The Human Spirit: A village can save

Child Holocaust survivors return to a youth village to inspire traumatized young people living there.

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
Lunchtime at the Ramat Hadassah Szold youth village in Kiryat Tivon, near the Jezreel Valley. Meals are buffet style now and the dining room roof has been renovated, but the building is as it was 60 years ago when the youth village opened. Seated at long tables are kids who have left their homes for improved educational experiences of living in this village. Some had a choice between a youth village or reform schools. Three hundred and twenty five children live here, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia and sabras from troubled households. It takes a village, said Hillary Clinton. It's an old Israeli idea: A village can save a child at risk. On the menu are chicken schnitzel and the old-fashioned Israeli pasta called ptitim, a salad bar with tomatoes, cucumbers and lots of radishes. Lining up today with the children are a small group of gray-haired men and women. When the children fill their plates, they can start eating, not like the old days when everyone had to wait for the last child and the nod of the schoolmaster before lifting his fork. So say the elders in line. They ought to know. The septuagenarian men and women were the first children brought here, preteen olim who had survived the Holocaust in Yugoslavia. Sixty years later, they have yielded to a growing nostalgia and decided to visit the village where they became Israelis. "I slept right there," says Yaffa Hayimson, pointing in the direction of a dorm room. She can find herself in a black-and-white photo of the festive dedication of the village in February 1949. The Jewish Agency's Youth Aliya representative, Henrietta Szold, who had picked out this verdant spot for a village that would bear her name, had died four years earlier. Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, officiated. The grown-ups remember him warmly. The War of Independence was raging when these young Yugoslavian Jews arrived in the tin bucket ship Kefolus. The children were doused with DDT and housed in an immigrant camp. But their real childhood had ended long before, when they were four years old, the day the Nazis hung their swastika on the Sarajevo town hall. Yaffa Hayimson survived Bergen-Belsen. Another woman had been retrieved by an uncle and lived among the partisans.. Although no two life stories are identical, separation, hiding and abuse were the themes of their personal experience. At the end of the war, they were gathered in orphanages. Arye Hermoni, 72, the group spokesman, was among 37 children somehow extracted from a concentration camp by a nearby Jewish community which hadn't yet been occupied. He never saw his mother again. Passed from hiding place to hiding place, he finished the war with an uncle working in a mine. His father emerged alive from a POW camp, and together they eventually found passage to Israel. Here, Hermoni parted from his father again, leaving with 11 other youngsters for the youth village. "Those were the exigencies of the times," said Hermoni. "You were lucky enough to have even one parent, but you understood that they had to find work. We were offered a residential village and off we went. Some of the teens went straight to the army to fight at Latrun." THE VILLAGE headmaster suggested that it would be much nicer if they changed their names to Hebrew. So Leo Herman became Arye Hermoni, Luna became Elana, Andre became David, Emil became Amir. "No one forced us,"shrugs Hermoni. "We were 11 or 12, but we spontaneously came up with new names which we used for the rest of our lives." Not that you should think they were pushovers, he wants to make clear. "We'd been independent for a long time, and we were rambunctious." One day, for instance, they snuck off to visit friends in Haifa. Discovering they couldn't walk there and back in a day, they hung on to the back of buses. And because of the insatiable love of sweets from which they'd been deprived, they'd often walk an hour to a kiosk for a penny candy. Within six months of their arrival at the youth village, all of them were assigned to kibbutzim, mostly to Kibbutz Eilon, a communal settlement no older than they were. What about all those stories of Holocaust survivors being patronized by sabras? Never happened to them, says Hermoni. "Maybe that's because we were the oldest children on the kibbutz." Camaraderie of their fellow young survivors and the good offices of the youth counselors bolstered them. They played sports and learned scouting, took up roles in youth movements and worked hard in the fields. "We had an ethic of needing to excel," he said. "My first promotion was to become the head of the alfalfa fields. I went on to become the head of a regional tomato canning concern with 300 workers." HERE ARE men and women who experienced unquestionable childhood trauma. They were again separated from their parents. They changed their identity. They went to live on a dangerous border while they were still children. Despite its exposed position, their kibbutz is known for industry, for ceramics and for an international violin festival. The Youth Aliya children grew up working for a living, married, with children and grandchildren. Hermoni married one of the kibbutz sabras, and they have four children and eight grandchildren, all still on the border kibbutz. In their classic study Children Survive Persecution by the late Judith Kestenberg and Charlotte Kahn, the interviewer of the children from Yugoslavia remarked about how sane they seemed. And so they do. Those who undergo childhood traumas become abusers themselves, goes the popular theory. But where is the proof? The men and women with whom I'm lunching have put a lie to this cliché. Too good to be true? "It's not as if we don't have psychological scars - we do," says Hermoni. "But the challenges were so great, we had to mobilize around facing them. We had traumatized childhoods, but the most remarkable adolescence." For them, the Israeli system worked - the rescue of children, the group experience, the kibbutz, the ideal of founding and perfecting the Jewish homeland. The village is supported by the Jewish Agency and Hadassah, but for the last five years, it's been in a partnership with hi-tech wizards Avi Naor and Etti Naor, the former president and CEO of Amdocs. Today's village director is Moshe Zin, a former high-ranking IDF officer turned determined educator who believes in the future of each child. Zin surprises the visitors by asking if they mind standing. They form a straight line across the dining room, sturdy, hefty gray-haired men and women who got their start here. "These men and women were younger than most of you and came out of the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust," he says, filling in the history for these boys and girls who at their young age understand survival, and who see this village as their last chance. "They were the first children to live in this village. They left here, settled on a kibbutz which held our northern border and built this country with their own hands. If they made it, you can make it." Spontaneously, the applause begins slowly, becoming a loud crescendo of hope.