Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy SA-SIG
MACHON LEMADRICHEI CHUTZ LE’ARETZ
by Ziona Schaffer © 2005
Editor: Dr Saul Issroff
Copyright © 2005 Saul Issroff, Mike Getz, SAfrica SIG
and Jewishgen Inc.
It finally all came together. No one I have spoken to felt disappointed. Excited, surprised - yes. Moved and jubilant - oh yes.
When the Va’ad met at Tamara’s house every few months over the last year and a half, each meeting was a mini-Machon reunion. We were pleased to see each other. The memories flowed, the laughter was catchy and the boisterous jokes exploded as people remembered more and more. We were transposed to those carefree Machon days, inhibitions forgotten, transformed into those young ‘wildegaaies’. It was amazing that we got anything done at the meetings.
Eventually the Va’ad grew to 9 (Tamara Levy, Leah Geva, Hadassah Klamen, Edna Caplan, Ziona Schaffer and the ‘boys’ – Asher Gotsman, Zvi Pantanowitz, Saul Elstein and Nachum Fuchs). All nine of us attended nearly every meeting. We had only traced 13 chaverim living in Israel and our ‘Va’ad’ consisted of 9 of them! We were still hopeful that at least 6 more people would come from abroad, maybe 7. Then we would be a group of 20, plus another 16 or so spouses and that would make a satisfactory number for a reunion.
When it became clear that only Carmel was intent on coming from abroad, our doubts about the success of the event began to grow. Wouldn’t it fall flat and be contrived? Would it be worth all the trouble of organizing an event in Jerusalem if only 13 of the original 46 would come? Most of us had already waxed nostalgic over the tiny Baby Brownie photographs and the memories of where we slept and where we danced (and where we peed – the “boys” amongst us, in particular.)
It turned out to be more than worthwhile and our respective partners added to the thrill of sharing an event celebrating our past with our present. In addition three of the spouses had participated in other machzorim of the Machon themselves. Beforehand, some of the husbands and wives had privately expressed their doubts about being present at a celebration which they were not part of. In the event they all enjoyed being with us, participated actively and were as moved as we were.
And everything went according to plan.
The program we had prepared was varied, and aimed at reviving memories of the year we spent in Israel and at the Machon in Jerusalem. It started with a visit to Katamon in our private cars. Pants in the lead car with a flyer and his wife Dot in the last one to bring up the stragglers – they had lived in that neighbourhood for years and had specially come to Jerusalem the week before to plan our walk. Not all of us are familiar with the Jerusalem of today and in any case the roads change from week to week.
At first we hardly recognized the building. Everything around it is built up and it no longer serves as the Machon. Slowly it all fell into place and the feelings and memories came rushing back. To see the building we studied in, the ‘tzrif’, our dining room where we were so often hungry on a diet of bread, leben, olives and oranges. The prefabs at the back where we learnt Ivrit and tried our hands at arts and crafts and the yard in front of the rooms where we learnt and rehearsed Israeli dances. Sitting on the stairs were the present day residents – young girls of 16-18 from the States come to study in Israel. The feeling of deja vu was for real. Had we been like that? A lot crazier, surely, almost drunk with the excitement of tasting the new State. Bunching together we had the first machzor photo taken in lieu of the one not taken 50 years ago. A second photo was taken outside the beautifully preserved ‘Bayit Sheni’, now a proud relic amongst the ordinary houses hemming it in.
The evening progam was to be the main event of the two days. We had anticipated a light, joyous evening of nostalgia and anecdotes about the unforgettable and incredible things we did. However most of us had already spent those evenings together and moreover there were new spirits in the room – Arieh Azoulai, Stella Cohen and Eliahu Yechieli from Israel and Carmel Kuperman, and Rabbi Yakov Jungreiz from the US.
The evening opened with a talk by the present director of the Machon – Dr. Naomi Nachanson who described how the Machon has adapted to the present day community needs of Israeli society. More time is devoted to the immigrant communities and the kibbutz is no longer a central factor in the program.
