On March 16th, after an incredible afternoon at the Shalom House with the survivors of the Holocaust, we interviewed a few members of the Church of New Hope team who were visiting from California. After spending more than a year raising money and preparing their hearts to come to Israel, it was a pleasure to welcome them to HHC’s headquarters in Caesarea — our first international guests since the borders reopened! Rather than coming to tour Israel, the group’s goal was to serve the survivors. Diana Gonzales, the wife of Pastor Hector Gonzales, said it best, “People came to see Israel for the beauty of the sites; we came to see the beauty of [the survivors’] faces.”
How does it feel to be back in the Holy Land after being away for two years due to the Covid lockdowns?
Georgina – It feels really good. It feels like coming home. I come to look forward to hugging the survivors cause I know they have so much love in them. It’s a two-fold blessing.
Diana Gonzales – I didn’t think we’d be able to come back. The day we were getting on the plane, it was like a dream come true.
A few of you haven’t been to Israel before, so, how has it felt to be here?
Ernesto – It’s been surreal. There are times where it doesn’t hit me until I tell myself that I’m in Israel. It’s like another world. Knowing the value of this Land makes it all the sweeter.
Paula – The neatest thing is watching history come alive. A lot of the stuff you read about in the Bible, but it hits home that all of these things really did happen.
Your team spent over a year raising money to come and serve the survivors of the Holocaust; what did you do to prepare for this trip?
Diana – It’s a lot of hard work. All your weekends where you could be doing other things, we were doing car washes. If we’re not doing a car wash, we’re having meetings to prepare our hearts. We all have to know how to serve each other to serve the Holocaust survivors. None of the music team knew any other languages, but they learned songs [in Russian and Hebrew] in four months.
Hector – We try to immerse ourselves in the reality of all the survivors have gone through, from videos to people coming in to share testimonies to reading the testimonies we’ve collected over the years. Everybody that we bring, they know the history. They’re not walking into this land without knowing the persecution, suffering, and the special call on those who have returned. I think one of the biggest things is the importance of knowing that time’s running out. We can’t change the past, but we can make one day special for them. We can celebrate life with them. We can tell them that someone on the other side of the planet, from a different culture and race, knows what happened and that we care and that we’re sorry. When you touch their hand, you’re touching history.
What does spending time and serving the survivors mean to you? What have you learned from your time among them?
Paula – I keep thinking about the horrors they went through and the fact that I get to greet them, shake their hands, and let them know they’re not forgotten and that they’re appreciated and prayed for; it’s an honor. This world is so crazy, and there are people that still deny that the Holocaust happened, so getting to meet them and validate their existence is pretty incredible.
Ernesto – Celebrating life with them. I can’t imagine what they’ve been through. One thing I can do is love them and show them the love of God, and just appreciate them for being here.
Georgina – It means doing God’s work. Just loving on the survivors and making up for what they’ve lost. I’ve learned that you can face any adversity; nothing is too great.
Hector – The ability to not let the past control your future. We can destroy today and tomorrow because of the things that happened yesterday. If there are heroes in life, it’s those that are overcomers. I think that’s the greatest thing I took from watching [the survivors] – how they celebrate life. There’s strength; there’s even hope. Today, while they live in a nation where they can still be bombed, yet they’re looking at the future with open eyes. [They] can see the dangers, but they continue on. I think that’s an example for any person to follow.
Diana – We’re so spoiled in America. We can watch videos and hear their stories, but we weren’t there. It wasn’t our families that were being tortured and shot in the head. One story that I heard from one of the ladies in Haifa. [The Nazis] were bleeding them, using their blood for the soldiers. And her sister died in her arms. We haven’t even touched the surface of that in the struggles we go through. They’ve had to overcome so much, and they’re an example to us of joy and peace.
Why do you believe it’s important to remember the Holocaust, honor the survivors, and host these Shalom House events?
Georgina – [The survivors] are God’s people. They’re the apple of God’s eye. If we love the Lord, then we have to love His people. If we curse His people, we will be cursed, but if we bless them, then we will be blessed. To never forget what happened and bless them. We cannot change their experiences, but we can give them little moments of joy.
Ernesto – We’re so quick to forget things. We see even today that we aren’t learning from our mistakes. And, if it can happen to them, it can happen to anybody, and it has happened to other groups. We need to preserve their story; we need to preserve their lives and the reality of what they went through. I hope we never stop talking about it. I hope once their generation passes that the world will still care about it even when they’re gone.
Has there been a moment or highlight from this week that has stuck with you?
Gracey – How blessed I’ve been to come and bless the children of Israel and be blessed in return has been impacting. Meeting the survivors brings history to life – more than seeing the ancient sites.
Ernesto – This. What we’re doing [at the Shalom House]. Hugging them. Talking to them. Showing them pictures of my family and dog. Telling them that they’re beautiful and kind. There were times I was tearing up because I’ve never seen such joyful people. They were just so happy to be here. And I’m like, how? I meet people, and they go through a lot, but they’re filled with bitterness and no joy for life, but I see [the survivors], and they’re full of joy. I don’t know how they do it. They kept telling me “thank you,” and I was like, ‘no, thank you for spending time with me!’ One of the survivors, I believe her name was Illa; when we were saying goodbye, she said, “I wish blessing and good fortune on you, your family, and your future generations to come.” And, it just hit me. Receiving a blessing from her reminded me of Aaron’s blessing. It just showed me the significance of sharing love with others.
How do people respond when you go home and share your experience in the Land?
Hector – I think you have a small percentage where a seed is planted that they believe everything and want to be a part of it. There’s another group that hears it, and it’s just too amazing for them. They just don’t believe that you can be a part of something that special. So, because of that, they don’t even try. There are others who, for whatever reason, they don’t even give it a second thought. But, even as we were doing our car washes, we had people honking in acceptance.
Would you come back or recommend that others host a Shalom House event – spending time with the survivors, hearing their stories, and creating memories?
Georgina – You just want to keep coming back! You want to keep loving them until you can’t anymore. Even when they hug you, they hug you so tenderly.
Ernesto – 100%
Hector – The most precious thing Israel has to offer the world is these Holocaust survivors. They’re examples of those that were able to endure and not only just survive, but they have life! But, I can see, there’s a big lack [in aiding the survivors] that needs to be covered by people, and believers should be stepping in. Come to bless them, to spend time with them. Every day, how many are going into eternity? But, today, they were loved on. Today, we brought a smile to their faces. What’s been shared by a lot of [the survivors] is that “We don’t want what happened to us to be forgotten, but we’re still here. So, don’t forget what happened, and don’t abandon us.”
The Shalom House Project is one of the many active projects Helping Hand Coalition organizes to serve the survivors of the Holocaust living in Israel. After a long pandemic and the borders being closed, we are ecstatic to welcome our international guests back! If you’re interested in visiting the Holy Land and hosting your own Shalom House event, please email email@example.com or visit our website to learn how you can be a part of the work we are doing in the Land: https://hhcshalomhouse.wpcomstaging.com/support/