When my lovely sister-in-law suggested we spend chol hamoed pesach together, I was hoping she’d suggest some luxury holiday destination, but instead she suggested Nazareth. Now, the city of Nazareth evokes different things to different people, but I doubt anyone would think of it as five-star.
Realising where we were going, my thoughts soon turned to the building my late grandparents donated in Nazareth Illit through the (then) JIA in memory of my great grandparents. Irma and Karl Bellak. My ‘Poppa’ Peter, my mother’s father, was born Gerhart Bellak in Vienna in 1920.
As a teenager he hated the rise of the Nazis and joined an anti-Hitler youth group. He was arrested several times. He told me he deeply regretted the shame this brought to his mother but never the cause he was fighting. One day, aged 18, he was on his way home when a neighbour stopped him, warned him that the police were at his home and told him to “run away and never come back.”
He fled the city, running through the Austrian countryside, sleeping in cow sheds and relying on the kindness of locals for food and shelter. He eventually made it to the former Czechoslovakia and was briefly reunited with his parents and sister, Lily, before enlisting in a Czech division of the British Army. His sister was sent on the last Kindertransport train to London before his parents were deported and murdered in Auschwitz.
By the time the war ended my grandfather had a wife, (Maria Wolf, my grandmother) and baby daughter, Susan, (my mother). The young family returned to Prague and found themselves once again living in terror, this time from rising Communism. My grandparents again fled under the guise of a business trip and arranged for my mother to be smuggled back to England on the passport of a non-Jewish British cousin who risked her life in the rescue.
Once reunited in London my grandfather worked any job he could and after several years of struggle and much hard work, became a successful businessman. He spent many years researching what happened to his parents. When he realised that they had not survived the Holocaust, he decided to donate something in their memory.
My grandfather did not believe in God, had not had a bar mitzvah and hated religion, yet he was proud to be a Jew and believed whole-heartedly in the State of Israel, so it was a natural choice for him to establish something in their memory here.
The Bellak creche opened in Nazareth Illit in the 1970s and later became a pedagogic training centre. I last visited the centre with my grandparents in 1995 as a seminary student on my year off. The staff were incredibly welcoming and gracious. In the intervening years my mother, grandmother and most recently my Poppa and his dear sister Lily have passed away.
Through the help of UJIA I was able to trace the facility and made the short journey from our hotel in Nazareth to the ‘Pisga’ pedagogic centre.
The building was locked up for chag but we’d come so far, so my teenage son and I scaled the gates to get a picture by the plaque, still fixed to the wall and proudly bearing testimony to my great grandparents, two otherwise lost souls, since they have no grave.
It was incredible for me, an olah from London, blessed with a husband and four healthy sabra children, to read the inscription and stroke the sun-worn letters: “Honour thy father and thy mother.”
I am proud beyond words at having been able to play a small part in my family’s journey to freedom and to have done so on Pesach felt especially significant. I thank the UJIA and in particular Sefton Bergeson, for keeping my grandparents’ and great grand-parents’ memory alive.
I hope that when they are a bit older, my children will reflect on this visit and future visits we plan to make. I hope they will feel blessed to be free Israeli Jewish children swinging and giggling on the gates by their great-great grandparent’s building that was built through love, respect and Jewish pride.