Pants had found a movie filmed in Israel in 1952. The aim was to remind chaverim of what was going on around us in the new State at that time. However it had a dual purpose. Not only did we become aware of the Israel we had experienced fifty years ago but we became even more aware of the achievements of the State since then. Hadassah and Pants had put a few song sheets together and the accordionist intermittently led us in all our old favourites. Our singing was full-throated and roused the hotel residents outside. One, a young man, heard us and came and joined our circle. Once again we were surrounded by the new generation in the Ramat Rahel Hotel. Four hundred Hillel students from America descended upon us and we saw ourselves as we were 50 years ago. An uncanny feeling. It was wonderful that these youngsters had come to express their solidarity in such troubled times.
A most significant guest that evening was Ada Brotzky and perhaps it was she who set the tone for the rest of the program. A petite, erect, 80-year old, radiating a quiet strength, Ada started with a poem she had specially composed for our jubilee which she read to us, and which sent a tremor through all who listened. We remembered her, and we remembered her charismatic husband, David, and how he stimulated our interest, made us aware and eager to learn more about our history. Innocently, Leah asked Ada to tell us something about David as we knew so little. And then, somewhat hesitantly, she related the intimate details of a life we never thought to ask about when we were youngsters in 1952.
When the war began David was a member of the Dror youth movement in Poland. With the approaching disaster for the Jewish communities the youth movements went underground, their aim to save the community and get people out of Europe. It was imperative that Jews living outside of Europe as well as the western world should be informed about what was happening. Support had to be whipped up for the underground movements fighting the Nazis. It was virtually impossible for Jewish activists to get out of Europe. An opportunity presented itself when the Japanese Ambassador issued visas to a few thousand Jews who eventually reached Japan. David hoping to spread word of the horrific events in Poland was amongst them. From Japan he made his way to the States where he attempted to rouse a practical reaction to the situation. His aim was to help save his people. No one would listen. He joined the American army and succeeded in being trained as a parachutist with the aim of landing in Yugoslavia. He even learned Croatian in order to carry out this mission. With his knowledge of languages he would be an asset in any operation. In the end, much to his despair, he was never sent to Europe but landed up fighting with the American forces in the Pacific. After the war, disappointed and personally defeated, he managed to get to Palestine where he heard that his whole family and his movement friends had perished in the Holocaust. He then joined the Hagana and was sent to the immigrants incarcerated in camps in Cyprus to train the survivors for their participation in the forthcoming fight for a Jewish state.
It was there he met Ada who was teaching Israeli songs and dances. Once safely back in Israel they both taught for many years at the Machon. But David was never able to live with the reality that he had survived, while his whole family, his friends and his people had not.
He suffered from depression and finally, only 5 years ago, he succumbed and took his life.
Everyone of us was deeply moved by this story and we sat in stunned silence as it slowly sank in. Ada’s words opened the way for Yakov Jungreiz to tell us what had motivated him to come. Once again we knew little about him when he was at the Machon. People had heard that he had been in the Holocaust but we never asked questions. Now Yakov had come to Israel with a twofold purpose. He wanted to participate in our reunion because the Machon year had been a landmark in his life, but he also had a deep need to pay tribute to the one man who had saved his family and thousands of others. Kastner, the representative of Hungarian Jewry negotiated with Eichman for the heads of Jews. He paid millions of dollars to the Nazis and saved 20,000 Jews on his list – a list Yakov likened to Schindler’s List. You may remember that this man was later accused of betraying the Jews he could not save and after a very controversial trial in Israel he was acquitted. A short time later, he was assassinated in Tel Aviv. Yakov felt the time had come to pray at Kastner’s grave and give thanks. He also needed people and a place where he could tell his story and he found it at our reunion. He told how he and his family had been sent to Bergen Belsen and a message was received that they were to be released and so, they were taken out of the transport and saved. We listened to our friend - once again in stunned silence. How come we never knew? We were together for a whole year. Were we so wrapped up in ourselves that nothing else interested us?
Then Nahum told us of his disrupted childhood in Belgium. How he had been taken in by Roman Catholic nuns who cared for him during the war, hence his name Noel. How he had come to the Machon by the good efforts of a relative who worked for the Sochnut and thought it would be an ideal experience for a youngster who had grown up with little Jewish identity and education. He had never even been in a youth movement. Of Nachum we also had known very little.
