I hadn’t expected to find myself sitting opposite the British Ambassador to Israel in the small town of Givat Olga (just off the highway to Haifa, near Hadera) listening to a choir composed of Holocaust survivors and their children singing ‘My bonnie is over the ocean’.
‘Some of my duties’, explained the Ambassador, Matthew Gould, ‘are joyous; others are unutterably stressful. But this is personal’. He and his wife Celia took the initiative in raising the funds to create six centres for Holocaust survivors across Israel. Their direct approach to British Jewry had so far yielded half of the two million pounds required. (I received an email directly from him: ‘Dear Jonathan, Can your community please help’. We did. It’s part of what became of the two per cent of our building costs which we determined to give to others while constructing our own new congregational home. There’s still a little money over, and I’m going to suggest we give more.)
‘My grandmother came from Lodz,’ the Ambassador continued. ‘Ah, Lodz’, I heard a lady sigh, in a tone which left me unable to tell whether she was recalling the times before the war or the protracted horrors of the ghetto. His grandparents, he said, would have been proud.
‘Too little, too late’, someone commented wryly when I told them about the opening of the day centre, which will have a special café club for survivors two or three afternoons a week and provide transport to bring them there and take them back home afterwards. ‘Typical!’
I can’t judge. But the Minister for Welfare, Moshe Kahlon, was present, together with members of his department who held specific responsibilities for the wellbeing of survivors. The lady next to me was one of the leaders of this team. Survivors need closeness to each other, she reflected. She explained that these café gatherings had begun in 1946 when groups of men and women who had somehow come through the ghettos, camps, and death marches realised that they were only able to find any palpable measure of happiness in the company of one another. Those who came here toIsrael, she added, then sacrificed themselves once again to build the state. Some had lost children.
Ida spoke on behalf of the survivors. She’d been born in Grodno, before the Holocaust a city with 35.000 Jews and a rich Jewish life. When Polandwas divided, the Russians sent her with her mother and sisters to Siberia. After the war she came back and was married in Lodz in 1949. A year later she and her husband made Aliyah and, after passing through the ma’abarot, settled in Givat Olga, where they raised their children and developed the town.
The choir had resumed their singing but there was something different about this version of Hineh mah tov mah naim. Unmusical as I am, I recognised the melody as ‘Land of hope and glory’, a tribute to the British which would no doubt have been less popular in 1947. But if Jerusalemcan be built in England’s green and pleasant dales, surely there is hope, and glory, in the lives of those who have passed through horror to create the bonds of affection in which I was allowed to share that evening.