Cultural cornerstone

Genia Asher, 80 From Bilgoray, Poland, to Kfar Saba, 1948.

Genia Asher 521 (photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
Genia Asher 521
(photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
‘I experienced war and knew what it is to be hungry and alone,’ says Genia Asher, who came here in 1948 as a 16-year-old orphan. “I’m grateful that today I sleep in my own bed and have enough to eat.”
She lives in a modest apartment in Kfar Saba, with Shlomo, her husband of 60 years.
For many years they owned and ran the only newsagent in the town, supplying newspapers to the few thousand inhabitants who in the 1950s made up the population. By the time they closed the shop in 1993, the town had grown to 80,000 and they were also selling stationery, books and writing supplies.
“When we closed, people said it was a crime to shut down a corner of culture,” recalls Asher.
The shop, situated on a busy central crossing, today sells cheap men’s shirts. Under the Ashers it was known as the Western Wall shop. Everyone came in asking directions, catching up on local news. If you needed to put an ad in the newspaper, this was the place to be.
The Ashers are also pillars of the local religious community, active in all sorts of charitable endeavors.
Genia has travelled a long road and looks back on her life, remembering the country’s early days and the traumas of life before she found refuge here.
She was born in Bilgoray, near Lublin in Poland, in 1931. The area was occupied first by Germans, then by Russians, and the family took to the road very early on, the parents pushing a wagon with a few possessions and the three smallest children, Genia and two younger brothers. They arrived in Lemberg, Byelorussia, and made their way to the synagogue with all the other fleeing Jews. Eventually her father found a damp cellar where they slept and everyone became ill.
Then as the Germans approached they had to flee again, into a forest. Once they arrived in Ukraine, she recalls, they had a few years of relative peace while her father worked for the war effort, digging shelters. In 1942 her mother died of typhus and the children were put in a Jewish orphanage, where they stayed until the end of the war.
In 1946 messengers from Palestine sought out Jewish orphans with the aim of bringing them out of Europe.
“We began to learn Hebrew and sing campfire songs,” she recalls. In 1948 the group was brought to Paris, then Marseilles, and after two months, they boarded the Providence and set sail for the homeland.
The journey took ten days. She doesn’t dwell on the difficult conditions. “We were coming to Israel – nothing else mattered,” she says.
The first month was spent in Hadera, in tents. “They gave us oranges, which we loved, and olives, which we spat out,” she remembers.
Eventually the group was moved to a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley. The war was still sporadically on, with enforced blackouts and strict rationing.
“We didn’t care. Life was good on the kibbutz.
We had a family life again after not having had one for so many years,” she says.
She worked in the vegetable garden, growing radishes and spring onions.
“We worked from six to 12 and in the afternoon we learned Hebrew,” she recalls.
“It was like paradise.”
She met Shlomo who had also made his way here after the war. He had learned to be a dental technician in Germany, but here there was no work so he became a construction worker. In 1949 she was reunited with her father, and in 1950 she and Shlomo married.
She worked for years in a textile factory in Bnei Brak.
“I used to sew on the labels,” she recalls “and I earned one and a half lirot a day, which was considered quite a lot of money then.”
Married at 19, being a housewife in those early days was quite a challenge.
“Our first home was a small room with a communal shower and toilet outside,” she says. “It was the time of tzena [austerity] and I cooked on a paraffin stove which also had to heat water for washing.
You could get bread and fish fillet, but we rarely saw any meat. In those days, you left the door open for the iceman to deliver the blocks of ice; it didn’t occur to you that there were thieves.
How we’ve changed!” After 10 years of marriage and fertility treatment, Genia gave birth to a son in 1960 and a daughter two years later.
Shlomo began by delivering the newspaper of the now defunct National Religious Party. He took a loan for the key money from Bank Mizrahi and opened the shop in 1960.
“He used to come in very early and sort out all the newspapers in the different languages,” recalls Genia. She always did the accounts and in Book Week stood outside keeping an eye on things. They gave it up in 1993 to enjoy a more leisurely life.

“I tell my grandchildren that we have to look after our home. We were driven out of our homes, so we appreciate that we have a home of our own now and we must take good care of it, in every way.”