Close to 75 years ago, Olga Grossman (now Olga Grossman Shalmon) was on her way to England from her native Czechoslovakia, and stopped off in Ireland en route. There, she and other Jewish children who were in her group, were greeted with open arms by the person she believes to have been the chief rabbi of Ireland at the time, namely Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog.
But she was a young girl, who did not really know who was who, or otherwise her memory may have been playing tricks with her, because Herzog moved to Israel in 1936. However, in Olga’s mind, the man who greeted the children with open arms was Herzog. Indeed, after the war, he and his younger son Yaakov went to Europe to search for orphaned Jewish children in order to bring them to the Jewish homeland.
It’s also possible that Rabbi Herzog, who was a very close friend of President Eamon De Valera, was visiting Ireland at the time.
One of the goals that Olga Grossman Shalmon had in life was to meet the latter-day Isaac Herzog and close the circle between him and his grandfather. Grossman-Shalmon is a Holocaust survivor. More than that she is a survivor of Auschwitz, who together with her twin sister Vera was subjected to the cruel experiments conducted by the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, who had a fetish for twins.
The sisters Olga and Vera Grossman were born in Czechoslovakia in 1938 to an affluent couple, Charlotte and Yitzhak Grossman. In 1944, along with other Jews, the family was rounded up by the Nazis and deported to Birkenau and from there to Auschwitz, where Yitzhak Grossman was immediately sent to the gas chambers.
Fearful for the safety of her children, when someone had called out to check if there were any twins, Charlotte Grossman had pushed her daughters forward, shouting that she was the mother of twins. The problem was that they weren’t identical, and the Nazi soldiers did not believe her, and beat her. But Mengele intervened, saying that he would find out for himself.
He came every day to inject the subjects of his experiments. Sometimes, he brought a tiny piece of chocolate. On two occasions the sisters and their mother were taken to the gas chambers on the pretext that they would be able to shower. When a door closed on them with a bang, they didn’t know what was happening.
All they knew was that they were left standing there for a long time, fearful, but not knowing why. Eventually the door was opened, and they were yelled at to come outside. With hindsight Olga presumes that the gas canisters malfunctioned or were empty.
When she met with President Isaac Herzog last week, he received her graciously, as he does every person who comes to see him, but he has a special soft spot for Holocaust survivors. She told him of her experiences in Auschwitz and of how she, her mother and sister went back to Czechoslovakia after they were liberated. Their mother remarried, gave birth to more children and in 1949, left for Israel.
In the interim Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, who before and after the war organized rescue operations for Jewish children, said that Czechoslovakia was not a good place for two girls, and arranged for them to go to England via Ireland. In London, they were sent to an ultra-Orthodox family and after a while, all but forgot how to speak Czech.
It worried them that they had not heard from their mother. It later transpired that she had sent them several letters, but they had not received any of them. However, after a couple of years, they set sail for Israel and were reunited with their mother at Haifa Port.
When she was 18, Olga married Israel Air Force officer Rafael Shalmon with whom she had two children Lea and Tzali, who accompanied her to the President’s Residence. Olga told the president that she could still see the image of his grandfather before her eyes.
■ UNLESS YOU are elected or appointed to another official state or government position after having served as president or prime minister, it seems that your name gets dropped from the list of acknowledgments. Listing many of the people sitting in the front row at Yad Vashem on Wednesday night, both President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett acknowledged the presence of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is now Opposition leader, but did not mention former president Reuven Rivlin or former prime minister Ehud Barak who were both present.
In fact, Rivlin sat next to Netanyahu, which protocol may have dictated, but it’s doubtful that either was happy about the seating arrangement.