Veterans: A way with words

Profile of Elisheva Auerbach, 93, who made aliya from Amsterdam, via Bergen-Belsen to Herzliya in 1944.

Elisheva Auerbach (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Elisheva Auerbach
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Every week Elisheva Auerbach leaves her small apartment in Beth Juliana, the retirement home in Herzliya for Dutch immigrants, and is driven to the Tel Aviv Scrabble Club where she plays up to three games in an evening.
“There’s no one else of my age there, but I love it and the young people like to play with me because I’m not competitive – I play for my health and pleasure,” says the feisty nonagenarian who survived the concentration camps and came to Israel in 1944 as part of an exchange of Jewish prisoners for German Templers.
Until her retirement she worked as a nurse in Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem. She married Hans, her husband of 63 years who died three years ago, and has two sons and innumerable grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
She can tell her inspiring story with absolute clarity, remembering the smallest details of what she endured in the Second World War as well as the War of Independence here.
In 2014 she and her sister Betty, who also survived the Holocaust, wrote a book about their experiences, called Broken Silence.
The two sisters, who were always very close, describe their charmed life before the Germans came, the horrors that the Jews of Holland endured during the occupation and the lives they subsequently made for themselves.
“My father was an accountant and my mother a teacher in a school for fine arts in a time when few women went out to work,” she says. “My parents were Orthodox Jews but also very progressive and they gave us a good education and a good basis which has stayed with me all my life.”
In the book, Liesje, as she was then called, describes the carefree happy childhood she enjoyed until the Germans came, the cat and mouse game she played as a young woman of 20 to try and avoid being captured and sent to the camps, the horrors of Bergen-Belsen and the incredible good luck of being one of 200 Jews who were released in exchange for Templers.
After an arduous journey by train through Europe she arrived in Atlit, determined to finish her nursing qualification that she had begun in Amsterdam.
“I went to Hadassah in Jerusalem and was told I would have to start all over again,” she recalls.
In a letter to Betty, reproduced in their book she writes: “I asked to speak with the director and was brought to her immediately.
Mrs. [Shulamit] Cantor was an imposing, extraordinarily beautiful woman wearing a starched and ironed uniform and a white cap on her gray hair. She made an enormous impression on me.”
She remembers being interviewed by the admissions committee and asked how she thought she could study nursing when she knew no Hebrew.
“I answered in my best Hebrew ‘I have a month. I will spend it on kibbutz and I will learn to speak Hebrew,’” she says. “They all laughed at me.”
But she did learn Hebrew quickly, going to stay with a friend on Kvutzat Yavne, and blissfully happy to be safe and surrounded by other Jews.
In September 1947 she finished her nursing studies. During training one of her patients had been none other than the prime minister himself, David Ben-Gurion, to whom she had to give injections.
“I entered the room trembling,” she writes, “but he was an affable patient, not at all arrogant. When I asked him if he would like something for supper he answered ‘nothing special, a bit of yogurt would be fine.’” In 1949, now known as Elisheva rather than Liesje, she married Hans, another Bergen-Belsen survivor who was working as a truck driver. They were introduced by a friend who lived on Kibbutz Galed in the North. The young couple lived on a cooperative moshav for many years. Elisheva worked as a health-fund nurse and later for the Health Ministry until her retirement.
Her two sons both made successful careers, one an engineer and the other a psychologist.
Today Auerbach manages on her own and doesn’t even need a caretaker.
“I can get help when I need it, but I didn’t want a live-in help, I prefer to be independent,” she says.
Like many people who lived through the Holocaust and nearly starved to death, she can never throw out food and is careful not to waste anything.
While she insists she is still only a beginner in Scrabble, she also says she never gets a score less than 400 and although she is classified as being in the lowest division of three at the club, she likes to point out that she is often near the top.
“As long as I’m not at the bottom, I intend to carry on,” she says. “And I don’t get upset when I lose. If I’ve lost it means my opponent has won and I’m happy I made someone else happy.”