Unfinished business for Holocaust survivors

"For survivors of that terrible turmoil in Europe, each passing day is one of unfinished business."

Colette Avital (photo credit: COURTESY COLETTE AVITAL)
Colette Avital
In the predawn hours of September 1, 1939, some 1.5 million German troops invaded Poland. This was the beginning of the Second World War – a war that lasted nearly six years, a war that caused tremendous destruction and deprivation, a war that claimed the lives of an estimated 55 million civilians and more than 25 million combatants.
The enormity and bestiality of the genocide was without precedent. Close to half of the world’s Jewish population was murdered; who knows how many perished from illnesses brought on by lack of hygiene, malnutrition and starvation.
Many were killed as members of resistance movements fighting the Nazis.
The Gypsies of Europe fared just as badly or even worse. There had never been much sympathy for the Roma people, and if the Nazis didn’t find them, there were people in their host countries who were more than willing to do the job for them without compassion for children, women, the elderly or the infirm.
Today, 70 years after the end of that terrible war and the allied victory over the Nazis, there is still a lot of unfinished business that goes way beyond the restoration of Jewish property that was seized and plundered by the Nazis and later by the Communists. For survivors of that terrible turmoil in Europe, each passing day is one of unfinished business.
There are elderly Holocaust survivors whose lives are a constant nightmare because they can’t shut out the memories of what they witnessed. There are others who live in abject poverty because they never received any form of compensation for their suffering.
There are Holocaust survivors who lost their identities and don’t know who they really are. Some, who as babies were given by their parents to Christian neighbors for safekeeping, grew up as Christians because their parents never returned to claim them. The parents were either ashes in the crematoria of Nazi death camps or they were buried in mass graves into which they had fallen after being shot in the back.
There are some child Holocaust survivors who live with the lifelong trauma of having crawled out of a mass grave such as that in Babi Yar, pushing their way through a mountain of dead bodies.
And there are those who went through a fairly happy childhood, knowing vaguely that they had survived the Holocaust but not really remembering anything about it, till something totally unexpected jogs their memories and takes them back to a dark age.
COLETTE AVITAL, a former diplomat and politician and currently head of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors, which serves as an umbrella for 55 Israel-based organizations of Holocaust survivors, is in the latter category.
Born in Bucharest, Romania, she was 10 years old when she came to Israel with her parents in 1950. She went to school, had a relatively carefree existence inasmuch as Israeli children could at the time, and joined the Foreign Ministry, not because she had any diplomatic ambitions, but because she needed a job to pay her university tuition fees.
She remained in the ministry for the major part of her life, serving in different countries and rising through the ranks until she was appointed ambassador to Portugal, but it wasn’t until she served as Israel’s consul-general in New York from 1992 to 1996 that she began to take an indepth interest in how Holocaust survivors and their heirs had been unjustly treated.
Her posting to New York coincided with the discovery of accounts of Holocaust victims and survivors in Swiss banks. The subsequent class-action lawsuits filed against them in the United States were based on the grounds that even though Switzerland claimed neutrality during the war, it had collaborated with and aided the Nazi regime; its banks and other financial institutions had knowingly concealed and retained the assets of Holocaust victims.
Avital had been receiving daily reports about the developments while investigations were going on and was horrified by the extent to which survivors and the heirs of victims had been deprived of what was rightfully theirs.
The revelations set her thinking that there might be a similar situation in Israel.
She knew, for instance, that her grandfather – who had been a wealthy banker and landowner – had purchased land in what was then Palestine before the war, but neither she nor her parents had pursued the matter.
On her return to Israel from New York, Avital was appointed deputy director-general at the Foreign Ministry in charge of European affairs, a post in which she served for two years before throwing her cap into the political ring.
It was during this period that she went to see the award-winning film Life is Beautiful and found herself recoiling every time there was a scene of Nazi jackboots on the stairs. She found this strange, because several years earlier, when she had served for three years with the Israeli delegation in Paris, she had been assigned to help Claude Lanzmann, who was making his epic film Shoah, and nothing there had moved her like the boots of the Germans on the stairs in Life is Beautiful.
The scenes in themselves were not frightening, and Avital could not understand the sense of fear that overtook her.
She shared this concern with her mother, who told her that this was not surprising, because this is what they had fled from so often when Avital was a little girl. A film that in many respects was a comedy had triggered her confrontation with the past.
Why had it taken so long? Because her parents never talked about it and never asked for any compensation, even though her father had been taken prisoner and tortured, Avital had not grown up in the environment of physical and emotional pain, to which so many child survivors and second-generation survivors have been subjected.
She knew that her mother had been thrown out of the university where she was studying medicine, and that there had been pogroms in Bucharest, and that her mother had been forced to wear a yellow star, but this was not part of her everyday consciousness.
After Avital’s birth in Bucharest, her mother had taken her to her family’s home in Bacau. When the Nazis came to Romania in 1942, they occupied the ground floor of the house but permitted the family to remain in the upper floor. Avital’s mother had a good sense of self-preservation and rushed back to Bucharest with her two-year-old daughter.
