deep snow for two weeks – he was just a 14-year-old boyat the time. He recalls working long hours in a dark mine, deep insidePoland. After witnessing indescribable horrors, Kunstlich finallyarrived here at 17. Almost immediately he was enlisted in the newIsraeli army, and soon he found himself fighting in the War ofIndependence in both Haifa and Galilee.
In the1950s he married and started a family. But Yosef Kunstlich never forgotwhat he had seen and suffered. For a lengthy period of his adult life,he kept a vow that he would never speak to another German person – hisabuse at the hands of the Nazis had been brutal and unforgivable. Hewould not waste his words on Germans. Yet on that late Februarymorning, Kunstlich was surrounded by German construction workers, andthey were chatting and laughing with one another like oldfriends.
The change in Kunstlich’s attitude tookplace, in part, because of a heartwarming project sponsored by theInternational Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) which will soonprovide “assisted living” housing in Haifa for more than 80 Holocaustsurvivors. When asked what he thinks about the home being constructedby German workers, Kunstlich shakes his head in amazement. “Who wouldbelieve they would come here and work to build this place?” he says. “Imyself want to come and live in this new home!”
For several years, ICEJ has been involved in outreaches toHolocaust survivors, including an Adopt-a-Survivor program thatprovides essentials to cash-strapped elderly, sick and impoverished menand women throughout the country. In 2009, it also contributed morethan $250,000 to Yad Vashem, funding a Christian desk and otherprograms.
Of the organization’s cooperativeventure with Yad Vashem, ICEJ’s international director Juergen Buehlersays, “We decided to have a Christian desk in the place that remembersthe most dark and bloody and horrible part of Christian history withthe Jewish people. And I think for Yad Vashem to want to establish aChristian desk is a sign that something is changing in Christian andJewish relations. It is quite a message.”
Buehler also stresses an important goal: bringing as manyChristian pastors and leaders as possible to Yad Vashem for educationalseminars. “We want to make sure that they never will forget and willcontinue teaching their congregations and their communities thatChristians have learned our lessons from the Holocaust. Because the sadthing is that in those days the Christian church was part of theproblem. Not all of them, but in large part, the Christian church was asilent church and at times it even collaborated with the Nazis. I thinktoday that that’s a very up-to-date and current message that we need toremember. We are facing [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad in theMiddle East, and rising anti-Semitism in Europe and even in the US. Inlight of these things it is essential that Christian leaders are beingeducated. We have to make sure that history does not repeatitself.”
AN ADDITIONAL way of assistingHolocaust survivors arose unexpectedly in December, when the ChristianEmbassy learned it could expand a small hostel to assist dozens ofHolocaust survivors in Haifa. The organization immediately respondedwith a donation of $25,000, which would allow the charitable group YadEzer L’Haver (Helping Hands to Friends) to take possession of theground floor of a building next door to its current assisted-carefacility. But after learning from Yad Ezer’s director, Shimon Sabag,that the entire building was available for purchase and renovation,ICEJ’s German branch raised, in a matter of a few days, $300,000 more,making it possible to donate the entire building to Yad Ezer, and torefurbish it. Meanwhile, several teams of German construction workersvolunteered to spend two weeks in Haifa at a time, thus dramaticallyreducing labor costs.
When asked about hispersonal interest in assisting Holocaust survivors, Buehler – a GermanChristian himself – recounts the remarkable story of his own family’sexperience.
“My father is still alive. He, too,is a survivor of World War II. But he fought in the German army,drafted like every young man of his generation into Hitler’s troops. Hewas captured by the Russians after 1945, and for four and a half yearshe was in a Russian prison camp. He has often said that he owes hislife to two Jewish people who saved him on separate occasions while hewas a prisoner. One was a doctor who kept him from dying ofmalnutrition; he doesn’t know until today why she went out of her wayto help him when others were starving to death all around. He can onlysay that she’s one reason he survived.
“Theother was a local Jewish farmer who told my father to take whateverpotatoes and vegetables he needed from his family’s garden – enough forhimself and his fellow laborers – since the labor camp’s food rationsweren’t enough to keep them alive. So my father has always said that asfamily, we owe our lives to the Jewish people.
“And in the same context he always taught us kids to respect theJews – he’d say, ‘There’s a special purpose in the Jewish people and weowe them a lot. We should always be grateful to them.’ After returningto Germany from Russia, he set his heart on being a Christian pastor,and before long, he brought us kids to Israel. On that first trip Ifell in love with the land. The day after our wedding, I brought mywife; we have been here for 15 years.”
