Dan Savery Raz

To remember and never to forget

Tirza on the far left with her six siblings and mother. Photo courtesy of Tirza.
Tirza on the far left with her six siblings and mother. Photo courtesy of Tirza.

Tirza Halivni’s tale and why this year’s Yom HaShoah is more important than ever.

This year Yom HaShoah falls on the evening of May 5. That’s a significant date for me – I made Aliyah to Israel on May 5 2008 and my first daughter was born on May 5 2012. It’s usually a day of celebration but this year it feels different. In Israel we’re still dealing with the very recent atrocities of October 7th and the comparisons to the Holocaust are all too real.

Some could ask, why is it important to remember the Holocaust this year when we have our own trauma in 2024? Is history repeating itself again? What can we learn from the pain of the past? I don’t have the answers to such questions but this year I simply felt the need to listen to a Holocaust survivor. So I volunteered for Zikaron BaSalon, an NGO that pairs individuals with Holocaust survivors so they can hear and share their stories.

I received a message from the NGO that my survivor was an 89-year-old woman called Tirza Halivni in Ramat Hasharon, just ten minutes away from my home. I called to say hello and was immediately surprised by Tirza’s high level of English and soon found out that she goes swimming and works out at the gym every morning.

The first time we met, Tirza shook my hand and squeezed it very hard, just so that I’d know she was strong. I soon realized that this was no ordinary woman. Tirza welcomed me to her home, where she lives alone, gave me some fresh strawberries (the best in Israel she claims) and showed me old photos hanging on her walls of her father, mother, her six siblings, and late husband. Then Tirza’s story began to unfold.

Tirza’s Tale
Tirza was born in a town called Gailingen near the Swiss-German border in 1934. On 9th November 1938, at the age of four, Tirza witnessed her father, the Chief Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Bohrer, being brutally beaten and taken away by the Nazis. This was the last time she would ever see her father, who perished in the Dachau concentration camp in December 1938. Her father was the last Rabbi of Gailingen.

Tirza’s father Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Markus Bohrer, with some students.

The pogrom against German Jews of 9-10 November 1938 is widely known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. These were the early days of the Holocaust, only a few weeks earlier Hitler ordered the deportation of Polish Jews from Germany. On November 7, German diplomat Ernst vom Rath was assassinated by Herschel Grynzspan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew living in Paris. On November 9th, the Nazi leaders were getting drunk, as they did each year to mark the November 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. When Hitler and Goebbels heard about the assassination, they riled up the youth and sent telegrams to the Sturmabteilung (the paramilitary wing) to instigate widespread anti-Jewish violence.

Kristallnacht resulted in hundreds of Jewish homes, hospitals and schools being looted and demolished with sledgehammers. Rioters destroyed 267 synagogues, over 7,000 Jewish businesses and 30,000 innocent Jewish men were arrested.

The grand Gailingen Synagogue, which was directly opposite Tirza’s family home, was set ablaze. Tirza remembers the SS troops wore big black boots and carried water canisters to ensure the fires didn’t spread to non-Jewish properties.

Mother and Meir
Tirza’s mother, Mrs. Jenny Bat-Sheva Bohrer, was taken with six of her seven children to a sports hall while the pogrom and rioting ensued. All of the Jewish women and children in the village were led down the road so they could see the synagogue being burnt.

Only Tirza’s eldest brother, Meir Michael, was not present. Meir, aged 13 at the time, was attending a Jewish seminar, like a youth camp. Tirza remembers her brother’s Bar Mitzvah earlier in the summer of 1938 and the ‘yellow sour’ ice cream. When the Nazis came to the Jewish seminar, Meir fled through the window of the hall, ran to the nearest train tracks and boarded a train back to Gailingen. While riding the train, Meir sat in a carriage filled with members of the Hitler Youth. These young Nazis, aged 14-18, were singing songs about slitting Jews’ throats. Due to his blonde hair and blue eyes, Meir was not suspected of being a Jew and made it unharmed back to his home.

What he found in Gailingen was that his home, like many others, had had its windows smashed (hence, it was later called ‘the Night of Broken Glass’). We’re not sure exactly when or how Meir was reunited with his mother and siblings, but it was one or two days after the pogrom. When the riots were over, Bat-Sheva, Tirza’s mother, returned with her seven children back to their home.

Tirza recalls the smell of smoke all around and the ice-cold winter air that blew through the broken windows. As they climbed the stairs in their home they suddenly saw a tall SS officer standing in her father’s Rabbinical office, who began throwing books to the ground. Frau Bat-Sheva recognized the man and addressed him in his own regional dialect, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? I have seven children!” The officer simply stopped and left the building. Tirza proudly says that she inherited her mother’s strength.

In late November, Bat-Sheva went to the Gestapo to plead for her husband’s release and was told he would be set free on December 30. However, before that date she received notice that Rabbi Mordechai died from ‘disease and exhaustion’ in Dachau. Tirza still has in her possession her father’s release certificate from the Jewish community of Munich with the Gestapo stamp. Tirza’s two oldest brothers, Meir and Dov, had to identify their father’s dead body.

