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The miracle of the maroon handkerchief

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Seventy-eight years ago, a Jewish man gave his 17-year-old daughter a maroon handkerchief as a way to remember him. She never saw him again – he died in the Holocaust. But she survived, went to America, and recorded her testimony in 1984.

Fast forward to 2020, and 14-year-old King David Linksfield pupil Noa Nerwich is asked to write a poem for a competition based on a Holocaust survivor’s testimony. She came across Ruth Halbreich’s recording, which includes mention of the handkerchief. Nerwich wrote a poem about the handkerchief and won the competition.

A year later, Halbreich passed away. Shortly thereafter, her grandson, Reg Tigerman, came across the poem in a newsletter he received, and realised it was about his grandmother. But that’s not all: soon after that, he also found the maroon handkerchief. He made contact with Nerwich [who is now 15], bringing a story that has spanned generations and continents full circle.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Los Angeles, Tigerman says, “When I discovered the poem, I was shocked. Ruth, who we affectionately called Nanny, had just passed away a few months ago. The maroon handkerchief had been a topic of conversation within our family because my wife and I revisited her testimony right after she died and talked about trying to find it.

“My mom, who was going through Nanny’s things, did end up finding it. So, not only did Noa write a poem inspired by my grandmother’s testimony, which is an honour in and of itself, but she picked up on an item she mentioned at the very end of her testimony (proving that Noa was paying very close attention), and it was something that a lot of time and attention had been spent on recently. It was a series of dayenus [it would have been enough]. A true miracle. It felt like the world was telling us how important Ruth and her story is, and how important it is to continue to share her story.”

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Halbreich was born in 1926 in Warsaw to a well-to-do family of three sisters and one brother. In 1939, their father fled with them to the Russian part of Poland, where he continued his work in the paper business. She, her father, and one sister crossed back into Warsaw, but her mother and two other siblings were sent to Siberia.

Halbreich and her family moved into the Warsaw ghetto in 1940. When the Germans started sending people from the ghetto to the camps, she and her sister were sent outside the ghetto to live in a convent. After the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Halbreich and her sister were sent to a slave labour camp in a small town in Germany. They were liberated in April 1945. She found out that her father had died in the ghetto in 1943, fighting in the underground. She met her husband, a fellow Holocaust survivor, at a displaced-persons camp. She also found out that her mother and two siblings had survived in Siberia.

In her testimony, Halbreich says, “The uprising was in April 1943. My father had left the ghetto in the trucks carrying merchandise. I met him in his office. He gave me a handkerchief of his to remember him by. My father’s biggest wish was to be able to save his children, and he was able to do this. He went back into the ghetto, and no one really knows what might have happened to him.”

A million miles away from that time and place, Nerwich entered the 21st Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest run annually by Chapman University and The 1939 Society (a community of Holocaust survivors, descendants, and friends). “The brief was for a piece of creative writing based on the testimony of a Holocaust survivor,” she told the SA Jewish Report.

The poem describes the handkerchief as the only thing Halbreich has left from her father as her world is destroyed, and how it symbolises the flames of destruction and her father’s deep love.

“Hearing her story and writing the piece itself was an enriching experience,” says Nerwich. “I was thrilled when I was awarded first place, a first for King David High School. I always smile just thinking about my poem. However, a small part of me always wished that Ruth would be able to read the poem and know that her story is being shared, that she is being heard.”

So, when she received the email from Tigerman on 15 July, “it changed my life. I read it and re-read it because I was sure my eyes were deceiving me,” says Nerwich.

She was shaking as she read the email. “I felt a deep sense of loss to learn that Ruth had passed away, but I was also deeply moved to learn that her family had the gift of this poem and that Ruth’s story continues to be told. Seeing the actual picture of the maroon hankie – the last memory that Ruth had of her father, the piece of fabric that guided her throughout the horrors she endured – is an image that will be permanently engraved in my mind.”

She says she chose to reflect on this story in her poem “because I could relate to Ruth. I’m a very sentimental person. Just like Ruth’s dad gave her a red handkerchief, my dad made me red roses out of Lego, which I keep in my room. So, the fact that she mentioned the maroon handkerchief that her dad gave her really resonated with me. It made it so much more real. It’s a symbol of her story, and what she and so many others went through.”

Her mother, Daniella Nerwich, says she felt breathless when she read Tigerman’s email. “All this really shows the value of Jewish education. We are so fortunate that King David creates opportunities like this [to enter the poetry contest]. This just shows how it can be so far-reaching. So huge credit must go to King David for creating this opportunity. It has been life changing.”