It isoften reported that nearly a third of Israel’s some 250,000 Holocaustsurvivors struggle with physical ailments, are emotionally distressedand live below the poverty line. As these people reach their twilightyears, Christian organizations have been working quietly to ease theirsuffering, whether through adoption programs, special assistance, giftbaskets or investment in initiatives like Yad Ezer’s outreach tosurvivors.
Yad Ezer – which also sponsors soupkitchens, home food deliveries, homeless shelters, free legalrepresentation, psychological counseling, after-school children’shomes, home visits, blankets and heaters to the elderly, a free dentalclinic and an annual Pessah Seder meal for the disadvantaged – wasstarted in Haifa in 2001 by two brothers, Baruch and Shimon Sabag.Shimon was a successful businessman before being seriously injured in adevastating automobile accident. After his recovery, the two brotherswanted to do more to help the poor and needy, and started providingfood and shelter through a hostel that cares for Holocaust survivors.
“It is my heart’s desire to give those peoplewho suffered so much some dignity and joy as they live out their lastyears. Time is running out for them,” Sabag explains.
ONE WOMAN who has benefited from Yad Ezer’s outreach is MiriamKremin, 87, who came here from Poland in 1944. She arrived as a refugeewhen she was 16 years old after being imprisoned in Luvno, a Polishghetto where the rest of her family was killed. “There was going to bea final action,” she says, explaining why she escaped when she did.After staying one step ahead of the authorities for three years, oftenforaging for food, she managed to reach Palestine, despite severeimmigration quotas. “I was given a passport with a Christian name,” shesmiles.
When asked how she feels about theGerman Christian workers, Kremin shrugs, “It’s possible that some ofthese Germans had family in the Third Reich’s army, but this is a newgeneration that has come here. You cannot judge people by the placethey were born or the way they look. Anyway, they have come tohelp.”
Describing the unusual relationshipbetween German’s Christian community and Israel’s Holocaust survivors,Buehler says, “Of course with our German baggage or our German heritageor whatever you want to call it, I wouldn’t say it gives us a sense ofguilt but, rather, a sense of responsibility toward Israel. You alwaysunderstand that it’s negative baggage in many ways, but I have to saythat it is in a very strange way also positive baggage. Why? Because ifour German community raises funds for Israel and the aid comes fromGermany, it is often perceived as having much more value than if itcomes from the United States or the UK or any other nation. It is ablessing to bring help from Germany to Israel because it touches manypeople in a very good way.
“It was because ofthis increased sense of responsibility that we immediately jumped ontothe Haifa hostel project. And even though last year there was a globalrecession, our funds in Germany have actually increased. We started ourfund-raising campaign for this house in January, and just days later welearned about the earthquake in Haiti. All the fund-raising energieswent out to help the needy people in Haiti. And I told our office thatit would take a couple of months for us to get this project started. Weput out a very simple mailing, just a two-page flier. I was completelyoverwhelmed when, within seven days, all the money we needed came in.There was one significantly large contribution, but most of the giftswere from individual donors of 50, 100 or 200 euros.
“For me it was very encouraging because it showed that Christiansin Germany are willing to take their responsibility seriously. Some ofthe survivors want nothing to do with Germany. In fact one of thereasons some of them live in poverty today is because they refuse totake reparations from Germany. They do not want any pity fromGermany.”
However, the survivors in Haifa seemto be unanimously grateful for the assistance. In fact, the waitinglist of people applying for a place in the new Yad Ezer facility isalready up to 850, most of them survivors of Nazi death camps in Polandand Germany.
Asked about the speed with whichthe project has come together, Shimon Sabag smiles and shakes his head.“Even in a dream I never thought all this would happen. I think thesepeople must be angels!”Sabag goes on to explain, “A lot ofthose who managed to survive theHolocaust would never speak to Germans before – their families werewiped out entirely in Germany, and the killing was done by Germans. Butnow that that they have seen such an outpouring of generosity fromGerman Christians, this very unusual and important effort has changedtheir minds.”
He stops momentarily to answer a workman’s question, then smiles andcontinues. “This is the only place in Israel where survivors can livewith all their expenses paid and get medical treatment at no cost. Theywill spend their waning days in dignity. Not only has this help fromthe Christian Embassy and Germany changed their minds, it has changedtheir lives as well.”