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Assisted living: German Christians aid Holocaust survivors

Lela Gilbert

On a breezy morning in Haifa, beneath billowing clouds, a four-story structure is enclosed in scaffolding and adorned with signs in both Hebrew and English: This hostel for Holocaust survivors was established with the generous help of the Christian Embassy. Construction workers scurry in and out, and groups of senior men and women watch all the activity with subdued curiosity. In the midst of the building site, the sounds of hammering, drilling and shouting are almost deafening as cement is spread, flooring is laid, and instructions are shouted in German.

When a sprightly, smiling elderly man enters the building, he is hardly noticed at first. But before long, a group gathers around him, soon to be engaged in a lively conversation. Although he seems to be a gifted storyteller, in all the noise its hard to hear what he is saying. Then suddenly he rolls up his sleeve, displaying the fading blue number tattooed on his forearm.

Yosef Kunstlich is 84 years old. He came to Israel from Poland in 1945, but his route was tragically circuitous, passing through the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He remembers being marched through deep snow for two weeks he was just a 14-year-old boy at the time. He recalls working long hours in a dark mine, deep inside Poland. After witnessing indescribable horrors, Kunstlich finally arrived here at 17. Almost immediately he was enlisted in the new Israeli army, and soon he found himself fighting in the War of Independence in both Haifa and Galilee.

In the 1950s he married and started a family. But Yosef Kunstlich never forgot what he had seen and suffered. For a lengthy period of his adult life, he kept a vow that he would never speak to another German person his abuse at the hands of the Nazis had been brutal and unforgivable. He would not waste his words on Germans. Yet on that late February morning, Kunstlich was surrounded by German construction workers, and they were chatting and laughing with one another like old friends.

The change in Kunstlichs attitude took place, in part, because of a heartwarming project sponsored by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) which will soon provide assisted living housing in Haifa for more than 80 Holocaust survivors. When asked what he thinks about the home being constructed by German workers, Kunstlich shakes his head in amazement. Who would believe they would come here and work to build this place? he says. I myself want to come and live in this new home!

For several years, ICEJ has been involved in outreaches to Holocaust survivors, including an Adopt-a-Survivor program that provides essentials to cash-strapped elderly, sick and impoverished men and women throughout the country. In 2009, it also contributed more than $250,000 to Yad Vashem, funding a Christian desk and other programs.

Of the organizations cooperative venture with Yad Vashem, ICEJs international director Juergen Buehler says, We decided to have a Christian desk in the place that remembers the most dark and bloody and horrible part of Christian history with the Jewish people. And I think for Yad Vashem to want to establish a Christian desk is a sign that something is changing in Christian and Jewish relations. It is quite a message.

Buehler also stresses an important goal: bringing as many Christian pastors and leaders as possible to Yad Vashem for educational seminars. We want to make sure that they never will forget and will continue teaching their congregations and their communities that Christians have learned our lessons from the Holocaust. Because the sad thing is that in those days the Christian church was part of the problem. Not all of them, but in large part, the Christian church was a silent church and at times it even collaborated with the Nazis. I think today that thats a very up-to-date and current message that we need to remember. We are facing [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad in the Middle East, and rising anti-Semitism in Europe and even in the US. In light of these things it is essential that Christian leaders are being educated. We have to make sure that history does not repeat itself.

AN ADDITIONAL way of assisting Holocaust survivors arose unexpectedly in December, when the Christian Embassy learned it could expand a small hostel to assist dozens of Holocaust survivors in Haifa. The organization immediately responded with a donation of $25,000, which would allow the charitable group Yad Ezer LHaver (Helping Hands to Friends) to take possession of the ground floor of a building next door to its current assisted-care facility. But after learning from Yad Ezers director, Shimon Sabag, that the entire building was available for purchase and renovation, ICEJs German branch raised, in a matter of a few days, $300,000 more, making it possible to donate the entire building to Yad Ezer, and to refurbish it. Meanwhile, several teams of German construction workers volunteered to spend two weeks in Haifa at a time, thus dramatically reducing labor costs.

When asked about his personal interest in assisting Holocaust survivors, Buehler a German Christian himself recounts the remarkable story of his own familys experience.

My father is still alive. He, too, is a survivor of World War II. But he fought in the German army, drafted like every young man of his generation into Hitlers troops. He was captured by the Russians after 1945, and for four and a half years he was in a Russian prison camp. He has often said that he owes his life to two Jewish people who saved him on separate occasions while he was a prisoner. One was a doctor who kept him from dying of malnutrition; he doesnt know until today why she went out of her way to help him when others were starving to death all around. He can only say that shes one reason he survived.

