For a second time this week, a Shalom House was hosted at the Caesarea villa. Opening the event, Andre and Bozena Gasiorowski welcomed the survivors from ‘Children of the War’ in Netanya, and the event’s hosts, Jeff and Carol Shelton. Taking the lead, Jeff and Carol introduced their group from the United States and their special guest, Roy Kendall, who came to play music for the survivors. It was an unconventional Shalom House, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Rather than starting the concert after everyone had found a seat, Jeff asked for Paul, one of the tourists in their group, to share about his family’s involvement in WWII. Volunteering in the American Air Force, Paul’s father was a Liberator bomber, stationed in Italy but sent to bomb targets in Germany, while his great-uncle worked with the Resistance. For five years his family didn’t hear a word from Paul’s father or great-uncle until the war ended and they received a telegram with two words inked into the paper: WE LIVE.
Later on, his family would learn that while in the woods with the Resistance, Paul’s great-uncle encountered a German soldier. Standing face-to-face with the enemy, he had two options: kill or be killed. The experience was traumatizing and when the war ended, Paul’s great-uncle retrieved the German’s body and returned him to his home.
Another member of Jeff and Carol’s group, Keith, also shared about his father’s involvement in the war, though his father fought against the Japanese. Stabbed with a bayonet, Keith’s father was sent to the hospital. However, while he was recovering from his injury, the hospital was bombed, leaving his father with shrapnel in his body. Grateful for the lives of everyone in the room, Keith thanked those who took place in the war and apologized for the things the survivors had to go through.
Curious to hear a couple of stories from survivors, Jeff asked if any of the survivors would like to share a story of their lives during the war. Two men volunteered to tell a couple of their tales. With Andre translating, the first survivor, David, explained that he was the last of his family members still living, and recalled the beginning of the war. Eight years old when the fighting began, his father was drafted as a tank fighter early on. Knowing they needed to get out of their hometown, David, his mother, siblings, and grandparents fled and became refugees. The family members who ran with David and his mother survived, while those who stayed were killed. Today, David has three children, six grandchildren, and one grandchild. Even though he lost most of his family, David stood in front of everyone, proud to be alive and thankful for the opportunity to share.
The other survivor who volunteered to tell his story was Michael. Celebrating his eighty-first birthday, with a spring in his step, Michael told the audience about his incredible journey of survival. Born in Leningrad, now known as St.Petersburg, Russia, his family suffered through one of the most destructive and devastating sieges the world has ever known! The Siege of Leningrad took the lives of more than a million people, mostly through starvation. Among the casualties, his father died on the frontlines trying to breach the blockade the Nazi’s had commandeered. Without his father, Michael’s mother fought alone for the survival of herself and Michael, who was just three-years-old at the time. As a tribute to his father, Michael married and had children. Today, he has eleven grandchildren.
After each testimony, everyone in Jeff’s group stood and shook the man’s hand to honor their survival and tell them how grateful they are for their lives and presence at the Shalom House; it was an overwhelming, touching moment.
Quoting Jeremiah 29:11, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Jeff stood to explain why they were in Israel. Bringing groups from the States, Jeff and Carol wish to educate Americans about the Holocaust and bring them to Israel to meet the people. Their desire is to bring hope into the survivor’s lives and encourage everyone that there is a future beyond this life.
Hors d’ oeuvres were served while Roy began playing lively music on the piano. Though the food was taking center-stage, everyone turned to listen as Roy played his heart out on the grand piano. There is no sweeter sound than one coming from an instrument that is being wielded by someone with a love of song.
The mood was lively while people ate. Conversations began, pictures were taken, and friendships were made; the music seemed to personify the joy and fellowship that was going on around the room. When the singing began, survivors gathered in a large circle to dance to the Hebrew songs Roy was singing.
HHC would like to thank Jeff and Carol Shelton and their group, MAGI, for hosting this afternoon’s event and for their serving hearts; Children of the War and their leader, Mila Fleitman, for gracing us with their presence; our volunteers for helping with all the preparations; Roy and Mary Kendall for coming all the way from Jerusalem for the event; and our founders, Andre and Bozena Gasiorowski for joining and assisting with the translating.
Interview with Jeff & Carol Shelton
Hi Jeff and Carol, thank you for agreeing to do this interview! Your first trip to Israel was in 1981, can you tell me about why you decided to travel to the Land?
