Four thousand Holocaust survivors under rocket fire in Ashkelon
“There used to be 30 seconds to get to a shelter once there was a siren, but since the flood of multiple rockets at once, now it is more like 20 seconds,” the social worker at Beit Halperin Nursing Home in Ashkelon told me last week as we stood in a crowded reinforced room, about 6 miles from Gaza in a room full of Holocaust survivors and other frail elderly.
They are bedridden or in wheelchairs and do not have time to make it to the shelter after a siren. Since the attack on October 7, this reinforced space, funded with a grant from the Claims Conference in 2017, has now become the only place for 36 old people to eat, live and sleep.
I heard stories of immeasurable pain.
Holocaust survivor Yosef Winner, together with his wife and son, told of the loss of two of his grandchildren. Later I read the heartbreaking words he had written:
“I survived the Nazi Animal fire in the concentration camps; my entire family perished in the terrible Holocaust. I detached myself from my deep roots and erected a monument in their memory, made of basalt stones. From the depths of despair, with determination and resilience, I clung to the earth and planted seeds in Zion. I arrived at my well-planted family tree in the homeland, yielding fruit.
But suddenly, on October 7, 2023, from between the evil barbed wires, emerged the horrifying scenes of fire, dust, murder, and the terrible massacre of innocent lives, reaching me once again.
My dearest grandson, Yahav, may his memory be blessed, was murdered while protecting his wife Shaylee and their one-month-old daughter, Shaya. And my dearest granddaughter, Hadar, may her memory be blessed, and her husband, Itay, may his memory be blessed, were slaughtered while defending their ten-month-old twins, Roee and Guy.
Once again, I find myself exhausted, in despair, sinking. And I have no more land to hold onto.
May their memory be blessed.”
Earlier, from the roof of the building, after stepping over a fragment of a rocket, we could see Gaza in the distance. We looked over to the sea – just a few minutes’ walk away. Once the beach was a place of joy and fun for families; on October 7 it was another route for terrorists trying to attack all that lay before them.
At the entrance of the city was a large poster of Alex Lubnov from Ashkelon, a father of a two year old and a baby on the way, who was head barman at the Supernova party – he is now a hostage in Gaza. The hostages were first on everybody’s mind.
There were stories of survival surrounded by anguish. Staff member Dr. Amir Peleg who lives on a moshav a few kilometers from Gaza told us: “Our area is a small and communal area. Everyone knows everyone. The circles of murder and disaster touched each and every one in many different ways. I personally was locked in my reinforced room with my family when a few hundred meters away there was a fierce battle between the residents of Ein HaBesor and about 40 terrorists who reached the moshav fence. Fortunately, they were not able to penetrate the fence thanks to the bravery of local citizens.”
“Every day, we wake up on October 7”, he said.
Amidst the pain there were glimpses of humor. The social worker at the nursing home summed up the complexity of rushing a group of old people into a sheltered room with beds and wheelchairs at assorted angles – “it’s a bit like Tetris”.
A siren interrupted our quick lunch at a nearby restaurant. There was a hurried run to a bomb shelter in the allotted 20-30 seconds and as we got to the bottom of the stairs, we heard the Iron Dome missile defense system destroying the incoming rocket. Ten minutes later we reemerged to finish our meal. The other customers, some in army fatigues, some families with children, resumed with seeming normalcy. But life in Ashkelon is not normal. Since October 7, Ashkelon, the director of the home told us, has been attacked with 1,200 rockets, among the most of any city in Israel.
We saw pain and anguish, and we also saw also the incredible strength of Holocaust survivors.
We went to visit some of them in their homes. Avraham Goldhaber, born in 1936 in Chortkiv which is today in Ukraine, told us the story of how he lost much of his family in the Holocaust and was saved as a young boy hidden for a year under the roof of a cowshed. He went on to describe how he coped with the constant rockets in Ashkelon over the past five weeks as he proudly showed us his sheltered room. Pain and resilience interwoven in a single conversation.
And there was sympathy from survivors for the suffering of people in Gaza during the critical campaign to defeat Hamas and bring the hostages home.
The country is traumatized. How much more so for Holocaust survivors living in a country once again grappling with uncountable loss, questions of how it had happened and what did the future hold.
Yet the country has to deal with the challenges of today.
Immediately after the attack on October 7, the Claims Conference staff started calling survivors in the South. There are approximately 120,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel. About 5,000 live close to Gaza and the staff have been calling them regularly. For those that need help – about a third of them – food packages and other supplies are delivered rapidly by our partners. Perhaps as important as that assistance is keeping the connection with them during a time of fear and isolation. As one survivor said, even if you do not have food to deliver, please keep calling.
Hotels well known to many of us from visits to Israel are now crowded with evacuees from border areas in the South and the North. Over 1,800 survivors have been evacuated, many of whom are in these hotels. They are a welcoming place of safety but, as one said, all I want is to be back to my own home, go into my own kitchen and make my own cup of tea. When might that happen? Nobody knows.
I heard stories of the Shoah intertwined with stories of the terrible attacks of October 7. At our meeting, we were joined by the heads of some of the major Holocaust education institutions. Many are engaged with helping displaced people from the North and South. As well as dealing with the personal – loss of friends and family, children in the army and the hostages – they are thinking about what this will mean for the future of Holocaust education. Just as so much has been done to document the Shoah, plans are under way to capture testimonies of what happened on that terrible Shabbat, so that future generations will know.
We had come to listen and to learn, and to see how we could help in Israel in the days, weeks and months ahead. But, amidst all that the country is dealing with, Israelis wanted to ask those of us from the Diaspora about the rising tide of antisemitism in the United States and around the world. In an era when some of us fear a drifting apart of Israel and the Diaspora, care and concern for our fellow Jews is pouring in both directions, and in this horrific moment the bonds that bind us are drawing us closer.
As we emerged from our meeting in Yad Vashem, the area outside the building was crowded with children running around. The museum is closed but the education building today hosts a school for children evacuated from border areas, with Yad Vashem staff temporarily serving as teachers.
In a place created in memory of those who were killed in the Shoah, the laughter of children playing games in the sunlight was perhaps a harbinger that, during these hard dark days, out of the ashes will come a brighter better time.