Life in Israel
In 1939 there was a German decree to prosecute those who took pity on the Jews. So, Bat-Sheva prepared their emigration papers, packed and shipped some belongings, and took her seven children down the street, while the neighbors looked on. They traveled to Trieste, Italy, then to Cyprus and eventually arrived in Jaffa Port, in what was then British Mandate Palestine.

Tirza’s family lived in Kfar Avraham, near Petah Tikva, where her grandfather and uncles from Germany had moved in 1935. Sadly, it was Tirza’s father who had helped them and many others migrate to the Holy Land, but selflessly decided to stay in Germany to lead his community.

In the summer of 1940, Tirza’s family moved to Tel Aviv, where they experienced World War II and the Italian bombing of Tel Aviv. When the State of Israel was declared in 1948, Tirza was still only 14. She has fond memories of Tel Aviv and says that although she had a religious upbringing she had a ‘criminal mind’ and loved dancing and going to the beach.

In 1952, she enlisted in the IDF and was a sergeant in the Air Force in meteorology, stationed at the Sirkin base. After the army in 1955, Tirza went to London where her sister was working at the Dorchester Hotel.

Tirza’s husband, Amnon, with Shimon Peres after the Entebbe Operation. Photo courtesy of Tirza.

Hero of the Hostages
Tirza married Amnon Halivni, an IAF pilot in 1956 and they moved to the Ramat David base in the north of Israel. They had three children and eventually six grandchildren.

You could write an entire book about Amnon’s life – he participated in the Six Day War in 1967 and Yom Kippur War in October 1973, then in 1974 he became a pilot for El Al. But Amnon is most famous for being the captain of the Entebbe rescue operation, where 102 Israeli hostages were brought back to Israel from Uganda on July 4 1976. Amnon was chosen as the captain as he was stationed in Uganda, along with Tirza, in the late 1960s, so he knew Idi Amin and the layout of Entebbe airport. Fast forward nearly 50 years to today and once again there are 133 Israelis being held hostage, this time in Gaza.

Amnon died in 2003 at age 71 and Tirza moved out of their Ramat Hasharon house to a residential care home, where she lives today. Tirza still prepares her own food, goes shopping, drives, and does more sporting activity than most forty-somethings (certainly more than me).

Tirza has seen so much in her life – the Holocaust, World War II, the birth of Israel, wars and rescue operations, from great progress to painful tragedy. So what does she think of today’s world? Her answer is clear: the young need to hear and understand what happened.

She dislikes the current Israeli government and calls them ‘bad people’ and is also worried by the rise of antisemitism around the world. After October 7th, Tirza participated in a zoom conference telling people in Germany that she never thought she’d see such a pogrom again in her lifetime.

Tirza Halivni in 2024 with a portrait of her 6-year-old self from Tel Aviv, 1940.

Lessons Learned
Her life is a collection of stories – many of which I haven’t even heard yet. But one story that resonated with me was that of her brother, Meir. His story shows how many of the perpetrators of Kristallnacht were actually teenagers or scouts like the Hitler Youth. Kristallnacht wasn’t the most catastrophic event of the Holocaust (reports vary from dozens to hundreds killed), but it was the catalyst for a fire that spread across Europe. Kristallnacht shows how antisemitism, or any form of discrimination, often starts with words, then vandalism, and can easily end in violence. Hatred is toxic.

An Israeli professor, who was recently denied entry to Columbia University, said ‘This is 1938’. I hope it’s not. But I can’t help but think what would happen if Hitler or Goebbels had TikTok or 100M Instagram followers today? The ability to spread lies and incite violence is easier than ever.

Another story that has a more inspirational ending is that of the Torah scroll. Tirza’s father, Mordechai, was a compassionate leader and teacher. He treated the synagogue’s non-Jewish gardener as his own son. After the synagogue was burnt to a cinder, the gardener entered and opened the ark. Inside, he found that two of the three Torah scrolls had been destroyed but somehow the middle scroll was undamaged. The gardener took the Torah scroll and hid it for years during the war. The Torah scroll was given back to the family and is now in a synagogue in Beit El, where Tirza’s other brother, Yuda, was once a Rabbi like his father.

Today, Tirza is the only one left of the original Rabbi Bohrer’s seven children. Although she’s almost 90, she has a youthful glow and wicked sense of humor. ‘All of my siblings had doctorates but I was the smartest,’ she jokes at the end of our chat, ‘I’ll go down the elevator with you just to make sure you leave.’ For me, meeting Tirza in these troubled days was as miraculous as finding a Torah scroll in the ashes, and I’m grateful for my wise, unlikely friend.

About the Author
Dan Savery Raz is a Lonely Planet author, and has written for, Time Out & various websites. Born in England, he lives in Tel Aviv with his wife & children.
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