There is no greater joy than spending the afternoon with the survivors of the Holocaust and giving them an afternoon to remember. Returning to the HHC Headquarters, the Church of New Hope from California once again hosted a Shalom House event on March 16th for thirteen survivors from Netanya, led by Mila Fleitman. After spending almost two years raising funds to be able to come to Israel and serve the survivors, it was an incredible afternoon of new friendships and memories.
Just before the survivors arrived, the group stood on the steps of the Villa, practicing their Russian greetings. Having been in the Land in 2018, a few Church of New Hope members were excited to see familiar faces and were blown away that they were remembered too! Helping each of the survivors to their seats, the group poured glasses of water and assisted in any way they could before the event began.
Opening with an introduction, Don Patten translated as Hector and Diana Gonzales, the pastors at Church of New Hope, shared a few words. “No matter the horrors of yesterday, we can bring joy and blessing into today. Just the thought of putting a smile on your face today brings joy to our hearts.”
Bozena Gasiorowski, Director of the Shalom House Project, also spoke, “I am so happy that the time of the pandemic is over, and we can have our international guests, people, friends, and family come over here again.”
Thanking the group for all they’d done to prepare for the day’s event, Mila professed her appreciation to Helping Hand Coalition, Don and Marta Patten, and the Church of New Hope. “When I saw Bozena,” Mila said, “I said this is a beautiful home. And she said, ‘No, no, this is the survivors’ home.’ I am so pleased to be back here. Many of us have come many times, and we do feel like this is our home. It brings me a lot of joy that we can come together, smile at one another, and embrace one another; it’s like we’re embracing the whole world because we have been apart for so long.”
The first to perform for the survivors was Hector and Diana’s twelve-year-old grandson, Ethan. Expressing his delight to play for the survivors, Ethan took his place behind the piano. Simultaneously, the survivors brought out their phones to record the moment. Despite being so young, Ethan took control of the piano and captured the room with his beautiful song.
While the other performers set up their instruments, Adriana was invited to share a few words. “We are all imperfect, impatient, and capable of wicked things. Yet, despite all of that, we’re also capable of redemption and forgiveness. We’re able to show kindness and compassion. So, thanks to God and everyone here for reminding me of that. Even something so simple as pouring someone a drink of water or telling a story can have an impact. A seed that will spread to others. Thank you again for allowing us to enjoy your company.”
During the Church of New Hope‘s preparations for their trip to Israel, the group committed to learning songs in both Hebrew and Russian — never speaking a single word in either language before. Diana explained, “I want you to know something about this group. They didn’t know any other languages, but they learned these songs in four months. All the things that we’re going to share, we want you to know how important you are to us. People come to see Israel for the beauty of the sites; we came to see the beauty of your faces.”
The group sang each song with passion and love; the whole room could feel the purity in their words and their honor in their hearts.
Pausing the concert for a moment of recognition and respect, Marta Patten sang a song about Ukraine. The room went silent, and tears fell down people’s cheeks as they thought of the ongoing conflict. Born in Russia and Ukraine, the survivors each had great sorrow for what is happening in their homelands. As Don led the group in a prayer for peace and safety, the survivors held each other’s hands in support. Later on, one of the survivors shared how she has family in Ukraine and was worried. It was devastating to hear how Lena’s daughter and grandchildren are now going through the same terror of leaving their home and possessions as she had over eighty years ago!
At the end of the concert, two survivors asked to share part of their stories. While they were both young when the war started, they have key memories that have stuck with them. Mina shared, “War makes your memory very vivid. As we were fleeing, the planes started coming. As the planes were coming to bomb, my mother put herself on top of me. I remember this so clearly. She said, ‘Don’t fear anything; I am with you.’”
Lunch was served on a decorated table that stretched the length of the Villa’s foyer. Impressed at the display, the survivors took their seats and thanked the group as they were served a plate of chicken skewers, potato salad, vegetables, and bread. Feeling like kings and queens, the banquet-style lunch was the perfect beginning of Purim — a holiday that celebrates the salvation of the Jews by Queen Esther.
The afternoon seemed to last an eternity, yet it was over in a blink of an eye. As the survivors collected their coats and were assisted down the steps, they hugged, kissed, and thanked the hosts for their kindness. Pouring blessings over the Church of New Hope, the survivors gave a final wave goodbye before returning home, no doubt smiling the whole way home at the memory of such a special Shalom House event.
Helping Hand Coalition is so grateful for the groups who come to Israel with a desire to serve and love the survivors of the Holocaust. We are so pleased that the borders of Israel are now open for others to come and spend time with these precious people. Our heartfelt gratitude goes out to Don and Marta Patten for organizing this event and the Church of New Hope for pouring out their gifts and hearts to the survivors. We also want to thank Mila Fleitman and her group, Children of the War, from Netanya for joining us for this unforgettable event! We are so pleased that the Shalom House events are back, and we look forward to opening the villa doors to more groups soon!