A German among Jews

Inge Buhs has dedicated her life to serving Holocaust survivors. It started 25 years ago with her cleaning their toilets and running errands; today she has opened a home in Jerusalem.

buhs 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
buhs 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Inge Buhs, 47, receives me with a warm smile in her Jerusalem flat. Her eyes - like the balmy morning sun - shine as she asks me to sit down in a soft chair and offers me coffee. Already I feel at home in her presence and can sense the empathy she has for others - even for me, a complete stranger. But Buhs's dedicated love is reserved for those who have supplied her with the many plants surrounding me and the pictures on the walls - all tokens of appreciation and love from the people she is so eager to help: the Holocaust survivors. In 2000 she started Ner Yaakov (Yaakov's Candle), an organization that offers practical help and a safe home for survivors living in Israel. Today four are living in the organization's house in Pisgat Ze'ev, and another 17 who live alone receive help on a regular basis. "I'm embarrassed to talk about my work, it's so small," Buhs says again and again, even though she has helped many, many survivors since her first visit to Israel in 1983. But despite her modesty, she agrees to tell me about what has become her life's work. Buhs was born in Bavaria, south of Munich, in 1960. In her home there was no mention of what had happened to the Jews during World War II. "My father talked about the war all the time, but it was always about the Russians; they were the enemy." The only recollection Buhs has about the issue from her youth is a Holocaust movie she saw as a teen. She found it horrifying, "but I didn't take it personally," she says. And Buhs never got the chance to ask her father about it. When she was 14 he was found killed next to a beer tent. "That's when my life went totally downhill. I was only in discos, smoking and drinking. I worked in bars. I was running around the world looking for something." Buhs found that something in the US, when she became a Christian. "A few months later I went to Israel for the first time. At some point I just started helping Holocaust survivors with my hands; I had no money. Sometimes I went to church on Sunday, not knowing where I would sleep that week, but a solution would always present itself and I realized that this is what God wanted me to do. He called me to serve the survivors in practical ways." The vision to open a home really started to take form after Buhs met Bella Steiner in 1987. Bella was a survivor from Auschwitz living alone in Israel. Buhs moved in with her to help her with everyday chores. Through Steiner she met more survivors. "I saw how lonely they were, especially during the holidays, when all the memories come up. It gave me a vision of a little home were we could bless the survivors. But I wanted a place where they would really feel at home, not an institution." Over the years, Buhs's dream grew. At the beginning of the 1990s she returned to Germany to study practical nursing for a year to be better equipped for the future. "I wrote my vision of the home down on a piece of paper. My pastor advised me to go to different organizations and hand the vision to them because I had no money to start on my own. But then a friend told me: Buhs, it's your vision; you have to do it." And so it happened: Churches in Germany and a number of private people came forward to support the future home for survivors. Now Buhs "only" needed permission from the Israeli government. "We went to a lawyer. I was so intimidated by [the idea]; I didn't know how to speak to a lawyer. But when we walked into his office there was a big photo from Auschwitz-Birkenau. It turned out that he was the son of a survivor." The lawyer willingly applied to the Interior Ministry on Buhs's behalf, and got its permission to open a home for survivors. Now it just needed a name. "I wanted to call it Comfort my People, but the Ministry of the Interior wouldn't allow it. So I didn't know what to call it." That was until Steiner, Buhs's initial link into the survivors' world, suggested naming the home after her beloved grandfather Yaakov Thalenberg, one of her fondest memories from her childhood in Poland. He had a warm-hearted dwelling in his hometown where every beggar found a welcome reception, but during the war he was taken by the Nazis, shot and buried somewhere in a mass grave - along with the rest of her family. However, Steiner's memory of her grandfather's kindness to the needy matched the essence of the vision of a place of comfort for Holocaust survivors, and so the home was established in 2000 under the name Ner Yaakov. So far, mostly survivors from the former Soviet Union have enjoyed the warmth of Buhs's home. She is cooperating with Jewish organizations from that region that are trying to convince elderly survivors to immigrate to Israel. "I believe there is a growing anti-Semitism in those countries and I don't want them to go through that again. But for these elderly people it's hard to leave their lifelong home if they don't know what's waiting for them in Israel. With Ner Yaakov it might be easier for them to make the decision," Buhs says. BUHS IS alarmed that neo-Nazis have found their way to Israel. "I would collect them and throw them out today. Israel shouldn't tolerate them for one second." She doesn't know if her own family was involved in the Nazi movement, but either way, her journey with the survivors started out as a search for her own identity. "It has to do with guilt, shame and an identity problem - for many years I wasn't complete as a German. But after more than 20 years of being confronted with it, today I don't feel ashamed. Working with the survivors for me is a blessing, not a guilt trip. I only wish that more Germans would deal with this issue." When Buhs meets a Holocaust survivor for the first time, she is not always welcomed with open arms. "A breakthrough takes time and it's a different process with every person. I helped an old couple for many years. At some point the wife, Eva, told me: 'In the beginning I didn't want a German in my house,' but with time she had come to understand that not all Germans are Nazis and that I only wanted to help. "A second survivor, Ivgenia, who had rejected me many times, suddenly said: 'Buhs, I believe you now,' and in the end she didn't want to die without me." Buhs says that very few of the survivors are bitter: "When you meet them, you think they must be so full of hate. But they are broken and in their brokenness they are beautiful. When they feel that I'm sorry or feeling bad, they come and comfort me." Buhs speaks of one time when she was feeling guilty about her nation's past. A survivor noticed it and said: "One time, a German soldier gave me a piece of bread. They weren't all bad." Still, at other times an event will trigger something in a survivor and he's transported back to the camp. "Then he will maybe shout at me, but I know he's never attacking me personally; he's being confronted with someone from 60 years ago. When something like this happens, afterward there is a very strong feeling of reconciliation." Today, German and American groups are invited to Ner Yaakov to hear the survivors tell their stories. "What comes out of it is really good. Young Germans feel very bad after they've been to Yad Vashem, but then they meet the survivors, who hug and kiss them. I believe these young people will go back to Germany and bear witness."