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Horror and hope for Holocaust survivors



Last Thursday, 23 November, was a day that will remain with me forever, an extraordinary day that vacillated between hope and despair, a day that in spite of the heartache, left me feeling hopeful and inspired.

As a member of the Leadership Council of the Claims Conference (Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany), we met in Jerusalem as a gesture of solidarity with the Claims Conference’s 100 staff members in Israel and the many partner organisations on the ground who are at the coalface of supporting our beloved Holocaust survivors in dealing with what has happened since 7 October.

At the start of the meeting, Tziona Koenig-Yair, the associate executive vice-president of the Claims Conference in Israel, read a piece written by Holocaust survivor, Yosef Viner, in Ashkelon:

“My name is Yosef Viner, and I am 97 years old. I survived the Nazi animal fire in the concentration camps; my entire family perished in the terrible Holocaust. I detached myself from my deep roots, and erected a monument in their memory made of basalt stones.

From the depths of despair, with determination and resilience, I clung to the earth and planted seeds in Zion.

I married Aviva, and together, we raised two children, Ofer and Nurit. Ofer and Michal blessed us with four grandchildren in Kfar Aza. Nurit and Miki brought six grandchildren into our lives in Kfar Aza.

I arrived at my well-planted family tree in the homeland, yielding fruit.

But suddenly, on 7 October 2023, from between the evil barbed wires, emerged the horrifying scenes of fire, dust, murder, and the terrible massacre of innocent lives, reaching me once again.

My dearest grandson, Yahav, may his memory be blessed, was murdered while protecting his wife, Shaylee, and their one-month-old daughter, Shaya. And my dearest granddaughter, Hadar, may her memory be blessed, and her husband, Itay, may his memory be blessed, were slaughtered while defending their 10-month-old twins, Roee and Guy.

Once again, I find myself exhausted, in despair, sinking. And I have no more land to hold onto.”

There are 145 000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel, 80% of whom receive some level of care and support from the Claims Conference. On 7 October, their world was once again shattered

Thousands have been displaced from their homes and are now living temporarily in hotels, far away from all that is familiar, and in spite of the hotel comforts, when asked, one survivor said she “longs for her kitchen table with tea and crackers”. One of the challenging discussions at our meeting was how long before they might be able to return to tea at their kitchen table, to the familiarity and sanctity of their homes. Two years was the time frame bandied about, and the focus now needs to include how to support and care for this community during that time.

Throughout my life, I’ve been in awe of the strength and resilience of the many Holocaust survivors I have had the privilege to meet and get to know, and those who joined our group last week were no exception, remarkable people offering inspiration and courage in these times of such trauma.

We heard how civil society across Israel has galvanised into action in a way that’s simply extraordinary and will surely be a future global case study of civil society at its best. But in the meantime, the work is urgent and ongoing, and every citizen is engaged in a myriad of activities to prop up and support a country in trauma.

What makes this mobilisation of civil society even more remarkable is that each one of the people from the leadership of the organisations we heard from to their huge base of volunteers is deeply affected themselves and living with trauma and heartache, yet they not only show up, but they execute this holy work with love and care.

Throughout the day, in addition to the details of the staggering round-the-clock support these unsung heroes are providing, we heard stories of loss and pain that are almost impossible to process. Every one of those I spoke to had sons, daughters, and their spouses in the army, many in Gaza, whom they aren’t able to hear from yet their commitment to the welfare of the Holocaust survivors they take care of is unwavering.

We heard wretched stories of missing family and friends as well as first-hand accounts of 7 October that left us bereft. But at the same time inspired. Inspired in a way that’s difficult to describe. Perhaps it was the Holocaust survivors in the room who provided the sense of resilience and passion for a way forward that was so comforting for me, although no-one is quite sure what that future will look like yet.

My short visit filled me with the belief that all of us, Israel and the entire Jewish people, will return to a future filled with hope and aspiration and will resume dreaming rather than enduring nightmares.

  • Mary Kluk is the national vice-president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, and the director of the Durban Holocaust & Genocide Centre.

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