Hadassah too agreed to reveal some facts about herself. Hadassah our true-born American Bnei Akivanik was actually born in Paris shortly before the outbreak of the war. Her family of five, managed to escape thanks to her father’s determination. An unathletic intellectual, he had worked as a translator for a French Ministry official before anyone believed that the Shoah was imminent. This Frenchman was the only approachable person who could arrange exit visas for the family and he had moved to Marseilles. As the trains were riddled with Nazis, Hadassah’s father had ridden a bicycle 500 kms. from Vichy France in Paris to Marseilles to ask this man to procure the papers. Thus the family managed to escape via the Spanish border, Portugal and finally spent a month on the Atlantic dodging German warships, to arrive in the States in 1941.
The discussion that followed these accounts made everyone search for an explanation of why we never knew. The truth is we never knew because we never asked. Also because the chaverim who had the experiences preferred not to disclose them. They never offered any information. And finally because our teachers at the time, themselves, didn’t know how to deal with the Holocaust. There were no meetings where we sat in a circle, face to face and searched each others eyes for feelings and intimacies. So these incredibly moving life stories were never heard or spoken of and it took 50 years for them to be told. As Tamara said in closing: “We could not have spoken of them then - and it’s good we have now.”
But the evening was not over. Arieh Azoulai added yet another story of interest about the period on his return from the Machon. Before they left Israel for North Africa the French-speaking boys were given a month’s military training. This was in preparation for their return to Morocco which was about to receive its independence – a hostile Muslim state. On arriving home his first task was to arrange for the youth movements to continue functioning, but they had to go underground. As a 19-year old he was the one in charge, not only of Habonim but of all the movements. He remembered how he and his even younger group of madrichim had taken 400 children on a three-week camp in the Atlas mountains. The trusting parents had agreed to hand over their young girls and boys to a group not much older and in a hostile country. That was the degree of trust the community had in the madrichim. With experience like that and more, he arrived in Israel, was inducted into the army and automatically sent to learn Ivrit – “But I speak Ivrit.” “Never mind you’re from Morocco, go learn Ivrit!” After two days he was teaching the teacher. The mistakes we have made!
The evening ended after 01:00am. It had not been the jovial event we expected. It had been far more meaningful and thought-provoking and the chaverim had responded to the tone set by Ada.
The next morning we were treated to a memorable lecture by Avraham Infeld, Tamara’s brother. None of us had ever heard him but we were assured by Tamara that we would not regret inviting him. He soon had his listeners in the palm of his hand. He gave a most inspiring address on Jewish Identity. His approach is backed up by the incontrovertible fact that his late father, Zvi Infeld, his mentor and the most Jewish man, the most Zionist he ever knew, was unreligious, not a shul-goer, not a mitzvah-keeper. This made him realize that Judaism is not a religion but much more than that. The atmosphere and education in Avraham and Tamara’s home had inculcated Jewish ideals and values, the Hebrew language, a love of Israel. The result of this education was a son who does keep mitzvot and is a traditional and observant Jew and a daughter who is not. Yet both have true Jewish identity. Thus convinced that he was speaking to everyone present in the room from deeply observant chaverim to those who are way on the left, he proceeded to explain his thesis about Jewish identity.
By using the metaphor of a table he explained in simple terms and then elaborated in detail. If a table has five legs it will stand firm. But if it has only three of the five it will still be stable. Each leg is a part of Jewish identity. The first is Zikaron – the collective Zikaron, the memory of a people. This commandment appears again and again in our prayers.
The fourth is the Hebrew language which is used by Jews all over the world although more than half of them don’t understand it and yet it has survived as a modern living language; the fifth is the Land (Ha’Aretz) and Jerusalem. If you accept only three of these, any three, you have Jewish identity. We were inspired by the content, the conviction and the delivery which kept his audience compelled. Each of us could find at least three table legs to identify with. As chaverim walked thoughtfully out of the room which had echoed our memories and feelings over the last two days, there was a sense of fulfillment, of completion and great happiness.
We ended the reunion with a tiyul led by the finest guide in Jerusalem, Dan Bahat. As we followed him through the underground chambers and tunnels along the Kotel he spoke fluently for 3 hours. We all absorbed some of it. Maybe some of us even absorbed all of it. This experience was at least one of the legs of Avraham’s table – a massive leg of our history which we must always remember.
And that was the end to a truly wonderful experience no one present is ever likely to forget Thank you, chaverim, for coming, those of you who came, and all you others who were with us in spirit.