Because of the pandemic, Nerwich was unable to travel to the United States to collect her prize, but Tigerman’s message has made up for that disappointment. They hope to meet in person one day, and possibly even work together to share the story of the maroon handkerchief as a form of Holocaust education.

Says Tigerman, “While my grandmother didn’t often share her story (she would if you asked, but she wasn’t very proactive about it), my grandfather [Siegfried Halbreich] was a regular speaker. He was a survivor of multiple concentration camps over the course of five and a half years. He served as president of The 1939 Society, the organisation that published Noa’s poem, and was a founder of the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum. Everyone’s story is worth telling and remembering, which has made the oral histories and recorded testimonies so important.”

A maroon hankie

“Cleanly pressed and folded it was placed into my hand

A last token of a soon to be memory

I received a maroon hankie

I didn’t know the value of objects, until I had one

I didn’t know the value of people, until I had none.

But my one object carried all the worth in the world

A maroon hankie

I don’t know what happened to him

All I know is the walls were rising

And there were bombs, more people dying

and Warsaw was in flames: Red, licking flames

Like the colour of my maroon hankie

We watched from the window, havoc unleashed on our home

Yet we were the opportune, we were on the right side of the window pane

The side where we still wore silky dresses made by the sisters.

the same silk of my maroon hankie

I was lucky

not because I was saved

But because I learned the true meaning of love

His love was sewn into my heart

The same way I held the hankie so tight at night

That its fibers have sewn into the fibers of my skin

Because of my father’s honour I survived

Because of his love for us he died

He sacrificed it all so we could breathe the air of freedom

To the man who gave to me

The thing that has carried all of my tears

A maroon hankie

His maroon hankie”

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It’s not a sin to stand up against abuse, say Jewish leaders

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Understanding, confronting, and reporting sexual abuse is difficult and painful for any community. Leaders tend to want to close ranks and cover up any impropriety. Survivors of abuse battle to have their voices heard, and fear the consequences. And the South African Jewish community is no exception.

These are some of the key messages emerging from a community webinar hosted by South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein on Monday, 17 January, titled “Sexual abuse: let’s talk openly”.

Renowned American rabbi and psychotherapist Dr Tzvi Hersh Weinreb said we must normalise conversations about abuse. Today, it’s no longer a taboo subject compared to 30 years ago. He mentioned a ground breaking book by the late Rabbi Dr Abraham Twerski written in the 1990s about domestic violence in the Jewish community, called The shame borne in silence. This shame and silence endures.

“All communities have the tendency to hush things up,” said Weinreb. “They prefer not to see ugly things, and hope it will all go away.”

“We don’t want to sully our souls,” Weinreb continued. “But our souls are put into a body which faces material, physical, and sexual challenges and struggles throughout life.” People face temptations all the time, some of which cannot be denied or ignored. They have to be confronted to overcome them.

Dr David Pelcovitz, a veteran American psychologist and observant Jew, said, “We need to talk about [sexual abuse]. We need to shine light on places where there is darkness. It’s natural to want to recoil.” He stressed the critical importance of empowering victims and survivors, and said abuse was usually committed by someone known to the victim, especially within families.

Pelcovitz said parents need to develop a balance when speaking to their children about sexual abuse. They should tread between creating anxiety, building trust, nurturing self-esteem, and spurring action if required. He praised the South African Jewish community’s abuse-prevention programmes.

An abuse survivor often lacks confidence, particularly when facing defensive leaders and community members who want to bury the issue. Survivors need to feel safe, valued, and empowered to stop the cycle of abuse. “It’s not a sin to stand up,” Weinreb said. “People’s lives are at stake.”

The Torah promotes pikuach nefesh, the halachic principle that the preservation of human life takes precedence over almost all other religious rules. It also warns in Leviticus, “Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa” (Don’t stand by the blood of your neighbour), interpreted as an instruction not to be indifferent about what happens to other people. Both injunctions point to intervention against evil actions like sexual abuse. They provide a halachic framework for dealing with this issue.

The community needs to provide an environment of support, understanding, respect, and empathy, Goldstein said. By law, abuse must be reported to the authorities.

Resilience is extremely important in recovering from abuse. Pelcovitz said the three core elements of resilience are someone who cares; belief beyond the self; and chesed (kindness), helping others. He encouraged mindfulness to protect our children in an age of distraction. “There’s no greater protection than being there, eye to eye, heart to heart, to give them focus and courage. Nothing matters more,” he said.

