By Wendy Blumfield
The Haifa Holocaust Museum, tucked away in a tree-lined street in the Hadar district, is probably the smallest of its type in Israel.
Perhaps because of its size and intimacy, a visit there has an enormous impact and brings home the horrors of this disaster more than the vast halls of the iconic Holocaust museums in Israel and overseas.
The key to this intimacy is that the museum is also the residence of Holocaust survivors.
Originally a distribution centre for providing food and essential supplies to the poor of the area, including aging survivors, it is now a complex of 10 apartment buildings specifically for survivors who pay whatever they can to live there.
As I sat over a cup of coffee in the basement museum with its director, Claudia Sophia-Weinberg, some of the residents wandered in to chat.
The combination of museum and residence was the brainchild of Shimon Sebag, director of Yad Ezer La-Haver foundation.
He was badly injured in an accident and prayed that if he recovered he would dedicate his life to helping people.
In 2001, he initiated a programme to distribute food to hungry children, but witnessed the poverty and hunger also of many Holocaust survivors.
With the help of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem and donations from all over the world, the first house on Kassel Street was purchased and renovated to house needy survivors.
The museum opened in January, 2018, and more houses have been bought or rented along the street.
Claudia is an artist and has painted some of the evocative murals that decorate the walls.
She paints in the naïve art genre and in the centre of the museum where residents and guests can relax over a drink hangs a nostalgic picture of a small European town before the war.
“I didn’t want to put something too distressing or heavy in that particular spot,” she says.
Responsible for research into the origins of the exhibits and art displayed in the museum is deputy director Tammy Sinar. Many of the sculptures and pictures were created by the people who live there.
The museum was designed by architect Pini Weinberg, who has sensitively mapped a journey through this small space.
Starting with a film, visitors then walk through a winding corridor where they can examine artifacts and documents, Judaica and musical instruments that were miraculously preserved together with video clips of the residents who tell their stories.
I heard from 82-year-old Esti Lieber-Berenbaum, whose husband Motke dropped by to tell her he was going out on an errand.
Listening to an affectionate exchange between this elderly couple, it is hard to believe that they both have been to hell and back.
One wonders how she could have possibly survived three years of finding refuge in the forests and wheat fields after escaping from her burning home.
In 1942, as the Nazis approached their Polish village, she was bundled out of the house with her parents and sisters. When they looked back, the house was on fire.
They were chased and her father was killed as he herded his family into the forest.
Esti’s mother even got back into the house to get a pot of cholent that had been left there when they fled. She suffered burns to her legs, but managed to take her fur coat and some jewellery to help in their escape.
In the weeks that followed they foraged for food, running every time they heard the voices of the Nazis in pursuit.
“A Christian neighbour gave us bread and occasionally a place to sleep, but we had to keep moving so as not to endanger her family. There were good Polish people, including the local priest who helped us in hiding.”
Again the Nazis found them and, as they ran, Esti’s mother was shot and fell next to her.
“She was holding my hand as she fell. I tried to wake her, but my sisters made me run and told me not to cry.”
Then her older sister Mania was shot and Rachel, badly wounded in her shoulder and side, protected and cared for her little sister.
“I was only five, but when Rachel was in pain from her wounds. I tried to clean them and vowed that one day I would take care of sick people.”
A prophecy as she spent her working life as a nurse at Rambam Hospital in Haifa.
The two sisters continued to forage for food, sometimes finding carrots or potatoes in a field. One day they saw a woman feeding her horse and she gave them shelter for the night. They were told to leave very early in the morning and the woman gave them some food to take with them.
They came across a patrol of German soldiers who asked them why they were out so early, and Esti, with her blonde hair and green eyes who only spoke Polish, replied that they were looking for their cows who had wandered off.
Hiding in wheat fields and forests not far from their previous home, they found the tree that had been selected for meeting up with any surviving relatives and in the dust was a distinct footprint. Nobody had writing implements so this was the method of leaving messages.
The two little girls were delighted and waited to see who would come and were reunited with a beloved uncle. Their joy turned to sorrow as he related the losses in their family.
Some, however, had joined the partisans.
“We still had to be careful because not all the Christian partisans were sympathetic to the Jews, but again a priest protected us and made sure we were not harmed,” she said.
The two sisters miraculously survived the war and were sheltered in an orphanage in Lublin. In a large group photo of the children, Esti actually pointed out her future husband, Motke, although at the time they did not know each other.
After two years Esti and Rachel were taken to an area administered by the American Forces. Esti was very sick at that point, but when she was taken to hospital she was terrified of the German doctors. A nun gave her comfort and helped her build up her strength.
They were given food by the Joint Distribution Committee and helped on their way to Israel in 1948, where her sister joined a kibbutz and Esti was taken to a temporary camp at Atlit.
Rachel married and when her husband got a job in Solel Boneh, they moved with Esti into an apartment in Haifa.
Esti went to work in the Aliyat Hanoar training camp at Beit Hakerem, but she had been determined from childhood to care for the sick and eventually studied at the Hadera Nursing School.
Graduating as a registered nurse, she returned to Haifa and, until her retirement, worked in intensive care and the operating theatre at Rambam Medical Centre.
It was in 1958 that the director of the Lublin orphanage visited Israel and asked to meet her “children”.
Here Esti remembered Motke as being a rascal at the orphanage, but at this reunion they were attracted to each other.
Motke had also been through his own hell. His family had been forced into a forest to dig pits. His mother knew what this meant and she begged Motke to get away.
“You must survive and tell this story to the world,” she said.
As a small child he was not seen as he escaped, but he heard the shots of the firing squad that murdered his family and neighbours.
At the age of nine, he was totally alone, foraging in the forests. Eventually a group of Polish gentiles took him into their work camp where he befriended another small boy.
Together they worked and had food and shelter until the Nazis discovered the camp and destroyed it, killing most of its inmates.
Again Motke escaped and roamed the forests, knocking on doors, but being refused help until at last a farmer gave him refuge and work until the end of the war.
At the orphanage in Lublin, he was with children who had been hidden in monasteries or with Christian families and efforts were made to search for any surviving loved ones.
In 1946, he came on a boat of “illegal immigrants” to British Mandate Palestine, totally alone without family, without belongings, without hope.
The Jewish Agency placed him in a kibbutz where he worked as a tractor driver.
After this reunion in which both orphans Esti and Motke met, the couple married, and had three children who all married and live in northern Israel. They have six grandchildren.
Although Esti remembers every detail of her traumatic childhood, she also has not forgotten the good people, those who protected her and her sister, gave them shelter and food. And her determination to make good of her life led her to a life of caring, marriage and motherhood.
Each of the residents in Kassel Street can tell their stories, of survival and the significance of those exhibits in the museum, the violin, the prayer book, the Judaica, pictures and treasures.
The focus on art in the museum has revealed the enormous talents of the residents. A permanent exhibition, ‘Memories of a Childhood in the Shadow of the Holocaust’, is by survivor Mania Herman and a beautiful book containing her pictures was produced by Yad Ezer La-Haver.
Mania was born in Romania. She was sent with her parents to a concentration camp in Ukraine.
Miraculously, they survived what she describes as living in the shadow of death, starvation and brutality, and came together to Israel in 1951.
She worked as a kindergarten teacher in Pardes Hanna and later married and moved to Haifa where she was employed by the municipality. After retiring she worked voluntarily as an art teacher in a senior citizens home.
She also wrote poetry and has won many prestigious art and literature prizes, and is an honoured member of several of Israel’s literary and art societies.
Claudia concludes that the work will never finish.
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