Jeff: Primarily, we came to Israel as ministers to visit the Holy Land at least one time in our lives.
And what happened when you came here?
Jeff: We were invited to a large conference in Jerusalem to help with children and youth ministry. So, we met the leaders and when they learned that the emphasis of our ministry back in the States was also children, they asked us to join forces.
How did you meet Andre and Bozena and start working with Helping Hand Coalition?
Jeff: About ten years after our first trip to Israel, we met the Gasiorowski’s in Jerusalem. Then in 2012, we felt the Lord lead us to find a building that would be a connection to Israel, as a living platform, and be a place where Israelis could come and fellowship. HHC was just starting and it seemed that our visions seemed to merge. The opportunity also brought the focus onto Holocaust survivors, which was completely foreign to us because our focus had been children and youth. We sponsored the funding for the first villa, then gradually, we backed away from administrative worked and became more of a supporting role by bringing people to Israel to serve the survivors. I’m the president of the organization called American Friends of Helping Hand Coalition, which we hope will make Americans more interested in the Holocaust and inspire them to meet them before there they are gone.
When you began working with Holocaust survivors, how did your hearts and vision change?
Carol: There are so many wonderful things you could do, so many needs in Israel; but for us, it zeroed in on there only being a short window for us to reach out to the survivors because they’re getting old. So, that became the highest priority.
You bring tours to Israel to see the Land and interact with the survivors. What is the goal of each tour you guide?
Carol: The priority is interaction with the survivors, which in turn is education, and then see some sights.
Jeff: Carol and I do more of an academic tour of the Land.
Is there something you want each group to take away from their experiences in the Holy Land?
Carol: A heart for Israel and a heart for the survivors!
Do you have any thoughts about the Shalom House and the work that HHC is doing to bring Holocaust survivors together for these kinds of events?
Carol: It’s excellent! Helping Hand Coalition has given the Holocaust survivors an on-going interaction with each other and visitors from around the world through the creation of the Shalom House. I think events like this, where you have people coming into the Land, help build a bridge for relationships. It’s great that other groups have the chance to partner with HHC and host their own Shalom Houses like we did today.
What has been your most impactful part about working with Holocaust survivors and HHC?
Jeff: The resilience and their forgiveness, how they’re forgiving. It blows my mind!
Carol: I anticipated that survivors would be bitter and for the most part I find them to be very warm and forgiving, which is a real pleasure to embrace and honor.
Jeff: And then that for us is a privilege. Knowing that in the very onset of the 21st century they will be gone, what will history remember of them and what will history remember of our treatment to them in their last days?
Carol: We like working with HHC because they really are working with a lot of survivors and actually getting to know them as a person because they’re a genuine organization.
After the many years of coming to Israel, do you have any favorite memories that stand out?
Jeff: The most interesting thing that’s happened to me was meeting a man named Alexander, the leader of the survivors in Irad. He told me how during the War, people with a light in their eyes hid him and other Jews, risking their lives for us; and sixty-five years later, we came to his group with the same light and hope in our eyes!
Carol: I’ll never forget, it was one of the first things we did in Or Akiva. There were about a dozen people and it was very simple. So, we wanted to hear their stories and this man shared how he and his family had to get up from the dinner table, I think it was a birthday party, and run for their lives into the forest. They were in this swampy area, he was a little boy about ten, and he was holding his one-year-old sister over his head. He was up to his neck in swamp water, while holding his sister and trying to keep her quiet. And, as they looked through the forest they saw people gunned down and he watched as 90 members of his family were killed in front of him. So then when he’s finished I asked what happened to his sister, and he turns to the lady sitting beside him and said, ‘This is my sister!’
That’s incredible, what a story to remember!
In closing, what would you like to say to those reading this article to inspire them and give them a fire in their heart towards survivors and the work HHC is doing?
Jeff: If there is any way they could sacrifice and come to spend time with the survivors, that is one of the most paramount contributions anyone can make.
Carol: The best way to see the Land is not only to see the sights from the past, or think about the future, but to meet the people that are living here now, in the present. Interact with those who are here now! Coming to spend time with the survivors is the only way to really see Israel!
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions and for continuing the work that you’re doing in educating people about the events of the Holocaust and the people who survived the tragedies.
If you were inspired by this article and interview, we welcome you to partner with Helping Hand Coalition in hosting your very own Shalom House with a group or your family. Please email ShalomHouse@HHCoalition.com for more information.