A volunteer's experience at a nursing home solely for Holocaust survivors

The nursing home is run by Zedakah, a German Christian organization that Hannah Ramanathan said has one goal, to comfort and console elderly Holocaust survivors.

Bet Eliezer, the nursing home solely for Holocaust survivors, Israel (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bet Eliezer, the nursing home solely for Holocaust survivors, Israel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Hannah Ramanathan of London decided to do a gap year volunteering at Bet Eliezer, a nursing home in Ma’alot, Western Galilee, she had no idea what she was getting into. Although she had contact with her grandmother who lived in Germany, Ramanathan was only 18, and she had never been in real close contact with elderly people. When she walked into the ward the first time, she remembered thinking, “Everyone looks so old!”
But since she arrived last September, she has become more aware of the urgency of her task. This nursing home is unique, dedicated to caring only for Holocaust survivors. It is run by Zedakah, a German Christian organization that Ramanathan said has one goal, to comfort and console elderly Holocaust survivors.
“They deserve the best care and all the love in the world after what they went through,” Ramanathan said. “It’s such a pleasure to take care of them. I get so much joy.”
HANNAH RAMANATHAN with Bet Eliezer resident Arie a few months before the coronavirus, when they could be close (Photo Credit: Courtesy)HANNAH RAMANATHAN with Bet Eliezer resident Arie a few months before the coronavirus, when they could be close (Photo Credit: Courtesy)
All the volunteers come from Europe, all of them are Christians, and they not only work in the nursing home but live with the residents. Currently, there are 21 residents who live in this cheerful facility, built in 1984, where they feel they are not in an impersonal nursing home but with people who truly care about them. The volunteers do everything from cleaning to cooking kosher meals, as well as planning activities for the residents. In addition to the on-site staff, there are also social workers and therapists who come to work at the building, set in the Galilee hills.
Ramanathan’s mother is German and her father is from Sri Lanka, but she grew up in London. Her family “has always been very pro-Israel,” and she decided to come here before attending university in Germany in the fall.
Since she arrived in September, she has learned how to shower and dress the residents and take care of them. She said the most difficult barrier for most residents is the fact that the volunteers are speaking to them in German. Some people say about the staff, “They’re speaking the language that Hitler spoke.” Ramanathan said that since her arrival, she has learned a lot of Yiddish, derived from medieval German, which many of the residents spoke in their childhood. Since many of the residents have dementia, “they remember things from their past,” and she tries to speak to them in Yiddish because “it’s less traumatic.” She said she is also learning Hebrew.
With the residents all day, Ramanathan talks to them and listens to their stories. She said they have “so much love for her” and the other residents, sometimes she can’t believe “they even want to talk to me.”
This is her first time away from home, and she said she often goes through bouts of homesickness.
“Not every day do I say that I love doing this volunteer work because it’s difficult, but then someone will say something sweet and then it makes it all worth it.”
MICHA BAYER, 45, manages Bet Eliezer, with his wife, Karin, who serves as the house mother, and whom he met when she came as a volunteer from Germany.
Bayer grew up in Shavei Zion, about 40 minutes away from Ma’alot, where he lived in Zedeka Bet El, a hotel that offers free stays to Holocaust survivors and their families.
Bet El is run by Micha’s brother, Shmuel, and his wife, Dorit. The other Bayer siblings also work in the organization. The oldest daughter, Hannah, is the head nurse at Bet Eliezer; Gideon is the technical manager at Bet Eliezer and is planning a building extension to house more residents; Shulamit, the youngest daughter, is in charge of the kitchen and facilities at Bet El.
The Bayer family was originally from the Black Forest region of Germany, near Stuttgart. When Micha Bayer was a little boy growing up in Shavei Zion, he loved playing in the local soccer field with his friends and swimming in the sea. But he hated when Holocaust Day rolled around and his classmates blamed him as a German. He also dreaded when he had to hand in his “Roots” Project in seventh grade. While his classmates wrote about their families’ traumatic history and persecutions as Jews, Bayer had to face his classmates’ anger when he wrote about his Christian family who lived in Germany. But Bayer said, “I can understand why people reacted that way.”
Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren, the second and third generation after the Holocaust, are often healed by a parent’s stay at Bet Eliezer. Bayer related the story of a woman who had a very difficult relationship with her daughter, especially after the daughter brought her to live there. She was crying when she realized she was at a German nursing home, and the people who took care of her were Germans.
But after a while she began to warm up to the people and her relationship with her daughter also changed. The woman’s last name was Mondschein, which means moonshine, but Bayer said that she became “so optimistic and bright that before she died two years ago, we started calling her ‘Sonnerschein, or sunshine.”
Micha’s father, 80-year-old Hans Bayer, lives next door to the nursing home with his wife, Crystal. The couple ran Bet El from 1968 until they retired.
THERE ARE many Holocaust survivors who would like to stay at Bet Eliezer. Bayer said the staff has a difficult time choosing who will come. The priority is to find and “accept those who are poor or simply have no family. We always endeavor to take in the poorest and loneliest and to care for them until their death.”
The residents pay a share for their stay in Bet Eliezer based on their financial situation. The home is fully self-supporting, receiving no money from the Federal Republic of Germany nor from the State of Israel.
Every Friday evening, at the beginning of Shabbat, Ramanathan said that all the volunteers eat together with the residents on the ward.
“One of the men makes Kiddush and we sing songs together. It’s really, really lovely,” she said.
The original founder of Zedakah was a preacher from Germany, Friedrich Nothacker, and his wife, Luise, who built a humble hostel in the Black Forest region for people to come visit “and receive strength and guidance from God.”
The couple then met Helene Wyman, an Orthodox Jewish woman who had converted to Christianity, who had lost more than 70 relatives in the Holocaust. Wyman suggested that since “love can heal wounds or at least relieve pain,” Nothacker should travel to Israel with her to find Holocaust survivors to comfort. In 1959, after Wyman’s death, the Nothackers bought an abandoned guesthouse in Nahariya and eventually opened the Shavei Zion facility. Over the years, Bet El has hosted thousands of Holocaust survivors.
Bayer said that the goal of the Zedakah Organization is not to try to repair what happened “because it was so terrible, we can never repair it.” He said their work is not restitution, which is “impossible,” but rather, “taking care of open wounds as much as possible.”
“Our goal is to change the future because we can’t change the past,” Bayer said.