The webinar concluded by highlighting two organisations in the South African Jewish community devoted to combatting abuse. Advocate Liza Segal is chairperson of the Abuse Review Board, set up by the chief rabbi in 2017 as a port of call for community members not satisfied with how organisations have handled complaints.

Rebbetzin Wendy Hendler and Rozanne Sack head up Koleinu SA (Our Voice), established in 2014. They were both abused by a religious doctor in the Johannesburg Jewish community, and felt largely alone, not believed, and censured for supposedly “conducting a witch hunt”. Koleinu SA runs anti-abuse educational programmes at Jewish schools and shuls, a helpline, and provides support for victims. The helpline receives hundreds of calls, including reports of abuse by older children of younger siblings. Calls to Koleinu are treated in strict confidence. Koleinu draws on a strong support network of experts, including attorney Ian Levitt and child protection consultant Luke Lamprecht.

Though there’s a lack of trust in the police and justice system in South Africa, “we use what we have and try to fix its flaws”, said Hendler. “Abuse can stop only by reporting it. We can no longer turn a blind eye. We can all do better. We need to make this a space where perpetrators feel unwelcome and scared.”

Abuse cuts across every fault line in South Africa, from the poorest communities to the most affluent. No community is immune. “We must talk openly about this problem,” said Goldstein. “We must air the ugly issues. By shining light, we begin the process of making the world safer. We have incredible child protection organisations as the first port of call.”

  • The Koleinu SA Helpline is 011 264 0341. Its website is koleinusa.co.za

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Selling dolls for Sammy’s Kitchen

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What started as a fun pastime for Belinda Daniels, a South African emigrant in Australia, has resulted in the establishment of a soup kitchen that’s feeding hundreds of people in Orange Farm, Gauteng.

Daniels, a generous donor to The Angel Network, started crocheting clothes for dolls as a form of recreation during COVID-19. The dressed dolls ended up flying off the shelves and raising almost R100 000 for Sammy’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen named after her son, in the informal settlement of Tjovitjo in Orange Farm.

The kitchen was set up by The Angel Network, founded by Absa Jewish Achiever 2021 Humanitarian Award winner Glynne Wolman, and has been feeding 600 people every week.

It was set up in memory of Daniels’ late son, Sam, who tragically died eight years ago at the age of 21. A plaque in his memory will soon be unveiled, and T-shirts sporting his photograph and name will be given to volunteers.

For Daniels, this is a bittersweet initiative because she would rather have her son with her than an initiative named after him. However, she says, she knows that “he would love it. He was just so kind”.

The initiative, says Daniels, was “really just a matter of fate”. A friend of hers gave her a lot of dolls which Daniels and her group crocheted clothing for to raise money for charity. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this initiative didn’t take off, so Daniels showed the clothed dolls to her friend, another ex-South African, Louise Fisher, who was running a Christmas-present drive in Australia for those who had suffered during the pandemic.

“Louise is an advocate for charity and The Angel Network, and she said we should sell them,” recalls Daniels. Daniels didn’t believe that people would buy them, but Fisher was convinced otherwise.

They both wanted to use the dolls to raise money for those in need back in South Africa and to do it to honour Daniels’ son. So, Fisher stumbled on the idea for Sammy’s Kitchen.

“When we had R80 000, the kitchen was feeding about 15 000 children,” says Fisher.

When they had raised R90 000, they could provide 24 000 men, women, and children with at least one meal. Alternatively, Sammy’s Kitchen could have chosen to supply about 1 000 meals a week to support 200 people for 24 weeks with one hot, hearty meal a day, five days a week.

“It’s going to feed people for at least a year,” says Fisher. “It’s just been an incredible project. Everyone in Australia knows about it. We’ve got money from America and Canada and everywhere. Basically, from absolutely nothing, we will get to R100 000.”

Daniels has been overwhelmed by the communities who supported the project from all over the world. “The dolls flew out the door. I could hardly keep up with the crocheting. I’ve done about 120 dolls. A lot of people donated money without actually wanting the doll. Those dolls we gave to Australian needy children.”

They have been inundated with requests for dolls via social media, their marketing platform. Though the majority have sold in Melbourne, some have been sold in a Sydney-based shop. Another talented ex-South African, meanwhile, made an exclusive range of girl dolls that are being sold at La Luna Boutique in Vaucluse, Sydney, for the same cause.

Daniels and Fisher have loved seeing photos from parents and grandparents sharing the joy on the faces of their kids enjoying their new companion. Daniels is waiting for a new batch of dolls, and hopes to keep the kitchen going.

