He is a kindly octogenarian, with large brown eyes and a ready smile. We meet in the way most meetings take place these days, in the cyberspace of Zoom. I have been asked to interview him as part of a holiday article describing the work of the charitable organization Meir Panim, which runs restaurant - style kitchens catering to Israel’s indigent; meals on wheels; youth programs and the unique club in Dimona caring for Holocaust Survivors. Karol Graif is a grateful, longtime member of this club.
We begin with the basics. He was born on January 15, 1940 in Chernivsti, Ukraine, was drafted into the Russian army as a young man, and by the age of 32 applied to for an exit visa to Israel. Divorced, the father of four and grandfather of three, the Meir Panim club provides him with what he makes clear is a vital component to his well-being: abundant nourishment, both physical and emotional.
“Three years ago I retired. I feel the club is a second home. They help me with everything . I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I need to be with other people so much. I’d be so bored, so alone otherwise.”
Much of Karol Graif ‘s early history are things he doesn’t remember, and which the rest of us should never forget. In the year of his birth, his home town was occupied by the Soviets, who proceeded to torture the Jewish community with Communist directives and Stalinist terror. Close to 3,000 Jews were deported to Siberia for the crime of being “bourgeoise.”
On 5 July 1941, the city was overrun by Nazis and their Romanian allies. Under orders from the Antonescu government, troops were ordered to “punish” the Jews for—ironically-- their support of the Communists! What followed was assassinations, culminating in the murder of the chief rabbi, Abraham Mark, and the torching of the temple. Yellow stars soon followed and Nazi repression which deprived Jews of civil and economic rights. A year later, 1942, he and all fifteen members of his immediate family including his mother, stepfather, brother, aunt, and grandmother, and thousands of other Jews from the surrounding area ,were forcibly evacuated to Krasne. The overflowing ghetto led to the establishment of a nearby slave labor camp. The labor was backbreaking, he recalls his mother telling him, and starvation always a threat, as they foraged secretly for potatoes, herbs, berries and anything else that was edible. His mother did all this with a baby to care for.
Despite her best efforts, one day, they came for Karol. It was 1943 and Karol was three years -old when they took him from his mother and stood him in a row by an open pit along with the other intended victims of the day’s killing. With powers that seem hard to understand, Karol’s mother found him just in the nick of time, and was able to steal him away back to their hut. In the confusion and overcrowding, no one came to look for him. Soon after, the Jews of the Krasne Ghetto were rounded up and placed in stables which were set on fire, burning them alive. People in the labor camp faced death by shooting. Miraculously, Karol and his family survived, perhaps by returning to Cernivsti where Mayor Traian Popovici had managed to obtain approval for 17,000 Jews to remain to perform compulsory slave labor. By the time the town was reoccupied by the Soviet army in 1944, approximately 30 percent of the Jewish population had survived.
Speaking of his childhood, Karol suddenly loses his easy smile. Quite aside from the horrors of Nazi atrocities, his personal situation as a stepchild being brought up by the biological father of his half-brother was difficult. His own father had been drafted into the Russian army and simply disappeared. “It is very painful for me to talk about,” he says almost in tears. His own three and a half years as a draftee in the Russian army were also a time of suffering. “It was terrible,” he recalls, shaking his head. “Fifty degrees below zero temperatures.”
When Aliyah from the USSR became possible in the 1970’s, he immediately applied for an exit visa. ‘Four times I applied and four times I was turned down.” But on the fifth try, his dream finally came true. He and his family, including his mother, arrived in Israel in 1972.
When you ask Karol about his memories of the war, he talks about Israel’s wars. He was here for all of them, starting with the Yom Kippur War, and served himself in the IDF in the army in Lebanon. “I was there for 26 days,” he remembers. “I have been in Israel for fifty years. I love this country.”
When he tries to express his gratitude for the work of Meir Panim which runs the club for Holocaust survivors in Dimona, he is at a loss for words. “There are 35 of us here,” he tells me. “They take care of me. I have a place set for me. I have friends to talk to. They arrange progams, tours around the country. Kol Hakavod to the staff here! My thanks and gratitude to Meir Panim and the staff. What can I tell you? I hope it continues. Thank you, thank you, thank you to all the people making this possible.”