Streetwise: Father of the wounded

Honored with streets in many towns, Simha Holzberg was devoted to rehabilitating soldiers and civilians struck by war or terror.

Rehov Simha 88 224 (photo credit: David Deutsch)
Rehov Simha 88 224
(photo credit: David Deutsch)
Rehov Simha Holzberg, Kiryat Ono There is a Rehov Simha Holzberg in many towns - Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Petah Tikva, Rehovot, Kiryat Ono to name just a few - and deservedly so, for the man who was known as the "father of the wounded" dedicated himself completely to helping wounded soldiers and people damaged in terrorist attacks to rehabilitate themselves, both physically and spiritually. He worked tirelessly for 27 years from the time he began his activities after the Six Day War until his death in 1994 to live up to his name, Simha (joy), and alleviate the misery and pain of the wounded, the amputees, the shell-shocked and the sufferers whom he sought out. Holzberg was born in Warsaw in 1924, the son of Tzipora and Shmuel Holzberg, so he was a teenage boy when the ghetto was destroyed after the uprising in which he participated. He survived several concentration camps and was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, a barely living body among the dead. He came here in 1949 and became a businessman. Until 1967 his chief claim to fame was that he organized many demonstrations against normalization of relations with Germany. Every time a high-ranking German official came here, there was Simha with his placards and his stubborn refusal to accept his former torturers as honored guests in his country. He established Holocaust libraries and was instrumental in publishing the works of the Holocaust poet Yitzhak Katzenelson and producing thousands of copies of his book. Katzenelson had established an underground school in the ghetto, and it is not too fanciful to suppose that Holzberg was one of his pupils. The poet, who had been born in 1886, also participated in the uprising, but perished in Auschwitz in May 1944. Holzberg came under the influence of Rabbi Arye Levine of Jerusalem, who was known as the "father of the prisoners." A saintly man who became famous for visiting the Jewish prisoners held under the British and comforting them, he was probably the one to lead Holzberg to what became his mission for the rest of his life - comforting the sick and wounded with gifts, hugs and kind words. In 1976 he was awarded the Israel Prize with the citation that he personified the essence of Jewish humanism and understanding in his actions; and in 1999, on the 75th anniversary of his birth, the Israel Philatelic Service issued a stamp in his honor showing his portrait and the legend "Father of the Wounded Soldiers." Although he died in 1994, in fact during a ceremony held in honor of the wounded, a film made about Holzberg and his activities can be seen on YouTube so it's as if one can interview the man himself. The film, which was planned to be shown at an evening saluting Holzberg, was made by the IDF Spokesman's Office's film division. It opens with a soldier's funeral and many of the Givati Brigade soldiers who are burying their comrade in arms are Ethiopian, as is the dead soldier. Emotions are running high, soldiers weep unashamedly. Holzberg begins to speak to the camera but breaks down crying. Next we see him at a social gathering, drinking a toast with a group of his soldiers. In his book-lined, untidy study he talks about the mission he has set himself, to bring comfort to the suffering of the badly wounded. We see him holding the baby of one of his soldiers. "It's my memories of the Holocaust that give me strength," he says. The minute he hears about a wounded soldier, he is driven to the hospital by an army driver and we watch his encounter with a semiconscious, badly wounded boy, giving words of encouragement and promises that as soon as he can he will organize a party for his homecoming. We watch a slimmer and less balding Ehud Barak, as chief of General Staff, wishing Holzberg health and many more years of activity, and then president Ezer Weizman recalls how Holzberg looked after his own son. Later Holzberg talks to the camera on his way to visit children in the oncology department of Beilinson Hospital. "People say I concentrate too much on the military," he says, "so today I'm visiting sick children." In the ward, he talks to the patients, giving them encouraging words and, perhaps not too diplomatically, telling one of the mothers, a plump young woman, not to get any fatter. From his bag he produces gifts - toys, sports shoes and chocolates. "When I was a child we were very poor," he says, "so I have a weakness for good things." He hands a colorful pair of sports shoes to a sick child. "This is what gives me satisfaction," he says. We watch him trying to give a doll to a badly burnt little girl who was in a suicide bomb attack. She whimpers in pain and pays no attention to the doll. Then we see her again, completely cured, hugging Holzberg and telling him she loves him. The father of a wounded soldier speaks. "I don't know how we would have coped without Simha," he says. "He comes like a ministering angel and gives hope and strength." He died as he had lived, fulfilling his self-appointed mission to comfort the bereaved, at a ceremony honoring the victims of a bus bombing atrocity. For 27 years he had given of himself, 24 hours a day, every day. The street in Kiryat Ono which bears his name is in a quiet residential area, a meandering tree-lined street with handsome detached homes on either side, and flower beds between the parking spaces. It is a fitting memorial to an outstanding Israeli.