“I’m passionate about helping South Africa,” says Fisher. “I travel there a lot and volunteer if I can. I work very closely on different projects. I love helping. I love Africa.”

  • If you want to buy a doll, donate, or get involved in helping others, message Louise Fisher on her Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/louise.r.fisher

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COVID-19 won’t disappear, but it may get milder

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Israeli Professor Manfred Green is optimistic that we are in the latter stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, although he admits we’re not getting rid of coronavirus so easily.

“We need to prepare for a much wider spread with possible new variants. That’s the possibility,” said Green, a professor of epidemiology at Haifa University. “We are watching out for these new variants. It’s still a major health threat, but we could be seeing the beginning of a milder epidemic.”

Green, the founding director of the Israel Centre for Disease Control and a University of Cape Town alumnus, was speaking on 18 January at a Telfed-organised webinar titled, “The COVID-19 Pandemic: when will it ever end?”

Based on what we have seen from pandemics in the past, coronavirus should lose some of its virulence as it spreads, he said. “That’s not unusual. Pandemics eventually end, although I’m not going to go into the Black Death or something which could go on for many years. I’m talking about in recent times.

“We know now that because of the variants in the current pandemic, people who have been sick from the one virus can actually get sick again from the other virus. In other words, if you got sick from Delta and recovered from it, and you get infected by Omicron, you can get sick, usually with a milder disease because you have some memory. But it’s still not enough to prevent the disease entirely. So, one of the problems is how we are going to deal with the disease. Because of these variants, it’s not something that will go away quickly.”

Vaccinated people can transmit the disease because, as Green explained, “You produce antibodies in your blood, but not where the virus actually enters the body.” The virus, he said, can get into the nose and throat. It then replicates, which doesn’t infect the vaccinated person, but can pass the disease onto others.

“The big question we’re asking ourselves is whether this disease will become seasonal like flu,” said Green. “If that happens, it will no longer be an all-year-round phenomenon. It will exist for a couple of months of the year, and hopefully will be much milder.”

He described the possibility of the normality of pre-COVID-19 life returning at the end of the pandemic as “very unlikely”.

“We probably need to get used to living with what we call a ‘new normal’ and living with COVID-19 as another flu-like seasonal disease,” he said. “If there’s an effective vaccine, an acceptable level of morbidity and mortality, and what we call tolerable moderate restrictions during the season, I would think we would still want to suggest, if it was seasonal, maybe use masks. I would think it would be a good idea to use masks in closed spaces in the winter months.”

He said the best new vaccines would be ones such as an intranasal vaccine because they produce antibodies where the virus goes into your body. “Those are the most effective, similar to the oral polio vaccine, which produces antibodies in the gut, where the virus usually enters the body.”

Vaccine hesitancy is making controlling the pandemic more difficult, Green said. “People who aren’t vaccinated are actually giving the virus the opportunity to spread widely and mutate.

“The vaccines are effective, even though we may need to give multiple doses. We shouldn’t be too concerned about giving multiple doses. The new treatments look very promising. We need the co-operation and compliance of the public. The bottom line is that we [in Israel] aren’t facing a national disaster, as some would say.

“The pandemic or epidemic in Israel has now reached the stage where it’s very difficult to control the spread. It’s such an infectious virus. All of you have probably experienced the fact that you’ve done everything you thought was right, yet you got infected. What we’re trying to do now is basically smooth out the numbers and make sure hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.”

Green gave some interesting facts about COVID-19. “There are seven coronaviruses that have infected humans. The coronavirus comes from animals. In this case, it might have come from a bat. Seven coronaviruses have changed enough to infect humans. Four of those cause a common cold.

“Some of them are caused by other coronaviruses, one being SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] in 2003. Probably because that disease was so severe and we were able to isolate patients very quickly, the actual virus disappeared. It’s very unusual, but it did. One causes MERS [Middle East Respiratory Syndrome], which is seen mainly in camels but does cross over to humans. That has pretty much been limited to Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. For some reason, it hasn’t spread very widely.”

Although the current pandemic has had a much lower mortality rate than the 1918 influenza pandemic, there weren’t the same kind of facilities and medications in the early stages of the 20th century.

Green believes the two pandemics resemble each other in many respects. “The Influenza virus became endemic and less lethal, and it’s still with us,” he said. “The same influenza we have today, which we call the H3N2 and the H1N1, is basically the great-grandchild of the 1918 virus. It’s the same virus. It has just mutated. In other words, COVID-19 may develop into a virus which will hopefully produce milder disease, become seasonal, and remain pretty much indefinitely.”

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