A message popped up on the WhatsApp group for volunteers in Jerusalem: “Volunteer needed to take a Holocaust survivor to be vaccinated.”
Without hesitation, I immediately wrote back that I was available for the mission. My eyes misted over just at the thought of it: what an honor to be able to take someone who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust to receive a vaccine in Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish state which is leading the world in COVID-19 vaccinations.
It felt like getting Willy Wonka’s golden ticket.
The Holocaust survivor coordinator at City Hall called me to coordinate the details and connect me with Aaron. “He survived Bergen Belsen,” she told me, “so it is a very special mitzvah.”
The coordinator runs an amazing group of several hundred volunteers who help survivors in Jerusalem with requests that range from assistance with filling out forms and buying groceries through to accompanying them to medical appointments and more.
It turned out that Aaron lives not far from me, a short 10-minute drive away. He asked me to come and pick him up at midday for his appointment at the vaccination center at Jerusalem’s International Conference Center.
I pulled up at 11:55 a.m. to find Aaron waiting at the curb.
He had a faded felt fedora on his head, a dark grey jacket, and woolen waistcoat. On his white hair, he wore a black kippah and his blue mask brought out the color in his twinkling blue eyes.
“You are on time!” he remarked, sounding surprised. “It must be because my parents are British,” I replied jokingly. He chuckled and said that he thought we were going to get along just fine.
Despite it still being winter, it was a beautiful sunny day in Jerusalem and, as we drove, Aaron started telling me about himself. He had come to Israel as the age of 12 in 1950 and has lived in Jerusalem for 70 years.
As we drove past the government quarter, he asked what one of the new buildings was. I explained to him that it was the new headquarters of the Ministry of Justice, commenting that I find it amusing that it towers over the Prime Minister’s Office building.
“Oy!” Aaron exclaimed, “The leaders today are not honest. Not like Menachem Begin!”
I agreed with him and told him that I once worked at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, asking if he had ever met Begin. “Of course!” he replied. “We lived in the same area. He was a very modest man and an amazing speaker. They don’t make them like that anymore.”
He told me about how he had attended the funeral of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, the “Tzadik of Jerusalem.” Menachem Begin gave one of the eulogies at the funeral. “He spoke for one and half hours,” he recalled, “I never heard anyone who could speak like that.”
We arrived at the vaccination center. Though we were 45 minutes early for the scheduled appointment, there was no problem, and we went straight into the waiting area. It was all perfectly organized and pleasant, in a manner not often seen in Israel. During our five-minute wait, Aaron told me that he used to go to concerts there when he was young and he liked to sing.
Our number came up and we were sent to booth #18.
“Oh look, “I said to Aaron, “we got number 18! That’s a good number!” In gematria, 18 is the number for “chai” – life. It seemed very appropriate.
A young, male nurse enthusiastically received us in the booth, checked Aaron’s details and enquired about his health. “Is this your daughter?” he asked.
“I have no children,” Aaron replied sadly, and I chipped in that I was a volunteer.
Aaron removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeve and a minute later it was all over.
“Let me take a picture with your phone,” I said to the nurse, “Then you can show your family and tell them how today you had the privilege of vaccinating a survivor of Bergen Belsen.”
The nurse’s eyes glazed over, agreeing that indeed it was a great honor and a very special occasion.
“This to me,” I said, choking back tears, “epitomizes everything that I love about my country.”
In the waiting area after the vaccination, we chatted about the volunteer group. I told Aaron that there were around 10,000 survivors in Jerusalem. He wondered how many there were in Israel, so I googled it for him: around 190,000. “That seems a lot,” Aaron said. “I was in Bergen Belsen when I was 7 years old and now I am in my 80s.”
I told him that I supposed it may be dependent on how a survivor was defined. Aaron was adamant that a Holocaust survivor was someone who survived the camps. Of course, I wasn’t going to argue with him about that. We chatted some more about my mother-in-law’s family who managed to escape from Poland into Russia before the Nazi invasion.
The waiting time was quickly over and Aaron felt well, so we left to go back to the car, which I had “illegally” parked in a disabled spot at the entrance, figuring the occasion justified it.
As we walked slowly, Aaron asked me if I was religious. A somewhat strange question, I thought, since I was wearing jeans and had an uncovered head.
I answered him that I was a Jerusalemite and my family lived our lives as Jews, saying, “How do you define religious? Is someone who keeps the Sabbath but steals ‘religious’?”
Aaron stopped for a rest, his eyes lighting up with the discussion. “There are good Jews and there are those who are sick and are not good Jews,” he said. “But it’s not like the goyim (non-Jews) — there are very few good goyim.”
I started to respond, saying that I think that there are good and bad people in every community.
Aaron looked me straight in the eye, “When I was a child in the ghetto, they came and rounded us all up in the square. Our neighbors were there. I remember that my mother had always told me that they were ‘good goyim.'” He started breaking up at the mention of his mother, but took a deep breath and continued, “When we were standing in the square, our neighbors were there with all the crowd yelling, ‘Take the Jews.’ I will never forget it.”
On the ride home, Aaron wanted to hear about my family and when we arrived back to his street, he pulled out a 100 shekel note and said he wanted to give me some money because he had intended to take a taxi.
I told him not to be silly, I wouldn’t accept his money, I was happy to do it. He insisted, so I told him that if he paid me, it wouldn’t be a mitzvah. He continued insisting, so I told him that he was stealing my mitzvah. He chuckled and told me that I certainly had a “mouth” on me and he had enjoyed our little trip together.
As he got out of the car, he said, “As you won’t accept money, I will give you a blessing instead. You know that the blessing of someone who survived the Holocaust is considered a special blessing. People come to my house all the time to ask me to bless them.”
I agreed that indeed that would be very special, and as the warm sun shone down upon us, Aaron, the ultra-Orthodox survivor of the horrors of Bergen Belsen blessed Rachael, a convert to Judaism from Australia, in the middle of the street in the holy city of Jerusalem, where we had both ended up, and at that moment, despite the pandemic, the lockdown, and all the chaos in our country, I knew that, in the end, everything was going to be okay.
**The name Aaron is an alias and while he was happy to be photographed and have the photos shared, I have chosen to blur the photographs to protect his privacy.