The other was a local Jewish farmer who told my father to take whatever potatoes and vegetables he needed from his familys garden enough for himself and his fellow laborers since the labor camps food rations werent enough to keep them alive. So my father has always said that as family, we owe our lives to the Jewish people.

And in the same context he always taught us kids to respect the Jews hed say, Theres a special purpose in the Jewish people and we owe them a lot. We should always be grateful to them. After returning to Germany from Russia, he set his heart on being a Christian pastor, and before long, he brought us kids to Israel. On that first trip I fell in love with the land. The day after our wedding, I brought my wife; we have been here for 15 years.

It is often reported that nearly a third of Israels some 250,000 Holocaust survivors struggle with physical ailments, are emotionally distressed and live below the poverty line. As these people reach their twilight years, Christian organizations have been working quietly to ease their suffering, whether through adoption programs, special assistance, gift baskets or investment in initiatives like Yad Ezers outreach to survivors.

Yad Ezer which also sponsors soup kitchens, home food deliveries, homeless shelters, free legal representation, psychological counseling, after-school childrens homes, home visits, blankets and heaters to the elderly, a free dental clinic and an annual Pessah Seder meal for the disadvantaged was started in Haifa in 2001 by two brothers, Baruch and Shimon Sabag. Shimon was a successful businessman before being seriously injured in a devastating automobile accident. After his recovery, the two brothers wanted to do more to help the poor and needy, and started providing food and shelter through a hostel that cares for Holocaust survivors.

It is my hearts desire to give those people who suffered so much some dignity and joy as they live out their last years. Time is running out for them, Sabag explains.

ONE WOMAN who has benefited from Yad Ezers outreach is Miriam Kremin, 87, who came here from Poland in 1944. She arrived as a refugee when she was 16 years old after being imprisoned in Luvno, a Polish ghetto where the rest of her family was killed. There was going to be a final action, she says, explaining why she escaped when she did. After staying one step ahead of the authorities for three years, often foraging for food, she managed to reach Palestine, despite severe immigration quotas. I was given a passport with a Christian name, she smiles.

When asked how she feels about the German Christian workers, Kremin shrugs, Its possible that some of these Germans had family in the Third Reichs army, but this is a new generation that has come here. You cannot judge people by the place they were born or the way they look. Anyway, they have come to help.

Describing the unusual relationship between Germans Christian community and Israels Holocaust survivors, Buehler says, Of course with our German baggage or our German heritage or whatever you want to call it, I wouldnt say it gives us a sense of guilt but, rather, a sense of responsibility toward Israel. You always understand that its negative baggage in many ways, but I have to say that it is in a very strange way also positive baggage. Why? Because if our German community raises funds for Israel and the aid comes from Germany, it is often perceived as having much more value than if it comes from the United States or the UK or any other nation. It is a blessing to bring help from Germany to Israel because it touches many people in a very good way.

It was because of this increased sense of responsibility that we immediately jumped onto the Haifa hostel project. And even though last year there was a global recession, our funds in Germany have actually increased. We started our fund-raising campaign for this house in January, and just days later we learned about the earthquake in Haiti. All the fund-raising energies went out to help the needy people in Haiti. And I told our office that it would take a couple of months for us to get this project started. We put out a very simple mailing, just a two-page flier. I was completely overwhelmed when, within seven days, all the money we needed came in. There was one significantly large contribution, but most of the gifts were from individual donors of 50, 100 or 200 euros.

For me it was very encouraging because it showed that Christians in Germany are willing to take their responsibility seriously. Some of the survivors want nothing to do with Germany. In fact one of the reasons some of them live in poverty today is because they refuse to take reparations from Germany. They do not want any pity from Germany.

However, the survivors in Haifa seem to be unanimously grateful for the assistance. In fact, the waiting list of people applying for a place in the new Yad Ezer facility is already up to 850, most of them survivors of Nazi death camps in Poland and Germany.

Asked about the speed with which the project has come together, Shimon Sabag smiles and shakes his head. Even in a dream I never thought all this would happen. I think these people must be angels!
Sabag goes on to explain, A lot of those who managed to survive the Holocaust would never speak to Germans before their families were wiped out entirely in Germany, and the killing was done by Germans. But now that that they have seen such an outpouring of generosity from German Christians, this very unusual and important effort has changed their minds.

He stops momentarily to answer a workmans question, then smiles and continues. This is the only place in Israel where survivors can live with all their expenses paid and get medical treatment at no cost. They will spend their waning days in dignity. Not only has this help from the Christian Embassy and Germany changed their minds, it has changed their lives as well.

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