I am an octogenarian and one of the few who has both witnessed the tragedies and become engaged directly in the triumphs of the Jewish people in our time. Yet this is the first occasion that I felt the need to share a truly emotional personal experience with my readers and the public.
I was born in Antwerp, Belgium and fortunate enough at the age of 4, on the eve of World War II, to have been taken by my parents to Australia, where I spent most of my life prior to making aliyah 17 years ago.
The Antwerp where I was born had a uniquely thriving Jewish community. It was regarded as an incubator for fusing the passionate Yiddishkeit of Eastern Europe with a worldly, Western European outlook. It had flourishing Jewish day schools that also provided first-rate secular studies. My mother attended a religious Zionist stream where she learned to speak Hebrew.
The indigenous Flemish inhabitants then, as today, were — with notable exceptions — mostly hostile to Jews. There was a powerful anti-Semitic nationalist party, the Flemish National Union, and many of its members collaborated with the Nazis.
Ultimately, most of my family who remained in Antwerp during the Nazi occupation were deported and gassed in Auschwitz. I recollect as a youngster the depressing discussions and growing feeling of doom as my parents grew ever more fearful concerning the fate of their relatives, especially my grandparents, from whom we received phony postcards created by the Nazis after their deportation, informing us that they were well — followed by a deafening silence.
After the war, we learned that my grandparents had been transported to Auschwitz in October 1943 and murdered on Simchat Torah, which is when we commemorate their yahrzeit.
Since my aliyah, life in Israel has been a blessing, especially as I can be close to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren growing up here.
My youngest son, Jonathan, lives in Raanana and has five children, the oldest of whom is 17-year-old Abigail.
Over the past year, she has been preparing at her school, AMIT Renanim, for their educational visit to Poland, from which she returned this week.
Before leaving for the airport, her school held a midnight ceremony for the girls and their parents. After the ceremony, Abigail boarded the bus to the airport and sat with her close friend, No’a Ehrman-Loebenberg, with whom she had planned to share a room. Having bade farewell to the two girls, their parents chatted about the origin of their families.
In the course of discussion, it emerged that both girls had great-great-grandparents who had been deported from Antwerp to Auschwitz.
But what was truly amazing and even chilling was the discovery that they had been deported on the same date and in all likelihood murdered on the same day. And now — 73 years later — No’a, the great-great-granddaughter of Scheindel Wortsman and Abigail, the great-great-granddaughter of Yenta and Aaron Akerman, set out together with their school to visit Poland, including the Auschwitz death camp. The symbolism of these two girls as proud Israelis venturing together to the horrors of where their great-great-grandparents were murdered, for those of us who lived at that time, is all too powerful.
I must confess that when told this revelation, I was overcome with emotion and my eyes welled with tears. I felt I was undergoing a surrealistic experience.
Divine Providence had brought these girls together in Raanana, Israel. Two great-great-granddaughters of Holocaust victims who had been deported from Antwerp to Auschwitz on the same transport and murdered on the same day. These two friends were in the same class and had already agreed to share a room on the trip before having any idea of the extraordinary background that bonded them.
This information only surfaced after Abigail and No’a had boarded the bus to the airport but both girls were contacted by their parents before boarding the aircraft and apprised of the situation.
What an extraordinary occurrence. Four generations later, via Australia and the United States, the Israeli teenage offspring of Holocaust victims deported on the same transport from Antwerp and murdered on the same day at Auschwitz by the Nazis revisited the sites that were to have represented the culmination of Hitler’s Final Solution. Setting aside the incredible coincidences, it also sends a message reminiscent of the phoenix rising from the ashes of the Holocaust and the subsequent rebirth and continuity of generations in Israel.
I trust readers will indulge me for sharing this extraordinary personal experience.
Those of us who had any association with the Shoah can relate to extraordinary happenings that they experienced or witnessed. But this incredible coincidence also carries with it a message of eternal hope for the Jewish people.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom