The Claims Conference is an organization, created in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, that is dedicated to the well-being of Holocaust survivors and to teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. What does that history mean in the context of the horrific attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7th?
As we know, it was the deadliest one-day attack on Jews since the Holocaust.
There are about 120,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel, and approximately 5,000 who live in the areas around Gaza, many of them in Ashkelon. Some have been relocated, most have stayed in their homes amidst the rocket fire. Israel was meant to be a place of safety and security for them; a place where the unthinkable atrocities of labor camps, concentration camps, and gas chambers would be a distant memory. On October 7th and the days that followed all of that changed. It changed for so many, but for survivors it also signified something more.
We are now seeing a connection to the past that we could not have imagined. Along with the trauma suffered by the whole nation, a Holocaust survivor in his 90’s slaughtered in his home near Gaza along with his homecare worker, somehow entwines the brutality of today with the era in which he grew up. He survived the worst atrocity committed by humankind only to die from another atrocity. A photo of him surrounded by a smiling family, and other cheerful photos of victims in better times, bring to mind faded and equally happy family photos taken before the destruction of those families in the Holocaust.
Amidst the hard and difficult stories that we have listened to these past weeks, when we hear of Jews hiding in “safe” rooms as murderous terrorists hunted from house to house to kill them, echoes of a different horrific time certainly resonate. The promise to never forget seems a little more hollow when survivors and their families are slaughtered.
The Claims Conference has almost a hundred staff members in Israel: like all Israelis, there is not one who did not have a loved one murdered, injured, kidnapped or missing or does not have someone close in the army or called to reserve duty. Just as it is for all klal yisrael, the trauma, pain, fear and anxiety are personal.
Claims Conference historian Dr. Amir Peleg who lives on a moshav a few kilometers from Gaza, shared: “Our area is a small and communal area. Everyone knows everyone. The circles of murder and disaster touched each and every one in many different ways. I personally was locked in my reinforced room with my family when a few hundred meters away there was a fierce battle between the residents of Ein HaBesor and about 40 terrorists who reached the moshav fence. Fortunately, they were not able to penetrate the fence thanks to the bravery of local citizens.”
“When I met Rika, my sister-in-law’s grandmother who survived the Holocaust in Transnistria and survived the massacre in Kibbutz Re’im,” he went on to say, “she hugged me trembling and told me over and over again – I went through the Holocaust a second time, I went through the Holocaust a second time…”
And so it is seen through the eyes of some traumatized Holocaust survivors.
“Hamas’ savage cruelty is rooted not merely in a desire for conquest and destruction but rather in the dehumanization of Jews and Israelis, deeply ingrained after years of indoctrination. We have been portrayed as subhuman creatures, much as Nazi ideology did before and during the Holocaust era….Saying now that ‘we are experiencing another Holocaust’ is an expression of anxiety and rage at the events of October 7 without actually asserting that the Holocaust as such is reoccurring.” says Dr. Dina Porat, senior academic adviser at Yad Vashem.
Thirteen-year-old Ariel Zohar sitting shiva with his Holocaust survivor grandfather after his parents and two sisters were murdered by Hamas at Kibbutz Nachal Oz weaves the world in which we live today with the world of those who survived the unimaginable eight decades ago. His bar mitzva is in a week’s time.
We join in the prayers for the safe return of the hostages in Gaza, including Holocaust scholar and educator, Alex Dancyg, a man who devoted his life to teaching not only history, but how to speak to each other by bringing together Israeli and Polish schoolchildren.
Preserving the memory of the Holocaust is under attack not just in the bestiality behind the attacks themselves but also in a very symbolic way – amidst the widespread destruction in Israel a rocket struck the Museum called “From Holocaust to Revival” at Yad Mordechai, the kibbutz named in memory of Mordechai Anielewicz, the commander of the Jewish Fighting Organization in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The exhibit on the Mila 18 bunker, the iconic symbol of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, was damaged.
Yet, 2023 is not 1943, and the area around Gaza is not Auschwitz.
The Holocaust was unique in history for many reasons – not least its dimension, scope and length. And today there is a State of Israel.
“Thankfully, we now live in a sovereign Jewish state that can defend itself. The spirit of volunteerism and sharing appears to have reunited our citizenry. That too is the decisive distinction between then and now, between there and here,” says Dr. Porat.
Stories of heroism by Jews and non-Jews brings us face to face once again with the very best of humanity amidst the very worst of times.
Claims Conference staff are calling Holocaust survivors across the South one-by-one – checking on them, sending food and other emergency assistance when needed but perhaps, most importantly of all, being there to connect with them.
What we can all try to learn from Holocaust survivors in these hard times is their strength and resilience. An unwillingness to bend. Over and over, we hear from them not despair but determination and courage.
As Amir wrote: “We are strong communities and people who have been through a very hard blow, but I believe with complete faith in the human spirit that will allow us to recover, rehabilitate and make our settlements and the area we live in flourish again.
May the Holocaust survivors continue to inspire us all through the dark days we face, just as they have inspired us since the darkest days of the Holocaust.