Every year, thousands of tour groups visit the Holy Land to watch the Bible come to life; however, in a rush to see all of the historical sites, many miss the opportunity to meet the people whose survival made the State of Israel’s existence possible! On November 30th, Silvia Sanford and her tour group from the United States, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica came to Helping Hand Coalition’s Caesarea headquarters to host twenty survivors of the Holocaust from Children of the War in Netanya, led by Mila Fleitman and Eda, for a special Shalom House event!
With the sun shining bright after the morning’s rainstorm, the survivors were warmly welcomed by Silvia’s group, who surrounded them with love and cheer. Assisting the survivors up the front stairs and to their seats, the group’s hospitality and care broke the barrier of being strangers to friends, creating an incredible atmosphere!
Coordinated by Andre and Bozena Gasiorowski, Co-Founders of Helping Hand Coalition, the event began with a brief history of the organization’s work and the purpose of the Shalom House Project. Translating the speeches into Spanish, Silvia thanked Helping Hand for the invitation, saying, “Today’s our last day here in Israel, and we feel we’re closing an amazing journey with a gold seal by being here.”
Alexander Dietze was also present to perform for the audience. Eight years ago, he and his wife moved to Israel to serve the survivors of the Holocaust after learning that his grandfather was a decorated Nazi war veteran. He exclaimed, “Suddenly, the Holocaust wasn’t in a book; it was in my family! I stood before God and said, ‘What can I do with this?’ I stand here today after eight years in the Land as a representative of Germany who loves you and is grieved by what our forefathers did. I know we cannot change the past, but I believe with my whole heart that what we do today can change the future. I have to thank you, the Holocaust survivors, because you had the right to close the door on me, but [you have] received us like grandchildren. So, thank you for receiving me as a young German in your country.”
Moved by Alexander’s story, a few survivors asked for the microphone to recall their memories of the war. While they didn’t experience the concentration camps, their fight for survival was no less traumatic as they fled from their homes, were locked in ghettos, and depended on strangers for help.
With a shaking hand, Yakov Alperson remembered what it was like to escape Odesa, Ukraine, by the sea while the ship behind them was bombed. He said, “Until today, I can still remember the smell and the feeling of the explosions around me.”
Also born in Ukraine, Reuven Maydanuk spoke of life in the ghetto and how his family survived. “Three times, [the Nazis] decided they wanted to execute us. [However], the first time, we were saved thanks to a partisan dressed as a German SS officer. I don’t remember the second time because I was three years old. But, the third time, Ion Antonescu came to power in Romania and said, ‘Let’s use them [the Jews] as slaves rather than killing them.’ Life was very difficult, [but] that’s how I survived.”
Each survivor of the Holocaust had a tragic story of loss and hardship. To show how important it is to remember those killed during the war, Andre held up the book “Every Single One Was Someone” to be passed around for people to see. When the survivors held the book in their hands, their eyes widened in amazement and grief at what they found. Written on over 2,000 pages is a single word, “Jew,” six million times! Along with creating a book to commemorate those lost, Andre announced that another book was being made, the Book of Life, with the survivors’ names to celebrate those who survived. “In Europe, millions of lives were saved,” Andre explained, “and nobody has told them, ‘Thank you.’ So, in a joint project with the Vatican, we are going to collect a minimum of 100,000 stories to be deposited in the museum of the Vatican to honor the real heroes who were ready to save a person of a different faith, risking the lives of themselves and their families.”
It was a sacred moment highlighted by Alexander’s rendition of “Am Israel Chi” and “Av HaRachamim” (The Father of Mercy). The room fell silent as they listened to Alexander pour his soul into the lyrics, declaring them over everyone present.
Lunch was served to refresh the mind and body, giving the guests time to get to know each other. With four native tongues present, communication might seem impossible, but as Silvia and her group discovered as they laughed, hugged, and served the survivors, love is not bound or limited by language.
After attending Helping Hand Global Forum’s event in Jerusalem earlier that week (read here), Silvia was determined to prepare something special for the survivors. She remarked, “Every nation has its roots — the land, the music, the language — and as Latin people, we have our own flavor, and we want to bring that to [you] today!”
Taking their positions at the front, Silvia and her group danced and sang for the survivors, creating a party in the villa! The survivors of the Holocaust might be in their eighties, but they dance like they’re forty! Inspired by the Latin American music, the survivors stood from their seats to join the group, swaying their hips and clapping their hands to the beat of the drum.
While many moments stood out from this event, the most memorable was when Daniella, a young Guatemalan woman, sang “Silent Night” in Spanish and English. Sponsored by Silvia’s ministry to come on the trip, Daniella’s gratitude and faith shone as she serenaded the audience with her performance. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
With gifts for Helping Hand Coalition, Silvia and her team presented Andre, Bozena, and Luke Gasiorowski with a Guatemalan and Colombian flag along with sweets and coffee from their countries. Like most Shalom House events, no one wanted to leave, but as the clock ticked and the bus driver arrived to take the survivors home, it was time to say goodbye. Dancing their way out of the villa, the survivors hugged and kissed their new friends, clinging tightly as they thanked everyone for their attention and care.
The Shalom House Project was created to bring the nations together with the survivors of the Holocaust, and this day exceeded every expectation. Helping Hand Coalition extends its thanks to Silvia Sanford and her group for taking the time to bless the survivors on their last day; Alexander Dietze for being a bridge between Germany and Israel; Orly for catering the food; and the rest of the team who worked to make this event one of the most memorable of the year!