Avital contracted almost every possible childhood disease and at one stage had to be quarantined for several weeks.
Many Romanian Jews had taken on Romanian surnames that did not sound Jewish. Avital had an aunt whose name was Lupescu. She didn’t look very Jewish either, and it took some time before the Nazis discovered that she was. But in the interim, Avital and her mother were able to stay with her aunt.
In Israel, after leaving the Foreign Ministry and becoming a Knesset member, Avital was reading a weekend copy of Ma’ariv when she came across an article about assets in Israel that belonged to Holocaust victims. The details reminded her of Switzerland. The bottom line was that no one wanted to give these assets to the rightful heirs.
Avital was incensed by the injustice of it all – particularly in the Jewish state. She consulted with fellow Labor MK Ophir Pines-Paz, who told her to start an inquiry.
“I didn’t know how,” she tells the Magazine in retrospect, “but I did it.”
AVITAL KNOCKED on many doors. The justice minister, other ministers and the custodian-general all tried to talk her out of her mission. But Avital was determined.
Not everyone tried to discourage her.
Avraham Burg, who was then the Knesset Speaker, told her that he was delighted that she had taken on the task. Reuven Rivlin, then a Likud MK, was extremely helpful, especially when people tried to block her path and deny her access to documents.
“The banks refused to cooperate,” she relates, “but we had an event in the Chagall Hall of the Knesset to which the heads of all the banks were invited. Rivlin told them: ‘If you don’t cooperate, we’ll pass a law that will force you to cooperate.’” His threat did not produce the desired results. Many files had been destroyed when the banks became computerized, but on one occasion when Avital was touring Bank Leumi, a sympathetic employee told her to go to the floor where the synagogue was located and to look in the filing cabinet alongside the doorway.
There were quite a lot of files and also boxes of files in a storage area in Ma’aleh Adumim and in a kibbutz in the north of the country. But there were still too many missing files. And then Avital had a brain wave.
“Nearly all the banks in Israel were founded in England. Bank Leumi was originally the Anglo-Palestine Bank.
During the Second World War, all the properties of Europeans [in Palestine] were confiscated and the bank accounts frozen and all the documents were transferred to London.”
Copies of all those documents still exist in London, and Avital and her team copied all the files in England and brought them back to Israel to show Bank Leumi.
“We had reviewed 22,000 accounts one year after we started,” she said.
Avital’s commission of inquiry and its findings led to special legislation and to the establishment of Hashava, an organization charged with finding the assets of Holocaust survivors and notifying their heirs.
Hashava has succeeded in restoring hundreds of millions of shekels to rightful beneficiaries.
“They’re doing a tremendous job,” says Avital, who insisted on being present when the first check was presented to a woman in Haifa, who kissed her on the cheek in appreciation for her integrity and perseverance.
“Many of the things we fought for have been achieved,” she says with satisfaction, and credits relatively recent achievement to Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, who did a great deal for Holocaust survivors when he was finance minister. Lapid’s father, Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, was a Holocaust survivor.
AVITAL, IN her present capacity as head of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors, succeeded the late Noah Flug, father of Karnit Flug, the governor of the Bank of Israel.
When Avital was an MK, Noah Flug frequently came to see her, saying that he had yet another Holocaust-related project for her. It was natural for Avital to be offered his position after he died.
But she didn’t take it all on. Flug was also a member of the International Auschwitz Committee. Not having been an Auschwitz inmate, Avital thought it more appropriate to delegate the position to someone who had survived Auschwitz, and chose Yediot Aharonot journalist Noah Kliger, 89, who more than anyone else in Israel has relentlessly continued to convey the Auschwitz chapter in Jewish and world history in his lectures and writings.
The Strasbourg-born Kliger returns to Auschwitz several times a year, joining schoolchildren, journalists, IDF contingents and Israeli presidents and prime ministers to provide eyewitness testimony to the atrocities committed there.
On a day-to-day basis, Avital continues to inform Holocaust survivors of their rights and to do everything possible to ensure the implementation of those rights.
She tries to get reductions in rates and taxes for Holocaust survivors and works closely with the Justice Ministry.
Her organization is also involved with building Holocaust monuments, arranging memorial events, and producing educational tools about the Holocaust, including films and the publication of books.
She has also worked to get recognition for “so many survivors that nobody knew about because they were behind the Iron Curtain and got nothing by way of restitution or compensation.”
One of the rights that Avital is fighting for is recognition of illnesses that can be traced back to deprivations during the Holocaust but have come to the surface only in later life.
On a more practical note, she and former education minister Shai Piron are discussing the possibility of writing a Holocaust Haggada.
Emergence from the Holocaust and the rebuilding of lives is in many ways similar to the story of the Exodus from Egypt, she says, and just as Jews are enjoined every Passover to tell the story of the Exodus as if they had been there, they should also be telling the story of the Holocaust as if they had been there.