Fall is amongst us. The leaves are changing, the weather is growing cooler, and the grapes are ripe on the vines.
October 25th was another stunning day in Caesarea as twenty-two survivors of the Holocaust – representing the 46 members of the Hadera branch of the Association of Centration Camps and Ghetto Survivors – led by Gita Koifman, arrived at Helping Hand Coalition’s headquarters for a Shalom House event packed with special guests, touching moments, and memories that will not soon be forgotten.
Greeting the survivors at the door, Rita Tager and other HHC representatives extended their hands in warm welcome as they helped the survivors through the villa’s entrance. Once everyone was inside and comfortable, Andre Gasiorowski, Founder and Chairman of HHC, introduced the survivors to the afternoon’s guests — Alexander Dietze, Len and Julie Grates, and Boris Sobolev.
First to share was Alexander Dietze, Founder and Chairman of Back to Zion, a German-based organization that aids the survivors and also sponsored the grocery gift cards which were handed out at the end of the event. While many survivors are usually skeptical when they hear that a German has asked to speak, walls crumbled and emotions were heightened as Alexander wore his heart on his sleeve. Telling the story of his relationship with his grandfather, Alexander explained that he had always seen his grandfather as a gentle man who could do no harm; however, when he became an adult, Alexander discovered a dark secret that unlocked the door to a life Alexander had no idea his grandfather was hiding.
During the war, Alexander’s grandfather was a Nazi high-ranking officer, serving in the army under Hitler’s Regime. Shocked, hurt, and full of remorse at the revelation, Alexander could’ve hardened his heart or pretended that what happened in the past didn’t matter anymore; but, this isn’t who Alexander is. Instead, after learning of his grandfather’s involvement in the Holocaust, Alexander dedicated his life to loving and caring for the survivors of the Holocaust, based on the scripture “Nahamu, nahamu ami” – “Comfort, comfort my people.” (Isaiah 40:1) Today, Alexander and his family live in the Galilee region where they host events for the survivors and distribute supplies sent from Germany.
As Alexander explained the work Back to Zion is dedicated to fulfilling, he showcased a large photo collage of a handful of the donors in Germany who support the survivors in Israel. Alexander said, “I don’t like to call them donors because we are like a big family. These friends want to give love and gifts. They have sent their photos to show you who they are and to say that they love you. They are saying that they are sorry for what has happened and ask for your forgiveness.”
The room was silent as Alexander spoke. Hanging onto every word, the survivors listened intently; some could be seen wiping away tears that were falling down their cheeks at the overwhelming love and honesty pouring through Alexander’s words. As Alexander picked up his guitar and began singing Hine Me Tov and Am Israel Chai, goosebumps appeared on the audience’s arms as they took in every moment.
Without hesitation, when Alexander stepped away from the front, one of the survivors stood to respond. Boris Burle, the Deputy Chairman of the Association of Centration Camps and Ghetto Survivors took the microphone. He said, “My heart slowed as you shared about how your heart was changed. It amazes me how you are transformed into such a great man… Thank you, Sasha [Alexander]. May your daughters grow to become like you and understand the importance of what you do.”
Visiting from Oxford, England, Len and Julie Gates were also invited to share a few words. Having established a group to pray and support projects happening in Israel (including building bomb shelters in the north of Israel), the Grates explained, “We work to tackle anti-Semitism in the UK.” Originally from Hungary, Julie also told the survivors that she is a second-generation Holocaust survivor and lost thirteen family members during the Holocaust. However, despite Hitler’s desire to annihilate her family and millions like hers, Julie gleefully told the survivors that her family has grown tremendously, some even permanently relocating to Israel, where they celebrate life and each new season of growth. In closing, Julie added, “On behalf of our children and grandchildren, we say thank you, and we pray for you!”
The last presenter of the event was Boris Sobolev, an activist, media producer, and teacher. Lightening the mood and bringing laughter into the villa, Boris read a poetic short story that the survivors enjoyed.
Before serving lunch — gorgeously decorated croissants by Orly Elya, a local chef — Andre and Bozena Gasiorowski shared words in closing. “Our vision is not to help a small group of Holocaust survivors, but all of them. You are the children of the Holocaust, and we are here for you. As Alexander said, when you have your own children and see them grow, you begin to understand what it all means,” Andre expressed. Confirming his words, Bozena added, “This is the reason we want to meet you in this place. I hope you received something in your spirit and in your soul. Alexander brought us some mingling inside our spirit. Boris brought us something that we can laugh about. Now, we have something for our stomachs.”
The last half of the Shalom House event was spent leisurely sitting under the vine pergola and around the pool, where the survivors were served lunch, refreshments, hot drinks, and sweet treats while enjoying conversation with the guest and team.
Sarah Gasiorowski, CAO of HHC, exclaimed, “It was so wonderful to see these survivors again, especially after the long year and a half of the pandemic that has passed. These guys are so special, and their familiar faces filled me with smiles. They even asked about my mom, who volunteered here in Israel with my dad for two years and spent a lot of time with these survivors. My parents haven’t been able to be here for three years because of the situation, so at first, I didn’t understand the question in broken Hebrew, ‘Eifo Imma (Where is your mom)?’ I couldn’t believe that they still remembered her after all this time! It warms my heart to see how much these Shalom Houses mean to these survivors and is a reminder of the incredible loving relationships that have been built over the years. It’s refreshing to see the Shalom House return to normal again. Thank you to all our donors who make it possible!”
When the bus came to retrieve the survivors, they all left with great big smiles on their faces as they thanked the HHC team for the event. Many of the survivors expressed how touched and moved they were by the guests. One of the survivors, in particular, spoke to Sarah in Hebrew, saying, “Thank you for putting on this event today and for inviting us. It was so wonderful and made me so happy. Hearing from Alexander filled my heart. The work that Andre does is so important. Thank you again and again!”
Helping Hand Coalition’s gratitude and thanks goes to the partners and donors who continue to make these projects, events, and aid possible. Specifically, those in Germany — Back to Zion, Christen an der Seite Israels, and Jewish Voice International —who sponsored this Shalom House event and provided the grocery vouchers to distribute. You are changing what your ancestors did and writing a new narrative that will remind the world that there is always hope and forgiveness. Thank you to the survivors from the Association of Centration Camps and Ghetto Survivors for coming, along with the team, guests, and everyone else involved in creating the afternoon’s successful event.