March 29th Shalom House
Spring has officially arrived! Shedding our coats after the coldest March in more than a hundred years, it was invigorating to soak in the sun’s rays, feel the cool breeze from the Mediterranean, and smell the blossoming flowers at HHC’s headquarters in Caesarea on March 29th. Welcoming 20 survivors from the Foundation of Holocaust Victims based in Haifa and 21 international guests on their first stop of Joshua Aaron’s spring tour, it was a morning of storytelling, music, eye testing, and conversation!
Arriving at the villa with smiles full of excited anticipation, the survivors were grateful for the warm welcome by HHC representatives — Bozena Gasiorowski (Director of the Shalom House Project), Luke Gasiorowski (Executive Director of Helping Hand Coalition), Sarah Gasiorowski (Executive Administrative Officer), and Rita Tager (Israeli Projects Coordinator). In addition to the afternoon’s Shalom House event, an eye clinic was set up by Bruce Becker so the survivors could have their eyes tested and receive reading and distance glasses, along with sunglasses — which slow down the growth of cataracts in the elderly. Incredibly, one of the survivors, Dr.Ella, was an ophthalmologist who could speak Russian, Hebrew, and English! Graciously, she and her husband, Aaron, worked with Bruce to provide a service to the other survivors.
Touching ground in Israel just the day before, Joshua Aaron’s tour group arrived with awed expressions as they stepped into the villa and were introduced to the survivors. Opening the event, Luke and Bozena Gasiorowski thanked everyone for coming and shared about the work Helping Hand Coalition does with the survivors of the Holocaust living in Israel. Luke explained, “The Holocaust was the most horrific thing the Jewish people have gone through. Our mission is to bring love and hope, giving them joy in the final years of their lives.”
Without hesitation or waiting to be asked, three survivors volunteered to share part of their experiences during the war, which Andre Gasiorowski (Chairman of Helping Hand Coalition) translated. Though most of the survivors were small children when the war began, they all remember the fear and hardships when they fled from the Nazis, dodging bombs and clinging to their mothers as they ran towards unknown destinations for protection and safety.
Margarita, the survivors’ organization leader, was the first to share. “These are the survivors who have survived the Holocaust and came to Israel after 1948,” she began. “They gave everything up to be here. As of today, there are 800 survivors in our organization. All of them have been through the same things during WWII. I was two years old when we had to escape to the East, toward the Red Army, when the Nazis came to our city. Everyone who didn’t escape were rounded up and killed.”
Mia, the next survivor to speak, described, “We were on the run, and it’s hard to explain what happened — the starvation, hiding in the grass, constantly being bombed as we fled. Finally, we escaped and were deported to Middle Asia until my father found us through the Red Cross. Despite people telling my mother not to, we returned to our old apartment after the war, but it was occupied. The people cursed us for being Jews and sent us away. I am very happy to now be in my country, a country for Jewish people.”
Ninty-one-year-old Moishe was the last to share his story. “When the war started,” he said, “I was ten. We lived in a small city in Ukraine, and at the start of the German bombing, there were no evacuations. Then, in August 1941, we were placed on a train — not in the passenger carriages, but in a roofless carriage where the luggage was usually stored — and traveled for one month. Thank God we survived.”
Listening to the survivors speak about their early years was emotional for the tour group. Sitting in silence, they took in every word, unable to fathom the things the survivors had endured. Taking advantage of the moment, Luke spoke directly to our international guests, “You have heard the stories of the survivors. Now, tell people about this when you go home because many believe that the Holocaust didn’t happen. It’s vital that we tell their stories and never let something like the Holocaust happen again!”
Andre added, “We have 18,000 registered Helping Hand Global Forum members. These people are refugees. They have trauma, but more than that, they’re lonely. Our job is to commune with them and spend time with them, doing good things for them and becoming a family.”
Award-winning American-Israeli singer, Joshua Aaron, shared what a delight it was to sing for the survivors. “I just wanted to thank you for letting us come to meet you,” he spoke. “I made Aliyah seven years ago. My grandmother fled Poland during the Holocaust. She made it here to Israel, and my mother was born in Haifa. My mother then moved to the States, where I was born, but I have returned with my family. I was reading Psalm 137 when I wrote the melody to this first song…”
Filling the villa with his sweet voice, Joshua sang for God to bring His people back to Zion. It was a terrific performance, which the survivors thoroughly enjoyed. Growing excited when they recognized two of the songs — Hineh Ma Tov and Shalom Aleicha — they clapped along to the tunes, taking videos to remember the moment.
Lunch, catered by Orly, was enjoyed by all. Eating either inside or on the patio, it was moving to watch a few of our international guests sit with the survivors, taking pleasure in their company despite not speaking the same language. When asked what she’s looking forward to the most about the tour, Rebekah replied, “Today. Being here with the survivors.” While the group will see many places during their time in the Land, beginning their journey by meeting the survivors was undoubtedly an impressionable experience.
Helping Hand Coalition wants to extend our appreciation to the Foundation of Holocaust Victims for accepting our invitation, Joshua Aaron and his tour group for participating, sponsoring, and spending the morning with these special people, and Bruce Becker and Dr.Ella for their work with the eye clinic! We look forward to opening the villa’s doors to more groups soon!